When Vajpayee took CPI-M help on nuclear agreement

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Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. [File Photo/ANI]
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. [File Photo/ANI]

New Delhi [India], August 5 (ANI): One day sometime after Pokhran-II (11-13 May 1998) the then prime minister Atal Bihari invited CPI-M gamesman Harkrishan Singh Surjeet to tea at the PM house, adding that he would be delighted if West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu could also join. Surjeet sensed something earnest in Vajpayee's voice and apprised Jyoti Basu accordingly. Basu landed in New Delhi in a few days.

That was the time when Vajpayee was basking in the glory of his five nuclear blasts which had made India a "nuclear state."He had made India proud and he was enjoying his moment of glory. But the tests had upset the US which now began pressing India even more highhandedly than before to sign the much detested nuclear agreement. Vajpayee needed to show the Bill Clinton administration in Washington how incensed Indians would be if he did that. It was in this background that he had called up Surjeet.

Vajpayee was a homely, genial man, unhurried and at ease with himself and the world around, but with a keen intellect and the shrewdness of a statesman of long and varied experience. Once when visiting Kathmandu in 1978as Morarji Desai's foreign minister a Nepalese foreign office diplomate had aptly said that he could count two and two five and send you back home feeling happy about it. That truly was him.

When Surjeet and Jyoti Basu joined him at tea, as planned, he was all charm and talked of everything in the world without giving his guests any hint about why he had called them in the first place. The session seemed headed to end with some annoyance for Jyoti Basu who was a rather cut and dry person.

Then, just as Surjeet and Basu showed signs of restlessness, Vajpayee caused a stir with an unexpected remark. "Ah, one thing," he said, "Seems opposition to the nuclear agreement has mellowed considerably in the country."

"How can you say that?" snapped Surjeet as Jyoti Basu showed signs of and even agitation. "Simply because it's all quiet now that we are in the government and there's nobody left to raise a din," retorted Vajpayee.

"That's not true," Surjeet continued, "You may have gone into hiding but we have not. Our people are not quiet. There is a lot of halla outside." "Really?" said Vajpayee showing disbelief, "If there is any halla it hasn't reached my ears, at least," continued the prime minister, "If I can't hear it sitting here in New Delhi, how will they sitting in so far away in Washington?"

And with that, the tea came to an end. Later when Basu asked Surjeet the meaning of it all the CPI-M's political marriage maker said, "He is shrewd as shrewd can be. He wants us to help him out without him holding our hand. Raise the din louder he is saying, that is, the din against the nuclear agreement so he can tell the Americans that by signing the agreement he would be imperilling the very future of his government."

I thought this episode deserves in the context of this Yechuri-Gokhale spat over Left opposition to the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement allegedly at the instance of China. The episode

has remained largely unrecorded, though it was briefly mentioned in the columns of the Times of India some years later. However, I cannot today recall in what connection or exactly when.

I first heard the story from my journalist friend late TVR Shenoy (1941-2018) who was part of Vajpayee's elite media coterie. Later, I gathered the entire story from Surjeet himself. The Nepalese diplomat mentioned above was Uddhav Deo Bhatt who was foreign secretary during 1975-79. I had joined Vajpayee's media team in Kathmandu during his visit.

The author of this Opinion piece is B N Uniyal, former editor, Sunday Observer. (ANI)

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