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My days as Secretary to Vice-President
From 1981 to 1983, I worked as Secretary to the Vice President (VP) of India.
From 1981 to 1983, I worked as Secretary to the Vice President (VP) of India. Mohammed Hidayatullah, formerly the Chief Justice of India, was occupying that distinguished office at that time. A senior judicial officer was my predecessor and, upon the recommendation of Sharda Mukherjee, the Governor of Andhra Pradesh at that time, Hidayatullah had requested theGovernment of India to obtain my services, on deputation, from the Government of Andhra Pradesh, to be posted in the Vice President’s Secretariat, in his place.
It was a heady period, full of excitement and reward. The VP treated me with the same warmth, and affection, which he showed to his son. So did his gracious, and lively, wife Pushpa.
Soon after my joining that post, I accompanied the VP to Canada on an official visit. Dr Gurdial Singh Dhillon was India’s High Commissioner in Canada. Our itinerary took us on a visit to Chateau Montebello, near Quebec, which sometimes earlier, was the venue of a G7 summit attended by President Ronald Reagan of the US, Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand of France, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau of Canada, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain. En route, we were crossing a river on a punt. The High Commissioner walked up to the car in which I was travelling, peeped in and asked, “who is the Secretary to the Vice President?” I was in between two other people and raised my hand much like a pupil in a classroom.
“You don’t appear to have knowledge of the fundamentals of protocol,” he said and walked away. I jumped out of the car, smoke coming out of my ears, wondering where I had gone wrong. When I asked him what the matter was, Dhillon said that, as I might have noticed, in the carcade from Ottawa to Quebec, his car was trailing the Canadian Protocol Car which, in turn, was behind the Vice President’s car. He was agitated that he was unable to fly the Indian tricolour on his car since the Canadian Protocol vehicle was ahead of his car.
Firmly, but very politely, I replied that, while I had a limited knowledge of these matters, there were two things that I wished to point out. Firstly, we were in his jurisdiction – in a country to which he was our High Commissioner – and it was he who had helped finalise the car plan in place in consultation with the Canadian government. The Vice President’s staff simply had no role. We only had gone by the arrangements made. Secondly, just as in a parade, (where the parade commander alone salutes, the while the rest of the parade comes to attention in a carcade the leading car, in which the VIP is seated, alone, flies the flag. The Vice President’s car was flying two flags; as is the custom - Canadian as well as Indian. And that, to my understanding was the correct protocol. Dhillon, who enjoyed the status and rank of a Cabinet Minister, appeared unconvinced and, perhaps, had protested to the Vice President. I only came to know, later on, that he had brought the matter to the notice of the Vice President, and also reported upon it to the Government of India. In the event, however, I was neither called upon to furnish my explanation subsequently, nor was my understanding of the protocol questioned.
Quite naturally, all of us, in the Vice President’s staff, were unhappy with what had happened. And, the next day, we did something we perhaps ought not to have done, we declined, by way of a silent protest, to join a lunch hosted by Dhillon, in the hotel where we were staying.
Sound homework, along with clarity and confidence, had come to my rescue, in handling that delicate, and sensitive, situation. Throughout that trip, our party was carrying a big wooden box, containing gifts, meant for various important personages, whom the VP would meet, during the visit to various countries. After the official trip to Canada had concluded, we made a halt, in Boston city, for a night, before proceeding to Tokyo.
When we arrived in Tokyo, however, I noticed that the box was missing. The VP was due to meet the Crown Prince of Japan the next morning and, in that box, was an important gift, to be presented during that meeting. I was extremely upset, and asked the Embassy officials, in Tokyo, for help. Following their suggestion, I got in touch with the mission in San Francisco which, with the efficiency so characteristic of the Indian Foreign Service, arranged for the box to be delivered, in Tokyo, well in time for the meeting. Saved, literally, by the skin of my teeth!
In addition to being the head of the VP’s secretariat, my duties entailed accompanying the VP whenever he so desired. One ground rule I had laid down, with the VP’s approval, was that, unlike his personal staff, I only would go, to places, where I had also been invited separately. Among the important commitments, which the VP was required to keep, was that of attending, as the Chief Guest, functions organized by the Embassies of various countries, for the celebration of their national days.
It was on one such visit, to the Embassy of the (then USSR), on October 7, the occasion of the Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution, that a very interesting incident took place, which brought out the devastating sense of humour, and the gift for timing, which Hidayatullah possessed. As was customary on such occasions, the national anthems of both countries were played, first that of India and then that of the host country. It was still the era of gramophone records, and the stylus of the recorder got stuck.
The Ambassador, who was, subsequently, to go on to become a Vice Prime Minister of that country, was red in the face with embarrassment. The glitch was soon set right and, the formalities duly completed. As, we were all walking to the place where arrangements had been made for us to be seated, Hidayatullah narrated a story to Ambassador by way of consolation, which went thus. A guide was taking a tourist party on a conducted tour of Hell. The party found that there were two electric burners, in which sinners were being roasted, for their sins on earth. There was a long queue in front of one and the other one was hardly patronised. Rather surprised, one of the party members asked the guide why that was so. And the reply was, “That one is made in Russia. It breaks down frequently. And only a Russian mechanic can set it right. Therefore, it is more popular!” It was difficult to tell what had embarrassed the Ambassador more, the incident, or the consolation offered!
(The writer is formerly