The month of January 1985 turned out to be momentous. PC Alexander, principal secretary to PM Rajiv Gandhi, was out; the French ambassador was being withdrawn at our request; diplomats from Soviet, Poland and German Democratic Republic embassies were expelled. And all this was a fallout of a spy network that was cracked. It was functioning right from the absolute nerve centre of the Indian government – Principal Secretary Alexander’s office itself! His entire personal staff was involved – private secretary NT Kher, personal assistant (PA) Malhotra, the clerk, even the peon. On the night of 16-17 January, the counterintelligence arrested Kher and, by morning, the others were nabbed. They were passing on the most sensitive documents to foreign governments through an Indian businessman named Coomar Narain, who was himself a PA once.

All the ramifications were still not clear, for they were still being explored. The key man was the deputy military attaché of the French embassy named Bolley. He had been thrown out, of course. Alexander resigned, accepting moral responsibility for the security lapse in his office. I saw him at about 2.30 pm the same day the case was cracked; I obviously had no clue by then. I asked him something and he said he would check with the PM. Had he not submitted his resignation by that time? Possibly not.

Sharada told me about the espionage scandal at 4.00 pm, adding that Alexander was under great pressure. We realised the enormity of the situation. Vincent George, who had replaced Dhawan in the front office, called me the following day in the morning and said that the PM would meet us all at 10.30 am to talk about what had happened the previous day. The PM had made short statements in both Houses without naming anyone, confining himself to saying that some officers had been functioning against the interests of the country and had been arrested.

In the meeting with the PM, Alexander was naturally not present. The PM said, “We are without a principal secretary now.” He tried to sound calm, but it was clear that he was stressed. We discussed how to run the work of the office and how to tighten up security. In the afternoon, Sharada asked him about what should be told to the press. The PM asked whether the press could be fobbed off for some time, but Sharada said that doing so would be difficult. The PM said that he had accepted Alexander’s resignation, so he can tell them so. Sharada asked, “Can we say “accepted regretfully”?’ Both he and I pressed for “accepted with regret””. The PM agreed.

The investigations led to the arrest of the PAs in the president’s secretariat, finance ministry, defence ministry and commerce ministry. It seemed that all of them had a weakness for the bottle. They had sold secrets for a bottle of scotch and for ludicrously low sums. The businessman Coomar had organised parties for them at his farm and made copies of the documents at his Hailey Road office. No senior officer was arrested.

The French connection received the maximum publicity. A cable was sent to Narendra Singh, our ambassador in Paris, instructing him to call on the French foreign minister to ask for the French ambassador’s recall and to reduce the size of the French embassy to the size of our embassy in Paris. Narendra sent back a cable, not objecting to the substance but suggesting a redraft. Polish, Czech and German Democratic Republic embassies were also involved. Parthasarathi wondered what to do. The Polish PM was due for an official visit on February 11. Should we call it off? Should we ask for the recall of these three ambassadors, too? It was a very embarrassing situation for us. That was the first day of Bhandari as the foreign secretary. Parthasarathi, Bhandari and I went to the PM’s house. He showed a lot of cool. We had acted precipitately in asking for the recall of the French ambassador, he said.

The PM decided to ask for an emergency meeting of the CCPA. Hari Anand Bhandari, director, IB, was also summoned. The PM announced the decision: We ask the three embassies to send back the offending staff. Ought we to go further? His instinct was we should be even handed. Parthasarathi asked whether there was any way in which we could make a distinction between the crimes of the French and others.

PV was clear, “We cannot afford to throw out the Soviets, we have to treat them differently. We have too much at stake with them.” He said we would have to give out an official version soon, but our interests with the Soviets were far too serious for us to take a hasty action against them. The PM saw the wisdom in PV’s advice and that was that. Bhandari was asked to tell the three ambassadors to send back their offending staff.

Later, the PM said that we had dealt too harshly with the French. Bhandari told the PM he would try to retrieve the situation. I suggested that one thing we could do was to give an immediate agreement to the new French ambassador. The PM agreed. Bhandari suggested that we could ask the French to send a special emissary to talk things over. The PM agreed to that. We had thought that the expulsion of the staff of the three embassies would be a quiet affair. But two days after the CCPA meeting, GK Reddy of The Hindu broke the story. Two days later, the Delhi newspapers got it from the confessional of one of the arrested officials. It was supposed to be an in-camera confession, so we were all concerned about the leak. Later, Sharada found the answer to the source of the leak. The magistrate was pounced upon by the media – AP, Reuters, AFP, The Times, and others. He was so overwhelmed that he blurted out the whole story.

PV was most concerned with the whole thing, especially about the Soviet connection. He told Bhandari, “I can’t tell you how important and crucial were the negotiations that we were having with the Soviets. Why did the PM not consult me before taking the action against the French? He consults me on all kinds of petty things.”

We asked IB director whether there was any difference between the guilt of the French and the others. Barari turned out to be of no help. He said the socialists also got everything. Were the Americans involved at all? Again, we drew a blank. I found it hard to believe that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) missed out on the action.

On January 22, 1985, French President François Mitterrand’s brother came to Delhi. It was essentially a gesture to say, “We are sorry”, though, of course, these words were not used. Mitterand was bowled over by the PM’s straightforwardness. He assured the PM that what had happened was behind us and would not be allowed to come in the way of the friendship between the two countries.

The case against all the 13 accused dragged on for 17 years. They were found guilty of passing on state secrets to foreign agents. They were all government servants, including four from the PMO and four from the Ministry of Defence. They were sentenced to ten years in prison. Coomar Narain, the chief accused, had died of natural causes by then.

Excerpted with permission from Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council, Chinmaya R Gharekhan, Rupa Publications.