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Jaswant's mole mystery

If he didn't know who mole was, how did he know he was an 'uncivil servant' and that he was no longer in service, asks Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Aug 06, 2006 01:14 IST

I apologise. Two weeks ago I wrote that despite widespread scepticism, I believed Jaswant Singh when he said that there had been an American mole in Narasimha Rao’s administration.

Now, people are asking me the obvious question: how can I believe Jaswant when he himself now claims that he never said that there was any mole in the government?

Good question.

And the only answer I can give is: sorry, I did actually believe that the old boy was telling the truth. And I am just as confused as you are by the twists and turns this strange tale has taken.

Our story begins with a pre-release extract from Jaswant’s memoirs buried deep within the pages of India Today as an adjunct to a book review. In this extract, Jaswant reproduced two paragraphs of what was described as a letter written by an American diplomat based in Delhi to a Senator in Washington in 1995.

This letter suggested, or so Jaswant claimed, that the Americans were in touch with a senior official in Narasimha Rao’s government who was keeping them informed of the progress of India’s nuclear programme.

My guess is that nobody — not Jaswant, not his publishers and not India Today — recognised that this would be the biggest story to emerge from Majorsaab’s memoir. So, Jaswant was rather taken aback when the media seized on the claim and asked him to elaborate.

At first, the former Foreign Minister seemed to be in command of the situation. As copies of his book flew off the shelves, he gave TV interviews, participated in panel discussions and expanded on the mole theory.

Who was the mole? The media asked.

Well, he was a civil or perhaps uncivil servant, said Jaswant. (For readers who are unacquainted with the great man’s wit, I think I should explain that the business about an ‘uncivil servant’ may have been a joke of some description.)

Would Jaswant give us his name?

No, he wouldn’t. But he would scatter clues. The ‘uncivil servant ‘(ho, ho ho!) was no longer in government service. He had gone abroad. Naturally this set off a frantic mole-hunt. Could the late AN Verma have been the agent? What about VS Arunachalam?

Finally it took a taunt from the normally reticent Manmohan Singh to force Jaswant to pull himself together. “If he has the decency and courage, he should name the person he is accusing of being a mole,” the Prime Minister told reporters.

To this Jaswant responded, “I am not given to indecent exposure.” (I think this may be a joke at par with the “uncivil servant”).

But he also suggested that he would go and meet the PM, give him the full letter and tell him who the mole was.

Manmohan Singh took the line that there was no need for Majorsaab to whisper the name in his ear. Given that he had kept the letter for over a decade without doing anything about it, Jaswant should just come clean: he should make a public statement giving all the facts.

Jaswant chose what the apparently mole-ridden Narasimha Rao would have called The Middle Path. He made no public statement but said that he had written to the PM providing all the details.

And that should have been that.

Except that when Manmohan Singh opened Jaswant’s missive, all he found was a copy of the letter that Jaswant had quoted in his memoirs. There was no identification of the mole.

Worse was to follow. It turned out that even as Jaswant was couriering his document to the PM, he was sending another copy to India Today which cheerfully put it on the cover (“Exclusive: Full text of the letter written by an American diplomat!”)

So much for ‘indecent exposure.’

Even if you believe that in Jaswant Singh’s mind there is no difference between Manmohan Singh and Prabhu Chawla and that both must have the same access to confidential material, this was all still a long way from revealing the name of the mole.

Then began the turn-arounds.

He did not know who the mole was, Jaswant declared. The media had used the term ‘mole’ and credited him with more information than he really had. (Thanks pal, but you should have told us that before we bought your book and forced ourselves to plough through the damn thing).

But if he did not know who the mole was, then how did he know that he was an ‘uncivil servant’? How did he know that he was no longer in service? How did he know that he had gone abroad? On what basis had he assured us that it wasn’t Arunachalam?

Not one of these questions has been satisfactorily answered by Jaswant Singh.

