Editor's note: Jairam Ramesh's new book — Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi (Simon & Schuster) — has been described as the "definitive biography of arguably India’s most influential and powerful civil servant". PN Haksar was principal secretary to Indira Gandhi from the years 1967–1973, when she served as prime minister. The following is an excerpt from the book, which presents a compelling portrait of Haksar as Gandhi's "alter ego during her period of glory".
India had experienced both triumph and tragedy in a matter of a few days in December 1971. On 16 December 1971, Pakistan surrendered and India had won the war convincingly and comprehensively. But a few days later on 25 December 1971, the 52-year-old Vikram Sarabhai died suddenly. He was the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and was also laying the foundations of India’s space programme. A decision had already been taken by Indira Gandhi when Sarabhai was alive, at PN Haksar’s prodding, that the dual responsibility had to end soon and that the space programme needed full-time attention. Had he lived, there is little doubt that Sarabhai would have opted to run the space programme since, as Haksar was to recall to Satish Dhawan many years later: ‘Vikram was always looking towards the sky.’
Both the nuclear and space programmes now needed leaders. Haksar then made what must be perhaps his most inspired appointment during his entire time at the prime minister’s side. He picked Satish Dhawan, then director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore to take charge of the space effort. Dhawan was a distinguished aeronautical engineer who had completed his doctorate at the prestigious California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and come back to India in the early-1950s.
Haksar not only respected Dhawan as a technologist but there was also ‘ideological congruence’ between the two as the latter’s daughter told me. Dhawan’s sister and her husband Satish Loomba were very active in the CPI with which Haksar had close afnity. Dhawan himself was active in the World Federation of Scientifc Workers in the 1950s when it was headed by Nobel Laureate Frédéric Joliot-Curie who was a communist. The Federation was well-known for being a leftist network. The only problem was that Dhawan was on a sabbatical at his alma mater. Hence, Haksar got Indira Gandhi to send him a personal letter which was cabled to LK Jha, India’s ambassador to the USA for onward transmission to Dhawan in California. The cable of 7 January 1972 read:
Dear Dr Dhawan,
Vikram’s sudden and tragic death has deprived our entire space research programme of leadership. You are aware of the heavy investment we have made in it. The ten-year profle of the development of space shows the extent of our commitment. We cannot afford to allow the entire organisation to crumble. I should like you to accept the stewardship of our space organisation which I am proposing to separate from the Atomic Energy Commission. It will be for you to structure this new organisation. Please let me know urgently when I may expect you to return and what arrangements you would like us to make for the interim period. I hope you will respond to an emergency situation in a sensitive area of national importance.
How could anyone say ‘no’ to such a letter from the prime minister herself?
Dhawan conveyed to her his acceptance but also let his terms be known: that he would continue as director of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and that the Space Commission should be headquartered in that city. Both these conditions were accepted with alacrity by Haksar and the rest is history.
In the interim Haksar got Indira Gandhi to appoint MGK Menon as the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Menon was then chairman of the Electronics Commission and Haksar had the prime minister write to him on 12 January 1972:
My Principal Secretary, Shri PN Haksar, has reported to me the conversation which he had with you this morning about the interim arrangements to be made to look after the work of the Indian Space Research Organisation. I am glad that despite your heavy commitments, you have agreed to become the Chairman of ISRO pending return of Dr Satish Dhawan who will be the Head of the Space Organisation. Dr Dhawan would like to discuss the ultimate structure of this Organisation when he returns.
I have long felt that there has to be some linkage between our Space Programme and defence needs. It might be a good thing if you and Dr BD Nag Chaudhuri were to discuss in a preliminary way how best this could be achieved.
This letter is important because it reveals that both the prime minister and Haksar were not unaware of the military implications of what India was about to embark upon under Satish Dhawan’s stewardship. India’s space programme — unlike that of the USA, USSR, France and China — did not emerge from the military. It was to start out as an enterprise to fulfill developmental needs like communications, weather forecasting and natural resource mapping. In fact, Dhawan himself was particularly allergic to any military dimension or involvement. But clearly Haksar knew that down the road there would have to be a strategic content as well.
The broad vision of India’s highly successful space programme was Sarabhai’s but the detailed architecture was that of Dhawan. He was scheduled to meet Indira Gandhi on 25 May 1972 at 4 pm to formally convey acceptance of her offer. Before that meeting Haksar sent the prime minister the following note:
Dr Satish Dhawan is an extremely sensitive human being. Hitherto, he has led a relatively cloistered life devoting himself wholly to the pursuit of his own scientific specialty in the field of aerodynamics. I know that he had many doubts and hesitations in accepting the responsibility of heading our Space Organisation. And if he were to opt out of it, we literally have no one at present even as a second best choice. It is therefore, of importance for PM to express in her own way her appreciation of the high sense of duty which has led Dr Dhawan to respond to PM’s call on him. It is equally necessary to say that Dr Dhawan will continue to receive her personal support in sorting out any problems he may run up against any administrative and other fields and that Dr Dhawan should not hesitate in coming to PM and that he always have direct access.
In suggesting Satish Dhawan’s name and backing him in this manner, Haksar possibly did the greatest service to the nation. Dhawan first became secretary, Department of Space and chairman of the Space Commission.
On 12 June 1972, Haksar communicated to him that the prime minister had approved the following composition of the Space Commission:
1. Shri PN Haksar, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister — Member
2. Dr IG Patel — Member (Finance)
3. Prof MGK Menon — Member
4. Dr Brahm Prakash, Director, Space Technology Centre — Member
Dhawan had specifically asked for Haksar to be a member and Haksar had told the prime minister two days earlier:
Although this will add to my burden, I did not have the heart to say no to him if only to help him to settle in.
Haksar and Dhawan were to remain close till the end of Haksar’s life. For the nuclear programme, Haksar pushed for Homi Sethna to take over from Sarabhai. There was initially some doubt on Sarabhai’s successor because JRD Tata, in his capacity as member of the Atomic Energy Commission, had written to Haksar on 5 January 1972 pointing to Sethna’s ‘lack of intangible quality of leadership’ and suggesting that MGK Menon, then director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) would be the right choice. Tata’s views were made known to the prime minister but at Haksar’s insistence Sethna was selected. When Sethna was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India, it was natural that Raja Ramanna takes over as the director of what came to be called the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) in early-1967. Years later, Haksar would recall that much of his time would be spent bridging the differences between Sethna and Ramanna — both strong-willed individuals.
Jairam Ramesh is a Rajya Sabha MP and former Union minister
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