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’