New Delhi, Jan. 13: Had the Trinamul Congress government taken the uncharacteristic trouble of researching governor M.K. Narayanan’s years on the security firmament, it would have realised that a “yellow card” could not have done what a “Bulldozer” was unable to do.
As a career intelligence officer who brought with him to the shadowy world of spooks a background in law and order from his work in the Indian Police Service, Narayanan has never resorted to verbalisations in public unless a situation left him with no choice. Even then, he does not take recourse to words lightly.
When the 2008 US presidential election campaign was in full steam, Narayanan, as national security adviser, was one of the Prime Minister’s key advisers who constantly worried about then Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s repeated references to the Kashmir dispute, according to accounts conveyed to this writer during that period.
Some others on Singh’s team, in their eagerness not to rock the boat of Indo-US relations, underplayed Narayanan’s fears. But they had to scramble for cover when it was confirmed in the weeks after Obama’s victory in that November’s election that the incoming American President intended to appoint Richard Holbrooke, whose assertive style earned him the nickname “The Bulldozer”, as his envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India with a mandate to solve Kashmir.
Narayanan took matters into his hands and conveyed a stern message to Obama’s transition team in Chicago through a “Track II” envoy that if Holbrooke’s mandate included India or the Kashmir dispute, the incoming US administration should be in no doubt that the presidential envoy would not be given a visa to visit New Delhi.
The same message was later repeated by the Indian ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen. Holbrooke was then downsized in his formal appointment some weeks later as Obama’s man for what came to be known as “Af-Pak” meaning Afghanistan and Pakistan to the exclusion of India.
But the story did not end there. Holbrooke had missed the Nobel Peace Prize by a whisker for his work in ending the Balkan war during Bill Clinton’s presidency and he now nursed his last hopes for the honour by attempting to solve Kashmir.
Insidiously, he tried to inject himself into Indo-Pakistan matters taking advantage of Obama’s lack of experience in foreign policy, especially on South Asia. So in February 2009, Narayanan decided that it was time to take the bull by its horns.
Like now in Bengal, after watching the situation evolve, Narayanan went public against the advice of the UPA government’s spin masters.
Just before Holbrooke set out for South Asia on his first visit, Narayanan told TV host Karan Thapar in a long interview that the government’s view during the campaign was that “let us wait and see what he (Obama) does when he come into office”.
On getting the US subsequently involved in issues between India and Pakistan, “I do think that we could make President Obama understand; if he does have any such views then he is barking up the wrong tree,” Narayanan told Thapar.
The then national security adviser’s decision to go public sent a clear message to the White House and it had the desired effect. Holbrooke never attempted to meddle in Kashmir after that, until his death.
Another instance from the past, which has acquired immediacy and resonance in the wake of killings of Indian soldiers along the Line of Control, also suggests how the Bengal government miscalculated Narayanan’s analytical skills.
Narayanan’s parting words to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as national security adviser was about the need to exercise extreme caution and reserve judgement in Singh’s obsession over a détente with Pakistan.
At the end of a farewell lunch that the Prime Minister hosted for Narayanan on January 23, 2010, just before he left for Calcutta to take charge of the Bengal Raj Bhavan, as Singh escorted Narayanan to see him off to his car, the two men stood on the porch and had a conversation that was considerably longer than just a bye-bye.
There on that porch Narayanan as much as warned Singh that his unwavering pursuit of peace with Pakistan without caveats would be disastrous, according to those privy to that conversation who subsequently told this writer that the Prime Minister was, of course, not swayed by his outgoing national security adviser’s concerns.
There is no way Bengal’s panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee would have even remotely heard about this parting tete-a-tete between Narayanan and his former boss. If he did, he would have paused to consider that Narayanan has been prophetic in his advice three years ago.
This is a week when Narayanan could have turned round and told the Prime Minister that “I told you so” about Pakistan. This is a week that has exposed the weaknesses in the UPA government’s policies towards Pakistan which did not heed its previous national security adviser’s doubts about those policies.
If he has been prophetic about national security in the country’s neighbourhood in 2010, there is no reason why Narayanan should not be prophetic on a not entirely unrelated issue of security in a border state now, after having observed the deteriorating law and order there under its new government for more than a year.
Few others in his position anywhere else in India today have had the range and diversity of exposure to internal security as Narayanan.
Internal security is as much of an obsession for him as friendship with Pakistan is for Manmohan Singh or putting down the CPM is for Mamata Banerjee.
It is an irony that a section of the Trinamul leadership decided to pick a bone with Narayanan on an issue in which the CPM is the victim of the ruling party’s high-handedness. As a young IPS officer in Tamil Nadu, and later in the Intelligence Bureau, Narayanan was convinced that Communism represented a grave security threat to the country.
Because of this conviction, he specialised in this area and it was because of this specialisation that Narayanan first came to the attention of Indira Gandhi, for whom the Communist parties represented the most potent non-Congress political force at one time.
It is not surprising that the Trinamul leadership eventually opted for discretion instead of being valorous in support of the minister who showed Narayanan the “yellow card”.
The wheel would have come a full circle if, indeed, the governor and the ruling party fell out on the issue of giving due protection for the Communists in Bengal. But despite whatever misgivings Narayanan may have harboured about Communists in his earlier incarnations, the Trinamul Congress will be making a mistake if it miscalculates that he will be found wanting in fulfilling his responsibilities as governor without prejudice to any ideology.