Brajesh Mishra, who was National Security Adviser to Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee between November 1998 and May 2004, passed away on the night of September 28, 2012. He was 84 and belonged to the 1951 batch of the Indian Foreign Service.
He became famous in May 1970 when he was heading the Indian Embassy in Beijing as Charge d’Affaires. At the traditional May Day function at Beijing, Mao Dzedong shook hands with Mishra, conveyed his greetings to our Prime Minister and President in that order and said: “We cannot go on quarrelling like this. We must become friends again. We will become friends again.”
Mishra sent a detailed report on it to the Ministry of External Affairs. A few days later, an account of Mao’s friendly references to India, which came almost eight years after the Sino-Indian war of 1962, leaked out to the Indian media which added some masala to it while flashing it, saying that Mao smiled at Mishra when he made his observations. This was followed by feverish speculation regarding the significance of Mao’s smile.
The truth was Mao never smiled at Mishra when he made his observations, but “Mao’s famous smile” and its significance became an exciting narrative in the history of India’s relations with China and the role of Mishra in it. An authentic account of what happened that day in Beijing was written on December 2, 2009, for the web site of the Chennai Centre For China Studies by Mr G.S. Iyer, who was then the only Chinese-knowing member of the staff of the Indian Embassy in Beijing. He subsequently became India’s Ambassador to Morocco and Mexico before retiring from the Indian Foreign Service. Mr Iyer’s authentic account of the meeting is annexed.
Mr Mishra again hit the headlines in the beginning of 1980. But under a different context. He had been posted as India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York by the Morarji Desai government. He was occupying that post when the Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan. There were reports that the Charan Singh government, which was then in office, had misgivings about the Soviet invasion and was disinclined to support the Soviet action.
Indira Gandhi, who returned to office as Prime Minister in January 1980, had Narasimha Rao sent to New York to support the Soviet action. Mishra read out before the UN General Assembly a prepared text not disapproving of the Soviet invasion. During his retirement days, Mishra was reported to have told his close friends that he read out the statement on orders, but was not in agreement with its text.
Shortly thereafter, he took premature retirement from the Indian Foreign Service and joined the staff of the UN Secretary-General. He left the job and returned to India in 1987 and joined the BJP in 1991 to help it establish a Foreign Affairs Cell in its headquarters. In that capacity, he used to advise BJP leaders on foreign policy matters and assist them during their meetings with foreign dignitaries.
Mishra and Vajpayee came close to each other during this period and Vajpayee developed immense trust in Mishra’s judgement and advice. When Vajpayee took over as the Prime Minister in March 1998, he appointed Brajesh Mishra as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. In that capacity, he headed the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and co-ordinated its functioning.
Mishra played an important role in the deliberations that preceded the decision of Vajpayee to authorise India’s nuclear tests of May 1998. The credit for maintaining the secrecy of the decision and of the preparations for the tests should go to the political leaders of the BJP who were involved in the decision, Mishra who supervised the execution of the decision and Dr.Abdul Kalam and his scientists who carried it out.
The USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was totally taken by surprise by the tests, which led to considerable friction in India’s relations inter alia with the US and China. Mishra committed a major faux pas while drafting a letter from Vajpayee to then President Bill Clinton explaining why India carried out the tests. The letter referred to India’s fears of a possible threat from China as a reason for the decision. The State Department mischievously leaked that letter to the US media, thereby adding to the friction between India and China.
It spoke well of the diplomatic skills of Mishra and the pragmatism of Beijing that they did not allow this aggravation of friction to permanently damage the bilateral relations.
Shortly after the nuclear tests, Vajpayee, on the recommendation of a three-member committee on national security headed by Mr KC. Pant, decided to revamp the national security infrastructure. As part of this revamp, a post of National Security Adviser (NSA) was created. The National Security Council (NSC) created by V.P. Singh, which had become dormant, was revived and a National Security Council Secretariat and a National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) of non-governmental advisers were set up.
Vajpayee asked Mishra to hold additional charge as the NSA. Thus, he wore two hats—as the Principal Secretary to the PM and as his NSA. K. Subramanyam, the strategic affairs expert, was appointed the first Convenor of the NSAB.
