My article “Haksar, Manmohan and Sonia” appeared 7 Aug 2014 as an op-ed with the New Indian Express http://t.co/bRnQI1hrwy
In the summer of 1973, my father, then with India’s embassy in Paris, brought home two visiting colleagues separately, to advise me before I headed to undergraduate studies at the LSE. One was G Parthasarathi, India’s envoy in Karachi during the 1965 war [CORRECTION Nov 2015: Parthasarathi had left shortly before the war; Kewal Singh arrived as the war started] when my father had been acting head in Dhaka; G P was marvelous, strictly advising I do the hardest things I could find at LSE, namely mathematical economics. The other visitor was Manmohan Singh.
Manmohan, then in his early 40s, asked to meet me alone, and we plunged quickly into a heated debate about the demerits (as I saw them) and merits (as he saw them) of the USSR and its “planning”. He was taken aback by the lad, and at the end of his 40-minute visit said he would write to his friend Amartya Sen at LSE about me. An ambiguous, hardly laudatory letter of introduction to Amartya arrived, which I duly but reluctantly carried; I wish I had kept a copy but xeroxing was not yet a word back then.
When I told my father about the debate, he to my surprise said Manmohan was extremely highly thought of in government circles, had degrees from both Cambridge and Oxford, and was expected to become prime minister of India some day!
That prediction, more than 30 years before Manmohan did become India’s PM, was almost certainly a reflection of the opinion of P N Haksar, still at the height of his power as Indira Gandhi’s right-hand man. In a 2005 interview with Mark Tully, Manmohan acknowledged Haksar being his mentor in politics who brought him into government in early 1971. My father himself was sent by Haksar to the Paris embassy in anticipation of Indira’s November 1971 visit on her diplomatic tour before the Bangladesh War.
Fast forward to the afternoon of March 22, 1991, at Delhi’s Andhra Bhavan. I had met Rajiv Gandhi through S S Ray on September 18, 1990, and given him results of a perestroika-for-India project I had led at the University of Hawaii since 1986. On September 25, 1990, Rajiv formed a group consisting of Gen K V Krishna Rao, M K Rasgotra, V Krishnamurthy, S Pitroda and myself to write a modern agenda and manifesto for elections Rajiv said he expected by April 1991. Krishnamurthy later brought in A M Khusro to the group, and all these persons were present at the March 22 meeting—when I was unexpectedly challenged by Rasgotra demanding to know what Manmohan Singh would say about all this liberalisation and efficiency (and public goods, etc.) I had proposed.
That was the first mention of Manmohan in post-Indira politics. I replied I did not know what he would say but knew he had been on a project for Julius Nyerere, that the main thing was to get the world to see the Congress at least knew its economics and wanted to improve India’s woeful credit-standing.
The next day, on the lawns of 10 Jan Path, Rajiv launched Krishna Rao’s book titled Prepare or Perish. Rajiv was introduced on the occasion by none other than P N Haksar. I talked to Haksar briefly, mentioning his sending my father to Paris in 1971 and my father’s old friends the Kaul brothers, the elder being Haksar’s brother-in-law and the younger being Manmohan’s first boss in government. Haksar seemed unwell but was clearly delighted to have returned to favour after falling out with Indira during Sanjay’s regime.
The March 22, 1991, meeting was also one of several occasions when I, a complete layman on security issues and new to Delhi and in my 30s, warned as vehemently as I could that Rajiv seemed to my layman’s eyes extremely vulnerable to assassination. Absolutely nothing was done in response by anyone, other than saying I should probably speak to “Madame”!
One man’s response, in 2007 and 2014 publications, has been to deny he knew me at all and claim the group came to exist without me—when in fact it was created by Rajiv as a sounding board one week after I gave him the academic project results I had led since 1986. This same man had excitedly revealed to me on September 25, 1990, that his claim to a doctoral degree originated in the USSR in the 1970s; he has always concealed his experiences in that country. After Rajiv’s assassination, he rose to much background influence with Sonia, and one of his protégés is now apparently influential with Mr Modi too.
Sonia Gandhi I met only once to convey my condolences in December 1991, and give her a copy of a tape of conversations between Rajiv and myself during the Gulf war in January that year. She seemed a taciturn figure in deep grief, and apparently continued with the seven-year period of mourning traditional in her culture of origin.
Natwar Singh and Sanjaya Baru, in their recent publications, may have allowed basic misinterpretations of events to distract from what may be informative in their experience.
Natwar has said Haksar was central in May 1991 in the move (purportedly on behalf of Rajiv’s newly bereaved widow) to first ask S D Sharma to take the PM’s job, which Sharma declined. If so, this was a failed attempt by the “Haksar axis” of unelected non-politicians to maintain control of events. Natwar claims it was only then Sonia chose P V N Rao. In reality, P V N R was a highly respected leader who, though due to retire, was the acknowledged senior member in a group of regional leaders including S S Ray, Sharad Pawar and others. The Haksar axis failed to stop P V N R’s rise to the top job, though it managed to get Haksar’s protégé to become finance minister. Sonia was hardly involved.
As for Manmohan becoming Sonia’s PM, a senior Lok Sabha Congress leader with PM ambitions himself told me of his own accord in December 2001 that it was certain she would not take the top job herself and it was generally presumed Manmohan would get one term—the denouement of the Haksarian prediction my father made to me in 1973 in Paris. Contrary to Baru’s claim or even Manmohan’s own self-knowledge, it was never any “accident” that he became PM of India.
Finally on the issue of files being shown, the man named as the conduit is someone I became related to in law back in 1981. He and Manmohan, too, would have been sticklers for the rules. The real issue is this: given the 1970s brand of Soviet influence on the Congress, would anyone have said it was Kosygin as PM who did or could ever wield more power than Brezhnev the party boss? Of course not. The same with Manmohan and Sonia in India.