What was rumoured more than 40 years ago has resurfaced. An eye-witness account in an about-to-be published autobiography of Ambassador Alan Nazareth “A Ringside Seat to History” gives credence to the long-held suspicion that Kanti Desai, son of Morarji Desai, who was Indian prime minister between 1977 and 1979, was inappropriately involved in the $2.2 billion deal for Jaguar fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force.
Nazareth, who was deputy high commissioner and acting high commissioner for India in Britain, recounts: “Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s return visit (to London) was made in July 1978. Among those who accompanied him was his son Kanti. I witnessed with amazement the respectful attention senior British Defence Ministry officials paid him, and the separate huddles they had now and again with Secretary to PM.”
He then records: “In mid-October 1978, when I was AHC (acting high commissioner) again, I received a telephone call from PMO instructing me to convey to ‘Prime Minister (James) Callaghan personally’ that GOI had decided to purchase the Jaguar fighter aircraft despite stiff competition from its rivals.”
Nazareth immediately spoke to Callaghan to communicate the message. “He (Callaghan) said he was delighted to receive it and requested me to convey his grateful thanks to PM Desai for conveying this to him ‘personally and promptly’.”
$2.2 billion was an extraordinary sum for the period. The contract was for 200 combat planes. Nazareth’s description of Kanti Desai’s pow-wows with British defence officials appears to circumstantially confirm his wheeler-dealer reputation when his father was prime minister. He held no official position in the Indian government, yet he was the cynosure of British defence officials’ eyes.
Otherwise, Nazareth narrates in his book a memorable initiation into the service. In 1959, when he and his batch-mates were making a customary call on Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the commencement of their careers, the foreign secretary, Subimal Dutt, suddenly entered the room to whisper something into his ears. Nehru revealed the Dalai Lama, escaping from Tibet (which had earlier been annexed by China) had safely crossed the border into India.
The PM then turned to Dutt to say: “These young officers will be dealing with the consequences of today!” Indeed, notwithstanding the nobility of Nehru’s decision to grant sanctuary to the Tibetan leader, Indian diplomats are still feeling the heat, given the current standoff with Chinese troops in Ladakh.
Nazareth’s narration fascinatingly includes a description of Indira Gandhi as Information and Broadcasting Minister slipping into a swimsuit to wade into the sea during a visit to Myanmar; he James Bond-like chasing one of the original Indian fraudsters and absconders, shipping magnate Dharma Teja, in Costa Rica; and as consul-general in New York refusing to authenticate documents to falsely implicate V.P. Singh, later to become prime minister and his son for opening a bank account in St Kitts.