Book Reviews –– Higher Decision Making, India Style!

An IDC Analysis 


New Delhi, 29 April 2004

Higher Decision Making, National Security Planning and the Higher Direction of War are favourite subjects taught at the College of Defence Management, which prepares defence officers to take on responsibilities of higher ranks as they rise in the service hierarchy. They struggle with the nuances of quantitative techniques, organization behaviour models and the like and are bombarded with lectures by visiting faculty from the IIMs. However, we are not sure of the training imparted to our bureaucrats and politicians as they dish out the decisions taken at higher levels in India!

The following article by Ranjit Rai, appeared on the front page of Pioneer of 11th April and we post it for readers to appreciate how “the higher decision making takes place in India”. The author has leaned on two recent books written by a former Cabinet Secretary and Principal Secretary to the PM –– B G Deshmukh and India’s former Foreign Secretary –– J N Dixit. 

His main aim appears to be to highlight that in matters of national and security importance and higher decision making the Armed Forces are not consulted. In fact the Accord with Sri Lanka, which India signed in 1987 during Rajiv Gandhi’s time, had no inputs from the Armed Forces though they were the most affected party to get the Accord implemented. Op Pawan from the Military standpoint was a total wasted effort with the loss of over 1400 uniformed lives.


Ranjit B. Rai

Two new books have hit the stores from the stable of Harper Collins, both replete with juicy anecdotes, opinions, random writings on extremely crucial policy issues, politics and strategy, by two senior, respected bureaucrats who reached the pinnacle of service and subsequently achieved more in civvy street. The writers are two opinionated personalities in the vein of Brahmanism, often a streak acquired upon induction into the civil service.

Both prolific writers in their late 70s, they held high office in the bureaucracy –– the steel frame of India –– firmly in their hands. Mr. B. G. Deshmukh’s book, ‘A Cabinet Secretary Looks Back’, is a recount of his life and views while serving his home state Maharashtra and the Central Government in New Delhi, in various capacities. Twice married, his first wife unfortunately died of cancer in 1973. Deshmukh joined the Indian Administrative Service as one of its first officers in 1951. Trained by ICS officers like JD Shukla, SB Bapat and Syed Munir Khan, he served under the Imperial Civil Service officers like LR Dayal in his early years, who according to him, looked down upon the IAS.

The 384 pages of Deshmukh’s book are packed with events in his life. Hailing from Maharshtra, the son of a lower middle class government servant he rose to become the Cabinet Secretary. He was then called by Rajiv Gandhi to be his Principal Secretary in the PMO, which also looked after the PM’s Household. The PM’s household is a beehive of activities, some of which are referred to in the book. He continued to serve three Prime Ministers.

After 1991, he worked for the respected house of Tatas, whilst at the same time profitably running his four-acre farm in Pune. Through the meandering account of his life, emerges a portrait of a bright and upright civil servant, who served under doyens like V Shankar, four chief Ministers of Maharashtra including the pipe smoking V P Naik in senior capacities, and had brushes with personalities like Capt Satish Sharma and Gen K Sundarji on policy matters. He was able to contain them with his no nonsense approach, but confesses that there were times he was in the dark about several matters like the Indian Op Pawan military foray into Sri Lanka, the Bofors procurement, promotions in the Armed Forces and the battle between Vice Admiral Jain and Ramdas for the CNS post sullied by Rear Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat amongst others which are recounted in detail. At times he felt that he was out of the ‘loop’. The ‘loop’, especially in defence and nuclear matters is not clearly defined in India and many a time it is explained off as the vibrancy of Indian democracy and Cabinet Control.

Deshmukh was the chief coordinator in the PMO and worked with fiery personalities like T N Seshan who served briefly as Defence Secretary, Muchkund Dubey, Mani Shankar Ayier, Vinod Pande and Bhure Lal. He served Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and briefly Chandra Shekhar. There are occasions when BG Deshmukh has transgressed the lines of personal confidentiality that a PM hopes to enjoy with his staff, and BGD reveals some in a haphazard and repetitive manner. One wonders how a publisher like Harper Collins gets away with it. My wife tells me, with tongue in cheek, it is perhaps because the quality of the editorial is of less importance to the reader than the juicy stories contained within the pages, which also helps in the sales to a wider public!

