The trouble very often with recording significant contemporary events or lives is that there is so little recorded about them. Jawaharlal Nehru’s generation and, to a reduced degree, Indira Gandhi’s were the last that wrote and read and replied and left behind a documented discourse of sorts on how and why things came to be the way they did.
One in 14 prime ministers of India bothered with a record of life publicly lived and that came from an accidental and passing prime minister called I.K. Gujral. Pranab Mukherjee, L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh can count themselves among exceptions. They’ve written and written contentiously; they’ve brought contrary light to fall upon events and they have triggered debate; they’ve delivered what will become fragments of history. But for the most part, the worlds and deeds of our political leaders are left to hang in a miasmic cloud. It may spew speculation, the odd rumour will rupture through, gossip will float, reliable sources will be invoked to parade anonymous and inspired propaganda, freelance raconteurs will tell tales that nobody may deny but none will ever attest. An opaqueness floats, insulated from inquiry, averse to its purposes. What you mostly get, instead, are oral accounts. People ply information that they want no part of. They can mislead, misrepresent, lie. They play witting and unwitting games with memory; it gets easily twisted to suit current purpose or prejudice. There’s often no way of getting to the truth because nobody has put out, often by design, a firm version of it.
Among many others, this is the chief reason that Jairam Ramesh’s brickwork of a book stands out as singular. It reveals, through casual notes scribbled on chits and formal letters and much else that Ramesh was able to lay his hands upon and grasp, how two of India’s chief actors directed the course of a nation still so young it had yet to find firmness under its feet. The Indira Gandhi-P.N. Haksar tandem – and it was not always a smooth tandem, it tumbled on occasion, and tumbled injuriously – played out during a delicate, often even fragile, time.
When Haksar, arguably the most formidable mandarin that ever informed power in Independent India, began his assignment as secretary to the prime minister in 1967, Indira was yet to come into her own and assume command. And far too many trials, domestic and external, lay lined up – the food crisis, factional plotting by commissars in the Congress and the eventual split, the first major electoral shocks to the Congress in provincial elections rendered by combined Opposition efforts, seminal rearrangements like the nationalization of banks and the abolition of privy purses, the Liberation of Bangladesh and the diplomatic cut and thrust that preceded and followed it, and much, much else. And through this minefield, the rise and rise of Indira as the indomitable one, and the creation of an entity that would become known as her alter ego: Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar, PNH. For the most part, what PNH advised, Indira heard and what PNH said was Indira’s word.
Ramesh’s scholarly scribing, or mining, has dug out nuggets that suggest Indira depended on PNH for more than merely policy or strategy; she’d turn to him for personal advice. When her younger but more insistent son, Sanjay, was getting fidgety studying automobile technology at the Rolls-Royce establishment in England, she asked PNH to have a word with him, which he did. Sanjay shot back a piqued missive to his mother: “I have talked to P.N. Haksar about my future some time back and I didn’t get anything concrete out of it. He seems to be of a similar opinion as you are… I don’t really relish going on with this for 2 more years…”
Sanjay remembered, and recoiled at PNH almost a decade later during the first months of the Emergency. PNH had irreconcilable differences over the Emergency and Indira’s increasingly dictatorial demeanour; he had begged off and been relocated at the Planning Commission. But Sanjay remained unforgiving of PNH on several counts (including his counsel against the Maruti car project) and had his octogenarian uncle, Inderbhai, arrested.
But PNH, in radical and assuring contrast to the demeanour of succeeding generations of bureaucrats/advisers, seldom flinched from speaking his mind and arguing his case. When Indira Gandhi signed the Indo-Soviet treaty in the run-up to the conflict over East Pakistan, she passed on a note wondering whether New Delhi should not hint to Beijing about the possibility of a similar deal. PNH said no. “… As for signing a Treaty with the Chinese,” he wrote back, “even a talk about it will not bring about a Treaty with China and it would certainly attenuate greatly the effect of the Treaty which we have signed with the Soviet Union.” Indira Gandhi stepped back. About the same time, a proposal was moved in the cabinet for the establishment of a centre in Varanasi of the American Committee for the History of South Asian Art.
Known to lean left, and known even better for being no friend of the US, PNH put his foot down. “I have nothing against Americans who have an insatiable thirst for knowledge to study South Asian Art, but such a centre for study should be located in the United States… But if we in India want to study South Asian Art, we should do it ourselves and set up an Academy for it and pay for it…”
He would eventually pay for speaking his mind out, as often as he thought required, and be cast out of Indira’s power circle. But he stood redeemed in history’s eyes for what he did not participate in.
PS: Haksar first set eyes on Indira way away in 1921 when both were kids and had no notion of their future tryst. He would remember her as a girl with “large round eyes”. Pick up this volume no less for the delectable portraits of Indira PNH clicked while at work as chief counsellor to the prime minister of India.