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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

'I never told him any of the really explosive stuff'

Rajiv Gandhi 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 before Sunday.

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.

Zail Singh 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 day.

Indira Gandhi 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.

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