Revealed: Why Manmohan Singh Sent M K Narayanan To Bengal As Governor 

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Photo credit:  Sean Gallup/GettyImages      

All politicians who acquire power develop a liking for some bureaucrats at the cost of others. These likes and dislikes go on to have a profound on policy, and indeed the country. Given below is an excerpt along the same lines from Ravi Velloor’s book India Rising. In it, he describes how former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made National Security Advisor (NSA) M K Narayanan head to Bengal as governor, so that Shivshankar Menon, who the PM had a liking for, could be made the NSA.

“In a bureaucratic culture dominated by North Indian Hindi speakers, this Keralite lock on the PM’s inner bureaucratic circle represents something of an anomaly, which could in the long term create new fault lines around the prime minister.” — US ambassador David Mulford in a leaked US diplomatic cable from New Delhi in 2005, put out by Wikileaks

As he settled into his second term in 2009, Pakistan was still much on Manmohan Singh’s mind, notwithstanding the shock of the previous year when Mumbai had been attacked and brought to a near standstill for three days. In his first term, he had come close to clinching a deal with Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s military ruler, for a series of mutual steps on the thorny topic of Kashmir that held the promise of leading to a wider settlement of their many issues.

However, Pakistan’s internal dynamics rapidly changed and so did things in India. Now, with a renewed and stronger mandate, Manmohan wanted to give peace with Pakistan one more shot. “When can I go to Pakistan?” was a frequent question that he put to the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran division of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Born in Gah, a village in the outback area of Punjab, he had been, like millions of others, displaced by the partition of India, which came with independence from the British Rule in 1947. When the subcontinent was cleaved to create Pakistan, the line drawn by Cyril Radcliffe, a British lawyer flown down for the purpose of drawing up the boundaries of the new state, ran through the heart of Punjab. Hindus and Sikhs, like Manmohan, travelled south to India and met hundreds of thousands going the other way to the new, or soon to be, Pakistan, created as a homeland for the Muslims of India.

Naturally, great violence ensued, violence that the British may not have minded; theirs was, after all, a policy of divide and rule. Indeed, there is firm evidence that the communal violence which tore across India arrived last in the North West Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Punjab, places where Muslims dominated. There is equally credible evidence that the communal fires raged worst in districts where the administration was led by British officers of the Raj. Although Punjab was among the last of the northern Indian provinces to go up in flames, when the violence finally erupted there it did so with frightening intensity.

In pre-partition Punjab, Muslims outnumbered Hindus and Sikhs and now they turned on their brothers with immense ferocity. They were met with fierce resistance and an equal savagery. Like countless others, Manmohan’s family had suffered too. Most of the partition generation of Punjabis have passed on, but a few remain, like Manmohan, with mixed feelings about the land they left behind. My wife’s grandmother, who died in New Delhi in June 2015, just short of her 102nd birthday, was born in Punjab that now belongs to Pakistan.

Some years ago, when I offered to take her across the border – getting a Pakistan visa is a near-impossible task for Indian tourists – she demurred. What’s left behind is best left behind, she told me. And when I spoke about her little cottage in the hill station of Murree and her last home in Lahore – in Krishna Nagar, now called Islampura and a part of prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s constituency – she changed the subject. It is a good guess that like her, Manmohan also has mixed feelings about the land he left behind. There were happy memories and clearly some very painful ones.

But more than sentimentality, he had two good reasons to attempt a lasting settlement with the nettlesome neighbour, envisioning a future not unlike the manner in which Germany and France coexist today. The first was that peace with Pakistan would be a huge fillip to the South Asian economy in every respect – lowered defence spending, increased trade and tourism, even a salutary effect on communal tensions. Besides, who knew what the combined talent pool could achieve, when Pakistan’s own skilled hands were added.

The other reason, and this can only be guessed, was that making peace with Pakistan would seal his historical role, even more than the civil nuclear deal he had cut with the US – perhaps even lead to a Nobel Peace prize. After all, few conflicts have been so bitter, or so bloody. Manmohan loved collecting awards, listing even the most minor ones in his curriculum vitae.