Even at that time, questions were raised by some regarding the wisdom of one individual, however capable, wearing both these hats. It was reported that the Pant Committee was in favour of an independent NSA. So was K. Subramanyam, who, on two occasions, had publicly expressed his misgivings about combining the two posts of Principal Secretary to the PM and NSA. He felt that as the Principal Secretary, Mishra would be so preoccupied with running the PMO that he would not be able to devote adequate attention to his job as the NSA.
Mishra strongly felt that if the same officer held both the posts, he could prevent conflicting advice on national security matters reaching the PM. During this period, I had written a number of articles stressing the need for the revival of the covert action capability of the R&AW that had been downgraded by Mr I.K. Gujral when he was the Prime Minister in 1997.Mishra, who had read these articles, sent word to me through his office that I should call on him during one of my visits to New Delhi.
I did so in 1999. He referred to what I had been writing on the need for the revival of the covert action capability and said: “ You don’t have to convince me. I was convinced long before you were, but the Prime Minister is not in favour of it. We have to go by his wishes.”
Subsequently, I had occasion to meet him three times. The first occasion was alone in his office. On his own, he referred to criticisms being made about Mr Vajpayee’s decision to ask him to hold additional charge as the NSA and said: “ I do not want any confusion in the advice reaching the PM on national security matters. It is better that all advice on national security goes to the Prime Minister from this office.” He was sitting in his office as the Principal Secretary to the PM.
My next meeting with him was as a member of the Special Task Force for the Revamp of the Intelligence Apparatus headed by Mr G.C. Saxena, former chief of the R&AW and then Governor of J&K. He was asked by one of the members about his views regarding the performance of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the R&AW.
He replied: “ I do not see all the reports of the IB. Hence, I cannot comment on its performance. I see all the reports of the R&AW, which works directly under me. When I was in the IFS, I used to think negatively of the R&AW. Now I think positively of it. I am regularly seeing its work and capabilities. It has been doing very well.”
His remarks were an indirect confirmation of the speculation then circulating in New Delhi that Mr L.K. Advani, the then Home Minister, had kept him out of any active role in supervising the performance of the IB.
My fourth meeting with him was just before the elections of 2004. There was some criticism in sections of the media about his role as the NSA. It was alleged that he had not implemented many of the important recommendations made by the various task forces on national security set up by the Vajpayee government after the Kargil conflict of 1999.
He had invited some of us for a briefing on the recommendations that had already been implemented. The briefing was given by the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS). He wanted us in our individual capacities to explain to the media and others regarding the action already taken by the government.
Some of the recommendations of the G.C. Saxena Task Force had related to the state police and the coordination between the central intelligence agencies and the state police. Sections of the media were speculating regarding these recommendations. Some state police officers had contacted me and said that the government of India had not kept the state governments in the picture regarding these recommendations. I mentioned this to Mishra at this meeting.
Mishra replied: “ Raman, you don’t know what problems I have been having sorting out the quarrels among the central agencies regarding the implementation. Let me sort them out first. I will then sort out the recommendations relating to the state police.”
I consider the brilliant manner in which Mishra handled the diplomatic consequences of the nuclear tests as his greatest achievement as the NSA. The Clinton Administration was very petulant. China was furious. The European Union was not very sympathetic. Only Russia was sympathetic. Many of us feared that India would be confined to the diplomatic dog house.
The fact that India was not and that our relations with these countries again improved spoke very highly of the way Mishra handled the sequel. He also saw to it that a Nuclear Doctrine was drafted, approved and put in place within a year of the tests.
He travelled a lot in this connection as a secret emissary of Vajpayee and I was given to understand that the R&AW played an important role in assisting him through its web of liaison relations with the countries which were angry with India over the nuclear tests. I had personally heard Mishra pay high tributes to the assistance from the R&AW in this regard.
He handled very creditably the sequel to the Kargil conflict with Pakistan and the sequel to the attack on the Indian Parliament. However, there was some criticism—not invalid in my view— of what was seen by many as his mishandling of the Kandahar hijacking and the case of Major Rabinder Singh, the CIA’s mole in the R&AW, who managed to escape to the US in 2004.
He was allegedly totally unaware of the details of the crisis management drill to deal with hijackings that had been laid down in the 1980s when Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were Prime Ministers. It was alleged by people in New Delhi, who were not ill disposed to Mishra, that he was confused and did not know how to handle the situation. As a result, the hijacked plane managed to take off from Amritsar airport, leave the Indian airspace and reach Kandahar. We lost control of the situation and had no other option but to concede the demands of the hijackers.
