Bitter truths

Print edition : September 19, 2014

December 21, 1988: Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi with China's leader Deng Xiaoping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Natwar says that it was he who advised Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to seek a breakthrough in the relations with China by paying an official visit to that country. Photo: JOHN GIANNINI/AFP

Congress president Sonia Gandhi and External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh at a meeting of the World Public Forum "Dialogue of Civilisations" in Moscow in June 2005. Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP

Natwar Singh’s autobiography, save for a small part devoted to settling scores, has enduring historical value.

THANKS mainly to the media hype, K. Natwar Singh’s autobiography has aroused enormous interest among the public, with 50,000 copies reportedly sold before its formal release. But there is a risk in such media hype: by focussing attention on the topical “settling of scores” to which only a small part of the book is devoted, the enduring historical value of the book as a credible and illuminating narrative of what happened in the early decades of the country’s independence in the foreign policy field can be lost sight of. If Natwar Singh had not joined the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), he might have still risen up as a leading writer and eminent political leader. It goes to the credit of the author that he excelled in diplomacy, writing, and politics—indeed a rare polymath.

The preface starts on a high philosophical note. The author “worships truth and courage”. He does not “subscribe to the gospel of equality”. He asserts that equality among human beings is impossible. The reader might be perplexed by this statement and wonder whether the author forgets that equality is a principle and not an assertion of a fact. The principle of equality is that in a democracy all citizens should be treated as equal before the law. Rather rapidly the author descends from the philosophical heights to the mundane plane of settling of scores wherein he mentions that Congress party president Sonia Gandhi and her daughter, Priyanka, called on him on May 7, 2014. They requested him to delete the references to the circumstances surrounding Sonia Gandhi’s decision not to become the country’s Prime Minister in May 2004. The author rejected the request. “No one could edit my book,” he writes.

The author has “revealed” (on page 319) that Rahul Gandhi resolutely opposed his mother becoming the Prime Minister as he feared for her life. It might be recalled that Sonia Gandhi had said in 2004 that her “inner voice” had told her not to accept the office. The media, with the active encouragement of the author, made a big story out of his “revelation”. It is difficult not to believe that it was part of a plan to boost the sale of the book. It might have been the case that the “inner voice” and the son said the same thing. In any case, even if the decision was taken exclusively because of the son’s opposition, the Congress president could not have told the excited crowd outside her house exhorting her to take over as Prime Minister that her son was standing in the way. She had to break the news tactfully, as she did. The author with his vast experience of politics and writers’ insight into human behaviour knows all this. But his hatred for Sonia Gandhi prevents him from giving a balanced account of what happened. He forgets to mention that Sonia Gandhi was largely responsible for the 2004 electoral victory of the Congress. That the media got excited about this “revelation” speaks volumes about the current practice of the media to make a mountain out of a molehill for reasons other than the relevance of the news item.

Let us turn to parts of the book of more enduring value and interest. The account of the author’s early years in Bharatpur, where he was born in 1931, makes interesting reading. The big annual event there was the duck shoot in December. The then Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, “heavy of mind and heavy of body”, would arrive with a large retinue. Positioned in a strategic location, Linlithgow found it easy to shoot down ducks that were deliberately sent his way by the beaters “standing waist-deep in freezing water”. The Bharatpur nobility in breeches were introduced to the Viceroy, who bestowed on them a frigid smile. In 1945, the train carrying Mahatma Gandhi to Shimla, for talks with Lord Archibald Wavell, passed through Bharatpur. On young Natwar’s insistance, his father gave him permission to go to the railway station. He saw the Mahatma, but did not succeed in getting an autograph.

After writing the Civil Services Examination in October 1952, Natwar Singh left India to do an undergraduate course in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, though he had a first class honors degree from St. Stephens, Delhi. It seemed as if he was not sure of clearing the written, though it is difficult to see why. When called for the Union Public Service Commission interview, he cut short his studies and rushed back to India. He has given a memorable account of the questions Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked him at the interview. In the early years, Nehru used to interview the IFS candidates. To the question whether China posed a threat, the candidate replied that India’s next-door neighbour was “our best friend and worst enemy”. Nehru asked Natwar Singh half-jocularly whether he was trying to teach him about Chanakya. There were questions on South Africa and the Second Five-Year Plan. Nehru saw the candidate off at the door. “It was the supreme gesture of good manners and magnanimous grace by a statesman of world stature.”

The chapter “Once a Nehruite” gives an insightful account of selected items. According to the author, Nehru’s three “cardinal errors were: his disastrous handling of the Kashmir issue, his misplaced trust in the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and his turning down of the Soviet proposal to give India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council”. The first two errors are well known, but the third one calls for a comment.

In support of his contention, the author quotes a conversation between Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin and Nehru in 1955. Bulganin said that he proposed suggesting India’s inclusion “at a later stage as the sixth member of the Security Council”. Nehru responded that some people in the United States were asking India to replace China in the Security Council. First, China had to be admitted and India’s case could be taken up later. If India were to be admitted as a permanent member, it would require an amendment to the Charter. He asked for Bulganin’s opinion on the revision of the Charter.