Yet, as long as the confident and articulate MK Narayanan was at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), he could be counted on to be the sceptic that stood in the way. Narayanan would not hear of normalising ties with Pakistan until Islamabad put a cap on the terror nodules it funded to keep India off balance. After decades in intelligence, the national security advisor (NSA), like others of his ilk, had a fundamental suspicion and distrust of the neighbour. The Mumbai attack, which had blemished Narayanan’s reputation – after all, he coordinated the nation’s intelligence apparatus – had only hardened his outlook. Manmohan had immense respect for the NSA. His integrity was unimpeachable, his grasp on intelligence and national affairs unquestionable. But Narayanan also had a puckish sense of humour and Manmohan probably suspected he was sometimes the target of the NSA’s mirth and that he didn’t always get Narayanan’s full respect.

In all that, Narayanan was a complete contrast to Shivshankar Menon. For one thing, the foreign secretary did not seem to harbour firm prejudices. Cerebral and soft-spoken, the Scindia School and St Stephen’s College educated Menon, who had been his nation’s envoy to Israel, Sri Lanka, China and Pakistan, was a favourite with Manmohan. He had passed over a dozen officers to appoint Menon foreign secretary three years earlier, when he still retained an occasional bold streak and could assert himself. Menon had not only been an excellent foreign secretary, he had proven his personal loyalty to Manmohan as well.

In June 2009, at a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, Manmohan had yielded to Pakistani pressure and instructed his foreign secretary to include a line in the joint statement that seemed to suggest that Pakistan was aware of Indian involvement in the insurgency in Balochistan, a Pakistani province bordering Iran. Since Manmohan had given Menon the instructions in the presence of the Pakistani leader, there was little the bureaucrat, who would have instantly guessed at the furore that would erupt at home, could do to contradict his boss. The line that was announced in the joint statement seemed innocuous to all except those who quickly surmised its import: “Prime Minister Gilani mentioned that Pakistan has some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas.” When news of the Indian “concession” travelled home the predictable uproar followed. India had always claimed it kept its hands off the insurgency wracking Balochistan and now, here was Manmohan seeming to acknowledge it, however elliptically. Even the Congress party would not back its prime minister. At this point, Menon had stepped in, taking the blame upon himself by calling it a “drafting error”. That deflected public anger, no doubt putting Manmohan, who abhorred criticism, in Menon’s debt. Menon had superb credentials in many other ways, coming from a long line of distinguished diplomats and public servants. His great-grandfather, Sir C Sankaran Nair, had been president of the Indian National Congress in 1897. Menon himself was the third generation from his family to have risen to the post of foreign secretary – his grandfather and uncle, both named KPS Menon – had been foreign secretaries before him. His own father, PN Menon, had been from the foreign service, dying relatively young while posted to Belgrade as ambassador during the time that Yugoslavia was a key pole in the Non-Aligned Movement. Menon’s father-in-law, Ram Sathe, had been foreign secretary as well.

The line of distinguished public servants in his family did not end there. His paternal grandfather, Dr KCKE Raja, was the first Indian to be appointed director-general of Health Services in 1947. Upon retirement, Raja was tasked to raise the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, India’s top research hospital, where Manmohan would have his heart surgery five decades later. Raja’s reputation was so immense that New Zealand, which provided the seed funds for the AIIMS, had insisted on his being retained to oversee the project. Menon thus had both pedigree and panache and wore both without being in your face. It was commonly said in the PMO that the two MEA officials Manmohan liked most were Menon and his predecessor, Shyam Saran, who had been drafted, in retirement, to help complete the negotiations on the nuclear deal. “When Shyam enters the room, the PM’s eyes light up,” a senior figure in the government told me once. “When Shankar walks in, his whole face lights up.” Now, as the elegant Menon prepared to retire at the end of July, Manmohan, reluctant to see him leave, pondered whether to extend his foreign secretary’s tenure by a year or more. But Menon suggested that he would not want to stay on, since it would upset the career paths of those waiting to succeed him.

