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M K Narayanan: A titan of the intelligence community

January 22, 2010 15:11 IST

M K Narayanan (also known as MK or Mike) and I were contemporaries in college, but we had not known each other as students. I met him for the first time in July, 1967, when I joined the Intelligence Bureau as a joint assistant director. MK, six years senior to me in the Indian Police Service, had joined the IB some years earlier and was working as an assistant director in a division dealing with communism. Though very young in the intelligence profession, he had already made a name as a brilliant analyst and was held in great respect by his seniors and other colleagues.

He used to share a room with another officer in the South Block. All the young officers of the IB religiously used to gather in his room every day for a shared lunch. It used to be an uproarious gathering discussing men, matters and memories in a humourous manner.

MK had always been known for his keen -- and often debunking -- sense of humour and he used to keep everybody laughing. His humour endeared him to many, but caused misunderstandings with others who could not appreciate the humour in his remarks.

R N Kao was a joint director then and occupied a room two rooms after MK's. He used to regularly go home for lunch, but often, before going home, he would peep into MK's lunch club as we used to call it, greet all of us and leave.
MK used to talk to Kao as freely and as humourously as he used to talk to me and other juniors without the least sign of nervousness. If I am asked to name three qualities of MK, which I valued most, I would mention his sense of personal dignity, his high standards of personal integrity and his human relationships.

MK had the privilege of serving under or with titans of the intelligence profession such as B N Mallick, Kao, M M L Hooja, A K Dave, K Sankaran Nair and G C Saxena. I had seen him in the company of all these officers except Mallick. He used to show great respect to them and treated them with deference, but I had never seen him exhibit servility or submissiveness to any of them. Even though he was years junior to them, he would talk to them on equal terms and would not hesitate to give his views right or wrong -- firmly, but politely.

I could cite many instances of his personal integrity, but would confine myself to two. As the head of the IB, he rarely used special aircraft. He invariably chose to travel by the commercial flights of the Indian Airlines. In 2000-2001, he and I served as members of the National Security Advisory Board. The rules permitted the outstation members of the NSAB to stay in a comfortable hotel approved by the government. MK, who used to come from Chennai, often preferred staying in a small IB guest house.

His human relationships were and are legendary. He was easily accessible in his office to anyone wanting to see him. He never stood on formalities in meeting people. He knew everyone working in his divisions by name, by face and by family background. He took keen interest in their personal problems and never hesitated to help them.

His staff even at the lowest of the lower levels worshipped him and could cite instances when they took their problems to MK, he found the time to help them. Over the years, the IB has built up excellent traditions of human relationships that are retained even today. MK's contribution to these traditions was immense.

I had often seen sections of the media writing that he owed his appointment as the National Security Adviser to his contacts with Sonia Gandhi. I never believed such stories. MK has never been known to curry favour with political leaders in order to secure an official position.

He was a great networker and maintained excellent relations with many people on both sides of the political spectrum. He got along as famously with V P Singh and Chandrasekhar as he did with Rajiv Gandhi. He got along as famously with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani as he did with Narasimha Rao. He believed that good relations with political leaders helped him in his profession, but he did not look upon such relationships as a means of advancing his career. He was definitely not a careerist, who kept calculating how to go up the ladder.

MK is a religious, god-fearing man though in his personal conversations he hardly ever talks of religion or god. I had heard it from reliable sources that when in Delhi he never fails to spend a few minutes every day worshipping in a particular Hanuman temple to which he is attached and that every day he never goes to bed without doing pooja at home however late in the night it might be.

In the IB, he had held a large variety of responsibilities before becoming its chief -- as an expert on national and international communism and Dravidian politics, counter-intelligence, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. His role in dealing with the tribal insurgency in Tripura was highly commended. His contribution to counter-terrorism in J&K and Punjab was very significant. One knows a senior professional by the number of juniors he trained and made them shine.

Outstanding IB officers such as A S Dulat (J&K) and Ajit Doval (counter-terrorism) greatly benefitted from their training under MK. You name any outstanding officer of the IB, you would find that MK was his mentor at some stage or the other. You will also find that excellent inter-personal relationships was a strong quality of all proteges of MK. He made them imbibe the importance of good team work for success in the intelligence profession.

