The Iron Lady's Alter Ego

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The Iron Lady's Alter Ego

Sunday, 04 November 2018 | Excerpt

The Iron Lady's Alter Ego

Jairam Ramesh’s Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi — the biography of Haksar, one of the best known civil servants and Indira’s right-hand man — offers an insight into the past of both the person and the country he served. An edited excerpt:

Indira Gandhi was preparing for her upcoming election campaign when she received this note from PN Haksar five days into the New Year, on January 5, 1971: “The PM may kindly see the report placed below prepared by the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). I have long been feeling a sense of uneasiness about the intentions of Pakistan in future. The recent political developments in Pakistan have added to my anxieties. With the overwhelming victory of East Pakistan wing [Sheikh Mujibur Rahman], the solution of internal problems of Pakistan have become infinitely more difficult. Consequently, the temptation to seek solution to these problems by external adventures has become very great. I think that the time has come when our Armed Forces need to make a very realistic assessment both of Pakistan’s capability and our response. I have a feeling that there are many weak spots in our defence capabilities. These need to be remedied without loss of time. I know how busy the PM is. And yet, I venture to suggest that the PM should call in all the three Chiefs of Staff, Defence Secretary, and the Defence Minister and share with them her anxieties and ask them to urgently prepare their own assessment and make recommendations of what the requirements of each of the Services are so that we can feel a sense of security. I suggest that such a meeting should be held quietly and without any publicity...”

Just as Haksar was worrying about Pakistan based on his meetings with Kao, Ritwick Ghatak cropped up again. The eccentric Bengali filmmaker had made a film on Lenin but it had run into controversy. On January 6, 1971, a day after sharing his worries about Pakistan with the Prime Minister, he told her: “In matters of this sort, one is apt to be carried away by somewhat exaggerated notions that our society, such as it is, would be seriously deflected from its course of evolution by a film on the life of Lenin as produced by Ritwick Ghatak. Generations of people all over the world have seen far more inflammatory films by Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Rossellini and others. These films, at any rate, were shown on a mass scale.

“And nothing very much really happened. Even if the film is certified as it is, hardly any cinema would show it on a commercial basis. I myself saw the film and I cannot say with any sense of realism that Ritwick Ghatak’s film on Lenin will bring the revolution even fraction of a second earlier. However, I am rather more oppressed by the poverty of Ghatak, who has staked up a little money with the help of some hapless financier and they are both desperately trying to sell this film to the Soviet Union. It would be great fun exporting Indian Lenin to the Soviet Union! I hope the Soviet society survives the depredations. It is really quite comic that so many hours of official time should have been wasted in considering the solemn question whether the film should or should not be released. I feel that we can well afford to let the film go giving it ‘A’ certificate.”

After dictating the note, Haksar realised that he may have been carried away by his liberalism and suggested to the Prime Minister that she may agree to having the film certified ‘for adults only’ subject to deletion ‘only of that portion of the commentary on land grab sequence’. The Prime Minister agreed! Thereafter, the Prime Minister plunged into her campaign in right earnest. Haksar was fully involved in the campaign at every step — writing substantial parts of the manifesto, suggesting possible candidates and getting feedback from his band of political and non-political friends in different States. People approached him with suggestions which he duly passed on to Indira Gandhi, and some even met him to offer themselves as candidates. One such person was a distinguished Army man, who had done India proud in the 1965 war with Pakistan. Haksar informed Indira Gandhi on January 16, 1971: “General Harbaksh Singh called on me today at 12.30 pm. He said that he had been approached by the Akali Party to stand from the Sangrur parliamentary constituency. He said that he belongs to this area. He further said that there are hundreds of thousands of people, especially amongst ex-servicemen, who are just fed up with the low level of Akali politics. He will have nothing to do with them. In fact, Punjab needs to be rescued from the Jathedars. They have no morals, no scruples and no ideology of any sort. He would, therefore, be glad to place his services at the disposal of the Prime Minister and would like to give a fight… Generally speaking, I take a dim view of soldiers, sailors and airmen entering politics. I must say that I was agreeably impressed by the earnestness and sincerity of General Harbaksh Singh. May be, he is an exception.”

The next day, Indira Gandhi asked Haksar to speak to the president of the Congress Party in Punjab, Giani Zail Singh, about the General but it is obvious that his candidature went nowhere. On January 30, 1971, Haksar reported to the Prime Minister: “General Harbaksh Singh telephoned me this morning to say how depressed he felt the way the Congress party was dealing with him. He said that the PM can make enquiry from any independent sources to discover what wide support he enjoys in Sangrur parliamentary constituency. He said he is anxious to give a fight to the Akalis. He added that he had heard that he was accused of flirting with the Akalis. This, according to him, was a strange allegation when one knows that Giani Zail Singh and Sardar Swaran Singh were themselves carrying on with the Akalis... and now Sardar Swaran Singh tells him that he cannot get Sangrur because the need for adjustments with the CPI has arisen. The General said that he had nothing against the CPI, but there is no chance for that party to win from Sangrur... I cannot say that General Harbaksh Singh is being unreasonable. In fact, the method of handling some of these people could certainly be greatly improved.”

