A Patriot And A Gentleman

Naresh Chandra underplayed his role in nuclear programme, economic liberalisation.

Written by Vinay Sitapati | Published:July 11, 2017 12:23 am
Naresh Chandra, Naresh Chandra passes away, Former Indian Ambassador Naresh Chandra passes away, latest news,indian express news Chandra had served as the Cabinet Secretary from 1990–92 and was the Indian Ambassador to the US from 1996 to 2001. (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided that the time had come for India to build a nuclear weapon. Our secretive nuclear programme was then entirely run by scientists. Since politicians come and go, Rajiv realised he needed one outsider to continually oversee the programme, regardless of which prime minister was in power. After some thought, Rajiv summoned the then defence secretary — a man who could, in the words of a scientist running the programme, “keep his mouth shut”. From then on Naresh Chandra, who died on Sunday, served as the chairman of the nuclear weapons committee — one so secret that no record exists of it within government.

Even prime ministers would not be fully briefed, but the scientists — R. Chidambaram, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, V.S. Arunachalam — were duty bound to keep Chandra in the loop. Chandra would climb down bunkers to check plutonium stock himself. With little political oversight, he was the keeper of the flame. In 1998, when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee decided to test nuclear weapons, Naresh Chandra was conveniently our ambassador to the US. An American official later joked that when a furious Washington DC demanded an explanation, they only had to make a local phone call. Chandra’s pivotal role in India’s nuclear project is enough to write him into history books. But his role in economic reforms is as critical.

The blueprints for liberalisation had been prepared through the 1980s. They were finalised by the Chandrashekhar government — in which Naresh Chandra was cabinet secretary. When P.V. Narasimha Rao (a lifelong economic protectionist) came to power in June 1991, it was Chandra who handed the new prime minister a note on the looming catastrophe, and briefed him on what needed to be done. If Rao’s genius was to turn crisis into opportunity and navigate the politics of change, to Chandra goes the credit of providing Rao and Manmohan Singh with ready blueprints. To meet Chandra was to encounter a corpulent man, with the vernacular English of Allahabad University rather than the smooth flourish of St. Stephens College.

To listen to Chandra, however, was to engage with a potent intellect synthesising history, government rules, and calls to action. His penchant for sharp analysis came, a college friend suspects, from his early degree in physics. His selection in 1992 to head the Babri Masjid special cell within the prime minister’s office — a black mark in an otherwise unblemished career — owed much to the fact that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of land tenure rules in Uttar Pradesh A life-long bachelor, he took an avuncular interest in the careers of young bureaucrats. He knew how to “create a court around him. to make you feel special”, a junior officer remembers. He also knew how to dominate meetings, all the while seeming subservient to politicians.

Around 2006, Sanjaya Baru (then press secretary to prime minister Manmohan Singh) met his boss to discuss names for a new principal secretary. “I suggested Naresh Chandra, but it did not happen”. Baru speculates: “Sonia [Gandhi] would not have been happy with that. Naresh Chandra was a tough guy.There is no way Naresh would have allowed 10 Janpath into government policy making.”

Chandra’s virtuosity was to combine this toughness with likeability; he was revered in the bureaucracy and earned the trust of four prime ministers. He was also unobtrusively decent. In early 1991, cabinet secretary Chandra was walking into Parliament along with commerce secretary Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Montek was not just an outsider to the caste of IAS officers, he was a turbaned Sikh in the years after Operation Blue Star. As they entered Parliament, the security man beckoned only to Montek to step aside for frisking.

Chandra, standing behind, quietly motioned to the guard to frisk him too so that Montek would not feel singled out. While Montek did not notice, Narasimha Rao — then an out of work opposition leader strolling in Parliament — saw what had happened. Rao later told his secretary that the incident etched in his mind “the kind of person Naresh is”.

Chandra’s contributions to Rajasthan (where he served for many years), economic liberalisation, and, above all, to India’s nuclear programme, would have made him a household name. But Chandra kept a low profile. He preferred to be trusted rather than celebrated, preferred a strong India to a loud India. In my last meeting with him, early this year, I remember him switching off a news TV channel as I entered. He said with gentle irritation, “Today, a uniform and flag are all you need to become a patriot”. He did not need either; he was the real deal.

Sitapati teaches at Ashoka University, and is the author of ‘Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India’

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  1. B
    Binay
    Jul 11, 2017 at 11:09 pm
    Wonderful! It's really inspiring. India needs more of such people.
    Reply
    1. A
      anshul
      Jul 11, 2017 at 8:08 pm
      excellent piece IE, more articles like this one please
      Reply
      1. S
        Seshubabu Kilambi
        Jul 11, 2017 at 7:51 pm
        Some persons are valuable than the world realises
        Reply
        1. A
          Amitabh
          Jul 11, 2017 at 5:25 pm
          Wonderful words for a wondrous person.
          Reply
          1. R
            Raj Kumar
            Jul 11, 2017 at 2:02 pm
            Thanks Indian Express for this educative and timely article published by you. For a totally demoralized , caged bureaucracy today, this stands out as a model for them. Naresh Chandra's qualities of head and heart and his ability as a bureaucrat and diplomat are commendable. I am confident it will enlighten and leave the desired effect on our young civil servants.
            Reply
            1. S
              Samanya Admi
              Jul 11, 2017 at 9:21 am
              I remember seeing Naresh Chandra in action in US after Pokhran explosions. I was impressed to see in Chandra a deep thinking gentleman and bureaucrat who presented India's case to American public as a true patriot. If India can nurture such a breed of bureaucrats, it gives hope to the nation. Jai Hind
              Reply
              1. I
                indian
                Jul 11, 2017 at 8:56 am
                People like Naresh Chandra and his brother, Girish Chandra Saxena (ex Gov, J K), were true patriots and served the nation to the best of abilities. They represent the best of the Indian Administrative Services. Their contributions were strong, not loud.
                Reply
                1. S
                  siksha
                  Jul 11, 2017 at 7:00 am
                  I think IE will do a great service were it to publish a story of such patriots every day making room for it by shutting down some cynical columns by past politicians still at their game of trying to grab power. The scientific establishment is not to be ignored either.
                  Reply
                  1. H
                    HK
                    Jul 11, 2017 at 10:37 am
                    I agree, hope IE takes note of your comment.
                    Reply
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