Former external affairs minister K Natwar Singhs autobiography One Life is not Enough has been creating a stir. Here, he reveals his views on Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress.
You’ve described the last eight years as traumatic. Why do you blame only Sonia Gandhi and not Manmohan Singh?
Manmohan Singh was a minor player. He was a player all right but the decisive decisions were taken by her. And in one of the meetings one of the ministers told her that it’s an open and shut case and Natwar Singh should go to jail.
Yes. Then the law minister (HR Bhardwaj) himself said there is nothing in this. But the decision was taken to go ahead to make a case against me.
Was it the report or is it more?
The thing was when this report came out I had just left Moscow after meeting President Putin and my opposite number. Early in the morning, at 5 o’ clock, our ambassador in New York telephoned to say the Volcker report had come out and it mentioned me, the Congress and corporate houses as non contractual beneficiaries. I was absolutely stunned. In the meanwhile, an email or fax came which said the Congress spokesperson said that the Congress was clean and Natwar Singh can look after himself. Now a statement like this could not have been made without Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s nod. So when I returned I didn’t go to see her and she didn’t ask me. She should have asked me and given me the chance to explain what happened. It didn’t happen and as the days went by; as the group went around her telling her that Natwar is so close to you, everybody will say you received the money A lot of people were resentful that I was so close to her. So often, in the evenings, we used to sit and chat. Not politics; all sorts of things: literature, books music, history. She reads a great deal.
From then on it went on and multiplied and we had a very difficult time for eight or nine years. She continued to make statements about me which were atrocious. At the Hindustan Times Summit, when Vir Sanghvi asked a question, she said, ‘I am very angry with Natwar Singh and I only had a working relationship with him’. Now everybody knew this wasn’t correct. Outside her family, I was the only person, and Suman Dubey, who could see her any time. Sonia herself said you are my closest friend and I have told you things I haven’t told Rahul and Priyanka. On another occasion, she told a journalist, ‘I didn’t know I was surrounded by thieves like Natwar singh’.
Mrs Gandhi had a halo around her for sacrificing the most important job. You’ve punctured that.
No, the halo continues. It’s only with this setback in 2014 that the halo has gone and they are on a downward trend. I give full marks to Rahul for the stand he took to save his mother’s life when he told her quite categorically, ‘My father has been killed, my grandmother has been killed, if you become prime minister you will be killed and I won’t let that happen’.
Not telling this to other Congressmen was dishonest?
No, you don’t share this kind of thing. There were only three or four of us there – Manmohan Singh, Suman Dubeyji, I was there, Priyanka.
Do you feel you’ve betrayed that confidence?
No, I’ve not. I’m writing a totality of my life, 83 years of it, and I owe it to my son and grandson, a legacy to leave them. Also, I’ve had a very interesting life as a diplomat and a politician. I thought I’d put it down. I started the autobiography at the end of 2011 and finished it early this year.
In the course of the book you have described Sonia Gandhi as a prima donna.
Prima donna is not a term of abuse. It’s a person who thinks about herself, is very conscious of her personality and all the rest of it. It’s not an offensive word at all. On the contrary, if you look at the dictionary, people use it all the time.
But you’ve also said she’s Machiavellian and arrogant.
That she is. Her behaviour is atrocious. I haven’t done anything (referring to the Volcker controversy), she didn’t give me a chance and then she came to me (when she visited him after hearing that he was writing his autobiography) and said, ‘I didn’t know what was happening’. I said nobody’s going to buy this because nothing happens in the Congress without you; not even a leaf moves without your approval.
A file photo of Natwar Singh and son Jagat meeting PM designate Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad in February, 2014. (Picture courtesy: Rupa)
You have said that Sonia choosing Manmohan Singh did not go down well with Congress leaders. Who were they?
This was never said openly. You know, for example, Dr Manmohan Singh had worked 10 years under Shri Pranab Mukherji Sahab and Arjun Singhji was senior to him. Almost all of us were, in politics, senior to him. I was not a candidate but others were hoping so they must have felt. They couldn’t say it to her.
How did you sense they were unhappy?
You could see from their body language. The Congress culture is that you don’t say these things. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time and Indira Gandhi’s time and Rajiv Gandhi’s time, there was free debate and dissent was not considered disloyalty, which it is now.
Did these Congress leaders say anything in private?
