Untwining the Intertwined

P N Haksar and Indira Gandhi (Source: Scroll)

-Ibrahim Hafeezur Rehman

It is fashionable to write books about great leaders as they promise a good market. Most of these books are loosely opinionated and either full of eulogy or derision or sometimes a mix of both. Of the more serious efforts the emphasis generally is to review, assess and analyse contemporary literature and material on the subject of discussion. Such research is focused more on the leader in question and tries to capture their thoughts and actions from unpublished official documents, letters and published literature.

Seldom there is focus on an important associated person who may not only have influenced the leader but also guided and is responsible for major events around the personality. Jairam Ramesh’s book, Intertwined Lives, falls into this category. While the primary focus of the book is P N Haksar the documentation and narration revolves around – Indira Gandhi – her relationship and association with Haksar. It is a delightful account of the tall personality of Haksar while peeping into the persona of Indira and events related to her Prime Minster ship through letters, notes and conversations of Haksar.

The book offers a very different insight into the life and leadership of Indiraji who after Nehru was one of the tallest and also one of the most controversial leaders of Independent India. It is far from eulogy as it gives us a deeper understanding of her insecurities and frailties (particularly as a mother); her growth as a leader; emergence of the streak of authoritarianism that characterised the promulgation of emergency; and her steely character in bouncing back after defeat.

More than Indira Gandhi and Haksar the book also sets the scene and context of decadence of political and administrative machinery that unfortunately gained currency in that era. Given the nature of Congress system that has emerged after Nehru, Jairam needs to be complemented for bringing into perspective a different understanding on the political life and time of Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister of the country. The book also brings forth certain human elements wherein a mother indulges a son overriding conflicts of interest, propriety and issues of upright governance.

The book besides capturing some critical events such as Bangladesh conflict and war also offers valuable lessons. First, it tells us that leadership is not only about a single person but depends critically on the team that the leader forms and leans on. It again brings forth the concept of Navratnas who not only enhance the persona and leadership but help in sustaining and cruising it through trials and tribulations of public life as well as situations of crises. The adherence to certain basic values and principles is essential to good governance as is captured through the unscrupulous character of Haksar. The book in P N Haksar provides a role model for current and future government servants and particularly senior bureaucrats in terms of dealing with politicians and political processes. Although one can question that how a person of integrity and a believer in socialistic principles could continue to serve through emergency (more so when one was in disagreement).

For the less discerning reader the book may tend to paint Indira Gandhi in a poor light. However, in Haksar’s own words she was truly a great leader. She led the country to success in one of the biggest conflicts and humanitarian crises that Independent India faced. She pushed for a scientific temperament and put in place a structure and mechanism for the same. She was uncompromising and unflinching on principles of secularism even if it meant endangering her life (refused to change her guards). It was an integral element of her greatness that she sought, listened to and acted upon sound advice such as the one from Haksar. So while the book puts Haksar’s views forward it does not take away from the fact that Indira Gandhi had both the courage and wisdom to put into operation. Some of the bold decisions (Bangladesh action, abolition of privy purses, nationalisation of Banks) that she arrived at with help of her advisors of which besides Haksar there were other as well. It is also equally damning in terms of bringing forth her follies related to unabashedly pursuing the Car project; pushing and encouraging less than deserving politicians or bureaucrats; and last but not the least the promulgation of Emergency.

Jairam needs to be applauded for a well researched and scholarly work capturing not only important personalities but chronicling actions leading up to events that have had a profound impact on both geo-politics and social structure in the country. From a research perspective the book is a good example of ability to sift out documents or opinions that may not stand scrutiny of academic or scientific rigour. For instance, the decision on not using later year musings and thoughts of Haksar on earlier events.

For the true Congressmen the book should encourage introspection and soul searching on the politics that has been unleashed and the urgent need to go back to the principles and roots of Nehru and Gandhi. Perhaps this kind of work would trigger more such efforts wherein other important associates related to tall leaders would be assessed and analysed.

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