PM Nehru: A Poor Judge of Persons
Our natural egoism leads us to judge people by their relations to ourselves. We want them to be certain things to us, and for us that is what they are; because the rest of them is no good to us, we ignore it. — W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up
All leaders are not for fortunate enough to have a Chanakya as their adviser but they are very likely to have around them sycophants and self-seekers and sometimes a Rasputin as well whose spell casts an evil shadow on the decisions they make and alliances they enter into. Hence, the importance of the attribute of being a shrewd judge of persons as an important trait of leadership.
Grigori Rasputin, you’ll recall was the famous—notorious probably will be the more appropriate adjective — mystical faith healer who played a significant part in the lives and fortunes of Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia and his wife Alexandra Feodorovna. His influence — though based on not altogether reliable memoirs and popular legends — was not wholesome. Nonetheless, most historians agree that his presence played a significant role in the increasing unpopularity of the imperial couple and their eventual downfall and the end of Russian monarchy.
No leader of men — however great his leadership qualities — can achieve much by himself without the involvement and commitment of others who share his vision and are inspired by his dedication to the cause. The hallmark of true leadership is the capacity to involve others and get their best. For that, a leader has to be a shrewd judge of persons and be able to assess who can achieve what and accordingly assign sub-goals that add up to the ultimate objective. Seeking alignment of others’ perceptions to the chosen goal is one of the vital qualities of leadership.
Nehru, unfortunately, didn’t possess this quality. Within six months of Independence, he found he couldn’t strike a working equation with Vallabhbhai Patel. In a long letter to Gandhi in January 1948 he highlighted the “practical difficulties” of working with his Deputy Prime Minister. It was Gandhi’s assassination in the same month that almost forced both Nehru and Patel to work together in larger interest of the nation.
Compared to Nehru, Patel was an exceptionally gifted leader of men. He not only inspired but empowered the bureaucrats (e. g. V P Menon) under him to achieve the goals he had set, most important of which was the integration of the States in the Union. Nehru was temperamentally intolerant of views opposed to his. Patel almost unfailingly cross-checked his perceptions of a major issue with others. Nehru’s style was authoritarian. Even Judith Brown, in her otherwise very sympathetic assessment, admits:
Nehru’s heart and talent were not in administration. Although he worked phenomenally hard and drove himself and his secretaries mercilessly, he was not good at coordinating the work of others or at delegating tasks. So the central bureaucracy functioned only as fast as he could manage the papers that came to his desk; and when he was travelling abroad (which he loved to) decision-making virtually stopped. (Italics added)
All said, a great leader is one who infuses a sense of mission in the hearts and minds of others. As John Harvey-Jones puts it: “Leadership is the ability to elicit extraordinary performance from ordinary people”. Nehru miserably failed in this. His allergy to dissent gave rise to ascendancy of flatterers and sycophants who gathered in plenty around him.
Nehru’s deficiencies as an administrator are conceded by Gopal’s on-the-whole-supportive summing up of the Nehru’s Prime Ministership. He points out:
The administration was further clogged by Nehru’s frequent choice of the wrong persons to do what he wanted done; and even when he discerned their inadequacies — or had them pointed out to him — he was not prompt in dispensing with their services. He had a weakness for flamboyant buccaneers and was easily led to regard as dash and enterprise what was frequently no more than crooked manipulation.
This indeed is a fatal failure in an administrator, especially when Nehru had come to wield unquestioned control that made him largely impervious to possibly hostile political fallout. A good leader has to be a good surgeon, capable of timely sharp incision when needed. Left to fester for long, administrative infection poisons the entire system. And regrettably, Nehru was guilty of letting that happen if not by errors of commission, surely by (numerous) errors of omission.
Many shady characters surrounded him who had personal axes to grind on the State’s millstone. Nehru allowed them to carry on the exercise merrily. The most famous — or notorious? — of them all was perhaps Dharma Teja whose shipping operations cost the State exchequer heavily. Teja knew how to ingratiate himself with Nehru and the Prime Minister emerges from this distressing episode as an extremely gullible human being.
Another devious character who had woven his way into the inner circle was Yashpal Kapoor. Nehru was ever-ready to suffer sycophants — a traditional failing of most humans basking in power. Even when the true colours of the Prime Minister’s protégés were discovered, Nehru was extremely reluctant to dump them or have punitive action initiated against them, which they eminently deserved.
Fondness for Menon
Nehru’s very special relationship with Krishna Menon defies all known administrative norms. It was with utmost reluctance that he accepted Menon’s resignation as Defence Minister even after the man had heaped on his mentor’s head the worst humiliation of his life which the 1962 debacle indeed was. I have read three accounts of Menon’s “accomplishments” i.e. by B. K. Nehru, Rajeshwar Dayal and Khushwant Singh. The first two belonged to the ICS with impeccable reputations as diplomats and administrators. The third one was Menon’s PRO in London. Together, these versions show Menon in extremely poor light. Each one of these three independent versions by seasoned men brings out the perverse vice-like grip the man had over Nehru.
