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We shall be bored: When Margaret Thatcher turned down meetings with Rajiv Gandhi

Rajiv Gandhi returned pleased with the visit to the UK, according to an account of his meeting with the then British envoy, Robert Wade-Gery, at a social occasion in New Delhi in November 1985.

world Updated: Jan 04, 2018 09:01 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
UK National Archives,Margaret Thatcher,Rajiv Gandhi
File photo of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi with former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. (HT Photo)

British officials planning the October 1985 visit of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi to London were keen to schedule at least three sessions with his counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, but she turned them down, saying: “Too many - we shall be bored.”

This and other nuggets such as Gandhi’s flowers for the first session with Thatcher are mentioned in a classified file that was long due for release but was retained and made available at the National Archives last week. It contains documents with some redactions on the then sensitive issue of Khalistan.

Containing documents marked “confidential” or “secret”, the file presents a detailed account of how officials micromanaged Gandhi’s visit on October 14 and 15, and includes briefs on the sale of Westland helicopters to India, immigration, Sri Lanka, South Africa and other issues.

Officials informed Thatcher that Gandhi was “less sentimentally attached to the UK than Mrs (Indira) Gandhi”, but added, “We are confident that RG shares his mother's personal regard for you, although this needs to be refurbished in the light of his youth and different chemistry.” She had several meetings with him during the visit.

Thatcher’s eagerness to ensure the visit was a success is evident from a confidential note of a meeting: “The prime minister said that the prime minister of India Mr Rajiv Gandhi was making an official visit to London. Indians were prone to regard the British as still harbouring colonial attitudes and as being interested in India only as an export market. It was therefore important that Mr Gandhi should receive the best possible treatment during his visit.”

Gandhi’s visit took place against the backdrop of tensions in Punjab, the signing of the Punjab Accord and ennui in New Delhi over the British government allegedly not taking action against pro-Khalistan elements making statements from London.

The perception in London then was that this had led the Gandhi government to impose what were seen as “sanctions” on bilateral issues.

Days before the visit, Peter Ricketts of the Foreign Office wrote to 10, Downing Street: “Mr Gandhi remains acutely sensitive about the hostile activities of Sikh (and Kashmiri) extremists in Britain, seeing them as a threat to the settlement he has wrought in Punjab and to his own safety and that of his family.

“There can be little doubt that he approved the sanctions applied against us earlier this year: these included the cancellation of Ministerial visits and a major industrial exhibition, prevarication over commercial contracts, in particular the sale of Westland helicopters; and repeated obstruction to negotiations on defence contracts. There are now signs that he has relented. We have been given assurances there are no political obstacles to trade.”

Charles Powell, Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser, wrote to her on October 10: “You will see quite a lot of him (Gandhi)...On the bilateral front, a main issue will be Sikh extremism on which Mr Gandhi apparently still needs reassurance.”

He added, “The Indians are not blameless on the terrorism issue. We have offered full security cooperation but they have provided us with very little information.”

However, another classified note stated: “RG (Rajiv Gandhi) well understands that HMG (Her Majesty’s Government), under your directions, has gone as far as it possibly can, to contain...incitements to violence in Punjab.

“It remains the case, however, that Indians nonetheless believe that the UK is less sensitive to India's fears of Sikh terrorism in London than it is about IRA terrorists...RG is under pressure to express this.”

Gandhi, however, returned pleased with the visit, according to an account of his meeting with then British high commissioner, Robert Wade-Gery, during a social occasion in New Delhi in November 1985. Gandhi reportedly took the diplomat aside and made his views known.

“He (Gandhi) said that, from his point of view, the visit had been a total success. It had never been meant as an occasion for concluding specific bits of business. but it had fulfilled all his hopes in deepening and strengthening his personal friendship with Mrs Thatcher. This had been of immense value,” a document said.

Gandhi was accompanied by his external affairs minister, Baliram Bhagat, Natwar Singh and Romesh Bhandari. The file includes profiles of the individuals, as well as draft responses to 12 questions to Thatcher as part of a pre-visit interview to the Press Trust of India.

Rajiv Gandhi’s 1985 UK visit - how the British viewed the visitors:

Rajiv Gandhi: “Rajiv is quietly spoken, courteous and diffident. He is not an intellectual, nor impulsive. He is a good listener and seems sincerely concerned to get to grips with some of india's big national problems. Although withdrawn in some ways, he is mentally tough and shows signs of an independence mind. He is thus in many ways like his mother was before she became Prime Minister. His great advantages are that he is his grandfather's grandson, his mother's son, that he is decent and an Indian aristocrat, and that he is on the way to acquiring an all-Indian, not sectional, image.”

Natwar Singh: “He is highly intelligent, witty and decisive, but can also be moody and irritable. He is vain and liable to perceive a slight where none is intended. Unlike most Indians he regards the colonial past as humiliating, and he has often been thought of as an Anglophobe. British officials have certainly found him difficult to deal with in the past, but in recent years he seems to have mellowed.”

Romesh Bhandari: “Bhandari is an extremely busy and ambitious operator. He is a good negotiator...He is quite well disposed towards Britain and in Indian terms holds moderate views on most international economic questions. He is not always completely straight in his dealings and needs handling with care.”

First Published: Jan 03, 2018 19:02 IST