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Almost born to be a foreign office mandarin

Washington, Jan. 3: National security adviser J.N. Dixit brought gravitas to his job because few Indians prepared for a career in the country's foreign service the way he did.

Dixit died this morning days before his 69th birthday after a heart attack.

He first walked into the foreign secretary's office in South Block when only 12. He was on a visit to Delhi during school holidays and K.P.S. Menon, India's first foreign secretary, with whom he had family connections, took the young Dixit to South Block. Dixit was bowled over by the foreign secretary's office.

He remarked to 'uncle KPS' that he would like such an office when he grew up. Menon told Dixit that he could be in the very same office if he applied his mind to reaching there, studied hard and competed for the then-nascent Indian Foreign Service (IFS). Dixit went back to school and did just that. Ten years later, he was recruited to the IFS.

When Dixit was appointed foreign secretary at the peak of his illustrious and often controversial career, a batch-mate of his in the IFS recalled an incident. This batch of IFS probationers was undergoing training when one evening Dixit told his new colleagues: 'All of you will want comfortable postings, live in Western capitals. I will not leave India's neighbourhood and I will become foreign secretary.'

In his career in the IFS spanning 36 years, Dixit had only two postings in the West: one in Washington and another in Vienna. In Washington, he opted for the least glamorous and the most difficult job at the embassy, which most others shunned. He was in charge of what was known as the Indian supply mission. Those were difficult years in India, the years of PL-480 funds and the Green Revolution was nowhere on the horizon.

In Vienna, he was in charge of the embassy's dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), originally set up as the 'Atoms for Peace' organisation in 1957.

Notwithstanding his driving ambition to be foreign secretary, Dixit once resigned from the IFS. This was when Indira Gandhi was defeated and lost power in 1977. Before she actually put in her papers after the post-Emergency election rout, Dixit sent in his resignation to the Prime Minister saying he did not want to be associated with a government that she was not part of. Indira Gandhi called Dixit into her office and simply tore up that letter of resignation.

After she rode back to power through the mess left behind by Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi wanted Dixit to join her Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Word of the decision got round and she received a letter which detailed a very personal matter involving Dixit. The Prime Minister called Dixit into her office and asked if what was in the letter was true. He told her that it was. Although the matter had nothing to do with his official conduct and would have had no bearing on his work, Indira Gandhi told him that she would have to change her mind about having him in the PMO.

She went on to give him the most high-profile job in the Indian government. She made him spokesman. The job of spokesman for the ministry of external affairs (MEA) is nowadays a mere shadow of what it was in the 1970s and '80s. Dixit was the last ' if not one of the last ' spokesman to have an office in South Block, where the Prime Minister could walk in any time, before it was moved to Shastri Bhavan, a kilometre away from Raisina Hill, the true seat of power in New Delhi.

The relationship between Indira Gandhi and Dixit was very complex. The responsibilities she entrusted him with in the war for the liberation of Bangladesh far outweighed his relatively low seniority at that time in the IFS which was full of heavyweights, with tonnes more experience and a much bigger public persona. She relied on his advice for every major foreign policy decision.

Rajiv Gandhi continued that practice. But because Rajiv was surrounded by a circle of friends and advisers with heavy influence on him ' unlike his mother ' Dixit's advice often did not have the same results as in Indira Gandhi's case when decisions were finally taken.

Dixit superseded several of his colleagues in the IFS when he was made foreign secretary in 1991. One reason why P.V. Narasimha Rao made him head of the IFS over his seniors was because Dixit did his best to uphold the system during Rajiv's prime ministership. When Rao was external affairs minister, the group around Rajiv bypassed Rao, sometimes deliberately.

Often, Dixit was the only senior official to tell Rao about what was going on behind the scenes in Sri Lanka, where he was high commissioner. India was already in a quagmire on the island, where the so-called Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was getting killed because of decisions that were being rashly taken in Delhi. Later, during his tenure as foreign secretary, Dixit did his utmost to restore dignity and power to that office.

When Chinese state councillor Tang Jiaxuan visited India in October, one cabinet minister wanted to ensure that Tang did not call on Dixit. The minister was upset that Dixit was directly handling Pakistan and China in the UPA government and used the argument that the protocol-conscious Chinese would be unhappy if someone of Tang's status had to call on Dixit, who only had the rank of a minister of state.

It came as a big surprise to all those who were involved in planning Tang's visit when the Chinese reminded South Block that when Dixit was foreign secretary, Tang was his counterpart in Beijing. Therefore, Tang would like to meet Dixit again. That was J.N. Dixit: he made himself bigger than any post he held in government.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have a hard time finding a replacement for Dixit who has the stature or experience of the late national security adviser. The PMO is the biggest snakepit in Delhi's corridors of power. But in a few months, Dixit put in place a system that insulated Singh from the intense turf battles and rivalries in government, complicated by what is seen by many as India's current Soviet system of government: in which the party chief is more powerful than the Prime Minister.

Dixit was a buffer between Singh and the rest of the government. His experience, his commanding presence and his way of exercising authority with ease made him the most important person in Singh's PMO.

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