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M K Narayanan- the last super 'spook'

By Aditi Phadnis
Last updated on: January 22, 2010 14:09 IST
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Mayankote Kelath Narayanan has a couple of favourite throwaway lines, designed to bring any conversation to a screeching halt. "I'll fix you" is one, and "I have a dossier on you!" is another. When you see someone talking to Narayanan sidle away to melt into the crowd, you know the lines have been delivered. It's all said in good humour, of course, but what conversation can you have with a man who might know the colour of the underwear you're wearing?

Maybe that's an exaggeration. But then, maybe it isn't. The consensus in the intelligence community is that there never has been and never will be the kind of super spook that M K Narayanan is considered to have been in the government.

He's served as Director Intelligence Bureau under five Prime Ministers. Over six years in the Prime Minister's Office, first as Special Advisor (Internal Security) to the Prime Minister in 2004 and then as National Security Advisor in 2005, he made sure that he got reports from every intelligence gathering agency in India. In the PMO, he was not above micromanaging and would often hunker down to understand and interpret routine stuff. This caused the bosses some discomfiture but earned him the undying loyalty of juniors. "If you wrote something and he saw it, and it made sense, he would call you directly and tell you: 'you've done a good job'. We worship him," said an intelligence officer who was posted in Bihar and now heads operations in Chhattisgarh.

Narayanan, or "M K", or "Naren", as he is referred to by his friends, or just "Ed"—for Edgar Hoover, the legendary head of the American FBI, joined the Indian Police Service in 1955. He earned his spurs in the dethroning of the first ever democratically elected Communist government in the world, the government of EMS Namboodiripad, in Kerala. This earned him the appreciation of R N Kao, India's best known Intelligence Bureau chief. This meant he would serve in no other branch of security but intelligence gathering.

The fallout of the 1962 military debacle—seen as an intelligence and a military failure—was a revamp of the intelligence gathering apparatus, and the creation in 1968 of the Research and Analysis Wing that was  dedicated to collecting external intelligence. As a young assistant director in IB in 1967-1968, he was bitterly opposed to the bifurcation, a conviction he holds till today: He told Business Standard the NSA's post should not be bifurcated.

In 1988, Narayanan became Director of the Intelligence Bureau (DIB). Events in Sri Lanka had boiled over, resulting in Operation Poomaalai, the famed biscuit/bread-bombing by Indian Air Force planes over Jaffna, the same year. It was a matter of great frustration for IB that it was RAW which was overseeing intelligence operations. What is more, India's pets—who had been trained by IB—were turning around to bite it. When Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam leader V Prabhakaran was virtually imprisoned in Delhi's Ashoka Hotel in a five-star cage, Narayanan met tholar (comrade) to talk to him.

The V P Singh tenure was short-lived. The Congress propped up Chandrashekhar as prime minister and Rajiv Gandhi was the one to insist that then cabinet secretary Vinod Pande's relative R P Joshi, who was made DIB by V P Singh, be sacked and Narayanan brought back in. But then Chandrashekhar had to be dislodged. It was IB which suggested that it was completely improper to have two Haryana policemen "spy" on Rajiv Gandhi's residence. The political variation on this theme was developed much later. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination was the biggest intelligence failure India has had. Narayanan retired in 1992, after serving Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.

When the Congress came back to power, Narayanan was back: This time in PMO. He was in fact offered the position of national security advisor but chose not to take it since he was based in Chennai and was taking care of his ailing mother. He took on part-time assignment as a special advisor to the prime minister and then succeeded J N Dixit, after the latter's demise in January 2005, and only after India's former ambassador to the United States, Ronen Sen, chose to stay on in Washington DC and declined Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's invitation to return to India as Dixit's successor. After waiting for a full three weeks, from January 3 when Dixit died, till January 25, the prime minister appointed Narayanan as NSA on the eve of the 2005 Republic Day.

Narayanan was known to have differed on many policy issues with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, including initially the India-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement. He vehemently opposed the Manmohan-Musharraf joint statement issued in Havana, Cuba, in September 2006. A statement that was drafted by his current successor, Shivshankar Menon!

It was the massive intelligence failure of 26/11, the Mumbai terror attack, and the appointment of P Chidambaram as home minister that weakened Narayanan's grip over India's security and intelligence establishment. Narayanan offered to resign, but the Prime Minister asked him to stay on. Until he irked powers that be in New Delhi's ruling dispensation!

Image: National security Advisor M.K. Narayanan

Photograph; Sondeep Shankar/ Saab Pictures

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Aditi Phadnis
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