February 23, 2020
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'Mole ... It's A Four-Letter Word, A Media Preoccupation'

In the Rao government an attempt was made to conduct a nuclear test. The present PM as finance minister was opposed to that test. That test had to be abandoned...

'Mole ... It's A Four-Letter Word, A Media Preoccupation'
'Mole ... It's A Four-Letter Word, A Media Preoccupation'

A day after the pandemonium in the Rajya Sabha over the mole issue, Jaswant Singh met V Sudarshan at his offices in the Parliament complex. Unrepentant, pugnacious, combative, Jaswant says he is not isolated in the party on the mole issue. 

Is the mole controversy a cheap and shabby publicity stunt for selling your book?

I reject that. The notion itself is so absurd and, frankly, so insulting it belittles the work. This particular book is from my innards, a baring of my soul. My innards are not engaged with cheap publicity stunts. It is a matter of great regret to me that more than 95 per cent of those commenting on this book have not even read the book.

So to what do you attribute this controversy over this mole?

It is really not my word at all. This is a word that is a creation of the media's preoccupation with, if I might put it, four letter words. But otherwise it is conceptually, in description, in commitment, an issue of very serious import, which impinges on the country's national security, deals with the nation's nuclear programme and is not deflected by "moles". In a book just short of 400 pages, the entire description relating to the nuclear programme barely is of one page. It is spread over three pages -- a part of page 125, 126 in which I had quoted a particular note but I abridged it. So I have not engaged in -- I am not given to -- and I will not engage and I have no intention whatsoever to indulge in -- sensationalism, and, certainly, please, to call it a cheap publicity stunt ... what an absurd jibe!

Towards the bottom of page 124-125, there is mention of a letter written to an American senator which is at variance with the evidence you presented in the parliament. How do you explain this?

It is partly an editorial oversight. Partly, because factually I was very constrained by space. To give you an example, even if I have to make a slight digression, I had a whole chapter -- if not a chapter, certainly a subchapter -- on Bangladesh. I had to take it out because the book was already running to 426 pages on account of index and everything. And my US publishers were saying, "Please limit it to, say, not more than a 1,20,000 words". So in that rush, the oversight occurred. After a bit, the author stops reading his own work. 

An oversight, but factually it is correct. In that sense, it is not an oversight. A letter did get written to Senator (Dianne) Fienstein. This is written by a friend of mine -- Stephen Cohen -- along with that was attached a number of other things. One of them was this note -- Tom Graham's to Harry Barnes -- Ambassador Barnes. They were attached. So that was partly an oversight, an editorial mistake, it should not confuse the essential issue. If you throw your mind back to the the latter half of 94-95, certainly parts of 96 -- periods of very intense debate about the test ban treaty -- the US was fully pre-occupied with and committed to somehow forcing a test ban treaty down India's throat. Countries like France and others were -- with a great speed -- conducting their nuclear tests in the oceans because they wanted to beat the deadline of the CTBT. That was the persuasion that was perhaps behind Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's deciding to have a nuclear test - that is a fact.

It is not really clear whether the letter written by Tom Graham to Harry Barnes is authentic in any sense of the word. When you got the letter, did you manage to verify its authenticity?

Of course, the authenticity is not diminished by what Ambassador Barnes has said. Just as Steve is a friend of mine, so is Ambassador Barnes. Not for a moment do I doubt the impeccable integrity and commitment that Ambassador Barnes has to the issues that he holds dear. He does work for the Carter Foundation, and he has worked there for a very long time. He is a very eminent and, I think, a distinguished representative of the US foreign service. He had come here from Chile, where again he had done some remarkable work. I think his tenure here was a successful tenure. It was a turbulent period in India because it was a period that was transitional from the late Mrs Gandhi to her son late Rajiv. I spent quite a good deal of time those years with Ambassador Barnes. He has a commitment to non-proliferation and other issues, and to peace between India and Pakistan. I had no reasons whatsoever that what I am in possession of is in any sense incorrect on that account.

You are not telling me what steps precisely you took to verify the authenticity of the letter when it came into your possession ten years ago.

Any and every step that was needed by me -- because when I got it, I was already leader of the opposition -- and I could not likely consider it a document that comes my way -- and secondly because it involves people that I know so very well I couldn't likely use their names out there before I verified it in all the possible manners -- some of which I cannot really share in public -- but only after I was satisfied that it was verified, I kept it with me. I kept it with me for years because our objective was different. Our objective was to somehow, anyhow prevent the United States of America from cottoning on to how or when we were going to conduct the nuclear tests.

It looks as though you are doing a solo run on this, that you did not share this piece of information in the letter with other people in the party.

You are absolutely free to judge how you judge. There is a very established and a time tested principle of intelligence sharing which was dinned into me in my army years and subsequently -- the categories being: 'must not know', 'could know', 'must know'. This kind of information which related to an issue of very great importance to us was shared only with those who 'must know' and nobody else.

If that was the case and after ten years you have written all this - what was the purpose?

I will tell you very frankly and I think that if one reads Page Numbers 125-126-127 -- I believe, and it is quite clearly stated by me, and if I failed to communicate that then it is my failure as an author -- the purpose was to say that as a part of the function and preservation of their national interest, the United States of America always continues to investigate, to snoop, no matter how close their relationship with that country is. The latest example is, of course, the little fracas that has occurred between United Kingdon and the United States of America. We have to grow up and accept that this kind of looking into what the country is doing is not a value judgement. It is recognition of a reality. 

