Invisible mole

Print edition : August 25, 2006

Former BJP Minister Jaswant Singh's claims about a mole in the PMO turn out to be an embarrassment to his own party.

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN in New Delhi

Former External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh releases his book, in New Delhi on July 27.-PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

A SENSE of relief was palpable in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership on the evening of August 3, when television news channels turned their attention to the contents of the Justice R.S. Pathak Inquiry Authority report relating to the United Nations Oil-for-Food Programme. "Now the party can get out of the mess it has been in for the past few days," said a middle-level BJP leader from Delhi as he watched the new development on TV. As one of the leader's associates commented, the report was "nothing short of a godsend".

On the face of it, the Pathak report had provided the principal Opposition party yet another opportunity to launch a campaign against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. But more important was the chance it gave to obfuscate the enormous public embarrassment and internal confusion that Jaswant Singh, former Union Minister for External Affairs and the BJP's present leader in the Rajya Sabha, had caused for the party through his recently released book of memoirs titled A Call to Honour. What gave the BJP political ammunition was not just the contents of the Pathak report but also the manner in which the report had got leaked before its formal tabling in Parliament.

In fact, the report had come at a time when the "Jaswant book ordeal" was virtually ripping apart the self-professed image of the BJP that its Ministers in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government were responsible and adept administrators who protected the interests of the country carefully and conscientiously. Each passing day of the nearly two-week-long drama had given rise to more and more criticisms against Jaswant Singh, ranging from "high level of irresponsibility" to "inability to scrutinise and understand important messages and facts even while being in a high ministerial position" and "misleading the nation and its people". In the process, notices for breach of privilege were filed against Jaswant Singh in the Rajya Sabha.

As the controversy raged, Jaswant Singh kept changing his position on the issue,,, giving more and more fodder to those challenging him. The shifting stances also did not help the efforts of other BJP leaders to come to his defence. Ultimately, left with no concrete and cogent arguments against the mounting allegations, other BJP leaders virtually distanced themselves from Jaswant Singh. Sections of the top brass of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological and organisational fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar of which the BJP is a member, used this context to initiate intra-organisational manoeuvres to "bring the inefficiencies of Jaswant Singh into focus" and thus relieve him from leadership positions in its political arm, the BJP.

Central to the controversy was the suggestion that Jaswant Singh had made in his book that there was an American mole in the Indian Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in 1995. The reference was to the PMO under the then Congress Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. To establish his suggestion, Jaswant Singh quoted (albeit in an abridged form) from a letter purportedly received by a United States Senator. The quotes used in the book indicated that a "person with direct access to the [then] Prime Minister" was reporting to U.S. authorities about India's nuclear programme, especially in relation to the testing of nuclear weapons. The portion of the letter quoted by Jaswant Singh said that the informant had indicated "that India may decide to test nuclear weapons and deploy Prithvi missiles". The letter also stated that the informant was personally opposed to the test and deployment of weapons.

Initially, there was a view in the BJP and also among other sections of the Sangh Parivar that the claims would help embarrass, and perhaps even politically corner, the Congress and the UPA Ministry. This expectation prevailed in sections of the Sangh Parivar even when the Congress began challenging the claims. Jaswant Singh's initial response was that he would stand by the statements in the book. He even went to the extent of saying that he could identify the mole , but would do so only in a private meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The Congress, however, dared Jaswant Singh to identify the so-called mole in public and this had the BJP leader fumbling and changing his statements on the issue. Each statement seemed to contradict his earlier one and by the last week of July, the issue had assumed such proportions that the Prime Minister questioned the veracity of Jaswant Singh's "revelations". The BJP soon found itself forced on the back-foot.

Jaswant Singh's shifting statements were widely described as a political yo-yo. The leader who had asserted in the beginning that he could even identify the mole later came up with a variety of nuanced versions. While one said that "I do not know whether he was a civil or uncivil servant, but he was with PMO in high position", another contended that "no purpose will be served by naming the person". A third said that "I have no definite name of the spy and all that was said was based on a hunch" and the fourth argued that "it is up to the present government to use the revelations as a lead to catch that person".

Finally, there were claims that the statements in the book were made on the basis of a letter written by U.S. Senator Thomas Graham to former U.S. Ambassador to India Harry Barnes. That claim also did not stand the test. The U.S. administration stated categorically that "the letter does not contain a shred of truth" and that the "U.S. was not asked to examine it [the letter] before its publication in newspapers. Had we been asked, we would have pointed out that it is fraudulent, poor imitation of official U.S. government correspondence".

Clearly, Jaswant Singh's sensational revelation had turned out to be a piece of ill-researched writing unbecoming of a person who held high political offices. There was little doubt that the former External Affairs Minister had not taken care to verify the veracity of the document(s) in his possession before making statements having far-reaching impact on national security and related questions. In this situation, the question whether it was tenable for Jaswant Singh to continue in his senior parliamentary position was discussed seriously in the larger political firmament as well as within the Sangh Parivar. It was then that the Justice Pathak report got leaked and diverted public attention.

But certainly this is not the end of the controversy for the BJP. Given its dimensions within Parliament and outside, the issue is bound to bounce back. But in the meantime, the question how and why Jaswant Singh came up with such utterly baseless revelations, allegations and conclusions in his memoirs will continue to be debated in political circles. In the opinion of Sitaram Yechury, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), "A Call To Honour signifies an absolute travesty of the parliamentary system as it has virtually involved Parliament in the promotion of a book at state expense."

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