Not many in the UK government could stand up to Margaret Thatcher during her prime ministership, but a confidential document released on Thursday reveals that as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi spoke to her ‘frankly’ during a meeting in Moscow in March 1985.
The new document is an official record of their bilateral meeting on 13 March, and covers several issues, including Punjab and Sri Lanka, but has more details of the talks on the then proposed sale of Westland helicopters to India, which later proved controversial.
CD Powell, Thatcher’s private secretary, recorded “Mr Gandhi said that the ‘technical chaps’ were giving problems. They preferred a French helicopter. The Westland one was too big and consumed more fuel though it was cheaper to operate per seat”.
“The real trouble was that it did not quite meet the particular needs and it was an untried model. But the matter was not settled yet. The Prime Minister said that this posed serious problems. She had thought that the technical difficulties had been overcome.
“She wished someone had been as frank with us before. We had assumed that signature was only days away”.
India later bought 21 Westland 30s in 1985 in a 65 million pound-deal that was linked to British aid, and which helped bail Westland. The entire lot was later re-sold by India to Britain for its scrap value.
The deal’s link to British aid was also clear from the record, which said: “Sir Geoffrey Howe (Foreign secretary) said that the view in London was that the Indian government had accepted the purchase in principle and on that basis the helicopters had been manufactured”.
“The only problem of which he had been aware was to get the signature of the contract before our financial year ended on 31 March to avoid a shortfall on this year’s aid budget”.