Centres of Power review: An unruffled diplomat stands up with elan

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan talks about his time in the PMO and UNSC

After Natwar Singh resigned as foreign minister in the wake of the oil-for-food scandal in December 2005, Sonia Gandhi was keen on replacing him with Chinmaya Gharekhan. But, for whatever reason, it did not happen. Gone was the opportunity to leverage the services of one of India’s most brilliant diplomats.

Gharekhan, a 1958-batch IFS officer, has now written his second book after his celebrated debut The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council, in 2006. Former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali had found that book to be “intimate, honest and highly professional”. The same can be said for the new one, too.

Centres of Power is simply an engaging read. We are offered a ringside view of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the prime minister’s office and the UN Security Council with the help of meticulously maintained diaries. Couched in subtle humour and a string of illustrative anecdotes—with no words like ‘I was there’ and ‘I did that’—the narrative is candid but low-key, so characteristic of Gharekhan’s “non-offensive” and “non-combative” style.

In part one, we are in the PMO from 1981 to 1986, where Gharekhan is serving two prime ministers, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. You see the author grow, with the mantra of ‘be yourself’, from a nervous first-timer to calling the shots and extricating the prime minister from complicated situations. In contrast to Indira, who “loved to amend drafts of letters, speeches and messages” like “a compulsive subeditor”, Rajiv had no time to read drafts. His instinctive, off-the-cuff decisions were symptomatic of “a young man in a hurry” and made bureaucrats insecure. He was his own man and did not want to be reminded of his mother’s decisions or policies.

When Rajiv’s proposed speech to the joint session of the US Congress in June 1985 (the first by an Indian prime minister) was being discussed, Gharekhan had questioned the obsession with Pakistan. Though everyone disagreed with his observation, Rajiv took heed. His speech had no mention of Pakistan, perhaps for the first time in such an important speech.

Gharekhan, though, was disappointed when Rajiv allowed himself, “against his convictions”, to be guided by power-hungry politicos “without any secular credentials”, to bring “communalism into the political landscape” by introducing a bill in Parliament to nullify the Supreme Court’s Shah Bano judgment and to open the lock in the Ayodhya temple.

In the second part of the book, the focus is on Gharekhan’s role as India’s permanent representative to the United Nations and twice president of the UN Security Council. The narrative begins with Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and ends with the declaration of ceasefire on February 28, 1991. In between, we see a convergence of interest of the permanent members not seen since; the congenital high-handedness of the Americans and the eagerness of the Russians to cooperate with their erstwhile rivals; the hi-tech war testing the latest US ‘toys’; and the pathetic saga of India’s cargo ship Vishva Siddhi sailing to Indians in Kuwait with 10,000 tonnes of food that they “did not need”.

There is also a little-known parallel journey with daily riyaz of Hindustani classical music—with the protégés of the founder of the Indore gharana, Ustad Amir Khan—that transformed Gharekhan’s personality.

A calm, composed and unruffled diplomat stands up with elan in Centres of Power.

The writer is editor, Citizens First TV (CFTV), and convener, Working Group on Alternative Strategies, New Delhi

Centres of Power: My Years in the Prime Minister’s Office and Security Council

By Chinmaya R. Gharekhan

Published by Rupa

Price: Rs603, Pages: 336