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PUZZLES IN THE CLOSET

- How did Modi manage to do so much in the US on a fast?

Three weeks after Narendra Modi left stateside, an enduring puzzle for the Americans continues to be his Navratri fast. It is now known in very limited, but privileged, circles that agencies of the government of the United States of America went to extraordinary lengths to ascertain if the prime minister, in the privacy of his hotel suite, was consuming anything other than warm water during his stay in Manhattan.

In Washington, it was easier for these agencies to go through this exercise than in New York. In the national capital, the prime minister was a guest of their president and he stayed in the premises controlled by them: Blair House, where the American president’s very special guests are put up, is an extension of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, on the opposite side of the main presidential mansion, and literally in the shadow of the executive offices of the United States of America’s head of state.

US government agencies have considerable experience in this kind of investigative work, and they have done it as often as needed for several decades, sparing only leaders whom they consider to be of little consequence. Ten years ago, I was alerted to an advertisement in the Journal of the American Medical Association while idly watching a programme on NBC News at my home in Washington. The advertisement was overtly put in by the US Central Intelligence Agency, which has been otherwise periodically advertising in publications as prestigious as The Economist, seeking analysts with proficiency in Arabic, and separately, candidates familiar with South Asia — to be read in the current geostrategic context primarily as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The JAMA advertisement, however, was curiously different. It sought “medical analysts (who will) assess the physical health of foreign leaders”. When Manmohan Singh went to Washington only a few months after the CIA accelerated its process of recruiting medical analysts, he stayed at Blair House on White House property.

Three conclusions, two of them overlapping, are plausible on why Singh’s stay in Blair House was agreed to. One is that India’s external spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, was unaware then that the CIA was stepping up its efforts to assess the physical health of foreign leaders. The second conclusion is that RAW knew that the CIA was woefully short of medical analysts at that time and took the view that there was no national security risk in Singh’s occupancy of Blair House. A third opinion is that Singh’s health was good enough then to withstand scrutiny by anyone and the country had little to lose by exposure, covert or otherwise.

Since I had a fair opinion of RAW then, before it was dented by turmoil, favouritism and a culture of godfathers and patronage in subsequent years, the second conclusion seemed plausible. I could reasonably append the third opinion to that if only because it is public knowledge that the United Progressive Alliance prime minister’s health deteriorated in subsequent years in a way that he could not be exposed to covert scrutiny of his condition by foreign agencies. Whatever may be the basis of this conundrum, the indisputable fact is that on subsequent visits — and there were some after July 2005 — the prime minister declined successive White House entreaties to stay in Blair House. Singh always chose a suite in the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, which was not far from Blair House, but on a floor that was regularly being used by the Indian embassy for visiting ministers, where it had greater control over its management, structure and operations.

Modi’s stay in Blair House was the first by an Indian prime minister (excluding Singh’s one-time occupancy) since I came across the JAMA advertisement and the CIA’s large-scale recruitment of medical analysts to assess the physical health of foreign leaders. To say so, however, is not to mean that any harm was done by his stay in the US president’s guest house since Modi is clearly in good health. As an aside, it could not have been mere coincidence that one of the wiliest leaders of our time, Hamid Karzai, who survived so many strategic chess moves, each laden with threats to his life, constantly resisted efforts to put him up at Blair House whenever he visited Washington. Like Singh, he too stayed at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, in whose lobby the term “lobbying” was born because favour-seekers waited in that hotel lobby, which US presidents once frequented.

The widely acclaimed and impeccably sourced Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington has documented what was only once rumoured and speculated on in the media: that the CIA collected the urine and faeces of Nikita Khrushchev when he was first secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in order to ascertain the condition of his health.

Indeed, among the Wilson Center documents is an account of a fascinating conversation between the West German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and President John F. Kennedy in Washington on November 14, 1962, six days before the US ended its naval blockade of Cuba during the Cold War missile crisis. In this account, Adenauer asks Kennedy if Khrushchev has been drinking. The president turns to the US diplomat, Llewellyn Thompson, who updates Kennedy that the Soviet leader “does drink a little sometimes” these days and that “he is in good condition”. So much for the work of CIA’s medical analysts. Among world leaders who are said to have been subject to such analysis are Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and the former Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

The Americans, of course, are not alone in running such clandestine operations. When Syria’s former president, Hafez al Assad, visited Amman in 1999 to attend the funeral of Jordan’s king Hussein, Mossad, the Israeli spy agency, was widely reported to have installed equipment in Assad’s suite that led his waste not into the drains but to a special canister. The Israelis collected the material and had it analyzed.

But, having routinely conducted such tests on foreign leaders, the CIA is also adept at protecting its own men and women in power. When George W. Bush visited Vienna as president in June 2006, a portable toilet was also flown into the Austrian capital and connected to the presidential suite. It was written in the Austrian media at that time that what was thus collected was promptly flown back to America lest any of CIA’s rivals got hold of the material. If reports are to be believed, the CIA even has a code word for such operations: “Toilsec” or toilet security.

To come back to Modi’s US visit, reliable sources indicate that the consensus in Washington is that the prime minister did observe his Navratri rituals in all sincerity and his assertions that he has been fasting on that occasion for 45 years has been taken seriously and at its face value. Americans are not unfamiliar with fasting. Many Christians in that country fast during Lent before Easter every year. Islam is spreading fast in the US and so the Ramadan fast is a phenomenon that is catching up there. Indeed, both the White House and the state department hold iftars for ambassadors and prominent American Muslims during this fasting period.

But the puzzle that many Americans have still not been able to solve is this. The prime minister spent 102 hours in the US last month. Making a liberal allowance of 32 hours during those four days for sleep, ablutions, getting ready for meetings and transit, he had 70 hours to spare for official engagements. The prime minister had 35 structured meetings during those 70 hours, not including the now well known speeches at the Madison Square Garden, the US-India Business Council and the Council for Foreign Relations plus the appearance at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. How does anyone do so much on an empty stomach? America is still waiting for an answer.