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'I loved Rajiv, didn't want to hurt him, but...'

Posted: Jul 31, 2006 at 1218 hrs IST

Arun Singh, who was a friend of Rajiv Gandhi and the Minister of State for Defence in his government when the Bofors scandal broke, has since then been living a reclusive life in his cottage in Binsar, near Almora. He has maintained a studied distance from the media and been silent on Bofors. Making a rare exception, he speaks to Shekhar Gupta, Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, on NDTV 24x7’s Walk the Talk:

My guest today is perhaps India’s most famous recluse, Arun Singh. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

I must confess I’m both surprised and a little flattered that you remembered me after so many years. Let me say this, this is the first and the last time that I am making an appearance of this kind. My reasons for doing this have nothing to do with Walk the talk but because I remember you from your days as a defence correspondent. I remember how keenly interested you were in the subject at that time and how you’ve continued being interested in it since then. And that bond between us has brought me here.

Tell us why you’ve chosen to live so far away here in Binsar. I know it is a beautiful place and you have your lovely cottage here. But even when you were in Delhi there were people who believed you lived in a mud hut or a large colonial bungalow. Why this silence, and how Binsar?

When my wife Ramola and I decided to move out, we had this basic idea that it would be the mountains. I then had a choice, as it were, of the range of Himalayas. But my mother was a Kumaoni, and I felt this urge to go back to her land. Why Binsar? It was purely by chance. We didn’t know anybody here, had never been here.

In Binsar we found a beautiful location at a very affordable price. I’m not a rich man but I had enough to support this existence. The seclusion, from my and Ramola’s point of view, is an advantage and not a disadvantage. And it has been that way for the last 18 years.

You were always a gregarious person. In politics you were a gregarious person. Why this sudden urge for solitude, and that too in a place like this?

I would differ a bit. Although self-assessments are not necessarily correct, I would describe myself as friendly and not gregarious. I have always felt less need for companionship of people than of other things. I was brought up in a place where there were very few people around. So I’m used to solitude in that sense.

When you first came, was it a rebellion against Delhi, the government city?

I don’t know whether rebellion is the right word. It was...

Disillusionment?

It was a distancing of myself in two terms: first, as you probably know, I left my wife and came away with Ramola, and both of us were very keen not to upset some apple carts in Delhi, in a manner of speaking. So that was on the personal side. On the public side I knew I had been in public life for some years and in my perception it was not correct for me to be visible or available either to other people in public life or, to be very frank, to the media. That was during the first years when I was stepping away. And Binsar gave me an opportunity in a sense to do both. To step away from society, as well as public life.

And do you keep up with your childhood obsession, with matters military?

Matters military can never go far from my heart. I have been fortunate to go back from here to Delhi on two occasions to try to do some work there for different governments after we left in 1988. And as far as common sense has value I do maintain my interest in matters military.

In fact it was this childhood interest of yours, like many of us have had, that got you into the Ministry of Defence.

Well, to be absolutely honest and fair, I was lucky. I was able to go to the Ministry of Defence solely because of the generosity of Mr Rajiv Gandhi. He gave me the opportunity.

But it was a job you would have paid for?

If I were to list the jobs that I would have liked to do, this would have been at the top of the list. I think he knew that when he gave it to me, for which I shall be eternally grateful.

Do you remember the day when he offered you the job? What did he ask you, say to you? How did it come about?

Well, it came about in the usual serendipitous way. I was parliamentary secretary to the prime minister at that time and he was going to do a cabinet reshuffle. This was in September 1986. So he came to me and said, “Look, I am going to do a cabinet reshuffle, you have been long enough in the prime minister’s office, I would like you to be in a ministry now.” And defence was the ministry that was outlined to me. He asked me what I had to say on the subject and I said, “Well Sir, if you are serious then I am honoured.” And that was the end of the discussion. Then he told me what he would like me to do there . . .

Did you Sir him?

Yes. Not always, but if there was ever an audience present, I would Sir him.

And was there any discussion prior to this? Did he know about your interest?

Oh yes. We were friends for 20 years before that, so he knew well of my interest. He knew exactly how deep-rooted it was, and that I was crazy enough to spend my own money on defence books, which was in those days a rather expensive hobby, as each book was four or five hundred in those days. So he knew all that, and it was relevant to the decision.

