Intertwined Lives: P N Haksar and Indira Gandhi

Book Review article published in Financial Express on Sept 16, 2018

by Jairam Ramesh; Publishers:  Simon & Schuster; Pages: 518; Price: Rs. 799.

 A captain and the coach story

By H K Dua :  Jairam Ramesh’s new book Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi is not necessarily about the nature of relations between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her mentor. It is a fascinating account of the experiments they together made with history of the post-Nehru India.

Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru but he could not survive for too long, having died suddenly after signing the Tashkent Agreement. The Congress leadership chose Mrs Gandhi to fill the vacuum with the belief that she alone could bring the Congress Party back to power in the 1967 election —the first   without  Nehru at the helm.

It was a formidable assignment although she was aspiring for taking over from her father after his death. Her immediate challenges would come not from the Opposition but from within the Congress.  Mrs Gandhi pulled out P N Haksar, an old family friend from Indian High Commission in London to be her Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. He was too happy to get a chance to help her through a maze of political,  economic and foreign policy challenges confronting the country. Although she was living with her father at Teen Murti and had met world leaders at home and abroad, and had been a Congress President but she had no administrative experience except that she had served as I & B Minister in the Shastri government for a few months.

After the 1967 election, Mrs Gandhi formed a minority government — the first since Independence — with the help of her pro-Soviet left friends in the CPI. It is under these circumstances she inducted P N Haksar, her friend from London days.  His induction as her Secretary was useful to keep CPI and fellow travellers in tow and meet the difficulties the right-wing Congress leaders who later came to be known the Syndicate. They were to soon discover that Mrs Gandhi would not be a pliable prime minister for their comfort. Mrs Gandhi indeed had different ideas.

During the next few years Haksar helped Mrs Gandhi run the government, tackle the Syndicate, the 1969 split in the Congress, the evolution of leftist economic policy and in meeting foreign policy challenges  that emerged before the 1971 war which  saw Mrs Gandhi defying a powerful team of President Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger openly supporting Pakistan.

If Mrs Gandhi came on top of the situation, it was to a large extent because Haksar was by her side planning every move and creating a rare and effective team that worked in unison that helped her defeat Pakistan and in the process emerging as a national leader.

Jairm Ramesh’s account of those eventful years is based on the copious notes and letters Haksar sent her on practically every major policy issue for a decision by her.  His notes and letters to her were long and too frequent and too detailed to leave her little room for Indira Gandhi to take her own decisions.

P N Haksar was an idealist, with pronounced left leanings inherited from his younger days’ dalliance with Communism. a  visionary, a keen intellectual endowed with a sense of history and geopolitics who was convinced that without the help of science and technology, India could not be pulled out of the  steep poverty it was mired in. He gathered around in a close circle of scientists, economists, intellectuals who could be marshalled to give a shape to a post-Nehru India.

While in Prime Minister’s Office, he was able to persuade Indira Gandhi to write to Satish Dhawan who was working in California, to return to India to steer India’s fledgling space programme from where   Dr Vikram Sarabhai had left. His group of scientists included Dr Raja Raman, H N Sethna, Dr Nurul Hassan, Dr Ashok Mitra, Prof Sukhmoy Chakravartty and many others.

Left-leaning as he was, he was sure India had to invest in the public sector for India to speed up its development. He made Indira Gandhi go in for nationalisation of banks, insurance companies, and coal and abolition of Privy Purses and Privileges.  Mrs Gandhi, who was essentially a politician, used Haksar’s left-wing friends like Mohan Kumaramangalam, H R Gokhale, and others to fight her battles with the right-wing leaders.   Mrs Gandhi split the Congress party and won the 1971 parliamentary election with an unprecedented 349 seats on the “Garibi Hatao” platform to acquire supremacy in the Congress. The 1971 war victory added to her political stature in the country and the world outside. It was a heady experience for her, and she began believing —-  wrongly — that she could do anything in the country now.

Not long after the victory in the 1971 Bangladesh war she began talking about committed Press, committed judiciary and committed bureaucracy. She even thought of going in for having a Presidential form of government in the country. But resistance to her authoritarian ambitions began developing. The judiciary came out with its historic judgement enunciating that Parliament cannot change the basic structure of the Constitution.

Opposition parties led by Jaiprakash Narayan launched agitations. She struck back by imposing the infamous Emergency in June 1975, arbitrarily extending the life of Parliament and of her own government, imposed censorship of the Press,  sent opposition leaders to prison and scrapped Fundamental Rights including the Right to Life!

Mrs Gandhi was on the wrong side of the people and history. The arrival of Sanjay Gandhi on the scene made worse for her. Nikhil Chakravarty, a noted journalist, described Sanjay Gandhi as “an extra-Constitutional authority” who in the name of helping the mother had grabbed a lot of power in his hands.

Sanjay’s keenness to set up the Maruti car factory had already made Haksar feel uncomfortable. He told Mrs Gandhi not to let her son go in for this project. He even wrote to her more than once cautioning her against Sanjay’s project. Mrs Gandhi would not listen to him, however.  She simply could not say ‘No’ to her son!

Haksar came to feel her advice was no larger needed. Mrs Gandhi did not even think of preventing Haksar from leaving her.  Later, he was asked to become Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. He had become an outlier in Mrs Gandhi’s scheme of things!

Emergency imposed.  Sanjay Gandhi got  Haksar’s uncle, owner of Pandit Brothers, in New Delhi,  arrested .

It has a sad ending to a relationship. In later years P N Hksar was a disillusioned man, particularly after his uncle’s arrest and wife Urmila’s  passing away. He lost even his eyesight.

Jairam Ramesh’s is a fascinating account based on Haksar’s notes, letters to Mrs Gandhi detailing guidelines on policy issues, strategies and tactics.  Often Haksar was not economical in giving advice to Mrs Gandhi, sometimes needed, sometimes on the erroneous presumption  that she needed it. It turned out to be a captain-and-coach story when at the end of the day the coach finds himself out on a limb.