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Diplomat who made Rajiv go red in the face

- Venkateswaran takes a secret to his grave but a foreign bride anecdote remains to be retold
Rajiv, Venkateswaran

New Delhi, Sept. 3: A diplomat of a rare breed who made civil servants display the rarer asset of a spine died yesterday in Bangalore aged 84.

A.P. Venkateswaran was dismissed as foreign secretary at a nationally televised media conference by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in January 1987. He resigned within hours before Rajiv had a chance to put his pronouncement on paper.

Venkateswaran took many circumstantial factors that contributed to his dismissal to the grave because Rajiv sought — and he gave — an assurance to the Prime Minister that he would maintain the confidentiality and the dignity of his office and would not launder any dirty linen in public.

Rajiv’s equation with Venkateswaran soured after an incident in which Sonia Gandhi played an unwitting part, an incident which I have checked with multiple sources. In bygone years, an IFS officer who wished to marry a foreigner had to write two letters before tying the knot.

One letter sought permission to marry a foreigner. Another was a letter of resignation. One of these letters would be accepted but the officer had no way of knowing in advance which of these two communications would be accepted.

One such IFS officer who was on deputation to a domestic public sector undertaking, pending his permission to marry an east European woman, took liberties with Rajiv that Venkateswaran did not approve of.

At an annual meeting between the Prime Minister and PSU heads, a big occasion in those days of the state in commanding heights of the economy, this officer gave Rajiv a representation about his impending marriage.

Rajiv took it home and, because the supplicant was an IFS officer, he marked “please discuss” on that representation and sent it to the foreign secretary. Venkateswaran ambled in to the Prime Minister’s presence in his usual style a few days later.

At that meeting, Venkateswaran, who never minced words, told Rajiv that the officer had misused the occasion and that he had no business to give such a representation to the Prime Minister at a meeting of PSU heads.

Then he said something that few else would have said. “Sir, if you had not been married to a foreigner, this man would not have had the temerity to approach you.”

Rajiv, according to my account, went red in the face but did not say anything.

Of course, permission was given to this officer to marry. Sometime later, service rules that governed foreign spouses were considerably liberalised. But the chemistry between Rajiv and Venkateswaran was not the same after this episode.

It is entirely likely that Sonia is still unaware of this incident. In any case there is no evidence that she played any part in his dismissal.

In fact, Natwar Singh writes in his recently published memoir, One Life is not Enough, that “I later learnt that Sonia upbraided him” (Rajiv) for the manner in which the foreign secretary was removed. Rajiv’s reply to her was that “I did not know he (Venkateswaran) was sitting in the front row” at the media conference.

Natwar writes that soon after he was made minister of state for external affairs in October 1986, “I discerned the Prime Minister’s coolness towards his foreign secretary. I also noticed that the foreign secretary was treating the Prime Minister in a somewhat light-hearted manner.… I had once or twice cautioned him to be careful and not rub the PM the wrong way.”

A consummate story-teller, one narrative that stands out is testimony to Venkateswaran’s outstanding qualities as a diplomat. When he was ambassador to Syria from 1975 to 1977, Indira Gandhi sent Venkateswaran as her special envoy to Baghdad.

Saddam Hussein was then the darling of the Third World and the non-aligned movement, but Venkateswaran refused to shake hands with Saddam. “I knew even then that his hands were dripping with blood. Being an Indian gives you the luxury of saying namaste with folded hands….”

Venkateswaran’s public dismissal and humiliation, unprecedented in the history of the Indian Foreign Service, had prompted the IFS to do the unthinkable: to get the Indian Foreign Service Association to call an extraordinary meeting to condemn the Prime Minister and express the total support of the diplomatic service to its leader and head.

When word of the association’s move spread from the wing of South Block which houses the ministry of external affairs to its adjacent portion that is the Prime Minister’s Office and became a wildfire all over Raisina Hill, the seat of government, it was one of the biggest crises that Rajiv had to tackle during his tumultuous tenure as Prime Minister.

Civil servants were attempting to show that they had the spine to stand up to politicians.

All resources available to Rajiv were marshalled to neutralise the collective body of Indian diplomats. Although Natwar does not mention this in his memoir, it was known at that time that he summoned Peter Sinai, an additional secretary in the MEA who was also secretary of the association. Sinai, incidentally, is the son-in-law of Anthony Lancelot Dias, the governor of Bengal from 1971 to 1977.

Natwar had been appointed minister of state for external affairs only three months earlier by Rajiv. He was in Moscow when Venkateswaran — and the entire IFS in reflection — was humiliated on television. Natwar considered the Prime Minister’s insensitivity to his colleagues serious enough to cut short his stay in the Soviet Union and rush back to New Delhi. Venkateswaran was a year senior to Natwar in the IFS.

Sinai did not give in, although he was warned of the “extreme displeasure of the Prime Minister” if the association went ahead with its plans. At that stage, all the Prime Minister’s men got together and marshalled the services of the more resourceful Romesh Bhandari, whose post Venkateswaran had assumed only 10 months earlier.

According to the grapevine at that time, Bhandari was more direct and crude, true to his style and character. Threats of three years in Timbuktu and other similar backwaters were handed out to those who were in the vanguard of the association’s ‘insubordination’ to the head of government.

Cabinet secretary B.G. Deshmukh joined in the arm-twisting and was equally effective. The association nearly gave in and it appeared that the meeting would be called off. But no one in the higher echelons of the IFS had bargained for their more principled and idealistic youths.

Younger diplomats, all of whom are now in senior positions in South Block and in key missions abroad, threatened their seniors that they would formally requisition a meeting of the association if its office-bearers succumbed to pressure from Bhandari, Deshmukh and a host of other wily men who knew how to move the levers of power on Raisina Hill.

Finally, a compromise was negotiated between the seniors who had much to lose and their rebellious juniors. The meeting would, indeed, take place but it would not condemn the Prime Minister. It was recognised, after all, that the Prime Minister had the full right to choose a foreign secretary in whom he had confidence.

At the same time, the association would place on record Venkateswaran’s eminence and his service to Indian diplomacy. A resolution that was anything but combative was passed, which rightly noted that Venkateswaran’s 36 years of service in the IFS should not have had such a sudden end in such a regrettable manner.

There was no compromise on one point: the hurt that Rajiv had caused and the damage to IFS morale. Venkateswaran left South Block basking in the adulation of his colleagues.

Till his death, Venkateswaran refused to discuss in public the reasons for his dismissal except to say that “life without honour was not worth living at all”. Even as late as September last year when journalists in Bangalore, where he spent his last years, tried to probe the 1987 incident, Venkateswaran’s reaction was that “grave-digging is not a pleasant task. Let this matter rest”.


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