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.