January 17, 2020
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"The Name Is Mishra, Brajesh Mishra"

The PM’S pet troubleshooter is arguably the most powerful principal secretary the PMO has seen

"The Name Is Mishra, Brajesh Mishra"

You could be spending life by yourself drinking tepid cups of tea in a nondescript party office one day. Suddenly, life does a somersault and you become one of the most important men in the country - to some, certainly the second most important. Principal secretary to the prime minister, National Security Advisor and frequent political sharpshooter Brajesh Mishra falls into this category. And is seldom out of headlines, albeit between the lines.

Mishra, since the days of manning the foreign affairs cell at BJP HQ at Delhi’s Ashoka Road after years as a foreign service mandarin, is your archetypal principal secretary. He derives sweeping powers from his boss. His access to the prime minister is unprecedented. He has breakfast, lunch and dinner with the man almost on a daily basis, chalking out policy, formulating plans, looking into the nitty-gritty of what constitutes a vast administration.

In the Vajpayee years, he has been the key motivator of foreign policy, the principal spokesman on all issues. And the opportunities have been endless. From Pokhran II to Kashmir has been a never-ending series of foreign policy and security manoeuvres - the lines between the two getting increasingly blurred. There is a downside as well. From the days of low-key principal secretaries, Mishra is a contrast - he is brash and pulls no punches, which in other words means he rubs people the wrong way regardless of consequences. And during his two-year term has practically shaded out the ministry of external affairs (mea) as the principal government department dealing with international affairs. Admits one South Block insider, "Since Mishra took over, we simply take orders from the PMO. We are functioning on the margins."

And the mea isn’t the only one to feel Mishra’s heat. So is the ministry of home affairs. Even though PMO officials say that policy formulation in a parliamentary system is teamwork, the principal secretary has been in the thick of the latest peace moves in Kashmir, which could well be described as his and Vajpayee’s personal initiative. While sources discount talk of a difference of perception on Kashmir between the PMO and the home ministry, top officials admit to a great feeling of angst the way they were ousted by the PMO in the run-up to the breakdown of talks with the Hizbul Mujahideen. "It is difficult to say whether Kashmir remains an internal or external affairs matter," says one.

Such is Mishra’s clout that the PM chose to ignore one of the main recommendations of the Subrahmanyam Committee on Kargil which had suggested that the post of National Security Advisor should be totally independent with no additional responsibilities. Mishra continues to wear two hats.

Last fortnight, he spent time in Washington with US National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, preparing the background for Vajpayee’s US visit in early September. He has been Vajpayee’s special envoy to Paris and Moscow, leading to speculation that the minister of external affairs, Jaswant Singh, is not entirely happy about this poaching on his turf. The forthcoming Vajpayee visit to the US seems, for all practical purposes, a PMO affair with the mea confined to the sidelines. "It is no secret that Jaswant Singh is miffed at being left out of the proceedings. Why, you rarely see an interview of him these days," says one official. Jaswant dislikes Brajesh immensely, says a friend of the minister.

In fact, such has been the foreign policy tilt of the PMO headed by Mishra that domestic issues - the traditional forte of earlier pmos - seem to have been ignored a tad. Says foreign affairs analyst Amitabh Matoo, "As compared to previous principal secretaries, Brajesh is both interested and adept in foreign affairs. Whether work in other areas has suffered is a matter that can be examined but there is no doubt that he spends a disproportionate amount of time on foreign affairs." Foreign policy, which was one of the many jobs pmos did, is its primary preoccupation now. Officials say that diplomats, all Mishra appointees, now call the shots inside the PMO, leaving the mea on a limb.

So you have Ajay Bisaria - a relatively young diplomat posted as Vajpayee’s private secretary - or joint secretary Prabhat Shukla - India’s ambassador-designate to Singapore, who finds it difficult to leave the PMO even as his replacement from Africa is cooling his heels in Delhi - determining the agenda. Officials say that such is Mishra’s trust in fellow diplomats. A reference point: Vajpayee’s trusted Shakti Sinha, private secretary since the days he was leader of the Opposition, had to leave because, reportedly, Brajesh wanted somebody else in his place.

Says Bharat Karnad of the Centre for Policy Research, "People cannot easily escape their past. So it is no surprise that this PMO under Mishra has more of a foreign policy tilt than earlier pmos." Which falls into a pattern. At the time of the Pokhran blast in May 1998, the PM was without a foreign minister, Vajpayee himself looking after the portfolio. But the avalanche of criticism that followed worldwide made sophisticated briefings an imperative. And unlike the old days of off-the-record, anonymous briefings, there was a belligerent television camera to contend with. That is when Mishra stepped in, well versed in the art and tailormade for the job. Mishra has not looked back since. "To be sure principal secretaries have traditionally been very powerful people and this is no different," says officer on special duty in the PMO, Ashok Tandon.

But what is the special bond that binds Vajpayee and Mishra? Though both Brahmins from Madhya Pradesh, the real affinity, perhaps, lies in foreign affairs itself. Vajpayee, by any yardstick, has been one of the most successful foreign ministers India has had. That has gone along with an abiding interest in external affairs, being on various standing and consultative committees of the mea for several years. He had been a regular visitor to UN where Mishra was India’s representative for several years. Vajpayee’s trust in the man has grown with each passing year.

In the early years after independence when rookie diplomats were most keen to follow V.K. Krishna Menon and T.. Kaul’s pro-Russia, pro-Left tilt and make a public display of their positions, Mishra refused to toe the line and he had to pay a price. But that has stood him in good stead ever since the BJP came to power.

By all accounts, the principal secretary seems to be gaining in strength. His latest moves, sources say, is liaisoning with key nda allies, leading to speculation that the role played by George Fernandes, Pramod Mahajan and Jaswant Singh as ‘political managers’ seems to have been diluted. And despite talk of resentment against him in babudom, he remains firmly entrenched. Quips an mea official: "Mishra can be shaken but not stirred." Like James Bond?

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