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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 21, New Delhi, May 8, 2021

Review Essay: ‘Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi’, by Jairam Ramesh | KS Subramanian

Saturday 8 May 2021


by KS Subramanian

Intertwined Lives:
PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi
by Jairam Ramesh
Simon & Schuster, India, 2018, pp.518, Price Rs. 799 

This remarkable book is about Parmeshwar Narain Haksar arguably India’s most influential and powerful civil servant under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Haksar was Indira Gandhi’s alter ego during her period of glory. The eminent administrator and diplomat, was educated in Allahabad and London; and was called to the Bar from Lincoln ‘s Inn. He studied Physics, Mathematics, Anthropology and Law. He became a diplomat in independent India under the inspiration of Jawaharlal Nehru and served in Lagos, Vienna and London as well as New York and Geneva in different capacities. Thereafter, he was Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (1967-1971); Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister (1971-1973); Member, Atomic Energy and Space Commission (1967-1977) and Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission (1975-1977).

The book is very well organized with summaries at the beginning of every important chapter covering the professional career of Haksar facilitating easy reading. At a critical juncture in modern Indian history, Haksar was not only the most powerful civil servant in India but also the second most powerful person in the country. ‘He did not derive his authority from Indira Gandhi. He contributed in no small measure to her own dominance’.

During his education in early years (1929-1935) in Allahabad he became politically conscious and was drawn to the communist ideology. As a student in London (1935-42) he became known as ‘student Molotov’ because he resembled in his scholarship the renowned Soviet scholar and politician. On return to India, he practised as an advocate in Allahabad (1943-47).

Haksar was not a ‘competitionwallah’ but was appointed to the foreign service by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His diplomatic career lasted from 1947 to 1965. While in New Delhi from 1955 and 1960, he worked closely with Nehru who was also the External Affairs Minister. India-China relations developed rapidly during this period and led to the 1962 border war. The author notes, however, that ‘nothing extraordinary during this period which pointed to Haksar’s future greatness’. What then was the work entrusted to him by the Prime Minister during this critical period when China-India relations acquired serious importance? The author is silent.

During 1965-67, the lives of Haksar and Indira Gandhi became ‘truly intertwined’ and Haksar became some sort of a local guardian to Indira Gandhi’s sons in the UK and became virtually a part of Indira Gandhi’s family. She became Prime Minister in January 1966 and immediately drew Haksar into her innermost circle. He was the alter ego of Indira Gandhi after he became Secretary to the PM from 1967 to 72. He played a pivotal role during the Bangladesh crisis (1971) and helped his PM ensure Bangladesh’s liberation by generous support to the freedom fighters of that country. He was India’s Chief Negotiator at Shimla, Delhi and Dhaka and substantially contributed to the evolution of the Shimla Agreement (1972) with Pakistan. He was Indira Gandhi’s ideological anchor and moral compass.

During 1973-74, Haksar was the PM’s Special Envoy. In 1975, he became Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission and helped the PM formulate and implement the 20-point programme. However, there was a permanent rupture between his family and Indira Gandhi in March 1977. He left all his official positions in May 1977 and brought to an end his full time, three decades-old association with the Indian state.

From 1977 to 1998, Haksar stayed in his own house ‘Shantiniketan’ in the New Delhi suburb and headed important committees and research institutions writing regularly. He became a friend and philosopher to civil servants, activists and NGOs.

Haksar’s estrangement from Indira Gandhi during 1978-84 was a significant feature. In 1975, Haksar’s family and he were harassed by the express orders of the PM’s younger son. In 1979, she had publicly seemed to question his integrity. But Haksar had always known that his relationship with her went back decades. He had been an acolyte of Prime Minister Nehru. She had picked him up from relative obscurity in the diplomatic service and had installed him right next to her. This was perhaps the reason why he continued to be loyal to her amidst all the knocks he had received. He seemed to believe that ‘she was the only political personality who embodied the values dear to him:

secularism, socialism and democracy (the Emergency notwithstanding), scientific temper and a global world view’.

Unfortunately, the book does not record the views of PN Haksar on some of the major internal conflicts in the country such as Maoist violence, violence in the Northeast, and increasing instability in J&K and the Punjab. His views on the arrest in 1953 of Sheikh Abdullah and his imprisonment for over ten years and their consequences for the country, could have been discussed. However, on pages 390-394, the book records the conversation between PN Haksar and Sheikh Abdullah and Begum Abdullah and his recommendations for improving the situation in Kashmir.

In 1984, the PM was unhappy with Governor BK Nehru and Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and wanted to get rid of them. The only person who disagreed was PN Haksar who said the Governor was perfectly good and Farooq Abdullah was a duly elected Chief Minister though a bit impulsive. However, both the dignitaries were removed.

Haksar was Chairman, Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta; Director, Press Trust of India; Member, National Integration Council; and Chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Among the honours that he received were the Kasturi Ranga Award (1981), Soviet Land Nehru Award (1987) and Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration (1989). Haksar, unlike BK Nehru and LP Singh refused to accept the award of Padma Vibhushan when it was offered to him.

In October 1984, Haksar felt Indira Gandhi’s loss deeply and also the horrendous killing of Sikhs that followed her assassination. He said what happened on October 31 was utterly shameful for the country when confronted with the passion of countries like Japan and China. Despite 75 years of struggle for freedom and nearly four decades of independence, even a simple idea like secular nationalism has not found naturalisation in the Indian habitat. ‘It wanders around like a strange animal in a hostile jungle to be devoured by wild beasts of Hindu, Muslim’ and other revivalists.

On the occasion of the death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, Haksar found it difficult to write about ‘that unfathomable person’ as he described her. Haksar and Sharada Prasad, the two important people in the life of the Prime Minister, found nothing in her life that they found worth recording.

Haksar authored several books and an autobiography. He wrote on Foreign Policy, and edited a journal, Man and Development. He had close affinity with many senior journalists and thinkers. He had two daughters.

In the current Indian context, Haksar’s advocacy of close friendship with neighbours especially China must be noted. He visited China in 1984 and 1986 paving the way for Rajiv Gandhi’s truly historic visit to China in December 1988 and the signing of two major treaties in 1993 and 1996. He held that politics may change but not geography.

Despite some notable omissions, this is a well-written book of significance in contemporary Indian politics.

(The writer is a former senior civil servant)

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