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The Rediff Special/M D Nalapat

Why we must mourn J N Dixit

February 01, 2005

A month after J N Dixit's death M D Nalapat looks at the national security adviser's tenure and how it came to an abrupt end.

Since the assumption of office by Manmohan Singh as the prime minister of India seven months ago, there has arisen a tension in the constitutional fabric of the country that shows little sign of abatement.

In the Westminster system, the prime minister is the pivot of governance, setting both the direction as well as the pace of change.

Even Charan Singh, the only prime minister to be appointed of the President of India despite not being a member of the Lok Sabha, refused to surrender this inherent prerogative.

In 1979,after the new (Congress-backed) council of ministers was sworn in consequent to the collapse of the Morarji Desai government, Indira Gandhi waited for the new prime minister to come to her Willingdon Crescent residence for a ritual blessing before taking up his responsibilities.

She waited an hour -- part of which was spent outside the gate, garland in hand -- before realising that Prime Minister Charan Singh was not the same person as ex-Minister Charan Singh. From that first hour, the gloves came off between the two.

During the brief period that he occupied the Prime Minister's House, Charan Singh ensured that his stamp got firmly placed on government, thus becoming a model for another individual who too, on his own, had but a miniscule support base in the Lok Sabha.

This was Chandra Shekhar, who took office with the support of Rajiv Gandhi in November 1990 but decided to quit months afterwards rather than function the way he was expected to by the Congress supremo, which was to act as though the system followed in India were identical to that of the USSR, where the Communist Party General Secretary and the CPSU Politburo outranked the prime minister and his cabinet.

Today, a similar system operates in China, where the Chinese Communist Party leadership directs the work of the council of ministers. By virtue of his position as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Hu Jintao is the effective head of the government of this emerging superpower, not Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.

Even Inder Kumar Gujral, (interview) the mildest-mannered of human beings, followed the example of a leader similarly tempered, Lal Bahadur Shastri, in ensuring that the prerogatives of the prime minister were protected.

All three Third Front premiers, whether it was Gujral, H D Deve Gowda or V P Singh, set the tone for the administration that they were the formal masters of.

Early in his tenure, Shastri began turning away from both Nehruvian economics as well as diplomacy, and only his sudden death in Moscow in 1966 prevented India from entering into a period of reform nearly 30 years before the process of bringing the country into the modern world was kick started under P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

 Narasimha Rao: Our finest PM ever? | His final humiliation

Gujral ensured that India was as generous to its neighbours as his government was to state employees. V P Singh ignored the largest supporting party, the BJP, and insisted on his own -- contrarian -- policy getting implemented.

Neither had any hesitation in occupying the high office they did on terms conceived of by the framers of the Constitution of India.

This despite the fact that neither had a significant support base. This despite the knowledge that they ran the risk of getting turfed out of power for their temerity, as indeed they were.

Perhaps the reason for such stubborn allegiance to the constitutional principle that the prime minister is the final authority in the functioning of the government was because all but one of those who held that office were professional politicians, individuals who had been immersed in the scrimmage of democracy for most of their adult lives.

The exception was Rajiv Gandhi, whose career in public life spanned four years before he took over the job that had been made vacant by the assassination of his mother. Had there been a second innings for Rajiv Gandhi, he may have been very different from what he was during the five years he was in office.

Rajiv Gandhi lost his life because of Bofors

There may not have been the compromises with fundamentalism that took the sheen off his image before Bofors destroyed it. There may not have been the hesitation to reform both India's economic as well as foreign policies. To his last day in office, Rajiv Gandhi saw himself as an outsider to the system, a factor that slowed him down and thereby prevented him from earning the place in history that his vision for the country entitled him to.

After Rajiv Gandhi, the only other prime minister not a professional politician is Manmohan Singh, who was brought back from Geneva by the Chandra Shekhar government in 1991 to become its economic adviser. Soon afterwards, the brilliant and incorruptible economist was transplanted from the bureaucracy and placed in a political post for the first time in his life, when he became P V Narasimha Rao's hand-picked finance minister.

Meet Dr Singh 

In that job, Singh took full advantage of the power and authority of the prime minister - who backed him from the start -- to press ahead with the changes in economic policy that resulted in a doubling of the rate of growth. As he himself candidly admitted on television December 23, Manmohan Singh could not have achieved the impossible during 1992 to 1996 without such backing.

The problem now facing Singh -- and therefore all those who depend on prime ministerial authority and prerogative to get sound policy implemented -- is that the United Progressive Alliance government is very different from any of its predecessors.

