(Published in The News International), August 09, 2014

by Praful Bidwai

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 close witness to major events, and capable of reflection. So when he published his memoirs One Life is Not Enough, readers expected more from him than from the recent book on Manmohan Singh by his former media adviser, Sanjaya Baru.

Regrettably, Singh’s book, and especially his interviews following its release, largely disappoint – not because his opinions are controversial, but because his account is un-illuminating, largely self-justificatory, contradictory, and at times tendentious. He’s too preoccupied with depicting himself as a victim of the Congress party’s machinations, and of the Iraq ‘oil-for-food’ scandal, to be able to do justice to his subject. He ends up settling scores with Sonia Gandhi.

Singh sheds very little light on a tumultuous period which saw the Cold War’s end and the emergence of a newly aggressive United States, and a drastic re-alignment of India’s foreign policy towards it, in which he himself played a part. Yet he falsely presents himself as a staunch defender of foreign policy independence and non-alignment.

Singh shows little comprehension of the broader social-political forces or inner dynamics which brought the Congress to national power under Gandhi, whose confidant he was for long years. He confines himself to palace intrigue, and overlooks the growing popular disillusionment with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which paved the Congress’s ascent to power in numerous states before the United Progressive Alliance won the 2004 national elections.

Singh accuses Gandhi of being an “ambitious, authoritarian and stern” prima donna, who fashioned herself after “royalty”. But Singh was himself a regular darbari, who always flaunted his Bharatpur royal legacy (and his marriage into the Patiala princely family), and whose calling card was that he often shared the dinner table with Gandhi. He was important because of his proximity to her, not because he had an independent political base or high stature in the UPA.

Many of Singh’s assessments and claims are excessive or poorly substantiated – for instance, that Gandhi’s “hold on the Congress party is total; firmer and more durable” than even Nehru’s or Indira Gandhi’s, that she got editors to censor articles written by him, or that she spied on all UPA ministers.

Singh’s charge that Gandhi had official files brought to her residence finds no substantiation in the book; there was only a bland assertion at press conferences. As UPA chair, Gandhi was legitimately consulted over important official policies; this could be done orally or over the phone, without official files being transferred.

Singh calls Gandhi “authoritarian”, “capricious” and “Machiavellian”, and says “politics has coarsened her”. Singh may well be right. But he was comfortable with her ways for decades. He can’t claim credit for politically grooming her, and condemn her. He himself says she was treated like royalty “from the day she set foot on Indian soil.” 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 Gandhi didn’t ask him upon his return to explain his role in the “oil-for-food” payments to four Indian “non-contractual” beneficiaries, including himself, the Congress, Reliance Industries, and a minor politician.

These were among the 2,400 firms and individuals worldwide whom Volcker named, based on the Iraqi oil ministry’s records, without verification. Meanwhile, 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 administrative inquiry soon found evidence of illegal payments of Rs80 million to his son Jagat and his friends. This was accepted in August 2006 by the Justice RS Pathak committee, which found that Singh used influence with Iraq to secure 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. Months later, he announced his resignation from the Congress at a BJP-sponsored rally of his own Jat community, where he bitterly attacked Gandhi. Singh and son hobnobbed with the Samajwadi Party and then Bahujan Samaj Party, which expelled them. Jagat later became a BJP MLA. None of this shows Singh in a complimentary light.

Even less edifying was Singh’s position in 2004 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 multinational ‘security and stability’ force. At a July 11 press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said India was “delighted” with 1546 and might reconsider the issue of sending troops to Iraq – in violation of stated policy. He soon had to eat his words.

Singh professes adherence to independent, non-aligned foreign and security policies, and to global nuclear disarmament. But he also boasts that he was an architect of the US-India nuclear deal signed in 2005. Now, this deal sealed India’s “strategic partnership” with the US. India entered the global nuclear club. This effectively legitimised India’s – and America’s – nuclear weapons, and meant giving up on global nuclear disarmament.

Singh says he became critical of the deal because “the Americans started shifting the goalposts”. He doesn’t say which goalposts, but rhetorically asks: “Where is the deal today?”

More contradictorily, Singh claims Gandhi told him she was under “great pressure” from the Americans not to appoint him foreign minister. He told The Hindu (August 2), the US eventually got him out of the cabinet through the Volcker “conspiracy”.

This makes no sense! Nor does his unctuous statement that Manmohan Singh had no foreign policy. Right or wrong, he had one: India’s new alliances to contain China, and Brics and various regional blocs.

Singh claims that Rahul “was vehemently opposed to his mother becoming Prime Minister”, and gave her a 24-hour deadline: “That was the reason for her not becoming Prime Minister”, rather than her “inner voice”. Rahul’s opposition probably weighed with Gandhi, but she must have had a mix of considerations, including the BJP’s virulently xenophobic opposition to a “foreigner” taking that post. She decided against becoming PM in 1999, according to former aide RD Pradhan.

Singh betrays rank racist prejudice when he attributes Gandhi’s “ruthlessness” and alleged lack of respect for the elderly to her “Italian origins”. He could have been more dignified in his criticism of the Congress’s organisational culture – because he was part of it – and paid some attention to its policies, which he doesn’t.

In good sycophantic fashion, Congress leaders across the board have condemned Singh’s book wholesale. But Singh is right about one thing: Rahul Gandhi lacks “fire in his belly”, a must for a political leader, especially in the beleaguered Congress party.

The Congress’ crisis is grim: it has no clear class/caste/community base, no coherent programme, no grassroots organisation, and very little democracy. It seems destined to lose the coming election in its former bastion Maharashtra despite wrongly reserving jobs for the Maratha ruling class. The sooner it recognises the enormous price it’s paying for the non-delivering dynasty, the better.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.