In what is arguably one of the most scathing critiques of Congress president Sonia Gandhi in public by a one-time veteran of her party and Union Minister, a new book by former Foreign Minister K Natwar Singh uses a range of adjectives to describe her: from “authoritarian” and “capricious” to “Machiavellian” and “secretive.”
In Singh’s autobiography One Life is Not Enough (published by Rupa), the author, in a five-page epilogue, says that what Sonia has “achieved” is the reduction of one of the “greatest political parties” of the world into a “rump” of 45 members in the Lok Sabha. And hopes that with a “commanding majority,” Narendra Modi, as PM, will “restore the image” of the country.
Clearly smarting from his humiliating sacking from the Congress in the wake of the Volcker controversy, Natwar, once a close Gandhi family confidant, has written that while his hounding and harassment continues, “Sonia Gandhi can neither run nor hide”. And on Sonia’s own comment that she had felt betrayed by him, he writes, “It was a case of the pot calling the kettle black.”
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There is an entire chapter on Sonia in Natwar’s memoirs, in which he describes her as “every biographer’s dream” but a “prima donna” who has evolved over the years from being a diffident, nervous, shy woman to being ambitious, authoritarian, capricious and obsessively secretive. In the conclusion to this section, he writes that “her public image is not flattering… politics has coarsened her”.
Echoing Manmohan Singh’s ex-media adviser Sanjaya Baru’s book, Natwar has claimed that 10 Janpath (Sonia’s residence) was where the real power centre of the UPA government was. He alleges that “Sonia very discreetly monitored the functioning of the most important ministries in the government, displaying a Machiavellian side to her character”.
He then goes on to describe how he was convinced a mole from his office (the Ministry of External Affairs) was feeding false information to 10 Janpath. He recalls how once in February 2005, he had accompanied Afghan President Hamid Karzai to 10 Janpath but encountered some “verbal terrorism” from Sonia. The Congress president, he writes, alleged that she had information he was getting involved in defence deals and had passed on files on some defence deals to Pranab Mukherjee (who was then defence minister). The author writes that his obvious conclusion after facing such an attack was that “the mole was at work. It seems that she has access to confidential information…”
Natwar has described two critical decisions that Sonia took after winning the general elections in 2004 — turning down the post of prime minister and instead picking Manmohan Singh for that job. The former minister asserts that the only reason for Sonia not taking the plunge was Rahul Gandhi who was vehemently opposed to his mother becoming prime minister since he feared she would lose her life just as his grandmother and father had.
“Rahul said he was prepared to take any possible step… Rahul is a strong-willed person; this was no ordinary threat,” Natwar writes.
The high drama that preceded the anointment of Manmohan as prime minister in 2004 is also graphically recounted. While Manmohan, the author recalls, himself protested that he was not the one who won the thumping mandate, for the other senior Congress leaders, the choice was a “bitter pill to swallow”.
There was also a bitter backlash from the UPA’s alliance partners, with some of whom Congress leaders had to plead to accept Sonia’s decision. Natwar describes how Lalu Prasad and Ram Vilas Paswan, for instance, were “furious” and how Lalu gave them a “tounge-lashing’’ in chaste Bihari.
Interestingly, Natwar’s own perception of Manmohan is that he was a “decent, though spineless” man, who unfortunately never stood up for his colleagues. He also admits that in February 2014, he called on Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and that among the things he told him was how, during the UPA years, several SAARC neighbours had been neglected and several of them not visited by the prime minister. The conclusion that the 83-year old foreign office veteran has is that Manmohan, in fact, never had a foreign policy.
In his book, he claims that on May 7 this year, a “hesitant” Priyanka Gandhi — “attractive” and dressed in “feminine mufti” — met him at his residence to ask him if he would write about the events in the run-up to the 2004 sweaing-in of the government. Natwar says that he told her he would. At that time, Sonia walked in and “swallowing her pride (more than eight years later) she came to her ‘closest’ friend to surrender her quiver.”