B K Nehru mentions Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s explanation for Nehru’s fondness for Menon. According to her, Menon was the only one in his Cabinet of mediocrities (whom, incidentally, he himself had selected) that Nehru could relate to. “Both were ‘Englishmen’” Seemingly, no other contemporary of his was intellectually developed enough to share Nehru’s perceptions of national and international issues. So Menon took the place of Edwina Mountbatten and after him there was an irreparable void in the man’s life.
There is, I think, a more plausible explanation of Nehru’s fondness for Menon. He helped Nehru to get An Autobiography published in England when Nehru was largely an unknown entity abroad. He also dutifully chauffeured the Indian Prime Minister to Lady Mountbatten’s country house which Nehru never missed visiting whenever he was in England to attend one conference or another and Menon was India’s High Commissioner in London. (Seldom has someone playing gooseberry been rewarded so handsomely and that too at the cost of the Exchequer). However, Menon’s devotion to his “elder brother” was exemplary. He outlived him by some fifteen years but never even once did he open his mouth to shift responsibility onto Nehru for India’s military disaster in 1962.
B K Nehru on Menon
In his scintillating memoirs Nice Guys Finish Second, B K Nehru devotes several pages to Menon, his behaviour and conduct and, more significantly, “the extraordinary hold Krishna Menon had on Jawaharlal Nehru”. He claims to have known Menon “for no less than thirty-three years” — quite some time to understand someone (except perhaps your own wife). He had landed in England to study at the London School of Economics — an institution that has had deep impact on the political and economic thinking of our country for at least three quarters of the twentieth century. Menon was a “favourite student of Harold Laski” — which meant a great deal in those days. And like all politically minded students he chose to stay on in England and established the Indian League which played a significant role in propagating the cause of India’s independence.
B K Nehru traces Jawaharlal-Krishna Menon friendship back to 1935. It was Menon who introduced Jawaharlal to leading lights of the Labour Party. Those were the days of the Spanish civil war when left-wing views were intellectually de rigueur. Leftist political thinking, in all likelihood, was the bond between Jawaharlal and his new-found friend. Over the years, this association blossomed into close friendship and Jawaharlal began to “rely on him (Menon) for advice on international matters and use him, as it were, as Ambassador of the Congress to the supporters in Europe of Indian independence”. (It must be mentioned in Menon’s defense that he was an extremely well-read and well-informed man who could, at the drop of a hat, rattle off facts and figures about any subject under discussion. Jawaharlal — himself an intellectual — must have been impressed by this attribute of his friend) [I have referred here to Jawaharlal Nehru as plain Jawaharlal in the essay primarily to distinguish him from his civil servant cousin, B K Nehru from whose memoirs I have quoted].
How was Krishna Menon appointed as India’s first High Commissioner at St. James? It is not unlikely that Menon had spent years dreaming of presenting one day his credentials as diplomatic representative of free India to the British monarch. He did all he could to project a favourable image of himself to Mountbatten whose weight more than any other single factor, tilted the balance in favour of Menon’s appointment.
No professional psychologist has so far offered an analysis of why Menon came to acquire “a nature so irritable, so acerbic and so quarrelsome that the number of people he fought with or deliberately insulted seemed to exceed the number of his followers”. Menon couldn’t go to sleep without making a new enemy. He had antagonized M K Vellodi, senior ICS officer who was the Acting High Commissioner in London on the day of our independence. Krishna Menon was literally prepared to eat his felt hat to hoist the Indian tricolour in London on August 15, 1947 — something he had been waiting for all his life. Vellodi, however, wasn’t prepared to relent. He deliberately delayed his handing over charge. B K Nehru quotes Vellodi saying: “I’m not going to let that bastard raise the national flag in the High Commission. I shall hand over charge only after I myself have raised the flag of independent India”. B K Nehru describes in some detail all the quarrels that Krishna Menon picked with his deputies during his five-year stint. He expected his staff “to kowtow to him and treat him as a demi-god”.
The jeep scandal was Menon’s undoing in London. Even his worst critics concede that personally he derived no benefit. As B K Nehru sums up: “he had no business sense and took upon himself to do things for which he did not have the capacity”. Menon, however, was always up to some “image building” strategy or the other. These are vividly described by B K Nehru, including how he wangled an invitation from the Canadian Foreign Minister. Despite all the controversy that the scandal stirred, Menon had his mentor’s protecting hand to keep him out of trouble’s way. Jawaharlal was, B K Nehru records, “a very loyal friend: one of his defects as an administrator was that he could not hurt anybody”.
