Returning to India after nearly a year’s gap, it seemed like a good idea to find out who is the most important person in the national capital’s corridors of power at a time when the United Progressive Alliance government is in a state of perpetual paralysis or stumbling from one misstep to another. The answer was not difficult: Naresh Chandra, former cabinet secretary, governor and later ambassador to the United States of America.
“Important” is not to be confused with the “powerful” in New Delhi. Powerful men and women are aplenty all over the country, starting from Rahul Gandhi to Mamata Banerjee, but important persons are fewer.
In the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, the most important person was, without any doubt, Brajesh Mishra, the prime minister’s principal secretary, who later served concurrently as national security adviser. It was to Mishra that everyone went for decisions for six continuous years. Mishra was important because he could find solutions to vexing problems within the government and ensure that his solutions were carried through, but there was little that he could do in terms of resolving political problems in spite of being Vajpayee’s eyes and ears.
Naresh Chandra is much less important than Mishra in the present-day set-up in New Delhi in that sense. In part, that is because Chandra holds no office and has no post within the Indian State which would enable him to directly push through anything he may want to. Actually, Chandra’s importance, for that reason, is all the more impressive because he is critical to the present-day state of affairs in New Delhi in spite of what would be a clear handicap for most others who may find themselves similarly placed.
An anecdote from the first year of Vajpayee’s prime-ministership would further serve to buttress the difference between being “important” and being “powerful”. Those were the days when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was dependent on the support of J. Jayalalithaa’s party in the Lok Sabha and Chennai’s “Amma” was being capricious, whimsical and almost destructive, giving the BJP a daily headache that was infinitely worse than anything today’s chief minister of Bengal could conjure up for the UPA’s leading constituent. At one point during those crisis-ridden days, L.K. Advani, then Union home minister, was mandated to bring Jayalalithaa around.
Jayalalithaa was visiting New Delhi. This was not the visit when she came with three huge trunk-loads of four dozen saris and booked an entire floor of the ITC Maurya hotel in the capital, but it was no less newsworthy in view of the power she wielded to be able to bring down the Vajpayee government with a snap of her fingers. Advani invited Jayalalithaa to dinner and she arrived at Advani’s long-time residence then, in Pandara Park, with three of her Lok Sabha members.
Kamla Advani, one of the most gracious of political spouses in New Delhi, prepared a delectable vegetarian dinner for the southern leader and was with her husband at the door to welcome Jayalalithaa and her three MPs. They were led into the drawing room, where the guests were invited to take their seats. But the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam MPs would not sit in front of their puratchi thalaivi or revolutionary leader. For her, it was normal that those in her flock would keep standing in her presence.
She broke the ice and as the conversation proceeded to substantive political issues, the imperious Amma of Poes Garden, her Chennai residence, looked at those who had accompanied her and raised her left eyebrow in a gesture that she was dismissing them. Out they went at that signal without a word being exchanged between the leader and her followers.
It was summer and the heat in Delhi was searing. But the three leading MPs sat on the road outside Advani’s house for the rest of the evening with only two drivers for company while Jayalalithaa continued her political discussions and later had dinner with the Union home minister. Kamla Advani would have preferred to serve dinner for the MPs in another room in her residence, but the Advanis feared that such an act would offend the AIADMK supremo at a time when the BJP could ill afford to offend her. That is power, but not importance — something Mishra or Chandra can claim for themselves.
On Raisina Hill, the seat of power in New Delhi, Chandra has become the man for all seasons. His latest brief, unannounced and hugely under-reported, is to bail out the defence minister, A.K. Antony, who is facing mounting criticism for allegedly allowing the country’s defence preparedness to slip under his watch.
It is to Antony’s credit that from the day he took over as defence minister, he has waged a relentless campaign against corruption in defence purchases and other areas in his ministry. But those who know Antony are not surprised that in the process, he has created a gridlock in military acquisitions because of his obsession for transparency.
Those whom he has deprived of commissions, bribes and fancy junkets have prodded others, including sections of the media, to accuse Antony of making India weak by holding up the modernization of the army.
It is also to Antony’s credit that he has belatedly recognized that there is some merit in such criticism even though much of the motivation for these complaints is not altruistic. The defence minister was alarmed when he was told the other day that he had blacklisted so many foreign suppliers for corrupt practices that the only technology now available to Indians in some sectors is from companies which still use the know-how of the 1960s.
So sweeping has Antony’s blacklisting been that every firm that is a leader in one area or another in cases of some critical defence needs is out of the competition for bids with his ministry. After some deep introspection, when his ministry dominated front page news in an unflattering light for months, Antony has concluded that his primary responsibility as defence minister is to protect the country and guarantee its security, and not to fight corruption at every turn.
So, Antony has now turned to Chandra, who will soon seek a balance between the need for probity in military acquisitions and the urgency of getting the best equipment as quickly as possible.
A year ago, a task force was set up under Chandra’s leadership to examine defence preparedness as a follow-up to the Kargil review committee’s report on that brief conflict with Pakistan. Since Chandra is already engaged in that work, it has been possible for Antony to quietly entrust him this additional and much more sensitive job of untangling the mess created by the ban on an unacceptably large number of international defence producers.
As part of his task force responsibilities, Chandra has further been requested to examine the case for a chief of defence staff, who will be the “first among equals” made up of the three service chiefs. The case for such a post has been enhanced by the unsavoury controversy about the date of birth of General V.K. Singh, the army chief.
Chandra has taken on another task that has defied previous attempts: the revamp of India’s intelligence. Additionally, in the last one year when he has headed the national security advisory board, Chandra has changed not only the composition but also the substance of this board.
To start with, he advised Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who chose Chandra as the NSAB’s head in early 2011, not to pack the board with Indian foreign service officers. Singh promptly cut down their number from seven previously to two in the current board.
Chandra was behind the induction of an industrialist for the very first time into the board. But most important of all, he saw the need to have representation from a region where national security is most at risk: the volatile Northeast.
His lasting contribution to the demands of present-day national security will be that by the time his chairmanship of NSAB is over, Chandra will have transformed what was earlier an ivory tower talking shop on foreign policy into a solid forum dealing with more urgent domestic threats. Earlier, he was tapped by the government after a series of corporate scandals to head a reform panel on corporate governance. No wonder Naresh Chandra is the man for all seasons in New Delhi.