‘The US made Headley,an undertrial,available to us. Which intelligence agency will do that?’

In his long diplomatic career,<i><b>Ronen Sen</b></i>,former Indian ambassador to the US,has been witness to several significant landmarks in India’s foreign policy journey. In this <i>Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7 </i>with <i>The Indian Express</i> Editor-in-Chief <i><b>Shekhar Gupta</b></i>,Sen speaks about the defining shift in Indo-US ties and says his “headless chicken” remark was misdirected.

Shekhar Gupta: My guest this week is somebody who is almost a TV recluse. Except when he makes news with an off-the-cuff remark like,“running around like headless chicken…”,and gets Parliament in uproar. Ronen Sen,it’s been so difficult to get you to talk on the record. It’s always easier to get you to talk off-the-record.

Ronen Sen: I have always been oriented to the outcome,not to the process so much. Also,I am not a very good analyst. I have objectives,try to achieve them,then move on.

Shekhar Gupta: That’s unusual for a diplomat because diplomacy is all about form and style and process and note verbale and non-papers and French and Latin.

Ronen Sen: I think today it’s different. For instance,there is central focus on economics,what is known as economic diplomacy. I don’t think foreign and defence policies can be seen in isolation. If you look at 1987,for instance. India had the worst drought of the century,you also had your troops in Sri Lanka.


Shekhar Gupta: Absolutely. You had Operation Brasstacks and Chinese checkers Sumdorong Chu. It was one of the most insecure years in our history. And Bofors also broke that year.

Ronen Sen: Yes,Bofors,Pay Commission. The next year,when people saw Rajiv Gandhi at the Great Wall of China and that long handshake with Deng Xiaoping,they didn’t relate it to dal-roti issues.

Shekhar Gupta: India’s problems.

Ronen Sen: Even financial aspects. If you move a brigade to have a border free of incidents,that’s a big step economically. Or where you didn’t have at that time a supply of AWACS aircraft from the United States,it was not accidental.

Shekhar Gupta: You mean AWACS not going to Pakistan?

Ronen Sen: Yes.

Shekhar Gupta: And you were behind all that badmaashi?

Ronen Sen: Well,it was a private communication.

Shekhar Gupta: Tell us about it.

Ronen Sen: Rajiv Gandhi had an excellent equation with President Reagan and the age difference…it was almost an uncle-nephew type of thing. Once there were no cameras,once everyone had left the room—I mean,we are part of the wallpaper,we don’t exist—you saw an instant change in the person,a deep affection. It’s quite incredible to see their personal equation and those things did help.

Shekhar Gupta: The reason we start with Rajiv and Reagan is that in a week,President Obama comes to India. And people don’t quite know where to pick up the thread on the changes in the India-US relationship after almost 30 years of hostility. And I’m amazed that you begin with Rajiv Gandhi.

Ronen Sen: Actually,we must go back a little bit earlier to Indira Gandhi.

Shekhar Gupta: I have had a view that when Mrs Gandhi came back to power in 1980,she decided on a paradigm shift. That’s something for which we give Manmohan Singh and Narasimha Rao credit,but it started with her.

Ronen Sen: Absolutely. When Mrs Indira Gandhi returned to power,the first thing she faced was the issue of Afghanistan—the Soviets moving into Afghanistan. She made it very clear that time. She told General Secretary Brezhnev,look,we are not going to join the international chorus (of condemnation) against you,but you should know that this move will have an adverse impact on our security for a long time to come. Both you and the Americans have relatively short attention spans,you’ll both leave eventually. But we’ll both be living this mess and picking up the pieces for a long time to come.

Shekhar Gupta: That’s precisely what Dr Singh could be telling Obama this time. And then?

Ronen Sen: Well,then she made a conscious decision…

Shekhar Gupta: How did Brezhnev react to this?

Ronen Sen: He was fumbling for words. I felt a little sorry because he had a deep affection for India,and also a deep personal empathy with Mrs Indira Gandhi. But in these circumstances…she took a clinical view. Her decision was to visit the United States before visiting the Soviet Union. In fact,she deliberately violated protocol and did something unthinkable. When Reagan was elected President,she sent B K Nehru on a personal mission to California with a personal letter of congratulations,much before he had assumed office. So that was an extraordinary gesture.

Shekhar Gupta: So what you are saying is that the end of the Cold War had been anticipated by Mrs Gandhi in 1980 and then Rajiv subsequently?