As it turned out, the General did not contest. Surjit Singh Barnala of the Akali Dal won this seat and many years later would become the Chief Minister of Punjab and later the Governor of Tamil Nadu.

That Haksar was intimately associated with the distribution of the Congress tickets for the 1971 elections is evidenced by a note that he would send on February 4, 1971, to the Prime Minister when it had almost been decided to leave the New Delhi seat to the CPI in preference to Mukul Banerjee, an active Congresswoman:

As per the PM’s directions, I dutifully saw Mukul [Banerjee] and Bavani [her husband] and when I finished hearing what they had to say, I did not have the heart to suggest to Mukul that she might accept an assignment. Such an offer would have been, rightly, construed as adding insult to injury. They remain and will remain, loyal, devoted workers, but obviously the PM has to find a solution to their problem. To put it simply, their problem is that they have neither a position in the party organisation nor a position in public life. They have no money and live under conditions of destitution.

“A political party or leader which fails to look after such people will have to do a lot of accounting. In many matters, I exercise self-restraint but the way things are happening, it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to bottle myself up. It is a particularly bad day for me. I have had the misfortune to hear another story from Goa... If the PM has got the impression that a crook and criminal like Bandodkar should be encouraged and Sequeira and Kakodkar sacrificed, I feel that there is hardly any point in carrying on.

“Even ordinary courtesies and decencies are not being shown. Kakodkar was called to Delhi and he is being made to cool his heels here. One does not do such things even to one’s enemies, let alone to one’s friends. And I feel that having allowed certified enemies to enter the gate, the time has come to cry a halt.” Mukul Banerjee finally did get the Congress ticket for New Delhi and won handsomely. But from this note, it is clear that Haksar was getting increasingly frustrated and was even thinking of quitting as we shall see very soon.

On January 18, 1971, Haksar sent Indira Gandhi a note whose significance would be revealed much later. He wrote: “I have received a programme drawn up for the PM to tour her own constituency on February 1, 1971. I find that helicopter is being used twice. The PM has to consider this carefully. Also whether this was done in 1967. Use of helicopter, which West Bengal is advising in the interest of security, is one thing. Its use in going to inaccessible places is also understandable. Whether similar justification exists for its use by the PM in her own constituency, requires, I submit, careful consideration.”

Some months later, after the election results were declared and she had won handsomely in a landslide, her opponent Raj Narain would petition the Allahabad High Court that Indira Gandhi was guilty of a series of electoral malpractices, including the use of Government helicopters for her campaign. I will be discussing that case a little later. Suffice it to say for the moment that she was held ‘not guilty’ by the judge of the charge of misusing helicopters because she had confined it to specific areas on security considerations as advised by Haksar. As it is, she would be held guilty on two counts. There may well have been a third court had she not heeded Haksar’s advice on the use of helicopters in her own constituency of Raebareli in Uttar Pradesh.

The election campaign was in full swing and Indira Gandhi had returned to New Delhi to take part in the Republic Day celebrations on January 26, 1971. Just the previous day, Haksar delivered a bombshell of sorts to her: “I was born on September 4, 1913. I, therefore, reach the age of superannuation on September 4, 1971. Under Fundamental Rule 86, it is provided that leave at the credit of a Government servant in his leave account shall lapse on the date of compulsory retirement provided that if in sufficient time before that date he has formally applied for leave due as preparatory to retirement and been refused it, or ascertain in writing from the sanctioning authority that such leave, if applied for, would not be granted — in either case, the ground for refusal being the requirements of public service, then the Government servant may be granted, after the date of retirement, the amount of leave so refused subject to a maximum of six months.

“My leave account standing as on December 31, 1970, shows that I have the following amount of leave due to me:

(i)Earned leave — 180 days

(ii)Half pay leave — 440 days

“In accordance with the provisions of Fundamental Rule 86, I, therefore, apply for leave preparatory to retirement for the entire amount of leave due to me with effect from February 1, 1971.”

Haksar was clearly telling the Prime Minister that he wanted to leave. She sat on Haksar’s note and a few days later, on February 2, 1971, sent him an extraordinary note of her own:

“You know that I am neither morbid nor superstitious but I do think that one should be prepared. The thought of something happening to me has haunted me — not so much now, as during the last tour — and I am genuinely worried about the children. I have nothing to leave them except very few shares, which I am told are hardly worth anything. There is some little jewellery, which I had divided into two parts for the two prospective daughters-in-law. Then there are some household goods, carpets, pictures, etc. It is for the boys to decide. I personally would like everything to be as evenly divided as possible, except that 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. The problem is where they will live and how... I can only hope and trust for the best. But I should like the boys and some to feel that they are not quite alone, that they do have someone to lean on.”

This was a most unusual Indira Gandhi — emotional and baring her soul out to her aide. Was she telling him that she still needed him and that he should not press his resignation?

Excerpted with permission from Jairam Ramesh’sIntertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi published by Simon & Schuster, Rs 799

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