They didn’t to me because they knew I was so close to her but it was a general feeling. But having taken the decision, there was nothing to do when Sonia’s taken the decision. I remember there were few of us – Manmohan Singhji, Pranab Mukherji sahib, Arjun Singh ji, Shivraj Patilji, Ghulam Nabi Azad Saheb, myself and I think Fotedarji and Vohraji also. She said I have requested Dr Manmohan Singh to become prime minister. Nobody spoke and Manmohan said, ‘Madam, I can’t accept because I don’t have the mandate’. So then I intervened to say, ‘But the person who has the mandate has given it to you so you have no business to refuse; we are all there to help you’.
Pranab Mukherji and all
you could see they were unhappy about it?
It was obvious. Manmohan had very good credentials; he had been a very good finance minister. He was able; he was a very upright person, and I think UPA 1 worked very well. It was only UPA2 that things started going wrong when Manmohan really believed the election of 2009 was won by him.
Why do you think Sonia chose Manmohan Singh and not Arjun Singh or Pranab Mukherji who are more experienced?
Manmohan Singh is not a controversial figure. That’s a very big plus and his record as finance minister and his record in university, he was an outstanding student. He was a safe choice. And it worked very well in UPA 1.
Pranab would have been unsafe?
He’d have been certainly more assertive than Dr Manmohan Singh.
And Sonia didn’t want that?
She didn’t select him, didn’t invite him to become prime minister.
In your book, you say: ‘Manmohan said he was a very lonely man.’
Temperamentally he is and he took me into confidence. He said, ‘I’m a very lonely man. This diarchy, No 10, No 7, is not a satisfactory arrangement. I said, ‘No, you have full confidence in the Congress president, and I am ever ready to help you’.
What were the reasons for him to feel this diarchy was unsatisfactory?
You can’t have two centres of power. Jawaharlal Nehru was both Congress president and prime minister, so was Indiraji, so was Rajiv. I mean the power was with the prime minister and he was Congress president. This was different.
A file photo of Natwar Singh and Hem, with Indira Gandhi as a witness at their wedding on 21 August 1967 . (Picture courtesy: Rupa)
Digvijaya Singh in an interview yesterday said reading your book and Sanjay Baru’s book is a waste of time. What would you like to tell Digvijaya Singh?
I would say that I have great regard for Digvijaya Singhji and I sincerely hope that he becomes prime minister of India one day.
Is that what he wants?
Yeah, write it down. Anybody else who said anything?
Anand Sharma said that you’ve had this burst of memory after eight years.
But why? The question didn’t arise. I was not writing my autobiography, and again Mr Anand Sharma, he should be the next foreign minister of India.
In your book you mention twice that Volcker and Manmohan Singh had two meetings alone. What are you alluding to?
No, I’m just stating a fact. What transpired I don’t know but I thought spending an hour each unless you’re very close friends, which I didn’t know, they probably were. Manmohan certainly knew Volcker.
You call Manmohan Singh spineless in your book.
Isn’t he? Well, I think there is enough evidence to show that he hasn’t got a stiff spine otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted Rahul Gandhi tearing the thing on the television saying this is rubbish. Any self respecting man would have resigned on the spot if he had spine in him. Nobody has credited him with a stiff spine.
Did you ever discuss this with him?
What, that he is spineless?
No, that he should have resigned after the ordinance tear.
I have not met him and I have no desire to. I mean I’m not alone in this desire not to meet him. Not too many people willing to meet him now.
The whole Congress party. Who meets him? Has anyone gone and said Manmohan Singhji, how are you? Not one. He sits alone in the Rajya Sabha and nobody even talks to him. Why he goes I don’t understand. Stand up and say something. He made a comment about me.
Yes, that confidential matters should not be written about for commercial benefit.
This is poppycock nonsense. You read biographies of Kennedy; do they say he was Krishna Bhagwan? He was a philanderer; everything is written about him. You’re a public figure; your life is of interest to everybody. Sonia Gandhi is a historical figure, and for history’s sake, these should come out. To say that this is financial! How do you come to this conclusion? I’m not in need of money. The Almighty has given us enough. To say that this is a gimmick for commercial purposes shows the level of these people.
You’ve also talked about history’s verdict on Dr Manmohan Singh’s prime ministership: “It will either be benignly indifferent or it will be reduced to a mere footnote. What will be his legacy sadly there will be none’.
That’s right. What will be his legacy?
