On board Air India One, Mayankote Kelath Narayanan would regale officials and journalists with stories and scandals from his long years in the country’s elite intelligence setups. Listeners would latch on to every word he said and repeat it verbatim to the world at large with utmost confidence. Such was his aura. Today, things are different for the country’s mightiest spymaster known as Mike in intelligence circles. The Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, has questioned the 80-year-old on the ill-fated Rs 3,600-crore AgustaWestland helicopter deal in which kickbacks are alleged to have been paid. These machines were meant for VVIPs and Narayanan, as the National Security Advisor, or NSA, had cleared their purchase in 2005. Narayanan resigned as West Bengal’s governor soon after he was quizzed by CBI sleuths.
As NSA, Narayanan drew his strength from his loyal band of IPS officers. For many of them, he is a “father-like” figure. Naturally, those who are not within his circle say he is biased. “It was an open secret in the murky world of intelligence officers that either they were his men or not. Many continue to swear allegiance to him and in turn have got plum postings,” says a top bureaucrat. “Some became chiefs of the Intelligence Bureau (IB, used for internal intelligence) and of Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW, used for overseas intelligence),” says SD Pradhan, Narayanan’s deputy in the National Security Council, the working office of NSA that collates intelligence from IB and R&AW before processing it for the prime minister. “There used to be a lot of rumours that Narayanan has a liking for officers from Kerala and important positions are given to them. But it is not true; he preferred efficiency over everything else.”
An economics graduate from Madras University, Narayanan was deputed to IB in 1959. His ascent to the top was steady and he did two stints as the IB director: first from 1987 to 1989 and then from 1991 to 1992. It was during his second tenure that Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide squad. Despite this, he is said to be close to the Gandhi family. Those who worked with Narayanan have nice things to say about him. “He was a dynamic and powerful IB director because he was close to former prime ministers and that’s why he got two stints,” says RN Ravi, who retired as special director of IB and briefly worked with Narayanan. “He is a top class officer and extremely alert to the current situation. He is a workaholic and likes perfection. He is regarded as an expert on communism and China,” says former IB Director PC Haldar.
Though he retired in 1992, Narayanan remained a part of the security establishment. He was one of the key architects of the revamp of the intelligence establishment after the Kargil war of 1999. “The Multi-Agency Centre, Inter-state Intelligence Support Teams and Intelligence Coordinating Group were his ideas. He had suggested enhancing capabilities of the intelligence agencies, and the National Technical Research Organisation too was his contribution,” Pradhan says. Narayanan was busy but became powerful once again when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power in 2004. He was appointed security advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Narayanan would often get into heated arguments with NSA JN “Mani” Dixit over internal security and foreign relations. In his recent book, The Accidental Prime Minister, Singh’s media advisor, Sanjaya Baru, recounts that on one occasion, Narayanan shouted at Dixit: “You are a diplomat who knows a lot about the world but knows nothing about India.” Mani countered by asking Narayanan what he thought he knew about the country, considering he had never done “a good police officer’s job.” Narayanan, while belonging to IPS, had spent most of his career in IB and had never done any important field job.”
Singh reluctantly appointed him NSA in 2005 after Dixit died. According to Baru’s book, “it seemed plausible that Narayanan had been inducted as the third leg of the PMO leadership as a concession to Sonia (Gandhi).” Baru writes in the book that Singh was wary of Narayanan’s reputation. Narayanan, according to the book, had even threatened to quit from the post of security advisor if he was refused the NSA’s job. An IB officer says Narayanan’s power multiplied when both the IB and R&AW chief were asked to report to NSA rather than to Singh. “The IB director had no direct access to the prime minister. Since Narayanan knew the intelligence agencies threadbare, he would brief Singh according to his assessment. Some IB directors did not like it,” the officer says.
During his days as NSA, Narayanan was flamboyant. “Narayanan’s favourite line was ‘I have a file on you.’ He used it humorously with ministers, officials, journalists and others he met, leaving them, however, with the uneasy feeling that he was not really joking,” Baru writes. “Narayanan himself gave currency to the tales that circulated about his proclivity to snoop on everyone. He seemed to drive great pleasure in letting me know that he kept a tab on the credit-card spending of influential editors. On long flights, he would regale with stories about how various prime ministers had summoned him for information on their colleagues.” While others called him Mike, Baru chose to call him Edgar — after J Edgar Hoover, FBI’s long-serving controversial chief.
Narayanan’s supporters say he played a key role in the signing of the Indo-US nuclear deal. But it was during his tenure that the 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai took place. South Block rumour has it that Narayanan had to finally hang his gloves after he fell out with P Chidambaram who was made the home minister after the attacks. He would call Narayanan and other intelligence chief to his office for daily briefings. A year later, Narayanan was made the governor of West Bengal.
In Kolkata, Narayanan shared a love-hate relationship with West Bengal’s temperamental chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. When Banerjee drew criticism following incidents of vandalism in educational institutions, infant deaths and crime against women, Narayanan appeared kind in his public comments and even went to the extent of advising the media not to find fault with the state government. After senior West Bengal ministers were assaulted in Delhi by members of the Students’ Federation of India, the student arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) which sits in the opposition in Kolkata, Narayanan called it a “premeditated assault” which was “unprecedented in India’s modern history and serious enough to warrant a public apology by the Politburo”.
It is not that Narayanan did not have run-ins with Banerjee’s government; in fact, there were many. The most notable confrontation took place last year when Narayanan strongly criticised the vandalism at Presidency University allegedly by workers of Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. At short notice, Narayanan, as the chancellor of the university, went to the campus to address the students. “What happened should never have happened. Those who ransacked the Presidency campus should be treated like criminals,” he said. The strong words upset many in the ruling party.
Towards the end of his tenure as governor, Banerjee had warmed up to Narayanan. After the National Democratic Alliance came to power in May, there was speculation that all governors appointed by UPA would be asked to go. Banerjee advised Narayanan not to resign under pressure. And when he did resign, she said: “We are not giving any farewell. I believe only in welcoming. When I was in school, the farewell of one teacher brought tears to my eyes.”
Though Narayanan has managed to impress Banerjee, his problem obviously is the unfriendly government in Delhi.