by Praful Bidwai

Former foreign minister Natwar Singh is no ordinary diplomat-turned-politician. A part of the Indian Establishment for half-a-century, he is well educated, widely travelled, a witness to or participant in major events, and capable of serious reflection. So when he published his memoir One Life is Not Enough, readers had reasons to expect much more from him than from the recent book on Dr Manmohan Singh by his former media adviser, Sanjaya Baru.

Regrettably, Mr Singh’s book, and especially his media interviews following its release, largely disappoint—not so much because his opinions are controversial, but because his account is un-illuminating, largely self-justificatory, often contradictory, and at times tendentious. He is 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. Rather, like Baru does vis-à-vis Dr Singh, he ends up settling scores with Sonia Gandhi.

Mr Singh sheds very little light on a tumultuous period in history which saw the end of the Cold War 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. He presents himself as a staunch defender of India’s independent foreign policy and Non-Alignment, when the recent record shows the opposite.

Mr Singh shows little comprehension of the broader social-political forces or inner dynamics of the Congress which brought it to national power under Ms 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 way to the Congress’s ascent to power in a number of states well before the United Progressive Alliance won the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Mr Singh accuses Ms Gandhi of being a prima donna, and an “ambitious, authoritarian and stern leader”, who fashioned herself after “royalty”. But Mr Singh was himself a regular darbari, who has always flaunted his Bharatpur royal legacy (and his marriage into the Patiala princely family), and whose calling card was that he was on first-name terms with Ms Gandhi, and often shared the dinner table with her. He was important because of his proximity to her, not because he had an independent political base or high stature as a UPA leader or adviser. Many of Mr Singh’s assessments and claims are excessive, unbalanced or poorly substantiated—for instance, that Ms Gandhi’s “hold on the Congress party is total; firmer and more durable” than even Nehru’s or Indira Gandhi’s, that she wielded so much influence over the media that she got editors to censor articles written by him, or that she spied on all UPA ministers through “moles”.

Mr Singh’s charge that Ms Gandhi had official files brought to her residence finds no substantiation in the book; he blandly asserted this at press conferences, with oblique references to Baru’s statements, also unsupported by evidence. As chair of the UPA, Ms Gandhi was of course regularly, and legitimately, consulted over all important official policies, decisions and appointments; former junior minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Prithviraj Chavan has pointed out that this could be done orally or over the phone, without official files being transferred.

Mr Singh also calls Ms Gandhi “authoritarian”, “capricious”, “Machiavellian” and “secretive”, and says, “politics has coarsened her”. Mr Singh has a right to his opinion, and may well be right. But he was comfortable with her ways for decades. He can’t both 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 change suddenly after the Volcker report was released in October 2005, when Mr Singh was in Moscow.

The roots of Mr Singh’s resentment lie in the fact that Ms Gandhi didn’t ask him to see her upon his return, and give him a chance to explain his role in the “oil-for-food” payments to four Indian “non-contractual” beneficiaries, including himself, the Congress, Reliance Industries, and the Panthers Party’s Bhim Singh.

These were among the 2,400 firms and individuals worldwide, whom Volcker named on the basis of the Iraqi oil ministry’s records, without further verification. Meanwhile, the Congress declared itself clean and said Mr Singh would defend himself. This, he suggests, left him with no choice but to quit.

The story is more complex. Mr Singh was relieved of his portfolio in December 2005, but retained in the Cabinet. He continued to pledge allegiance to the Congress. An Enforcement Directorate inquiry was soon set up, which found evidence of illegal payments of Rs 8 crores to his son Jagat and his friends. This was endorsed in August 2006 by the Justice RS Pathak investigation committee, which found that Mr Singh had used his influence with Iraq to secure the oil deals, although he personally received no money. After this, Jagat was expelled from the Congress.

Mr Singh was dismissed from the Cabinet and suspended from the party. In February 2008, he announced his resignation from the Congress at a BJP-sponsored rally of his own Jat community in Jaipur, where he bitterly attacked Ms Gandhi. Mr Singh and son first hobnobbed with the Samajwadi Party and then joined the Bahujan Samaj Party, which expelled them in four months. Jagat later became a BJP MLA. None of this shows Mr Singh in a complimentary light. Even less edifying was Mr 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 flagrant violation of stated policy. He soon had to eat his words. Mr Singh professes adherence to independent, Non-Aligned foreign and security policies, and to global nuclear disarmament. Yet he also boasts that he was an architect of the US-India nuclear deal signed in 2005. But 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 the global nuclear disarmament agenda. Mr Singh claims that Prime Minister Singh almost abandoned the nuclear deal talks at an early stage because he thought he “couldn’t sell it” at home. He refused to meet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who requested Mr Singh to intercede and set up a meeting at which a breakthrough was achieved. But he also deplores the UPA for bending over “backwards” to accommodate the US, and says he soon became critical of the deal because “the Americans started shifting the goalposts”. He doesn’t say how or which goalposts, but rhetorically asks: “Where is the deal today? Who talks about it?” Even more contradictorily, Mr Singh claims Ms Gandhi told him she was under “great pressure” from the Americans not to appoint him external affairs minister. Dr Singh, he says, also “fought hard” to get him into the MEA. He told The Hindu (August 2) the US eventually got him out of it through the Volcker report “conspiracy”.

This simply makes no sense! Nor does his unctuous statement that Dr Singh had no foreign policy. Right or wrong, he did have one, revealed through India’s new alliances to contain China, as well as BRICS and various regional blocs.

Mr Singh claims that Rahul “was vehemently opposed to his mother becoming Prime Minister, fearing that she would lose her life”, 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 Ms Gandhi, but she must have had a complex mix of considerations, including the BJP’s virulently xenophobic opposition to a “foreigner” taking that post. She decided against becoming PM way back in 1999, according to former aide RD Pradhan.

Mr Singh betrays racist prejudice when he attributes Ms 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 and complicit in it—and paid some attention to its policies, which he doesn’t.

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

The Congress’s 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 acknowledges the huge burden it’s carrying on account of the non-performing Gandhi dynasty, the better.