VK Krishna Menon Emerges Larger Than Life in Jairam Ramesh’s Biography
It’s very easy to judge VK Krishna with his long record of pluses and minuses; on what he accomplished he commands plaudits, on what he blotched up, he deserves strictures, writes former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh in his meticulously researched biography of the former Defence Minister, who emerges as a larger than life figure in spite of his greatest setback, the Chinese invasion of 1962.
“Krishna Menon’s achievements were gigantic, his failures monumental. His intellectual strengths were awesome, his emotional equilibrium pathetic. He was the delight of his crisis, the despair of his admirers. He reached dizzying heights of fame, plumbed to depths of notoriety. It is very easy to judge Krishna Menon. He has a long record of pluses and minuses. On what he accomplished, he commands plaudits. On what he blotched up, he deserves strictures,” Ramesh, a Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, writes in “A Chequered Brilliance – The Many Lives of V.K. Krishna Menon” (Penguin-Viking/pp725/INR999).
More than the Chinese debacle that cost him his job, what Krishna will be remembered for, other things apart, was his special relationship with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
“That Nehru opened up to him like no one else was evident. He went out of his way to protect Krishna Menon from his own foibles and ultimately paid the price for it. This is part of Indian political history. But why Nehru continued to be loyal after accounting for their remarkable and intense friendship of almost thirty years is puzzling,” Ramesh writes.
What many have perhaps forgotten is that for almost two decades, Krishna Menon was singularly responsible for creating and sustaining a climate of opinion in favour of Indian independence in various sections of British society.
“That he almost single-handedly kept the flame of Indian freedom burning across the UK in the 1930s and 1940s is without question. That he played a crucial role in the transfer-of-power negotiations in the months leading up to the end of British rule in India is evident,” the book says.
“That he was a hugely impactful envoy for India in the UK between 1947 and 1950 can stand up to scrutiny. That he unravelled many knotty issues at the UN especially between 1952 and 1957 is also clear,” Ramesh writes.
He also notes that Krishna Menon did India proud at the height of the Cold War. “He argued India’s case with passion and eloquence. At a time when the Western powers were ruling the roost, he had the temerity and courage to take them on on his terms. But after 1957 or so, his tongue and his manner, barring occasional flashes of constructive engagement, created a negative global image for Nehru and India.
For years thereafter, the ghost of Krishna Menon lingered over both the substance and style of Indian democracy – needlessly argumentative and combative. And that ghost still lingers,” the book says.
What also lingers is the ghost of 1962 and this overshadows two key contributions of Krishna Menon during his tenure as Defence Minister.
The first is that Krishna Menon “was the only person consistently arguing for a ‘deal’ with the Chinese to resolve the border dispute”, a task in which the two countries have been engaged for 17 years now and which was initiated during then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s historic visit to Beijing in 2003.
The other is his accomplishments in defence research and production that have endured and given India a great degree of self-reliance.
Why the DRDO has not risen to its full potential is a separate story in itself, but reading between the lines of a report A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had commissioned in 1996 and which was only published in 2006 when he was the President, is quite revealing.
When it was formed on January 1, 1958, “it appears as though it had been forced upon the Services by a Defence Minister by his sheer strength of conviction of the necessity of scientists and technologists to be involved with defence weapons and by his influence with the Prime Minister…” the report reads in part.
Was Krishna Menon made the fall guy for the 1962 debacle? Ramesh poses the question but leaves it unanswered beyond saying that his position had become “untenable” in the wake of the Chinese invasion.
After leaving office, he was down but certainly not out. His Congress colleagues asked him to come to Bombay (now Mumbai) and address a public meeting in suburban Chembur on December 9, 1962. A crowd of some 60,000 gathered to hear him speak for almost three hours non-stop. The speech was tape recorded and in January 1963 was published as a monograph titled “India and the Chinese Invasion”. It is the most detailed statement by him on the subject and Ramesh says that it is surprising that it finds no mention in the burgeoning historiography of the Sino-Indian war.
When Ramesh brought this to the notice of India’s leading military historian Srinath Raghavan, he expressed complete surprise and replied in part: “Lastly, I was struck by the dignity of his tone throughout this speech. At no point does he display rancour or a sense of injury. He doesn’t even defend himself – except on the absurd claim about soldiers not having clothes and shoes.”
Long after his death in 1974, a hidden aspect came to light in 2005 when Jeremy Lewis published his biography of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin and Pelican books, in which he acknowledged Krishna Menon, particularly in the latter of the two ventures.
So, there you have it: the story of a complete man “as he evolved, as he achieved and as he stumbled. Walt Whitman may well have had someone like this mercurial pheno-Menon in mind when he wrote his famous line ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’,” Ramesh concludes.