In his new book, Jairam Ramesh transports us to a time of remarkable consequence for India today. While the author inserts a caveat that the book must be read as a biography of a committed and profoundly sagacious bureaucrat, the running commentary on the times that produced this man can hardly be ignored. This is a man who spoke of secularism as a civic, worldly matter and distanced the idea from its present connotation as an anti-religious doctrine. This is a man who doggedly harped on the role of science in a modern state and fashioned some of India’s best institutions committed to discovering the new. But the book is also a foreboding, captured best in a typical Henry Kissinger quip, ‘…Not that a strong India will be any joy to deal with.’ (p. 147)
Ramesh’s biography is better characterized as a political biography. There is no disputing that. From the very title of the book, Intertwined Lives, it is easy to see that the book is preoccupied with using Haksar as an alibi for the times when Indira Gandhi was a towering figure in Indian politics. To be sure, an alibi for the times, not Indira Gandhi herself. Of course, the charge of an alibi is a provocative one but it is to merely reflect upon the ebbs and flows of Haksar’s public career—and the culture of service that he represented—corresponding closely to ‘Good Indira’ and ‘Bad Indira’. Ramesh dispenses with the early life of Haksar with pithy comments and reserves, for anyone interested, the information that Haksar did write a memoir on his early life. Meat is added to the bare bones of Haksar’s life from his time in England as a young student and the wide network of friends and ideological influences that he imbibed. Haksar, in Ramesh’s telling, remained loyal to both his friends and the ideological influences of those days. The man who returned from London was few shades pinker than some of his more illustrious ‘red’ friends of the time. Haksar briefly spent time with the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) in Nagpur but was soon to be subsumed within the nascent bureaucracy of post-Independent India under Nehru. And this is where the chapters begin to grow voluminous.
Haksar was incorporated into the Indian Foreign Service, not without some reservations, but was soon to rise in rank and become, in the author’s words, Indira Gandhi’s ‘ideological compass and moral beacon’. In his deputation to the United Kingdom, he had shown genuine concern for India’s self-interest while also taking responsibility of Feroze and Indira Gandhi’s sons, having befriended the former two in his student days in London. There is an admixture of the personal and the professional, which looks suspect in our present times but the author does well to never leave any space for implying that Haksar benefitted from his personal proximity to the Gandhis. Instead, and this is more characteristic of the times, Haksar was part of a social milieu that enabled his somewhat meteoric rise in the government system. We will turn to this later in the review.
From here on Ramesh maps the trajectory of his subject’s life as a confidante but also the mind that presaged Gandhi’s ‘socialistic turn’. Haksar was pivotal to all the major events in Gandhi’s political career after the death of her father, and her eventual accession as the undisputed leader of the Congress. The transition was not a smooth one. Gandhi was to contend with a very powerful bloc of Congress leaders, the Syndicate, as well as more ‘left-wing adventurist’ Young Turks while maintaining a precarious balancing act. At the risk of some simplification, what makes the Gandhi-Haksar combine so powerful was that the latter had an academic approach to questions of national development, the former a political. These approaches can be best seen in the stray thoughts note that shaped Gandhi’s early ideological approach to rule (and of which nationalization of banks and check on private monopoly were integral). Haksar consulted different points of view, distilled opinions and dithered on the timing of its converting it into policy but Gandhi deftly implemented them when she saw fit. However, those were different days and we are talking about a different Gandhi. Even after introducing nationalization of banks overnight, she had to still go back to party forums where she had to defend her positions. And Haksar, alongside IG Patel, composed those documents of legitimacy for her. But Haksar’s intellectual candour, buoyed by his ability to articulate criticism freely, was also the reason for his undoing. In Ramesh’s retelling, the seeds of Haksar’s decline were sowed in those early days in London where he tried to correct the errant ways and ambitions of Sanjay Gandhi.
After helping to augment her political power, with machinations in which he willingly participated, Haksar was to realize that such forces could take a life of its own. And that life in politics, as elsewhere, was contingent on the moorings and motivations of many other individuals who may or may not fall in your orbit. Sanjay Gandhi was one such individual and his political ambitions, fuelled by a sympathetic mother in power, became too knotty for Haksar’s craft. It is here that Ramesh’s protagonist experiences his fall from the lofty heights. Even though he served the then-powerful institution of the Planning Commission, Haksar’s family suffered greatly in the onslaught of the suspension of civil rights in India, known as the Emergency period. Ramesh remains coy about these hardships besides indicating a book penned by Urmila Haksar, which makes for a ‘sordid reading’ (p. 360). To dwell deeper into the reasons for Ramesh’s omission would be akin to reaching for the low hanging fruit. He is right that a vast body of literature exists on the matter. But he also shows how Haksar and Gandhi were slowly being untethered from each other; intertwined still but with a gaping distance between them. From here on the book narrates the life of Haksar in retirement—as head of many government bodies and cultural institutions. Though events of later years were certain to eclipse Haksar’s once formidable clout, he can hardly be cast as a lonely or forgotten man.
