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Brajesh Mishra: Steely determination and a kind heart

By TP Sreenivasan
October 01, 2012 11:39 IST
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Brajesh Mishra had his own frustrations in his personal and official lives, but he did not allow those to affect his style or confidence. His compensation came ultimately in the role he played in national and international affairs and the high award that a grateful nation bestowed on him, recalls diplomat TP Sreenivasan, who knew him for more than three decades

Behind his steely eyes and formidable visage, Brajesh Mishra was a kind, generous and compassionate man, a fact that many may have missed. He was forthright and even abrupt, hardly smiled, but he was loyal and helpful to those who worked with him.

Whether he was Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, a UN official, a man of leisure in Delhi after his retirement, the second most powerful man in India or a celebrity in the evening of his life, he was humane and never lost his sense of humour and ability for a hearty laugh.

I started with him on the wrong foot back in 1979, when I was posted to the Permanent Mission in New York because the then foreign secretary had ignored his request for another officer a couple of years senior to me to be posted to New York. Mishra requested the minister of external affairs to review my posting, but made the point that he had nothing against me and that I could go against another post a few months later. When this was not accepted and I was asked to join in New York in 1980, I expected a vindictive and unpleasant boss. But he was not only warm and friendly, but also gave me my first lessons in multilateral diplomacy. When he finally decided to join the UN as the commissioner for Namibia, he offered me the post of his special assistant, though I was unable to accept it. The wheel had come full circle in a year.

The most important lesson in diplomacy that Mishra taught me was that one should be credible at all times. He stressed that one should never say different things to different countries to gain advantages, because nothing remained secret. He would advise us to remain committed to national interests even if it was not possible to win support in the short term.

I recall that on one occasion, as the chairman of a small committee, I disagreed with a decision that it was taking on an issue. Mishra volunteered to come and chair the committee himself and gave me an opportunity to argue my case as the Indian representative. When he found that our position did not enjoy consensus, he ruled in favour of the majority, though he knew that the Indian delegation had a valid point. Contrary to some impressions, Mishra was never adamant or dogmatic.

Mishra was always a disciplined soldier even when the government took decisions against his wishes. When he returned from Indonesia, his wish was to become a secretary in the ministry, but agreed to go to New York as a compromise. He strongly argued against the speech sent to him to be delivered at the General Assembly session on Afghanistan. He pointed out that, with that speech, India could as well vote with the Soviet Union rather than abstain. Even though the changes accepted by Delhi were not sufficient for him, he dutifully delivered the speech and disappeared from the scene as he felt that he could not defend it forcefully.

Mishra's historic initiative in 1979 to expand the Security Council set him against the five permanent members, who made a joint demarche against him in New Delhi. The proposal was only to expand the non-permanent members and it had the support of the nonaligned countries as well as Japan and Germany, but the ire of the P-5 was directed against Mishra. Mishra was advised not to press the issue to a vote, but it is the same agenda item that is at the centre of our efforts to reform the Security Council today. Many do not remember Mishra's heroic battle against the P-5 on this issue, which may have been one of the reasons for his premature transfer from New York to Sweden. He decided to go on deputation to the UN rather than go to a relatively junior post.

I had the privilege of benefitting from Mishra's multilateral experience during my time as the joint secretary (UN) in New Delhi and deputy permanent representative to the UN in New York. He was nostalgic about the UN and dropped in to my office in South Block or invited me to lunch at the India International Centre to compare notes on the developments in the UN. When he accompanied Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the General Assembly sessions every year, we had a perceptive and experienced adviser on whom we could rely. More than his participation in the committees, his very presence was valuable to the Indian delegation as it made our discussions rich and productive.

In Washington, before and after the nuclear weapons tests, I saw Mishra in action as the czar of strategy and the most trusted lieutenant of the prime minister. The chemistry between him and Jaswant Singh was a major factor and I could see that Mishra came occasionally to apply the correctives, which were necessary in the ongoing discussions with Strobe Talbott.

The major difference between the style of operation of Mishra and Jaswant Singh was that the former was open and forthright while the latter was secretive and long-winded. Moreover, Mishra took us into confidence and associated the mission with the conversations, rather than bring his own advisers from Delhi. It was obvious who called the tunes in the evolving drama of the India-US understanding, which eventually paved the way for the India-US nuclear deal. It was for this reason that Mishra was supportive of the deal even when the others opposed it tooth and nail.

Mishra played a decisive role during Bill Clinton's visit to India and Vajpayee's visit to Washington, which established a new architecture for India-US relations. My old association with Mishra helped me to resolve delicate issues of substance and protocol through short and business like telephone calls. During the Vajpayee visit, with his characteristic deftness, he resolved even matters relating to the PM's family.

Brajesh Mishra had his own frustrations in his personal and official lives, but he did not allow those to affect his style or confidence. His compensation came ultimately in the role he played in national and international affairs and the high award that a grateful nation bestowed on him. He will be remembered as a super strategist and the architect of the post-cold war foreign policy of India. He will also be remembered as a man with steely determination and a kind heart.

TP Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; member, National Security Advisory Board; member, India-UK Roundtable; and director general, Kerala International Centre.

For more articles by Ambassador Sreenivasan, please click here.

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