High-level links

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

AWKWARD moves have a way of catching up - and in the most awkward of circumstances. The new controversy over the Hindujas' role in New Delhi's diplomatic offensive over the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests is a case in point. Three years ago, when the Vajpayee government quietly decided to use the Hinduja brothers' good offices to get its viewpoint across to 10 Downing Street it must have thought that is where the matter would end. And, meanwhile, the BJP continued to cling to its high moral ground vis-a-vis the Hindujas, projecting the Bofors deal-tainted industrialists as friends and benefactors of the Bofors-tainted and "corrupt" Congress(I), suggesting that it would not be caught dead in their company.

Exactly three years later, it finds the ground slipping from under its feet following some very damaging disclosures about the Hindujas' links with the heart of the Vajpayee establishment; and no amount of protestation is likely to wash. The disclosures relate to a meeting Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's Principal Secretary and his trouble-shooter Brajesh Mishra had in the wake of India's nuclear tests with Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street on June 4, 1998. It has emerged, thanks to a set of leaked letters, that the meeting was not only arranged by the Hinduja brothers - Gopichand and Srichand - but they were also present when Mishra handed over to Blair a letter from Vajpayee explaining India's nuclear policy. The letters, released by a Tory member of Parliament Andrew Tyrie in London in two instalments (May 6 and May 9), further show that the brothers' services were also used to try and get Mishra to meet the Group of Eight Foreign Ministers who were then in London. Observers have been struck by the extent of the Hindujas' intermediary role in a sensitive diplomatic campaign at a time when they were being investigated in a corruption case; and the official argument that they had not been charge-sheeted until then is seen as mere quibbling, a cover-up.

They are surprised that normal diplomatic channels, most crucially the Indian High Commission in London, should have been completely bypassed in favour of pathetic dependence on businessmen who were themselves under a cloud.

The letters suggest that the Hindujas were virtually acting as India's official mediators. For in a letter which Srichand Hinduja wrote to Blair's Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell before the June 4 meeting, he argued New Delhi's case and sought Blair's intervention to defuse the angry international reaction to India's nuclear tests. It said: "The language and approach being taken by (the then U.S. Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright and others in Washington in preparation for the Geneva meeting this afternoon is a cause for worry. G.P.(Gopichand) and I very much hope that the Prime Minister will ask Mr (Robin) Cook to persuade Mrs Albright and others in the U.S. administration to moderate their public presentation." He also enclosed a memorandum explaining India's position. On June 9, Gopichand Hinduja wrote to Powell again thanking him for the June 4 meeting and suggesting "whether Brajesh Mishra might be invited to meet the G-8 Foreign Ministers and discuss with them how India can respond to their concerns." More significantly, he added, as though on the Indian government's authority, that "Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee has agreed that he should do so, provided only that China is not present, given her nuclear links with Pakistan."

Writing in an authoritatively official tone, he declared: "We want to see the confrontational approach against India replaced by dialogue and negotiation."

Downing Street has been quick to distance itself from the matter, saying that the Hindujas were present on behalf of the Indian government and Blair's office had not invited them. The leaked correspondence, which includes letters from Blair to Gopichand (mostly replies to G.P.'s letters), is in a tone that, as Tyrie has argued, points to a level of intimacy hitherto unknown. Blair addresses him as "G.P" and signs off with "Yours ever, Tony." Tyrie has demanded that Blair come "clean" on the extent of his government's links with the Hindujas, and he has accused him of suppressing these letters from the Hammond inquiry into the Hindujas' relations with British politicians and civil servants. Tyrie has also said that Blair's meeting with Mishra was inconsistent with the British government's tough public posture on India's nuclear tests. He has accused it of privately talking to India while publicly vowing to "isolate" it on the issue. There has also been a demand to reopen the Hammond inquiry and get it to question the Hinduja brothers on their return from India. The Opposition has consistently maintained that the Hammond report, exonerating everyone in the passport case, was a "whitewash" job as the Hinduja brothers, who were at the centre of the controversy, were never examined. "This would be the ideal opportunity for the brothers to be questioned by Sir Anthony (Hammond). They were never interviewed before, and that was a clear weakness of the Hammond inquiry report," Tyrie has said. The Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker, who took the lid off the passport affair (involving revelations about the manner in which a British passport was swiftly issued to Srichand Hinduja) insists that the Hindujas give a "full statement on their activities", including their links with British politicians.

The Hindujas are also embroiled in a parliamentary inquiry into the business links of the Europe Minister Keith Vaz and Mapesbury Communications, a firm set up by the India-born Vaz and his wife. The parliamentary watchdog believes that a payment of 1,200 which Mapesbury Communications (now wound up) received from the Hinduja Foundation TO organise a reception, has not been satisfactorily explained. "Elizabeth Filkin, the Commissioner (of the watchdog standards and Privileges Committee), is expected to accept demands from MPs that she interview the Indian billionaire brothers about their links with Mr. Vaz," according to The Sunday Telegraph. The latest twist to the long-running Hindujas saga has embarrassed both London and New Delhi, but while Blair is under pressure to get the Hindujas baggage off their back, the Vajpayee establishment appears unfazed and the Congress(I)'s own vulnerability has helped the Prime Minister's Office to get away with its spin.

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