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The man Indira trusted

Print edition : Oct 12, 2018 T+T-
NEW DELHI, 1973: Indira Gandhi with Pakistani diplomat Aziz Ahmed (left) and (from right to left) P.N. Haksar, Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh and P.N. Dhar, at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library.

NEW DELHI, 1973: Indira Gandhi with Pakistani diplomat Aziz Ahmed (left) and (from right to left) P.N. Haksar, Foreign Secretary Kewal Singh and P.N. Dhar, at the Nehru Memorial Museum Library.

Simla, June 28, 1972: Indira Gandhi welcoming Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the talks before the signing of the Simla Agreement. Also present is Bhutto’s daughter Benazir.

Simla, June 28, 1972: Indira Gandhi welcoming Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for the talks before the signing of the Simla Agreement. Also present is Bhutto’s daughter Benazir.

A biography of the diplomat P.N. Haksar, better known as Indira Gandhi’s friend, philosopher and guide, this book is a singular contribution to understanding contemporary Indian political history.

T HIS book is easily one of the best that I have read and reviewed recently. The scintillating style, the Teutonic thoroughness of research, the commendable ability of the author to see and explain the big picture, and his keenness to explain matters keeping in mind young readers who might need to be told of the context in some detail set this book apart.

Let us start with the style. Writing about the diplomats P.N. Haksar and G. Parthasarathi, the author contrasts them: “The two were poles apart in temperament: Haksar was voluble, Parthasarathi was taciturn. Haksar reduced everything to writing, Parthasarathi preferred oral conversations. Haksar appeared wise when he spoke, Parthasarathi appeared sagacious even when he remained silent. Haksar was the quintessential intellectual, preferring a life of books, Parthasarathi had also played Ranji Trophy cricket. But both had been rebels in their personal lives when it was not the norm to be so, with Haksar marrying his cousin and Parthasarathi marrying a Parsi. Both had been part of Indira Gandhi’s inner circle with Haksar wielding power and Parthasarathi commanding influence.”

The chapterisation is commendable. The first chapter, titled “The Katni Kashmiri”, narrates Haksar’s lineage, and we learn that one of his forebears from his mother’s side, Raja Din Nath, played a crucial role in the creation of the kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir. Raja Din Nath was Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Finance Minister and signed the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar that gave birth to the kingdom. On his father’s side, Haksar’s ancestry can be traced to Swaroop Narain Haksar, who was the Dewan of Bundelkhand of the Central India Agency in the mid 19th century.

Haksar started his formal schooling at 13. Until then he was taught Hindi, Urdu and Sanskrit. He graduated from the municipal high school in Karni in what is now Madhya Pradesh in 1929, with distinction in Sanskrit. In 1987, when he went to China to defreeze the bilateral relations, Ambassador C.V. Ranganathan recalls that Haksar recited verses from Kalidasa’s Meghaduta at a dinner. Haksar could recite from Shakespeare, too, with equal ease.

Before every chapter, there is a paragraph telling us what to expect. Although the title is Intertwined Lives , the book is a fairly detailed biography of Haksar. We see him getting “radicalised” while studying at Allahabad University (1929-35) and getting even more “radicalised” in London (1935-42). The third chapter is appropriately titled “Student Molotov”: it was in London that Haksar came under the spell of V.K. Krishna Menon and made friends with Feroze and Indira Gandhi. Haksar embraced Marxism with boundless enthusiasm. On his return from London, where he studied anthropology and law, Haksar spent about a year in Nagpur as a full-time office-bearer of the undivided Communist Party of India. He then moved to Allahabad and practised at the Allahabad High Court for four years before joining the newly created Indian Foreign Service in 1947.

When Haksar was Deputy High Commissioner in London (1965-67), Indira Gandhi, who took over as Prime Minister in January 1966, wrote to him asking him to keep an eye on her sons, Rajiv and Sanjay, then in England. Haksar succeeded in building up a cordial rapport with Rajiv Gandhi but not with Sanjay Gandhi, who was undergoing training at Rolls Royce and was unhappy; he wanted to return to India and start something of his own. Haksar advised him to complete his training. Sanjay Gandhi disliked both the advice and the adviser, a dislike that would lead, years later, to Haksar’s decision to resign from his job as Principal Secretary as Sanjay Gandhi’s star rose in the political firmament of pre-Emergency India.

Haksar’s ‘imprimatur’

Haksar took over as Secretary to Prime Minister in 1967 and left office in January 1973. The author devotes 210 pages to this chapter, felicitously titled “A Prime Minister’s Alter Ego (1967-1972)”, the most interesting part of the book.

When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent greetings to North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh on his 77th birthday (May 14, 1967), United States Ambassador Chester Bowles lodged a formal protest with the Ministry of External Affairs. When Bowles met Haksar, the latter stood his ground, firm but inoffensive, a characteristic pose of this superb diplomat.

