P.N. Haksar, a true counsellor

P.N. Haksar’s stint as Indira Gandhi’s key aide was a lesson in statecraft and integrity

P.N. Haksar, whose 20th death anniversary falls this month, on November 25, was one of India’s most eminent public servants. He served with great distinction as Secretary and then Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, leaving an indelible mark on India’s domestic and foreign policies.

Congress politician Jairam Ramesh’s book, Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi, illuminates the crucial role Haksar played at a critical juncture in India’s history. It does this by making Haksar speak in his own voice through letters, speeches, statements, and memos supplemented by reflections of people who knew him intimately during his years in office.

Crucial years

The years 1967-1973, when Haksar was directly involved in affairs of state, were witness to major developments in India’s domestic and foreign policy arenas. They saw the breakup of the Congress Party, the consolidation of power by Mrs. Gandhi, the nationalisation of banks and the abolition of the privy purses. They also saw the most fundamental geo-strategic change in South Asia since Partition — the breakup of Pakistan as a consequence of Indian military intervention. Furthermore, they witnessed the Indo-Soviet Treaty of August 1971 and the Shimla Agreement of July 1972.

Haksar mentored Mrs. Gandhi during her initial years in office and was the brain behind the breakup of the Congress believing that once she got rid of the “Syndicate”, she would be the instrument for social change that India needed desperately. He was initially not enamoured by the idea of dividing Pakistan. However, as the ‘East Pakistan’ crisis unfolded, he concluded that India had no option but to get militarily involved. He was the brain behind the diplomatic manoeuvres to elicit support from the international community for the liberation of Bangladesh. When war seemed imminent, and both the U.S. and China demonstrated overt support for Pakistan, Haksar, who was initially sceptical of a defence treaty with the Soviet Union, threw his weight behind such a pact. He became convinced of the value of such a treaty after U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to China in July 1971 via Islamabad, which demonstrated the convergence of U.S. and Chinese interests in preventing Pakistan’s break-up.

Haksar came to the conclusion that a pact that locked in Moscow’s support for India’s political and military moves was essential to neutralise U.S. and Chinese support for Pakistan in the event of war. The treaty served its purpose by paving the way for the much-needed Soviet veto that prevented the UN Security Council from calling for a ceasefire before India had reached its goal of completely liberating Bangladesh.

He was the primary strategist behind the Indian negotiating positions in Shimla. His principal advice to the Prime Minister was to avoid doing a “Versailles” on Pakistan in order to prevent the emergence of a revanchist, military regime in Islamabad. This meant desisting from forcing Bhutto to accept the Line of Control in Kashmir as the international boundary. It also meant a sympathetic approach to the prisoners of war issue that entailed persuading Dhaka to agree to their speedy repatriation.

Haksar formally retired from government service in 1973 but continued to act as Mrs. Gandhi’s informal adviser and personal emissary. However, as Mr. Ramesh documents, his relationship with her deteriorated with the rise of her son Sanjay Gandhi as her primary adviser and the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. Sanjay harassed Haksar and his relatives during the Emergency to avenge Haksar’s earlier opposition to his Maruti project. Haksar’s house was searched on flimsy grounds. Nonetheless, Haksar, always a gentleman, never criticised her in public for her and her son’s misdeeds although, as Mr. Ramesh points out, his wife never forgave Mrs. Gandhi for the way he had been treated.

Of another time

There are three conclusions that one draws from Mr. Ramesh’s superb account of Haksar’s relationship with Mrs. Gandhi. First, he never hesitated to speak his mind to her on a variety of subjects regardless of her preferences and normally she adopted his views as her own on important matters of state. Second, Haksar’s extreme discretion in making certain that his advice and interaction with the Prime Minister remained private and that she was not to be seen as his mouthpiece. This explains his reluctance to speak in public during his years of service when he was arguably the second most powerful person in the country. Haksar’s behaviour stands in stark contrast to that of public functionaries today who seek the limelight at the smallest opportunity. Third, he was a man of great integrity who never attempted to profit personally from the powerful position that he held. This again stands in great contrast to what is happening today when the line dividing the public and private spheres is being deliberately blurred so that those in power can benefit personally from the public offices they hold.

Haksar’s primary concern was to protect the interests of the Prime Minister, to whom he was intensely loyal. However, this loyalty did not emanate from self-serving concerns but from his belief that she was the best instrument available to implement the programme of social justice and unadulterated secularism that was dear to her father’s heart and to his own. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi failed to fully live up to Haksar’s expectations.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University and Non-Resident Senior Fellow, Center for Global Policy, Washington DC

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Printable version | Apr 1, 2020 9:30:57 PM |

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