Former national security advisor Brajesh Mishra, who was a close aide of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, spoke for the first time in public about certain critical, events and decisions taken during the six years of the NDA rule. These are events and decisions which attracted considerable attention, if not considerable controversy.
In an exclusive interview with Karan Thapar, Mishra speaks about the Kandahar terrorists-for-hostages swap, Vajpayee’s relationship with BJP leader LK Advani and the RSS, his days of “disgust” in the first year of his prime ministership, among many other issues.
Karan Thapar: I want to start with the Kandahar episode and let me begin by asking you – how was the decision to exchange three terrorists for the hostages taken and who all took that decision?
Brajesh Mishra: The decision was taken by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) which has five members – the Prime Minister, Home Minister, Finance Minister, External Affairs Minister and Defence Minister – and some other supporting staff. As it is known they initially wanted the release of 36 terrorists, $200 million and the remains of some terrorists who were buried in Kashmir. Nobody was prepared to accept these demands but once these demands were brought down to three with no money and remains of terrorists, then a unanimous decision was taken by the committee that in order to save the lives of the hostages the three terrorists will be released.
Karan Thapar: This was a unanimous decision?
Brajesh Mishra: Of course.
Karan Thapar: So the home minister of the day LK Advani was a part and parcel of the decision?
Brajesh Mishra: Yes, of course.
Karan Thapar: He (Advani) didn't in any way differ or disagree?
Brajesh Mishra: Let me again say that to begin with no one was in favour of any concessions.
Karan Thapar: But at the end?
Brajesh Mishra: In the end all had to do it.
Karan Thapar: And Advani was part of that consensus?
Brajesh Mishra: Of course, he was part of the Cabinet Committee meeting.
Karan Thapar: The second critical decision connected with the Kandahar episode was that the then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh should accompany the terrorists to Kandahar to ensure that nothing went wrong. How was that decision taken and who all were party to that decision?
Brajesh Mishra: The CCS use to meet everyday during that week – December 24 to December 31. So, they met on morning of December 30 or 31 and Jaswant Singh proposed that he would go to Kandahar to bring back the hostages and he explained that the Indian representatives who were negotiating in Kandahar – diplomats, IB people, RAW – they had suggested that somebody senior should be here in order to take care of any last minute complications etc. This he informed the CCS and they agreed that he should go.
Karan Thapar: Again, was it a unanimous decision by the Cabinet Committee?
Brajesh Mishra: Of course, it was.
Karan Thapar: Advani was part of that consensus?
Brajesh Mishra: Of course, all the members were there. Three members of the CCS have already said that he was there and I'm talking of Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes and Yashwant Sinha.
Karan Thapar: In fact, George Fernandes told this to me too. So I would just reiterate this that Advani was not only aware of this decision but he also agreed that Jaswant Singh should go to Kandahar
Brajesh Mishra: I wouldn't say that he opened his mouth and said he agrees but the decision of the CCS was that he could go.
Karan Thapar: And Advani in any way didn't dissent?
Brajesh Mishra: No, there was no dissent.
Karan Thapar: In which case, let me ask you that how did Vajpayee respond to it when several years later, to be precise last year, in his autobiography and then in the interviews that he gave at that time, Advani not only said that he disagreed and deferred with the decision but almost disowned the decision?
Brajesh Mishra: I am not going to comment on that because that is between the politicians and between Advani and Vajpayee.
Karan Thapar: But your recollection of events is very different from what Advani presented in his books and interviews.
Brajesh Mishra: My recollection is what I told you.
Karan Thapar: Let me come to a second important episode which happened during Vajpayee's government. After the Gujarat riots and killings, Vajpayee believed that Narendra Modi should resign or should be removed as the Chief Minister of the state, can you confirm that?
Brajesh Mishra: Frankly, the politics of Gujarat was never discussed between Vajpayee and me. But he did say publicly that Raj Dharma (moral duty) should be followed and this he said few days before the National Executive meeting in Goa. My impression was that he is not going to insist on the resignation of Modi instead he would ask him to take corrective actions to take care of the situation. And I think Jaswant Singh also used the same words "corrective actions" in an interview to another news channel on the same issue. I think this is the correct view of what Vajpayee would have thought to do. I don't think he would have demanded Modi's resignation.
