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Rajiv sacked Minister to repair damage to U.S. ties: CIA

Indira Gandhi’s assassination was a big blow to Soviet interests, but Rajiv Gandhi was more mindful of American interests, and even sacked a Minister to placate Washington, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency believed, according to a series of CIA reports from the 1980s made available online recently.

In a memorandum prepared by the Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Analysis (now known as Central and South Asia) for the Department of Defence, the CIA indicated that a series of Cabinet reshuffles that the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi undertook, were aimed at arresting the “drift in foreign and domestic affairs” in India.

“His (Mr. Gandhi’s) removal of Foreign Minister (Bali Ram) Bhagat, who criticised U.S. actions against Libya, probably is intended in part to smooth relations with Washington,” the Memo NESA/M/86-20075, dated 22/5/1986, summarised.

In a sudden move in May 1986, Rajiv Gandhi had ordered a Cabinet reshuffle, his second in 16 months. While most Ministers were shifted to other portfolios, only B.R. Bhagat, the External Affairs Minister, was dropped — just five months after he had taken over.

Turmoil within Congress

The CIA memo refers to comments made by Mr. Bhagat when he had led a delegation to the U.N. and a Non Aligned Movement (NAM) delegation to Tripoli, where he had accused the U.S. of being a “bully” following strikes on Libya in April 1986. The remarks had led to a famous open confrontation at the U.N. with U.S. Ambassador Vernon Walters.

While there had been some speculation at the time that the demotion for Mr. Bhagat was linked to the comments, most believed it had more to do with the ongoing turmoil within the Congress (President Pranab Mukherjee had been expelled from the Congress for anti-party activities just a few days before the Cabinet reshuffle). The CIA memo, which says “Gandhi probably hopes, in our assessment, that Bhagat’s removal will help repair damage, the PM believes has been, done to Indo-U.S. relations by the NAM initiative”, could put back the spotlight on the decision.

‘Diplomatic ignorance’

When asked, Ronen Sen, former Ambassador to the U.S., who was a member of the Rajiv Gandhi PMO in 1986, dismissed the contents of the memo, and said such memos were often written by “low-level operatives” which didn’t have an understanding of “diplomacy in its full spectrum”. “It is wrong to say that Rajiv was pro-U.S. at any point. He was not pro-U.S. or pro-Soviet. Rajiv Gandhi accepted the reorientation of Indira Gandhi towards the U.S. and carried it forward. Both the PMs were assertive in their choices and there was no question of any interference or influence on their actions,” he told The Hindu.

Others who served at the time also said that Gandhi’s decision to replace Bhagat, with P. Shiv Shankar, who was also Commerce Minister at the time, was also driven by a need for a more technologically and economically savvy foreign minister, given that Bhagat was a member of the “old guard”.

Even so, a study of the CIA memos of the time gives the unmistakeable impression that while the U.S. perceived Indira Gandhi as a close ally of its rival USSR, Rajiv Gandhi came in for favourable descriptions, for his desire to forge closer technological ties with the U.S., for seeking to calm border tensions with China, and even on Afghanistan, where one memo (CIA-RDP87M00539) records Gandhi’s “willingness to play a more active role in Afghanistan” in line with the U.S.’s desire.

“Gandhi has avoided the confrontational rhetoric favoured by his mother and adopted a more even-handed approach in foreign relations,” records another memo (NESA-M-85-10077CX) comparing him to Indira Gandhi.

Indira’s recalibration

According to Mr. Sen, this too, was an incorrect reading of Indira Gandhi, who had begun a “reorientation” towards Washington with her 1982 trip to meet U.S. President Reagan.

Rajiv sacked Minister to repair damage to U.S. ties: CIA

“She had started the reorientation because India’s regional order had been disturbed by the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. Indira Gandhi knew that the Afghan situation would get out of hand and that is why broadened her options. She was not a pro-Soviet leader at all,” Mr. Sen added.

The documents, belonging to the stash of 9,30,000 documents with over 12 million pages that were put out on the internet by the CIA after Freedom of Information activists fought a legal battle for them to be made freely available and searchable online.

Previously declassified documents could be accessed only in person at the National Archives Records Administration (NARA) in the U.S.

The Hindu has sifted through dozens of such CIA assessment reports up to the early 1990s, based largely on inputs from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which were included in the daily presidential brief as well as prepared by the CIA for the State Department and the Department of Defense (DoD), that have been declassified now.

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