Jairam Ramesh opens up on his new book on the many lives of Krishna Menon

In an interview to Rashme Sehgal, Jairam Ramesh, who delved into archival records to write the book, speaks of the eccentric but brilliant Menon and his relationship with Jawaharlal Nehru

Jairam Ramesh opens up on his new book on the many lives of Krishna Menon

Rashme Sehgal

Your earlier book Intertwined Lives focused at length on the close working relationship shared between  Indira Gandhi and her chief adviser PN Haksar. This book focuses on the close relationship shared between her father Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and V. K. Krishna Menon. What drew you to write about Krishna Menon?

Krishna Menon was an extraordinarily pivotal figure in the life of Nehru between 1935 and 1962. That was one reason. In addition, he left behind a very large archive that spans almost half a century that provides a fascinating peep into Indian (and British)history. He was colourful, controversial and consequential. Hence, this narrative bibliography.

The most fascinating aspect of the book seems to be this most extraordinary relationship between Nehru and Menon. What drew Nehru towards Menon and more importantly,why did Nehru put up with Menon’s mood swings, his insecurities and his erratic behaviour patterns?

Nehru and Krishna Menon became instant soulmates in October 1935 when they first met in London.Krishna Menon served as Nehru’s literary agent and political representative in London. Nehru’s own British friends like Harold Laski, Stafford Cripps and Rajni Palme Dutt had the highest opinion of Krishna Menon’s intellectual capabilities and were influenced by his fiery determination for Indian Independence.Later, Krishna Menon became a favourite of the Mountbattens and Nehru was well aware of this.

Both Nehru and Krishna Menon were bibliophiles. They were both democratic socialists who situated India’s freedom movement in the larger world struggle against imperialism. Both had been impacted by Annie Besant and the Theosophical Society.  Feroze and Indira too became Krishna Menon acolytes.

Jairam Ramesh opens up on his new book on the many lives of Krishna Menon

Nehru’s letters to Menon end up providing a candid portrait of India’s first Prime Minister showing him to be a caring and compassionate and in many ways a humble person.In fact, your book provides as much insight about Menon as it does about Nehru.What came as a surprise to me was to learn just how multi-faceted Nehru was at a time when our present rulers are spending all their time maligning him?

Nehru opened up to Krishna Menon in his letters like with nobody else, Gandhi and Indira included. He shared his inner-most thoughts, fears and anxieties in an unfettered manner. He wrote regularly and between 1936 and 1946 there must be over a hundred letters that Nehru wrote to Krishna Menon and for every letter Nehru wrote,Krishna Menon wrote at least two!

These letters reveal much of what was happening not just to Nehru but also what has happening in the Congress and in the country at large. They are devoted mostly to issues but personalities also figure frequently. Through these letters I got the sense that Nehru was using Krishna Menon as a sounding board.

One of Nehru’s most surprising decisions was to appoint Menon as his Defence Minister. Why did he do this given that Menon was a pacifist and a key figure in the nuclear disarmament movement?

India needed ago-getter and dynamic man as Defence Minister after Baldev Singh, Gopalswamy Ayyangar and KN Katju. Nehru himself had been Defence Minister for a while.Krishna Menon was then at the height of his international reputation. He had thought of and written to Nehru on defence matters some years earlier. Nehru also knew that Krishna Menon was a firm believer in political and civilian supremacy in military matters. And for the first eighteen months Krishna Menon was an outstanding minister, establishing the foundations of defence production and defence research. But after 1959 and his spat with Gen Thimayya, things began to go downhill. It also did not help that right through his ministerial tenure, Krishna Menon would be out of India frequently on long stretches at the UN.

Wouldn’t Menon havebeen more effective as Minister of External Affairs given his expertise inforeign affairs?

In retrospect, yes,or as Minister of Education or Planning. But Nehru wanted to be his own Minister of External Affairs and that in my considered view was a mistake. A Prime Minister should never have responsibilty for any specific ministry.  Krishna Menon functioned as Nehru’s global envoy. He influenced Nehru at times (like Korea and Suez) and at times heexecuted Nehru’s instuctions (like Congo).

Several of Nehru’s letters to Menon have emphasised the need for him to take everybody else along,something that Menon at a personal level did not seem to understand. His style of functioning was such that he ended up weakening the morale of the Indian Army and he created an enormous amount of distrust between the Army and the political class?

Yes. Krishna Menon had the instinctive knack of making critics and enemies. He needlessly need led people. He respected no systems, no hierarchies, no organisational discipline.And this caused havoc in the armed forces. He could be very charming and caring as well but that surfaced rarely. For the most part he came across as arrogant and supercilious which in my view masked his insecurities.

How close was Menon to Indira Gandhi and what was his relationship to her, given that after the Indian Army suffered defeat at the hands of the Chinese PLA in 1962, it was Indira Gandhi who told her father to accept Menon’s resignation as Defence Minister. Till the very end, it seemed as though Nehru did not want to lose him.

Indira was very, very close to Krishna Menon as was Feroze. Krishna Menon was very much part of the Nehru household. Indira admired Krishna Menon for his contributions in the 1930s and 1940s in keeping the flag of Indian Independence flying in the UK. She was well aware of the special relationship between her very lonely father and Krishna Menon. But all that changed in November 1962 and she prevailed upon President Radhakrishnan to intervene to ‘save Nehru from himself’ and insist that the Prime Minister accept Krishna Menon’s resignation.

Thereafter, Indira and Krishna Menon kept a political distance and Krishna Menon left the Congress in 1967 when he was denied a ticket. On a personal level, however, she kept up the relationship and it helped that her own alter ego between 1967 and 1973 was Haksar who himself had been a Krishna Menon chela in the late 1930s and again between 1948 and 1952 in the UK High Commission. Krishna Menon would refer to Haksar as ‘Pandit Haksar’.  It was Haksar who ensured that Indira Gandhi and Krishna Menon did not drift apart completely.

Menon seemed to have an ambivalent attitude towards Mahatma Gandhi. He came across in your book as someone who never understood Gandhi’s style of functioning?

Yes, Menon was perplexed and befuddled by Gandhi and often chided Nehru for being a blind follower of the Mahatma. In later years his opinion changed but in his active political career, Krishna Menon was puzzled by Gandhi’s stances and utter anceson social, political and international issues. Krishna Menon had met Gandhi four years earlier than he met Nehru, but he was drawn to the socialist Nehru instantly in a manner that he was not to Gandhi. He was aware of Gandhi’s unique position in India but ideologically, his kinship was with Nehru.

How much did Menon influence Nehru to accept the Partition of India, given that Nehru had been strongly opposed to it?

Well, Maulana Azad wrote that Krishna Menon played a crucial role in changing Nehru’s mind. But that was too simplistic. I think both Nehru and Patel had come to the conclusion that Partition had become inevitable—the mahaul had made up their minds for them.

Your book also seems to suggest that Lord Mountbatten went at Menon’s behest to persuade Gandhi to accept the Partition of India?

Not my book but the official records from which I have quoted. Krishna Menon made the suggestion to Mountbatten as the Viceroy’s own account reveals and Mountbatten agreed.

Despite his international stature and brilliance, Menon remained unpopular within Congress circles. Why was that?

He was considered an interloper, as someone who had never been lathicharged, as someone who had never sat on fast or hunger strike or as someone who had been to jail. He had lived in London since 1924 before he became a Rajya Sabha MP in mid-1953 and a Minister three years later. I think there was also jealousy about his unfettered access to Nehru.

Even after Independence, the Indian elite continued to be enamoured by the British. Your book reveals how General Thimayya did not hesitate to voice his grievances against Menon to UK High Commissioner Malcolm Macdonald while Nehru’s sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit spoke out against him to another UK High Commissioner Paul Gore Booth?

I was shocked and astounded by the records of the Thimayya-Macdonald conversations as also that of the Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit-Gore Booth conversations, both of which are available in archives in the UK. Assuming that the two UK High Commissioners recorded and reported their conversations truthfully without any embellishments, neither Thimayya nor Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, both of whom who were close to Nehru, come out well. In fact, their judgement can be severely criticised.

Army officers seem to enjoy a great deal of freedom in the fifties and sixties. I am speaking in the context of your disclosure that General JN Chaudhuri who subsequently went on to become Army Chief used to moonlight for The Statesman as their defence correspondent. That would be unheard of today.

Absolutely. What General Chaudhuri did was shocking. Not only his moonlighting which went on without official permission for over a decade but the manner in which he arranged for the exclusive publication of Thimayya’s resignation in August 1959, was equally and unacceptably brazen.

The other interesting nugget of information in your book is regarding just how proactive President Radhakrishan was regarding day-to-day political developments. He did not hesitate to express his displeasure before Nehru. This seems to be in contrast with the present times when our presidents seem to have become rubber stamps?

Yes, Radha krishnan was proactive with both Nehru and Indira as has been brought out so very well in S.Gopal’s magnificent biography of his father. But Rajendra Prasad too did not hold back and expressed his views to Nehru forcefully. In fact, Rajendra Prasad had deep reservations on the Hindu Code Bill which were in the open and the President did not flinch. But that was a different era.

How would you sum up Menon’s legacy?

It was a complicated legacy: enduring in some ways, mystifying in some ways, troublesome in someways. He did a lot of good both before 1947 and after 1947. He also did a lot of good as Defence Minister. He did a lot of good internationally when he was known as ‘Formula Menon’.

But he also lost friends for India. He also played favourites as Defence Minister which cost the country dearly in 1962. He miscalculated Mao completely as did many others, Imight add. 

But my biography is not to sum up his legacy. It is to understand the man in all his complexities and contradictions and present what he did and what he did not do in an unbiased manner. Mine is not to deify or vilify. Mine is only to excavate.

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