Book cover of A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon.
Title: A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon
Author: Jairam Ramesh
Publication: Penguin Viking
Price: Rs 999
My daughter, who is a professional historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes herself as an “archive rat”. It is a description that perfectly fits Jairam Ramesh. His burrowing in the archives is deep and wide. Then, instead of paraphrasing his research material to tell his own story, Ramesh has perfected the art of laying out the evidence in the words of his players before closing into the hunt with a few carefully selected pungent comments of his own that brilliantly sum up the point he is making.
This is a stunningly successful way of telling the story of a personality as tortured, as brilliant, and as “chequered”, as that of VK Krishna Menon, who fought for India’s independence, far removed geographically from the overwhelming shadow of Mahatma Gandhi; someone who might well have been relegated to a footnote in history had he not come under the spell of Jawaharlal Nehru and, in turn, mesmerised the man who became the undisputed Prime Minister for at least 15 of his 17 years as modern India’s principal architect.
As Nehru’s right hand in evolving newly independent India’s foreign policy, Menon claims — without boasting but as a matter of fact — to have spontaneously, in the middle of an extempore speech, mouthed the word “non-alignment” to describe that policy. To convert that policy from an eccentricity as the lone voice that refused to take pre-ordained sides in a world divided into two irreconcilable camps, into a viable and decisive influence in international relations, Menon fashioned viciousness into a remarkably effective tool of diplomacy. He turned upside down the notion of “making friends and influencing people” as the key to pursuing the nation’s vital interests. Instead, he forced people, if not always the State Department, to reflect on their damaging inconsistencies and hateful hypocrisy that, despite the horror of two world wars, was once again leading the way to global rack and ruin. At least through his golden period of the Fifties, Menon was the one international personality capable of dousing international fires, whether in Korea, Indochina, Gaza, Cyprus or the Congo. He could be as charming and persuasive in private conversations with the most powerful people in the world as he was bitterly sarcastic about them in public; as effective with a turn of phrase in cutting the Gordian knot in tangled confabulations on resolutions in New York and Geneva, as he was biting in his public diatribes; as warm in a quiet handshake and a bewitching smile in person as in wielding a verbal stiletto as effectively as any hitman of the mafia when making his vitriolic case in public. He aroused as much fierce hatred in the lands he excoriated as he created faithful fans among the exploited and despairing. It is doubtful if polite courtesies and a gentle adherence to prescribed protocol would have transmogrified an individualistic philosophy of Non-alignment into a worldwide Nonaligned Movement — comprising two-thirds of the member-states of the United Nations and more than half of the world’s population, but for Menon’s intemperate language and vile abuse. That is what shook the world and gave courage to the weak and dispossessed to stand up to the machinations of the hegemons.
Yet, this outstanding statesman was a tragically flawed being, always living on edge on endless cups of tea, pathetically seeking reassurance that his principal (and perhaps only) patron had not withdrawn his favour — compelling Nehru to quite disproportionately waste his time on endless correspondence with Menon, quieting his needless anxieties and soothing the fierce antagonisms that his many insecurities raised in the discontents who despairingly worked with him. Menon was the quintessential bully, ruthless in verbally lashing out at subordinates who cowered before his towering temper, but begging forgiveness when they stood up to him and gave it back. And all the time weeping on the compassionate shoulders of the one man — Nehru, who, fully aware of his protégé’s many warped faults, pierced through the veil of these evident faults to the “chequered brilliance” of the Pygmalion he had nurtured.
Marshal Tito (left), chief of state of Yugoslavia and Krishna Menon, defence minister, at the 1960 session of the UN General Assembly (Source: Express Archives)
Even Menon’s fall, when it came with the Chinese armed incursion into India, did not initially shake Nehru’s faith in his irascible friend until aroused and indignant public opinion forced the Prime Minister’s hand. To his credit, Menon, who treasured his warm relations with Chou Enlai and Chen Yi, discovered the threat of China’s angry decision to teach India a “lesson” well before Nehru and India woke to the alarm bells — this was after visiting Geneva to meet his old Chinese colleagues from a decade earlier. The Chinese leaders he met there gave him the coldest shoulder possible. He returned to Delhi at the end of July 1962 thoroughly perturbed, but, for once, he could not secure Nehru’s ear. Yet, despite being India’s raksha mantri and despite his informed premonitions of disaster in the offing, he did nothing meaningful to bolster India’s defences or defuse the military crisis. Instead, he discovered a mirror image of himself in that thoroughly incompetent sycophant, General Brij Mohan Kaul. The rest, as they say, is history. Menon forfeited not only his position in the cabinet but, more importantly, the trust of the nation, the trust even of his mentor and that of the young woman he had nurtured in London in the late Thirties and early Forties, Indira Gandhi — who had allegedly come up to Oxford to take a degree but spent most of her time in London where she was introduced to Menon and his India League companions. She did not rehabilitate him in the Congress although her personal affection and regard for him remained undiminished.
Menon’s last decade, from his fall from grace in 1962 to his death in 1974, was a sad epitaph to what had been an extraordinarily fruitful life. Ramesh has rendered yeoman service to the new generation in recapturing the life and times of a man who, whatever his failings as a public personality and as a hugely flawed individual, left his “footprints on the sands of time”. Ramesh has done so at a stage when memories of Menon are fading: they linger only in the remembrances of old men like me coming to terms with the evening of their own lives.
The writer is a former Union minister