India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 15 :: No. 26 :: Dec. 19, 1998 - Jan. 01, 1999


The last of the Nehruvians

P.N. Haksar embodied the best of the Nehruvian tradition coupled with the foresight of the institution-building bureaucrat.


PARAMESHWAR NARAIN HAKSAR, who died at age 85 on November 27, was perhaps the last survivor of the cadre of policy-planners, diplomatic strate- gists and administrators ass-ociated with Jawaharlal Nehru's early nation-building project. He died a disillusioned man, pained at the questioning of the main premises - democracy, secularism, socialism and non-alignment - of that project. Haksar was not just an individual, nor a powerful ex-bureaucrat. He was an institution. His life and career hold many lessons about India and the world, and about the strengths and weaknesses of the Nehruvian legacy.

Haksar was among an elite crop of well-educated youth who were personally inspired and influenced by Nehru. He switched from a promising career as a barrister at the Allahabad High Court to the foreign service, at Nehru's instance. Those were the heady days of non-alignment. Haksar played no mean role in crafting some of the details of India's foreign policy. Non-alignment was not an easy posture to adopt for a country then subject to the intense pressure of bloc rivalry, in particular pressure from the West under whose domination India's entire administration had been shaped for over a century. Non-alignment became viable only because of Nehru's distrust of free-market capitalism, a certain commitment to equality, an admiration for state planning, and, globally, the existence of the Soviet Union as a countervailing force to the Western bloc.

Non-alignment had a dual aspect: at the doctrinal level, it advocated autonomy from both East and West; at another level, it connoted the independent foreign policy of a newly liberated state in the vanguard of the decolonisation process, which sought to reform an unequal global order. India's foreign policy complemented the Nehruvian attempt to pursue a relatively autonomous path of development: "socialism" or a "mixed economy", combining private property and regulated capitalism, with a measure of distributive justice. This coherence was unique.

Haksar was schooled in policy-planning derived from this coherence within a milieu of institution-building based on the Nehruvian vision. In the first quarter-century following Indepen-dence, India gave birth to myriad institutions - in administration, science and technology, the arts, academics, trade, industry and agriculture. These institutions, some of the world's best, and most unmatched in the Third World, formed the powerhouse of nation-building. If India was to have state planning, it had to create not only its own Planning Commission, but also other institutions such as the Indian Statistical Institute (P.C. Mahalanobis' alma mater) and the Delhi School of Economics (V.K.R.V. Rao's creation, at one time truly outstanding), to service it. To achieve food self-sufficiency, India would build not only the Sindri fertilizer plant; it would also create the wherewithal to design, build and equip such factories.

It was not enough to allocate funds to new public sector companies; it was necessary to create a cadre of managers too. Industry promotion had to be accompanied by term-lending credit institutions, for example, the Industrial Development Bank of India, the Industrial Credit and Investment Corpo-ration of India (now ICICI), and so on. The planning was meticulously detailed to the point of creating windows to handle foreign currency loans to industry which, it was recognised, would need to import capital goods. In this institutional flowering figured the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the Indian Council of Medical Research; the five Indian Institutes of Technology; the Indian Institutes of Management; the chain of Councils of Social Science, Historical and Philosophical Research; the Sahitya, Lalit Kala and Sangeet Natak Akademis; and companies in fields as diverse as electronics, earth-moving equipment, railway construction, silicon chips and machine tools. Associated with them were pioneers and institution-builders, from Visvesvaraya to Lovraj Kumar, from S.S. Bhatnagar to H.T. Parekh, from D.S. Kothari to K.D. Malaviya. These were people with foresight. For instance, without Malaviya - and his remarkable understanding of the importance of hydrocarbons - the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (now Corporation) could not have come into being, Bombay High would not have happened, and India would have been devastated by the oil shocks of the 1970s.

FORESIGHT was crucial to Haksar's understanding of power, foreign policy and nation-building. He was acutely aware that a good section of the Indian establishment refused to acknowledge the need for holistic thinking and institutionalisation. Twenty years ago, he wrote: "There is... insufficient... coordination between the political elements of our foreign policy and the economic, commercial and security aspects... Our (Foreign) Ministry is particularly weak in institutionalising forward thinking... And, from time to time, one discerns display of egotism... which is not only fatal in diplomacy but is destructive of institutional arrangements. I have always felt that a group of earnest men working together are preferable to a genius... Lack of teamwork is our weakness. Our diplomacy, therefore, falls short of optimal results." ("India's Foreign Policy and its Problems", Patriot, 1989). Similar views are to be found in his Premonitions and his autobiographical One More Life.

Haksar won laurels not so much in the Foreign Office as in strategising the abolition of privy purses, the nationalisation of banks, insurance and foreign oil companies, the liberation of Bangladesh, the 1971 Indo-Soviet Treaty, and the Shimla accord with Pakistan. In the period 1967-73, he was Indira Gandhi's most important adviser. He understood, better than perhaps any of her other advisers, that a Left-leaning pro-poor orientation would be critical to her success. He also actively promoted a foreign policy stance critical of Western hegemonism.

