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Shiv Shankar Menon hangs up his boots after 42 years

Last updated on: May 27, 2014 21:02 IST

Those who know Shiv Shankar Menon will vouch that he did many substantial things in the immediate neighbourhood and widespread in South Asia, but without making things public.

Only twenty per cent of Menon's job was visible, while 80 per cent of his job was not known to the public, says Sheela Bhatt/

Shiv Shankar Menon relinquished office as National Security Advisor to become a free man, after outstanding service of more than four decades to the nation.

He had become India's fourth NSA in January 2010. He resigned on May 15, 2014, a day before the election results, but was asked to continue till Monday, May 26, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as is the normal practice.

Prime Minister-designate Narendra Modi surprised many by inviting SAARC leaders for his swearing-in ceremony, loudly announcing his arrival on the national platform. But Menon and his boss, Dr Singh, had a different style; they were subtle.

Those who know Menon will vouch that he did many substantial things in the immediate neighbourhood and widespread in South Asia, but without making things public. Only twenty per cent of Menon's job was visible, while 80 per cent of his job was not known to the public.

As the NSA he not only advised Dr Singh on internal security and external security, but he also handled the nuclear issue away from public gaze.

Menon was, in his early days, posted at the Department of Atomic Energy in Mumbai. It was an added advantage to his current job. Sometimes the New Delhi establishment underestimates the good that is happening without coming to public attention. As power shifts in New Delhi, it is once again time to note a normal but important thing.

India's nuclear arsenal has dual control. At every step it is taken care of by a tightly laid down command and control system. It is under lock with two keys at every step and it lies entirely in responsible hands, with civilian authority holding the upper hand. Menon continued to maintain the system without disturbance.

Even now, when democracy has arrived in Pakistan, its nuclear arsenal has more military control. India has in the last 10 years checked and double-checked the reliability of its arsenal. In the last few years, India has tested some high technology or the other almost every month.

Menon has many critics and more than the usual number of adversaries in the capital, but power sat pretty on his shoulders. This man walked the corridors of power using his mind more than the heart. He used to say, "There is nothing personal here."

Menon also handled issues relating to the armed forces and looked after the cross-cutting technology of the Internet, the important issue of cyber-security and covert intelligence operations. Dr Singh's Prime Minister's Office was hopelessly low profile and didn't make political connections with the very people for whom these decisions were taken in South Block.

The next government will, more or less, follow the basic parameters of Indian diplomacy improved upon since 1947, but Modi's PMO will make more things public than ever before. In diplomacy spin matters. It is clear by now that Modi will prove a much cleverer spin-master than Menon's boss. Despite saying this, it is a safe bet that Modi's diplomacy at the micro-level plays within what Indian diplomacy has largely worked on. Yes, at the macro-level, a lot will change, and change fast.

For Menon, a regular day in office began with taking inputs from the Research and Analysis Wing and Intelligence Bureau bosses. That was the first thing he did every morning over the phone. He has worked hard to ensure that the internal and external intelligence agencies don't fight, but instead have regular exchanges of information. He handled things at the home ministry level and at the PMO.

Menon, in his final avatar as NSA, was seriously handicapped because of the country's plummeting economic growth and the slow-moving machinery of the Government of India. Diplomacy in the 21st century works in tandem with a country's economic graph. Menon could have done much better with his unmatched and in-depth understanding of Pakistan and China if he had India's robust economy to back up his diplomatic war.

Surely, the political and diplomatic approach to deal with Pakistan and China will be largely different in the public sphere after the Menon era, but in closed-door, high-powered meetings Indian diplomats will deal with the matter somewhat similarly to how it has been done so far.

The elbow room for spin is there, but neither India nor Pakistan is likely to change their fundamental position which is debated upon for decades.

Surely and quite differently in tenor when compared to Dr Singh's style, Modi is likely to improve relations with China, Japan and Israel in a much better fashion than so far, because it will be Modi's political decision that would come into play, and he is likely to calibrate bilateral events with confidence.

There is no doubt that Modi will implement what all Menon has visualised in India's Look East policy. Modi has to take in hand Menon's blueprint and inject huge funds in ongoing projects and yet implement new ones to boost cross-border trade.

All the countries China has issues with are now friendly to India. Take Japan, South Korea and Vietnam. Menon has ensured that India has solid security relationships with them. India shares its intelligence, and also has defence exchanges, with these three important countries.

All China's neighbours have been cultivated by the Singh government. What is needed is the economic quotient. This is an era when money speaks louder than anything else.