Natwar Singh’s account stops here. If he had gone on reading the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru he has quoted from, he would have seen Bulganin’s response. “We proposed the question of India’s membership of the Security Council to get your views, but agree that this is not the time for it and it will have to wait for the right moment later on. We also agree that things should be taken one by one.”

In short, there was no “offer” from Bulganin. He was only testing India. Nehru’s response was correct. It is surprising that the author, while in service, did not come across the following note by Nehru on the latter’s return from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or even when he consulted the Selected Works he has quoted from:

“Informally, suggestions have been made by the United States that China should be taken into the United Nations but not in the Security Council and that India should take her place in the Security Council. We cannot of course accept this as it means falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the Security Council. We have, therefore, made it clear to those who suggested this that we cannot agree to this suggestion. We have even gone a little further and said that India is not anxious to enter the Security Council at this stage, even though as a great country she ought to be there. The first step to be taken is for China to take her rightful place and then the question of India might be considered separately.”

Yet another account of much interest is of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China in December 1988. The author says in the chapter “The China Breakthrough” that it was he who advised Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 to seek a breakthrough in the relations with China by paying an official visit to that country. Rajiv Gandhi agreed and asked the author to do the groundwork. The author did the groundwork by meeting with political leaders such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, E.M.S. Namboodiripad and others. Natwar Singh accompanied Rajiv Gandhi on his visit.

The account does not say whether China asked for a visit. The author could have added that when Ambassador C.V. Ranganathan reached Beijing in May 1987 China lost no time in conveying to him that it wanted a visit from the Indian Prime Minister. China pointed out that India had not returned the 1960 visit of Prime Minister Zhou Enlai. In December 1987, China sent Vice Minister Liu Shuqing with a formal invitation which, to the delight of the Chinese, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi accepted immediately.

The author says that Rajiv “secretly sent P.N. Haksar to Beijing a few months before his visit”. This gives the impression that Haksar, a seasoned political strategist, was sent to sound out the Chinese about Rajiv Gandhi’s visit. The fact is that Haksar was sent on a secret mission to reassure the Chinese after the 1986 confrontation at Samdurong Chu, when General K. Sunderji stood up to the Chinese and more or less prevailed. The message conveyed through Haksar was that India wanted to work with China. Haksar went in May 1987.

There is a whole chapter on Sonia Gandhi, which is primarily meant to settle scores. The author was removed from the post of External Affairs Minister in the wake of the publication of the Volcker report that the Congress party had received oil coupons from Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and made money. Under the Oil For Food Programme of the U.N., Iraq could sell oil up to $1.6 billion to buy food. Saddam Hussein gave oil coupons to those he wanted to cultivate. A coupon, say, for one million barrels could be sold in the market with the seller making anything between 15 to 50 cents a barrel, a part of which was to be paid to Saddam Hussein. Naturally, the Congress president was furious. A statement was put out that the party had nothing to do with it and that it was for “individuals” to defend themselves. Natwar Singh was abroad when the news broke, he was angry that the Congress had disowned him, and he decided when he returned not to seek a meeting with the Congress president unless she summoned him. They had not met for eight years and a half until she called on him on May 7, 2014, as mentioned earlier.

The author’s account of the oil coupon matter is not very helpful in understanding what had happened. He does not explain what he did, but asserts that he did nothing wrong. The question is not whether he personally made any money or not. If he made money without using the Congress party’s name, he cannot be faulted, provided he had paid the tax due. The key question is how did the name of the Congress party come on the list of those who took the oil coupons. Did the author as Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee write a letter to Saddam Hussein on the party’s letterhead or otherwise approach the Iraqi President in the name of the party when he went to Baghdad in 2001 leading a Congress delegation? Otherwise, how can the party’s name be on the list? If he did it with the approval of the Congress president, he should have met and confronted her.

The oil coupon matter was not the first instance when Sonia Gandhi showed her displeasure. Once in February 2005, Sonia Gandhi asked Natwar Singh whether he was getting involved in defence deals. He flared up and asked her for proof, adding that he had not written anything on file, but had only spoken by phone to Defence Minister A.K. Antony. The author asserts while recounting the incident that Sonia Gandhi had a “mole” in his office. It appears that he was unable to locate and sack the “mole”.

The book looks elegant, but the editing could have been better. For example, Deng Xiaoping is quoted as telling Rajiv Gandhi in Beijing in 1988 that he (Deng) had received Rajiv’s grandfather and mother in 1964 (page 269). Obviously, it was in 1954. There is confusion between perestroika and glasnost (page 248).

Sonia Gandhi has promised to write a book to “bring out the truth”. Looking at the large number of people in the huge hall, a panellist at Delhi’s India International Centre, where this book was released, said that the release of Sonia Gandhi’s book would have to be at the Ram Lila grounds.

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