By M.V. Kamath
Through the Corridors of Power: An Insider'sStory: P.C. Alexander; Harper Collins; p.p 480; Rs 500.00
In an article in Asian Age (September 1) Dr P.C. Alexander who was Principal Secretary to Smt. Indira Gandhi at the time of her assassination discusses the Nanavati Commission Report of which 100 out of 185 pages are devoted to a police station-wise account of the mayhem and murder perpetrated against the Sikhs in Delhi and the ?dismal failure of the police to handle the situation?. In his memoirs Dr Alexander devotes four pages to the same subject, at the end of which he says that ?inspite of all the arrangements made, and all the precautions taken by the central authorities for ensuring the security of the Sikhs affected by the riots, reports of violence against them continued to pour in…? All that Dr Alexander could say of the riots is that ?the police had not been successful in handling the situation?. Interesting. Why was Indira Gandhi assassinated ? What was the role of the Akalis and their agitation, a subject to which Dr Alexander gives 92 pages in his book? This is, perhaps, the most revealing part of Dr Alexander'smemoirs.
He concedes that Bhindranwale, the man behind the violence in Punjab should have been arrested following the murder of a ?competent and highly respected Sikh police officer? Atwal in the premises of the Golden Temple and that failure to do so was ?a grave error?. Dr Alexander'saccount of the entire Akali agitation is perhaps the most comprehensive of the series of events that led to Indira Gandhi'sassassination and by far the most objective. By and large one must give credit to Dr Alexander for the fairness in which he has dealt with people associated with him in one way or another during a long and distinguished career as a civil servant. It is to his credit that though, as he states, he did not possess the advantages bestowed by factors such as birth, caste or community? he made it to the highest positions of authority by sheer dint of hard work and what he calls ?luck?. Surely, he had other virtues besides, because, as he himself puts it, ?If one is firmly committed to certain lofty values and remains determined not to compromise with one'sself-respect, integrity and sense of duty in order to gain short term advantages, one would not have any cause for regret in the long run?.
Dr Alexander served under the prime ministerships of Morarji Desai, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. He showed guts in standing up to Morarji whose principal secretary had tried to arm-twist him ?into committing a wrong act?. Alexander resisted. He says that Morarji ?felt outraged that I could so boldly write about the intervention made by his principal secretary and insisted that orders be issued for transferring me on that very day?. Morarji was apparently not satisfied with removing Dr Alexander from the post of commerce secretary; he went to the extent of opposing Dr Alexander'scandidature to a United Nations post. Entirely believable. Reading this book gives one deep insights into how the government works. If Morarji did not like him, Indira Gandhi certainly did and she showed it in many ways. She trusted him a great deal. And in turn, Dr Alexander was very loyal to her. The intrigues that went on in government circles which Dr Alexander faithfully reveals come as no surprise. But from what he writes, he stood by what he thought was right and apparently Smt. Gandhi respected him for that.
The intrigues that went on in government circles which Dr Alexander faithfully reveals come as no surprise. But from what he writes, he stood by what he thought was right and apparently Smt. Gandhi respected him for that.
As he puts it: ?With the passage of time I gained the impression that she herself welcomed free and frank expression of views. Sometimes she would very vigorously criticise, or vehemently disagree with me. However, after listening to my counter-arguments, she would invariably either agree with me or keep the file for further consideration?. He similarly had a very happy relationship with Rajiv Gandhi and if we are to believe him, it was he who was the first to put forth the idea, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi ?that the most feasible arrangement would be to have Rajiv sworn in immediately as Prime Minister, without going in for an interim Prime Minister?. It would appear that everyone he talked to also held the same opinion, including P.V. Narasimha Rao and Pranab Mukherjee. Dr Alexander dismisses what he calls a ?canard? that Pranab Mukherjee had staked his claim to be sworn in as interim PM and had to be persuaded with great difficulty to withdraw his claim?. Dr Alexander is certainly a great story-teller and either he maintained a diary of daily events or he has an extraordinary memory. Names of politicians occur in page after page with Dr Alexander registering what they said or what they had done.
The reader is, thus, provided with instances of how work gets done behind the scenes, and even on how ministries work. Rajiv Gandhi, as everyone knows, once unceremoniously announced the dismissal of the then foreign secretary, A.P. Venkiteswaran, at, of all places, a news conference. Venkiteswaran had apparently hurt the egos of both Rajiv Gandhi and Dr Alexander by sending out a circular to all heads of missions with instructions that copies of reports from such heads to the Ministry of External Affairs on various matters should not in future be marked to the PMO as had been the practice till then. It certainly offended Dr Alexander who brusquely told Venkiteswaran that only he had the right to decide what reports should go to the PM and what reports should be sent only to the MEA.
In the years since Independence several IAS officers had gone on to occupy high positions but Dr Alexander must be one of the very few who not only rose to great heights within the service but also had opportunities to serve international organisations and even more importantly as governor of major states. Indeed, had no last minute decision been taken to keep him out, he would probably have ended his long career, not as a member of the Rajya Sabha but as President of the Republic of India. He missed that job by the skin of his teeth. Nothing could be more apt than the title of the book: Through The Corridors of Power, because it is indeed a recollection of what happens in those rich corridors. Sparing none, he records that ?the experiences of many civil servants during the Janata government were as bad as they were during the Emergency, if not worse?.
One has to read the book to believe some of the experiences he relates. Not many civil servants have recounted their experiences in the service of the government and one has to be thankful to Dr Alexander for being one of those who did. In many ways this book is an eye-opener as much for what has been said as for what has remained unsaid. In many ways it is a reflection of our times and of the ways in which our leaders made history. Future historians certainly should be grateful to him for recording events with insight and, remarkably enough, with a measure of objectivity.