In this Idea Exchange moderated by Contributing Editor Coomi Kapoor, former external affairs minister Natwar Singh says that while the Congress may need to reinvent itself, right now its only bet is the Nehru-Gandhi family. He adds that he believes that PM Modi has a vision.
Natwar Singh: One thing that has distressed me is that my book (One Life is Not Enough) is being treated as Sonia-centric. There’s much more in the book — about my life of 83 years, my views. I faced difficulty in choosing the title. The first one I had in mind was ‘Passing By’. The next one was ‘A Double Life’. And the third one was somewhat like ‘The Autobiography of a Known Indian’. Then I decided on ‘One Life is Not Enough’. Now I am writing another book. It will take another 18 months to two years, provided I am still around.
Coomi Kapoor: In your book, you have said that you were made the fall guy for the Volcker report.
The Volcker report mentions the Congress party, Natwar Singh and corporate houses. My son’s name is not mentioned in it. Distinguished first world colleagues in the foreign service kept saying ‘Volcker, Natwar Singh’. Why don’t they mention the Congress? Justice Pathak in his inquiry concluded that there is no material to show that Natwar Singh made any personal financial gain from the deal. But my son and I were chargesheeted. An Enforcement Directorate (ED) case is still on. Same with Income-Tax — it’s been going on for the last eight years. We have been hounded all our lives. They say (order) ‘Upar se aaya hai’. Now the ‘upar’ has changed. So, let’s see.
Coomi Kapoor: What was the reason that the Finance Ministry went after you with such vengeance?
I’ll tell you why. I was in Moscow, holding talks with the President and Foreign Minister there. When I returned the next morning, our ambassador in New York called me and said that this report has been released the day before and the Congress, myself and corporate houses have been mentioned in it as non-contractual beneficiaries. I was astounded. My first reaction was to leave for New York and Frankfurt and confront Volcker because he had not informed us. Then I thought, why should I waste my time. Meanwhile, the Congress started saying that Natwar Singh will look after himself. This statement couldn’t have been made without Sonia Gandhi’s approval. I had expected her to say, ‘I know him well and he’d never do something like this’. She didn’t even wait for me. When I came back, I didn’t go and see her, nor did she ask me to see her. Meanwhile, the distinguished people who now surround her told her that I am so close to her, everyone would think she took the money. I didn’t take any of it. Then who did?
Dilip Bobb: The report does mention someone who was very close to your son. So there was that implication, wasn’t it?
No implication. Yes, this boy was doing business with Iraq for many years. I don’t even remember seeing him there.
Rakesh Sinha: As someone who has seen the Congress for so long and been a part of it, what do you think the party needs to do to reinvent itself? Does it need a change in leadership?
That will never happen. There is no one to replace the Gandhi family. Without them, the Congress will split into four-five groups and there will be no unanimity on any issue. Sonia has kept this party together for the past 15 years. The real test for Rahul Gandhi was the 2014 elections. It was a great challenge for him, but he failed to respond to the challenge. From 206, the tally came down to 44. Now if Sonia and Rahul were to withdraw from the Congress, the tally would come down to four. Till the last five-six years, the Congress had a 10 per cent vote to start with, pan India. Now people talk about the dynasty. It is an elected dynasty — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi. Now, you can’t tell people to not vote for them.
But even after the Emergency, Indira Gandhi got 158 seats. The Emergency’s minuses didn’t reach the south.
It’s easy to say that the Congress should be reinvented. Who would reinvent it? When Sonia became party president, I had told her, ‘You must reinvent the party’. A lot of claims are being made, but very few people know what happened in 1991, and how P V Narasimha Rao was selected. Many eminent people came for Rajiv Gandhi’s funeral — US Vice-President, Prince Charles, Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, kings of Nepal and Bhutan…. After the cremation, each of them called on Sonia Gandhi to personally offer their condolences. I was present during all the meetings. After it was over, I told Sonia, ‘You have refused to become the prime minister or party president, but you’ll have to decide who will be the Congress president and ultimately the prime minister. You should send for P N Haksar, Indira Gandhi’s principle advisor, who’s been close to your family for 50 years’.