Karan Thapar: In recent interviews, people have begun speaking about the conversation or the meeting that took place on the flight between Delhi and Goa. Present on that occasion were allegedly – Advani, Arun Shourie, Vajpayee and Jaswant. At that meeting Vajpayee spoke in terms which interpret to suggest that he would like to see Modi removed or resigned but Advani got up and said if that is going to happen bawal mach jayega (there will be an uproar in the party).
Brajesh Mishra: If I remember the content of that interview with Jaswant Singh, according to him what Vajpayee said was - "Gujarat ka kya karna hai (what has to be done about Gujarat issues?) and then of course followed what you mentioned that Advani went to the rest room and etc. I wasn't on that plane because I hardly went for any of the BJP's political meetings with Vajpayee but with this very thing it is clear that he did not say this to Jaswant Singh that ask Modi to resign. All that he said, as I remembered was Gujarat ka kya karna hai. I quite agree with what Advani said - as what Jaswant Singh told in the interview - that there would be uproar in the party if Modi would have been asked to resign or would have been removed. If you remember, Modi had offered to resign in the Goa meeting but it was shouted down by the party members.
Karan Thapar: Did Vajpayee believe that the corrective actions he wanted to be taken were taken or he felt disappointed on that issue?
Brajesh Mishra: I don't know but I don't think any corrective actions were taken.
Karan Thapar: There was no corrective actions taken, so the presumption is that even Vajpayee believed that no corrective action was taken.
Brajesh Mishra: I can't say on his behalf because he never discussed this issue with me.
Karan Thapar: In one of his interviews, Jaswant Singh said that on this issue Vajpayee was moved enough and once he picked up his pen and began to write his resignation letter but Jaswant Singh reached out and stopped him. Were you aware that Vajpayee wanted to resign on this issue?
Brajesh Mishra: Again, if I remember the interview correctly then Jaswant Singh said that he himself doesn't remember the context properly. So, I am not going to jump to the conclusion. As far as the resignation is concerned let me tell you after the first year of his prime ministership and the event in the month of April in the year 1999 – when Jayalalithaa withdrew her support from the government and when Mayawati promised in the morning that she would vote in favour of the party and she changed her decision – though he (Vajpayee) never mentioned this to me, my feeling is that he was disgusted. About his resignation, he had spoken to me so many times when he said, "Why are we here? Let us just go". So, I am not very surprised with what Jaswant Singh said in his interview.
Karan Thapar: You said two very important things. First, there were many instances when Vajpayee was disgusted with the state of affairs in the first year of the prime ministership but you also said that this also happened after October 1999, after the second victory.
Brajesh Mishra: In fact, he said to me "achha hua ab hum jeet gaye hain, ab chalte hain (good that we have won, now let us just go).
Karan Thapar: And these sentiments that why I am here or I should resign, were these prompted by his colleagues, politics or the people around him?
Brajesh Mishra: I don't think so. After the BJP had come to power and he had been the prime minister for a year or so by then, he didn't feel the need of being there. This is my interpretation because to me he merely said "chalo chalein" (let us go from here). And now I won't discuss the disgust anymore because it was my belief that he was disgusted in the first year of his prime ministership (March 98-April 99).
Karan Thapar: After the first year of disgust and second victory he (Vajpayee) thought he has achieved what he wanted to achieve and he wasn't keen to remain in power just for the sake of being the prime minister?
Brajesh Mishra: Exactly but this is my interpretation.
Karan Thapar: In those sort of occasions, did you talk him out of it?
Brajesh Mishra: He was my boss. I was not his colleague like he was the colleague of Jaswant Singh. Hence, I merely said, what is the need and persuaded him, whatever it is.
Karan Thapar: During the period 2002 and 2003 after the American invasion of Iraq, there was a lot of speculation that the Indian government was considering sending Indian troops to Iraq and it was reported and believed that Mr Advani as Home Minister was in favour of this. What exactly happened?