Which brings us to the question of why Ramesh chose to write the biography of a man who is seen in an ambivalent light by the Congress cannon. To my mind, assuming that Ramesh was pantomiming a figure he wishes to become in the future, as a friend and colleague of his suggests in his review in a national daily, would be too hasty. After all, the time away from matters of governance has revealed a rather prolific writer in Ramesh who even took to writing a personal memoir about the heady days of 1991 liberalization in India. In that book, he chose to talk candidly about PV Narasimha Rao, former Prime Minister of India, who is hardly a figure any aspiring Congress leader would place in her pantheon. While Ramesh does preface the book with a section on ‘Haksar: Who and Why?’ the answer still remains elusive.
In Haksar, Ramesh is certainly embodying a paragon of civic virtues, political probity and ideological commitment to a welfare state. These ideas and the many remarkable institutions built on these ideas—some of which had Haksar’s backing—are fast eroding in contemporary India. Despite Ramesh’s carefully placed contexts, one cannot entirely salvage the Delhi of Haksar from its now caricatured iteration as ‘Lutyen’s Delhi’. While it is hardly admissible to consider Haksar as the architect of this much-reviled Delhi, the book does reveal the genesis and trajectory of this trend, one that Haksar himself was to comment on. Unmistakably, the book’s greatest strength lies in the space Haksar gets to speak for himself. Ramesh does not unnecessarily burden the book with his own interpretations but is happy for the reader to access his subject through long passages from the man’s letters, correspondences and writings. This is not to even remotely suggest that Ramesh’s is a dispassionate or objective voice but merely to remark how the book actually has ample space for two speakers, that of the author and the subject. Ramesh has ploughed through a mine of archival material never seen before (this reviewer himself chuckled once to note that Ramesh’s requisition slips at the National Archives of India, Delhi were returned with the cryptic, ‘Not Traceable’ remark) and that helps place this book as a foundation for future scholars working on this period of Indian history. In these heady days of competitive patriotism, Ramesh’s treatment of the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 will generate the greatest interest.
The problem with Ramesh remains that he cannot satisfactorily conclude how best to talk about Haksar. Ramesh repeatedly reminds us that Haksar had strong Leftist moorings, evinced easily from a huge set of evidence at the book’s disposal, but admires that the latter was never an ideologue (I wonder if Ramesh would have been served better by the word demagogue). Ramesh finds Haksar’s complete faith in the commanding heights of the economy to be ‘antediluvian’ (p. 153). Ramesh chaffs the good in Haksar’s work from the bad; the bad unsurprisingly is Haksar’s reluctance to let private players have a free rein in the manufacture of certain items. While the book repeatedly reminds us that this was a different time and its pulls and pressures were intrinsically of that time, upon the question of Congress socialism (far more Keynesian) Ramesh looks askance. The other problem is that the idea of ‘intertwining’ allows Ramesh an easy metaphor where no one can be held responsible for their actions. Haksar, and this can be seen within the narrative of the book, played his part in the centralizing of power in the Congress Party or promotion of a seemingly enclosed clique in Delhi’s bureaucratic circles. He did not do so with the intention as such (Haksar is merely emblematic of the general trend of technocratic experts that dominated the landscape in almost all postcolonial societies after the 1950s) but his lament in later years of what happened is letting him off too generously. Men when they are influential and powerful, as Haksar was indeed, must be probed for all their follies.
To sum, this is a book that takes an insider’s view of a greatly transitionary period in post-Independent India and perhaps, for those who care to read still, a gentle rebuttal to the hyperbolic treatment of this period. But more importantly, this book is a celebration of perhaps the last Nehruvian—defined by innate faith in certain democratic principles, secular and scientific temper, and a revalidation in responsible, welfare state—that walked the corridors of power in Delhi.
Shatam Ray is a Ph.D candidate, Department of History, Emory University, USA.