I consider him my guru’. Haksar told her, ‘You ask Aruna Asaf Ali and Natwar Singh to meet Vice-President Shankar Dayal Sharma and say that Sonia has requested you to accept party presidentship’. But Sharma said, ‘I’m grateful to Sonia Gandhi for making such an offer, but prime ministership is not a part-time job and my age and health will not permit me’. Then Haksar said, ‘Get P V Narasimha Rao’. Now people claim that the working committee met. How could the working committee meet without Sonia’s approval? Sonia announced that Rao was her choice and the working committee unanimously passed the resolution that Rao is now party president and prime minister. There were so many senior people. Sharad Pawar was a candidate, Arjun Singh was in the Cabinet and so was Madhavrao Scindia. Both didn’t push it, but Pawar did. The understanding was that Rao will give up the post of Congress president after becoming the PM. But when he became the PM, he refused to give up the party president’s post. This is where the friction started. He was able to send Pawar to Bombay and took care of Arjun Singh, who had hoped for Home or Defence, but was given HRD.
Manoj C G: After all these years, do you think the charm of the Nehru-Gandhi family has vanished and so has its appeal to the electorate?
For the first time, Sonia has been publicly criticised. During the last Assembly polls, my son was fighting from one of the constituencies of Bharatpur, which is the only Muslim-majority constituency of Rajasthan, and my family and my father have been very closely associated with the Muslim community in the area. I met a lot of young people during the elections, and asked them, ‘Who will you vote for?’. They said, ‘Hamaare baap dada ne Congress ko vote diya, ab ke nai denge’. I asked, ‘Kya kamal ko doge?’. They said, ‘Haan, kyunki hamara mulk kisi ek khandaan ki jaagir nahi hai’. I had never heard this before. So the real test for Rahul was the 2014 elections. It was also a challenge for Sonia. Who is responsible for this loss? Not party workers. They were the star campaigners. But nobody has blamed them. That’s the Congress culture. A K Antony gave a report without mentioning Rahul Gandhi’s name. How unrealistic can one be? During the last week, 75-80 Congressmen have told me that ‘We don’t have the courage, but you did the right thing’.
Manoj C G: What’s wrong with Rahul’s style of functioning or that of Sonia’s?
Politics is not a part-time job, and Rahul gives the impression that it is a part-time job. Secondly, for politics, you need fire in your belly. He hasn’t got it. He’s the Congress vice-president, but refuses to become the leader of the party in the Lok Sabha. He talks about bringing the youth, but agrees to have a 72-year-old man as the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha. This is strange.
Ruhi Tewari: In your book, you have mentioned how Priyanka Gandhi once came to meet you after she heard that you were writing your autobiography. Having had many interactions with her, how do you view her as a political leader as compared to her brother, and what do you think her role should be in the Congress from now on?
She is charismatic, there’s no doubt about that. And people see Indira Gandhi in her. She is a good communicator with both the urban and rural voters. She can sit down on the ground in Amethi and share her food with the workers. And her Hindi is very good.
Sankalpa (from St Francis school): Your book has stirred a controversy and yet, it has received a massive response too. Has it surpassed your expectations?
Oh yes. I thought it would sell 10,000-12,000 copies. It has sold 50,000 copies in the first week. I am delighted.
Coomi Kapoor: You say that you are a Nehruvian, but in your book you say that Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would have made a better PM.
But I also said that he died in 1950. If he had lived another 20 years, it would have been another thing. But who would have succeeded him? Obviously Nehru. He had his feet on the ground and he did a remarkable thing in getting states to accede. Only with one state, he made a mistake — that of Kashmir.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: During Narasimha Rao’s time, we saw a Congress politician charting a different course, with Rao refusing to give up the presidency of the Congress. Do today’s Congressmen not have the shrewdness of Rao or even the conviction that the party can be led by politicians who are not Gandhis?
Historically, the Congress party has had a pan-India appeal, which cuts across caste, creed and religion. That has now rapidly eroded. Narasimha Rao was a Congressman all his life. He tried to deviate a bit, but lot of us told him to not do anything foolish. You can’t be a substitute for Nehru. Because at one time, he had given this impression. He gives this impression in his unreadable book Insider.
