'I never told him any of the really explosive stuff'
I had known Giani Zail Singh for a full year when I first met
Rajiv Gandhi. The President had told me at great length how he
had been insulted by the prime minister and I had featured his side
of the story in both Sunday and Imprint, the magazine I edited
But I had never been able to get Rajiv's version because he refused
to tell his side of the story.
Zail Singh was an international embarrassment, he said. On a state
visit to Yugoslavia, he had decided that he was a foreign policy
expert and had asked that country's president to mediate between
India and China. The Yugoslavs believed that this was a high-level
diplomatic intervention -- after all, Zail Singh was President
-- and were all set to go ahead much to the horror of South Block
which knew nothing of Zail Singh's little adventure.
In Bangladesh, the Giani had taken it upon himself to advise the
president to make Hasina Wajed, his sworn opponent, the prime minister.
The angry Bangladeshis had complained that this constituted unacceptable
interference in their internal affairs.
That was why, Rajiv explained, his government was reluctant to
let Zail Singh make state visits abroad. God alone knew how much
damage he would do to our foreign policy.
There was more. Zail Singh had sabotaged negotiations with the
Akalis in the pre-Bluestar period and Rajiv had seen papers in
Mrs Gandhi's own handwriting in which she had noted that the
Giani could not be trusted. His
aides had friends with terrorists connections. The man who assassinated
Lalit Maken had taken shelter at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
This was dynamite. As soon as I was back in my seat, Mani rushed
into Rajiv's cabin to check if he had really intended to divulge
all this to a journalist he had never met before.
"Oh," said Rajiv (as Mani later revealed). "But
I never told him any of the really explosive stuff."
Eventually it was agreed that I could use the information but
it could not be sourced directly to the prime minister. After
all, whenever I had quoted Zail Singh in the past, I had always
taken care to attribute his views to 'friends of the President'.
Similarly, Rajiv's charges could be sourced to 'friends of
the prime minister.'
I was painfully aware that the PMO might have been using me and
so, to Mani's annoyance, I went off to see Zail Singh the next
I repeated what Rajiv had told me and said that I was willing
to carry his responses. The Giani was extremely perturbed -- till
then, the leaks had only come from Rashtrapati Bhavan, not the
PMO -- and gave me his replies which he said, were to be attributed,
as usual, to 'friends of the President.'.
When the issue appeared the following week, the code quotes ('Friends
of Rajiv', 'friends of Zail') fooled nobody and the
predictable uproar ensued.
It is this episode that Zail Singh refers to in his book though
of course his version is self-serving and one-sided. Nor does
he actually deny having had these conversations with the presidents
of Bangladesh and Yugoslavia.
And he is entire silent about the allegations about Punjab terrorists.