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‘Stern in appearance but a human being to the core’

I first met Dr PC Alexander when he accompanied the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her visit to Srinagar in 1981 shortly after her re-election. Wajahat Habibullah reports.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2011 00:32 IST
Wajahat Habibullah

I first met Dr PC Alexander when he accompanied the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on her visit to Srinagar in 1981 shortly after her re-election. Indira Gandhi had at that time undertaken tours to several states to assess levels of development. It was in that context that she visited Srinagar.

The meeting of senior officials of J&K was called in the Srinagar secretariat to explain development initiatives and their progress in each department.

It was presided over by Thakur Devi Das, minister in the government of Sheikh Abdullah, and Alexander, then principal secretary to the Prime Minister.

My presentation regarding harvesting and marketing of fruits in J&K seemed to have impressed Alexander because I was asked by Thakur Devi Das to call on him in the state guest house the next day. This I did with a sense of trepidation.

Alexander was not given to speaking much. He was cordial but decidedly prosaic in speech.

Alexander asked me whether I was interested in moving to Delhi either in the Cabinet Secretariat or the Prime Minister’s Office. As it happens, state government commitments meant that I could not move for at least another year.

I was of course deeply touched by his offer, but thought no more of it. Imagine my surprise at receiving a call almost exactly a year later from Alexander himself, asking me whether I would now be ready to move to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Working under Indira Gandhi was entirely a new world of experience for me.

Yet the leadership of Alexander was inspiring. I noticed he was in every way the leader. He interfered little but gave direction and purpose to the functioning of the office.

Subsequent to the tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi, the exit of Alexander from the Prime Minister’s Office was far from happy. I remember calling on him with my wife on a farewell visit.

To comfort him, I made so bold as to describe Alexander’s achievements in the Prime Minister’s Office being such that they would be an example for future generations.

I then met Alexander at Raj Bhawan in Mumbai where Mrs Alexander had demonstrated her meticulous devotion to nursing a spectacular garden, at a time when his name was in serious contention for the position of President of India. I met him again when he was a member of the Rajya Sabha in Delhi.

He had agreed to deliver the keynote address at the National Convention of the Central Information Commission, 2006, where he put up a spirited defence of the freedom of information.

Alexander has left a fragrant memory of one who was stern in appearance but a human being to the core. I know there are many like me who will be overwhelmed with sadness at his having left us.

(The writer is chairman of National Commission for Minorities)