No man is 'irreplaceable.' But there are certainly combinations of time and place when the death of an individual is untimely -- and that is definitely true of Mani Dixit's fatal heart attack. India is not so blessed with experienced and intelligent diplomats that we can afford to shrug off his loss. He was in charge of negotiations with China and Pakistan, and there are tantalising hints that he had manoeuvred India into an advantageous position in both.
It is no exaggeration at all to say that the late National Security Adviser possessed Dr Manmohan Singh's complete trust. There was a small but telling incident just a few months ago which told the foreign policy establishment just how much of a free hand the prime minister was prepared to offer Mani Dixit. It took place in a hotel room in New York, on the eve of Dr Singh's first one-on-one meeting with General Musharraf. The mandarins of the foreign office had been kept completely in the dark. The result was that the usual array of diplomats were totally taken aback when Dixit finally revealed that Dr Singh was scheduled to meet General Musharraf the next day.
Even the fact that the prime minister was present could not prevent a veteran of the foreign office from bursting out angrily, "No, that cannot be permitted!" I understand that there was a stunned silence at this breach of protocol which was broken only when Dr Singh said mildly, but very firmly, "Leave that to me, I shall decide what should be permitted."
Everyone present got the message -- that Mani Dixit's advice would prevail even over the institutional wisdom of the foreign office. There was no little irony in that since Dixit himself had once been foreign secretary. But Dixit was that rare bureaucrat who did not really believe in treading the safe bureaucratic path, and that was true of him well before he joined the foreign service.
I cannot help wondering if Dixit's unconventional thought processes did not spring, at least in part, from his exposure to Mahatma Gandhi. (His parents had both served Bapu in his ashram, and I remember hearing that Dixit himself spent some time there when he was a child.) Later, when Mani had the chance to enter the prestigious St Stephen's College -- still one of the most revered institutions in the hierarchy of college education -- he gave it up, preferring to join Delhi College (now named Zakir Hussain College). Was it because he preferred to spend his college days in a more 'Indian' environment? It is possible, Mani Dixit -- whose mother tongue was Malayalam -- was a devotee of Indian languages, from Sanskrit to Urdu. (How many of today's IFS officers would study India with such attention?)
It was this passion for all things Indian -- in sharp contrast to several who were swayed by every gust of opinion from abroad -- which set Dixit apart. He was not a follower of any particular ideology, choosing to pursue Indian interests without any particular sentimental regard for past friendships. (Or, for that matter, former enmities!) He was capable of declaring, "I do not mix morality with foreign policy!"
That does not mean Dixit was an immoral person. He was a wonderful friend, attentive and honest in his personal life. It was just that he thought it selfish to sacrifice national interests on the altar of an individual's personal beliefs. The soul, as Cardinal Richelieu of France once theorised, may be immortal but the state can be destroyed through excessive sentiment.
That honesty was just what India needed when Dixit became foreign secretary. India had been forced to pawn its gold to pay for vital imports. Simultaneously, the Soviet Union imploded into its constituent parts, immediately depriving India of its major source of arms. The establishment was completely unprepared for the chaos that followed. When, in 1991, the old communists launched their last abortive coup against Gorbachev, you could sense the relief in the air. Inder Kumar Gujral, who had been V P Singh's external affairs minister in 1990, remarked that he had sensed the popular unhappiness with Gorbachev's reforms when he had visited Moscow. That must rank as one of the all-time fatuous comments since the people of Moscow were staging a counter-revolution even as he spoke!
Dixit would never have been guilty of such nostalgia for the past. He steered India through the pitfalls of a world entering a unipolar age, improving relations with the United States just as enthusiastically as he would have entertained the Communist Tsars had circumstances been different. Again, he was the voice of cold reason insisting that Delhi had to talk to Yangon because Myanmar is a neighbour, dictatorship or not. If the generals in Myanmar are now considering joint action against anti-Indian militants you can thank Dixit for laying the foundations of the relationship.
That voice of sanity insisting that India's interests are the only things that matter will be wanted in Delhi. There are many who are equally brilliant, there are few who are as brutally honest and as uncompromising in pursuing clearly perceived goals. You will be missed, Mani Dixit.