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  Opinion   Columnists  16 Jul 2023  Saeed Naqvi | Farewell Dada! Memories of an extraordinary 1979 China visit

Saeed Naqvi | Farewell Dada! Memories of an extraordinary 1979 China visit

The writer is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi
Published : Jul 17, 2023, 12:32 am IST
Updated : Jul 17, 2023, 12:32 am IST

N. Ram, Dada and I were part of a small team of journalists invited to accompany the delegation.

Known as “Dada”, Chakravarty was an exceptional reporter whose memory & knowledge was well-known among reporters at the Press Club of India. (Photo: Instagram)
 Known as “Dada”, Chakravarty was an exceptional reporter whose memory & knowledge was well-known among reporters at the Press Club of India. (Photo: Instagram)

It was just as well that a memorial meeting for Subhash Chakravarty was organised by the Press Club of India, where so many of us spent evenings with him in the 1970s and 1980s before senior newshounds, for some reason, relocated to other, more segregated watering holes.

Subhash, with his stolid ways, never had a fan following, but editors like N.J. Nanporia and Girilal Jain couldn’t practice their punditry without extensive, daily debriefing by Subhash after he returned from the parlours of the powerful with whom he was on first-name terms. 

The man who could walk unannounced into the offices of the most powerful in the land was also extremely lonely in his private life. His extraordinary access to politicians like Pranab Mukherjee could be explained in parochial terms too… he couldn’t conceal his Bengali chauvinism.

In this, he wasn’t dissimilar to late Abu Abraham. A superb cartoonist, Abu was also a Malayali chauvinist, a tendency which erupted every time he touched on “North Indian culture”.

Dada and Abu have crept into memory simultaneously because they link up in different ways with a China story gestating in my mind.

Among the many remarkable cartoons Abu Abraham sketched, the one he prided most was of Mao Zedong walking upto an Indian diplomat, Brajesh Mishra, smiling mysteriously, eye contact and all. The enigmatic smile, at a time when relations between two nations were in “chill”, was the subject of continuous discussion and punditry. Abu’s caption of the cartoon were words of inspiration: “Mao-Lisa”.

The Mao-Lisa smile may have been one of the ingredients behind K.R. Narayanan being named ambassador to Beijing in 1976. The date of Narayanan’s appointment overlapped with the Emergency.

When Indira Gandhi was routed in the 1977 and Morarji Desai became PM, the external affairs ministry fell to the lot of Atal Behari Vajpayee. The office he occupied near South Block’s main staircase was exactly the one Pandit Nehru occupied as Prime Minister. “I am about to occupy the chair on which Pandit Nehru sat.” Vajpayee was full of emotion.

Among the earliest visits Vajpayee embarked on as foreign minister, with cerebral foreign secretary Jagat Mehta, was to China in February 1979.

N. Ram, Dada and I were part of a small team of journalists invited to accompany the delegation. Dada was never short on tips on chopsticks at the Great Hall of the People, the essential protocol of climbing the Great Wall… with an empty bladder. In February’s biting cold there would otherwise be that embarrassing search for a toilet.

One big advantage of having Dada by our side was quite priceless. Since he called his editor Girilal Jain twice a day, we were regularly updated on how our stories were faring. The editor’s approval of the drift of one’s stories was clear from the display given to what one was writing. It was all very satisfactory until one reached Hangzhou, a great cultural centre.

After a memorable banquet by the local party boss, we retired to our rooms in an exquisite hotel. This was usually the time for Dada to walk to the press room to talk to his editor. Such was Dada’s demeanour that it appeared to those listening that Dada was actually scolding his editor. That was his style.

This particular conversation with Girilal Jain ended dramatically. Dada let the handset dangling by the spiral cord, rather like the climax of Dial M for Murder. He ran toward Jagat Mehta’s room and began banging on the door. “Jagat, open the door” he thundered ominously, “China has invaded Vietnam”.

It was feared from Day 1 of Vajpayee’s visit that Deng Xiaoping might actually do what he verbally threatened: “teach Vietnam a lesson”. Some action was expected after Vietnam occupied Kampuchea and removed the Khmer Rouge, supported by China.   

Considering that India’s foreign minister was in Beijing on something of an epoch-making visit, military action against Vietnam without as much as taking the visitor into confidence was construed an insult. What made it worse was that the foreign minister of Yugoslavia, who was in Beijing at the same time, was kept in the loop.

What took place in Vajpayee’s suite that night was a sombre variant of a pyjama party. Vajpayee’s mind was made up. He cut short the visit and returned home via Hong Kong.

This was Chinese behaviour at a time when Deng’s four modernisations had barely been announced as state policy. China, like India then, was a poor, developing country.

Did China deliberately insult Vajpayee? I would say no. The element of secrecy with India was dictated by India’s close relations with the Soviet Union. Vietnam at this stage was largely in the Soviet camp.

What Vajpayee’s successor, Narendra Modi, is coping with is China risen to the height of Gulliver, challenging not India, but the United States, which is almost India’s patron. Circumstances of a changing global order have placed India on a sweet spot, wooed by both sides. In this situation, India’s commitment to strategic autonomy is credible.

This credibility has to be sustained by managing the autonomy of action without ever looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.   

Village “Nutts” walk on ropes tightly held by two poles. A fall, if ever, is after all only before a small village audience. A high-wire act before a global audience, like the one India is embarked on, demands exceptional agility. Just because we are satisfied with the optics of the US visit, we cannot let our guard down. Our slipping into a virtual mode for SCO will have the world scrutinise the shift. Strategic autonomy as a policy will have to be sustainable. As a trick, it will be found out.

Tags: saeed naqvi, times of india, pranab mukherjee