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How to make foes and alienate people

Krishna Menon was as unpopular in India as he was with the West — but Nehru believed in him

Written by Inder Malhotra |
February 6, 2012 2:19:20 am

Krishna Menon was as unpopular in India as he was with the West — but Nehru believed in him

No narrative of the 1962 border war with China can be complete without an adequate mention of the role of the then defence minister,V.K. Krishna Menon,especially of his share of responsibility for what went wrong with the Indian army during his watch that resulted in the debacle in the high Himalayas.

He was a brilliant (if also waspish) man,who delighted in offending people and making more enemies than friends. But Jawaharlal Nehru’s appreciation of his intelligence and total trust in him gave Menon ironclad protection. Nehru’s official biographer S. Gopal has cited ample evidence to show that Menon was not beyond using “emotional blackmail” on his mentor.

After he had served as independent India’s first high commissioner in London for nearly five years,Nehru wanted to include Menon in his cabinet. But his senior colleagues,especially Maulana Azad,dissuaded him because of Menon’s alleged involvement in what had come to be known as the “Jeep scandal”. So Nehru made Menon leader of the Indian delegation to the United Nations.

Nothing could have suited him more. At the world stage he displayed his oratorical skill. What made him both famous and highly controversial,however,was his unfailing habit of attacking the United States and Britain bitingly whenever they were opposed to Indian policies,which was often the case. The Western powers constantly complained to Nehru,but to no avail,while Menon’s fiery speeches,particularly a nine-hour one on Kashmir,won him kudos at home.

In 1955 Menon joined the Nehru cabinet as a minister without portfolio,but he was not happy. He wanted to preside over a major ministry. This came to pass after the 1957 general election in which he had won a seat in the Lok Sabha. Nehru entrusted him with the defence portfolio. In Gopal’s words,this proved to be “one of Nehru’s less fortunate decisions”.

Although eventually he had to leave the government in ignominy,Menon must not be denied credit for the good work that he did as defence minister. He gave a big boost to self-reliance in defence production and brought about some economies in defence expenditure. No less commendably,he started a network of Sainik Schools that continue to provide high quality education to the children of Other Ranks.

On the other hand,his devious ways of working,his propensity to create coteries,his arrogance and his disregard for other people’s dignity did unforgivable damage to the cohesion and morale of the three armed forces. He made it a point to slight the service chiefs,usually in the presence of their juniors.

Most infamously he had a big bust up with General K.S. Thimayya,arguably the most respected army chief so far,who resigned,but was persuaded by Nehru to withdraw the resignation (‘Khaki vs Khadi’,IE,October 17,2008). In Parliament,opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of General Thimayya and against Menon. But Nehru,invoking civilian supremacy over the military,backed Menon.

Since Nehru firmly believed that the Chinese would do “nothing big” apart from border skirmishes and patrol-level clashes,there would have been no reason to blame Menon if he had only repeated the prime minister’s view. But he carried his special pleading for the Chinese to ridiculous lengths. As late as November 1961,he told air force commanders that he wasn’t aware of “any aggression,incursion,encroachment or intrusion by the Chinese into any part of Indian territory”. Even Nehru had to rebuke him once when,in a telegram from New York,Menon had pontificated that the China problem was “political rather than military”. In 1958,while instructing G. Parthasarthi on what to do in Beijing as Indian ambassador,Nehru specifically told GP “not to mention” their conversation “to Krishna”.

Constantly playing down the Chinese menace,Menon vastly exaggerated the threat from Pakistan. On September 30,1962 — three weeks after the Chinese had crossed the Thagla Ridge and three weeks before the massive Chinese invasion began — Menon raised a “patently false scare” about “heavy military movements by Pakistan” in the Murree area,as both Commonwealth Secretary Y.D. Gundevia and the then high commissioner to Pakistan,Rajeshwar Dayal,have recorded in their memoirs. Sadly,the then intelligence czar,B.N. Mullik,was Menon’s accomplice.

The then director of military operations,Brigadier (later Major-General) D.K. Palit,has marshalled incontrovertible evidence to prove that Menon had prevented Lieutenant-General S.P.P. Thorat’s report on “China’s threat and how to meet it” from being forwarded to the prime minister. Nehru read it after the war was over.

To cap it all,it was Menon’s penchant to play favourites that was responsible for the disaster of Lt.-General B.M. Kaul,with hardly any experience of combat,being appointed the commander in the battlefield and retaining that position even when he was lying ill in Delhi.

No wonder Menon had become the main figure in the demonology of Indian politics long before the Chinese troops came rolling down the Himalayan slopes. So much so that in April 1960,during his last talks with Zhou Enlai in Delhi,Nehru thought it imprudent to exclude Menon from his delegation. However,he remained resolutely opposed to any demand for Menon’s exit.

Thus it was that even after the full-blooded Chinese invasion,Nehru ignored the countrywide outcry for Menon’s ouster. But the pressure of public opinion was too strong. Nehru took 11 days to divest his protégé of the defence portfolio which he took over himself but retained Menon as minister of defence production. This arrangement could not have been sustained in any case but Menon made this impossible. True to type,he thumbed his nose at his critics and declared: “Nothing has changed. I am sitting in the same room and doing the same work”.

This led to a virtual revolt within the Congress party. Mahavir Tyagi,Nehru’s “comrade” since the freedom struggle,told him at an acrimonious conclave that if he did not sack Menon he might himself have to go. On November 7,Nehru announced that he had accepted Menon’s resignation. Over this there was as much glee in the United States as in India.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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