The Commonwealth Heads of State and Government was held in New Delhi in November 1983. The Prime Minister appointed me Chief Coordinator.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, as Head of Commonwealth came to New Delhi for the occasion. She and her husband, Prince Philip stayed at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
The first item on the agenda was to select a new Secretary General to succeed Sonny Ramphal, who completed his five-year term. Mrs Gandhi wanted Ramphal to get another term. Mrs Thatcher did not. Indiraji was the Chairman. She got Ramphal his second term.
Outside the Summit, a mini crisis was averted. As far as I remember, it was the second day. Mrs Gandhi asked me to quietly enquire from Rashtrapati Bhavan if the Queen was holding an “Investiture” at Rashtrapati Bhavan for giving Mother Teresa the Order of Merit. The Rashtrapati Bhavan confirmed what the Prime Minister had heard. Invitations for the “Investiture” had apparently been issued, that too on “Buckingham Palace” stationery, without consulting the Secretary or the Military Secretary to President Giani Zail Singh.
I conveyed this to Mrs Gandhi, who did not like what she heard. In the meanwhile, H.N. Bahuguna, MP, had written to the Prime Minister, saying that he had from his own source gathered that the Queen was to hold an “Investiture” at R.B. for Mother Teresa. He hoped that what he heard was incorrect. Only the President of India could hold an “Investiture” at R.B. If the Queen was to go ahead with the “Investiture” then he and other Opposition leaders would be compelled to raise the matter in the Lok Sabha.
It was quite evident that Bahuguna was right and the British, had, in good faith, erred. That error had to be rectified. It fell to my lot as Chief Coordinator of CHOGM to sort this quite unprecedented and spectacular protocol cock-up.
Mrs Gandhi asked me to get in touch with Mrs Thatcher and get back to her. The British High Commissioner was an accomplished and skilful diplomat. I asked him to convey to Mrs Thatcher and Her Majesty the Queen that the proposed “Investiture” could not be arranged at R.B. It could be held either at the UK High Commission or the residence of the High Commissioner. I added that we held the Queen in high esteem and Mother Teresa was a very special person. At the same time, we could not countenance and were surprised that we had not been consulted.
Within two hours he rang back to say that his Prime Minister felt it was too late to change the venue. Invitations had been sent and above all the Queen would be inconvenienced. The UK press too were aware of the “Investiture”. This was bad news. I told the High Commissioner that I would pass on Mrs Thatcher’s response to Mrs Gandhi, but I wanted to make it clear that my recommendation to Mrs Gandhi would be that we could not agree to a formal “Investiture” at Rashtrapati Bhavan.
Here was high-grade protocol dynamite. The dramatis personae consisted of four world famous ladies. Two powerful Prime Ministers, One Queen and the fourth something more than a Saint. What if the Indian press got hold of the story. What a diplomatic bonfire that would light!
I reported to Mrs Gandhi what her British counterpart had said. A fleeting irritation, a moment’s pause and then a masterly diplomatic googly. “Natwar, go back to Mrs Thatcher and tell her from me that the Queen can have the ‘Investiture’ at Rashtrapati Bhavan. But leave her in no doubt about the matter being raised in Parliament the next day. Critical references would be made and the Queen’s name would be dragged in. it was only fair the Queen be made aware of this.”
It really was a brilliant riposte. No “Investiture” was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The Queen invited Mother Teresa to tea in the garden where she handed the O.M to the Nobel Laureate, who was blissfully unaware of the diplomatic upheaval she had caused. The finale was entirely satisfying to me personally. Prime Minister Thatcher, in the concluding session, singled me out for praise. Before leaving India, the Queen received me. She could not have been more gracious; she even had a royal gift for me.
In the photo: Myself, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth.