Book Review: ‘Chequered Brilliance’ Is A Disappointment

I have written about India’s hopeless confusion regarding the 1962 Sino-Indian Conflict and unfounded hatred for then Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon. The much-awaited biography (A Chequered Brilliance) of Krishna Menon by Rajya Sabha Member Jairam Ramesh goes down the same path as rest of the books in the past several decades.

The well-known prophet of Quality, W. Edwards Deming, in his book The New Economics says, “Information is not knowledge”! Jairam Ramesh had access to new information at home and abroad.  Yet he viewed this new information through the same old tainted glasses and prejudices! Jairam could not break away from decades-old paradigms, despite evidence to the contrary staring him in the face! His contradictions are too obvious.

Wrong Choice For Defence Minister?

In my opinion, Jairam’s argument that Nehru should never have made Krishna Menon the Defence Minister is simply irrational. One argument Jairam puts forth is that Krishna Menon miscalculated Mao! While I already debunked such a myth, since when did calculating China’s Chairman become a requirement for an Indian Defence Minister?

Does Rajnath Singh calculate Xi Jinping correctly? Did AK Antony calculate Hu Jintao? If the Defence Minister is responsible for calculating foreign heads of state, why do we need ambassadors and the ministry of external affairs? Doesn’t Jairam, who had been in the government for so long, understand something so simple, or is he unable to free himself from an alternative reality?

Yet another complaint Jairam has against Krishna Menon as Defence Minister is that Menon spent much time at the United Nations defending India’s position on Kashmir. Didn’t Krishna Menon still defeat NATO Member Portugal and annexe Goa in December 1961? It is not unusual for a high performing Cabinet Minister to don multiple hats! We have seen Arun Jaitley handle the Defence Ministry as well as Finance. Pranab Mukherjee was Sonia Gandhi’s troubleshooter, apart from cabinet responsibilities to PM Manmohan Singh! Amit Shah has been Home Minster as well as Party President.

But more importantly, Jairam himself admits that all the Defence Ministers before Krishna Menon, (even after for that matter), were just part-timers! So why different rules for Krishna Menon? Menon is damned if he involved himself in the matters of military and damned if he went to the UN, letting generals manage their own affairs!

Jairam generously suggests that Krishna Menon could be the Planning Minister or Education Minister or even External Affairs Minister if Nehru was willing to part with it. If Menon did not understand Mao, would he be qualified to be the External Affairs Minister? But then who would be the Defence Minister? Who, during those days, correctly calculated Mao to be qualified to be the Defence Minister? Jyothi Basu? Jairam does not say and probably never thought that far! Jairam thus continues the tradition of hurling wild accusations at Krishna Menon.

Jairam exposes his ignorance by arguing that Krishna Menon played favourites, which supposedly cost the country dearly in 1962. BM Kaul whom Jairam refers to as Krishna Menon’s favourite, had no role in the 1962 conflict. The Eastern Commander was LP Sen whose competence, in my opinion, was beyond question!

Contrary to Jairam’s misinformed opinion, I believe Krishna Menon is the best Defence Minister India ever had. Menon’s only mistake was to be born a South Indian.

Krishna Menon And Timmayya

Jairam speaks of Krishna Menon’s “spat” with Timmayya after 1959. It is amazing that a wise man like Jairam did not stop to think of what might have caused the change in that relationship! After all, it was Krishna Menon who promoted Timmayya in 1957 as Chief of Army Staff (CoAS), setting aside more senior officers, SPP Thorat and Kulwant Singh! So, what changed three years later after 1959? Forward Policy!

As I wrote in an earlier article Nehru, Krishna Menon, as well as Timmayya, believed Pakistan to be a bigger threat than China, and that Aksai Chin had no strategic value. But the mood of the nation was to “liberate” Aksai Chin from the “occupation” of China.

Being a democrat, Nehru had to change his position over time, and ask Krishna Menon to divert troops from Pakistan border to Tibet. Krishna Menon had to enforce the policy while Timmayya rebelled! Without any attempt to understand the underlying professional compulsions, Jairam gathered the gossip like a tabloid journalist. Krishna Menon, the intended target, gets branded the “pettiest and meanest”. Here, it would be wrong to suppose that everybody agrees with Timmayya’s stand on ‘Forward Policy’ or that vouches for his patriotism!

Timmayya, with his publicised conflict with Menon, becomes a useful weapon against Menon. Had Timmayya accepted Forward Policy as he should have, he too would have been categorised as “favourite”, the same way BM Kaul was. After all, Timmayya received far more favours from Krishna Menon than Kaul did!

