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Back to the cauldron days

- For Dixit’s disciples, book reopens wounds of 2004

Kochi, April 14: Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minister, has reopened wounds among a core group of Indian Foreign Service officers who consider themselves J.N. Dixit’s protégés. They also believe that tensions within the UPA government took a toll on the health of Manmohan Singh’s first national security adviser who died prematurely.

While extracts from Baru’s book published in this newspaper offer detailed accounts of clashes between Dixit and Manmohan’s special adviser on internal security, M.K. Narayanan, the national security adviser’s bigger problem was the UPA’s first external affairs minister, Natwar Singh.

Dixit had a foreign policy vision with which the Prime Minister was largely in agreement. But Natwar had a one-point agenda, which was to undo everything that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government had done.

Dixit told me in New York in September 2004 that Natwar tried to undo the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership (NSSP) with the US, the precursor to the nuclear deal, which Baru has referred to in the extract. Dixit knew enough of the system to know that at the end of the day he was only a civil servant and that Natwar as a minister and an MP had a mandate to do what he thought fit.

In order to foil the external affairs minister’s short-sighted agenda, Dixit, therefore, had to organise six extensive meetings among various arms of the government, including one by scientists, to raise their voices and argue that the NSSP was good for the country and it should not be abandoned.

Such efforts took a heavy toll on Dixit who also knew that he could not reasonably expect the Prime Minister to support him, a civil servant, all the time against an elected colleague in Natwar. Besides, at that time, Natwar was perceived as being close to Sonia Gandhi and he put out hints all the time that he enjoyed the confidence of 10 Janpath.

This week, after reading Baru’s accounts of tensions in the UPA’s foreign policy and national security team, I cross-checked a story I had heard soon after Dixit’s death on January 3, 2005, days before he turned 69.

One of Dixit’s protégés had lunch with him a few days before he died and found the normally unflappable national security adviser very distraught.

The protégé, out of concern for Dixit’s well being advised him to resign. The protégé was one who was close enough to speak his mind. But Dixit replied that he would not do so because resigning was tantamount to letting down the Prime Minister.

“But, sir,” the protégé persisted, “the Prime Minister is not supporting you. He will let you down and in the end you will be left to hold the can.” Dixit did not resign. His last engagement, only hours before his death, was a dinner at the residence of Indian Express editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta, which was also attended by Baru. For appearance’s sake, Dixit had put on a brave face at that dinner, some guests recalled this week.

I had also at that time heard sometimes colourful accounts of clashes between Narayanan and Dixit — how the special adviser on internal security, with his characteristically caustic sense of humour, would irritate and wither Dixit whose pipe-smoking and reflective style was very different from that of the former intelligence chief.

I checked out those stories with sources with privileged access to Narayanan. The feedback I got was that Narayanan was mostly living in Chennai, that his wife was reluctant to move back to New Delhi and that Narayanan spent no more than three days a week in the national capital, which did not give him enough time to plot against a formidable adversary like Dixit even if he wanted to.

But Narayanan’s problem was a habit born out of long years in the Intelligence Bureau: a chronic suspicion of everything around him.

I recall the night of July 18, 2005, when the Americans offered the nuclear deal to Manmohan who was in the White House earlier during the day. This was several months after Dixit’s death.

Baru hosted a reception and dinner for the delegation at Sea Catch, a bar and restaurant in a picturesque setting alongside a canal of the Potomac River in Georgetown, the pricey, European part of Washington.

I was able to extract the information from several members of the Prime Minister’s delegation that three senior officials were opposed to the nuclear deal. One of the officials opposed to the deal was Narayanan.

He had a simple and reasonable question. What is in it for the Americans? Why are they doing it? Apparently no one had an answer that night.

Much later, of course, prompted by Ronen Sen, the ambassador in Washington who was absolutely convinced about the worth of the nuclear deal for India, Narayanan became its most passionate advocate.

Purely by coincidence, shortly before Baru’s book stirred a hornet’s nest, a very senior Indian ambassador told me that Dixit’s instructions to this envoy, a middle-level diplomat a decade ago, was never to let Natwar alone or out of sight even for a minute while he was abroad.

The rationale was that there was no knowing what damage the external affairs minister would do. Once he went to Seoul and apologised for India’s nuclear test in 1998. The Prime Minister had to go through the humiliating experience of appearing in Parliament and explaining that this was Natwar’s personal opinion and not that of the UPA government.

All this put a heavy burden on Manmohan’s foreign policy and national security team that was far more complex than Baru has chosen to explain away in his book.

Dixit’s problem was also that he took up the national security adviser’s job somewhat as a repayment in gratitude to the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi family for what Indira Gandhi had done for him.

Dixit became what he was because of Indira Gandhi. As Baru points out, Dixit “was chosen by Indira Gandhi for the challenging assignment of setting up the Indian mission in a newly liberated Bangladesh when he was just thirty-five years old”.

Dixit’s books have several anecdotes about his special relationship with Indira Gandhi.

I was witness to Prime Minister Vajpayee’s desire to send Dixit as ambassador to Washington. Dixit was not interested. Although he gave other reasons, I believe he rejected the idea because he considered himself a quintessential Congressman.

Perhaps this was, in part, also because his childhood was spent in an ashram of Mahatma Gandhi where his late mother met and married another ashram inmate whose name Dixit adopted instead of that of his biological father, Munshi Paramu Pillai.

On the day Dixit was cremated, I was constantly on the phone from Washington to several people who paid their last respects to him.

Notwithstanding the images that two books by his former aides in quick succession may have created about Manmohan, virtually everyone I spoke to said they had never seen the Prime Minister as broken as he looked on the day after Dixit’s death.