Now that WikiLeaks has confirmed the broad details of a mystifying but intriguing story from 26/11, I feel free to add my own contribution to the tale.
I’m talking of the hoax call made to the president of Pakistan, Asif Zardari, allegedly by the then finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, at the height of the terror attack. Mr Mukherjee, it is claimed, threatened an immediate military response. In response, the Pakistani Air Force scrambled its fighter jets and went on high alert.
Here’s my role in this strange saga. 26/11 finally ended in the early hours of Saturday, November 29, 2008. Just past noon, I interviewed President Zardari by satellite. Around 3 pm he called to find out if the interview was okay. At the end of that conversation he suddenly said, “By the way, the next time you meet your foreign minister please advise him not to ring and threaten people.”
I was stumped. What on earth was Asif talking about? In a guarded manner he told me the story from his viewpoint. A caller claiming to be Pranab Mukherjee had rung late at night a day or so ago and effectively threatened war. The Pakistanis informed the Americans who, if my memory is correct, said Condoleezza Rice had also received a similar call although, in her case, it had not been put through.
Although Asif had told me to pass on the message when I next “bumped into” Mr Mukherjee, I decided to do so at once. Mr Mukherjee heard me in rapt silence. He did not reveal that the story I was recounting had kept him up all night, if not for the last two nights. All he said was: “But I haven’t spoken to the president of Pakistan. How could I have called him? It’s not proper for a foreign minister to directly ring a head of State.”
Twenty-four hours later, on the afternoon of Sunday the 30th, I got a call from Satyabarata Pal, our high commissioner in Islamabad. “Karan, this is about your conversation with the FM yesterday.” When I pretended I had no idea what he was talking about, Shotto laughed loudly. “That’s ok. I know all about it. But I need you to do something.”
Shotto told me the Pakistanis were convinced the caller was Pranab Mukherjee and unwilling to accept it was not. He described the frenzied reaction in Islamabad on the night it happened and confirmed that the Americans had been roped in and that Condy Rice had also been phoned.
“I want you to ring your friend and personally assure him that it wasn’t Mr Mukherjee. Tell him what the FM told you. We need to bring this story to a quick end.”
A few hours later, when I rang Asif he chuckled as I spoke. “No, Karan, it wasn’t a hoax. We’ve noted the number from where the call originated. It’s said to be in your foreign ministry. But leave all that aside. It’s a closed chapter. Tell them to forget about it.”
Shotto was relieved to hear the final outcome. He said the fact the Pakistanis claimed to have an MEA number on record could be explained in a number of ways, all to do with telecom technology. “Now you must ring the FM and tell him.”
I got through to Mr Mukherjee late at night on Monday the 1st or perhaps it was December 2, I can’t be certain. When I finished speaking he replied in a voice free of tension and I could sense he was smiling. “Thank you, Karan. For once you’ve been very useful!” The phone call ended with the FM enjoying his own joke.
At the time I asked Mr Mukherjee to keep my ‘role’ under wraps and he agreed. So did Shotto and Asif. But now that WikiLeaks has sprung the story I feel I can also spill the beans.
The views expressed by the author are personal