There was an inexcusable delay on the part of the R&AW in alerting Mishra that Rabinder Singh was suspected of working as a CIA mole and was under surveillance. Initially, the R&AW kept not only Mishra, but also the IB in the dark. In fact, the moment they developed suspicion about Rabinder Singh, the R&AW should have alerted the IB and asked it to mount a surveillance on him.
When the case was belatedly brought to the notice of Mishra, one would have expected him to lose his temper for not keeping him informed and order that the surveillance be handed over to the IB. He did not do anything of the sort. He seemed to have gone along with the R&AW’s decision to keep the IB in the dark and advised the R&AW to be discreet in its surveillance since he was worried that any embarrassment could damage his efforts to develop a strategic partnership with the US.
There is no other way of explaining his silence on the R&AW keeping the IB in the dark except to believe that he did not want Mr Advani to prematurely know about it lest he complicate matters. Those were the months before the 2004 elections when Mishra’s style of national security management had started coming under criticism from some of his usual detractors as well as others. He apparently did not want any premature publicity to add to his difficulties.
To quote Mr Amar Bhushan, the then head of counter-intelligence and security in the R&AW, who had written an account of the case under the cover of a fiction titled Escape To Nowhere : “ Coming from a diplomatic background, he (NSA) is naturally apprehensive of the adverse impact of the investigation on bilateral relations. He may be wondering why we make such a fuss about the restrictive security when senior officers routinely talk and exchange ideas among themselves.”
Amar Bhushan also quotes C.D. Sahay, the then head of the R&AW, as telling him after a meeting with Mishra: “ He thinks that the case has been badly handled and its gravity blown out of proportion. He is of the view that we should have dealt with the case administratively as soon as we knew that he (Rabinder) was making conscious efforts to elicit unauthorised information from his colleagues.”
Right from the beginning since Mishra took over as the NSA, there was an impression that he was feeling out of depth in internal security matters. He hardly had any influence over the state governments. His word and advice carried little weight in the state corridors of decision-making.
R.N. Kao, who shared this impression, had suggested to Mr Vajpayee the creation of a post of Deputy National Security Adviser under Mishra to be filled up by an IAS or IPS officer well-versed in internal security management. According to Kao, Mr Vajpayee appeared to be amenable to accepting the idea. By the time the post was created, Kao was dead. It was filled by another retired IFS officer.
There was another reason why Mishra was weak in internal security management. Mr Advani, who looked upon himself as the internal security Czar, was disinclined to give Mishra any substantive role in it.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
Mao's Smile Revisited
, C3S Paper No.413 dated December 2, 2009
The meeting at the Tiananmen rostrum of Mao Dzedong with Mr Brajesh Mishra, the then Indian Charge d’affaires in our Embassy in Peking (as it was called then) on May 1, 1970 is an important historical moment in Indian diplomatic history worthy of correct recollection and recording. The meeting came as the climax of a series of signals from India in the previous years which were being responded to, and was a deliberate and conscious move on the part of the Chinese.
I was working in the Embassy in Peking and was the only Chinese speaking Foreign Service officer of the mission from July 1968, when I succeeded Mr Vinod Khanna, till summer of 1970 when Mr Vijay Nambiar joined the mission — the receiving end of ‘the receiving end’ so to say. I had also accompanied Mr Mishra for some of the meetings with the Chinese Foreign Office in 1970 subsequent to the exchange on the Tiananmen rostrum. With this background, I believe I have some observations to offer on the history of this event.
Despite various signals from our side since 1967, as far as I can recall, there was not much of a chance for a dialogue between the Embassy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 1969. I can recollect only two calls by the Head of the Mission in 1969, the initial courtesy visit and the second to protest a particularly vicious attack on Mrs Indira Gandhi in the Xinhua bulletin. Further, in late April 1969, Mr Mishra walked out of a reception given by Zhou Enlai in honour of Air Marshal Nur Khan, the No. 2 in the ruling Pakistani military junta to protest the standard Chinese remark about supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir in their ‘struggle for self-determination’. This was, in a way, a hardening of our line as these remarks were regularly uttered by the Chinese hosts at all receptions and dinners in honour of visiting Pakistani leaders and no Indian Head of Mission had walked out of any Chinese reception between 1962 and 1969 in response to such remarks. Perhaps they should have. The volume and shrillness of propaganda by the Chinese official media against India had only increased in 1969. Indira Gandhi whose name is written with Chinese characters Yingdila Gandi was lampooned in the People’s Daily as Meidila (‘pulled about by American imperialism’)! This was when we were one of the few governments to speak publicly against the Vietnam war even to our detriment. That was the year the centenary of the Mahatma’s birth was celebrated with solemnity and reverence globally. The only country that ignored that event entirely was China. The Chinese also made a wholesale boycott of the Gandhi Centenary function held in the Embassy on October 2, 1969, without even a token representation. (The Pakistani mission, which obviously knew what the Chinese planned to do sent a Third Secretary, their juniormost diplomat to the function, the only mission not represented by the Ambassador—surely a most disgraceful behaviour.) 1969 was also the year of the Naxalbari events which I will come back to later. Thus 1969 was a very bad year for India-China relations despite some serious efforts by us to get some movement.
