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Faces between the covers

B.V. R. (Subbu) Subrahmanyam

Private secretary to Manmohan

According to Baru, M.K. “Narayanan paid Subbu and me the highest compliment a Malayalee possibly could when he once said to us, ‘I always thought Tamil Brahmins were the cleverest chaps, but you (Baru and Subbu) Telugu Brahmins have proved to be cleverer!’”

Vikram Doraiswamy

Foreign service officer in the PMO

Baru writes: “Before Dr Singh’s very first breakfast meeting with editors, Vikram asked the PM what he should order for breakfast and was told ‘the usual’. Having worked in the Vajpayee PMO where ‘the usual’ was a sumptuous meal, Vikram ordered a full English breakfast with cereal, fruits and eggs as well as a hearty south Indian breakfast of idli, dosa and upma. The editors had barely tucked into their first course… when Dr Singh finished his fruit and toast and ordered tea….”

Sujata Mehta

Foreign service officer in the PMO

“Mehta… prepared elaborate answers for every likely question on foreign policy. The foreign service had got used to tutoring the PM on what he should or should not say to the media. Dr Singh was not someone who needed tutoring, especially on foreign policy.”

Satinder Lambah

Former ambassador to Pakistan

“Dr Singh’s back channel (to Pervez Musharraf) was… Lambah… who knew how to keep his mouth shut and function below the radar. His meetings at 7 RCR with Dr Singh were always secret…. Only 14 marked copies were printed and circulated to key PMO officials, the security and intelligence staff…. Lambah would meet (Tariq) Aziz (Musharraf’s friend and trusted aide) in Pakistan, in India and third places like Dubai.”

Jaideep Sarkar

Personal secretary to Manmohan and now Indian ambassador to Israel

Lambah “was assisted by Sarkar, who was the PM’s note taker. Whenever Jaideep took leave, reporting sick or leaving word that he was helping his son prepare for exams, I knew he was away with Lambah”.

Sanjay Mitra

Joint secretary in the PMO and now Bengal chief secretary

Manmohan “insisted on funding several new central universities, IITs, IIMs and institutes of science education and research. My colleague Sanjay Mitra, who dealt with HRD in the PMO, was an enthusiastic promoter of these initiatives. Mitra was from the West Bengal cadre and had worked closely with Jyoti Basu. But, unable to get a firm grip on Arjun Singh’s HRD ministry, he could not ensure the effective follow-up of these projects”.

Prithviraj Chavan

Minister of state in the PMO and now chief minister of Maharashtra

“One day Pawar landed up at 7 RCR with a complaint. A series of anti-Pawar news reports had appeared in the media, both the national and Marathi media, and Pawar had them traced to a ‘PMO source’. He wanted the PM to have this inquired into. Dr Singh asked me to find out who was behind these reports. I asked a few of my contacts in the Hindi and Marathi media to find out. They all returned with the same news: Prithviraj Chavan had planted these stories. It was a delicate issue for Dr Singh. It was hard for him to take any action in the matter because Prithvi might well have been acting under instructions from the party leadership….”After the 2009 UPA poll victory, Chavan “added a spin. ‘This victory is a vote for Rahul Gandhi. Rahulji’s good work helped us win’. The chant became the official mantra. Rahul Gandhi, every party loyalist claimed, was the architect of the 2009 result”.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee

Former chief minister, Bengal

“On the eve of the 18th party congress in Delhi in April 2004, Buddhadeb met Dr Singh and assured him that there would be no change of leadership and that Surjeet would continue. Even as Dr Singh and Buddhadeb were having a private dinner at 7 RCR, the private television news channel NDTV reported as ‘breaking news’ that the CPI(M) party congress would see a change of guard with Karat replacing Surjeet. “I was sitting in the visitors’ room at 7 RCR and watching the news while Dr Singh and Buddhadeb were having dinner. I immediately went into the dining room and informed them that NDTV had claimed Karat was likely to replace Surjeet…. “The PM looked quizzically at Buddhadeb and the latter appeared surprised. He smiled and added, ‘We will see.’ “NDTV turned out to be right, in the end. The CPI(M) party congress ended with Surjeet being replaced by Karat. We braced ourselves for rockier times….”

Don’t-bomb plea to Pakistan

Petrochemicals giant

Tariq “Aziz, (Musharraf’s aide), was the liaison between Musharraf and Vajpayee, keeping in touch with Brajesh Mishra through a mutual friend, the late R.K. Mishra of the Observer Research Foundation. During the Kargil war, R.K. Mishra and Aziz would meet secretly, exchanging messages between Musharraf and Vajpayee. Mishra also doubled as Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) chairman Dhirubhai Ambani’s aide, seeking assurances from the Pakistanis that they would not bomb RIL’s Jamnagar plant”.

Rupert Murdoch

Media tycoon

Murdoch “tried a trick to secure an appointment. Having failed on one occasion to meet Dr Singh, he made a second attempt by letting it be known that he was not interested in talking about his media business. Rather, he wanted to talk about China. The PM was amused and granted him an appointment. Murdoch did discuss China and explained where he saw China going. But, as he got up to leave, he expressed the hope that the Indian government would be more receptive to his media plans than China had been”.

L.K. Advani

BJP veteran

In 2007, when the Manmohan government “appeared particularly wobbly, some political reporters from the Hindi media informed me that BJP leader L.K. Advani was offering prayers and conducting a havan to ensure the ouster of the Singh government. I reported this story to the PM. He burst out laughing, something he rarely did. ‘He will never succeed,’ he said emphatically, ‘if his priests are going by my official date of birth!’” (Manmohan’s date and time of birth in Gah, now in Pakistan, were apparently never recorded.)

P. Chidambaram

UPA minister

Chidambaram, (Sitaram) Yechury and I walked back to the car park from the meeting. I quipped to Chidambaram that he should feel reassured by the fact that when Yechury said the CPI(M) would be the UPA’s ‘watchdog’, he only meant that they would bark but not bite. A diplomatic finance minister would have either kept quiet or said something nice as a gesture of gratitude. But Chidambaram, being Chidambaram, could not resist a jibe. He retorted, in Yechury’s hearing, ‘Either way, he agrees that he is a dog!’”