And what I was trying to, and what I had tried to project, is that, first, there was in the Narasimha Rao government an attempt made to conduct a nuclear test, second, that the present Prime Minister as finance minister was opposed to that test, and, thirdly, that that test had to be abandoned. Amongst the various factors that could have caused the abandonment was the factor of somebody from amongst the establishment -- that supported, aided, advised the then Prime Minister -- was sharing the essential details in fact of when the decision was likely to be made etc. That is the point. 

The additional point that I made was that because I was armed with the knowledge, because Vajpayee's government knew that this is what the United States of America is doing, we took all the necessary and specific measures to ensure that despite our prior announcement in the election manifesto, there was no way the United States of America could know the dates or when or even the extent of our tests. That I say in my book subsequently, that is perhaps a reason for the USA to be more riled than the fact that we conducted the test: how did India prevent USA from coming to know?

The Prime Minister in the Parliament said that you have not given a satisfactory answer to the fact that we are being snooped upon even now. How do you respond to that?

I respond firstly by saying that I think the Prime Minister is being his characteristic self. Firstly, what he said inside the house -- he said some very kind things about me then -- is part of the official records of the proceedings. Then he goes outside of the house and in the protective cocoon of a private press briefing, he says all kinds of different things. I still hope and I repeat that the reason why I say we ought to be careful, not frightened, not thrown out of our wits, but certainly careful -- again it is not a value judgement, it is only a caution -- that every government will be looked at because it is part of the function of the respective government. Why otherwise was an American officer recently asked to leave the US embassy and go back? Because of this. There are recent reports of RAW officers (fleeing to the US). There are reports -- I am not saying, the National Security Advisor says-- of entry of certain Islamic extremist elements into our armed forces. He is saying that our nuclear establishments could get attacked. The nuclear establishments come directly under the Prime Minister. It does not lie in the mouth of the Prime Minister to say that I have in any sense overstated -- and I am not overstating -- the case. I am perhaps being understating. Therefore, the Prime Minister's office has to be doubly careful. That is an obvious enough conclusion.

You seem to have eliminated certain people from the mole list. How do you arrive at the conclusion of who are not the moles when you don't seem to know who the moles are?

Oh, if they are clearly outside the pale of what I would call suspicion, it then becomes my responsibility to not let wild speculation keep going and injuring the reputation of my citizen colleagues in the country. And the other thing really was that he might not be in the country. Mr Graham, who is the author of this note, is not in the country. Thirdly, those that were working then with the Prime Minister, they are retired. I only hinted. It is not my job. I am not a spy-sweeper. I hinted because the entire prime ministerial organisation changes with every successive prime minister. It is his choice. 

Mr Narasimha Rao went out of office in the beginning of 96. We came into office for a short period of 13 days. And we exited and followed a couple of years of democratic disorder in which a number of prime ministers came and went. Each of them altered the arrangement. Besides, in 1995, when this occurred, the New York Times had already reported that satellite surveillance by the United States of America had found that India is digging bore holes. Things were happening. In 1997, a newspaper in India writes considerably more detailed reports and hints at this. A note is sent to the then Prime Minister: this is what the United States will corner you into discussing, please be cautious. When we came into office in 1998, our priority was going in for the test without the United States of America getting even the faintest hint of it.

After all this controversy you still don't have a clue as to who this "senior officia" is and who the "junior official" is who is talking to the Americans that Tom Graham mentions in his letter?

Why am I citing this? I am no longer in office, I have no resources, I do not have the facilities, and, besides, I do not think that I am personally given to this kind of spy-hunting. This is a function of the establishment around, and in, the Prime Minister's office and all the other organisations. I am writing what I did and have done, to point out that between 1998 when we conducted the test, and now, firstly because intrusive and constant -- what I call -- looking into what India is doing contributes, and therefore I am worried because the present negotiations that we are having with the United States of America for me personally have echoes very similar to 1995. 

The United States is proposing a bilateral test ban treaty that becomes legally binding, similar to what the CTBT was. Why? Be careful, the US is saying: 'Walk along with us down this path of fissile material control'. And we have said, consistently, 'Yes, we will, provided that everybody walks, and the P-5 also commit themselves. We must demonstrate. There must be a proper method of verification whether it is being done or not.' 

Now, these are some of the essentials that I am citing because I am worried we are headed down a path which the United States was forcing down us: their agenda has remained the same. In 1995, this document says that we talked about putting certain plants under IAEA control. To me, now, the nuke-deal sounds so similar to what the US agenda was in 1995. The US agenda is the same. India must be cautious about it. Therefore: who it was, what it was --  they are figures from the past. They are not so much relevant today as is the fact that we have to be awake to the dangers of today.

It appears from what I read in the papers that you are isolated in the BJP in this?

No my dear, no. Look, I didn't choose the title of the book in a fit of amnesia. The title is 'A Call to Honour'. I am bound by the honour which was distilled in my from my very birth. There is a sentence there: if honour be lost, what is left? You say that somebody is sharpening knives to put in the side of my back. I joined the armed forces as a soldier. I am a soldier. I will give my life to protect my colleagues. Come on, I do not work on suspicions. I am not a suspicious person and I am not isolated because I am standing for a principle.

The Prime Minister says that the BJP leadership has stooped to this level ...

Frankly, I would be even ashamed to respond to that. I do not know what level he is stooping to. Because inside the House he says something totally contrary to what he says in the protective cocoon of a private press conference. It is very disappointing. Now I begin to realise that perhaps this is the characteristic of Dr Manmohan singh. Why did he not say it in the house? Why did he say it outside? I find it too low a blow to even react to it even with the dignity of being dejected. Fine, if that's what he thinks we are as the principle opposition force, let him hold that view.

This is the full text of the interview excerpts from which appeared in print.

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