India’s first National Security Adviser, Brajesh Mishra, often referred to as India’s modern day Chanakya (ancient India’s master strategist and royal adviser), made a distinctive contribution in laying the foundation for the bold and proactive strategic and foreign policy initiatives undertaken by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He chose to break eggs and dish up an omelette in a culture where walking gingerly on egg-shells was the preferred option.
Born into a political family, his father D.P. Mishra was a Congress leader and chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. Brajesh Mishra joined the 1951 batch of the Indian Foreign Service and served as ambassador to Indonesia and later as India’s permanent representative at the UN in New York – where his tenure ended in some controversy due to deep differences with prime minister Indira Gandhi over India’s policy in relation to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Post retirement, Mishra joined the BJP in 1991 and shaped the strategic and foreign policy orientation that the NDA under Vajpayee (1998 – 2004) was to later adopt. Appointed as principal secretary (PS) to PM Vajpayee in March 1998, (when Mishra renounced his party membership), he later became the first National Security Adviser (NSA) – after the May 1998 nuclear teats. Wearing two hats, that of PS to the PM and the NSA, Brajesh Mishra became the de-facto security and foreign policy czar during the Vajpayee years.
Enjoying the full confidence of the prime minister who was happy to leave the fine-print of policy formulation and implementation to his NSA, Mishra quietly but firmly managed the Vajpayee initiatives. It was a mixed spectrum that included the May 1998 nuclear tests, the politico-diplomatic tsunami that followed, the subsequent rapprochement with the US, the historic Lahore Accord and Vajpayee’s bus yatra followed by the 1999 Kargil War, the March 2000 Clinton visit, the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament leading to the tense Operation Parakram and the rewiring of the troubled relationship with China and Russia, the list of radical initiatives and macro events is remarkable.
While the economic liberalization of India is credited to then prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao complemented by his then finance minister Manmohan Singh, it may be averred that India’s security and foreign policy liberalization was initiated by Vajpayee ably supported by his PS and NSA Brajesh Mishra.
In a politico-bureaucratic culture where decision making is either delayed or indefinitely deferred, Mishra brought a certain boldness and resolve that is now recalled as legendary. Given the individual ministerial egos and departmental sensitivities, Mishra was able to bring critical senior officials together and translate the prime minister’s approved policy into action. The quip at his meetings was that nobody could leave till a consensus was arrived at.
Working to a punishing schedule, he later revealed that he had evolved a routine wherein he met the PM over breakfast and then took the necessary decisions or offered guidance, as the case may have been, to steer the ship of national policy during tempestuous times.
His proximity to the prime minister and his brusque demeanour generated a fair share of envy and critics tried to paint him as arrogant and supercilious and he was accused of taking India too close to the US and Israel. To his credit, till the end of the NDA tenure, Mishra retained the dignity of the office that he held and the credibility of his ‘boss’. His contribution as India’s first NSA will be of lasting relevance and as J.N. Dixit, his successor as the NSA and close friend, later added: “Combining the role of principal secretary to the prime minister and the NSA is like running the 100 metre dash and the marathon concurrently. Brajesh smoked his way through this challenge with aplomb.”
In later years, after demitting office, Brajesh Mishra provided sage advice to the country – when consulted – and played a valuable role in supporting the India-US civilian nuclear when the UPA government was on the ropes over this contentious issue. The BJP, which had initiated the rapprochement with the US under Vajpayee, chose to play a spoiler’s role for partisan political reasons and Mishra – who always pointed out that he was not a party member – provided the objective strategic rationale that was based on the abiding national interest.
Generous in sharing his experience of the years that he spent in high and lonely office with younger members of the strategic community, Mishra’s last public statements related to the inadequacies in the national security framework and the implications of the China-Pakistan strategic cooperation.