By Prof. S.N. Misra
Rarely in history, a person finds his right niche at the right moment. P.N. Haksar found his at an extremely juncture of India’s recent history (1969-77). He held public offices with unparallel distinction and set standards in public life, which few can emulate and fewer still can improve upon.
‘Intertwined Lives’, a biography of this redoubtable Indian, is by Jairam Ramesh who made waves as an intrepid environmentalist. The book is neither a hagiography nor a “psycho-history” of the most fecund relationship between a powerful Prime Minister and omnipotent civil servant for almost five decades; that got besmirched in the last decade of her life.
Haksar appeared for the ICS examination in 1936, but did not qualify. He looks a course at LSF, with Bronisław Malinowski, a distinguished anthropologist. He close to V. K. Krishna Menon and the India League whose passion was to free India from British rule. The three Allhabadis – Haksar, Feroze Gandhi and the big-eyed Indira Gandhi, loafed around London; in search for ideas, books and freedom!
Though Haksar did not belong to the ICS, he was careful to ensure that the Head of the government would protect their services when they are innocent or promote them when they were brilliant. When some MPs protested to the PM about the selection of Mr. Murli, son of an ICS officer four a course in the IMF, PN Haksar brought to the notice of the PM his comparative brilliant scholastic record and observed: “Is it contended that sons of secretaries should be subjected to special disabilities”! He made PMO powerful but contrary to popular belief, he did not centralize authority. He kept it slim and delegated authority to his juniors.
He wrote long-winded and verbose notes. He belonged to the tradition that believed in the written word, as a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. He possibly felt the need to educate a fledgling PM, with full facts, before she arrived at a decision. In the process, he could realize his ideological predilection of being an unstructured democratic socialist. The Indo Soviet Treaty (1971) was a testimony to his excessive fondness for the Soviet Union. This was a time when India, needed a superpower on its side; with USA and China being hostile towards India.
When Mrs. Gandhi wanted Mr. Haksar’s opinion as to whether India should not have a similar treaty with China, he was stunningly forthright. He was clear that treaty with the Soviet Union was not so routine that “We are ready to sign it up with everyone”. The Chinese leaders were quite lukewarm to Indira’s overtures for normalizing relations with India. This led Haksar not to go along with the advice Brajesh Mishra, who was India’s charged’ affair in China, to have a treaty with China.
But the high point of his diplomacy was the way he firmly and deftly handled Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, before the Indo-Pak war. Forty years later, Kissinger recalled that Haksar struck him as ‘very intelligent and purposeful’. He remembered how during the course of conversation Mrs. Gandhi with Nixon, both Haksar and he tried to salvage the situation!
Field Marshall Sam Manekshaw bequeathed us the story that India Gandhi and her advisors were keen on an early military operation. And that he put his foot down asking for more time. The documentary evidence does not lend any support to the claim made by Manekshaw. At no point of time did the Indian PM betray any impatience for war; even though influential public figures like Jayaprakash Narayan and strategic experts like K. Subrahmanyam were clamouring for it.
The eminent diplomat scholar Chandrashekhar Dasgupta’s meticulous marshaling of archival evidence points unambiguously to one conclusion “that it was P.N. Haksar, who masterminded the framework of a ground strategy that integrated military, diplomatic and domestic action required to speed up the liberation of Bangladesh”.
1971 was the high point of Haksar’s role as a civil servant and diplomat rolled into one. However, the estrangement between Mrs. Gandhi and PNH was triggered by Sanjay Gandhi, whose car project Haksar consistently opposed to. He also did not approve of his staying in the PM’s residence while carrying out his business activities.
After March 1971, Mrs. Gandhi was hugely transformed figure, having won a staggering mandate at the polls. Atal Bihari Vajpayee hailed her as Durga and the Economist called her the “Empress of India”. No PM would like to be in the shadow of an aide and be bombarded with verbose notes and unpalatable advice. As Sharad Prasad puts it pithily “In a growing friction between the Sovereign and Chamberlin over the doing of the price, the will of the prince prevailed”.
Sanjay Gandhi paid back the compliment, by getting Haksar’s uncle arrested on trumped-up charge during the Emergency Haksar was Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission at that time. He opposed the move to nationalize the textile mills (1975), though he was at the vanguard of bank nationalization in 1971. He did betray a fixation for the public sector; and batted for those PSUs, which were run professionally and commercially.
Ironically two long notes which were prepared by the then Chief Economic Affairs, Dr. Manmohan Singh (May 1973 and October, 1974) which suggested bold economic references remained among the cobwebs. This was a missed opportunity for India to follow the path of economic liberalism, which came 17 years later (1991).
Haksar went out of the way to support creative people. When Ritwik Ghatak, the film director, (who got Padma Shri) made slanderous statements against Gandhiji, the home ministry decided to cancel the award and sent the file for PM’s approval. PN observed on the file that “human history is full of examples of genius is living in penury because of their cannot compromise their art with the vulgar of public taste of their time. And Shri Ghatak is one such artist. PN believed that Mr. Ghatak’s would not diminish in any way the stature of a person like Gandhiji or Nehru who will always shine brightly. The government came to the conclusion that the father of the nation would have forgiven!
P.N. Haksar belonged to that rare breed of the civil servant, who cannot be judged by the narrow perspective of what they accomplished before they retired. P.N. Haksar remains one of the very few who served the Indian state with distinction for two decades retirement and become the conscience of Indian civil society. During his heyday, he was not a mere person, but a ‘whole climate of opinion’ anchored in the noblest of human values’.
The best tribute was possibly paid by Mrs. Gandhi on his retirement when she wrote, “there can be no doubt that your retirement will greatly diminish the efficacy of the PM’s Secretariat and will be a great loss to me”. But the mother in her also flung the charge of lack of integrity in a land deal, as Sanjay Gandhi had a score to settle with him. Blood can be thicker than friendship. The best part of the book is that Jairam has skirted being judgemental; either about Mrs. Gandhi or Haksar!
About the author
The author teaches Economics. [email protected], Ph-91-7381109899
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