Rajiv’s reported role as ‘negotiator’ for the Viggen may have been Indira Gandhi’s way of conveying serious intent and putting the U.S. in a spot with key European ally
It is unlikely that the Indian political class will sustain focus on the declassified U.S. diplomatic cables which are attracting media attention courtesy WikiLeaks. Not only do they go back to a period which is almost four decades old, they can also be made to indirectly cover iconic figures both in the Congress and the Opposition pantheon; Janardan Dwivedi, the chief Congress spokesman, was brutal in warning as much. The caution seems to have registered on the Opposition. As for lesser but enduring political figures such as Ambika Soni and Kamal Nath, they have no choice but to grin and bear their passing embarrassment or bear it stone faced.
For professional diplomats, the U.S. cable traffic in 1975 and 1976 relating to the Indian Air Force’s search for a new fighter aircraft offers fascinating, although partial, insights into the process, even if from a U.S. angle. The choice of the aircraft involved the interplay of different countries, themes and personalities at a time when the U.S. had lost the Vietnam War and Indira Gandhi had imposed Emergency. A leading Indian daily downplayed the information contained in the cables as only hearsay. Much of a diplomat’s world and indeed that of espionage is based on hearsay. The question is what and from whom is a diplomat hearing and of his ability to assess the information.
Graft and family
The cable which has naturally been in the spotlight is the one in which a Swedish diplomat informed the U.S. Embassy in Delhi that Rajiv Gandhi was the main negotiator with regard to the Swedish fighter, the Viggen. Along with the Viggen, the British Jaguar and the French Mirage were being considered. The cable traffic reveals that all three counties, Sweden, France and the U.K. believed that Indira Gandhi would make the final choice on political considerations.
Rajiv Gandhi, 31 at the time, was a pilot with Indian Airlines. It is therefore prima facie strange that he should have been in touch with the Swedes on the Viggen. The U.S. Embassy was surprised and while reporting the information to Washington stated that its Defence Wing had no inkling about this matter. Another cable records that the Swedish diplomat conveyed that Rajiv Gandhi’s technical knowledge of the subject was impressive. Taken together, the cables strongly suggest that Rajiv Gandhi was in touch with the Swedes on the Viggen. In its own reporting, the U.S. Embassy does not contradict the information given by the Swedes but infers that Rajiv Gandhi’s interest was commercial. This is obviously made because of the general belief, indicated in another cable on corruption, that all foreign deals involve kickbacks and on the importance of family connections. In that cable, the Embassy also mentions that Maruti was interested in becoming the agent for BAC, the British company which was jointly manufacturing the Jaguar. Notwithstanding the U.S. Embassy thinking, there is another plausible interpretation of Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement.
In 1975-76, the U.S. was closely following the aircraft acquisition and its Delhi Embassy was in regular touch with its Swedish, French and British counterparts. For the U.S. the question who was negotiating on behalf of India with the Swedes was not as significant as their decision to allow or deny the Swedes permission to go ahead with the sale of the Viggen to India. The aircraft had a large number of parts of U.S. origin and could not be sold without specific U.S. clearance. The matter was sensitive because the U.S. had a robust relationship in the area of defence with Sweden, a country whose posture was important in the Cold War context. At the same time, U.S. relations with Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme were difficult as they were with Indira Gandhi. Both Prime Ministers were staunch critics of the Vietnam War and had a socialistic world view. Significantly, they enjoyed good personal relations as Olof Palme noted while delivering the Indira Gandhi Memorial Lecture in January 1986. He said, “The contacts on a personal level which were established by Jawaharlal Nehru and Tage Erlander (Palme’s predecessor) were continued by Indira Gandhi and myself.”
The cables reveal that India asked for a formal offer from the Viggen manufacturer Saab Scania in August 1975. It can be inferred that the Jaguar and Mirage manufacturers were also asked to do so. A year later, in August 1976, the U.S. finally informed the Swedes that it would not permit the transfer of or manufacture of the Viggen in India even though what the Swedes had offered to India was a dated model. All through the year the British diplomats were certain that the Jaguar was the IAF’s choice. The French had activated their political players. The Swedes went through phases of pessimism and optimism about their chances. More importantly, the Swedish bureaucracy’s main interest was not the Viggen sale but to ensure that the country’s access to advance U.S. military technology was maintained. In fact, senior Swedish officials told the U.S. when Saab Scania had only made soundings about the sale that the U.S. need not respond to them.
Given the bureaucratic reservations both in India and in Sweden towards the Viggen how could Indira Gandhi have a better way of getting a realistic assessment about the aircraft than to rely on her elder son, who as the Swedes said, had “technical expertise of a high level”? By getting Rajiv Gandhi into play, she also sent a signal to Olof Palme of the seriousness of her intent regarding the Viggen and put the U.S. in a spot. While many may dismiss this as mere theorising, it makes good sense to this writer as a former diplomat.
Once the U.S. denied permission, the Viggen matter was over. Olof Palme lost the Swedish election in October 1976. Six months later Indira Gandhi paid the price for Emergency but returned to office in January 1980. Two years later Olof Palme was back as Sweden’s Prime Minister. Contacts between the two leaders flourished again and they launched an important international disarmament initiative. In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated and Palme was murdered in February 1986. In that year-and-a-half, Rajiv Gandhi continued the association which he had inherited from his mother, but that is another story.
(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.)