The presence of P.N. Dhar lent respectability to Indira Gandhi’s PMO

All those who knew him will deeply mourn the passing of Professor P.N. Dhar, a quiet and much respected academician who innocently found himself drawn to high office as Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary at a moment of history that sucked him into the tsunami of Emergency politics. He tried to battle its worst manifestations, as recounted by his colleague B.N. Tandon in his PMO Diaries, but was powerless to stop what became an inexorable tide.

Having split the Congress Party and assumed complete power as “Empress of India” as a consequence of the Bangladesh liberation war, a strangely insecure Prime Minister built a coterie of loyalists around her led by her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi. The arrogance of power and the corruption unleashed stirred discontent in Gujarat and Bihar under the leadership of Jayaprakash Narayan. The coterie saw Raj Narain’s election petition as a sinister plot to dethrone her. The opposition’s tactics of supporting an all-India railwaymen’s strike and JP’s misguided call to the police not to obey what they considered illegal orders, was seen as leading to anarchy.

P.N. Dhar was dismayed by the Sanjay coterie camped at the PM’s house usurping effective power from the PM’s Office with Indira Gandhi’s connivance. He could not understand her singular unwillingness to get rid of men like L.N. Mishra and Tul Mohan Ram who had acquired most unsavoury reputations for corruption and her covering for Sanjay’s thoroughly dubious Maruti car project, all of which was merely bringing her disrepute. With yes-men all around the PM, Dhar and other intrinsically good men like Sharada Prasad felt that they were all that stood between a semblance of orderly and democratic governance and chaos. Dhar did think of resigning but abandoned the thought and decided to soldier on. The prevailing blanket of fear and total censorship stacked the cards against those who would stem the rot. Indira Gandhi too would not let Dhar go. The presence of men like him lent respectability to the PMO in howsoever small measure.

In his eloquent autobiography, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and India’s Democracy published in tranquillity in 2000, Dhar rationalised his response. He saw the Emergency as a systemic failure, the causes of which must be sought in the evolution of India’s post-Independence political system and its response to adverse economic circumstances. Therefore, to look for the causes of the Emergency, he felt one must go beyond the Allahabad High Court judgement and the events that followed and explore the widening gap between the form and substance of democracy as it operated in India. “I argue that if by ‘emergency’ is meant an abridgement of the rule of law … then in India the democratic substance started deviating from the form long before 26(actually 25) June, 1976”.

Further, JP’s “total revolution”, Dhar said, was much like the Sarvodaya leader’s criticism of Gandhism, “ a compound of timid economic analysis, good intentions and ineffective moralising” — a dangerous doctrine because “it hushes up the real issues and sets out to remove the real evils of society by pious wishes”. Dhar did not absolve Indira Gandhi of blame even as he faulted JP. Having known JP from earlier times he did try and bring him and Indira Gandhi together through mutual friends, but to no avail.

The long night ended with the general elections of 1977. Why did Indira Gandhi decide to hold them? Dhar rejected the theory that she was fed information that she would win hands down. He felt she was too shrewd not to have sensed the reality. Deep down she had begun to turn against the Emergency herself. Hence the sudden gamble. She lost.

I have dwelt at some length on the Emergency period because it was the most dramatic period of Dhar’s career after placid and contented years as a don in Delhi University and the Institute for Economic Growth and a U.N. civil servant in New York. He was in PMO when India conducted its first nuclear test and took over Sikkim. He was earlier associated with the founding of the Delhi School of Economics.

Dhar sahib, as he was affectionately known, had a happy married life, his wife, Shiela, being a well-known classical singer and writer. She was a jovial figure, full of fun and laughter. Together they made a lovely couple and had a wide circle of friends. Her earlier departure saddened him greatly and he gradually retired in more sense than one, though surrounded by his children and long-time friends. He will be remembered.

(B.G. Verghese is a veteran journalist. He is with the Centre for Policy Research.)

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