Haksar was deeply involved with policymaking in the Congress party. Between June 1967 and January 1973, no important resolution was adopted by the Congress without his “imprimatur”.

In July 1968, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) decided to sell arms to Pakistan. Naturally, India was upset and Indira Gandhi wrote to Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin expressing India’s protest. Both the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party used the occasion to mount a scathing attack on Indira Gandhi’s foreign policy. On Haksar’s advice, Indira Gandhi invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a discussion. We are not told whether they met or how the meeting turned out, if they did. All that we can say is that if they met, neither knew that it was a meeting between the incumbent Prime Minister and a future one.

At times, Haksar moderated the overreaction of the Ministry of External Affairs. When the USSR published maps that inaccurately showed the boundary between India and China, the Ministry prepared a note verbale. Haksar, with the Prime Minister’s approval, replaced the words “hereby register their protest” with “once again draws attention”. When the Soviet Union led Warsaw Pact troops in the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Haksar carefully avoided “condemning” it in the Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament. He wanted to do his utmost to avoid friction with Moscow, taking into account India’s larger interests.

On June 17, 1967, China exploded its first hydrogen bomb. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), as jointly drafted by the two superpowers, was coming up before the United Nations for adoption in April 1968. Haksar’s position, as reflected in the instructions to the Indian delegation, specified that while opposing the treaty, India should not do anything to delay its adoption. However, by 1970, Haksar and Indira Gandhi had come to the conclusion that India should keep open its options about the bomb. A decision was taken to set up nuclear power plants even if they were financially unviable as the country needed enriched fuel.

The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) was set up in 1968. Acting on its founder Rameshwar Nath Kao’s complaint, Haksar saw to it that he (Kao) had full powers. When former director of the Intelligence Bureau, B.N. Mullick, published a book titled The Chinese Betrayal after his retirement, the Home Minister wanted to prosecute him for violating the Official Secrets Act. Haksar agreed that there was a case for prosecution but advised against it as in any trial the government would look foolish, having provided the author all the facilities by way of house and telephone to write the book. The Prime Minister concurred.

Differences with Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi did not always follow Haksar’s advice. Despite Haksar’s strong opposition, Sanjay Gandhi was given a licence in 1970 to make passenger cars. Haksar preferred to use the scarce industrial resources for a mass rapid transport system. Readers in Delhi and other metro cities who daily negotiate traffic jams can come to their own conclusions as to whether Haksar was right or not.

Another policy matter where Haksar did not have his way was about taxing agricultural income. Although he had a case from a purely economic point of view, the Prime Minister saw the political risks which he failed to notice.

Even Haksar could lose his sense of proportion. He wanted G. Parthasarathi to be appointed as the first Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. There was much opposition from Education Minister V.K.R.V. Rao, who wanted an academic as Vice Chancellor. A number of eminent persons who were approached, including the astrophysicist S. Chandra, retired Chief Justice P.B. Gajendragadkar, Dr S. Gopal and Professor P.N. Dhar, declined. Rao maintained his opposition even after the Prime Minister proposed the name of Parthasarathi.

Haksar put up a note saying that if the Prime Minister herself spoke, Rao might relent. The note ended by suggesting that if the Prime Minister did not wish to speak, then in order to respect the “commitment” to Parthasarathi, Haksar would be glad to resign so that Parthasarathi could replace him. Indira Gandhi was not amused. She noted with some acerbity: “Secretary evidently enjoys writing these notes. He may like to write such things but I am not amused. The suggestion at the end cannot be taken seriously nor is it amusing.” She spoke to Rao the next day, and Parthasarathi was appointed.

The author’s narration, based on documents, combined with his ability to connect the dots, does correct some incorrect popular impressions. We shall mention only one or two.

First, there is an impression that the Soviet Union had proposed a treaty a long time ago and India had kept it in the freezer; and that only when the tension with Pakistan escalated over the atrocities committed in East Pakistan and there was a clear sign that Pakistan, China and the U.S. were ganged up against India, did Indira Gandhi decide to take the file out of the freezer and sign the treaty (Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation) in August 1971.

As a matter of fact, Indira Gandhi told the visiting Soviet Premier, Alexei Kosygin, on May 6, 1969, that India wanted to sign such a treaty. It was decided that in view of the allergy entertained by some influential sections in India, it would be better to conduct the negotiations in Moscow. However, the Ministry of External Affairs wanted to go slow and instructed Ambassador D.P. Dhar to continue talking “without any finality”.

In effect, Dhar was to listen and not react. Dhar shared his frustration with Haksar, who told Indira Gandhi that the Ministry’s instructions did not make sense. Haksar put it in his inimitable style: “The Ambassador has done tight rope-walking with great finesse. However, he will soon topple over, unless he is steadied by some clear instructions so as to how he should proceed and the extent to which he can respond concretely and constructively.” The Prime Minister agreed but still wanted more time before signing the treaty. The author speculates that she might have been hoping for improvement in relations with the U.S.

