A "half dead" PM finds new friends

Observations on India

When I was first posted to India by the Financial Times in 1983, it was only a few years after Indira Gandhi's 1975-77 state of emergency, when Mark Tully of the BBC was thrown out of the country - along with one or two other foreign reporters - and Indian journalists were jailed. Not surprisingly, the FT told me, only half joking: "You might not actually be away long, because Mrs Gandhi might take against you and throw you out, too."

But nothing serious happened then, or since, to me or any other foreign journalist - until last week. The Indian government veered sharply back to the mood of those days in a series of events that illustrates the tensions and contradictions of modern India.

Two weeks ago, Alex Perry, a British journalist who is Time magazine's new Delhi-based South Asia correspondent, wrote a critical cover story on India's 77-year-old prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Perry portrayed him as a whisky-imbibing, overeating "frail bachelor", with two replaced knees and defects in his liver, bladder and a kidney.

Vajpayee "seemed shaky and lost". He had looked "half dead" at a diplomatic meeting, had "trouble understanding questions", and was "very alert when he is functional . . . but there are very few hours like that". In the context of India's recent confrontation with Pakistan, such an "enfeebled" man was "an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal". Time's punchline was that Vajpayee was "spending the twilight of his political life where he wants to be - out to lunch".

The Indian government went ballistic - even though virtually everything in the article had been trotted out in the Indian media for months and could easily be heard on the diplomatic circuit. The article hurt because it undermined the international image of a man who is widely regarded in India, despite his obvious ailments, as an astute and sound politician. It also revealed tensions within the BJP government.

Perry was pilloried in the Indian press and was hauled in by a potentially nasty foreign registration office, to be told that he had committed "grave violations" of immigration rules, partly to do with an allegedly undeclared appendix to his over-full British passport. Officials said he could be expelled or arrested. Orders for this tough line apparently came from Vajpayee's office, but were energetically implemented by the home ministry, presumably to show the loyalty of Lal Krishna Advani, the hardline home minister dubbed by Perry as "prime minister-in-waiting".

But the crisis suddenly evaporated, after leading ministers realised that the fuss was harming both India and Vajpayee, internationally. The Indian media became more even-handed at the weekend and, on 24 June, Perry was told he was free.

Then an even more curious development. Time (along with the Financial Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal and others) have been pressing the government for at least 15 years to allow foreign direct investment in the Indian print media. The lobby has been gaining ground in recent months. And on 25 June, the cabinet - after hearing arguments that the foreign media are usually more responsible than the unruly domestic media - decided to give way.

And just to show that we're all friends again, the foreign ministry's spokesperson was at the same time inviting foreign correspondents and their partners to a dinner in one of Delhi's five-star hotels.