Centres of Power is a book by veteran diplomat Chinmaya R. Gharekhan (IFS: 1958). He constructs it around his two critical postings, first as joint secretary in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s office (PMO) — in two stints, but mainly from 1982. He continued to serve with her successor Rajiv Gandhi till December 1985, when he proceeded to New York as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations. The last one-third of the book relates to the UN assignment. He maintained a diary which has enabled him to relate even prime ministerial minutes with accuracy.
Between his two stints in the PMO, he dealt with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran in the ministry of external affairs. That assignment also allowed Gharekhan to work closely with the PMO. He relates how the dynamics of foreign policymaking operated under a Prime Minister who often multitasked while listening to her advisers, either filing her nails or generally appearing distracted when in fact she had one ear glued to the discussion. On the approach to Pakistan, there was constant jockeying between her principal secretary P.C. Alexander, head of policy planning in MEA G. Parthasarathy and foreign secretary M.K. Rasgotra. Besides them, when it came to Pakistan, Mr Natwar Singh also had a say, first as high commissioner to Pakistan and then as secretary in MEA. He was assigned to oversee Pakistan, normally a charge retained by foreign secretary.
By the time Mrs Gandhi returned as PM in 1980, Pakistan under President Zia ul-Haq had emerged from the ignominy of hanging Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The Soviet Union gave it an opening by walking into Afghanistan in 1979, after Iran overthrew the Shah earlier same year. The US again aligned with its vagrant protege, as Pakistan front-ended the Mujahideen rebellion against the Soviets, with US and Saudi help. Reading Gharekhan’s account, one senses that the PMO and MEA underestimated the long term effect of this unholy alliance. From that union was born modern radical jihad.
Pakistan’s then nascent nuclear programme is mentioned in passing as an item on the bilateral Indo-Pak agenda. There was no serious proposal mooted to damage or destroy it by working with the Soviets and Israel. It should have been anticipated in the early 1980s that once Pakistan got strategic nuclear capability, with Chinese help, it would become a bigger menace. Once Pakistan got that capability and Soviets left Afghanistan, Pakistan unleashed terrorism on India, calculating that its nuclear capability would deter India.
Gharekhan’s anecdotes illustrating the personal quirks of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi are revealing. Although they provide a human dimension to the leaders, they illustrate the difficulty that senior bureaucrats had in handling political bosses, with leaders often wasting time on peripheral issues and protocol.
Being in PMO, even a foreign service officer deputed for liaison with his parent ministry is drawn into domestic issues. That’s where Gharekhan falls prey to rumour. On Mrs Gandhi’s assassination while President Zail Singh was flying back from Yemen, the PM’s media adviser H.Y. Sharada Prasad is quoted as saying the President himself may wish to be Prime Minister. This kind of loose talk in the PMO is noted in this writer’s account of his years with Zail Singh in his book, The Indian President. In the flight itself, the President had decided to swear in Rajiv Gandhi to the consternation of at least two senior journalists. Logically speaking, how could a Sikh President even think of succeeding a Prime Minister killed by her Sikh guards? But those who wanted to sow discord between him and Rajiv propagated this theory.
On Punjab, Gharekhan brings forth an interesting revelation. He notes Indira Gandhi telling her foreign interlocutors that “she allowed things to drift in the hope the problem would get resolved on its own”. This has always been speculated upon but never actually heard from the ex-PM’s mouth.
In the chapter on Mrs Gandhi’s assassination there is information about concerns being aired over lack of crowds initially, just as the funeral procession was about to commence. The police having let the law and order slip out of their control and the large-scale killings of Sikhs continuing unchecked, did not the PMO realise why people were staying at home? This points at the new government’s priorities during the tragic 72 hours after Mrs Gandhi’s death.
Gharekhan spent about a year in the PMO after Rajiv Gandhi succeeded his mother. He relates with honesty the flaws and strengths of the youthful leader, then seen as ‘India’s John F Kennedy’. What emerges is a portrait of a leader wishing to develop India in a hurry using new technologies. But one who suffered from lack of serious application, an unwillingness to read briefing or policy papers and impromptu decision-making. An interesting observation is that Rajiv Gandhi disliked being reminded of his mother’s foreign policy choices and wanted to look afresh at issues. He evoked a lot of goodwill in India’s neighbourhood as well as in the West. The US unleashed a torrent of senators and Congressmen to see if he could be won over. But national consensus on strategic autonomy limits the freedom of any Prime Minister.
Gharekhan’s New York posting became important as India was elected to a two-year non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council during his tenure. In addition, Iraq invaded and occupied Kuwait on August 2, 1990. By then India had a new Janata Party government led by PM V.P. Singh. The book captures the beginnings of a unipolar world. Although the Soviet Union had not yet collapsed, for practical purposes it had weakened enough so as to be unable to resist US demands on international issues. The book recounts the negative fallout amongst Gulf states when the external affairs minister, I.K. Gujral, rushed into occupied Kuwait to rescue Indians.
All told, it is a readable book that recalls a period when India had two charismatic Prime Ministers who raised great hope but whose human failings imposed a cost on the nation.
Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council
By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan
pp. 336, Rs.795