BGD states that Yashwant Sinha, the only IAS officer to hold a Cabinet position, once came to the PMO during the tenure of the PM, V P Singh, and informed him that it had been decided that Muchkund Dubey was to take over from S K Singh as Foreign Secretary. He hints at the Bihar connection. Deshmukh’s opinion did not prevail even though he argued S K Singh’s case as a competent FS. He elaborates his point and paints Dubey as a short-tempered, self-opinionated man, stating the instance how during a Cabinet meeting Dubey lost his cool in the PM’s presence, which was followed by a hushed silence. 

He also writes with pride and in some detail how he childishly resigned and walked out of PM Chandra Shekar’s office in December 1990, when Yashwant Sinha abruptly asked him to hand over PMO to Mr. S K Misra. While bidding farewell, PM Chandra Shekar asked if he could extend any courtesy to Deshmukh – “Mere Laayak Koi Seva Hai?” BGD asked permission to join the house of Tata, whilst confirming he would not be involved with any Government work or lobbying. Though he felt that the PM had nodded in assent, the permission was denied on his official application. BGD knew late JRD Tata well and explains how he persuaded him to accept the Bharat Ratna in 1992, which JRD almost refused.

The other book is by the prolific full time writer J N Dixit, who retired as the Foreign Secretary, in 1994 –– The Makers of India’s Foreign Policy from Ram Mohun Roy to Yashwant Sinha. Dixit served as High Commissioner in Sri Lanka during the controversial military foray OP Pawan in 1987 and thereafter in Pakistan during those tumultuous years when insurgency raised its head in Kashmir, before arriving in South Block. His book read in adjunct with BGD’s book makes for a more complete picture of India’s higher governance on the external and security front. He leads the reader from Ram Mohun Roy to Nehru who believed in an idealistic view of world politics embodied in his radio broadcast in London on 12 January 1951, “ What we need is a passion for peace and a civilized behavior. It is not the temper of war that we want.“ Nehru’s imprint was indelible till Mrs. Gandhi’s more ruthless approach was brought in. Dixit credits Rajiv Gandhi as the PM who shed the baggage of the past and the one who fashioned a deeply different approach.

Dixit describes India’s Foreign policy as a struggle between two broad orientations among India’s political and social structures –– one advocating a western copy and another wanting to hark back to retaining the Indian ethos. Dadabhai Naoroji, Tata, RC Dutt and Sir Pherozoshah Mehta were of the first school and Swami Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar and Badruddin Tyabji are mentioned as those who worked to be aloof and independent. Dixit has done a great service to lay readers, and especially to men in uniform who will need to get more involved in Military matters of external importance, as India aspires to a place in the sun.

The Indian Ocean is of strategic concern to most countries especially USA, Japan and China for their energy security needs. In both books the role of the military to contribute to policy are absent, and Dixit has skimmed over the Sri Lanka Op Pawan when he was a pivotal figure responsible for the decision to speedily dispatch troops. Dixit opines that foreign policy, shaped by adopting a middle path for India, was more moralistic than realistic, and is now waking up to the West.

The roles played by individuals like him and those before him, he claims, attracts less attention, except when they are towering leaders, and his attempt is to set the record straight. Dixit gives pen picture achievements of foreign secretaries from Sir Girja Shakar Bajpai, KPS Menon, Subimal Dutt, Badruddin Tyabji, Rajeshwar Dayal, TN Kaul, VC Trivedi, MK Rasgotra and stops at that, with no mention of the period of Shri SK Singh and others. India’s Ambassador to the UN Brajesh Mishra comes in for fulsome praise for advising Indira Gandhi to oppose the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, an act that was unprincipled according to Mishra. He was overruled and resigned from the IFS to head BJP’s Foreign Affairs cell. He was an advocate of India’s nuclearisation –– a dream fulfilled in May 1998. He currently heads the PMO, is the Principal Secretary to PM Vajpayee and the National Security Adviser. He has done some commendable work in diplomacy but his formal position is yet to be clarified in relation to the Service Chiefs and MoD.

Dixit covers the entire spectrum of actions of Shri IK Gujral as EAM and PM, calling him a pacifist and an optimist who will be appreciated more for his idealism and overoptimistic stances, than his achievements. PV Narshimha Rao is called the manager of transition especially as he brought about economic diplomacy. He also says that during this period, he functioned in effect as his own foreign minister as Dinesh Singh was terminally sick within one month of assuming office in March 1993. Dixit covers the periods of Jaswant Singh who as EAM during his time he states seems to have demoralized the IFS by proactive stances and too much personal contact with Strobe Talbott of USA, which has been corrected by the present EAM Yashwant Sinha.