He was a very shrewd man. He completed his five years in a coalition government. I think history has been unkind to him. He deserved better. The Congress party has more or less forgotten him.
Vandita Mishra: You said that the Antony report does not mention Rahul. It does not mention his name or does not ascribe any blame to him?
It doesn’t ascribe any blame to him. No Congressman does.
Raj Kamal Jha: Have you seen the report?
Vandita Mishra: Rahul claims that he is working to restructure and democratise the organisation. And he has done these experiments in the Youth Congress and NSUI. How do you look at it? Has he got the idea right and these are just teething problems or do you think he has got the whole idea wrong?
I think he meant well; I don’t know any of his advisors. They are young and bright and have distinguished degrees from England and America. But they are not aware of the Indian elections and the ground reality. I thought that after the election debacle, he would change his advisors, but he hasn’t. His attempt to give more power to the youth hasn’t worked so far.
Shailaja Bajpai: What do you think of the foreign policy initiatives of the present government and do you think anything will come out of Narendra Modi’s visit to the US now?
I met Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad on February 4, and told him that I had not come to ask for any favour, and since I am 30 years older to him, probably he didn’t know who I was. He said that he knew who I was. I said that I have been involved in foreign policy and diplomacy for 60 years. As a citizen of India, I was surprised that in his speeches over the past five months he had not mentioned foreign policy. I said, ‘It is likely that you will be the PM, so you will have to be the ultimate foreign minister. Because the foreign minister can take the decision, but you have to approve it’. He said, ‘bataiye’. I said, ‘You must begin with the SAARC neighbours, because they have been neglected. Manmohan Singh didn’t visit Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka; he went to Bangladesh only in the ninth year of his term. We are not getting along well with our neighbours. At his swearing in, he said a lot of things, not because I said them, and that made an impact. Then he went to Bhutan, Nepal and you have seen the reception he got in Nepal. He went to Brazil for BRICS. That was a big occasion. He had been PM for only a few weeks and I don’t think he put a foot wrong forward there. I may not share his vision, but he does have a vision.
Seema Chishti: You have been quite critical of Rajiv’s advisors in the first 18 months and you also had something to say about Sonia’s and Rahul’s advisors. What’s the difference between the two sets of advisors the father and the son picked?
Rahul has produced 44 MPs and Rajiv had produced 413 MPs. That’s the difference. Rahul had come into the party when the Congress was in power in 2002 but he was not active for the first three-four years. I have not met any of his advisors. I don’t even know their names, but I am told they are laptop savvy and have their own ideas on how to run the Congress and the country. Rajiv did not have boy scouts advising him.
Dilip Bobb: You have described Sonia as very ruthless. Would you say the same thing about Indira Gandhi?
Indira had a very tough time. She had become the PM on January 24, 1966. I was then posted in New York; I finished my term and returned home on April 1. There was an Air India strike and Indira came back from the US. The US President offered her Air Force One to go to London. So I asked her, ‘I am stranded, can I come to visit you?’ She agreed. I knew her as Panditji’s sister Krishna Hutheesing was in school with me. I used to meet them. She knew me.
In the 1967 elections, the Congress had done very badly, and at that time the tally came down from 340 to 280. In the states, we had done badly, Kamraj lost to 26-year-old Karunanidhi. So Mrs Gandhi had a very tough time. She depended a great deal on Babu Jagjivan Ram and Sardar Swaran Singh, but after 1969, she came into her own. She was a great PM, there is no comparison. She was also very accessible.
Raj Kamal Jha: Sonia Gandhi says she will write her book. What are some of the things you look forward to in it?
I was astonished that she reacted. She never does, which is one of her strengths. When I was close to her, I told her, ‘Why don’t you write your biography? You are among the most powerful women in the world. In every survey, you are among the top 10’.
She said, ‘I’m not going to write it since Priyanka is’. I said that I am glad and look forward to the book; I thought she would start tomorrow. But I don’t know who advised her to respond. She is very upset and angry because she and Priyanka had come to see me at my house in Jor Bagh. I used to see her everyday for six-seven hours. Maybe she would have a lot of things to say against me. And if she says so, I will tell her that I am so sorry, I have no problem apologising. I may not be around.
Transcribed by Siddhartha Gupta & Prawesh Lama