A fascinating account of PN Haksar’s role in shaping India’s history during Indira Gandhi’s regime.
Jairam Ramesh’s new book Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi is not necessarily about the nature of relations between the former prime minister and her mentor. It is a fascinating account of the experiments they together undertook with the history of post-Nehru India.
Lal Bahadur Shastri succeeded Nehru, but did not remain PM for long, dying suddenly after signing the Tashkent Agreement. The Congress leadership chose Indira 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 had been aspiring to take over from her father after his death. Her immediate challenges would come not from the opposition, but from within the Congress. Gandhi pulled out PN Haksar, an old family friend, from the Indian High Commission in London to be her secretary in the PMO. Haksar was too happy to get a chance to help her through a maze of political, economic and foreign policy challenges confronting the country. And although Gandhi had been living with her father at Teen Murti and had met world leaders at home and abroad, and had also been Congress president, she had no administrative experience except having served as I&B minister in the Shastri government for a few months.
After the 1967 election, 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 Haksar, who was useful to keep the CPI and fellow travellers in tow and meet the difficulties presented by the right-wing Congress leaders, who later came to be known as the Syndicate. They were to soon discover that Gandhi would not be a pliable prime minister and, indeed, she had different ideas.
During the next few years, Haksar helped 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 Gandhi defying a powerful team of president Nixon and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger openly supporting Pakistan.
If 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 to help her defeat Pakistan, and in the process, emerge as a national leader.
Jairam Ramesh’s account of those eventful years is based on the copious notes and letters Haksar sent her on practically every major policy issue to enable her to take a decision. His notes and letters to her were long, too frequent and too detailed, leaving little room for Gandhi to take her own decisions.
Haksar was an idealist, with pronounced Left leanings inherited from his dalliance with communism in his younger days. He was a visionary and 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 a close circle of scientists, economists and intellectuals who could be marshalled to give shape to a post-Nehru India. While in the PMO, he was able to persuade Gandhi to write to Satish Dhawan, who was working in California, to return to India to steer India’s fledgling space programme from where Vikram Sarabhai had left it. His group of scientists included Raja Raman, HN Sethna, Nurul Hassan, Ashok Mitra, Sukhmoy Chakravartty and many others.
Left-leaning as he was, he was sure India had to invest in the public sector to speed up development. He made Gandhi go in for nationalisation of banks, insurance companies and coal, and abolition of privy purses and privileges. Gandhi, who was essentially a politician, used Haksar’s Left-wing friends like Mohan Kumaramangalam, HR Gokhale and others to fight her battles with the right-wing leaders.
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 a 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 judgment, enunciating that Parliament cannot change the basic structure of the Constitution.
Opposition parties led by Jaiprakash Narayan launched agitations. Gandhi struck back by imposing the infamous Emergency in June 1975, arbitrarily extending the life of Parliament and of her own government, imposing censorship of the press, sending opposition leaders to prison and scrapping Fundamental Rights, including the Right to Life!
Gandhi was on the wrong side of the people and history. The arrival of Sanjay Gandhi on the scene made things worse. Nikhil Chakravarty, a noted journalist, described Sanjay as “an extra-Constitutional authority” who, in the name of helping his mother, had grabbed a lot of power in his hands. Sanjay’s keenness to set up the Maruti car factory had already made Haksar uncomfortable. He told 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. However, Gandhi would not listen to him, as she simply could not say no to her son.
Haksar came to feel his advice was no longer needed and Gandhi did not even think of preventing Haksar from leaving. Later, he was asked to become deputy chairman of the Planning Commission. He had become an outlier in Gandhi’s scheme of things!
Emergency was imposed. Sanjay got Haksar’s uncle, owner of Pandit Brothers in New Delhi, arrested. It was a sad ending to a relationship. In later years, Haksar was a disillusioned man, particularly after his uncle’s arrest and wife Urmila’s passing away. He even lost his eyesight.
Ramesh’s is a fascinating account based on Haksar’s notes, letters to Gandhi detailing guidelines on policy issues, strategies and tactics. Haksar was not economical in giving advice to Gandhi, which was sometimes needed and sometimes given 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.
-HK Dua has been editor of The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune and a former ambassador and member of the Rajya Sabha