On Op Pawan in Sri Lanka, Dixit avoids any blame and has been brief. Rajiv he claims was too dependent on the Intelligence agencies (RAW and IB) and military inputs and advice from his close advisers. It is recorded that Dixit used to sip cognac with ex President Jayawardene and got taken in by that fox. Dixit had earlier written a voluminous book Assignment Colombo –– a one sided view of that period, defending his role which can only be judged when the official records are released.

However on 27th May 1987 it is recorded history that at 7 pm Mr. Dixit called on President Jayawardene and conveyed a message from PM Rajiv Gandhi to call off the Operation Liberation in the North, failing which India would review its options (Military?). As Jayawardene states in his book "Men and Memoirs", Dixit had jotted points on the back of an envelope, and read them out as received. Dixit definitely supported this stance leading to a long drawn out operation leaving the army confused as to what its role was, and whose instructions were to be followed –– the High Commissioner in Colombo, or the many masters in India including Gen K Sundarji.

The reasons for the foray are still unclear –– whether it was to obtain greater autonomy for Tamilians, relieve the pressure on the Tamils, take on the LTTE or some other diffused aim, like maintaining the integrity of Sri Lanka, or prevent foreign interference, a bogey highlighted by Mani Dixit to the Government then. Rajiv was impatient and Jayawardene was facing a JVP uprising in the South. Dixit with some brilliant maneuvering began to forge an agreement document to bring in Indian troops on Sri Lankan soil. History will need to record the haphazard manner in which all this was done. Events and parleys spearheaded by Mr Dixit moved swiftly to hammer out an accord, which the military claim they never saw, nor were they consulted.

Prabhakaran and his aides were flown from a remote place in the Jaffna Peninsula to depart for Delhi on 21 Jul by IAF helicopters and then by an Avro plane to agree to the accord. En route Prabhakaran insisted he would have to confer with MGR. Prabhakaran was cajoled to agree to the accord, which LTTE reneged on. Rajiv paid for this with his life.

Both books touch on many sensitive subjects including India’s nuclear programs which Deshmukh states were firmly steered from the PMO’s office from 1989 to counter Pakistan’s secret nuclear capability. The period of eight Prime Ministers comes alive and the books unfold the story of how PMO and Foreign office take critical decisions. These years were tumultuous periods when the fortunes of the Congress party slid, HDW, Bofors, Airbus and Harshad Mehta scandals derailed India with varied shades of corruption, the demolition of the Babri Masjid saw the strident rise of BJP and the era of coalition governments has come to stay. In the main, policies were made by people with vested interests and this is highlighted as also the fact that no clear cut policy making guidelines seem to exist in high offices. Very direct pointers and names have been mentioned to tickle the curiosity of the inquisitive reader to guess the identity of the culprits in many of the corruption issues, and decision makers in other events.

In a lighter vein BGD informs readers how former Vice President Jatti took his cow in the train that took his VIP saloon car to Bangalore when he demitted office, and writes of the occasion when he excused himself from a cabinet meeting to attend a dance recital at Siri Fort in New Delhi and found, to his surprise Rajiv Gandhi present there. Rajiv greeted him with a wink and the words, that even Prime Ministers can play hooky.

On other occasions Rajiv used to call BGD Mr Humphrey after the “Yes Minister” series. BGD is convinced Rajiv Gandhi was personally clean though he may have been aware of those close to him who may have been involved in Bofors. On personalities, Deshmukh’s views are very firm and at times harsh and without substantiation. He labels TN Seshan and Mani Shankar Aiyer sycophants. He discusses how Lt. Governor of Delhi Mr. Wali was removed. He writes highly about M K Narayanan, Director IB whom he helped reinstate and gives Admiral R H Tahiliani good marks. He informs the reader of the role of Arun Singh a close confidant of Rajiv Gandhi who became the de facto Defence Minister, and states he was in awe of the then service chiefs Tahiliani, Sundarji and La Fountaine.

The entire ping-pong of higher decision-making is unfolded for interested readers.


(The writer is author of “Indians, Why We Are What We Are” and “Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat Sacked or Sunk “(Manas), in which Op Pawan and current security issues of the 1980's and early 1990's have been discussed from a military stand point.)

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