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‘Coup’ against LK Jha, tussle between PN Haksar and PN Dhar—Indira Gandhi PMO was never dull

By: Dr. Sanjeev Chopra



LK Jha continued as the powerful secretary of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, or PMS, when Indira Gandhi became the third Prime Minister after Lal Bahadur Shastri’s demise in January 1966. Jha accompanied her on all her foreign trips and was present in all crucial meetings and deliberations with visiting foreign dignitaries. The PM relied on Jha even for politically sensitive assignments and diplomatic responsibilities like discussing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with major world powers.

However, as disenchantment with the USA grew, President Lyndon Johnson continued to rub India’s ‘ship-to-mouth existence’, and domestic politics made the PM lean leftward, Jha started feeling uncomfortable—and Gandhi made no effort to alleviate this impression.

Unknown to him, a ‘palace coup’ was cooking up. In his memoir Glimpses of Indian Economic Policy, IG Patel, the former RBI governor, writes “On our visit to Washington in 1966, the party from Delhi included LK, Pitambar Pant, HM Patel and Mrs Gandhi’s personal staff. Braj Kumar (BK) Nehru was already there as ambassador. In London, we changed planes and boarded the presidential plane sent for Mrs Gandhi. Among those who joined us there were her two boys – Rajiv and Sanjay – and somewhat mysterious figure at that time, Parmeshwar Narain (PN) Haksar. Most of us did not know him and had no idea why he was there. However, it soon became clear that he was to succeed LK, whom Mrs Gandhi despatched to Bombay as the Governor of the RBI. Haksar, a very able IFS officer, was apparently an old friend and a leftist who was closer to Mrs Gandhi personally, if not ideologically.”


Haksar, the ideological beacon

Educated at home in Sanskrit, holding an MSc from Allahabad and a degree in political economy from the LSE, PN Haksar had been ‘inducted’ into the Foreign Service by his close family friend Jawaharlal Nehru in 1947. He served in India’s missions inNigeria and Austria before being sent to London as the Deputy High Commissioner. But more importantly, he had known Indira Gandhi from their student days in London in the late-1930s, even though their family links predated this friendship. They kept in touch, and in early 1967, she plucked him out of his diplomatic career and appointed him as the secretary in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat. But even before that, he is credited with having provided her the ten-point agenda, which was formally adopted by the Congress party in May 1967. These included: social control over banks, nationalisation of insurance, strict control over imports and exports, state trading in food grains, consumer co-ops, control over monopolies, focus on minimum needs, urban land ceiling, land reforms in rural areas, and abolition of privileges, titles, and privy purse to the former rulers.

Thus, he emerged as her ideological beacon and moral compass, playing a pivotal role in the much-heralded ‘Garibi Hatao’ and transformed her image from a “goongi gudiya” to a powerful “Iron Lady”. In him, Gandhi found a philosopher, tactician, guide, advisor, and efficient chief of staff for her PMS, which had become a highly effective machinery of governance. In turn, he raised the power and influence of the PMS to an unprecedented height, though he himself shunned publicity greatly as he believed in the principle of anonymity for civil servants. However, with respect to the exercise of power, he was no saint.

Haksar ran a parallel government from the PMS. Under him, cabinet ministers were downgraded, the autonomy of government departments was destroyed, the Cabinet Secretariat became a cipher, the concept of the neutrality of the civil services was attacked. The PMS became a parallel government. But it played a superb role in coordination and crisis management during the Bangladesh War of 1971. It was during this period that the PMS served as the think tank, and the process of concentration of power started taking roots, and Haksar was now given the title of Principal Secretary to the PM.


PN Dhar enters the scene

Haksar’s strong preference in the areas of foreign policy, defence, and strategic affairs created a gap in the management of economic policy, and this gap was filled by another Kashmiri—the reticent academic Prithi Nath Dhar, who was drafted into PMS in 1970 as an advisor in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s economic initiatives. When Haksar was made the Principal Secretary, Dhar was designated as a Secretary in the PMS.

Meanwhile, the liberation of Bangladesh was followed by the Shimla talks—in which the differences between Haksar and Dhar came to the fore. Dhar felt that India should have insisted on the cease-fire line (CFL) being the international border, but Haksar was more ideological than grounded, and his view prevailed. This was his last real victory, and from this point on, his detractors got the better of him. By this time, the Sanjay Gandhi factor also began rearing its head—his was the only voice opposing the ‘heir apparent’s dream project’.

However, Haksar kept sending her long notes and unsolicited advice, which she felt was better suited to the Planning Commission,to which he was sent on 28 February 1973. This is when Dhar became the head of the PMS but without the coveted designation of principal secretary.


In his memoir, Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’, and Indian Democracy, Dhar cannot conceal his admiration for Gandhi’s handling of the Bangladesh crisis, but also his disappointment at her conduct of the negotiations at Simla. From his account, Dhar gives the impression that he became isolated at a crucial stage in the negotiations. As a good professor, he looks at the Emergency not as an occasion for moralising or for justifying his own conduct in it, but to see what light it can shed on the prospects of democracy in India: Indeed, the Emergency as well as the JP movement further weakened the institutions essential for genuine democracy. Both these events reduced respect for the rule of law: the Emergency by an authoritarian disregard for legal norms and the JP movement by rationalising and glamorising the defiance of all authority. Dhar reminded the reader of BR Ambedkar’s striking words in the Constituent Assembly: “Constitutional morality is not a natural instinct. It has to be cultivated. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.”


And indeed, much before the Emergency was announced, the real power had passed from the PMS to an organisation which found no reference in the Rules of business – the Prime Minister’s Household (PMH) in which the shots were called by Sanjay Gandhi and RK Dhawan. The PMS was in deep, though not terminal, decline during this period.

Sanjeev Chopra is a former IAS officer and Festival Director of Valley of Words. Until recently, he was Director, Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration. He tweets @ChopraSanjeev. Views are personal.

This article is part of a series on the PMO.

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