Brajesh Mishra: I cannot say that Mr Advani was in favour of it although I remember the reports and rumours that had come up at that time. When the matter came up to the Cabinet Committee and security agency, of course there were informal discussions before the formal meeting with the committee, Mr Vajpayee was very clear saying, no we can't send troops to Iraq. And it is my belief, that the prime minister would never have sent the troops to Iraq. The experience of Indian peace-keeping force (IPKF) to Sri Lanka is still fresh in our minds. No. 2, we as a government did not believe that the action in Iraq was a correct one by the US at that time. There was no question of anyone, including Mr Advani of supporting the issue of sending troops to Iraq.
Karan Thapar: Despite the speculation at that time, Mr Vajpayee was very clear that there was no question of Indian troops being sent?
Brajesh Mishra: I believed from the beginning that he would never have agreed to it. This is my belief.
Karan Thapar: Let's broaden our discussion. You were there right beside Mr Vajpayee for the six years that he was the prime minister. What was the nature of the relationship between Mr Vajpayee and his home minister, Mr L K Advani?
Brajesh Mishra: That's a very difficult question to answer. They were colleagues for 40-45 years. They were the two top leaders of the BJP and they worked together very well. Of course, they had differences. Mr Vajpayee refused to be present in Ayodhya when the Babri Masjid demonstration was going on. If you remember, he had regretted in Parliament what had happened in Ayodhya. He (Vajpayee) had different kinds of views. He is by nature very liberal and generous in his thoughts. You criticise him today and suddenly tomorrow, the man who had criticised him asks for a meeting, and he says okay, come and talk to me. Now, there are very few people who can do like that. I would say that Mr Vajpayee is a statesman more than a politician. Mr Advani on the other hand was a very good organiser. He organised the BJP and helped Mr Vajpayee in the organisation. They had worked very closely that way.
Karan Thapar:By implication you are also suggesting that Mr Advani is not a statesman?
Brajesh Mishra: Well, I am not going to say that but that was that.
Karan Thapar: There was a moment sometime towards the end of 2002 and early 2003, when Venkaiah Naidu was the party president and it was suggested that Mr Vajpayee should be elevated to the top office of President and Mr Advani should take over as Prime Minister. The phrase Loh Purus (iron man), Vikas Purus (development man) were coined at the time and Mr Vajpayee responded talking about ‘naa retired, naa tired’ (neither retired nor tired), what exactly happened?
Brajesh Mishra: We were in Moscow when these statement about Loh purus and Vikas Purus was made by Mr Venkaiah Naidu. I can't say whether Mr Vajpayee was surprised or not but certainly I was very surprised at the statement because when your Prime Minister is out of the country, to indicate that there is another leader in the country to more or less rival, is very impolitic and very undiplomatic. Perhaps Mr Vajpayee felt the same. So when he (Vajpayee) came back, in his post inimitable fashion, Vajpayee made it clear that he was unhappy with the statements. Whether that was connected anyway to his becoming president and Mr Advani becoming the prime minister, I don't know. I am not aware of that.
Karan Thapar: How then did Mr Advani end up as deputy prime minister?
Brajesh Mishra: In a way, I would say that was his due.
Karan Thapar: Did Mr Vajpayee readily accept that or was he pushed toward that?
Brajesh Mishra: I don't think he was pushed. Let me tell you one thing. Despite the impression that one might have talking to Mr Vajpayee, he is a very determined man, you cannot sway him by just cajoling or threatening him.
Karan Thapar: So the belief of that Mr Advani could sway or push Mr Vajpayee is mistaken?
Brajesh Mishra: It was his (Vajpayee's) decision to make him (Advani) deputy prime minister. Again, I think it was his due. As I said earlier, they had been together for 40 to 45 years, they had worked together as a team. So why not?
Karan Thapar: The other critical relationship Mr Vajpayee had was with the RSS. How do you view that relationship?
Brajesh Mishra: We never discussed his relationship with the RSS. Not for a single moment.
Karan Thapar: Right at the very beginning of Mr Vajpayee's first tenure as prime minister in 1998, when he wanted to make Mr Jaswant Singh the finance minister, it was believed that Mr Sudarshan had stepped in and indicated that the RSS didn't want this. What exactly happened?
