Tale of the man who shaped Indira, India
Book Review

Tale of the man who shaped Indira, India

A critical and apolitical biography of one of the country’s most powerful bureaucrats PN Haksar delves into the history of the 60s and 70s when Indira Gandhi took over as Prime Minister and Haksar helped her steer the country quite successfully through tough times.

Jairam Ramesh’s `Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi’ beautifully etches the efforts made behind the scenes to lift Indira and India. From bank nationalisation to the birth of Bangladesh and the roadmap to India’s economic, nuclear and foreign policies had the hand of Haksar who was the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary from 1967 to 1972.

The man who was marked `average’ when he joined the Indian Foreign Service proved the board wrong. Jairam has proved himself to be an authentic biographer, doing immense research and going through the voluminous archives. His book last year on the green initiatives of Indira Gandhi (`Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’) is a pointer to his craftsmanship as a biographer.

Haksar was enamoured by Pandit Nehru and during his London days was close to Feroze Gandhi and Indira Gandhi. He could easily influence Indira and was forthright in his comments, some of which, as the book recounts, irritated the PM.

Haksar masterminded the Bangladesh liberation strategy convincing Indira against going by popular advice for early military intervention. For Haksar, using force would be the last resort. His stand was that there had to be an insurrection within East Pakistan by its freedom fighters. “Military intervention, if needed at all, was to be the last extreme resort after all diplomatic and political means had exhausted themselves.” He was also the key person behind the Simla Pact that followed the 1971 war.

His attempts to have better ties with China continued even after his retirement. He never gave up his habit of writing to the PMs even after he was out of the Secretariat and Rajiv Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, whose elevation was the result of his intervention, and even Dr Manmohan Singh received his letters which were aimed at guiding them.

Dr Singh acknowledged: “You are the one who brought me into the Government and the best I can do to justify your confidence and deep affection is to dedicate myself to work sincerely for the realization of ideals and objectives so dear to your heart.”

Though Haksar was not entirely happy with the liberalisation programmes of Dr Singh, he supported it because he had full faith in his integrity and impeccable credentials, notes Jairam.

He stood by Indira though he was often blunt when advising her. He was critical of Sanjay Gandhi’s car project and even wanted him to stay separately and not operate his business out of his mother’s house. Sanjay hit back during Emergency arresting Haksar’s uncle and brother-in-law.

Jairam brings into focus the Sanjay-Haksar tiff through a personal note sent by Indira revealing her fondness for Sanjay. “Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at his age — rough edges and all — that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.”

As a biographer, Jairam, despite his political stand, objectively recounts Haksar’s life through his notes, despatches and memos.

Terse were Haksar’s comments like the one when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said Pakistan too would get the bomb even if her people had to eat grass. “If by eating grass one can produce atom bombs, then by now cows and horses would have produced them,” he noted.

Jairam points to Haksar never having personal ambitions and twice rejected the offer of Padmabhushan. Even after retirement and the quite sour relationship with Indira during the last years of his service, he was called upon by her for some important missions abroad that he undertook successfully. The author has backed on notes and letters he sent to reveal Haksar’s character, leaving the reader enthralled.

Indira’s letters, drafted by Haksar, especially those to US President Richard Nixon during 1971 during the Bangladesh movement, are documents in foreign policy history.

A Nehruvian that he was, Haksar never spared anyone of his criticism which is best explained by the author in the letter rejecting an invitation to a citizens’ tribunal in the aftermath of the Ayodhya incident.

Haksar writes: “I have also a feeling that despite my deepest respect for the life and work Jawaharlal Nehru, it was a grave error to codify Hindu laws instead of having a uniform civil code. If we have one criminal law for all the citizens of the Republic of India and one law in respect of Income-Tax, transfer of property etc., there is no reason to have separate codes for the Hindus and Muslims. All these distortions are the products of our not being able to think clearly about our past, present and future.”

The must read book presents a vivid picture of the progress of India as also Indira’s and Jairam has gone deep in his analysis and has not strayed into political comments in spite of being a politician. In simple and lucid style, without taking stands and relying on archives, he has judiciously portrayed one of modern India’s greatest bureaucrats, a rare breed now.

Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi
By Jairam Ramesh
Simon & Schuster India
560 pages
Rs 799