The man behind India’s Iron Lady

M. Ramesh | Updated on: Jul 01, 2018
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Jairam Ramesh brings to life PN Haksar, a one-time confidante of Indira Gandhi who fell out with her later

Merit and contributions of people who tend to keep to themselves pass unnoticed and congressman and Rajya Sabha MP, Jairam Ramesh, in his new-found role as a historian and a biographer, has done well to produce a book on the life of Parameshwar Narain Haksar, who, from what the book tells us, has done much to shape the history and future of India.

Ramesh says in the last chapter of the book is a “straight-forward chronicle of a life of a most fascinating man”, and that is exactly what it is. The author has been careful not to be judgemental, but has let extracts of documents speak about the man.

The most commendable part of the book is the amount of digging into archives that Ramesh has done to bring out the biography of the man who has, all through the 50s, 60s and 70s, gone by the name “PNH”.

Perhaps because it is now two decades since the demise of the man, the first chapter is titled “Haksar: who and why”, and here we get a good introduction to the man we are going to read about.

In short, Haksar was an English-educated bureaucrat, Jawaharlal Nehru’s protégé and Indira Gandhi’s alter ego, who, as her Secretary, guided her through every step of her initial years in office —through the epochal times of bank nationalisation and Indo-Pak war, but permanently fell out of her favour due to his opposition to Emergency and Sanjay Gandhi. The title of the book is a trifle misleading. Jairam Ramesh has named the biography “Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi” with the names coming in the second line. Intertwined Lives otherwise evokes a sense of a romantic fiction, but the title is less appropriate for another reason too. Throughout the book, it is the voice of Haksar that is heard loudly, with Indira Gandhi only nodding her head of shaking it occasionally.

Indira’s mentor

It was Indira Gandhi’s early days as Prime Minister and she needed guidance. She dreaded Parliament, sat through the sessions tongue-tied causing the veteran Socialist leader Rammanohar Lohia call her “dumb doll”. Haksar, Ramesh says, “contributed heavily to the making of Indira Gandhi”, briefing her on what to say, giving her background on a subject or a person she was to encounter, even managing her appointments.

His advice touched all areas — economy, politics, appointment to critical positions, diplomacy, arms negotiations, etc. He was “devastatingly frank” when he advised her, always speaking his mind, even on issues when he knew his views were at variance with hers. Perhaps for this he paid a price in the end — Haksar and his family were subjected to humiliation. She put him in “deep freeze” and her responses to his letters, as illustrated in one particular case, “showed no sign of their past bonhomie and camaraderie.”

The book is likely to leave the reader with respect for Haksar’s intelligence, integrity, and courage, but not for his views. His notes advising Indira Gandhi of the nuances of every issue are a delight to read, particularly when they relate to foreign policy. The notes, of which Jairam Ramesh has provided plenty, shows Haksar’s hand in everything that Indira Gandhi is today praised for — particularly the Indo-Pak War. They also show Haksar’s commitment to values. For instance, in the height of the 1971 war, Haksar took time to write back to a middle level manager of the government-owned soap factory: “I have your letter of November 24. I have received a sample of your Mysore Sandal Soap and I shall be glad, in due course, to place an order.”

On the other hand, the book shows Haksar as a man who belongs to the core group that did everything that is seen as wrong today — nationalisation of everything, blind faith in public sector, crimping of the private sector (Haksar shaped the MRTP Act), too much of pro-Soviet and anti-US incline. An interesting feature of the book is a response written by JRD Tata to Haksar, to a letter of Haksar that implied that “leading members of Indian bourgeoisie just did not measure up to their counterparts in Europe and Japan.” JRD’s response is in livid prose blasting government’s policies, which “instead of releasing energies and enterprises, the system of licences and all-pervasive controls imposed on the private sector of the country, combined with confiscatory personal taxation, not only discouraged and penalised honest free enterprise but encouraged, and brought success and wealth, to a new breed of bribers, tax evaders and black marketeers.”

JRD notes that a plan of the Tatas to set up a world class fertiliser plant was shot down by the government on the grounds that the Tatas were “already too big.”

Bearing the cross

Jairam Ramesh acknowledges this aspect of Haksar. “Viewed in today’s (emphasis original) context, he was brilliantly wrong in some of his beliefs,” says the author, but balances it by noting that Haksar “got enough things right which have served the country well.” The book is mostly adulatory, but the author does note: “The cross that Haksar has to bear is that he did nothing really to free India from the license-quota-permit raj when he was in a position to do so.”

‘Intertwined Lives” goes somewhat like Shane Watson’s innings in the last IPL final, when the batsman scored not a single run in the first 10 balls, but hit a century in the next 41. The initial chapters of the book are boring, detailing Haksar’s life in London — maybe Ramesh thought that a biography would not be complete without these. However, as it progresses, the book gathers steam. There is no explosive revelation, but there is enough substance in the book to sustain interest. It, for instance, illustrates the thinking of the people in command of things at that time. Sanjay Gandhi had been wanting to set up a factory to produce a small car. Haksar frowns at the proposal that would call for an investment of ₹40 crore to produce cars that would be priced at ₹12,000. Haksar instead wants the government to set up a company that would produce scooters that the less-rich can use — the result was Scooters India Ltd, one of the worst PSUs. Haksar was also involved in the setting up of PSUs like IPCL and ONGC, and also institutions like the Electronics Commission and the R&AW.

Still the book is Haksar-positive. From the book it is apparent that Haksar was a multi-faceted personality — a diplomat, an economist, negotiator, personal secretary, manager.

But the most prominent of them all is that of a diplomat — not surprising because Haksar was picked up from the foreign service. There are interesting nuggets in his talks with Henry Kissinger, the then US Secretary of State.

Once, responding to Haksar, Kissinger says that the US would also want to see a strong India, and adds, “not that a strong India will be any joy to deal with.”

If reading the book leaves you siding with Haksar, it would inevitably make you look at Indira Gandhi who took so much from a person and then deep-froze him. In an interview to the Illustrated Weekly , she hurt him by questioning his integrity.

It is clear that Jairam Ramesh thinks highly of Haksar and the book gets the reader begin to love the man — especially in the penultimate chapter, which is about The Last Three Years of the sad, blind, old widower.

Published on July 03, 2018

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