Brajesh Mishra: I don't know, because I had not become principal secretary at that time. I am aware of the fact that there was talk of Mr Jaswant Singh being included in the Cabinet but at the last moment, it was given up. But to answer your question in a more general way, after all within six months, he (Jaswant Singh) was made external affairs minister.
Karan Thapar: In other words, Mr Vajpayee found another way around the obstacle or problem?
Brajesh Mishra: If there was an obstacle. I don't know about it. And ultimately he ended up as finance minister.
Karan Thapar: In fact, at that time, people were surprised that Mr Vajpayee as prime minister didn't fight and insist upon Jaswant Singh as finance minister. What you are suggesting is that Mr Vajpayee found a very effective way within six months of ensuring that Mr Jaswant Singh was in the Cabinet.
Brajesh Mishra: Definitely and an important member of the Cabinet.
Karan Thapar: This is in fact, proof of Mr Vajpayee's thoughtful determination?
Brajesh Mishra: Yes. People shouldn't mistake him (Vajpayee) for being a weakling or anything like that.
Karan Thapar: He got what he wanted without having to fight or any unpleasantness?
Brajesh Mishra: Definitely, that is unique quality.
Karan Thapar: What was the special quality that Mr Vajpayee had that allowed him to hold a party like the BJP together and a government of 24 members together without any real major problems?
Brajesh Mishra: The first quality that he has is that he is very generous at heart. He never denied anybody the opportunity to speak his or her mind even though it may be critical of him. He dominated the meetings through his silence. Innumerable meetings of the Cabinet, he would keep quiet. Every member who wanted to speak or say were allowed to speak their minds. At the end of session, Mr Vajpayee would say just one sentence -- 'Shall we do it this way?' And that was it. This quality of his was a rare one. That's why I call him a statesman and not a politician. He understands people, he gives them all the opportunity that they want. It's human nature that once you have been given the opportunity to put your say forward, then you tend to be more amiable to decisions being taken.
Karan Thapar:You are clearly saying that both by giving people opportunity to speak and also by his masterful silences where he withheld what he himself would be thinking was actually a master tactician?
Brajesh Mishra: If you want to call him a master tactician, I would say that was something inborn. That was within in nature. Perhaps this tactician business is a by-product of his nature rather than something which he has cultivated deliberately.
Karan Thapar: The second corollary, the first from what you are saying is that because of his character, he always got the better of the sort of person who wants to burst out and speak first.
Brajesh Mishra: Yes.
Karan Thapar: He was never scared of others jumping into the fray wanting to speak and voice their opinion?
Brajesh Mishra: No, never.
Karan Thapar: It seems he got the better of his entire Cabinet?
Brajesh Mishra: I gave you instances. He let everyone speak but at the end he finished it with one sentence.
Karan Thapar: The press at that time used to frequently compare Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani, there was a perceived sense that Mr Advani was not a threat but someone waiting and wanting that job. That doesn't seem to have concerned Mr Vajpayee very much at all?
Brajesh Mishra: No, not at all. Otherwise, why would he keep talking... let us go, we have done our work. Let us go. He wasn't threatened by it.
Karan Thapar:He never saw Mr Advani as a threat?
Brajesh Mishra: Certainly not. Not a threat at all. The difference between Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee is the differences in their nature. I don't mean to say this as a criticism to Mr Advani. As far as Mr Vajpayee is concerned, the entire party was his party. He had no faction in the party. Nobody could claim that he or she was Mr Vajpayee's man. Everybody could claim that he or she was Mr Vajpayee's man. That is the way he functions.
Karan Thapar:In a sense, he elevated himself above politics?
Brajesh Mishra: He regarded the party as a whole.
Karan Thapar: How would Mr Vajpayee have responded to the controversy that has been created by Mr Jaswant Singh's recent book on Jinnah?
Brajesh Mishra: Let me put it to you this way. He (Vajpayee) never criticised Mr Advani when he (Advani) went to Pakistan in 2005 and wrote in the visitors’ book of Jinnah's mausoleum. I don't believe he would have criticised Mr Jaswant Singh. We all knew that Mr Jaswant Singh was writing about Mohammed Ali Jinnah. He had mentioned it to Mr Vajpayee, he had mentioned it to me and to so many others.