Nirupama Rao, another China hand, was ready and would miss her turn if he continued. There had been controversy enough when he was appointed, with several officers senior to him resigning, angered at being overlooked. Now, Menon did not want to fuel foreign service angst by overstaying and holding up the prospects of those junior to him. Manmohan asked Menon what he intended to do next. The diplomat, picking his words carefully as ever, said he would take a break and consider his options, perhaps even accepting a lecturing position for a while. “Don’t agree on anything without telling me first,” Manmohan instructed.

They understood each other perfectly. Menon wanted nothing less than the NSA’s job; Manmohan’s task was to find a way to give it to him. That moment would not be long in coming. Narayanan’s turf battles with the hard-driving Minister for Home Affairs P Chidambaram had weakened his standing in New Delhi. They had been friends for years. Narayanan, as Intelligence Bureau chief, had rescued the rising Chidambaram out of a pickle or two with Rajiv Gandhi. Now, the Harvard-educated Chidambaram, unquestionably one of the finest ministers in Manmohan’s cabinet, was nevertheless seeking to assert his ministerial authority over the bureaucrat. Chidambaram became more demanding after his visit to the National Counterterrorism Center in Washington DC in November 2009.

He began making speeches and issuing Press statements expressing his desire to consolidate all intelligence, internal security and counterterrorism functions under a single entity that reported to him, rather than to the NSA. At the same time, Manmohan had probably also received hints that Narayanan’s ties with the Gandhi household were not as strong as they were cranked up to be, or had worn a bit thin lately. The talk in New Delhi’s salons was that Narayanan had offended powerful people close to the Congress high command by doing a favour to an influential Indian expatriate business family as a quid pro quo for their role in smoothing things at the White House over the nuclear accord. This had denied the Gandhi family satrap some influence-peddling of his own, and he was fuming, saying the old gumshoe was getting too big for his boots.

Three months later, when Menon ended his rest and briefed Manmohan on his future plans, Manmohan told him to wait to be made NSA. But there was still the issue of how to deal with Narayanan, who clearly loved his job and wasn’t likely to let go without a fight. Not only had Narayanan to be pushed out, he had to be given a billet that would keep him sufficiently tied down. A state governorship was the best way out. Governors are figureheads but there are enough ceremonial happenings in any given week to keep them busy. Besides, they need the president’s permission to leave their stations and cannot come to New Delhi at will. It was the perfect solution. Manmohan, who hated confrontations, pondered how to break the news to the confident former spycatcher. He picked his moment one afternoon when Narayanan was briefing him after a secret trip to Tokyo. Japanese PM Yukio Hatoyama had conveyed to Manmohan that he intended to skip their annual summit because he was running a lame duck government. But Manmohan, mindful that Beijing might well interpret it as an apparent weakening of the nascent Japan-India strategic bond, wanted Hatoyama to come nevertheless.

Narayanan was despatched to convince him to make the trip. To everyone’s surprise, the former policeman succeeded in the delicate diplomatic mission. Hatoyama would come after all. Manmohan smiled at the news, obviously pleased. The talk turned to northern Punjab state, which had witnessed Sikh separatism in the 1980s, an insurgency that had been violently put down by the Indian Army and later, Punjab Police. The NSA expressed his worries about latent stirrings among Sikh separatist elements. Manmohan instructed him to have a word with the provincial chief minister, Prakash Singh Badal. Narayanan was reluctant to place that call. In turn, he suggested that it would be better for Manmohan, a fellow Sikh from Punjab, to have that conversation. Manmohan nodded in agreement and ended the meeting. As he walked out, he stopped at the door, turned around and sought to score from a distance. “Maybe you should go as governor in Punjab.” Before the mystified Narayanan could react, the prime minister had vanished from view.

A few weeks later, at another meeting between the prime minister and his NSA, the talk turned to Bangladesh, which borders India’s West Bengal state. Again, Manmohan instructed Narayanan to fix the matter and said he should also have a word with Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister. Leaving the meeting, Manmohan again stopped at the door. “Maybe you should be governor of West Bengal,” he said, and briskly made for the exit. At that moment, Narayanan knew his long tenure in New Delhi spanning five decades was coming to a close. He went home and told his wife, Padmini, known to all as “Ammu”, that something was afoot. Still, when the announcement came in mid-January 2010 as a Press release from the presidential palace late on a Saturday night, the Narayanans received it with shock and anger. The shock was the more severe because only a few months earlier, when Congress had surprised everyone by returning to power with stronger numbers, Narayanan had asked Manmohan if he should expect any changes in his role. The lease on his apartment in Chennai, rented out to a software company, was coming up for renewal and if he were to retire, that would be the home he would return to. If he was not staying, he would not renew the lease. Manmohan had told him his services continued to be needed in New Delhi. Thus assured, Narayanan had renewed the tenancy and focused on his work.

