Brajesh Mishra’s political intelligence and diplomatic experience together translated into unmatched influence over the Vajpayee government

Life grudges courtesy. Death nudges it.

Brajesh Mishra, on crossing over, has received the praise many held back when he was with us.

The Prime Minister’s thoughtful and sincere tribute to the former National Security Adviser restores one’s faith in the future of civility in politics. It also gives us a definition of an ideal public servant and, more specifically, a role-model of an NSA.

During the five years that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister, his safari-suited Principal Secretary and National Security Adviser was, after the charismatic PM himself, the nearest that anyone came to embodying ‘Bharat Sarkar’.

Facts are facts. Hard facts are harder facts.

A poet in politics, Prime Minister Vajpayee thought lyrically and spoke in what sounded like free verse. If such an intellectual aesthete’s stewardship of the country could see India become a nuclear weapons state and, at the same time, make strategic moves for a composite dialogue with Pakistan, then the verser had to have had a grammarian helping him. And that was Brajesh Mishra.

The signet of power needs an indelible inking pad and a very sharply chiselled and firmly fonted seal pressing on it. Vajpayee and Mishra together made the imprimatur of the State. True, the Cabinet had a powerful Home Minister, a very visible Defence Minister and an articulate Foreign Minister. Yet, if the magnetic field of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s government had one single lodestone charging the terrain and holding it together, that was Brajesh Mishra.

The then Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and NSA was and was not an official. He had his politics but did he belong in Deen Dayal Upadhyay Bhavan? As a quintessential member of the Indian Foreign Service, he was rehearsed in diplomacy’s book of scores but his mind was no singing prisoner of a cuckoo clock.

As NSA, Brajesh Mishra had a certain weight of political intelligence and a height in terms of diplomatic experience. The two together translated into influence, impact. And so when he held the position of Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister and National Security Adviser, one that no one had combined in himself earlier, he was already a non pareil. To that he added another plus, which came from the Prime Minister’s total and unwavering trust in him. The Brajesh Mishra impact over the NDA government and, by extension, over the India under NDA could well be called his BMI — Brajesh Mishra’s weight in credentials divided by his height in metres of impact squared.

His former colleagues in the Indian Foreign Service either liked him to the point of looking up to him or they resented him for his supreme self-confidence which could seem arrogant if not offensive. One former diplomat who had an ease of equation with Mishra without sharing his political predispositions was the Nehruvian 10th President of India, K.R. Narayanan. Three reasons can be identified for President Narayanan’s high comfort level with the NSA. First, his seeing a desirable equilibrium at work between Prime Minister Vajpayee’s lyrical idealism and the NSA’s prosaic pragmatism. Second, his seeing the NSA’s Patelesque resoluteness as that of a patriot and not that of a warmonger. Third, the President’s intellectually arrived-at respect for the office of NSA as a lightning conductor on the edifice of the state and its deeply grounded lodestone.

Brajesh Mishra’s departure, amid widely-expressed cross-party admiration for his work as NSA, is a natural occasion for us to reflect on the office of the NSA, whether conjoined to the office of Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, or otherwise. In times when the nation engages in fluctuating negotiations with neighbouring governments — two of which are nuclear weapons states — with belligerent anti-India elements and opposition groups in some of those countries, dangerous non-state adversaries with possible collaborators within India, cyber-intrusions both insidious and overt, and several forms of restive and open violence working within the country, the nation needs a security pivot outside the multi-member, multiparty, multiplex of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister, for many a year to come, may neither be able to afford to be a Chamberlain nor risk affecting a Churchill. He will, by the logic of our geopolitical circumstance, have to quest patiently for conciliation while keeping the guard against shocks high. He will, also, need to be an unflagging and earnest idealist in the matter of universal disarmament while knowing all that deterrence entails. Only a bold NSA can suggest some form of unilateralism along with a universalist approach towards a nuclear global zero.

Fortunately, even incredibly, the NSAs who have succeeded Brajesh Mishra have combined calm intellection with no-nonsense realism. One does need to watch him ‘from the inside’ or too closely to see that our present NSA does not conflate security with paranoia, nor political intelligence with a craving for intercepts. More pertinently, that he becalms posturers, sabre-rattlers and mood-jitterers among political and non-political entities, while keeping our security nodules on the qui vive.

The Prime Minister of India and the NSA form a twosome-ness that is distinct, exclusive. It is in the trust that one reposes and the other receives in the confidence of their consultations transacted in the white heat of emergencies, that suraksha lies. Whether the Prime Minister acts as a Chamberlain or a Churchill, the NSA has to be a Chanakya. But in the sense of being versatile, not just clever.

The secured chamber of security planning needs to open a window. And that is the window of sharing our security policy’s broad trajectory with the country. Security planning need not be an Eleusinian mystery, a secret doctrine involving rites known only to the initiated. Not in the alert and open-eyed Republic that is India. There was a touch of the elusive and the mysterious about Brajesh Mishra. This did not strengthen his BMI. If his great contribution to India’s security method is to be systemically strengthened, it will have to rise above some of our first NSA’s own masterly elidings.

(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former Governor of West Bengal)

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