So did he say I know this is a job you dream of?

He did. He also asked do I need to confirm that, and I said, “No Sir, there is no need for that.”

Tell us a little more about Rajiv Gandhi. Not many people in public life know about him as much as you do.

Extremely intelligent, very level-headed. A man of considerable personal integrity. Not very knowledgeable about India in the sense of the fine nuances about India, basically caste, creed, religion and the like, but always ready to inform himself. He was catapulted into a very difficult position. I personally am convinced that Mrs Indira Gandhi would have liked him to serve for some time as a cabinet minister or in a similar responsible position before any thought of becoming prime minister. But fate has its own way of acting.

The timing was not of his or her choice.

Wasn’t of his choice. So he was where he was.

Right. But did he have the humility to accept that there were areas where he needed to become more knowledgeable?

Without question. If there was a weakness it was that it took him a very long time to lose his temper. But when he did he really lost it.

So he was a bit like Nehru.

Well, I guess that’s what they say about him. And to the extent that it happened, it came across as arrogance. But it was not arrogance, he definitely was not an arrogant person. And I can say it without fear of contradiction that there was no other person who knew him like I did. He was closer to me than anyone I have ever met, so I could as just have been his brother. So I knew him well. I knew his weaknesses, I knew his strengths, and I think fate played harshly with him. Because he never got a second chance. I personally believe if he had got another chance to become prime minister he would have been an outstanding one.

You mean with the experience of the first term. What areas do you think he would have learnt from his experiences and improved on given a next term?

First of all, a much better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of politics and politicians. Because politics is basically a game played by politicians largely in self-interest, although the outward excuse or elaboration is always in terms of the nation, the state, the people, especially the poor.

When did he lose it in the first place?

I don’t think he ever lost it as such...

Because all his promises, his speeches at the AICC that only 16 paise out of every rupee reached the poor, he called all Congressmen power brokers. From there to Nani yaad dila denge, it seems his politics got confused.

I think he didn’t realize the extent to which the vested interests were coming into play. That the people he called power brokers would fight back in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

Did they fight back psychologically or substantively?

In all manners. It was the first time they realized that they could be under threat from Rajiv Gandhi. It was different with Mrs Indira Gandhi...

They realized that the whole political system was under threat.

And from someone they didn’t even understand. He didn’t have their background, nor their own climb to stardom, as it were. He was not even someone whom they had known for any length of time. It was a very different kind of threat he posed to them.

You are saying it was different in Mrs Gandhi’s time. Were they comfortable with her?

They were more aware of her. They had known her for 30 years intimately, as she knew them.

Did you feel that resentment after his speeches?

It was very obvious, apparent.

So it was really power striking back?

He couldn’t anticipate the ways that striking back would take.

Such as?

For example they went after anybody who, in their perception, was close to him.

Including you?

Including me. Including Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Arun Nehru, Vincent George, there was nobody in his intimate circle who wasn’t attacked. The only person they never attacked was Mrs Sonia Gandhi. Other than that it was a free for all. Everything that could be said about somebody was said. And it becomes very difficult then, I can assure you, to sift the truth from the lies, because everything looks wheat, the fact that there is some chaff does not get noticed.

Did you and him talk about that? Was he aware that he was under attack?

Yes, he was fully aware of it. He knew it, how the game was played. In some cases he understood how the system worked. That a set of people were coming to him, purportedly individually, with the same message. And he could recognise in many cases it was a story.

After these experiences, and having had time to reflect, you think he would have come out different given a second time?

I am certain of that.

The corporate people do these scenarios. Imagine a situation. We are talking 15 years after his assassination, on May 21, 1991. If that assassination had not happened, where would India have been today?

Let me phrase it like this. I believe Rajiv Gandhi was one of the very, very few prime ministers who had both vision and power. Some had vision but no power. Many have had power but no vision. He used to say long before any of us ever thought of it in this way, that true economic growth in India will come when its services sector sees growth.

He said so?

Publicly. He said it to the Planning Commission...

Because people are afraid of saying it even now. They think they’ll be branded anti-farmer, anti-manufacturing.