Ronen Sen: Yes,in fact there were other developments too. By 1988,we got some indication that all was not well in the Soviet Union. We didn’t know it was going to collapse so rapidly like a house of cards. But you know the cracks were showing at that time and we had enough indications of that. In fact,Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had written a personal letter to Gorbachev,a long letter,on our system of government,how we have a federal system of government,how you don’t let pressure points build up. But in a very gentle manner,not to give a lecture. Certainly not patronising,certainly not “I know better than you”,it was just a correspondence,conversation,you might say.

Shekhar Gupta: So you don’t believe the nuclear deal was a big policy shift. It was a continuum. Take us back to the nuclear deal. Was there a moment you thought the deal was not going to happen?

Ronen Sen: It was touch-and-go a number of times. In fact,even in Delhi,when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush went for their one-to-one,they went with the knowledge that it’s not going to work out. So we came to the brink a number of times. And then we managed to find a solution. It was not easy. Because what was being attempted was so audacious. Something which had no precedence in international relations. A single-country exemption from an international agreement. Where has it ever been done? Very frankly,in my view,we didn’t sell that agreement properly.

Shekhar Gupta: To the people of India?

Ronen Sen: Yes. There is always a gap between reality and perception. And perception always changes in a parabolic curve. So at some point of time,the two meet.

Shekhar Gupta: But could it be because the Congress was not sure enough about what was happening and they were watching and waiting?

Ronen Sen: I think so,I met a number of people within the party,people whose judgment I respect,who didn’t seem to have an idea of the significance of this agreement. It’s curious that the significance was understood better by some neighbours like Pakistan and China than many people in India. But this (deal) would have not only a tremendous impact on bilateral relations,but also a global impact. It changed the way people looked at India.

Shekhar Gupta: India had the clout to get 46 countries of NSG to vote. Bush called Hu Jintao.

Ronen Sen: And a large number of others. He called the New Zealand Prime Minister. He worked the phone at a time when he was busy with other things. He had to deal with Katrina. But he expended a lot of his rapidly diminishing political capital. For the first time in the US Congress,you had the Congress changing its own procedures to get this deal through.

Shekhar Gupta: You were among the very few people who were talking to Mrs Sonia Gandhi about this. Did she get it from the very beginning?

Ronen Sen: I think she did. And I think a number of people did,but our communication,I still think,could have been much better.

Shekhar Gupta: Did she have doubts?

Ronen Sen: Of course. Everybody had doubts. I would have had doubts myself.

Shekhar Gupta: But were there doubts like,this is the Congress party. Can we be seen to be getting so friendly with America?

Ronen Sen: Not that. I think it had something to do with the persona of Bush. He was seen as an evangelical sort of crusader. And inherently with some anti-Islamic tendencies. A unilateralist who didn’t care for world opinion. Someone who acted first and thought later,perhaps. That was the image. That is actually not the reality.

Shekhar Gupta: So that made people uneasy?

Ronen Sen: That made people even more uneasy,but talking of the past,I was part of the Atomic Energy establishment when the Tarapur incident took place and when Carter visited India and his conversation with PM Morarji Desai. (Carter) didn’t know that the microphone was on and said,‘Remind me when I get back,I have to send this fellow a tough and blunt letter.’

Shekhar Gupta: Who,Carter said that?

Ronen Sen: Yes,Carter,and he was talking with the mike on. Now,if you see two of the lowest points in India’s historical relationship,one was Tarapur and Carter. The second point was during the term of Republican President Nixon—the Bangladesh War,the Indo-Soviet Treaty. Nixon’s term symbolised for India a hostile America ganging up with China and Pakistan. That is embedded in the minds of people. So that is the other issue which we have got to erase.

Shekhar Gupta: So,in a way,the nuclear deal put the clock back on that. What do you expect Dr Singh to tell Obama now? Or what do you expect Obama to tell him? Because now the nuclear deal is done. What’s the next deal?

Ronen Sen: I have been to a number of summits. Nobody really works out an agenda. You give some talking points and leaders sometimes raise these issues,sometimes they don’t. Changes are taking place very rapidly in the global scenario. Not just Afghanistan-Pakistan,which is going to be very much on Obama’s mind,but China and recent developments there. So the biggest issue will be to see how these changes affect us,and how we can get on the same page.

Shekhar Gupta: And this will be a conversation between equals?

Ronen Sen: Absolutely,the old thing is out. India has changed,the world has changed.