For the first time since the departure of the Mountbattens from India in 1948, the Union Cabinet looks beyond the prime minister for directions and indeed for political legitimacy. It is no secret that the members of the 'Manmohan' ministry do not regard the prime minister's desk as the location where the buck stops, but another that is infinitely distant from the standpoint of the Constitution of India.

Just as the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was the source of governmental legitimacy in the now disbanded USSR, so today is the chairperson of the UPA. This has created a serious problem for those constitutionally expected to function -- and deliver -- as though the prime minister were in effective, rather than merely legal, charge of the business of government.

At the prime minister's elbow was his national security advisor.J N Dixit loved the place of his birth.The Malayali mind -- he was born in Kerala -- is a wondrous entity, able to reconcile grey with red, yellow with blue. It is almost Persian in its byzantine labyrinths, but it still needs the definiteness of authority in order to achieve.

Had Manmohan Singh the clout of a Narasimha Rao, Dixit would have had in the prime minister the perfect medium for his blend of realpolitik and machtpolitik. However, this was not the case.

The Prime Minister's Office -- unlike 10 Janpath, the home-cum-office of UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi -- was not regarded as primus inter pares (first among equals) by the key ministries with which Dixit had to deal as national security adviser: home, defence and external affairs.

All three had individuals at the helm with a line to the general secretary -- sorry, Chairperson -- that was far stronger than that of the prime minister himself.

Both the national security adviser and the prime minister had a perfect understanding. But this was not the case with the amorphous, opaque group of people who advised Sonia Gandhi personally.

On two key issues dealt with by Dixit, China and Kashmir, the views of this group differed widely from those of the national security adviser's, according to close friends.

During negotiations with his Chinese counterpart, Dixit surprised Beijing by adopting a policy that was far more protective of Indian interests than that of his 'hardline' predecessor, Brajesh Mishra.

While the latter showed flexibility on the question of territorial adjustments, there was no similar give on the part of the new interlocutor. Dixit was categoric that no exchange of populated areas -- read Tawang -- could take place in the absence of a comprehensive settlement that restored trust between the two sides.

The talks are farcical

He went further and added that any exchange of territory -- should it take place -- would need to be equal, in that the area surrendered should get compensated by another that had equivalent strategic value.

While he was fully backed by the prime minister, many of the informal collection of retired or serving diplomats and officials having the ear of the UPA Chairperson regarded such a position as too 'hardline.'

Ironically, many in this crew have as a bosom friend no less a personage than Brajesh Mishra himself, who has earned for himself an honoured place in the new dispensation as a favourite uncle.

On Kashmir, these 'Friends of 10 Janpath' adopted the Mishra principle of toying with adjustments on sovereignty and territory. Wajahat Habibullah is only the public face of the numerous seminarists regarded as close to the UPA chairperson who has been pleading for 'Big Brother' India to make the concessions while Pakistan takes the benefit, a Simla Pact circa 2004.

Such a stand was in contrast to that of the prime minister and his national security adviser.

JN Dixit understood the chemistry and the blood-lust of the Pakistan army far more than the think tank romantics constantly attending conferences on conflict-resolution in Washington or London.

He knew that the only way to deal with those in uniform who were choking Pakistan of its liberty was to starve them of strategic concessions, show that they would be unable to wrest from the bargaining table what they failed to grab through years of covert operations.

Indo-Pak Peace Talks: Full Coverage

Here too, as with his nationalistic line towards China, Dixit fell foul of several influentials close to the UPA chairperson, some of whom began to mobilise against him. Ever dignified, he refused to placate this group, accepting darts from them as the price of his convictions.

Manmohan Singh has not yet secured the invisible prerogatives that should be an essential component of his office, having to accept a separation of powers between the 'political' and the 'administrative,' a disconnect that is inconsistent with effectiveness. For in a democracy, effective power in administration flows from the political.

True, history has shown that those who insisted on prime ministerial prerogatives when confronted with dynasts out of office may have a short half-life in power, but in that half-life, they did much.

Above all, they preserved the framework of governance that the makers of the constitution crafted.

The dilemma of navigating between the formal and the actual source of governmental power was faced by Jyotindra Nath Dixit every day of his working life as national security adviser, until finally it all became too much, even for that great heart.

Mani has left behind the country he loved and served. But remaining behind is also the new UPA-CPSU system, that has replaced the familiar construct in which the Prime Minister's Office is the fount of authority.

Ironically, this transfer of real authority to a locus outside the formal government has taken place at a time when one of the country's most noble citizens has taken over the job of prime minister of India.

The Rediff Specials

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Number of User Comments: 1

Sub: We will miss Shri. J.N.Dixit

i have not been in india for nearly 2 years. but when in india i would love to see disscussions on television which had Shri. ...

Posted by N. Mongha


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