Sonia Gandhi delivers a speech as Natwar Singh looks on in June 2005 in Moscow. (AFP)
New Delhi, Aug. 1: Natwar Singh had stood unflinchingly behind Sonia Gandhi during her darkest years, even braving water cannons and tear gas to fight her cause against then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.
So it would have caused some shock that, at a time her star seems down again, the former foreign minister has undermined the sacrifice theory that has hung a halo around Sonia’s head these past 10 years.
Sonia had cited her “inner voice” to decline the Prime Minister’s post in May 2004; Natwar now says the decisive factor was Rahul Gandhi’s fears about her possible assassination.
Some, however, may see the development as a late fallout from an irony of recent Congress history: Sonia’s backing of Rao’s most prominent lieutenant, Manmohan Singh, against the traditional Nehru-Gandhi loyalists who had risked their careers supporting her against Rao.
Two of the biggest losers — and leading Manmohan baiters — were Natwar and Arjun Singh, both eased out of their senior ministry positions.
A career diplomat turned politician, Natwar had admired Jawaharlal Nehru, was deeply loyal to Indira Gandhi, and served Rajiv Gandhi as a close aide.
Since Rajiv’s assassination in May 1991 till losing his ministry in December 2005, the erudite Natwar was Sonia’s trouble-shooter, street-fighter and literary adviser all rolled into one.
He repeatedly snubbed Rao’s emissaries who came offering a government berth. In May 1995, he left the Congress along with Arjun, N.D. Tiwari, M.L. Fotedar, Sheila Dikshit and others to form the Tiwari Congress.
One day, the police turned on the new party’s members with batons, water cannons and tear gas for chanting the slogan: “Narasimha Rao hatao, Sonia Gandhi lao (oust Rao, bring in Sonia).”
When this correspondent entered Parliament Street police station minutes later, Tiwari was drenched and Arjun was nursing a blow. Natwar was crying rivers because of the tear gas but his belligerence hadn’t left him.
“Today we are weeping; tomorrow they will,” he said.
Out of the Congress, Natwar took it upon himself to make sure that every visiting foreign dignitary called on Sonia. He faced many obstacles.
While some like Yasser Arafat insisted on calling on 10 Janpath, Rao’s South Block mandarins cited protocol to try and deter others.
Natwar rose to the challenge. He worked the back channels and his contacts in foreign political parties such as the African National Congress, Ba’ath Party of Iraq, Conservative Party, Pakistan People’s Party and the Communist Party of China to ensure the flow of world leaders to 10 Janpath never dried up.
When the NDA came to power, Natwar continued with his unofficial task, often using his proximity to fellow ex-diplomat Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and national security adviser.
In 2001, when Sonia was leader of the Opposition, Natwar’s efforts resulted in her leading a delegation to the UN, much to the chagrin of then Union health minister C.P. Thakur. Thanks to the Natwar-Brajesh network, Sonia was granted a meeting with then US Vice-President Dick Cheney.
Natwar was Sonia’s key fire-fighter when the publication of Katherine Frank’s Indira: the life of Indira Nehru Gandhi infuriated her estranged sister-in-law and NDA minister Maneka Gandhi.
Maneka blamed Sonia for the “derogatory” remarks against Maneka’s late husband Sanjay Gandhi in the book. Frank had met Sonia while researching the book and acknowledged her help in accessing family letters and photographs.
Maneka sued the publishers for defamation and won an out-of-court settlement claiming that both Indira and Sanjay had been portrayed in a bad light. Sonia kept quiet but Natwar ripped into Maneka, highlighting how she had made common cause with Indira’s detractors and joined the BJP.
The Tiwari Congress had merged back into the parent party after Sonia became Congress president. Soon, some party leaders who had earlier sided with Rao began a whisper campaign alleging preferential treatment to the returned prodigals.
Natwar, Arjun, Vincent George and M.L. Fotedar were described as the “gang of four” — a coterie that was “misleading” Sonia.
Sonia understood the need for a united Congress. Slowly, the gang of four began losing out to Ambika Soni, Ahmed Patel, Pranab Mukherjee and Shivraj Patil. Sheila Dikshit was the lone exception, retaining her clout till 2014.
Arjun, left out of the UPA II government, died disillusioned but in his memoirs, spoke not a word against the Nehru-Gandhis.
Natwar’s fate was sealed when the Volcker committee, set up by the UN to inquire into alleged corruption in its oil-for-food programme for Iraq, named him, son Jagat and some Indian companies as beneficiaries of the scam.
For a few days in December 2005, Natwar was a picture of confidence till Sonia discovered that the party’s name had indeed been misused. Natwar tried meeting her but the doors of 10 Janpath were firmly shut to him.
By the time Natwar was sacked as foreign minister, Arjun no longer had the courage to tell Sonia to be lenient to him. Privately, Arjun used to say: “Natwar Singh is the foreign policy of the Congress and the country.”
A story from the legend of Laila-Majnu has now begun doing the rounds in the Congress.
Laila, having heard that her beloved was wandering the streets of Baghdad hungry, sent her chambermaid with milk for him. A greedy beggar cornered the milk by pretending to be Majnu and chanting: “Hai Laila.”
Hearing from other sources that Majnu’s condition had worsened further, Laila sent out her maid again with milk and the instruction to bring back a bowl of Majnu’s blood.
This time, the beggar pointed to the real Majnu and said: “Hum to doodh wale Majnu hain, khoon wala woh raha (I’m the Milk Majnu, that one’s the Blood Majnu).”
Perhaps the general election results have persuaded some of the Congress’s erstwhile loyalists not to hope for any more milk from Sonia again.