Shekhar Gupta: And America has changed. Ronen,you were in Washington when 26/11 happened. How faithful were the Americans to us,particularly vis-a-vis Headley.

Ronen Sen: Within three hours of the events commencing in Bombay,I got a call from Secretary Condoleezza Rice,expressing very serious concern. Bush was at that time in Crawford Ranch. She got through to him,because this was considered to be an emergency. Shortly thereafter,I got a call from then-President-elect,Barack Obama.

Shekhar Gupta: But did they share with us all they had?

Ronen Sen: What we got from Americans in terms of inputs is far more than the rest of the world put together. And this is a very conservative estimate. Let’s put it that way.

Shekhar Gupta: Will you give me some details?

Ronen Sen: These issues are of interest to Americans also. On Thanksgiving,Obama had a number of briefings at his home on this issue. And right now,he has understood very clearly—you don’t need WikiLeaks or anything for that—that it was not Afghanistan-Pakistan. It was Pakistan. It was Rawalpindi where more important decisions were being taken than Kabul. He has understood that. What I am saying is that on this issue,I can’t anticipate what the discussions will be like,but I think both the countries have got the diagnosis right. The question is now the line of treatment. There there could be differences.

Shekhar Gupta: After all the revelations that have come out from Headley,does anything make you feel that these guys should have told us earlier?

Ronen Sen: I haven’t seen the full text of that. But let me tell you,they made him available to us,directly. And to remind you,this is a person who is an undertrial,a possible double-agent. Which intelligence agency will make that person available? So this was a leap of faith.

Shekhar Gupta: For the Americans?

Ronen Sen: Yes,for anyone in the intelligence community.

Shekhar Gupta: To share a double-agent for interrogation with the other side?

Ronen Sen: A possible double-agent,but,more importantly,an undertrial. And worse,if somehow the interrogation material leaks,it can be declared a mis-trial,or contempt or whatever. But let me tell you there was no question in my mind,particularly since around 2007,people have been very open.

Shekhar Gupta: So what will happen at this summit,something that will surprise you on the pleasant side?

Ronen Sen: We should focus on not what is going to be another nuclear treaty because you can’t pull these rabbits out of a hat. I think we should focus on getting more economic content to the relationship. The United States remains the largest destination for our exports. It’s a major source of investment,a major source of technology transfers,potentially now with this nuclear deal and other things moving ahead,hopefully with the entities list and other irritants removed.

Shekhar Gupta: And what could disappoint you?

Ronen Sen: I would be disappointed if we did not recognise that this is a process involving give-and-take. I think we should raise our FDI caps,in certain cases. Sometimes we can adopt protectionist measures.

Shekhar Gupta: But we have to be prepared for some give as well?

Ronen Sen: We have to give,and we’ll gain in the process. But we’ll have to be clinical. We should not be ideological in terms of our analysis. If we find that it can be to our mutual benefit,we should be flexible. Look at the economic agenda as not just separate trade,investments,technology transfers…deal with them as a whole.

Shekhar Gupta: I started off by saying that you are perhaps a TV recluse. So,having led such a quiet,shy life,how did you handle the sudden fame or infamy of the “headless chickens” remark?

Ronen Sen: I think it was misdirected. Because I had a couple of people in mind.

Shekhar Gupta: Now tell me who. In politics or in the media?

Ronen Sen: There were two journalists.

Shekhar Gupta: Not MPs?

Ronen Sen: No. Maybe that was a mistake,I don’t know. But I didn’t have that in mind. Even during the treaty,I found that on a number of occasions,when I shared certain things in confidence with friends in media,I have not been let down even once. I found that leaks,if they take place,do so at the high-levels.

Shekhar Gupta: So how did you handle that fame?

Ronen Sen: Well my gut instinct was to resign,come back and face Parliament as a private citizen. But on the other hand,there was also a challenge. That look,this has happened,let’s try to see it through. So the second sentiment prevailed.

Shekhar Gupta: That’s why you have been one of our most successful diplomats of all time.

Ronen Sen: No,it was team work. I had a very fine team wherever I went. And a lot of ideas came from free communication.


Shekhar Gupta: And there was always Mr Ronen Sen,the benign wallpaper,as you define yourself. You have made history in the seventies,in the eighties,in the nineties,and the first decade of this century. There are not many people in your business who can claim that.

Transcribed by Aakanksha Kapoor