A few days before the May Day of 1970, the Chinese Foreign Office called the Embassy to go over and collect the invitation cards for the event which was to take place in the evening. I went to pick up the invitations. In those days before China’s recklessly polluting industrialization, May Day could be very cold and the Foreign Office specifically asked us to bring overcoats while watching the function from the steps facing the Tiananmen! Two sets of cards were handed over to me, one for Mr and Mrs. Mishra to go up the rostrum from where Mao and the other leaders would watch the show, and another for the other diplomats of the embassy to watch from the steps below.
Quite characteristically, the immediate question from Mr Mishra on my handing over his card was when such an arrangement had occurred earlier. I had the answer ready. I replied promptly that it was on the May Day of 1967 when Mao and several other leaders walked down the ranks of Heads of Missions and shook hands with everybody. Therefore another handshaking was on the cards and both the Mission and Delhi knew what could be expected.
From our perch down below in the steps, we were watching the gradual progress of Mao down the line and noticed his pausing occasionally to talk to somebody or the other but could not make out who they were, even with the help of binoculars. But we knew that our Charge had a chance to meet Mao. Early the next day I knew it was more than that because Mr Mishra had sent a report of the meeting to the government on his return from the function. As soon as I reached the Embassy, he called me and gave me the report to read. It was a stunning moment for a young man barely four years into his profession to read the words spoken by one of the giants of that century about relations with his country. Here was Mao saying ‘We cannot go on quarrelling like this. We must become friends again. We will become friends again.’
There was much other matter of interest that day. China had launched a satellite a week earlier; and it was inevitable that every ambassador would say his word of congratulation to Mao. The British Charge stood to the right of Mr Mishra and he too did his bit. Mao acknowledged the congratulations and responded, “We also wish Great Britain great technological successes”, a response which left Mr Denson and his younger colleagues steaming and furious for many many days. They read it correctly as a dig at UK not being the only major power with no satellite program. Mao also conveyed his greetings to our ‘Prime Minister and President’ conscious of the relative importance of the two leaders in our system of politics. It also showed that Mao was alert and had his wit and capacity for repartee intact. Mao also talked at some length to the Soviet Charge. He held the hands of the Czechoslovak ambassador for an inordinately long time and shook it without saying anything, almost as if he was commiserating with the plight of that hapless country invaded by their allies only a few months earlier!
Mr Mishra asked for instructions on follow up conversations, but even before they arrived, the story of the meeting was leaked to the Indian press in a twisted and trivialised way, that Mao smiled at Mishra during the May Day event. There was no need to leak that story at all, and if it was thought important to share it with the people of our country, an exact account was what our people were entitled to hear. Matters got only worse when a question was asked in the Parliament about the ‘smile’ and it was replied to from the government side that we will not be taken in by a mere smile. This distorted version was surely unfair both to the people of our country who our government is answerable to and to China who valued and respected the fact that something very important was being conveyed at the level of their Chairman. We misled the Indian people and deeply offended and upset the Chinese government in one stroke — another remarkable action of shooting at our own feet in a bit of diplomatic and public relations ham- handedness of which we have more than enough examples in India.
