From diplomacy to Raisina Hill

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on February 28, 2021

Title: By Many a Happy Accident: Recollections of a Life Author: M Hamid Ansari Publisher: Rupa Price: ₹800

Diplomat, Vice-Chancellor, policy wonk and Vice-President, the many hats that Hamid Ansari wore

There is a species of Indian that’s rapidly disappearing. Compassionate, professional, tolerant of other religions, deeply influenced by western liberal political thought, notably of the Left leaning variety, and, above all, to whom loving India means just being kind, in words and deed.

Hamid Ansari is that kind of Indian, thanks to his family background. He was born in 1937 in Calcutta in a middle class Muslim family where his father worked in an insurance company. In the 1920s, his father was drawn into the Khilafat movement and jailed for a year. He was viscerally opposed to communal politics.

In 1930 he became judge. In 1935 he came back to Calcutta to join a new insurance company.

Hamid, sandwiched between two elder brothers and two younger sisters, was born two years later. The family moved about for the next decade and eventually decided to settle in Aligarh, where the future diplomat and Vice-President of India attended college for five years at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

Foreign service

In 1961 he joined the Foreign Service in which he spent an ordinary career, mostly in India’s Muslim neighbourhood. Eventually, he was appointed Ambassador to Afghanistan right in the middle of the Soviet withdrawal and the war that accompanied it.

The ambassador’s residence was a large colonial building — till one day in 1990 a bomb fell on it. Then it got halved.

Ansari has this to say about that incident. “... it’s impact blew away the façade and the first floor of the house — and the chair on which I had been sitting... the crater in the garden was almost six feet deep.” Ansari retired from government service in 1999.

On an objective basis, the 38 years he spent in the foreign service were unremarkable. Most Indian diplomats have similar humdrum stories to tell. Thankfully, in an implicit recognition of this, Ansari has devoted only 116 pages of the 369 to it.

Exiting the cocoon

Retirement for all those who work in long-term careers in a single organisation is a challenge. Exiting the cocoon of the organisation induces a feeling of vulnerability.

Ansari was no exception. But he doesn’t dwell on it.

Instead, he says, his new life was facilitated by an invitation from JNU to share his knowledge of West Asia. He also wrote articles and book reviews for a sister magazine of this publication, Frontline.

The navigation coordinates of Ansari’s political inclinations — liberal, mildly Left — were thus openly fixed now. They would stand him in good stead seven years later when he was invited to become the Vice-President of India, no less.

Of this interim period he writes, “Living in the IFS apartments, in the company of many colleagues... was pleasant. This tranquillity, however, did not last.” It was indeed very short-lived. In May 2000, after an intervention by President KR Narayanan, he joined AMU as Vice-Chancellor.

There were 19,000 students in the university. Some of them were highly involved in politics. The university was grotesquely short of infrastructure. It was the usual Indian story of Indian universities. But there was one difference — it is a university mainly for Muslims and it has had a mixed political past.

Ansari sorted out things as best as he could and brought a measure of quiet to the usually charged atmosphere there. He retired from the post in March 2002 because he had turned 65. It was perhaps too short a tenure, but a calming one nevertheless.

As an aside, it must be said here that the next V-C of JNU will face similar challenges. Whoever he is, and whenever he is appointed, he should have a chat with Ansari because AMU in 2000 sounds so much like JNU in 2020.

Upon his return to Delhi, he devoted himself to learning how to use the PC. He says he even learnt how to insert footnotes. This book abounds in them.

Life over the next five years proceeded as prescribed for intellectually inclined former civil servants and diplomats. Reading, writing and holding forth in various fora became his main activities. It was a quietly pleasant life.

But little did he know that Sitaram Yechury of the CPI (M) and Sonia Gandhi would come up with very different plans for him. In 2007, together they made him Vice-President of India.

He would go on to become only the second Vice-President to hold the post for two terms. The first was Dr S Radhakrishnan (1952-62).

Vice President

Soon after he took office, Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, called on him. This is what Ansari has to say of the meeting:

“After the usual polite exchanges I said I had questions in my mind... I referred to the post-Godhra happenings in his State in 2002 and asked why he allowed it to happen. He said that people look at only one aspect of the matter and pay no attention to the good work he has initiated, particularly for the education of Muslim girls. I sought its details and said he should publicise it; ‘that does not suit me politically,’ was the revealingly candid response.”

Everyone thinks that Indian Vice-Presidents have it good. What they don’t realise is that the coin has two sides. The Vice-President is also the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha.

Managing it is like being a conductor in a bus full of aggressive adolescent school boys who are wrestling in the aisle. Ansari, for those who watched his creation, Rajya Sabha TV, didn’t have an easy time.

The section on his ten years as Chairman is the best one in this book. It is very informative and thoughtful. The reader gets to learn so many things about how Parliament and the Rajya Sabha are run.

Ansari justifies the existence of the Rajya Sabha by citing something from American history. It seems Thomas Jefferson once asked George Washington why a second chamber (the Senate) was needed.

“Why do you pour coffee in your saucer?” asked Washington.

“To cool it”, replied Jefferson.

“We pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.”

Published on February 28, 2021

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