There have been a number of articles on MK's contribution as the NSA. Nobody can talk knowledgeably and authoritatively on this except Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh. The NSA reports directly to the PM, who uses him as a sounding-board for new ideas and initiatives. The relationship between a prime minister and his NSA is often more informal than formal. It has to be that way. Nobody can claim to know the kind of close informal relationship that prevailed and continues to prevail between Dr Singh and MK.

Even without much direct access to reliable information, one could have a good sense of MK's style of functioning as the NSA. Some examples of MK's initiatives:

When he realised that there were serious reservations over the Indo-US nuclear co-operation agreement in sections of the community of retired nuclear scientists, he arranged an interaction for them with the prime minister so that they could share their concerns. He did not just dismiss their concerns, but felt it necessary that the prime minister should be aware of them before he went ahead with the agreement.

He managed to establish a folksy relationship with his counterparts in the George Bush administration which smoothened the negotiations. Both MK and Bush shared a penchant for such folksy relationships. I was told that when Bush visited India in April 2006, he put his hand around the shoulders of MK and whispered into his ears: "I want this agreement".

He set up a task force headed by K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of strategic analysts, to give inputs to the PM on how to progress Indo-US relations.

He set up a similar task force reportedly headed by C V Ranganathan, former Indian Ambassador to China, to provide inputs on Sino-Indian relations.

He revived the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was in limbo under H D Deve Gowda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Vajpayee, and re-invigorated its working as the main analytical tool of the government.

He increased the number of academics nominated to the NSAB, which used to be packed with retired government servants.

He set up a task force headed by Dr S D Pradhan, who was formerly in the NSC secretariat, to make recommendations on how to improve the functioning of the intelligence agencies.

He sought to give a strategic dimension to our intelligence collection capabilities by visualising what kind of new capabilities we are likely to need in the years ahead and how to create them. In this context, he paid attention to improving the capabilities relating to weapons of mass destruction terrorism.

Without knowing the details of the various initiatives taken by MK and the results achieved, it will be unfair to criticise his record. Only the prime minister will know all these details and will be the right person to judge fairly.
One might ask with validity, if MK had done all these things, why did the PM decide to shift him from the post and replace him with Shiv Shankar Menon, former foreign secretary. The prime minister's first term in office was devoted to establishing the foundations of a new relationship with the US and the European Union countries.

MK had no mental reservations on this, whereas diplomats of the foreign office, who had won their professional spurs in the years of the cold war, might have dragged their feet in implementing this policy. The PM found in MK the right person for giving shape to his ideas.

It is my impression that the PM wants to devote his second term to new initiatives for improving relations with Pakistan. MK, as a hardened intelligence professional, found it difficult to rid himself of his suspicions and reservations vis-a-vis Pakistan. Anyone from the intelligence community might have dragged his feet in concretising the PM's ideas for a new approach towards Pakistan. He wanted a distinguished diplomat with an open mind on Pakistan. He felt that Menon would be the right person for the job.

How about China? One feels that the prime minister himself is not very certain how fast to move forward in our relations with China. The lingering memories of 1962 and the strong distrust of China in the Indian civil society continue to come in the way of any meaningful initiatives for finding a solution to the border dispute. Will the prime minister feel more confident now in thinking of new ideas for pushing forward the border talks? Unless he does so, it would be unfair to expect any significant results from the new NSA.

MK's tenure had its negative record too. The first related to his perceived inability to build up an effective command and control in the government of India for counter-terrorism. The second was his failure to improve morale and man management in the Research & Analysis Wing and to strengthen cohesion in the Indian intelligence community.

A US expert who watched the 26/11 terrorist strikes on the TV, had remarked that he got the impression that there was no single command and control and that nobody appeared to be in total charge of the situation. His observations were not wrong. This was a measure of MK's failure to build up our counter-terrorism capabilities and leadership.
MK, who had no experience of diplomacy, did extremely well in high-level diplomacy. He was considered the leading internal security expert of this country, but he was not as successful in this area.

B Raman