For 31 years since his fall, Gorbachev must have suffered in silence the rank betrayal by his western interlocutors on what they promised him when he was in power. “I can now see clearly,” he told me. “They were working according to a plan.” After the US senate ratified the eastward expansion of NATO, the West’s plans became clear to him. My interview with him after his fall is available on YouTube.
The Sunday Read
The careers of Mikhail Gorbachev (1985-91) and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-85 to 91) were coterminous. Almost on cue, I resigned from the Indian Express in 1984 to set up World Report with a vision I had nurtured for a decade: Indian journalists must see the world with their own eyes. Gandhi’s visit to Moscow in May 1985, his first outing, enabled me to make my first switch from print to TV. Doordarshan was the only channel until 1994 when private channels burst upon the scene to accommodate the advertising which rode on Manmohan Singh’s reforms.
What to me promised to be an assignment of a lifetime, generated a murmuring campaign among the 50 and odd colleagues who were traveling with the Prime Minister. “Why should one journalist get the scoop?” They grumbled. Foreign Secretary Romesh Bhandari, his mouth full of paan parag, didn’t know how to cope. A press conference had been firmly ruled out by the Soviet system, Gorbachev’s incantation of Glasnost or openness, notwithstanding.
Drop the interview, then. That had bigger obstacles attending it. The two systems working on Gandhi’s visit were involved in the interview too.
The PMO, G. Parthasarathy Sr. as the super purohit of the visit, the foreign office, DD, RAW, Ambassador Nurul Hasan in Moscow, and their counterparts in the Soviet system had all met me and sought a broad questionnaire.
Finally, Bhandari came forward with a compromise formula: I will do the interview but the rest of the media delegation will select a representative to sit in on my interview. Approval was obtained from the very highest in the Kremlin. The Press delegation broke up into clusters, little consultative groups addressing the impossible task of identifying a leader. N. Ram of the Hindu cut the Gordian Knot: the spectacular Rusi Karajia of the Blitz would, by representing the media, suitably end my monopoly on what was to be the first-ever interview in the Kremlin Palace.
Adjacent to the hall where the summiteers would meet, a small area was enclosed with ropes, rather like a boxing ring except that this was on flat ground. Four chairs were placed inside the ring – two for Gorbachev and his interpreter and two for Rusi and me. The rest of the press corps would have a ring-side view.
All eyes were riveted on the door through which Gorbachev would walk towards us and take his seat in the ring. During these suspenseful minutes, Rusi was collecting slips of paper from the scribes. These were questions they wanted Rusi to ask.
Just then the door opened. Andrei Gromyko, foreign minister since the Khrushchev era, walked in, stood near the door, took a good hard look at the arrangements, and went back.
Next entered Romesh Bhandari waving his hands like he was bringing tidings of joy.
“Sorry friends, there will be no interview. A brief press meet would give out wrong signals.”
Later I found out what had happened. After seeing the media bandobast, Gromyko took Gorbachev aside, along with a handful of officials including Bhandari. Gromyko had shrewdly sized up the situation. Romesh Bhandari’s choreography would lend itself to a melee. Journalists, outside the ring, would be asking questions out of turn. The new young leader of the CPSU was not going to be exposed to such assured chaos.
“What though the field be lost, all is not lost”, said I to myself, quoting Satan. This was to pull me out of my deep disappointment. Soon enough Gorbachev’s return visit to New Delhi was announced in December 1986. I was in Moscow again.
T N Kaul took charge of the interview on this occasion and insisted that not one or two but four representatives of the official media would sit in with me. I had had enough. This was my mood when I walked into the library attached to the Vladirminsky hall. Every syllable of each question to be asked had been cleared by Kaul and his team and, possibly, by the Central Committee on the other side. At one, narrow end of a long table, big enough for a catwalk, sat Gorbachev. I sat at the corner of the long side, nearest to him. To my left were the official media. On the other side of the table opposite me, were three severe-looking Russian officials, glaring at me like suspicious invigilators. Against the wall opposite me sat Veena Sikri, the Indian press secretary, grinning from ear to ear even as I broke all rules as you will see presently.
“Sergeyevich, I was told we would meet in the library, but there are no books here”, I said.
“Books are in the adjacent room – many books.”
“Do you find the time to read?”
“Yes, Yes” emphatically, “I have a habit of reading.”
“Name a writer you would recommend”
“Chinghiz Aitmatov” he said without batting an eyelid.
Then I opened my cards.
“Your bureaucracy and mine have cleared a set of questions. If I restrict myself to these sanitized questions, millions in India who are eager to see you will switch their TVs off. May I, therefore, ask you questions on what I think are important issues?”
“Da, da, da” (Yes, yes, yes) he emphasized several times.
To everybody’s astonishment, the conversation billed for 30 minutes and lasted 90 minutes, completely outside the parameters set by the two bureaucracies. Gorbachev looked very much the glasnost man, rejoicing in coming out of the old strait jacket. But as subsequent years proved he was clearly out of touch with the nation he had set out to transform. In dealing with Americans, he was naïve.
(Saeed Naqvi is a Delhi-based senior journalist)