Natwar's 'Revelations' On Sonia Are a Damp Squib

Published: August 01, 2014 17:41 IST
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

I have long had enormous respect for Kunwar Natwar Singh. Intellectual, diplomat, man of letters, a raconteur par excellence and extraordinarily well-networked, Natwar Singh enjoyed the kind of career people like me grew up to admire: Stephanian, IFS officer, writer, politician, Foreign Minister, all at progressive levels of responsibility and accomplishment. I had met Natwar, read him, reviewed his books (always appreciatively), heard his stories and looked up to him in many ways.
That Natwar Singh would write a memoir was hardly a surprise: he has been doing so for years, mining his life, career and acquaintances for several books and multiple newspaper columns.

His last two, "My China Diary" and "Walking With Lions", were memoirs of his diplomatic and political experiences. The Natwar formula in these books and many others was fixed: anecdotal, engaging, episodic in its narrative form, often marvellously-written, with an indiscreet revelation or two, but nothing to rock any boats in the world in which he lived or offend the people he still met socially. Most of us would have expected his autobiography, "One Life is Not Enough", to be in a similar vein.

But of course it is not: the wounds of his defenestration by the Congress Party, and more particularly by the Nehru-Gandhi family he had loyally served for four generations, are still too raw. I have not yet read the book, and as a writer myself, I feel one cannot review a book one has not read, but Natwar's own revelations, in well-publicized television interviews, have indicated that at least parts of this volume are intended to settle scores.

From what one has heard, though, the most explosive of the reported revelations - that Sonia Gandhi was apparently persuaded by her son Rahul to sacrifice the Prime Ministership in 2004 because he feared she would be assassinated - turns out to be a damp squib. Critics of the Congress Party have been spinning this story for all they are worth, to suggest that this somehow diminishes Mrs Gandhi's sacrifice. Nobody else who was allegedly present at this conversation has confirmed the story, but even if it turns out to be true, my own reaction is: so what? Mrs Gandhi would undoubtedly have sought the views and inputs of her family and close advisers before coming to a decision as to whether to accept the position the UPA coalition had just offered her.

Each would have had their own reasons and motivations for advocating whichever course of action they did. Ultimately the decision was hers, and whatever be the clinching factor, many considerations, both political and personal, would have gone into making up her mind. That one of those considerations was the ever-present risk to her security should hardly surprise anyone, given that she had lost a husband and a mother-in-law to assassins. After turning down the Prime Ministry, she has still not shirked the risks and responsibilities that come with leading the country's largest party and ruling coalition.

So I don't make too much of this headline-grabbing story, nor of the other supposedly damning nuggets - from Rajiv Gandhi not consulting the Cabinet before offering Sri Lanka the IPKF, to government files being carried to Sonia Gandhi (again without a shred of proof). What saddens me, though, is that Natwar Singh should have descended to this level.          

The aristocratic Natwar has always prided himself on being a gentleman: well-bred, well-educated, not the sort to tell stories out of school. One incident is revelatory. As a distinguished Stephanian he addressed the college's annual "Games Dinner" of 1974-75, which I, never proficient at games of any sort, was invited to attend as the elected President of the College Students' Union. He surveyed us, 17 to 22 year-olds with bright eyes and scrubbed faces, and chose to express a candour none of us was accustomed to from Indian officialdom. "I look at you all," he said bluntly, "the best and the brightest of our fair land, smart, honest and able, and my heart sinks. Because I know that most of you will do what I did and take the civil service examinations, little realising that if you succeed, your fate will be to take orders from the dregs of our society - the politicians." He could see the shock on the faces of his audience as he went on: "Don't make the mistake I did. Do something else with your lives."

I have never forgotten the speech, thinking about which kept me awake most of that night - and helped change my own career plans. If someone as successful and important in the bureaucracy as Natwar Singh could feel this way, I wondered, what satisfaction could ordinary people without his rank or connections derive from government service? Of course, Natwar went on to put his money where his mouth was: he resigned from the government before he could attain the Foreign Secretaryship that most of his peers considered inevitable, and entered politics instead. This gave him a stint as Minister of State and then Minister for External Affairs, where he could give orders to the Foreign Secretary of the day. I am sure he relished the opportunity to set standards of which the "dregs of society" were incapable.

Today, he has descended to the dregs. Natwar has said he wrote One Life Is Not Enough because he did not want to "take his bitterness to the funeral pyre" but the adjectives he has reportedly used to describe Sonia Gandhi, from "authoritarian" and "capricious" to "Machiavellian" and "secretive," do him little credit. If you see such traits in a person only after they dispense with your services, does it discredit them or you?

Sadly, he has let himself down. As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cuttingly remarked, when asked about Natwar's memoir: "Private conversation should not be made public for capital gains." There was a time when Natwar would have disdained a politician or a bureaucrat for doing what he has just done: he would have seen it as the sort of grubby and self-serving action that was beneath him. But it seems there is no level to which an embittered former confidant will not stoop: he has even described a visit to his home by Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi to urge him to respect their past confidences. That ought to make him feel ashamed.

In one of the many anti-Natwar stories he relishes telling, Mani Shankar Aiyar recounts how, at St Stephen's College, he came across a visitors' book in which Natwar had grandly written: "All that I am, I owe to the College." Aiyar says he promptly scrawled beneath this notation, "Why blame the College?"

It is a story that can be turned around to fit today's less amusing circumstances. Natwar could truthfully have written: "All that I am, I owe to the Gandhis." And one of us, reading his book, could truthfully have asked: "Why blame the Gandhis?"

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