According to people close to the couple, there was also a sense of betrayal that Shivshankar Menon had kept them out of the loop about his private chats with the prime minister, which clearly had taken place over several weeks. The Menons and the Narayanans went back decades. Narayanan’s mother and Menon’s paternal grandmother had been fast friends in New Delhi in the 1950s, often spending afternoons playing on the carom board and arguing about the score. Menon himself had been Narayanan’s ward during his salad days at University of Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, when Narayanan was a rising star in the intelligence establishment. Perhaps Menon hesitated because he knew how much Narayanan liked the NSA position and would have fought to keep it.

The Pakistani and Chinese establishments welcomed the change in New Delhi, diplomatic sources told me at the time. Leaked US diplomatic cables also suggest that the US was not unhappy to see the new NSA, even as it had grown comfortable with Narayanan. “His tenure as foreign secretary, serving under then-external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, coincided with an unprecedented transformation in India’s relationship with the US, despite Menon having never served in or spent considerable time in the US,” read a January 22 cable from the mission.

“He sees the strategic value of the US-India relationship, but is not reflexively pro-American. He took a hard line on a variety of issues over the course of the civil nuclear cooperation agreement negotiations, including at a critical moment during the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) deliberations, but also skillfully piloted critical decisions through the Indian bureaucracy. He expressed surprise that the FBI role in the investigation into the 26/11 Mumbai attacks did not generate more controversy, but thus reassured, later advocated a more robust cooperative relationship on counterterrorism. Whatever his personal views, Menon is now invested in the success of the US-India relationship and will be a formidable advocate for the relationship working directly under prime minister Singh.”

Narayanan’s departure to Kolkata, the West Bengal capital, marked not just the seeing off of a powerful bureaucrat but also a whittling down of the clout of the Malayalee gang, the latest regional cabal to have enormous influence in the upper echelons of the Indian government. Malayalees get their name from Malayalam, the language of Kerala, India’s most literate and socially advanced state. For this reason, they are often referred to as Mallus and the Indian media quickly tagged them Mallu mafia.

In truth, almost every Congress government has been linked to purported cabals supposedly controlling the PMO. In Indira Gandhi’s time, a Kashmiri “mafia” headed by the redoubtable diplomat PN Haksar held sway in her initial years in power. The head of RAW, the external intelligence arm that played so critical a role in dividing Pakistan and the emergence in 1971 of East Pakistan as the new nation of Bangladesh, was Rameshwar Nath Kao, also a Kashmiri.

A bunch of intellectualised bureaucrats, this Kashmiri mafia was noted for a Left-leaning ideology and a deep belief in central planning. Educated at University of Allahabad – which was when he came into contact with the Nehru-Gandhis – as well as the London School of Economics, Haksar was never a communist as the Americans, particularly the Nixon administration, portrayed him to be. But he certainly had an anti-American streak in him. Haksar’s influence in the PMO and the foreign office, then headed by TN Kaul, another Kashmiri, saw the Indira government tilt towards the Soviet Union, even if she herself, as recent research shows, had a more balanced view of the world. After Haksar moved to the Planning Commission, another Kashmiri, PN Dhar, was appointed principal secretary to Mrs Gandhi, serving during her unpopular Emergency Rule between 1975 and 1977 – the only time democratic rights were suspended in free India. In her last stint in power though, from 1980 until her death in 1984, the Kashmir mafia had lost influence and she had picked a “Mallu” – PC Alexander – to be her principal secretary.

Excerpted from INDIA RISING: Fresh Hope, New Fears by Ravi Velloor, Konark Publishers, 2016, with the permission of the publisher.

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