The nuclear deal perhaps?
But he was not responsible for it. He made it clear that he was not willing to do it. I did it. And when I came back, Sonia called me and said, ‘How, of all people, could you agree to this? Don’t you know there is an anti-American feeling in the country?’ So I said, ‘Listen, but the prime minister was there’. And she said, ‘What about me?’ In six months she changed when Bush came and the Americans put the heat on.
Why did she change?
I don’t know. She did. And the timing was before Bush arrived. I was not in government, I had left government. I became critical of the deal also when the Americans started shifting goalposts. Where is the nuclear deal today; who talks about it?
Congress leaders are saying that your son is now part of the BJP…
Oh, yes, I’m pleasing Mr Narendra Modi! Oh Genius, what is the level of their thinking? I didn’t get my son elected, he got elected himself. And he’s 45 years old. I won’t be alive in another 5 years. So I’m promoting his career from my grave? This is idiotic. I’ve not written an article saying Mr Narendra Modi is a genius, I think he made a terrible mistake by not taking the foreign minister with him when he went to Brazil. He should have. All the other foreign ministers were there. Mrs Swaraj had the opportunity to meet her opposite numbers, which is a good thing. If I was advising him, I’d have said, ‘You must take a foreign minister’. I’m not singing his praises all over the place.
So a deep friendship (with Sonia Gandhi) broke up only because of the coterie?
Only three months earlier I had gone with her to Russia, she and me, and I remember when we were going on a boat ride with President Putin in the Gulf of Finland, the President seeing that she was so relaxed and friendly asked, “How long have you known Mrs Gandhi’s family?” and she said, “Don’t start him on this; he won’t stop till next morning”. I said I’ve known them since 1944. When this happened I had expected that she would send for me, ask me, but she didn’t, at which I was horrified. All she had to do was ring me up and say, ‘Tell me what’s happened’ but before that all these chaps had gone around and all the rest of it.
So there was nothing else?
Nothing. But she’s not used to being defied. The expectation was that like all other Congress leaders, I’d go crawling. In my case, when my honour and integrity are questioned, there can be no compromise. As I told Manmohan Singh when he asked me to go and see her, ‘The blood of my ancestors flows in my veins, before the Mughals, before the British I don’t know whose blood runs in your veins’.
You think Rahul Gandhi should have been named as the Congress prime ministerial candidate?
I think he should have been.
You think he’s a good enough politician?
Being a politician is not a part time job, it’s a full time job. Rahul gives the impression that it’s part time. Number 2, for politics you have to have fire in your tummy, he doesn’t have it. I expected that he will lead this Congress campaign, he’ll do well. But he didn’t and from 206, Congress came down to 44. Mr Antony has been asked to write a report on who is responsible, he hasn’t named Rahul Gandhi.
He should have?
Of course. This is lack of democracy. They were leading the campaign. They did say they would resign but knowing well that the working committee would never accept something like that. The Congress party without Sonia Gandhi will fold up tomorrow. From 44 they’ll come to 2.
There’s also the suggestion that the Americans are somehow involved (in his dismissal)
Manmohan said there’s a lot of American pressure, they don’t want you to become foreign minister. They can destabilize our country, they can eliminate our leadership. So I said, you know, I’m all for having good relations with US. I’m not anti-American, I’m anti American stupidity.
What business they had to go to Vietnam? What business they had to destroy a country called Iraq? What business had they to go messing around in Afghanistan? Now they want to run and leave the mess they have created. From 1776 to 1917, America was the most isolationist country in the world. Since 1945, they’ve been the most interventionist. Where there is trouble they are there.
The Americans had something to do with your removal?
Well, the American think tanks in Washington said they’re very glad Natwar Singh’s out. I’m not the only one. The Americans are poking their nose everywhere.
The book also has some great anecdotes about RK Narayan, MF Husain
I’m not a one dimensional individual. Politics is one part of my life, (20.03) foreign policy is one part. From a very young age I was a writer, I met EM Forster who opened all the doors for me. I could be on friendly terms with eminent people so they didn’t look at me as a useless waster of their time. I’m very fortunate that I have this side of my character, my inclination for writing and for literature and scholarship. I can’t think of anybody in the foreign service or in the IAS who has had this kind of deep friendships. It’s not a one dimensional book. Everyone’s making it Sonia-centric.
First Published: Aug 03, 2014 00:50 IST