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Sunday, January 26, 2020

Book review: Natwar Singh’s autobiography isn’t only about Volcker “conspiracy”

The autobiography of Congress leader Natwar Singh is short on humility, as well as substance

Updated: September 8, 2014 3:01:45 pm
sonia-m Sonia Gandhi and Natwar Singh — in better times

By: Bibek Debroy

One Life is Not Enough: An Autobiography
Author: K. Natwar Singh
Publisher: Rupa
Price: Rs 500

Natwar Singh’s book has attracted interest and speculation primarily for one reason, the “surprise visit from Sonia Gandhi and her charming daughter, on 7 May 2014”. Thanks to media reporting, we know no special skeletons have tumbled out of the cupboard. But this book isn’t only about 2004 or the Volcker “conspiracy”. Twenty-two chapters take us from the early years to Volcker. Three quotes sum up the entire book. “I entered the portals of St. Stephen’s as a young man of 19, self-confident, brimming with elan, arrogance and self-righteousness. At times, I must have been insufferable” (p.20). R.K. Narayan went to meet Jawaharlal Nehru and Natwar Singh sent him photographs taken on the occasion. Narayan didn’t mention this in his autobiography.“I spoke to R.K. about it. He said it never occurred to him to exploit the occasion and, in any case, he could not have woven the incident into the narrative. All I could say was that modesty need not be carried to such extremes” (pp.71-72). “I acquired wisdom rather slowly; some of it I definitely imbibed from Rajaji” (p.84).
Whatever Singh can be accused of, he cannot be accused of modesty, or lack of arrogance and self-righteousness. Wisdom is synonymous with humility and Rajaji wasn’t as successful as Singh thinks he was. The book is peppered with photographs of the author, with every important personage you can think of. The volume is about Natwar Singh, God’s (he doesn’t believe in God, though) gift to humankind. It is “Thus Spake Natwar Singh”, “Thus Did Natwar Singh”. Barring Mani Shankar Aiyar, I can’t think of a single person for whom Singh has unmitigated praise.

Once you have learnt to accept that, there is plenty of anecdotal stuff. For instance, Singh learnt Chinese at Peking University (1958) and did reasonably well. The results went to the School of Foreign Languages, ministry of defence, who wanted to know names and qualifications of the Chinese examiners. The councillor in the embassy replied, “We do not know the qualifications of the examiners, but the names are Mao Tse Tung and Chou En-lai” (p.60). When Gamal Abdel Nasser visited India and a reception was held at the Red Fort, the wrong Egyptian national anthem was played (p.140). There was a reason why Indira Gandhi decided not to give President S. Radhakrishnan a second term (p.135). You will learn why Singh was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1984 (CHOGM and NAM Summits of 1983).

Foreign policy is Singh’s self-proclaimed forte and every PM has been a disaster. Jawaharlal Nehru because of “his disastrous handling of the Kashmir issue, his misplaced trust of the leaders of the People’s Republic of China and his turning down of the Soviet proposal to give India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council” (p.111). “An accomplished diplomat, he (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) successfully cultivated China at our expense and, in July 1972, he got the better of Indira Gandhi during the Simla Agreement negotiations. She let him off the hook on P.N. Haksar’s advice” (p.213). “For the first eighteen months of his prime ministership, Rajiv Gandhi depended almost wholly on a team of ignoramuses with inflated egos…One claimed to be a socialist while one was an inept political wheeler-dealer. A third was a meddling nuisance” (p.275). “For almost two years, P.V. (Narasimha Rao) did not appoint an External Affairs Minister” (p.293). “As far as Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy was concerned, he didn’t have one” (p.341). On top of that, there is Sonia Gandhi. “From the day she set foot on Indian soil she has been treated like royalty; she has behaved like a prima donna…Favours are granted piecemeal, lese-majeste is given short shrift.. Her capriciousness is lauded. A fine-tuned personality cult is promoted. Politics has coarsened her” (p.324).

There are elements of truth in all of these statements. But we are never allowed to forget it would have been different had Singh been listened to. However, someone framed him through Volcker. He was as pure as driven snow. Reports have appeared about Singh writing a sequel, or does he hope for a postscript to his career? The epilogue states, “With a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha, the PM (Narendra Modi), to begin with will, I have no doubt, restore the image of the country which for the past few years has been on a downward path” (p.374). There is also a photograph of Singh and son Jagat with the PM. “Rahul’s arrival, followed by a cute puppy, eased the tension. I asked him which of the books I had lent him he had read… Sonia asked Rahul which of my books the puppy had chewed” (p.320). Do read the book for its anecdotes and tolerate the author, who is still insufferable. But if you expect something salacious, your puppy deserves the book.

Bibek Debroy is an economist

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