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How Indira’s trusted bureaucrat PN Haksar ran foul of Sanjay Gandhi: Book excerpt

By taking on Sanjay Gandhi, Haksar had not only lost the battle but made a deadly enemy who would soon prove to be his nemesis

analysis Updated: Jun 18, 2018 16:14 IST
N Haksar,Indira Gandhi,Sanjay Gandhi
Indira Gandhi and PN Haksar: He had made his views on the small car project known to the Prime Minister in categorical terms, but her loyalties lay with her son. (Simon & Schuster India)

Eight days after Haksar had joined her, on 14 May 1967, Indira Gandhi sent him an extract of a letter she had received from her younger son Sanjay in Crewe. The extract reads thus: I have talked to PN Haksar about my future some time back and I didn’t get anything concrete out of it. He seems to be of a similar opinion as you are. [He says] “Plans won’t work” before even knowing what they are … As far as staying with Rolls Royce is concerned, I am wasting my time here and have been doing for the last 4 or 5 months. I don’t want to continue doing so for 2 more years … Besides I am not the only apprentice that sits around doing virtually nothing, most of them are in the same boat.

Clearly, Haksar and Sanjay had not hit it off even when the two of them were in the UK. PNH wanted him to study and complete the course in which he was enrolled, whereas Sanjay felt that he had had enough and didn’t want to study further; not more than the O.N.C. [Ordinary National Certificate] which he told his mother ‘is on the same level as the 2nd year of an Indian University’. Haksar and Indira Gandhi wanted him to get what was called H.N.C. [Higher National Certificate] but Sanjay was not keen on it.

This continued lack of chemistry between Haksar and Sanjay would provide the background to the differences that would arise between PNH and Indira Gandhi a year later over Sanjay’s business ambitions. These differences would eventually lead to Haksar’s voluntary exit in January 1973…

An unprecedented assault on Parliament took place in 7 November 1966 by cow protection activists. There had been police firing, people had been killed and the home minister, Gulzarilal Nanda, was forced to resign. A promise had been made by the prime minister subsequently that a committee would be set up to examine the matter of having a national law to ban cow slaughter. It took some six months and Haksar’s taking over for this committee to be established. On 29 June 1967, it was finally notified with a retired chief justice of the Supreme Court, A.K. Sarkar, as the chairman. It had politicians, spiritual leaders and at PNH’s instance three intertwined lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi…Dr V. Kurien of the National Dairy Development Board (who was to become famous as the ‘Amul’ man), Dr Ashok Mitra (then Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission) and Dr H.A.B. Parpia (director of the Central Food Technological Research Institute).

After the committee had been announced, leading Indian naturalists like Salim Ali and Zafar Futehally who had unfettered access to Indira Gandhi got into the act. They proposed that the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) collaborate with the Washington-based Smithsonian Institution to carry out studies on the ecological consequences of India’s large cattle population. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution wrote to Indira Gandhi on 3 October 1967: I personally believe that one of the most important studies that must be undertaken today is an ecological approach to the age-old problem of the impact of cattle on lands in India. I write at this time with some sense of urgency because of the recent developments which have led, I am informed, to the appointment of a Committee which will report to your Government on the issue of imposing a ban on the slaughter of cows throughout India.

Indira Gandhi was a passionate ecologist herself but she was also a politician. She must have been in two minds but Haksar appears to have clinched the issue. A month later on 7 November 1967, the US ambassador to India Chester Bowles chided Ripley: At my request, my deputy Mr. Greene found an opportunity to sound out Mrs. Gandhi’s right-hand man, P.N. Haksar about your letter. Haksar readily confirmed that it had been received … and as much said that he thought it better to leave the complexities of the cow problem to the Government of India. Mr. Greene asked whether the Prime Minister had replied to your letter and was told that she had not; we infer that she probably will not …

The committee was to keep meeting for 12 years but never produced a report or gave its recommendations. It was finally disbanded in 1979 by Indira Gandhi’s successor Morarji Desai...

On 1 December 1968, Sanjay Gandhi applied to the Ministry of Industrial Development for a ‘letter of intent’ to manufacture a small car. There were some 15 Indian and foreign companies, as well as some other ‘entrepreneurs’ like Sanjay Gandhi who had also done so. Right from the very beginning Haksar had voiced his strong objections to the prime minister about her son dabbling in such a venture. He had also told his friend from the London days that the son should not be staying with her in the prime minister’s residence and continue to carry on his business activities from there, particularly in association with persons who Haksar considered were less-than-desirable. PNH’s objections were actually even more fundamental. He questioned the wisdom of scarce resources being diverted to the manufacture of passenger cars. He preferred to see an expansion of capacity to manufacture scooters and that too in the public sector. Decades later, on 15 March 1995, Haksar was to recall this issue in a letter to Abid Hussain who had sent him a report of India’s transport policy prepared by the Asian Institute of Road Transport. He wrote: .. Way back in 1967-68, I fought and lost a battle for having a mass rapid transport system in the capital city of Delhi instead of going in for the small car project …

Haksar had not only lost the battle but made a deadly enemy who would soon prove to be his nemesis. He had made his views known to the prime minister in clear and categorical terms. An uneasy truce prevailed. That was to end on 30 September 1970 when Sanjay Gandhi was finally given the letter of intent to manufacture 50,000 small cars every year without any foreign collaboration and without imported raw materials, components and machinery. Another letter of intent was given to another individual in Madras for making 25,000 such cars annually. My own reckoning is that this was the beginning of Haksar’s estrangement from Indira Gandhi. The final break, however, would happen some 27 months later.

Excerpts from Intertwined Lives: P.N. Haksar and Indira Gandhi by Jairam Ramesh, published by Simon & Schuster . The author is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha and former Union Minister

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jun 18, 2018 07:55 IST