Brajesh Mishra was convinced that only a Centre able to practise secular values and respect the country’s plural traditions could pursue a robust strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan
The year was 2002. Two days after bloody riots erupted in Gujarat, I got a call late in the evening from an Ahmedabad-based officer of the Indian Police Service. The policeman simply said: “Sir, I am embarrassed to make this call. I am told that a local BJP legislator in Mehsana district is planning to undertake a massacre of Muslims tonight. And I am ashamed that there is no one here who will listen.” The police officer gave me the name of the village and taluka where the BJP “leader” had invited the village for a feast before the mob could be worked up to march on to a nearby village with a large concentration of Muslims.
Overwhelmed by the enormity of the imminent crime, I rang up my friend Brajesh Mishra. Fortuitously, Mishra picked up his mobile. I simply narrated to him what I had been told from Ahmedabad. He heard me out, noting down the sketchy details, and said: “Let me see.” Next morning I got another call from the police officer, who was obviously relieved and said: “Sir, I do not know what you did or to whom you talked; within two hours, an army posse reached the spot, rowdies were made to stay put, and their bloody plans sabotaged. Over 100 lives were saved. Thank you.”
A few days later, when I went over to the Prime Minister’s Office to have my weekly tea with Mishra, I thanked him profusely. With becoming dignity and gravitas he observed: “Those of us who have the good fortune to work in this office for the Prime Minister of India can never become indifferent to the obligation of social harmony.”
Suddenly it was clear that the man who wore two hats — the Principal Secretary to Prime Minister and National Security Adviser — was laying down the golden principle for administering India. The state can never abandon its neutrality nor become ambivalent about social harmony. In that moment, Brajesh Mishra revealed himself to be a keen student of P.N. Haksar, another practitioner of enlightened statecraft who served another Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, with great distinction.
Haksar had presciently spelled out a vital link between internal cohesion and our national security: “Secularism or its failure affects vitally social cohesion in our society, without which we cannot discuss our security. The fundamental basis for ensuring security of any state is its inner unity, cohesion and coherence of the society. A society which is torn between conflicting religions is bound to be an easy prey to internal forces of disintegration and external forces of destabilization.”
Although Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mascot, had managed to notch up an impressive victory in the 2002 Gujarat election by positing a Mian Musharraf-Madarsas-Muslims linkage, Brajesh Mishra (as well as his boss, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee) was profoundly unhappy. It was clear to him that if the BJP had any long-term hopes of ruling the country, surely the Modi prescriptions and slogans were totally unhelpful. Those were the heady days of the post-9/11 war on terror. Indian statesmanship demanded that the polity be spared the debilitating polarisation of a civil war.
Mishra was convinced that only a Centre able to practise secular values and respect our country’s plural traditions could conduct superior diplomacy and pursue a robust strategy, especially vis-à-vis Pakistan. And, he was equally convinced that an amicable solution to the Kashmir problem could be attempted only from a higher secular moral ground. The political discourse would have to be detoxed of its Gujarat-centric delinquencies.
It is possible to argue that it was only after the Gujarat carnage that the Vajpayee-Mishra duo embarked on seeking some kind of reconciliation with Pakistan, an effort that culminated in January 2004 in Islamabad. Mishra was painfully aware that the Advani-Modi faction had so precipitously damaged the social fabric throughout the country that our national security had become vulnerable. Sensible statecraft demanded engagement with Pakistan.
The second principle that Mishra believed in was that those who were fortunate enough to get the privilege of governing — or hope to govern — this country do not have the luxury of pettiness. History is witness that whenever a Prime Minister allowed his pique to get the better of sane impulses, the outcome has been a morally and politically inferior response. On a number of occasions he would hint how Prime Minister Vajpayee was under pressure from the NDA hotheads to use the state’s coercive instruments against political rivals; and, how he was able to help the Prime Minister ward off the sangh parivar’s efforts at dirty tricks. He once pronounced: “A Prime Minister of India has an obligation to decency and decorum.”
Like Haksar, Mishra was a great believer in centralisation of resources and power in pursuit of national ambitions and purpose. Just as Haksar helped Indira Gandhi accumulate power of oversight and co-ordination in the Prime Minister’s Office, Mishra helped Vajpayee restore the aura and authority of the PMO. Though Mr. Vajpayee’s circumstances were vastly different from those of Indira Gandhi, Mishra was aware of the toll that two years of the United Front government had taken of our national will. The wobbliness in the PMO had to be corrected and that is precisely what he achieved.
In his autobiography, My Country, My Life, L.K. Advani unwittingly reveals how efforts were made by him and others to cut Brajesh Mishra to size. The Kargil Review Committee Report was flaunted to argue that Mishra should not combine two roles — of Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser. Mr. Advani plaintively notes how Mr. Vajpayee stood by Mishra: “We repeatedly urged the Prime Minister to bifurcate the two posts held by Brajesh Mishra. Atalji, however, had a different view and did not implement this recommendation. It was, of course, the Prime Minister’s prerogative to do so. In my view, the clubbing together of two critical responsibilities, each requiring focused attention, did not contribute to harmony at the highest levels of governance.”
Presumably neither Mr. Advani’s suggestion nor Mr. Vajpayee’s rejection of it was personal. At issue was a certain notion of a command and control structure that should be available to the Prime Minister of India. I remember vividly that within a few weeks of the UPA government coming to power in May 2004, Mishra told me crisply and precisely: “If you have any influence with the new crowd of our new rulers, please tell them to dismantle the disastrous trifurcation in the PMO.” The Manmohan Singh government had experimented with a three way division of Mr. Mishra’s responsibilities — a Principal Secretary (T.K.A. Nair), a National Security Adviser (J.N. Dixit) and a Security Adviser (M.K. Narayanan).
Mishra would have violently disagreed with Mamata Banejree who recently decreed that “India cannot be governed from New Delhi.” Inherent in Ms Banerjee’s formulation is an emasculated and enfeebled Centre. Mishra’s, on the other hand, hinged on a national mobilisation, not a fragmentation of political power; on a pan-Indian vision, rather than a region-centric calculus; and, on a summoning of our best civilisational instincts and traditions, rather than the sangh parivar’s shoddy feudal animosities. The Mishra-Vajpayee duo rescued the exercise of power from the BJP’s preference for pettiness and provincialism. It was a six-year long struggle between the two approaches and the balance perhaps tilts slightly against the Vajpayee-Mishra team.
Once the realisation dawned on the country that the BJP was not inclined to abide by the Vajpayee-Mishra approach, it was only a matter of time before the NDA was voted out of power.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)