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December 12, 1998


E-Mail this column to a friend Ashok Mitra

The P N Haksar story

London, mid thirties, the world in the throes of deep economic depression. The sun did not still set on the British Empire though. Of the contingent of bright young Indians who were being drilled by Rajani Palme Dutt into the mystique of the impending global revolution engineered by the international brotherhood of the working class, K T Chandy flaunted the largest stock of the reddest of red ties. P N Haksar however had the most sumptuous rooms. Haksar's digs therefore became the natural meeting place of the would-be insurgents.

Europe soon drifted into Hitler's World War, the flock who nurtured the Federation of Indian Students' Societies in Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Europe rushed back home. Some of the returnees straightaway entered the lair of the Communist party, where P C Joshi took charge of them. Those who did not formally join the party dispersed all over, no dearth of nooks and corners in the vast subcontinent.

However, for most of them, pride in, and loyalty to, the cause survived the vicissitudes of diverse career choice. That apart, R P Dutt's young acolytes had another memory to share: their involvement, while in London, in the activities to the India League. Even when it was seemingly the end of the road for him, they refused to disown Krishna Menon, he hugely enjoyed their indulgement.

As while a student of Allahabad University and resident of Mayo Hostel, Haksar had been a frequent visitor to Anand Bhavan. The Kashmiri Pandits, the entire tribe, are all related to one another in some manner or other. So it was not difficult for Haksar to come to close to Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, of course, was the hero non pareil. His autobiography, just out on the eve of Haksar's sailing for the Tilbury Docks had duly bowled the latter over. The traumatic devotion to Nehru -- and to the Nehru household -- was not obliterated by the interlude in England -- or by association with the deeper hued Marxists.

Following Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru picked him for the foreign service. For one full decade, as he drifted from one assignment to the next, Haksar watched the scene, domestic as well as international. His upward mobility in the foreign service evoked a mixed response. The Minoo Masanis were ready with their cudgels, neither his India League past nor his loyalty to friends who stayed the stretch as Communists was allowed to be forgotten. Nehru's declining years following the 1962 skirmish with China would hardly have made Haksar's left-over tenure in foreign service all that comfortable. But he survived.

He was a connoisseur of paintings and a voracious reader of art history. He combined his love for Sanskrit and the classics in the language, with the ability to read, at an enormously fast pace, European history and fiction at one end and contemporary books on international diplomacy and military strategy on the other.

This man, rich in talent, an Allahabad Nehruvian to his fingertips, a song of socialism in his heart, of impeccable Kashmiri Brahmin stockage, was biding his time. Events ensured, as if to prove his subjective belief that in case the will was there, wishes could be turned into horses. Lal Bahadur Shastri did not survive the shock of the Tashkent Treaty. Aided by the manoeuvres of the anti-Morarji Desai majority in Congress Syndicate, Indira Gandhi was catapulted to power. For the first few months, the prime ministerial slot was for her a nightmare. The devaluation of the rupee in 1996 mid-point and the near-famine in Bihar put the Congress high command in a sneering mood.

The general election next year was a very near thing. Indira Gandhi gritted her teeth and decided. She needed help; much more than formal help, she needed someone she could rely upon, in toto, one hundred per cent. Parameswar Haksar, friend of Feroze Gandhi, ex-Mayo Hostel, filled the bill. He was summoned from London and installed as secretary to the prime minister.

Haksar's kingdom was gifted to his lap. In a couple of years, the office of the prime minister was transformed. Haksar the ideologue and Haksar the tactician planned and plotted to convert his dreams into reality; Indira Gandhi went along. A sortie of well-aimed mid-night letter missiles took care of the Congress old guard, but the problems remained. The organisation of the Congress party was by now shot full of holes; it was scarcely the appropriate agency to galvanise the masses into a social convulsion which would ensure the country a decent rate of economic growth, a balanced structure of income and assets distribution, balanced in both inter-class and inter-regional terms.

Nor could one lean on the rusty mechanism of the government apparatus; given too much lattitude, ministers and their civil servants, sans ideology and social commitment, were bound to pull in different directions. Haksar's mind was made up: to concentrate power and decision-making in the prime minister's office, and to install loyal individuals in key slots in the individual ministries and departments who would do the prime ministerial bidding.

Liberalisation-lovers and their American advisers constantly harp on the need to cultivate efficiency in order to lift a poor, under-developed country to a high-growth plateau. Efficiency nonetheless can have many lineage's. Haksar's early years in the company of Communist party cadres had helped him to get acquainted with the ground rules of how to go about, quietly and efficiently, so that all resistance could be weakened and the prime minister's office emerge supreme.

Indira Gandhi's stray thoughts on socialism proved a master stroke; bank nationalisation and the suspension of the princes' privy purses swung the pendulum of mass support. The cycle of good monsoons and the effects of the high-yielding varieties of seeds did not harm either. Some gamesmanship was involved, a few corners were cut, a couple of scruples were brushed aside, but ultimately nothing succeeds like success.

The Garibi Hatao election added a piping victory. Haksar saw to it that his friend from younger days, radicals of many hues, contested the elections and won: many from amongst this crowd were appointed ministers. They knew only too well who was the most powerful man in the country at the particular moment. One friend, who had made pots and pots of money in the legal profession, chose to ride in his Bentley for the swearing-in as minister, he received an open tongue lashing from Haksar and opted for a prim Ambassador next day onwards.

Quite a few junior ministers would actually rise in their seats if PNH would happen to enter the room.

It is immaterial whether Haksar approved or was disdainful of such conduct. The feudal burden cannot be easily shoved off. The prime minister's office was in any case recognised by everybody as the most crucial entity in the system; but instead of the deus ex machina of social revolution, it soon turned, very nearly, into a version of guided democracy.

By now, Indira Gandhi was ready to claim that she thought was her legitimate inheritance. A backroom boy, even one of Haksar's stature, was still a backroom boy. Haksar created the edifice, but it was for Indira Gandhi to avail herself of it in the manner she wanted to avail herself of it, not in the way Haksar wanted it to be. The relationship between the two could not have been altogether smooth. He knew too well her strengths and her weaknesses.

It was Haksar who was, from beginning to end, the planner and architect of the Bangladesh campaign. Setting up the 'independent' regime of Mujib's followers in exile, chalking out the logistics of the diplomatic warfare against Pakistan, signing the defence treaty with the Soviet Union which facilitated the confrontation of the Pakistani troops in the river terrain's of Bangladesh; each manoeuvre bore the stamp of Haksar's intellectual sharpness -- and his flair for rendering the hitherto unimaginable into a commonplace phenomenon.

The last significant breakthrough he ought to be credited with -- the Shimla Agreement -- on which our bureaucrats and politicians routinely fall back upon whenever confronted by awkward questions on Kashmir is a remarkable piece of strategic benevolence; Pakistan has been a prisoner of the Agreement ever since.

It was past high noon though -- Indira Gandhi, the empress of India, had no further need of a P N Haksar in tow. Haksar was soon eased out of his office and put to graze in the Planning Commission. The Emergency caught up with him there. A man of infinite charm and unsurpassable dignity, he stood by his friends, even when they chose to desert him. His philosophical poise allowed him to absorb the shock of such betrayals.

Ailing for a long while and coping with domestic vicissitudes, he finally slipped away last month. The announcement of the state assembly election coincided with the news of his death. Few took any notice of the passing of this yesterday's man.

Ashok Mitra

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