Newly released UK Cabinet Office papers from 1984 and 1985 reveal the aggressive manner in which the government of Margaret Thatcher lobbied India over the sale of 27 Westland 30 helicopters, overtly linking the continued provision of aid to the deal going ahead.

The amount of time spent and the careful strategising by the UK government, including by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself, on how to get the deals – agreed under the Indira Gandhi government but subsequently the subject of delays after Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister – were revealed in the files released by Britain’s National Archives this week.

Hundreds of pages of documents reveal the way in which British diplomats and senior government officials discussed how UK aid to India – which in 1985-86 was to have been 115 million pounds – would be impacted by the failure to sign the Westland deal, and instead chose a deal with the French.

Thatchers missives Writing to Rajiv Gandhi in March 1985, Thatcher makes a clear link between the two issues. In a letter dated March 22, she points to the aid package, 45 million pounds of which was earmarked for the Westland deal, agreed after “careful consideration”.

“We would be faced with very considerable political and practical difficulties if the Westland project were not concluded. I do hope that we can stand by what was agreed,” she wrote.

In one letter, of May 1985, then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe talked about docking 25 million pounds off the aid budget to India that year and to “not necessarily reinstate it” the following year.

To ensure that political and economic relations would not be jeopardised, it would have to be made clear that the retrenchment of aid, if it took place, was the “inevitable” result of India’s own actions. 45 million pounds of the UK aid for India that year had been allocated for helicopter programmes. Aid could instead be refocused on other nations such as Indonesia or China, it was suggested.

Correspondence involving Howe, Thatcher, then High Commissioner to India Robert Wade-Gery, and others reveals the gradual shift, from the UK perspective at least, in Rajiv Gandhi’s eagerness for the deal, agreed under his mother’s government.

At Indira’s funeral At one point there was even a discussion over whether the issue of the Westland deal should be discussed when Thatcher attended Indira Gandhi’s funeral in November 1985. During a meeting between Thatcher and himself in Moscow in March 1985, Gandhi appeared to brush aside concerns about the future of the deal, putting them down to issues raised by “technical chaps”.

British frustration However, over time it became clear that Britain was concerned about the deep interest that Gandhi was taking in the technical details of the deal. According to one communiqué from the New Delhi High Commission, Gandhi considered the Indian Air Force’s evaluation of the helicopters “sloppy” and was deeply concerned about some technical aspects, including the number of people it could carry at high temperatures.

Men behind the scenes The documents also provide an insight into the role of key political figures, including Arun Nehru, who was referred to as a “useful intermediary” in the discussions. Former Defence Secretary SK Bhatnagar also figures in the British correspondence, who the High Commissioner said had made it clear that he “personally wanted” to get the deal through.

India eventually bought 21 Westland helicopters from Britain in 1987 in a 65 million pound deal, but withdrew them from service in 1991 amid safety concerns after two crashes in 1988 and 1989 that killed over 10 people. They were sold in 1993 for less than a million pounds.

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