From PM’s hatchet man to in­flu­en­tial in­sider, Mishra played them all

Hindustan Times (Patna) - - NATION - Vir Sanghvi

NEW DELHI: The pass­ing of Bra­jesh Mishra has evoked mem­o­ries of his role in or­gan­is­ing the Pokhran II nu­clear tests. But what we some­times for­get is how ex­traor­di­nar­ily pow­er­ful he was when he served as Prime Min­is­ter AB Va­j­payee’s prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary and the coun­try’s first Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor (NSA).

His grip over the gov­ern­ment was so ab­so­lute that it was bit­terly re­sented by many in the BJP, who com­plained that the wrong old bald guy had be­come In­dia’s sec­ond-most pow­er­ful man – not LK Ad­vani but Mishra.

A pop­u­lar joke from that era cap­tures the aura of power that sur­rounded Mishra. When it emerged that the ter­ror­ists who at­tacked Par­lia­ment in 2001 had in­tended to take the cab­i­net hostage, peo­ple won­dered what would have hap­pened. “Oh, noth­ing at all,” went the punch-line. “Bra­jesh Mishra would have con­tin­ued run­ning the gov­ern­ment as he al­ready does.”

Though he be­gan as a diplo­mat, pol­i­tics was in Mishra’s blood. His fa­ther, DP Mishra, a pow­er­ful chief min­is­ter of Mad­hya Pradesh, was one of Indira Gandhi’s chief strate­gists dur­ing the 1969 Congress split and was nick­named Chanakya.

When Mishra re­tired from the IFS, he longed to fol­low his fa­ther into pol­i­tics. But by then, his fa­ther had parted bit­terly from Mrs Gandhi so Mishra joined the BJP, where he toiled away to no great dis­tinc­tion. This changed in 1998, when he was dis­cov­ered by AB Va­j­payee, who ad­mired the Chanakya-like cun­ning that Mishra had in­her­ited from his fa­ther.

When Va­j­payee be­came Prime Min­is­ter, he put Mishra in charge of his PMO and asked him to or­gan­ise


the nu­clear tests, a de­ci­sion so sen­si­tive that it was kept se­cret from most of the cab­i­net. As na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor, Mishra also re­vived and strength­ened In­dia’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and cre­ated a par­al­lel power cen­tre to the for­eign of­fice, ef­fec­tively desta­bil­is­ing ev­ery for­eign min­is­ter.

Mishra’s power was de­rived from his close­ness to Va­j­payee. He was at the Prime Min­is­ter’s res­i­dence most morn­ings and ev­ery sin­gle evening, be­com­ing a char­ter mem­ber of the fam­ily. Such was his un­der­stand­ing of the fa­mously un­com­mu­nica­tive PM that Va­j­payee had only to ges­ture for Mishra to un­der­stand what needed to be done.

Va­j­payee trusted Mishra im­plic­itly and ad­mired his abil­ity to con­cen­trate all the power in the PMO, a dif­fi­cult feat to ac­com­plish in a coali­tion and es­pe­cially when LK Ad­vani func­tioned as an al­ter­na­tive source of influence.

But Mishra was happy to take on Ad­vani, did not mind be­ing loathed by him, and of­ten func­tioned as the PM’s hatchet man, dis­tanc­ing Va­j­payee from un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions — a ma­noeu­vre that al­lowed the PM to feign be­wil­dered ig­no­rance when Ad­vani came com­plain­ing.

The obit­u­ar­ies have fo­cused on Mishra’s con­sid­er­able for­eign pol­icy achieve­ments. But his great­est achieve­ment was the man­ner in which he ex­er­cised power. Not since PN Hak­sar in the early days of Mrs Gandhi’s reign had a civil ser­vant made the en­tire gov­ern­ment of In­dia – in­clud­ing cab­i­net min­is­ters – de­fer to his bril­liance and author­ity.

When Man­mo­han Singh took over as PM, he asked Mishra to stay on as prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary. He, how­ever, de­clined, say­ing, “My loy­alty is to my boss (Va­j­payee)!”

But he re­paid Singh’s kind­ness a few years later by com­ing out strongly in favour of the nu­clear deal and mak­ing his fi­nal break with LK Ad­vani and the BJP.

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