The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Missed: An adviser Natwar or Aiyar

New Delhi, Aug. 19: The crisis at the Centre has shown up Sonia Gandhi’s lack of sound political advisers. And the person most sorely missed is perhaps K. Natwar Singh.

The disgraced former foreign minister used to be the Congress president’s principal adviser on foreign policy when she was leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha.

His inputs, sources said, played a key role in shaping important Congress decisions at the time, such as the opposition to Indian troops being sent to Iraq in 2003.

The ruling BJP had been dithering. When its national executive met in Indore in March that year, the foreign policy resolution was changed several times before it adopted an ambivalent position on the war.

It was only after Sonia spoke her mind to Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the issue was settled: despite US pressure, Indian soldiers would not go to Baghdad. The meeting led to a parliamentary resolution condemning the US attack.

Had Natwar been around now, would the various Congress Working Committee resolutions have been a little ambiguous on the nuclear deal and perhaps condemned the US role in West Asia'

“It’s a question worth pondering over,” a Congress functionary said.

He conceded that had the Iraq oil-for-food scandal not happened and Natwar remained foreign minister, he would still have had “little or no leeway” in influencing the Prime Minister’s “single-minded pursuit” of the deal.

“But he could at least have supplied correctives to the party’s perspective on such issues.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar, the other minister who could have “rectified” the perceived pro-US tilt, no longer counts as a Sonia adviser.

Party sources said Sonia, lest she be seen as a “surrogate” or “super” Prime Minister, had taken care at party forums not to criticise major government policies, especially its foreign policy.

Some of the doubts raised in the party during the negotiations were ill-informed ones, voiced by leaders wearing their anti-Americanism on their sleeve. The rest came from knowledgeable junior ministers, too scared to speak out before Sonia or the Prime Minister.

One of them, who shared his views freely with journalists, was later kept out of the loop.

Karan Singh, who heads the Congress’s foreign policy department, has confined himself to his other role as chairperson of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations and not been active on the nuclear deal.

Sonia’s other advisers are believed to be clueless about the deal. When she raised certain “concerns”, they were reportedly addressed by the Prime Minister’s national security adviser, M.K. Narayanan, and the ambassador to the US, Ronen Sen.

The larger problem for Sonia was dealing with the Left.

Sources said that while she struck some sort of rapport with Sitaram Yechury and A.B. Bardhan, she never managed to “crack” the key man, Prakash Karat. Her political secretary, Ahmed Patel, too, is comfortable with Yechury.

Through the UPA government’s existence, the Congress’s attitude to the Left had been shaped by its own notions about the communists.

The Prime Minister and other Congress leaders, except Pranab Mukherjee, seriously believed that the CPM was “split” at various levels — Bengal versus Kerala, “moderates” (Yechury, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Jyoti Basu) versus “purists” (Karat) — and that it was enough to “work” on one lot and “isolate” the other.

They were so convinced that the Prime Minister’s “hotline” with the Bengal chief minister would take care of possible flashpoints — such as the Indo-US joint military exercises — that they wondered why Bhattacharjee could not “prevail” on the cadres who protested in Kalaikunda.

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