There are, among administrators and diplomats, counsellors. And there are courtiers.

As one who has been both an administrator and a diplomat let me say at the very start that I am not apportioning counselorship to myself and attributing courtier-ship to others. I know myself and my limitations. But this much I will say – counsellors in the employ of government, as distinct from adept practitioners of the Raga Darbari, have always have held me in thrall.

Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar (1913-1998) was one such counsellor.

Jairam Ramesh’s just-published biography of the man, Intertwined Lives: PN Haksar and Indira Gandhi tells the reader what it takes to give honest counsel, what accepting that counsel does and what happens when you reject it.

People like Haksar are counsellors first and last. Nothing of the courtier enters their mindscape. They begin and end their careers stoically in the thankless duty of giving counsel. They have the satisfaction of a clear conscience and sleep well but, in career terms, they go before the master does. They invariably hit stone.

Courtiers, on the other hand, are not likely to sleep well but they fare well at work, surviving all vicissitudes of their master’s moods. They rarely, if ever, hit stone. Rather, they strike the gold of preferment through their practice of the timeless art of courtier-ship. Courtiers survive not just the master’s mood swings but the master herself. Through changes of rulers and regimes, they swim right through the sluices of fortune. The courtier also wades across tectonic shifts in history, as from an imperial or colonial order to a popular one, a despotic to a democratic one, or vice versa. And does so with head held high and dry.

That patented half-smile, emblem of a courtier’s unswerving loyalty to statecraft, remains fixed. The one smiled-at changes, the smile stays. The one being obeyed changes, the tilt of obedience stays, whence the truism “the Padshah comes and goes, the Vizier stays and stays”.

The most telling visualisation of this mutuality is provided by photographs of oath-takings and swearings-in. Also, of ceremonies where agreements are signed between heads of state or their consuls. You will invariably see in these pictures a highly experienced functionary of the state, the quintessential Vizier, with great dignity and composure, “guiding” the ruler’s hand to the parchment where he must sign. Two photographs in this genre stand out. The first is of the ceremony at which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and President ZA Bhutto signed the accord between India and Pakistan on July 2, 1972 in Simla. The second is of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President JR Jayewardene signing the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord on July 29, 1987 in Colombo. The “who is who and what and where” of those pictures makes for the most instructive contemplation.

As Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 1967 to 1973, Haksar was the brain in the Prime Minister’s Office. He was, in fact, the PMO. If the Indo-Pak war of 1971 was fought and won by India’s military machine under Sam Manekshaw’s legendary leadership, the detailed preparation for it, the strategising and mapping of its political, diplomatic and logistical dimensions came principally from this Kashmiri. Indira Gandhi trusted him implicitly but, in the end, decided to do without him. That – “do without” – is putting it mildly. From being everything to becoming nothing is a steep drop.

What should surprise us, perhaps, is not the fact that Haksar lost the helm he commanded but that he, an honest counsellor, could hold it at all. Where others discovered their Leftism from an assumed tilt in their leader, Haksar gave to Indira Gandhi the ripened counsel of a centralising socialist who knew India philosophically, sociologically and politically, knew its weaknesses, its fault lines and its propensity for a “strong centre”. In his book, Ramesh tells us how Haksar helped mould her policy perspectives from the standpoint of India’s need for a social, political and economic makeover.

Was he, unconsciously, making her conflate the nation’s greatness with her own? Was he nudging her to become a supremacist? And her office, the PMO, into a cabal before which all institutions, irrespective of their mandates, would kneel? Is the extra-constitutional centralising of power and the dilution of the mandates of institutions, somewhere in its chemistry, a Haksar legacy? Did Haksar think, naively, that he would be there, indefinitely, to see that the power-centre he had loftily built, does not become a model for extra-constitutional absolutism?

At a time when the cult of personality is being pandered to by a new species of compliance, and the autonomy of institutions is being eroded, Jairam Ramesh’s riveting study of PN Haksar is more than timely.