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Brajesh Mishra, strategic czar of Vajpayee era, passes away

Sandeep Dikshit
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Brajesh Mishra
Brajesh Mishra

Brajesh Mishra, India’s first National Security Adviser and the man who supervised the testing and incorporation of nuclear weapons as an integral part of the country’s security strategy, died here on Friday. He would have been 84 on Saturday.

From being closely involved in the planning for the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests to pushing for a deeper engagement with the United States and attempting to mend ties with both Pakistan and China, Mishra stepped out of the bureaucratic mould to implement in a finely detailed fashion the broad vision of foreign policy that Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister had sketched out for India.

Under constant attack from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which laid the blame for many of the Vajpayee government’s foreign policy initiatives at his door, Mishra’s path was made smoother by the presence of Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha at the helm in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who also subscribed to the notion of closer engagement with the U.S. and building bridges with Pakistan.

But the true secret of his success lay in his ability to leverage his position as NSA and Principal Secretary to Mr. Vajpayee to emerge as a policy czar who always had the final word on diplomatic and security related questions.

Mishra had seen the trappings and play of power right from his father, Dwarka Prasad Mishra’s days in the Congress Party that culminated in him being named Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. He became a diplomatic practioner himself after joining the Indian Foreign Service in 1951. He served in various positions, including as Ambassador to Indonesia and India’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations.

In January 1980, he read out an official Indian brief on the situation in Afghanistan at a special emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly defending the Soviet Union’s invasion of that country. He would later tell friends how he had been conflicted over that speech, whose line he personally disagreed with.

Though he spent his days in the foreign service during the Cold War, Mishra was able to grasp early in his stint as Prime Minister Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary the need to get closer to the U.S. But before that could happen, there were several issues to be settled closer to home such as the aftermath of the Kandahar hijacking, the Kargil conflict and the holes it exposed in India’s defence planning. There was also need to fix the one faux pas the Vajpayee government committed on his watch: blaming China – in a letter to U.S. President Bill Clinton – for having forced India to conduct Pokhran-II.

Seizing the opportunity to play one Asian giant against another, the U.S. promptly leaked the letter to the New York Times . Five years later, however, Mishra had undone the damage, taking India’s relations with China to a new level with the appointment of Special Representatives to expedite a solution to the boundary issue.

While Mishra piloted this multi-pronged policy, building new relations for India with powers like the U.S. and China, he worked hard to keep old ally Russia reassured that closer engagement with others did not automatically mean estrangement with Moscow.

That Mishra was able to guide the Indian foreign policy from the tight corner it found itself during the 1998-2002 period was partly attributable to the high growth rates the Indian economy registered, which made the country too attractive a market for the western world to shun.

Six years was too short a time for him to realise many of the moves initiated during his tenure as NSA but the Manmohan Singh government did acknowledge his contribution, especially to the India-U.S. nuclear deal, by bestowing him with the Padma Vibhushan.

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