Books

Second men, primary powers

Uday Balakrishnan | Updated on February 23, 2020 Published on February 24, 2020

Title: A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon Author: Jairam Ramesh Publisher: Penguin Viking Price: ₹999

An incisive, dispassionate and revealing biography of the redoubtable VK Krishna Menon

 

While reviewing this huge and engaging book on VK Krishna Menon by Jairam Ramesh, I wondered to which other biography of a public figure, who had exercised overwhelming influence on his leader, it could be compared to, before the answer flashed in my mind — AJP Taylor’s much shorter but equally fascinating ‘Bismarck – The Man and the Statesman,’ of course!”

Although Bismarck and Krishna Menon belonged to different ages, they have several things in common. Both were brilliant yet vainglorious and capable of emotional blackmail to get their way. Both were conscious of their respective positions and practically owned those whom they purported to serve.

Like Bismarck, Krishna Menon too believed in his indispensability and nearly always worked his way back to power, pleading threatening, cajoling and even begging Nehru. Both were impervious to shame and disgrace. They were devoted to their leaders and in turn demanded and got their absolute support. Both were arrogant, and capable of endless intrigue.

But there were differences. Wilhelm let go of Bismarck impetuously. Had he remained, it is possible the First World War might never have occurred. Krishna Menon stayed far too long in positions that needed steadier, shrewder and more calculating hands to manage.

Both biographies stand out for their objectivity, unsurprising for a historian like AJP Taylor, but unexpected in Jairam Ramesh, a politician and scholar writing about a personality who once belonged to his party and dominated the political stage through the Nehruvian phase of India’s independence and thereafter lingered, increasingly ignored, till his death in 1974.

Jairam Ramesh’s deployment of documents, exchanges and letters mark him out as a later day Leopold Ranke. That he cast his net widely for fresh material on his subject is unmissable as is his judicious use of what he has accessed. The result is one of the most incisive and entertaining political biographies to come out of India.

An interesting phase

A very interesting part of Jairam Ramesh’s biography is the account of Krishna Menon in the period before Independence, which he spent in England thanks to the redoubtable Annie Besant. We see him in many roles — distinguishing himself academically at the University College London and LSE and gathering around him a wide circle of prominent British intellectuals and politicians who were sympathetic and supportive of India’s quest for freedom.

We also get to know a febrile Krishna Menon overworking himself as an organiser of meetings and as an innovative publisher propelling the boom in paperbacks. This is the phase we see Krishna Menon at his very best — irritatingly brilliant and un-ignorable.

It was also in England that Krishna Menon became Jawaharlal Nehru’s, pointsman, literary agent, fast friend and confidante. We see Krishna Menon establish Nehru as an author and a public intellectual of consequence, connecting him to the best in British society while opening platforms from where he could repeatedly make his case for India’s freedom. The letters they exchanged through wartime covered a host of topics from Congress affairs to what Nehru saw as the disruptive activities of Bose. In many ways, from the evidence Jairam Ramesh has amassed, it can be argued that Krishna Menon made Nehru.

We meet a different Krishna Menon in newly independent India — insecure, capricious and extremely possessive of the one friend he had — Nehru. There is no doubt that he felt out of place in new India’s political circles and it is clear that Nehru understood this and tried to ease his entry into public life first by making him the country’s High Commissioner to the UK and after a scandal prone tenure, pulling him out with great difficulty, easing his entry into parliament and finally giving him control of a key ministry, defence, from which he was forced out following India’s rout in the 1962 war with China.

Indiscretion, condescension and arrogance were always part of Krishna Menon’s repertoire. As our envoy in Britain he unnecessarily called on his Pakistani counterpart twice just when things were blowing up in Kashmir. There was not even a mild reprimand from Nehru for such a gross indiscretion. Krishna Menon gave a marathon speech in the United Nations defending India’s stand in Kashmir. But was that necessary and could it have been more succinctly and effectively articulated by someone like Rajagopalachari?

Foreign affairs

In one area Krishna Menon complemented Nehru — foreign affairs. Both of them loved the international stage and were at ease interacting with foreign leaders and involving India in international conflict resolution. Through Jairam Ramesh’s book we, for the first time, get an Indian perspective of world events as the Cold War played out.

The one enduring legacy Krishna Menon has left behind is the much-maligned policy of non-alignment that Nehru spearheaded. It worked well for India enabling it to survive the Cold War and ride the chaos that engulfed the world following the collapse of the USSR.

The cavalier manner in which Krishna Menon straddled the world as a peacemaker at large with Nehru’s backing is well covered in this book. This made good copy but was it diplomacy at all one wonders. In Bandung, he almost certainly riled or amused an erudite and battle hardened Chou En Lai, a veteran of the Long March and later survivor of Mao’s purges. Krishna Menon’s brash interventions in the international arena more than convinced the Chinese that they were dealing with Indians utterly lacking a practical knowledge of peace or war.

Reading Jairam Ramesh’s book one cannot help feel that Krishna Menon’s cacophonic and peripatetic diplomacy perhaps lost India more friends than it gained. It certainly irritated the US enough for President Eisenhower to call him a ‘boor because he conceives himself to be intellectually superior.’ That is what the Americans thought of Nehru following his first visit to the US.

Wouldn’t it have been better for India to look inward at its neighbourhood and mend fences with its many neighbours? This thought never crossed either Krishna Menon or Nehru’s minds. If it had, the granting of asylum to the Dalai Lama, which Kissinger considered was a strategic inflection point in Indo-China relations, would have been handled with much greater finesse addressing Chinese sensitivities proactively. Had that been done, 1962 might never have occurred. That is a thought.

Through this work we also come to know of the insecurities that drove Krishna Menon to be so calculating when it came to his own political survival and why he never allowed Nehru to ignore him or why he left the Congress to contest and win a seat in the Lok Sabha with communist help.

The test of a good biography is whether it adds to our knowledge of a personality whose life has been comprehensively covered by others in the past. Jairam Ramesh’s account of Krishna Menon’s life definitely passes that test. In this book he presents facts dispassionately, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions, making it a thought provoking and brilliant read.

The reviewer teaches at the Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru

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Published on February 24, 2020
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