The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 21, 2002
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The art of making enemies
Manohar Malgonkar

ALL of us feel irritated by bores or fools and have little patience with those whose opinions differ from ours. Nonetheless we put up with them because we don’t want to hurt their feelings. But there are some who have no such inhibitions, and a few who actually seem to take a perverse pleasure in showing their resentment openly, particularly when they know that, because of their exalted positions, they themselves are immune from retaliation.

Perhaps the most glaring example of someone making his subordinates feel embarrassed in public was Krishna Menon, whom Jawaharlal Nehru had, as it were, handpicked from a garret obscurity in London to become the Country’s Defence Minister. A vivid pen-portrait of Mr Menon is provided by Lieutenant General B.M. Kaul, in his book, ‘The Untold Story’.

Menon, it seems, made almost a habit of sending for senior military and civil officers "on Sundays and at awkward discuss what he told them were urgent problems." One night Kaul was woken up from deep sleep at 3 a.m. by the ringing of his bedside telephone. "Menon speaking", the voice said: "Could you come to my house for a few minutes? I have something very important...."

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Kaul put on some clothes and drove over to Menon’s bungalow about a mile away, to find his minister sitting at his desk. He locked up and asked: "What is the exact position about the Polish horses?"

Kaul made so bold as to reply: "I haven’t the foggiest idea, sir. I don’t deal with the procurement of horses." He explained to Menon that the Polish horses were likely to be in the field of the Quarter Master General’s purview. He does not record whether the minister then proceeded to call up the QMG to find out about the Polish horses.

Another Menon custom was to make sure that his routine conferences were packed with high-ranking military and civil-service officers, "on the pretext that some urgent matter needed immediate" resolution. When, after a whole lot of brass hats and secretaries had assembled in his conference room, he himself would show up, looking utterly bored "as if some riff-raff were around him," and so Kaul tells us, "sometimes actually dozed off."

Kaul tells us that these meetings did not have any agendas, and that no one so much as kept a record of the proceedings, so that the impression they left on the minds of those who had been made to attend them was that they were merely an exercise in muscle-flexing on the part of their minister. Kaul describes how savagely Menon treated some of those who attended them.

Once when a senior general began his statement with the words, "Sir, I think..." Menon cut him short by interrupting, "Soldiers are incapable of thinking." But then sailors too, were even-handedly insulted. For instance when an admiral began his address by saying, ‘Sir, the navy..." Sir, the navy..." Menon completed his sentence by pronouncing... "should be at the bottom of the sea."

These generals and admirals whom Krishna Menon made the targets of his derision and insults were collectively responsible for keeping the nation’s war machine in a high state of efficiency and readiness. The efficacy of that war-machine was soon to be put to the test when, in the winter of 1962, a shooting war broke out between India and China. The inglorious reverses suffered by our army and the repercussions that they generated brought about Krishna Menon’s fall from power.

But at what a price? Heads rolled, one of them being that of General Kaul himself who had been something of a rising star. The military heirarchy was given a violent shaking. Few among the new faces could have felt much sympathy for Krishna Menon’s exit from their midst.

It is, of course, possible that Krishna Menon had good reason to feel dissatisfied with the ‘old-boy’ network of the armed forces that had been a legacy of the Raj. At that, he himself had gone a long way to antagonising the core element of the armed services. Surely there are subtler ways of putting people in their places without actually drawing blood! More civilised ways of registering boredom or even disdain?

Lord Salisbury, who became Britain’s Prime Minister towards the end of the 19th century when Britain was master of an empire on which the sun never stopped shining. His Lordship’s way of registering extreme boredom or even disdain for his fellow parliamentarians was not by dishing out insults but by employing subtler means of censure. Once, in the House of Lords, when a member was holding forth about something or the other, Salisbury was heard to inquire who the speaker was, and then, on the name being revealed, he was heard by his neighbours to exclaim: "Good God! but I thought he was dead!"

Salisbury, like most people in high positions, had little time to spare for those whose opinions differed from his. Whenever he was displeased with whatever was being said on the floor of the house, he would shake his legs vigorously and at times actually stamp his feet so hard that "it shook the floor and made the furniture rattle." At that, in have ‘exerted a personal charm upon his close colleagues."

Another world leader who, too, could ooze charm at will but became more known for her quite devastating manner of dealing with those who opposed her politics, was Indira Gandhi, who, in the pursuit of this trait became altogether dictatorial. Her way of silencing them was to fling them into jail without trial.

Inevitably and, maybe to her secret pride, Indira Gandhi began to spoken of as an avatar of Durga. When she was roused to anger, she certainly had nothing to learn from Krishna Menon in the severity of her invective. The quite monumental tantrum she threw to show her displeasure at something her youthful daughter-in-law, Menaka Gandhi, had done or failed to do, had all the crudeness of a street brawl.

And yet, in her day-to-day dealings with sacred-cow public figures who differed with her policies, she had reduced the way of showing her remoteness from them to an art form. Studied indifference.

One such person was J.R.D. Tata, a colossus of his times who had also known Indira Gandhi from her childhood. Whenever he happened to be in Delhi, Mr Tata asked to see Mrs Gandhi. At their meetings, while Mr Tata was earnestly trying to put forward a point of view, Indira Gandhi, for her part, basined herself with some trivial activity such as slitting open a letter, or looking for something in her handbag, or merely rearranging the papers on her desk. Mr Tata could have been left under no illusion, that she had absolutely no interest in whatever he was saying.

Lyndon Johnson who became America’s President, may be said to fill the gap between Krishna Menon’s bare-knuckled slights and Lord Salisbury’s stamping of his feet to register boredom. He almost made a habit of baiting his Vice President, Hubert Humphrey. Johnson would call Humphrey to come and see him at odd hours on the pretext that there was something important that needed to be discussed, and generally treated him "as a staff sergeant might treat a private," as Humphrey himself put it.

Hubert Humphrey rather prided himself on his oratorial powers, and may have felt flattered when Johnson during one of their meetings, asked him to repeat an entire speech he had recently given, "as if before an audience." Then, when Humphrey was in the full flow of a thundering oration. Johnson went into the bathroom but left the door open, calling over his shoulders as he urinated "Keep talking, Hubert. I’m listening!"


This feature was published on April 7, 2002