He was very sure that we cannot duplicate the industrial revolution. We cannot go back to the 19th century to take India forward. He believed in a strong, capable, and most importantly a just India, which for me was his greatest quality.

And if May 21 had not happened 15 years back would you still be here?

Yes, I think so. His disillusionment with me, as it were, was personal. I believe he thought I had let him down. My perception of that is different, but what matters is perception.

He must have thought that you left him when the chips were down for him.

Yes, precisely. My reason for leaving were different. Now that you are giving me an opportunity to say this, let me use the occasion. I have absolutely no idea who took money. I left because though I didn’t know who had taken the money for Bofors, I knew somebody had.

Somebody had?

It had become apparent by the time I left. My argument, as it were, with my boss, and which cost me my friend...

Your closest friend...

My closest-ever friend, and ever could be. My problem was who would catch those who took the money. My boss represented the executive arm. My argument was that it was the executive that had failed and it was it was up to the executive to amend it. Neither the Parliament, nor the judiciary.

And obviously not The Indian Express? (Both laugh) Then what happened? It all seems to me like an intellectual argument in the court of the Roman empire?

Possibly. It was such a deeply held belief , in my case.

So how did you talk to Rajiv about that? Did he share your view that somebody took money in Bofors?

I cannot be sure. I don’t think so. We were not arguing about who took the money. We only discussed the issue of accountability.

How did you come to know that someone had taken money?

It was pure serendipity that brought to light that money had been taken. It was through a story breaking out in Sweden. I was sure that no Swedish individual was involved in the affair. The Sweden story impacted on the politics there, and the standards there both of morality and rule of law, of accountability, are unimpeachable, and different from ours, that made me convinced.

But did you ever have a conversation with Rajiv that I think someone has taken money, let’s catch him.

I had a conversation. It was slightly different. As the operative minister of state at that point in time when the contract was signed, I had two very competent officers in my office who were specially allocated to the task, both of whom went on to become defence secretary. Intelligent men, and who were not in the picture so far as Bofors was concerned.They said to me, “You assign us the task of finding out the truth and we’ll do it.” I had a strongly held belief at that time that we don’t need the CBI or any outside authority to discover the truth.

Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, believed, in my view, though he never said it in so many words, that if I do not come up with the truth, as it were, he will have to carry the can, as it were.

You don’t believe he was trying to cover up someone else.

No, no.

So his fear was not of getting caught but of being seen as covering up?

I have absolutely no perception of any fear in his mind, of being involved in or being caught up with the Bofors issue. The reason for my silence all these years is that the case has gone to court, it has become a cause celebre in India. My statements on the subject are with the CBI, they are on record.

They have been quoted in the court by the CBI counsel. If I read those statements carefully, it seems that the break in your mind came when you wanted the Bofors chief executive summoned and the CCPA got together and you were sort of boarded out, so to say, in a manner which seemed orchestrated.

I don’t know if it seemed orchestrated. I am not a political animal at all. It seemed to me that it was a political gut reaction.

Are you absolutely certain that Rajiv Gandhi did not take money?

I cannot say that. I can be absolutely certain only about myself. I did not take any money and that I am 100 per cent sure of. For the rest I cannot say, but I would have found out. I don’t think he stopped me on the grounds he did, that is my perception.

Did you have one final conversation with Rajiv? Did he tell you you were betraying him?

Yes. It was not a happy conversation...

Obviously...

Yes, by definition. He wasn’t sure, and that is probably what hurt me the most, that he wasn’t sure that I was not making power-play. He had grown so used to a system and a structure where everyone was making a power-play. And he said to me in those very words, that we are two old friends, you can have any job you want. And I left with much bitterness, and much emotion, because I told him that that was the greatest insult to me. I didn’t want a job. And perhaps one reason for going so far away was to prove to him that I wasn’t interested in power.

I have never had the opportunity to say this... I loved the man, I had no intention of hurting him, but he thought I was.

It seems that the bitterness also spread between your families.

Yes, it did. But our children are not inimical to each other. They are not friendly, but they are not inimical either.

But you’ve had no communication with the family since you left?

We have met a couple of times, and whenever we have met it has been very pleasant, there has been no rancour. But there is that distance, which hurts.

(To be continued)

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