Price of power

As they say, it’s a no-brainer. Trust and loyalty rank much higher on Delhi’s power graph than integrity. The working definition of loyalty is discretion. The system works on silence. This holds true for both politician and bureaucrat, although the public image of the former is synonymous with a gabfest and the bureaucrat is increasingly becoming prey to the siren call of the camera. In any case, it is extremely rare when a veteran with a career stretching across five decades achieves an indisputable reputation for discretion and integrity.

M K Narayanan did not set out to win any popularity contest when he joined the Intelligence Bureau in 1961, although his understated sense of humour won him more friends than you might imagine. From virtually the start he occupied a room in the sanctum sanctorum of India’s power pyramid, the South Block on Delhi’s Raisina Hill.
MK’s career coincides, almost exactly, with the maturing of the Indian state through a series of existential crises. Till 1961, the worst problem was communal riots, interspersed with troubles over state formation: difficult, certainly, but hardly formidable. Within a year of joining IB, MK was working with his legendary boss B N Mullick to find out how the Chinese had blown massive holes in our security across the Himalayas. Communists were part of his brief and he sent the topmost leaders to jail because their ideology took precedence over their nationalism. It is ironic that he should now be sent as governor to a state run by Marxists.

He might equally easily have been sent as governor of Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, it would have been more relevant to do so, for this state began to blip loudly on his professional radar in 1963, with the disappearance of the Mo-e-Muqaddas, the holy hair from the Prophet’s beard preserved in Srinagar. Mullick was the first IB chief to write a memoir, so we know that the recovery of the holy relic was an IB triumph. But we have not been told how precisely this happened. MK knows. And he has kept quiet.
Move from 1963 to 1965: The war launched by Pakistan to seize the Kashmir valley was a major challenge to IB. Kashmir, Punjab, Bluestar, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the conflagration in the Northeast, the Lanka catastrophe, Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death: MK’s experiences constitute what might be called a covert history of India. He was extremely close to Rajiv Gandhi and maintained the relationship with the ‘family’. Every prime minister after Rajiv sought and got his advice. His appointment to PMO on the return of Congress was inevitable.

What was certainly not inevitable was his sudden departure from PMO to the senior citizens’ rest home, a Raj Bhavan. No one has offered an explanation. A year ago there was a reason. There was a demand for his resignation after the terrorist onslaught on Mumbai. But neither Sonia Gandhi nor Manmohan Singh would even consider this. MK had, more than anyone else, shepherded the nuclear deal through domestic and international minefields. There was visible harmony between the PM and him. How and why has this harmony been suddenly ruptured?

Reason not clear
Home Minister P Chidambaram’s discomfort with him is not an explanation. Power equations are not a love affair. A high table always needs different voices, and MK would always add high value to any discourse. In any case, this was a prime minister’s decision, not a home minister’s. Nor do seasoned prime ministers suffer from mercurial likes and dislikes.

The last five years have shown a pattern. While Singh keeps an eye on the wide spectrum of governance, to the extent that is humanly possible, he reserves his core energy for a single policy focus. In his first term this was the nuclear deal. MK was an eminently suitable partner in that enterprise. The second term is clearly going to survive on a separate heartbeat. The PM seems to have put peace with Pakistan at the heart of his new agenda. The nuclear deal will seem a picnic compared to a Pakistan and it requires courage to even attempt it. MK has spent five decades protecting his nation from the intricacies and duplicity of an often-hostile neighbour. Perhaps the PM wants someone with less memory. That is a mistake. Vision without a reality check is an incomplete construct.

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