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THE UNSTOPPABLE COMMUNICATOR

- Writing to the sound of grinding axes

ONE LIFE IS NOT ENOUGH: An Autobiography By K. Natwar Singh, Rupa, Rs 500

Kunwar Natwar Singh (picture) mentioned in an earlier book that when he left career diplomacy for politics, Indira Gandhi advised him to cultivate a thicker skin. That also implied an element of worldly cynicism, of which there is no trace here. He is flattered by the attentions of a British businessman whom Ted Heath dismissed as “the unpleasant and unacceptable face of capitalism”, and demonstrates none of his heroine’s realism about Moscow’s motives in gushing the Soviet Union is “a genuine friend of India.”

Instead of being “flattered” or “worried” by the “unexpected interest” his autobiography has aroused, Natwar should be chuckling up his sleeve at sales rocketing, not because of any monstrous cat he has let out of the bag, but because of a television channel’s excited hype. The rest of the media followed like lemmings. In the event, Sonia Gandhi has to contend with only the feeble kitten of Natwar’s guess that Rahul’s fears for her life and not her “inner voice” persuaded her to refuse the prime ministership. The two aren’t irreconcilable. Both Chappaquidick and the pleas of an ageing mother who had lost two sons influenced Ted Kennedy’s decision not to run for president. The author must know that probabilities and possibilities outweigh certitudes in politics and there is no exact means of apportioning responsibility in decision-making.

Otherwise, this is a readable (despite some familiar anecdotes from earlier books) insider’s account of “mera kya, mujhe kya” Delhi whose elite treated Narendra Modi as an untouchable. There was no danger of that happening to someone born in the lap of privilege who reminds us repeatedly of his ready access to Indira Gandhi and the benefits that flowed from it. He is also a master of the bon mot. One of his best was that Indians have a sense of eternity but not history. He says here that Nehru’s sisters were “given to inspired indiscretion”, that Mongols “built an empire but neglected to build a nation” and “the future lies in the past” for India-Pakistan relations.

The book’s weakness is the weakness of post-Nehru Congress politics. Attention focuses only on power. Public welfare is of little account. When Natwar says bank nationalization was “widely welcomed” or speaks of “pressure” to abolish privy purses, he is only justifying Indira Gandhi’s tactical moves. It’s a relief after this to find him admitting he isn’t proud of his own conduct during Indira Gandhi’s “brutal assault” on democracy. But, then, as Ambedkar wrote and Natwar Singh repeats with qualification, “Democracy in India is only a top dressing on Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Despite a sprinkling of platitudes, this doesn’t appear to be a major concern.

One Life Is Not Enough is more satisfying at a gossipy level. Although Natwar says his “nature is rooted in solitude”, he is an indefatigable communicator with 12 books demonstrating his avid interest in important people, significant places and notable events in which he played some part. Excepting Subimal Dutt, he found other Indian Civil Service officers “lacked gravitas.” The wife of Papua New Guinea’s Australian governor was too refined to countenance the word “toilet” — visitors had to “go for a walk”. A Pakistani high commissioner warned him never to say in Pakistan that Indians and Pakistanis were “the same people”.

However stern she might appear in India, Sonia was a “model of sophistication, good taste and debonair civility” in Moscow. Manmohan Singh, “a spineless man who never stands up for his colleagues”, had two long meetings with Paul Volcker, who investigated corruption in the Iraqi Oil for Food programme. Natwar’s comment — “No one knows what they talked about” — hints at the former prime minister’s complicity in the problems he faced over the Volcker report.

Such coyness is abandoned when it comes to his own record. Apparently, Natwar’s speech in the Lok Sabha after Pokharan II changed the mood of members. Modi invited SAARC leaders to his inaugural only after Natwar advised him not to neglect the neighbourhood. He brought together Nirad Chaudhuri and E.M. Forster, and christened A.K. Antony “St. Antony”. Arun Singh was sacked at his behest. He asked Sonia to support Jyoti Basu as prime minister in 1998, persuaded her to restore Arjun Singh to favour and advised her to “reinvent the party”. So far-reaching was his clout that Vladimir Yakunin, Russia’s deputy minister for railways, thanked Natwar for his promotion to full minister. Natwar doesn’t appear to have disclaimed responsibility.

Two incongruities deserve mention. Someone who is so conscious of being the Maharaja of Patiala’s son-in-law should know the Maharaja of Cooch Behar was the first president of the Calcutta Club because it was founded in the heyday of the raj as an exercise in race harmony. Europeans and Indians alternated as president, and the committee was equally divided between the two communities. Yet, he claims Indians couldn’t join or even enter the Calcutta Club!

Second, he accuses Sonia of reducing “one of the greatest political parties of the world to a rump of 44 members in the Lok Sabha.” The very next sentence is “No Indian could have behaved this way against me”. One wonders if destroying the Congress and his career were parts of a single foreign operation. Read in conjunction with the verdict that Manmohan Singh has left no legacy, it would seem that though the author professes to hold no grudges, he writes to the sound of gnashing teeth and grinding axes.