Monday, September 15, 2014

Sacked by Rajiv, A P Venkateshwaran remained a legend. Remembering a no-nonsense tradition of wit

Retired Foreign Secretary A.P. Ventakeshwaran's passing a few days ago attracted widespread attention. The main reason was that it recalled Rajiv Gandhi's arrogant way of belittling others. His public scolding of Andhra's Congress Chief Minister T. Anjiah offended all Telugu people. His public denigration of Karnataka's respected Congress Chief Minister Veerendra Patil annoyed all Kannadigas. His seemingly casual announcement of Venkateshwaran's removal provoked the Indian Foreign Service Association which, in an unprecedented move, criticised the Prime Minister's action. The media called it Rajiv Gandhi's "most insensitive blunder".

Such being the public reaction, it was natural that Rajiv Gandhi's petulant power play should feature prominently in A.P. Venkateshwaran's career profile. But the man was extraordinary in his own right. At least two factors should be taken into account while considering his contributions. He was, alongside J. N. (Mani) Dixit, the best Foreign Secretary India has had. Secondly, in sharpness of wit and keenness of intellect, Venkat was outstanding, but a copy; the original was his father, A. S. Panchapakesa Iyer. Genes decreed his differentiating brilliance.

Both Dixit and Venkat were Foreign Service legends. Two personalities could not be more different. Mani Dixit made friends easily. And enemies too. Venkat was ever the genial gentleman; it was difficult to see him as an enemy -- unless you were Rajiv Gandhi. When Dixit was tough, he could be unsparing, making adversaries call him Mr. Fixit. Venkat covered even his toughness with wit. Mani could be imperious. Venkat would be chivalrous even as he swung his sabre. Mani had a touch of the politician in him though not to the extent that Brijesh Mishra symbolised. Venkat was a foreign service professional, unwilling to make compromises for politics or vested interests. Two very different men, different character types, different styles, but both equally distinguished in their probity and their sense of honour, both paragons of patriotism. India was richer for them.

Not many knew that Venkat was merely continuing a tradition of nonconformance set by his father. At a time when the ICS was a British preserve into which only the best of the best Indians were admitted, A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer (1899-1963) entered that exalted service. He made his mark at the ICS board interview itself. The Englishmen who made up that board were famous for rattling candidates with seemingly irrelevant questions. "If a lion chased you," they asked young Iyer, "what steps would you take to save yourself?" Instant answer: "Long steps, Sir".

The ICS needed such ready wit. But ASP Iyer was also a proud Indian who would not change his views because he was a member of the ICS. He was an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and the independence movement, expressing his admiration openly before his British peers. In one of their exclusive clubs one evening, a British colleague asked him how many children he had. ASP said: "Six. The more the merrier to kick the British out of the country". Naturally he was not exactly popular among the British. They denied him promotions, keeping him as a District Judge for long years. Only after independence was he elevated to the High Court.

As a member of his father's more-the-merrier troop, A. P. Venkateshwaran faithfully maintained the no-nonsense tradition of intellectual independence. His academic record itself was remarkable, with master's degrees in science, economics and political science. Beyond the universities, he learned the values of integrity and candidness. Only in one area, he failed to follow his father. ASP Iyer wrote books. Venkat owed it to the country to write a book, but he didn't. As the only Foreign Secretary who had to leave in controversial circumstances, it was essential that the facts were put on record. There are reasons to believe that his customary lightheartedness had made Rajiv Gandhi blush when the two discussed an IFS officer's application for permission to marry a foreigner. There were also suggestions that Venkat had given a pledge to Rajiv never to breach the confidentiality of his office. For Venkat, nothing was more important than his word.

He enlivened his surroundings with playful humour. In a mail to "friends of my father-in-law", James Peck described how the family went to the confluence of three swollen rivers for the immersion ceremony. "Venkat's ashes were immersed in the strong current. True to his nature, the ashes initially travelled upstream against the current. After brief mischief, the ashes, cajoled by the currents, sashayed along the water's surface toward the sun".

No wonder the sun is brighter these days.