The exchange between Mao and Brajesh Mishra was followed by some exploratory conversations with the Asia Department of the Chinese Foreign Office. The Director who received Mr Mishra was Yang Kungsu who had then been resurrected from the wherever he was consigned during the Cultural Revolution. Though known as a Tibet expert, he was more than that and was the counterpart of Mr J.S. Mehta in the joint committee of officials which met in 1960 and agreed to disagree of the report to be submitted to the two governments on solving the border question. The point about his re-emergence in the wake of the words of Mao was precisely that an expert on the border was brought in for the dialogue. The dialogue did go on through 1970 and, as with various other initiatives earlier and later, fell victim to non-bilateral developments, because the Chinese let it peter out after the arrest of Sheikh Mujib and the beginning of the liberation struggle in Bangladesh where the Chinese notoriously supported Pakistan and opposed self-determination of Bengali people.
What exactly did Mao say? He said, “We cannot go on quarrelling like this. We must become friends again. We will become friends again.” That these are the exact words can be confirmed because these were repeated by Yang Kungsu in Chinese in a meeting with Mr Mishra. I heard Yang Kungsu quote Mao because I was present in the meeting. There is no way anybody could quote Mao other than exactly. In any case, Yang would have been a party to the preparation of words to be spoken by Mao on that occasion. The Chinese words are, ‘Women puhui zheiyang chaoxiaqu. Women yingai yao zuo pengyu. Women yiding zuo pengyu’, confirming that it was an emphatic call to end the mutual distrust.
Some Chinese scholars have claimed recently that Mao also said “Indian nation is a great nation. Indian people are a great people” to Mr Mishra. I do not think so. Let me explain. These sentences came to our attention as a quote from Mao in 1969 in an article in the People’s Daily titled ‘Spring Thunder over India’ which was a review of the Naxalite movement, claiming how that movement was overwhelming the ‘reactionary Indian authorities under the inspiration of Chairman Mao’s teachings’. It was obligatory for all articles in newspapers to have a quote from Mao. This article concluded with the quote above and an exhortation to the ‘Indian people’ to seize power Maoist style. I made a diligent but unsuccessful search for the quote in the Collected Works of Chairman Mao. Several weeks later, while rummaging through old bound magazines in the embassy basement I discovered a report in an English publication on the celebration of our Republic Day by the embassy in 1951. Mao, who was the President of the country, broke protocol and attended the reception given by Ambassador Raghavan and personally replied to the toast with the words, ‘Indian nation is a great nation and Indian people are a great people’ and proceeded to drink to the health of President Rajendra Prasad and prosperity of India. Isn’t it remarkable that this lone reference to India to fall from the lips of Mao was preserved and quoted by the People’s Daily 18 years later to urge the overthrow of the constitutional government of the very republic Mao was originally toasting! It is even more remarkable that the words used in the context of a report on Naxalite violence are now quoted as a gesture from Mao!
It also shows beyond doubt that Mao did not use these words in his exchange with Brajesh Mishra. Mao really did not need to quote himself; a scholar, writer and poet of his calibre was not that wanting in words as to repeat himself. That is why I believe he did not say them to Mr Mishra in 1970. The Chinese scholars rewriting the quote should also make up their mind which context of the quote they wish to remember today and in the future.
Why the initiative from China at the level of Mao at that moment of time? By 1969, China was amply encircled and had the desperate need to break out of the situation in which they could only count on the ilks of Albania and Pakistan as friends. There was a skirmish along the Sino-Soviet border and there were ominous noises coming from Moscow about an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities, what the American media described then in the gruesome phrase, nuclear castration. We forget now that China was the archetypical destabilizing power then, verbally and materially supporting the overthrow of every established government in South East Asia and had grievously wounded by the failure of the attempted coup in Indonesia and the attack on the Chinese community in the aftermath. The Vietnam war was not ending, which meant they had to find a new way of coping with the USA, other than an open ended confrontation. In late 1969, the contacts between China and the USA resumed in Warsaw. The American table tennis team came to China in 1970, roughly at the same time Mao spoke to us. It was all parts of a plan to break the encirclement.
The arrest of Sheikh Mujib and the Chinese decision to go over to the side of Pakistan in violation of all their professed ideological principles ended forward movement in the initiative with India. On the other hand, the very same event helped US-China relations move forward. Could China have taken a different position on Bangladesh? That they did not do so despite the high level investment in improvement in relations with India an year earlier could be proof of both the weight of Pakistan in China’s subcontinent diplomacy and the limits of unorthodox initiatives when faced with entrenched habits of thought and behaviour.
Mr G.S. Iyer, Indian Foreign Service -Retired, was formerly India’s Ambassador to Morocco and Mexico. He also held senior positions in Indian missions in Beijing and Tokyo.