New Delhi, Sept. 28: Brajesh Mishra, who served then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with such finesse that he came to be known as the elder statesman’s Hanuman, died here this evening.
Mishra, who was Vajpayee’s principal secretary, the national security adviser and often a bridge between high diplomacy and realpolitik, would have turned 84 tomorrow.
Ironically, Mishra’s death on the eve of his birthday coincided with the conclusion of a three-day BJP conclave in Haryana with remembrances of things past and muddled hope for the future. The leaders delved into nostalgia for the “Atalji” years, knowing well that they are bereft of a leader of Vajpayee’s appeal and acceptability to lead a prospective BJP-led coalition.
Few in the gathering would, however, have spared a thought for Mishra, who remained a bugbear to the BJP.
But in the current grim climate of extreme polarisation in which the principal political players are showing little enthusiasm for finding common ground, many would recall how aides with razor-sharp minds like that of Mishra could often think up ways to break deadlocks.
Mishra was invaluable to Vajpayee during the six years he was Prime Minister at the head of a 24-party coalition. The BJP was then painfully recasting itself from an entity that had accumulated its political capital from the politics and worldview of the RSS and its thinkers and strategists who seldom saw a world outside the confines of their shakhas or camps to a party of serious governance.
Vajpayee quickly figured out that he could not rely on a cabal of swadeshi proponents and insular “Hindutvawaadis” to preside over the country.
Another unenviable task was balancing the interests and demands of disparate partners who represented a range of politics, from the overt pro-LTTE MDMK to the Telugu Desam Party.
Mishra was more than Vajpayee’s adviser on foreign policy when the then Prime Minister determinedly took forward the pro-US slant tentatively given by Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao.
Mishra was also instrumental in bringing India closer to Israel without enmeshing the proximity in the divisive communal polemics the RSS loved to espouse. He effected the shift so artfully that Vajpayee did not have to look over his shoulders when engagements between New Delhi and Tel Aviv became frequent. Mishra also took care to see the Islamic bloc was not alienated.
A former IFS officer, Mishra apparently took more than a leaf on statecraft out of the book of his father, Dwarka Prasad Mishra. Mishra Sr had been chief minister of Madhya Pradesh and had distinguished himself as a “Chanakya” in a Congress that was peopled then as now with the wily and the winsome.
Mishra Sr was no friend of the RSS. When the Vidarbha region was part of Madhya Pradesh, he reportedly had M.S. Golwalkar, then a pracharak, arrested and jailed briefly after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination.
When later the RSS was at its wit’s end over how to deal with the Socialists, Mishra Sr advised Dattopant Thengdi, also a pracharak, on how to neutralise a political adversary: make the cadres comfort-loving and their leaders status-conscious so that the cadres lose their touch with the masses and the leaders with the cadres. While his counsel may have helped put the Socialists down, Thengdi took it as a warning for the RSS.
Years later, Thengdi, who founded the trade union front of the RSS, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, was to confront Mishra Sr’s son.
When Mishra’s name figured in the infamous Tehelka sting tapes in connection with an allegedly irregular defence deal, Thengdi told Vajpayee to throw him out of South Block or risk facing a siege of Parliament by “nine lakh” BMS activists.
Vajpayee saved himself and his most trusted aide by simply enlisting L.K. Advani's help. Advani, then an RSS favourite, worked on Thengdi and company and cooled tempers.
Mishra began his political career in the BJP well after he had retired as a member of the Indian Foreign Service. However, he repeatedly made it clear that his loyalty lay solely with Vajpayee. His averment did not go down well with Advani and the others.
But Mishra’s ability to rise above partisan considerations was manifest again and again. He refused to brook the BJP’s raves and rants against Sonia Gandhi and her family.
In 2002, when it was time to elect a new President, the late P.C. Alexander — who was to Indira Gandhi what Mishra was to Vajpayee, well almost — reportedly lobbied hard with the BJP for the post. BJP hardliners, eager to cock a snook at Sonia because relations between Alexander and the Nehru- Gandhis had got vitiated by then, rooted for him. The Congress rejected his candidacy, saying that it was not proper to have two Malayalis in succession in Rashtrapati Bhavan. K.R. Narayanan was the incumbent President.
Sonia apparently sought another term for Narayanan, which was unacceptable to Vajpayee. Mishra gently prevailed on his boss to abandon the Alexander option. By then, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s name had wound its way to Vajpayee’s table and he was chosen.
Mishra had a way of getting back at the RSS when it overly needled him. When Mishra was implicated in a “video expose” by a former media house, suggesting that he was involved in questionable deals, Vajpayee’s PMO discreetly released the names of numerous Sangh and BJP leaders who had sought petrol pump allotments from the government. The scandal may not have acquired the monetary proportions of 2G but it nailed the Sangh’s sanctimony.
The only occasion when Mishra didn’t have his way was when he advised replacing Narendra Modi after the 2002 pogrom. He and Vajpayee were outfoxed by some BJP leaders who ganged up and insisted on retaining Modi.
With Vajpayee out of active politics, Mishra distanced himself from the BJP. Uncomfortably so, for the party.
When Advani opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, Mishra batted furiously for it, saying the 123 Agreement would not take away India’s right to test and the nuclear deterrence programme would remain safeguarded.
Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister, openly expressed his gratitude for Mishra after his assurances led to a rethink among other political sceptics.
To the BJP, Mishra was persona non grata.
His last act of defiance against his former party was to debunk Modi’s ambitions as a future Prime Minister and state he could never be a Vajpayee. Knowing Vajpayee’s propensity for getting emotional at times, Mishra’s assertion might have caused his eyes to well.