Could he at least tell us who the US diplomat who wrote the letter was? Who was the Senator the letter was addressed to? How had he got hold of the letter anyway?

Jaswant would not elaborate.

After much prodding he revealed two names. The letter was authored by a Thomas W Graham. And it was sent to Harry Barnes.

So Thomas W Graham was the man who India Today had described as ‘a Delhi-based American diplomat’? Presumably.

Problem: no Thomas W Graham served in the American embassy in Delhi. The only Thomas W Graham with an India connection that anyone has been able to dig up is a Rockefeller fellow.

And presumably Harry Barnes is the Senator.

Problem: There is a Harry Barnes who does indeed know this Thomas W Graham. And Harry Barnes was US Ambassador to India in the early 1980s. But he was not in the Senate in 1991-6 when Rao was in power. Actually he has never been a Senator. And in fact, he wasn’t even in government when the letter was written.

What a godawful mess.

In seeking to resolve this bizarre saga, here are the possibilities as I see them:

One: Jaswant lied. He had no evidence of a mole. He thought he would spice up his tedious book with some secret agent masala. And now, he’s been caught and exposed.

Except that, whatever my views on Jaswant Singh’s politics (or his alleged sense of humour for that matter) I still think that he is an essentially honourable man with an innate sense of decency. So I don’t think he would lie — and certainly not to flog a few more copies of his memoirs.

Two: Jaswant is an ignoramus. He genuinely believed that Thomas Graham was a high-ranking US diplomat. And he really thought that Harry Barnes was a Senator.

But even this is not a terribly satisfying explanation.

Okay, let’s concede for the purposes of argument that the former Foreign Minister of India and a man who conducted the nuclear strategic dialogue with ‘my friend Strobe’ (Talbott) does not know that all Americans are not diplomats and that former ambassadors do not automatically become Senators.

But that still leaves us with the twists and turns in his description of the mole — “an uncivil servant’; “not in service”; “has gone abroad”; etc.

If Jaswant did not know who the mole was, then how could he know all this?

In the light of everything we’ve seen, only one conclusion seems to fit the facts: he has funked it.

If you think that Jaswant is an honourable man — which I do — then you have to conclude that he genuinely believed that the US had penetrated Narasimha Rao’s government. Obviously, there are things about the letter that he is not telling us: who gave it to him; what the context was; and what he was told by the person providing the letter.

Equally obviously, he does have a name in mind — otherwise he would not have given Arunachalam a clean chit or said that the mole had gone abroad, was no longer in service etc.

I suspect that he has now lost his nerve. He does not have the proof required to name the man he thinks is the mole and is trying to bluster his way out of this mess.

Fair enough. Many of us make mistakes or lose our nerve. Only we don’t do it quite as publicly as Jaswant has.

But two things need to be said about the controversy. Firstly, just because the old boy shot his mouth off, let us not conclude that there was no US penetration. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the US had access to secrets during the 1991-6 Congress government.

It suits everybody to use Jaswant’s foolishness to discredit the mole theory. But I don’t think we’ve heard the last of it.

And secondly, there is something phoney and creepy about the way in which the BJP is now making common cause with the Left to oppose the nuclear deal with the US. Pathetically, Jaswant has tried to link his mole non-revelations to the claim that this government is sucking up to the US.

Anybody who has read Strobe Talbott’s account of his negotiations with the BJP will recognise that not only did Jaswant promise to get us to sign the CTBT but that, had their government been offered this deal, Jaswant, AB Vajpayee, LK Advani and the rest would have grabbed it. (After all, some of these guys wanted to send troops to Iraq).

So while I feel bad for a decent man like Jaswant Singh and am deeply embarrassed for him, enmeshed as he is in a controversy he had no desire to create, I also think that he and his former cabinet colleagues should come clean.

Politicians always oppose the government of the day. But statesmen tell the truth and act in India’s interests.

Sadly, these guys have all been found wanting.

First Published: Aug 06, 2006 01:14 IST