Few ambassadors have lived to tell the tale, but Ambassador to Washington Shankar Bajpai, who died of Covid last year, can claim credit for overthrowing two of Rajiv Gandhi’s spectacular foreign policy initiatives. Since I was the reporter covering both cases, let me start with the first article.
Suddenly last week the Polisario, or Western Sahara, was on two pages of The Economist. It triggered my memory. America’s willingness to stand alongside its friends, in this case Morocco, was being tested. I had visited the country of the Polisario after disengaging from the media team that had accompanied the Prime Minister to Algeria in June 1985, on the way to meet President Reagan in Washington.
The previous month Gandhi had visited Mikhail Gorbachev, the new secretary general of the Soviet Communist Party. Algerian President Chadli Bendjedid, totally in the Soviet camp, spoke of the non-aligned movement and, holding Gandhi’s hand, underlined the importance of Western Sahara and the liberation struggle waged for nine years by the Polisario Front. Gandhi was visibly impressed.
Until the death of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, the territory was called the Spanish Sahara. After Franco, it became the most contested real estate between a Morocco supported by the West and the Polisario, the latter fully supported by Algeria at a time when the Cold War was at its height.
After Rajiv Gandhi’s meeting with Bendjedid when the Polisario’s decision was tacitly taken, I decided to stay in Algiers. The next morning, I flew to Tindouf, 1900 km southwest, deep in the Sahara Desert. The capital of the Polisario was a fairytale town made up of rows of tents. It was a poor version of the tent district that the Shah of Iran had erected near Shiraz to celebrate 2,500 years of Persian civilization.
My neighborhood was a tent of exquisite taste. Fortunately there was an attached toilet. Others, higher and lower, went to the sand dunes for their ablution. The purest rays of “Shams”, the sun, burned everything, which then became indistinguishable from the sand. Polisario leader Mohamed Abdelaziz was a charismatic figure and a favorite of Cuban Fidel Castro. Polisario recruits were trained in Cuba.
Although short of money, the Saharan Republic has opened an embassy in New Delhi. But in a few months, a very shaken Polisario representative came to see me. “Your government is not talking to me. It would have been embarrassing to close the embassy, but a de facto recognition was underway. The history of the Polisario slowly faded from 1985 to 2000 when Jaswant Singh, as Minister of Foreign Affairs, finally closed the embassy.
Well, the Polisario man who came to see me with tears in his eyes, can now regain my morale. The powers that supported Morocco’s case over Western Sahara are giving signals that they may no longer be interested in playing imperialism. In fact, Russia and the United States are heading for a referendum on the territory.
A hilarious image in my mind is of Ambassador KV Rajan, trapped right in the middle of this sport of recognition and non-recognition. After Gandhi communicated his positive decision to Bendjedid, a high-level Polisario delegation floated into the Prime Minister’s apartments to thank him. Everything was sealed but the decision would not be announced until after the visit to Washington for obvious reasons.
During the return trip, Foreign Minister Ramesh Bhandari called Ambassador Rajan. “Hold on on the Polisario issue; there has been a change of heart. But before the “change of mind” was communicated, an elated Bendjedid invited Rajan over and kissed him on both cheeks in true Arabian style. When an ambassador is in the arms of the president of a country of his accreditation (of the ambassador), he must not give up. Just as Bendjedid was starting to celebrate, the news reached Rabat. King Mohammad V was going mad. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs, MK Rasgotra flew to Rabat to appease the king. It was a large-scale opera.
John Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis produced a classic, Essence of a Decision, by Professor Grahame Allison. What kind of scholarship would be possible on the decision and indecision under South Block’s masterful management of the Polisario case?
Today, let me add in parentheses, the history of the Polisario is once again about to change. And that change is a function of a fundamental overhaul in Washington, the first glimpse of which was available in President Obama’s interview with Atlantic magazine in March 2016. He spoke of America’s “inability to be anywhere.”
Another dramatic decision that was brutally overturned also bore Rajiv Gandhi’s imprimatur. Ambassador Bajpai also played a key role in overturning the decision.
A year after the Polisario fiasco, the United States bombed Benghazi and Tripoli in April 1986, killing, among dozens of others, Gaddafi’s little girl. This somewhat inexplicable military action caused non-aligned foreign ministers at a conference in New Delhi to sit down and take note.
With the “unreserved” approval of Rajiv Gandhi, a delegation of four foreign ministers, led by the Indian Bali Ram Bhagat, left for Tripoli to sympathize with Gaddafi. After what Bhagat thought was a successful meeting in Tripoli, perhaps Bhagat expected to be celebrated by the Prime Minister. Maybe the foreign ministry would hold a press conference.
Unbeknownst to Bhagat, another scenario was playing out between Shankar Bajpai and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bajpai brutally asked the question: Was India ready to give up a flourishing relationship with Reagan who, after laying the red carpet on Gandhi in June 1985, posed yet another in October 1987? And all in exchange for a “sentimental visit to Tripoli”?
The answer to Bajpai’s question was contained in Rajiv Gandhi’s decisive action: Bhagat was shown the way out of the Foreign Ministry.