Why did you think of writing a book on P.N. Haksar?
Multiple reasons. First, it was a book waiting to be written because there was a lot of primary material and he (Haksar) had played a decisive role in India’s political and economic history between 1967 and 1972, which was a very turbulent period. It was a period of Indira Gandhi reaching her peak, in 1969, ’70,’71,’72, starting with the nationalization of banks in 1969 and culminating with the Shimla agreement in 1972, and in between we had the glorious year of 1971. While Gandhi was the prime minister and she provided the political leadership, the ideological ballast was that of Haksar. He was her alter ego. There is no political reason for writing this book. There is another reason. Biography writing in India is hagiography, you know. We either write books on personalities, where we make them into gods or goddesses, or we make them into Satans, into devils. Biography writing based on primary material, not oral history, not on memories or recollections which are notoriously unreliable, is not very common.
From your book it seems evident that Haksar played a major role in the evolution of Gandhi from the “dumb doll" to the consummate politician that she became. Do you think his contributions have been overlooked?
Undoubtedly. He was a legend during his time. But he is forgotten. He was Gandhi’s ideological guru. He was also her moral compass by the way. His relationship with Gandhi goes back to 1938. He was not only a part of her ideological world but also her personal world. In 1971 (war with Pakistan), there is no doubt, the evidence is overwhelming that he was the sutradhar (puppeteer). Gandhi was the political leader, she took the decisions, she was presented the options, but the man who orchestrated everything—the politics, the military, the diplomacy—was Haksar, no doubt about it.
You talk about how Haksar was convinced that unless there was an insurrection within Bangladesh, nothing would work?
Yes, as early as February-March 1971, contrary to what Field Marshal S.H.F.J. Manekshaw has bequeathed to us—very colourful stories of how Gandhi was very keen to have military action—the evidence is entirely to the contrary. Gandhi never wanted military intervention till it almost became inevitable towards the later part of 1971. They were very keen and very convinced, Haksar and R.N. Kao, the father of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), that unless you have a critical mass of people within Bangladesh who are wanting independence, fighting for independence, India cannot hope to achieve its grand objective. The 1971 story is a fascinating one because there is also material on how he (Haksar) swallows his ideology and strikes a deal with the Israelis for getting arms from them.
You also mention in the book that after India and then Soviet Union signed the 1971 Treaty of Friendship, Gandhi asked whether India can sign a similar pact with China.
In fact she asked Haksar why can’t we have a similar treaty with the Chinese? And former foreign secretary T.N. Kaul was saying why can’t we have a similar treaty with the Americans, and he literally tells the Prime Minister, “Are you out of your mind?" The value of a treaty is because it’s a special treaty.
But in the case of the Shimla Agreement, there was this bit where people have questioned whether India didn’t give away too much.
On Shimla, India is suffering from retrospective angst, because the way Pakistan turned out. (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto got assassinated, then we had Islamization through President Zia (Ul-Haq), these were unexpected events. In Tashkent in 1966, you have Soviet mediation (between India and Pakistan), Shimla remediated that mediation. Basically the agreement was that we have many bilateral issues, one of which is Jammu and Kashmir. The UN Security Council resolutions were thrown out of the window, and the Line of Control, not de jure, but de facto became the international border. But I think both Gandhi and Haksar were very aware of the fact that Bhutto could not be seen leaving empty-handed. The US and China would certainly not have countenanced that. More importantly, the Soviet Union, which was our ally in 1971, would not have been pleased.
The way that you have portrayed Haksar, doesn’t that take away some sheen from Gandhi?
You know Gandhi would be the first person to recognize that she couldn’t have done it on her own. She needed a Haksar, she needed a Kao as head of R&AW, she needed a Manekshaw to handle the military. But Gandhi deserves full credit for providing courageous political leadership. But the detailing, the grand design—that was Haksar.
We always talk about how powerful PMOs (Prime Minister’s Offices) get established. Was this the first time a powerful PMO came into being?
Haksar made the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (PMS) very ideologically strong. I don’t think it was authoritarian, it was authoritative. I think the only principal secretary who has come close to Haksar is Brajesh Mishra—in terms of his intellectual calibre, in terms of his equation with the prime minister, in terms of his contribution. No doubt Mishra had the same type of equation with Atal Bihari Vajpayee that Haksar had with Gandhi. He had the same type of influence on governance as well. No doubt about it.
What about today’s PMO?
I wouldn’t say that Haksar got his way all the time. There were many times that he had to bow to different opinions. There was a lot of discussion with Haksar even when you had an ideologically different point of view. But I don’t think he was ever a dictator. I don’t think he ran the Prime Minister’s Office like the Prime Minister’s Office is being run now. Today there are hundreds of people in the PMO, some whom we know, some whom we don’t know, some operating overtly, some operating covertly and making everyone else ciphers.
The decision to nationalize banks seems to have been more of a political decision than anything else. In hindsight, how well did this decision serve India given the present muddle public sector banks seem to be in today?
I think it was historically necessary. I think it served the nation well. It created the financial basis for India’s economic turnaround, which goes back basically to the early 1980s. I think it was a right decision. I think banks have to be managed better. The governance interface between the government and the banks has to be improved dramatically. I don’t believe that privatization is going to solve the structural problems of the banking industry.
What brought about the split between Gandhi and Haksar?
In December of 1968, Sanjay Gandhi unveiled his desire to become the Henry Ford of India to produce a low-cost people’s car. Haksar then argued that India does not require passenger cars in the private sector. India requires a public transport system so the government should invest in public transport. In any case, if cars have to be made, it should not be made by the prime minister’s son living in the prime minister’s house with a dubious circle of friends. In 1970, Sanjay Gandhi got a letter of intent finally and that accelerated the process (of tensions). The tensions between Sanjay Gandhi and Haksar predates Maruti. It goes back to the 1960s. Indira Gandhi also, I think, realized that maybe the expiry date is over and Sanjay Gandhi was the wave of the future and she allowed him (Haksar) to leave.
Is that the classic tragic flaw in Gandhi’s personality—the affection for her son?
The best description of this episode comes from H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who was Indira Gandhi’s great confidante and speech writer. He said that the reason why the two people who were so close for so many years drifted apart was that in the fight between the sovereign and the chamberlain, the prince intervened.
Do you give credit to Mrs Gandhi for heeding Haksar’s advice?
Hundred per cent. The only time that she faltered was when she allowed Sanjay Gandhi to dominate over Haksar. But I give Indira Gandhi full credit that in January 1977 she realized that she’s not just Sanjay’s mother, she is Nehru’s daughter. And she called for elections, which she lost miserably. But he (Sanjay) had skills Haksar didn’t. Sanjay Gandhi was a politician, Haksar was not. When Indira Gandhi came back to power in 1980, the equation had changed. It was a family relationship, Haksar was part of her extended family. There was this most unfortunate misunderstanding and Gandhi chose Sanjay Gandhi.