Haksar never claimed credit for India's policy of supporting the Bangladesh liberation movement to the point of waging war with Pakistan. But he was its real architect. As he was of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of the Cabinet Secretariat, the Shimla accord, and many administrative arrangements and procedures. It is easy to understand the rationale of the Haksar strategy vis-a-vis Bangladesh: the West Pakistan establishment was incapable of accommodating East Pakistan's legitimate demand for equality and autonomy; the country had to split. It is not so easy to appreciate the logic of Haksar's advocacy of the Shimla accord after India had decisively trounced Pakistan in 1971. Haksar himself explained the rationale pithily:

"The most painful and difficult moment in our mutual relationship was reached in December 1971. Pakistan lay shattered. Several of its tehsils were under occupation of our army, resulting in displacement of nearly a million people; 93,000 prisoners of war were in our custody affecting several lakhs of families in Pakistan...'Negotiating from strength' has been made part of diplomatic coinage. But to negotiate with someone who is manifestly weak is even more difficult... The Simla negotiations were thus full of difficulties... If these... were successfully concluded it was due, in large measure, to the correctness of our approach to Pakistan as it emerged out of the trauma of its partition and to the overwhelming support which the country gave to that approach.

"What were the essential elements of that approach? First, a recognition that Pakistan continued to have an unresolved crisis of its national identity... Only a resumption of the interplay of political processes could possibly resolve the crisis and lead to Pakistan's normal political, economic, social and cultural evolution. India must not do anything which would impede this process... Secondly, the common people of Pakistan must know of India's interest in maintaining the integrity of Pakistan.

P.N. Haksar.

"Thirdly, India must not, under any circumstances, add to the stock of political capital of diverse elements in Pakistan's military, civilian establishments and among the motley combination of political adventurers who play upon Indophobia-mixed Islamic atavism... And finally, the moment of defeat must never be converted into a moment of humiliation."

It is rare to see this kind of insight among our present policymakers. (Indeed, the BJP's ideologues malign the Shimla agreement as a "betrayal".) Haksar had a refined understanding of foreign relations. He repudiated the thesis that strength derives from military force - an idea that is bandied about today as obvious wisdom in defence of Pokhran-II. In a lucid passage, Haksar debunks this: "The very concept of force as the basis of state policy has become a kind of fetish.... The West cannot think of dialogue unless it is based on force. President Reagan, for one, says: 'The only way to negotiate for peace is from a position of strength'..." But "it should be clear to anybody that negotiations 'from a position of strength' cannot by their very nature be constructive, since they are intended to impose one's will... on one's partner. They rule out the possibility of achieving mutually acceptable, balanced results." Such mature understanding and refined thinking is rare today.

Haksar was badly humiliated by Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency and shunted off to the Planning Commission from his powerful position as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Later he bowed out of office altogether. One may or may not approve of his reluctance to condemn Indira Gandhi: "I will not comment on (her)... She's no more. She's part of history. Historians will judge her by what she's done." But Haksar was extraordinarily dignified in the way he dealt with the dilemmas in whose creation he had himself played a part: for example, the overcentralisation of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), which led to its potential for authoritarian misuse, reliance on intelligence, which was proving less and less trustworthy, the failure of a number of institutions such as RAW to deliver.

In his later years, Haksar often acknowledged the limitations of his approach, indeed that of his generation of institution-builders. The approach was a top-down one, to which administrative instruments are central. It never took popular participation as necessary or vital to official programmes. It was gender-blind, insensitive to environmental considerations, and often uncomprehending of micro-level realities. Thus, its grand visions often ended up in unimplementable programmes.

Haksar bitterly complained 20 years ago: "Life demands constant renewal. And our country is crying for renewal - political, economic, cultural and spiritual. Without such a renewal, our diplomats... might be reduced to... seller(s) of anti-earthquake pills of Lisbon. This would be amusing but not edifying... in recent years, both the institution of the Foreign Office as well as the foreign service are being eroded. Wisdom would require halting and reversing the process." This never happened.

In his later years, Haksar did try to rethink the top-down approach. For instance, he associated himself with the Delhi Science Forum and initiatives on human rights, secularism, opposition to mindless neo-liberal policies. He also produced an excellent report on the functioning of the three cultural Akademis. This had an incisive analysis of their failures, frailties, and patronage-driven character, and made many thoughtful recommendations for reform. (Needless to say, these are yet to be implemented.)

Despite his limitations, Haksar remained a committed believer in democracy and the freedom of expression. It is well known that he criticised the suspension of fundamental rights during the Emergency. But few people know that he had to plead Satyajit Ray's case to Nehru. Ray's classic, Pather Panchali, was initially banned from being screened abroad. "My wife and I happened to see this film and we were both struck by its beauty. We felt it was the kind of film which should be entered at one of the international film festivals... I was informed that as the film showed India's poverty, it was not suitable for being entered in foreign film festivals. A great battle ensued to have the order banning the film removed." Haksar approached Nehru, who was furious: "What is wrong about showing India's poverty? Everyone knows that we are a poor country. The question is: are we Indians sensitive to our poverty or insensitive to it? Satyajit Ray has shown it with an extraordinary sense of beauty and sensitiveness."

Haksar's world was far from cheerful in the evening of his life. Indeed, it got dark after he lost his eyesight more than 10 years ago. And it became even darker after Hindu communalism's recrudescence, and increasing loss of the integrity and sense of purpose of the Indian state. It is no poetic justice that Haksar should have passed away just as Hindutva's ascendancy is giving way to decline after the comprehensive setback the Bharatiya Janata Party received in the latest Assembly elections in three States.

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