Jairam, trivialising Menon’s challenges in his ranks, such as corruption and subservience to a foreign government, (British High Commissioner) as “spat” is sad. If Menon indeed was “nice” and let his generals do whatever they wanted, I believe India would now be another Pakistan!

In his interview with Karan Thapar, Jairam wonders why Nehru had to bow to the Parliament when he knew Forward Policy was a bad idea. The answer is democracy! In Glimpses of World History, Nehru wrote to his daughter on the plight of Parliaments around the world under communist, military and fascist dictatorships in the early 1930s. Nehru complained that no real debates took place and Parliaments merely became rubber stamps for the decisions that were already made.

Even if some members complained, they were either ignored or eliminated. Nehru wanted a functioning Parliament! As Neville Maxwell put it, Nehru bent over backwards to appease the opposition, as insignificant as it was. Jairam’s Congress Party, which divided Andhra Pradesh, by savagely beating and expelling their MPs, can never understand Jawaharlal Nehru! Amusingly, Jairam diagnosed Nehru’s reluctance to railroad Parliament as Nehru’s “decline”.

In any event, Timmayya retired in 1961 and Krishna Menon had no spat with next CoAS, PN Thapar. So, the morale in the army should have been high in 1962, according to Jairam’s own logic. Krishna Menon is damned if he had a “spat” with a general and damned if he got along, (played favourites), with a general! Krishna Menon allegedly built housing for nearly 1/3rd of the armed forces at that time, along with many welfare schemes for military families. To claim the military got demoralised because one general, at the top, was unhappy, (even if it was genuine) is naive, simplistic and ridiculous, in my opinion!

Fuel For Hate-Mongering

Jairam’s book provided fodder to the haters of Krishna Menon, from journalist Shekhar Gupta to former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh. Gupta admiringly writes of Timmayya appointing SPP Thorat as his own successor, and sending the appointment directly to President Rajendra Prasad, in 1961 for approval.

Gupta expresses upset over Nehru and Krishna Menon “closing ranks” and aborting Timmayya’s great plan!  Can we imagine Bipin Rawat deciding his successor, and working directly with President Kovind, against the wishes of Appointments Committee of the Cabinet? For likes of Gupta Nehru, “closing ranks” with a South Indian (Menon) is so repugnant that they embrace any irrational argument!

Setting aside this utter disregard for authority and the democratic institutions, Timmayya’s sudden love for Thorat is amusing. If Thimmayya really believed in Thorat, he should have simply refused the promotion to CoAS in 1957 since Thorat even had seniority over himself!

Timmayya, seemingly had no qualms walking over Thorat, to get his own promotion but wanted to ruin it for PN Thapar! Despite evidence of rampant indiscipline and insubordination, on the part of the officers staring in him the face, I believe blatantly turning on Menon and labelling him “paranoid and compulsive conspiracy-theorist” is unwarranted.

According to me, the likes of Gupta, perpetuate these blatant lies, since they know nobody comes to Menon’s defence. What if some bureaucrat in the Home Ministry gave trouble to Sardar Patel and Patel had to discipline them? Would Sardar Patel be called names likewise?

According to Natwar Singh, Krishna Menon “converted Nehru” to the view that Pakistan was our real enemy. Singh wants us to believe that this was a great blunder. Was Krishna Menon wrong believing Pakistan was the real enemy?

Who waged proxy wars in Punjab and Kashmir, likes of 26/11 and cut the heads of our soldiers? Didn’t Natwar Singh ever have to deal with evil doings of Pakistan while he was the External Affairs Minister? Is he deluding himself that Pakistan is a dear friend or has he always been clueless? 72-year hindsight proves that Krishna Menon was right: because I believe, Pakistan is far more dangerous than China!

It is just amazing how grossly incompetent our ministers (like Singh) have been over the decades, while likes of Jairam and Gupta have to compulsively nit-pick and dehumanise Krishna Menon.

Congress In A Hurry To Disband?

China never claimed victory and does not even acknowledge any war ever taking place in 1962. The Nehru government never accepted defeat nor to any terms demanded by China. India, in fact, continued to regroup and fight until China retreated to the prewar position despite maintaining claims on Arunachal Pradesh.

When enemy retreats any other nation would claim victory. BJP claiming that India lost the war and was humiliated by China can at least be justified as electoral politics. But Congress leaders like Jairam perpetuating the same false narrative could only be called a death wish! Maybe, the BJP is doing them a favour. The Congress can have fun helping BJP drag Nehru through the mud. It did not surprise me that “historian” Ramchandra Guha who is all too eager to dismantle Congress was excited about Jairam’s half-baked “history”. But Congress is at least still carrying Nehru’s dynasty on their shoulders. What is Krishna Menon getting out of this witch-hunt?

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