Within days of Indira Gandhi’s spectacular electoral victory in March 1971, Pakistan began a military crackdown in the east. India started training Bangladeshi freedom fighters. The decision to speed up the signing of the treaty with the Soviet Union was taken only after and perhaps because of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s path-breaking visit to China in July 1971. It was signed the next month.

On September 4, 1971, Haksar turned 58 and retired. There was some understanding that he might be re-employed. While he was in Paris, enjoying a well-deserved holiday, Indira Gandhi had it conveyed to him that she wanted him to join her in her forthcoming visits to important Western capitals, including Washington, in the context of the Bangladesh crisis. Haksar agreed and joined her in Vienna, from where she went to Washington. He also arranged for a medical check-up for her in Vienna. This reviewer, then the First Secretary in Vienna, had seen the diagnosis by the famous Dr Karl Fellinger mentioning high blood pressure as a matter of concern.

P.N. Dhar, who replaced Haksar, found the task of filling his shoes too overwhelming, and soon it was found necessary to bring Haksar back. It was Moni Malhoutra, Deputy Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, who coined the term “Principal Secretary to PM”, with Haksar occupying that position and Dhar continuing as Secretary.

The second wrong popular impression is that Indira Gandhi asked the Army chief General Sam Manekshaw to prepare for military intervention in East Pakistan and that he told her that he needed more time. The story came from Manekshaw. The author has found no documentary evidence of such a conversation between the Army chief and the Prime Minister.

The key question is, What would Indira Gandhi have done if Pakistan had not unwittingly helped her by attacking India on December 3, 1971? This is a contrafactual question that is difficult to answer. But the fact remains that Indira Gandhi, on Haksar’s advice, had taken into account the potential need to intervene militarily in the east and acted on it months before the event.

Simla Accord

The reader, who admires the author’s Teutonic thoroughness in giving a holistic and in-depth account of major events, gets a slight shock when it comes to the 1972 Simla Accord. We are given a detailed account of the origins of the accord, starting with the diplomatic pressure from Moscow, reinforced by similar pressure from London.

President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan was behind it as he told the USSR that he would approach the Security Council. In any case, the decision to invite Bhutto was a sound one. The key question is what happened in Simla and why.

It was the Indian side that proposed the use of the phrase “a final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir”. It is rather puzzling why Haksar agreed to it. To balance the account, we need to mention three points not mentioned in the book.

One, Piloo Modi, a friend of Bhutto, was in Simla with his wife Vina, and Modi had advised Bhutto to seek a one-to-one meeting with Indira Gandhi in case of a deadlock. Bhutto followed the advice and was able to get concessions from Indira Gandhi.

Two, P.N. Dhar, with the advantage of hindsight, concluded that India was outwitted in Simla. In 1975, the Pakistani diplomat Aziz Ahmed and P.N. Dhar were flying back from a conference in Paris. Dhar complimented Aziz Ahmed on the diplomatic skills he displayed in Paris and Simla. “At the mention of Simla,” Dhar writes, “his expression suddenly changed. With an undisguised sneer that distorted his face, he said it was not Pakistan’s skills but India’s strong desire for positive results that had made the summit a success. I would have taken this for a compliment but for the sarcasm in his tone, which made a strong impression on my mind at the time.”

Three, Bhutto had agreed with Indira Gandhi that he would agree to eventually convert the ceasefire line of December 17, 1971, but he could not include it in the agreement because of the political risks in Pakistan.

The fact of the matter is that he had no intention of doing so and had successfully cheated his interlocutor. In short, Indira Gandhi, who acted as the granddaughter of Chanakya in the 1971 war, ceased to be that in Simla.

“Cleopatra’s nose,” the 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote, “had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” Had there been no Haksar, it can be reasonably argued that the course of India’s history would have been different. Indira Gandhi would not have achieved all that she did without this true “friend, philosopher, and guide”.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral, his wife, Sonia Gandhi, was asked to choose the successor. She consulted Haksar, who suggested Vice President Shankar Dayal Sharma, who declined. Then Haksar suggested P.V. Narasimha Rao, who agreed with some alacrity.

Haksar can be said to have influenced the career of another Prime Minister as well. Dr Manmohan Singh was appointed Secretary (Economic Affairs) in 1972 on Haksar’s advice. A pre-Haksar Indira Gandhi chose to devalue the rupee. A post-Haksar Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star. Both were wrong decisions. Suppose he had been there?

“The history of the world,” Thomas Carlyle wrote, “is but the biography of great men.” The reader will agree. This book is a singular contribution to understanding contemporary history and will be of keen interest not only to scholars but also to the general public. The young should read it.

K.P. Fabian is the author of Diplomacy: Indian Style.