Brajesh Mishra’s death last week triggered fulsome and well deserved eulogies from his foreign service colleagues and persons who had worked with him during the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government, 1998-2004. There is no question but that he was the steel in Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s spine and, to mix metaphors some more, the drive-shaft propelling policies. Without him, Vajpayee would have easily lapsed into his natural, easy-going, mushiness where foreign and national security policies are concerned. As both principal private secretary (PPS) and national security adviser (NSA) to the PM he wielded the main levers of government. It was his personal closeness to Vajpayee which ensured that everybody up and down the vast Indian government apparatus knew that when he spoke it was a prime ministerial decision or directive.
However, Brajesh was curiously defensive, even sensitive, about his personal relationship with Vajpayee, perhaps, because it owed less to his equation with him or his own accomplishments than to the gratitude the BJP leader felt he owed Brajesh’s father, Dwarka Prasad Mishra, one-time Congress chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. When I once asked him about it, Brajesh brusquely diverted me from the subject. What I suspect is the truth is this: Vajpayee once contested the Lok Sabha seat from Gwalior and, as a friend, D P Mishra ensured he had no worthwhile Congress opponent in the general elections. When later, Mishra pater fell out with Indira Gandhi, Vajpayee invited him to join the BJP, but professing loyalty to the Congress, he declined. It was around the time that Vajpayee became the minister for external affairs in the Janata government post-Emergency, and sent Brajesh on a prize posting as permanent representative to the United Nations headquarters in New York in 1979. Once he became PM, Vajpayee appointed Brajesh PPS-cum-NSA, again as IOU to the son for his father’s political benefaction. It is another matter altogether that Brajesh proved an effective vizier.
Many of the things done by the BJP government are wrongly attributed to him. For instance, the decision to conduct nuclear tests and to weaponise was not remotely Brajesh’s, but mandated by the BJP election manifesto. The priority the issue accorded was the party’s as well, with a mighty assist from his predecessor P V Narasimha Rao egging Vajpayee on. However, Mishra efficiently coordinated the efforts of the various arms of the government to realise such goals. However, the strategic payoffs from the breakthrough Shakti tests, in terms of rocketing India, thermonuclear weapons-wise, into the rank of strategically impregnable nations, never accrued. This was because of the astonishingly strange and perverse decision announced by Vajpayee in his suo moto statement in Parliament on May 28, 1998 imposing a ‘voluntary test moratorium’.
It was an especially egregious decision as the fact that something had gone wrong was known almost immediately after the S-1 test on May 11, meaning the decisive weapon, which the Vajpayee government was all set to ballyhoo, had achieved only a small thermonuclear burn. However, the need to keep up pretences led to declarations by such as R Chidambaram, then chairman of the atomic energy commission, that the hydrogen device delivered exactly the yield it was supposed to. Supportive statements by the then head of DRDO, A P J Abdul Kalam, who as a rocket engineer, had no business pronouncing on matters he had no expert insights into, compelled the field testing team in Pokhran, which was processing telemetry data and collecting site-evidence at the time as prelude to analysing the under-performance of the hydrogen bomb design, to fall in line. It eventuated in Brajesh approving and Vajpayee announcing the fateful moratorium decision. This was precisely the wrong decision when more open-ended testing was required to obtain a credible thermonuclear arsenal as was advocated by other equally reputable stalwarts of the nuclear programme. At this point things become a little murky. Brajesh should have compelled Chidambaram to face P K Iyengar, A N Prasad, and others who had expressed doubts about the fusion test and sought new tests, but he didn’t. Indeed, he flatly denied he had anything to do with the moratorium decision, telling me that Vajpayee made such decisions as he felt strongly about without consulting him. (This is there in my 2008 book India’s Nuclear Policy).
The problem is this: On all really controversial decisions by the BJP government, Brajesh put the onus on the prime minister. Brajesh also held he had nothing to do with the rhetorically useful but impracticable principles such as the ‘No First Use’ Vajpayee announced in Parliament, and constrained the National Security Advisory Board group drafting the nuclear doctrine. Had Mishra been more familiar with nuclear weapons development and strategic deterrence history and literature, decisions such as this and to publicise the draft-doctrine wouldn’t have been made.
These developments emphasised the late K Subrahmanyam’s advocacy for separating the posts of NSA and PPS, and filling the former with persons with proven expertise in strategic military matters. The irony is that had Subrahmanyam been made NSA, his decisions would have coincided with Brajesh’s (as the former’s writings before and after the 1998 tests indicated).
Subrahmanyam’s case though is still valid because it is better for an NSA with a thorough grounding in the strategic military field to arrive at decisions the generalist Brajesh did via a generalist’s partial knowledge. His inability to muster any technically elaborate explanations for any of his nuclear deterrence-related decisions, was passed off as part of his gruff nature. Brajesh was, however, right in reining in the over-enthusiasm attending on the opening to the United States affected by the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott ‘strategic dialogue’.
The issue Subrahmanyam didn’t raise is the monopolisation of the NSA post since then by retired foreign secretaries who invariably end up, at a minimum, micro-managing the Ministry of External Affairs, as many of their successors would honestly attest, but otherwise are unable to push military and defence decisions because they don’t know enough and in any depth and detail to carry conviction with the others with hands on the wheel.
Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com