The oft-narrated story of Menon convincing Jawaharlal that Gen Thimayya was secretly planning a coup against the civilian government shows Menon, the Defence Minister, in very poor light. The much-lamented politicization of the army after Thapar’s appointment as the Army Chief, is Krishna Menon’s legacy that bedevils the century’s defense services.
How on earth is one to explain Nehru’s fixation with Menon who excelled in the art of antagonizing all those whom he interacted with? Most of those who worked with him in the Ministry of Defense despised him for his hauteur and the none-too-infrequent tendency of brazenly playing one against the other. Field Marshal Manekshaw told the story of how as a Maj Gen he was asked by Menon as to what he thought of his chief, General Thimayya. “I’m not supposed to think about my chief”, replied Manekshaw with unconcealed bluntness.
“You know I can remove him”, snapped back Menon. “Indeed you can, in which case I will have another Chief that I’m not supposed to think about”. Menon wasn’t the one to give up. He insisted. Manekshaw said: “You would be asking my Brigadier what he thought of me. And...”. India’s Defence Minister gave up the probe. The story shows the type of man Menon was in his dealings with the Army top brass. He liked dealing only with those Generals who were prepared to demonstrate their subservience to him.
B K Nehru sums up the Jawaharlal-Krishna Menon friendship — the most unfortunate influence on political developments in the formative years of the Republic — as “ an unresolved mystery”. He goes to the extent of describing it as a “Rasputin-like effect on our affairs”. (Is this propensity to be under the hypnotic spell of evil minds in the Nehru genes? His daughter was no less prone to sycophants finding a permanent route to her heart. The much-despised Dhirendra Brahmchari was another Rasputin in the Nehru-Gandhi household).
Dayal on Menon
We have the memoirs of another distinguished civil servant, Rajeshwar Dayal, which amply corroborate B K Nehru’s assessment of Krishna Menon. (Dayal, incidentally, had the distinction of accompanying Dr Radhakrishnan for that long-awaited audience with Comrade Stalin in the Kremlin in January 1950. He describes this momentous meeting in detail on pages 139-143 of his memoirs, A Life Of Our Times. It was momentous insofar as Stalin had refused to grant an audience to Vijaylakshmi Pandit, our first ambassador to the USSR).
Dayal mentions that Menon “functioned in a conspiratorial sort of way. At the United Nations he immersed himself in intrigues”. He was a witness to Menon’s “abrasive tongue and haughty ways”, which made him at the United Nations “more suspected than trusted, more disliked than favoured”.
Dayal comments in his memoirs on the appalling leadership that Menon provided to the country as its Defence Minister. “He failed lamentably in perceiving the real threats to the country”. After being hounded out of the Defence Ministry — after irreparable damage had already been done — his forays as Minister without portfolio in matters relating to foreign policy — an area he deemed himself and Nehru as the only two in India who knew something about — were equally disastrous. In Dayal’s summing up:
At a time when India needed Western support and assistance, Menon seemed almost to go out of his way to needle the Western countries, especially the hyper-sensitive United States. Towards the Soviet Union and other Communist states, he was always prepared to bend over backwards. Menon’s preferences and prejudices had nothing to do with the national interest but were based solely on personal factors.
Today’s politicians can take from Menon’s book a leaf or two in the art and craft of ‘double-speak’ and ‘double-live’. High Commissioner for India in London was Menon’s first regular job in his career just as appointment as Vice President of the Viceroy’s Executive Council was Nehru’s first assignment in his life.
Nehru lost no time in grabbing the biggest house going in New Delhi after Rashtrapati Bhavan. Menon made a “great presence of austere living by occupying the ante-room of his office in India House”. He had his meals in the office canteen. He drew no pay. All he did was to ride the official Rolls Royce. He didn’t forget, however, to collect all his accumulated arrears of pay and allowances before handing over charge of his office. The fact of his drawing no salary he managed to get splashed in the press to create an impression and earn a good name. The collection of arrears was deftly suppressed.
However, giving the devil his due — and something is due to the devil too — Menon had some notable qualities. He was, when he chose, very sociable. He was always impeccably attired and could, when he chose, be charming, especially to middle-aged white western women. Whether he had a mistress or two hasn’t been — as yet — unearthed. All said, the “evil” that he did has managed to live long after him. And Nehru in his lifetime drew enough flak for covering up Menon’s inordinate weaknesses.
That was the man who had exceedingly endeared himself to Nehru and who was his key advisor in matters of India’s foreign policy and defense. Men at helm of affairs always have, to some extent, the weakness of Tsarina Alexandra for Grigory Rasputin. Some can keep it in check; others can’t. Nehru belonged to the latter category.
Most unfortunately, that’s not all. We have a statue of Menon in Lutyens City and a road named after him. Yes, of the same man who heaped ignominy on our heads in the 1962 war as Defense Minister. Would any other country in the world do that? Do Germans have a road named after Adolf Hitler in Berlin?