Karan Thapar: So it follows that a BJP headed by Mr Vajpayee would not have expelled Mr Jaswant Singh for writing a book on Jinnah?
Brajesh Mishra: Certainly not expel him without calling him personally and asking him for an explanation.
Karan Thapar: Have you asked Mr Vajpayee what he thinks about the way Mr Jaswant Singh has been treated?
Brajesh Mishra: No, I did not. I rarely get into political matters.
Karan Thapar: But one thing you are certain -- that he (Vajpayee) wouldn't have criticised Jaswant Singh and certainly he wouldn't have expelled him?
Brajesh Mishra: I say he would criticise him because he didn't criticise Mr Advani.
Karan Thapar: During Mr Vajpayee's prime ministership, there was a controversy about the James Laine's biography of Shivaji, when the Bhandarkar Institute was attacked and several books were destroyed. At that time, how did Mr Vajpayee respond to what was happening?
Brajesh Mishra: I must confess to you that I don't recall that incident ever having discussed with him.
Karan Thapar: But the Vajpayee you know would have been pained by that, wouldn't he be?
Brajesh Mishra: I am sure he would have been. He did not believe in banning this or that.
Karan Thapar: What would Mr Vajpayee think of the way his party, which he led to power, which saw its golden days under his leadership is today squabbling and falling apart?
Brajesh Mishra: I would say that he would be deeply hurt in his heart by the situation in the party today.
Karan Thapar: Would he feel that a party that he lived his life for and that he took all the way to power against the most unlikely odds, today has let him down?
Brajesh Mishra: I don't think that he would say that his party has let him down because he never claimed the ownership of the party. That was not his style. However, he would be deeply disappointed, deeply hurt at the way things are now going. The daily increase in the number of leaders coming out with criticism of the party or criticism of certain leaders, I think if he were active today, he would have put an end to it.
Karan Thapar: I am intrigued by it. How would he put an end to it?
Brajesh Mishra: I think he would have just called them and said something like -- Ap jo bhi kar rahe hai, wo party ke liye theek nahi hai (whatever you are doing is not good for the wellbeing of the party)-- and that would been enough.
Karan Thapar: And that was all that they would have needed from him?
Brajesh Mishra: Yes.
Karan Thapar: He had that commanding stature?
Brajesh Mishra: It is clear. Everybody in the party is missing him.
Karan Thapar: Would you say that he had that gift of leadership where just a few carefully chosen words, sometimes just a look, sometimes just a gesture was enough, either to give assurance or to admonish and to ensure that what he wanted was to be done?
Brajesh Mishra: Yes. If you have the time, I will give you an instance.
Karan Thapar: Please do.
Brajesh Mishra: There was some proposal to have a memorial fund for somebody who had died and the discussion was on. Following which a man came up to me and requested me inform Mr Vajpayee what was happening and I told him (Vajpayee) about the things, and he responded by saying, Mujse toh koi nahi pucha (Nobody has asked me about it) and the proposal just ended.
Karan Thapar: He knew exactly what to say for each occasion?
Brajesh Mishra: Yes.
Karan Thapar: His successors don't have that touch?
Brajesh Mishra: Well, I am not going to talk about it.
Karan Thapar: How would Mr Vajpayee have viewed the attempt by his party to remove a Vidhan Sabha leader who has the support of 68 or 69 out of 78 MLAs.
Brajesh Mishra: Mr Vajpayee is a very democratic personality. In my view, he would not. If my assumption is correct that he would not have insisted on the resignation of Mr Modi and but that he would have asked for corrective action. Then how can I say that he would have supported this kind of thing is Rajasthan. It is not possible. If he had a problem with Vasundhara Raje, he would have called her and asked her what was going on. And the message would be sent across. He would have asked her to take corrective action and finish it off.
Karan Thapar: But he would not have supported an attempt to remove as leader a lady who has the majority support?
Brajesh Mishra: Certainly not. But I must also confess that I don't know the circumstances in which all this is happening today. Vasundhara is very quiet about it and hardly any statement is coming out.
Karan Thapar: Mr Mishra, a pleasure talking to you.