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‘Sonia wouldn’t become PM’—Congress ‘whisper campaign’ that denied PC Alexander President post

By: Dr. Sanjeev Chopra



Padinjarethalakal Cherian Alexander was inducted into the 1948 batch of the Indian Administrative Service on 29 October 1949, based on a special emergency recruitment, and ranked tenth in the civil list of thirty-one candidates. He achieved the rare distinction of having served as the Principal Secretary to two Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, besides serving as the High Commissioner in the United Kingdom, Governor of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, a United Nations civil servant, and an independent member of the Rajya Sabha.


His tenure as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister came to an abrupt end due to the involvement of his personal staff, along with that of the President of India, in the infamous Coomar Narayanan spying scandal. In this scandal, aides and associates of India’s top officials were caught sharing photocopies of confidential documents with the defence attachés of France, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

Opinions about his tenure, especially his conduct during the Punjab turmoil, continue to be divided. BD Pande, then-Governor of Punjab, records his frustration with the day-to-day interference from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in his book In the Service of Free India, and holds that office squarely responsible for the continuing imbroglio. However, Alexander had an astute political sense, as he could get along with political leadership of all shades — from the Congress to the BJP, Shiv Sena, and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). He was his own Boswell, and has penned three books — My Years with Indira Gandhi, The Perils of Democracy, and Through the Corridors of Power – which provide his version of his public life.


But rather than celebrating his achievements, by the end of his career, he had become a bitter man because he felt that he deserved to be the President of India but could not make it due to a vicious ‘whisper campaign’ by a section of the Congress. They claimed that if he became President in 2002, it would make it difficult for Sonia Gandhi to become Prime Minister in 2004, as they were both Christians. The consensus candidate in 2002 was Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.


The next incumbent was Sarla Grewal, independent India’s second female officer from the IAS from the 1952 batch. She had broken many glass ceilings by becoming the first lady Deputy Commissioner of Shimla when it was still the capital of undivided Punjab, and also the first woman to head the PMO (albeit in the rank of Secretary). She inspired a generation of women to appear for the civil services, but Rupan Deol Bajaj of the Punjab cadre never forgave her for not standing up with her when she filed a sexual harassment case against the all-powerful Director General of Police (DGP) of Punjab, KPS Gill.


However, Grewal could never exercise the kind of power which her predecessor and successors did for two reasons. The first was the trio of the three parliamentary secretaries Arun Singh, Ahmad Patel, and Oscar Fernandes, whom Wajahat Habibullah, then a director in the same office, referred to as ‘Amar, Akbar, Anthony’ of the PMO. The second was the personality and the hands-on approach of BG Deshmukh (BGD), the Cabinet Secretary, who was also a year senior to her in the Service. After his superannuation, he was brought into the PMO as its Principal Secretary. Although he served for only one year and 259 days, he saw three Prime Ministers: Rajiv Gandhi of the Indian National Congress (INC), Vishwanath Pratap Singh of the Janata Dal, and Chandra Shekhar – and was a witness to the great churn in Indian polity, as this was the period when the Mandal Commission was implemented, leading to major unrest, especially among the student community.


Your columnist was privileged to deliver the 11th B.G. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture on 28 July 2022 at the MIIT Pune, and in preparation for that, had an opportunity to read all his three books: A Cabinet Secretary Thinks Aloud, A Cabinet Secretary Looks Around, A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back, and Poona to Prime Minister’s Office. He insists that civil servants must pen their memoirs, not for themselves, but for posterity. In an interesting article ‘To Write or Not to Write’, he says, ‘To write one’s memoirs after retirement and sometimes while even in service has been a tradition with civil servants in India for a long time. Some of the memoirs written by the ICS officers have become classics, standard reference material for the concerned period’. BGD was very fond of reading and a great advocate of in-service training.


In fact, it was he who suggested that Ministries earmark at least one percent of their budget for training. There was a lot of resistance when the first vertical training program – where officers were drawn from across batches – were asked to come together and deliberate on themes relating to the transformation of the Indian economy. However, after the initial skepticism was overcome, officers realised that governments had to fashion themselves into knowledge organisations and that decision-making in the twenty-first century would be based on core competencies rather than hierarchy. BGD also made it a point to tell his officers that they should take a week off every year only to read books!


Although not directly involved with the establishment of the National Security Advisor (NSA), it was he who had pointed to the lack of an agency in the Cabinet Secretariat or the PMO to ensure that the different wings of the government worked in tandem, rather than in silos. He notes that there was a complete lack of coordination between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Ministry of Defense (MoD), and the economic ministries, especially during the Gulf War when the decision to close our mission in Kuwait was taken unilaterally by the MEA without any reference even to the PMO. A decade later, the first NSA, Brijesh Mishra, was his batchmate from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS).


Within a month of Chandra Shekhar taking over, the baton was passed on to S.K. Mishra, and we have an account of his life and times from his autobiography, ‘Flying in High Winds’. In the words of Natwar Singh, who reviewed his book, ‘S.K. Mishra worked with three formidable chief ministers — Devi Lal, Bansi Lal, and Bhajan Lal. He not only managed to survive all three, he won their confidence. Something more than tact was required to achieve this feat’. He adds, ‘Haryana and tourism were strangers till his arrival. In a short time, tourism gripped Haryana with inhabitable rest houses and classy eateries. The roads became motorable, and electricity failures were rare’, but the flip side was that corruption became deeply entrenched in the system. The ends certainly became far more important than the means. Like Arthur Koestler’s ‘Arrow in the Blue’, Mishra did not exercise the virtues of understatement and self-restraint in his anecdotal recalls.


Mishra’s own assessment of Chandra Shekhar is worth noting: “Chandra Shekhar was an extremely down-to-earth leader, possessing the humility and understanding of Gandhiji. The legacy of both Nehru and Gandhi was apparent in his personal and political courage…He defied Indira Gandhi, who sent him to jail. He—as in the case of Gandhi and Nehru, who bore no rancour against the British—on his release showed not the slightest ill-will towards Mrs. Gandhi.”


SK Mishra also helped build up institutions like the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), and his contribution to making tourism a growth driver of the economy is acknowledged even by those who found his working style to be abrasive and rough-shod. During his tenure at INTACH, he enlarged the scope of its activities, setting up new divisions to keep pace with the expanding horizon of heritage conservation, and INTACH today is one of the important knowledge institutions of the country with its feet on the ground.


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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