Wheels within wheels

Unveiling the Pakistan-U.S. betrayal that undermined Rajiv Gandhi’s bid to end the ‘unending war’ in Afghanistan

July 15, 2017 07:23 pm | Updated 07:23 pm IST

The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War
Kallol Bhattacherjee

The Great Game in Afghanistan: Rajiv Gandhi, General Zia and the Unending War Kallol Bhattacherjee HarperCollins ₹599

This is a tragic tale of misunderstanding leading to betrayal, played against the background of a well-intentioned, highly-reputed, professional American diplomat, personally selected for the key, high-profile New Delhi posting by the then president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, being officially certified as ‘mentally deranged’ to cover up the deceit that led to a serious erosion in relations between the country the Ambassador, John Gunther Dean, represented and the country to which he was accredited. The author, Kallol Bhattacherjee, as sutradhar, with never-before access to surviving principal participants and hitherto unclassified key diplomatic papers, seeks to unravel this tangled web.

The misunderstanding begins with a wholly mistaken ‘assessment’ by the American Embassy in New Delhi of a virtually unknown young man, Rajiv Gandhi, just turned 40, becoming the prime minister of India on the very evening of the morning his mother, the previous prime minister, was assassinated, and then democratically legitimising his dynastic succession by an unprecedented victory at the polls that gave him an unassailable three-quarters majority in the Lok Sabha.

The U.S. gameplan

Relieved that this might spell the end of what the Americans had always regarded as the eccentrically independent but pro-Soviet line that India had followed over the previous four decades, and misled too by an interview the new prime minister’s brother, the late Sanjay Gandhi, had given indicating a dramatic break with the previous socialist and non-aligned policies of the country, the American Embassy reinforced the aching desire of the White House to see this ‘Westernised’ PM, ‘returned-from-the-U.K.’, married to an Italian, with an occasional fancy for European cuisine and fashionable brands, build a new close relationship with White House and the State Department.

In particular, it was hoped the new Prime Minister’s ardent espousal of what Harold Wilson years earlier had called the ‘white heat of technology’ would enable the U.S. to leverage Rajiv Gandhi’s much-publicised emphasis on India’s need for the highest of high-end technology—available only from the U.S., much more than from its traditional enemy in the Cold War, the Soviet Union—to pursue American aims in global affairs, beginning with Afghanistan, in turmoil in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

In fairness to the U.S. mission, it must quickly be added that this misreading of Rajiv Gandhi was pretty widespread within and without the country. Soon after joining the PMO, I had seen the puzzled look on Rajiv Gandhi’s face when a school friend of his, Dhruv Sawhney, serving then as chairman of CII, had welcomed him as a friend of ‘India Inc’ and his bemused expression when an interviewer from TheEconomist sought to quiz him on whether he subscribed to Reagan’s ‘supply-side economics’. Rajiv Gandhi was a reformer and an impassioned nationalist, certainly nobody’s cat’s-paw.

The Russia angle

By dying within weeks of Rajiv Gandhi’s electoral victory, Chernenko offered him the opportunity to strike up an initial acquaintance with Gorbachev. The world, and the Americans, noted the warmth of Gorbachev’s pull-aside conversation with Rajiv Gandhi at the funeral, contrasting pointedly with the virtual brush-off given to General Zia. There followed Rajiv Gandhi’s first official visit abroad—several days all around the Soviet Union—during which a strong rapport was established between the two young leaders of a time-tested relationship.

Reagan saw in this an opportunity—perhaps even a golden opportunity—to get Rajiv Gandhi to nudge the reformist Gorbachev into setting a definitive date for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan (thus giving the U.S. sweet revenge for their own humiliating withdrawal from Vietnam). Four years earlier, when Brezhnev had begged Indira Gandhi to show him the way out of Afghanistan, she had tartly ticked him off, “By the same way you went in.” Soon after, in February 1980, Brezhnev set ‘withdrawal’ as the Soviet goal, but little or no progress had been made in setting a deadline, or determining the conditions, for terminating its push into Afghanistan. Reagan thought Rajiv Gandhi might be drawn from the sidelines into pro-actively pushing Gorbachev to fix a deadline for getting the hell out (and, incidentally crowning Reagan with a huge win against the ‘Evil Empire’).

While emphasising his mother’s policy of non-interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs and the key need to allow the Afghans to settle their own differences through a government of national unity, Rajiv Gandhi agreed to play this intermediary role and immediately rushed off the then foreign secretary, Romesh Bhandari, from Washington to Moscow. Reagan sweetened the deal with a large package of hi-tech goodies. Dean found himself envoy at the start of this honeymoon.

Bhattacherjee, with able assistance on the inside track from Ambassador Dean and Rajiv’s trusted foreign and intelligence aide, Ronen (‘all cloak and perhaps a dagger’) Sen, details the convening of a series of conferences in Geneva that led eventually to a solemn multilateral agreement involving the U.S., then U.S.S.R., Pakistan, and Afghan players, with India in a facilitating role, committing Gorbachev to a withdrawal schedule in exchange for a U.S. commitment to stop arms supplies through Pakistan to the Mujahideen and the forging of a government of national unity in Afghanistan under Najibullah. India also expected Reagan to terminate U.S. military aid to Pakistan given overt evidence of Pakistan’s race to the bomb, indeed, an open A.Q. Khan boast of Pakistan already having the bomb.

Reagan reneged on all this in the triumphalism of his victory. Relations with Rajiv Gandhi’s India plummeted. Dean felt betrayed. He was withdrawn faster than US troops from Afghanistan. Gen Zia was killed in a mysterious air-crash. The ‘unending war’ continues.

What remains is Ronen Sen’s foreword, arguably the best 2000-word dissertation on India’s foreign policy ever penned.

(Kallol Bhattacherjee is senior assistant editor with The Hindu .)

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