"It's essentially the same thing that happened in Germany," the European diplomat recalled. "When the war began, you couldn't find a German who wasn't a Nazi. And when it ended, you couldn't find one who was."
This, he suggested, is what happened in India when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of internal emergency in June 1975 and arrested more than 120,000 of her political opponents. Most Indians seemed to consider the drastic step a good thing.
Now that Gandhi and her Congress Party, which ruled the country without a break since independence in 1947, have been expelled, it is hard to find Indians who admit that they favored the emergency.
Indeed, the vocal minority who form public opinion, and for the most part held their tongues for 20 months, are now busy competing with each other to condemn the former prime minister - and even more so, to vilify her younger son, Sanjay.
Sanjay Gandhi, 30, clearly has become the most despised figure to emerge from the 20 months of repression. His passport and pilot's license have been seized and warrants for his arrest have been issued, although he had been granted bail in advance.
He's being confronted, in official dossiers and in public print, with a growing charge sheet of crimes and excesses: Masterminding the sweeping compulsory sterilization program; ordering torture, and even execution, of thousands of political prisoners, and extorting millions of dollars through political influence and business pressure. There are lesser charges, too, like seizing the controls of a crowded domestic airliner, against the objections of the pilot.
While people seem content to use Sanjay as a whipping boy, many are prepared to excuse his mother.
Sanjay is an easy target. he has a reputation going back to boyhood as a hothead. Stories of his teen-age escapades are being dredged up to provide background for his more recent behavior.
His mother presents a more elusive case. Many adults in India today are unwilling or unable to bridge the gaps in their own perceptions of Indira Gandhi, the daughter of the national hero, Jawaharlal Nehru; Indira Gandhi, the heroine of Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi, the dictator.
"Mainly because of who she was, we didn't really have a total dictatorship during the emergency," said A. G. Noorani, a respected Bombay attorney and writer. "We had a rather broad gray zone. There was some small space left for criticism in Parliament and the press. She is, after all, a product of the Nehrus. But Sanjay is not. He couldn't care less about democratic norms."
A rare view is that of Kushwant Singh, editor of Bombay's mass circulation Illustrated Weekly magazine. Singh, probably the journalist closest to Gandhi and her family throughout the emergency, continues to stand by them.
"I always opposed press censorship," Singh said at his crowded office the other day. "But I believe that compulsory sterilization was a good thing and that the stories of excesses have been grossly exaggerated. The same thing with slum clearance. These are thankless jobs, but they must be done and I don't think there's any other way to do it than Sanjay's."
In six weeks of traveling in India, Singh was one of the handful of people I found who were willing to admit they still supported Sanjay Gandhi. Those few who did have found that they have been ostracized by friends and, on occasion, by family.
The most widely held view was that expressed by a villager near the arid border of Rajasthan and Haryana states. "The mother should be left alone, as long as she goes back to her home and stays out of politics," he said. "But Sanjay must be punished."
This sums up Prime Minister Morarji Desai's publicly stated policy, too. Speaking in London recently. Desai said, "The mother does not seem to have made any specific offense. Therefore there is no question of an inquiry. The son has been charged with specific offenses. In the course of [an investigation] if the mother is involved, I will not be able to help."
A public sentiment that is rapidly growing, however, is that Desai and his senior Cabinet colleagues will do all they can to help. There is a widely held belief that Gandhi, during her decade in power, built a storehouse of supportable allegations against most of her opponents, as well as her own supporters.
This information, if Gandhi were to release it to protect herself or her son, would be particularly damaging to Desai's defense minister, Jagjivan Ram. Ram, leader of India's huge outcaste Untouchable community, had been a Cabinet minister under Gandhi and Hehru for 30 years and is considered vulnerable on a number of levels.
Some younger members of Desai's government are adamant about the need to prosecute Sanjay and his mother.
"Both are criminals," Communications Minister George Fernandes said in a recent interview. "It is not the position of this government that either be spared. And the people wouldn't accept such a thing."
Fernandes and his family suffered more than most of Gandhi's political opponents. He became an enemy in 1974, when he led railway workers in a long and bitter strike that she ultimately broke. This put him in a different class than the politicians who, in India, tend to be treated far better than any other type of detainees.
When the emergency was imposed, Fernandes went underground and evaded detection for more than a year by constantly changing hidouts and disguises. Then police arrested his brother, Lawrence, and tried to torture him into revealing where George was.
According to Lawrence's account in the weekly magazine India Today, "After I repeatedly told them that I had no idea of his whereabouts, they subjected me to the most inhuman-torture imaginable." Accounts like this about hundreds of others are now emerging in the Indian press.
Although George Fernandes did not allege that his brother's torture was ordered by Sanjay Gandhi, many Indians believe that torture in general, which allegedly grew to vast proportions during the emergency, was carried out under Sanjay's instructions and had at least the knowledge, if not the tacit approval, of his mother.
Accounts of alleged torture have come as a great shock to many Indians.
"The Indian intellectual has always discussed torture in terms of Nazism and the Gulag Archipelago," India Today said in its cover story.
But, the article continued, the torture that was practiced during the emergency was "of a kind that would make the Nazi interrogators lick their lips in approval. And the methods used were within the full knowledge of a "sovereign democratic government which had pledged itself to the dignity of the individual."
The torture issue is just the most sensational of a whole range of public charges piling up in dossiers on the desks of investigative agencies. Most of the charges against Sanjay Gandhi concern corrupt business practices and influence peddling.
Justice D. S. Mathur, a retired high court judge, has been appointed a one-man commission to probe charges against Sanjay's three major business concerns. These allegations cover a controversial car-building project and attempts to force several government agencies to purchase road rollers, light aircraft and trucks for which Sanjay's companies were acting as agents.
At least two of the foreign companies with which Sanjay and his associates were dealing were American - Piper Cub and International harvester. Sales were completed on behalf of either company, mainly because the election came before deals were completed, but several sales being negotiated would allegedly have netted enormous profits for Sanjay's companies.
Questions of the propriety of U.S. and other Western business dealing with Gandhi, whose power and authority were based entirely on his mother's position, are going the rounds of New Delhi these days. A number of Indians say they feel that the Western companies are at least as guilty of misbehavior as was Sanjay.
A U.S. source said the State Department and the Commerce Department played no role other than putting the two sides in contact with each other, "as is normal commercial practice."
A West European diplomatic source said that "any moral question" over dealing with Sanjay "quickly evaporated when it seemed clear that the government had popular supprot and was here to stay."
Another European diplomat said that "Sanjay and his boys quickly became more important in business channels" than various ministries and government departments.
"So, our embassy and just about every embassy in town had to steer its business people to Sanjay. Now that these freakish elections have turned out this way. I suppose our dealing with him does look a bit shady. But it didn't at the time."
The controversies generated by the emergency will doubtless wrack India for the next decade. If the Desai government goes ahead with the thorough investigations it has promised, some lawyers believe the trials would take years to complete and would involve not just Indira and Sanjay Gandhi, but many other prominent figures in government and business.
Meanwhile, some of the major Indian Publishing houses say they are backed up with advance commitments on books recounting myriad facets of the emergency. This flood of information is sure to keep such issues alive, no matter which way the government moves.