Menon, as the prime minister's special envoy to head border talks, has conducted detailed bilateral talks with China and has brought the entire issue just two steps short of taking it to a climax. India and China know their actual positions across the Himalayas. They have discussed the disputed areas. Modi now has to take a final political decision after some more work between the two sides.

Menon knew that in the last four years the world economy and the rules of the game have changed tremendously, and so has the world's security environment.

He was repeatedly saying that there are geo-strategic changes around India as China becomes increasingly aggressive about its standing in South Asia.

Menon seemed reserved and somewhat arrogant among his peer group, but he has to be credited for a gaffe-free tenure at the top. He was handicapped because of the lack of political will on the part of the government he was serving. Menon never gave detailed one-on-one interviews while in the PMO, and cultivated the media discreetly.

Menon's policy, style and substance weren't wrapped in bravado. He believed that India and China are unique countries with unique histories. Both nations are not able to show off a 'victory' for any movement due to their domestic political sensitivities.

Even though it is a fact that in the last 200 years borders are changing between the two countries, things are settling down as much as possible without reaching a final solution.

When incursions like Depsang took place early last year from the Chinese side, Menon faced tremendous pressure. It was seen as Chinese aggression against a disputed Indian border position. The Chinese-speaking Menon (who speaks German as well), along with then ambassador to China Dr Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, faced testing times. The event shook New Delhi, but in the end it created new parameters to deal with such events.

Menon has further institutionalised the standard operating procedures against China's tactics on the border.

During the Menon era, India and China can claim they know much better where to draw the borders if both sides agreed, as both sides know the actual position. For Menon it was an advantage that India in the last decade is certainly better off to deal with China.

After his retirement, Menon will settle down in New Delhi where he has a home.

He always got the best postings, but that also meant that he never got to spend time with his family. Menon is now likely to shuttle between Delhi, Pune and Chennai where his extended family lives.

Menon was shrewd enough to implement his boss's thoughts, but behind closed doors he did speak his mind. He used to say, "We always serve our egos here. We are here to give an independent opinion. We don't work for money or fame in the PMO."

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrived in India the day Menon retired. But the right-wing hawks around Modi must remember that it is the turf of peace maintained painfully at a high political cost by Dr Singh that has made it possible for Modi to shake hands with Sharif.

Menon steadfastly believed that unlike most of his peer group in the foreign service and unlike Modi's claim, "India doesn't face an existential threat from Pakistan."

Surely, Dr Singh and Menon did see that in the long run India may face the threat of a different nature from China.

Menon took a lot of interest in Nepal and saw to it that India helped the kingdom achieve what wasn't conceivable a decade ago. The Maoists are not armed today, they are now struggling in Nepal politics as they have formed a political party and are contesting elections.

The issue of the failed Teesta river water deal was a low moment for Menon, but surely the Sheikh Hasina government is the best India can have in Bangladesh and at a government-to-government level things have been working fine for the last few years.

The Sri Lanka relationship has been on a roller-coaster ride and Menon and Dr Singh's articulation lacked appeal at every crucial time. At one level the scourge of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam terrorism has become history, but India has not been able to emphasise enough in Colombo its priorities for Sri Lankan Tamil victims. The Sri Lankan government is tough in dealing with them. To the Tamils at home and abroad, India seems a mute spectator.

At home Menon could not make any path-breaking improvement in tribal areas where the Maoists have their say. The PMO always argued that the governments of Bihar, Orissa and West Bengal did not cooperate seriously in taking on the Maoists.

If Modi were to meet Menon after taking the oath, what would the latter tell the new prime minister about the most charismatic event unfolding with Sharif?

Menon, like all diplomats, won't advise without being asked.

But the thought processes, traditions and legacy that Menon has left behind will convey to Modi that "India cannot stop terrorism inside Pakistan."

It is a fight only the people of Pakistan can fight. We can fight the battle on our territory only, obviously. Some Pakistani leaders like Pervez Musharraf tried to change the course of their country. It is good if India helps them in their complex act to take Pakistan away from the path of radicalism.

Since Islamabad is divided on the issue of India it is prudent to plan our moves without showing off our muscle unnecessarily.

An economically strong India will be able to buy many more friends in the neighbourhood than macho diplomacy can ever get.

Good luck, Mr Menon!

Photograph: Shiv Shankar Menon, right, with diplomats Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, centre, and Gautam Bambawale, left, interacting with the Chinese.

Sheela Bhatt/ in New Delhi