Since Independence our country has had a legion of civil servants to help administer this vast and varied land but there are only a handful who have left their imprint on the national fabric. There is no doubt that Naresh Chandra, who passed away on July 9 at the age of 82 was one such outstanding public servant. His networking skills, his ability to manage complex inter-personal relations and to do all this with an unfailing sense of humour brought him to the pinnacle of the civil service and then beyond. He leaves behind a formidable reputation, indeed, the aura of a legend. There are countless anecdotes of how he handled complicated situations and crises, dealt with difficult, indeed obstreperous politicians and smiled through the rough and tumble of India’s raucous democracy.
My first encounter with Naresh Chandra was during the years, 1990-92, when he was Cabinet Secretary and I was Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. In the saga of India’s economic crisis and the subsequent reform and liberalisation process, that spanned the early 1990s, his name does not figure too often but I was witness to the critical support he provided to Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and his government, in enabling and implementing some truly radical measures. The Indian bureaucracy has the means to frustrate even the most accomplished agent of change. And yet, if it is so motivated, it can make things happen finding the antidotes to the very road blocks it often cites from the complex rules and procedures which are its privileged domain. What Naresh Chandra was able to do was to help navigate this complex bureaucratic landscape to make the reforms possible. In performing this indispensable role, he was always a voice of caution, mindful of the big picture yet capable of extraordinary boldness when necessary. Watching him operate was an education for me and other younger colleagues in the civil service.
Naresh Chandra had a most engaging personality. In all the years I had known him I never heard him raise his voice and his maximum level of anger was a furrowed brow and a puzzled frown as if the matter was one of inexplicability rather than obduracy on the part of the offender. He had an unhurried and sonorous way of speaking to all matters, interspersed with a gentle laugh and often a constant bemusement over human fallibility, including his own. And yet he commanded respect and even reverence from his interlocutors both high and low. People responded to his call because they had confidence in him and his judgement. His occasional frown achieved more results than an angry dressing down would have.
Naresh Chandra made a very smooth transition to the world of diplomacy and it is a tribute to him that members of the foreign service tribe who will at best only tolerate intruders into their charmed circle, eventually welcomed him as one of their own and one of the more accomplished ones at that. He was undoubtedly one of our better ambassadors to the U.S.(1996-2001) and is best remembered for the skill and aplomb with which he weathered the crisis spawned by India’s nuclear tests in 1998. He handled the highs and lows of the relationship with the U.S. with unflappable calm deploying his formidable networking abilities to mobilize every constituency in the U.S. to support India. My colleagues who served with him have only praise for the manner in which he handled a most difficult assignment and, above all, the congenial atmosphere he maintained, inspiring them to give their best.
My latest association with him was when Naresh Chandra was serving as Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board(2011-2013) and later as head of the Task Force on Internal Security. I was a member of the Board under him and later succeeded him as Chairman. Once again I was witness to his deep commitment to transforming India’s national security set-up, his willingness to put the spotlight on our vulnerabilities and to bringing his immense experience to bear on our search for practical solutions. He encouraged the Board to articulate a national security doctrine for India, emphasising his belief that the modern state must have a whole of government approach to the challenges it confronts. This is also what he tried to put in place when chairing the Task Force on Internal Security. But in several interactions I had with him thereafter he was disappointed that these efforts had only in resulted in piece meal measures and the usual cherry picking response from government. But even this disappointment was expressed with mild annoyance and a gentle laugh.
Naresh Chandra will be remembered as one of India’s finest public servants with an impeccable record of outstanding service to his country. May his soul rest in peace.