The age of V.K. Krishna Menon

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru engaged in a conversation with Defence Minister Krishna Menon in New Delhi on October 25, 1962.   | Photo Credit: V_GANAPATHY

To introduce one of India’s “most compelling, consequential and controversial political personalities”, Jairam Ramesh collects all the names attributed to V.K. Krishna Menon through the years: “Rasputin, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, Svengali, Evil Genius, The World’s Most Hated Diplomat…and other colourful images.” In his new book, A Chequered Brilliance, Ramesh writes that it was Menon’s avatar as Jawaharlal Nehru’s “soulmate, sounding board and envoy between 1935 and 1964 that earned him a permanent place in India’s twentieth-century history.” Menon also holds the record for having made the longest speech at the United Nations in 1957, defending India’s position on Kashmir. But, as Ramesh writes, Menon continues to be held chiefly responsible for India’s debacle in the war with China in 1962 and was forced to resign as Defence Minister that November. An excerpt:

The 1962 election in the Bombay constituency drew national and international attention. It was, of course, a Krishna Menon versus J.B. Kripalani contest — a contest between a Congressman and an ex-Congressman. But more fundamentally Jawaharlal Nehru was the issue, and he, like in 1957, did not hesitate to make himself that. On 23 February 1962, he issued an appeal but not as elaborate and elongated as the one from five years earlier: “I trust that the voters of North Bombay will vote for the Congress candidate, Shri V.K. Krishna Menon. Unfortunately, this election has been conducted largely on personal issues. The issues at stake are those of the Congress policy and programme. Every Congressman, and indeed others also, should vote therefore on these policies and programmes, and not be confused by personal questions. Shri Krishna Menon is a Congress candidate and stands for those policies and programmes and, therefore, all those who believe in those policies should vote for him.”

Nehru was the only big name of Indian politics batting for Krishna Menon. Two other ‘heavyweights’ had come out openly against him. On 8 February 1962, C. Rajagopalachari had said, ‘If Mr. Menon succeeds, it would be one point to Indian Communists and two points to world Communists.’ A day later Jayaprakash Narayan said, ‘[E]ven though Shri Krishna Menon happens to be a Congress candidate, and has the Prime Minister’s support, his victory would in effect be a victory of the Communist Party.’ Kripalani dramatically announced on 12 February 1962 that he would withdraw from the contest if Krishna Menon openly condemned the Communist Party and declared that he was not a communist.

A possible successor to Nehru

The result was not a surprise when it was announced on 1 March 1962. Krishna Menon had triumphed comfortably, more than tripling his margin of victory five years earlier. After his victory over Kripalani, Krishna Menon was now on top of the world. He had won handsomely. He was now a two-term Lok Sabha MP. He was seen as a possible successor to Nehru — in some polls, third in national popularity after Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan. To be sure, he derived much of his halo from his proximity to Nehru, but his independent standing in the domestic political arena could not be denied. He returned as defence minister…

In May and June 1962, Krishna Menon was back in the UN, making four thundering speeches on Kashmir, which won him further plaudits at home. That he had taken on Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, the foreign minister of Pakistan who had got the better of Gopalaswami Ayyangar in 1948, added to his lustre.

Attack on India

On 15 July 1962, Krishna Menon wrote to Nehru that he was planning to leave for Geneva. The Prime Minister replied the next day: “…I suppose you have to go to Geneva for the Laos Conference, although the Ladakh situation would indicate your staying on here. I see that the Chinese Foreign Minister is also going to Geneva… The sooner you come back the better…”

Krishna Menon met with the Chinese foreign minister in Geneva on 22 and 23 July 1962. They had met the previous year in May in Geneva during a similar conference. The two were now attending a fourteen-nation conference on Laos. A peace agreement was to be finally signed, bringing to an end Krishna Menon’s own unflagging efforts that had begun eight years earlier in this very city. The Hindu used an AP despatch on its front page on 25 July 1962: “Mr. V.K. Krishna Menon India’s Defence Minister, who this morning had breakfast talks with Marshal Chen-yi, Chinese Foreign Minister, later in the evening said: ‘These disputed areas in Ladakh are largely unoccupied areas. They have posts and we have posts. Sometimes they say we shoot first: sometimes we say they shoot first — actually they shot first’. Answering reporters’ questions he rejected a suggestion for a wire barrier along the disputed border. ‘We are sensible people — we do not put up wire fences’, he said. Marshall Chen-yi said tonight he considered the border dispute with India as a localized problem which would not lead to war.” Krishna Menon came back to India on 25 July 1962 but maintained a silence on what had transpired at Geneva. He briefed the cabinet six days later. Meanwhile, on 25 July 1962, a future Prime Minister had written to Nehru saying that the frequent absence of the defence minister during a time when India faced a crisis on its borders with China in Ladakh was totally unjustifiable. That very day Nehru replied to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then a member of the Rajya Sabha, saying that he saw nothing wrong in Krishna Menon going abroad for five days, particularly to attend the last stages of the Laos conference ‘in which we have been engaged and have played an important part’. He assured Vajpayee that the Ladakh matter was now under the defence chiefs.

Three months later China would attack India, and India would suffer a humiliating defeat in the war. The price that Nehru had to pay to pacify his own party colleagues and to get immediate military assistance from the U.S., the U.K. and Canada would be to accept Krishna Menon’s resignation as defence minister.

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India

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Printable version | May 9, 2021 6:12:21 AM |

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