INDIA'S former foreign minister Natwar Singh is no ordinary diplomat-turned-politician. A part of the Establishment for half-a-century, he is well educated, widely travelled, a witness to major events, and capable of reflection. So readers expected a great deal from his memoirs One Life is Not Enough.
Regrettably, Singh's book, and especially his subsequent interviews, largely disappoint -- not because his account is controversial, but because it's un-illuminating, largely self-justificatory, and often contradictory. He's too preoccupied with depicting himself as a victim of Congress machinations, and the Iraq “oil-for-food” scandal, to be fair. He ends up viciously attacking Sonia Gandhi.
Singh sheds no light on a tumultuous period which saw the Cold War's end and India's re-alignment towards US, in which he played a part. Yet he claims to be a staunch defender of Non-Alignment.
Singh shows no comprehension of the broader social-political forces which brought the Congress to power under Gandhi. He confines himself to palace intrigue.
Singh says Gandhi is an “ambitious, authoritarian and stern” prima donna, who behaves like “royalty.” But he was himself a darbari, who always flaunted his Bharatpur royal legacy (and his marriage into a princely family). His calling card was his proximity to Gandhi, not his own political base.
Many of Singh's claims are unsubstantiated -- for instance, that she spied on UPA ministers, or that she had official files brought to her residence. As UPA chair, she was legitimately consulted over official policies; this could be done without files being transferred.
Singh calls Gandhi “authoritarian,” “capricious” and “Machiavellian,” and says “politics has coarsened her.” He may be right. But he was comfortable with her ways for decades. He can't claim credit for politically grooming her, and also condemn her. Her persona didn't suddenly change after the Volcker report's release in October 2005, when Singh was in Moscow.
Singh's grouse is that she didn't invite him to explain his role in the “oil-for-food” payments to Indian “non-contractual” beneficiaries, including himself, the Congress, and Reliance Industries.
These were among the 2,400 firms/individuals named worldwide, based on Iraqi records, without verification. The Congress declared itself clean and said Singh would defend himself. This, he suggests, left him with no choice but to quit.
The story is more complex. Singh was relieved of his portfolio in December 2005, but retained in the cabinet. He continued to pledge allegiance to the Congress. An inquiry soon found evidence of Rs. 8 crore illegal payments to his son Jagat and friends.
This was endorsed in August 2006 by the Justice Pathak committee, which said Singh used influence to get the oil deals, although he received no money. Jagat was expelled from the Congress.
Singh was dismissed from the cabinet and suspended from the party. He soon announced his resignation from the Congress at a BJP-sponsored rally, where he bitterly attacked Gandhi. He and Jagat first hobnobbed with the Samajwadi and the Bahujan Samaj Party. Jagat later became a BJP MLA. None of this shows Singh in a complimentary light.
Even less edifying was his 2004 position supporting the US-UK-sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1546 giving “sovereignty” to an Iraqi US-puppet government, and authorising an American-led 160,000-strong “security-and-stability” force. At a July press conference with Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said India was “delighted” with 1546 and might consider sending troops to Iraq -- in violation of stated policy. He soon had to retract.
Singh professes adherence to Non-Aligned policies and global nuclear disarmament. Yet he also boasts that he was an architect of the 2005 US-India nuclear deal. But this sealed the India-US “strategic partnership,” legitimised India's -- and America's -- nuclear weapons, and meant abandoning global nuclear disarmament.
Singh claims Gandhi told him she was under “great” US pressure not to appoint him foreign minister. He also says the US eventually got him out through the Volcker “conspiracy.”
This makes no sense! Nor does his statement that Manmohan Singh had no foreign policy. Right or wrong, he had one: new alliances to contain China, and BRICS and various regional blocs.
Singh claims that Rahul's vehement opposition, not Gandhi's “inner voice,” “was the reason for her not becoming prime minister.” Rahul's opposition probably weighed, but Gandhi must have had other considerations too, including the BJP's xenophobic “anti-foreigner” campaign. She decided against becoming PM in 1999, according to former aide R.D. Pradhan.
Singh betrays rank racism when he attributes Gandhi's “ruthlessness” to her “Italian origins.” He could have been more dignified in criticising the Congress's organisational culture -- he was part of it -- and paid attention to its policies, which he doesn't.
Like good sycophants, Congress leaders have condemned Singh's book wholesale. But he's right about one thing: Rahul lacks “fire in his belly,” a must for a leader, especially in today's Congress.
The Congress's crisis is grim: it has no clear class/caste/community base, no coherent programme, no grassroots organisation, no democracy. It seems destined to lose the coming election in its former bastion Maharashtra despite reserving jobs for the Maratha ruling class. The sooner it recognises the enormous burden from the non-delivering dynasty, the better.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist.