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M K Narayanan: Intel veteran who kept a tight grip on security setup

The reasons for Narayanan’s resignation may be entirely political.

West Bengal Governor, M K Narayanan. West Bengal Governor, M K Narayanan.

On Friday, June 27, West Bengal Governor, M K Narayanan had an unusual itinerary. The whole day had been reserved for the 80-year old to be closeted with a CBI team arriving from New Delhi. The team, headed by a joint director, came armed with piles of case documents of the Augusta Westland helicopter deal. In 2005, as national security adviser, Narayanan had chaired the technical committee meeting in which the specifications for the VVIP helicopters were amended, making Augusta Westland eligible for the contract.

The quizzing went on for two hours and the group took a lunch break together in the Raj Bhawan dining hall. Then, in the governor’s presence, his testimony was typed and every word approved by him. It was late evening when the CBI team left, and a CBI official present says the governor himself told them he planned to resign early the following week. He mentioned Tuesday, July 1 as the possible date but eventually resigned a day earlier, on June 30.

The reasons for Narayanan’s resignation may be entirely political but, coming as it did just three days after the CBI visited him, it is the questioning that has caught the public eye in the sunset of his career. At 80, his four-year-long, now truncated, stint as West Bengal governor will probably be the last important post he occupies.

‘Mike’ vs ‘Mani’

Seen as a Gandhi family favourite and a quintessential intelligence operative, Narayanan served as the head of the Intelligence Bureau under Rajiv Gandhi, and when Manmohan Singh set up his PMO, he was the one picked to be the prime minister’s security adviser.

Narayanan’s big chance after the death of NSA, J N Dixit and it is Sonia Gandhi who is known to have been keen to get him the coveted position. In the year they spent together in the PMO, the equations between Dixit and Narayanan, or “Mani” and “Mike” as they were known, were extremely competitive and have been most recently described by Sanjaya Baru in his book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’.
Baru writes that theirs was clearly a “turf war” and a bitter “clash of personalities” with the prime minister himself deeply worried about the heated arguments they would have on subjects of intelligence and diplomacy.

The fact remains that Narayanan is a doyen of Indian intelligence who has mentored several prominent intelligence chiefs and thus, during his years as NSA, kept a stranglehold on the security establishment. This inevitably had pitfalls. For one, he always favoured the IB, say, against the R&AW and more recently against newer agencies such as the NTRO (National Technical Research Agency). Also, he insisted that the IB and R&AW chiefs report to him directly, a practice that led to the centralisation of critical intelligence inputs on his desk in the PMO, with serious consequences when this happened before the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

While it has never been made public, Narayanan is said to have offered to resign after the Mumbai attacks but Manmohan Singh refused to accept the offer. However, the NSA’s position did somewhat diminish after P Chidambaram took over as home minister and, he, along with the intelligence chiefs, was expected to be present at a daily briefing in North Block. That was in November 2008. In January 2010, Narayanan was moved to Raj Bhawan in Kolkata.

Bengal’s ‘guardian’

His relations with the Bengal government and Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee were largely cordial, though there has been occasional bitterness. When he began Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was in power, and the CPM once called him biased. Throughout his stay, he never hesitated to express his views on matters political, administrative or ethical.

In 2010, after he visited Netai village where nine villagers had been killed by CPM goons, the CPM called him biased while the Trinamool Congress hailed him as a hero. But last year, when he said the rule of law was absent following a series of rapes and campus violence, ministers Firhad Hakim and Subrata Mukherjee called him an “agent” of the Congress.

Raj Bhawan sources call him a workaholic who stays in office from 10:30 to 8:00, with a lunch break from 1:30 to 2:30. He loves to read. Having served in the IB, Narayanan built a network for information gathering with many IPS officers in the state having worked under him earlier.

Despite the occasional run-ins, both Narayanan and Mamata Banerjee appeared to have drawn a line neither would cross. Mamata kept meeting him and rushed to him the moment she heard the Centre was trying to replace UPA-appointed governors. Few statements can capture the mood in the Trinamool Congress better than one that minister Partha Chatterjee put up on the party’s official site: “We will be left without a guardian.”

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