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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 50, November 28, 2009

Remembering Gopi

Saturday 28 November 2009, by K. Natwar Singh



G.K. Arora, who was a Special Secretary in the PMO during Rajiv Gandhi’s stewardship of the country in the eighties, passed away in New Delhi on November 5. A brilliant product of the Allahabad University, he was the trusted lieutenant of D.P. Dhar, the Indian ambassador in Moscow, during the Brezhnev period of the USSR in the seventies. He has been branded as a “pro-Moscow man with a Marxist crap” by those who knew him from a distance, but those who saw him from close quarters and interacted with him in the Soviet capital in those days know how much he was influenced by the openness of Euro-Communism as opposed to the rigid Stalinist-cum-Brezhnevite approach in the USSR at the end of his Moscow stint. He played a critical role in the Rajiv Gandhi set-up during the Bofors controversy in 1987-88. Remembering him today we are reproducing a tribute recently written by the former External Affairs Minister who had known him intimately in the South Block in the Rajiv Gandhi period.

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Only a few months ago Gopi (everyone called him by that endearing verbal shorthand) and I were lunching at the India International Centre. He looked frail, but intellectually he was as sharp as ever. I am deeply distressed at his passing away. Mourning is for his family and closest associates. I prefer remembering him.

He was a remarkable civil servant—endowed with subtlety of intellect and openness of character, an analytical and organised mind. He was a man who measured his words and phrases. He had a vision which few civil servants have. In his younger days he was a Marxist. Later, he become Nehruite—a non-doctrine socialist.

We had worked in Rajiv Gandhi Government. He as a civil servant attached to the Prime Minister’s Office, I as Minister of State. He helped me unreservedly in planning Rajiv Gandhi’s China visit in 1988. A strong and influential lobby in government was against the PM’s embarking on his Passage to China.

He was entirely responsible for Rajiv Gandhi sending the late P.N. Haksar on a secret trip to China to have talks with the Chinese Prime Minister. Haksar on his return told the PM that the Chinese Government wished him to pay an official visit to the People’s Republic. Had it not been for Gopi, an entirely unsuitable, light-weight individual would have been sent originally. The visit from Rajiv Gandhi to China that followed was a trail-blazer.

Gopi had a well-defined, rooted point of view on grave matters of politics and diplomacy. He was intellectually far ahead of most of us. He had a sense of humour, but he was never flippant. He had gravitas. He loathed logorrhea, incoherent talkativeness.

One of his endearing traits was that his attire made no concessions to fashion or style. He considered such obsessions trivial—levitas, he used to say.

Let me go back to our lunch. Inevitably we discussed the India-Sri Lanka Agreement signed by Rajiv Gandhi and J.R. Jayewardene, the then President of Sri Lanka, on June 29, 1987. Why things went so wrong, and how half-a-dozen agencies were functioning at cross-purposes. Confusion prevailed. Boy scouts had almost taken over our Sri Lanka policy—or the lack of it. For their folly Rajiv Gandhi paid with his life.

On our recent relations with the US, we spent much time. Gopi knew Washington well, and was never hostile to Uncle Sam. At the same time we agreed that the UPA Government had invested too much in the neo-conservative clique that had surrounded and advised President Bush. A few diplomatic vocabulary had been invented: regime change, benevolent hegemony, democracy promotion, pre-emptive war. What words!


Gopi made a deeply perceptive remark on the distintegration of the USSR. I remember his exact words: “Natwar, an alternative point of view has disappointed. That is very serious matter.” Here you have brevity and wisdom combined.

I have purposely not gone into the details of his service record—brilliant though it was—nor into the various and very senior posts he occupied. Suffice it to say that his career was untarnished. He served his country with ability, competence, dedication, efficiency, prudence and measured judgement. Was he perfect? No. Had he been, he would be of little interest to someone like me.

I shared his weltanschauung and his passion to see India take its rightful place in the community of nations.

I still have a book he lent me years ago: the first volume of Main Currents of Marxism, by the recently-deceased Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowaski. I lent him The Greatest Speeches of All Time. Kolakowaski’s book is a legacy from Gopi which I shall cherish.

(Courtesy: The Indian Express)

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