Natwar Singh is one of the great raconteurs of modern India. As an editor, I never turned down a piece by him because everything he wrote was entertaining and authentic. Both in his earlier avatar as a diplomat and then as a politician, Natwar Singh had the serendipitous knack of being present at the right time and place. Not all the events he saw or took part in were historic or epoch-making but they were, at least in his telling, invariably fascinating. Two years ago, he wrote a hilarious column about a bizarre meeting that took place in London between Margaret Thatcher, Chandraswami and him in 1975. Baroness Thatcher did not treat his account as a betrayal of confidence.
Though he’s travelled down memory lane innumerable times before, Natwar has finally written his memoirs and we should be grateful to him for this. Like all memorialists who have been through major tribulations, his construction of events is likely to be subjective and self-serving. The former external affairs minister never recovered politically from the allegations of his involvement in the Iraq oil-for-food scam. Despite his proximity to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, he was thrown to the wolves in 2006 and eventually left the Congress an embittered man. But that is no reason to question, as the Congress is now doing, the timing of his book or the accuracy of his account. If Natwar really had a personal axe to grind, he could have written things far more damaging and timed the book’s release for before the elections.
Predictably, the portions dealing with Sonia Gandhi have attracted enormous media attention — and political controversy — but this is not because the book tells us anything new about either her act of renunciation in handing over the prime minister’s post to Manmohan Singh in 2004 or the remote control she wielded over her nominee on matters of policy.
“I was always certain that if ever I found myself in the position that I am in today, I would follow my own inner voice,” Sonia Gandhi told Congress MPs on May 18, 2004. “Today, that voice tells me I must humbly decline this post.” Natwar Singh now tells us that more than the call of her “inner voice,” Sonia’s act of renunciation was driven by Rahul Gandhi’s fear that she might be assassinated were she to become PM.
What is being touted as a ‘bombshell’ is, at best, a footnote in the political history of modern India. This is because no political commentator at the time believed her dramatic act of renunciation stemmed wholly or even partially from an act of conscience. Everyone saw it as a brilliant political move that allowed her to outmanoeuvre the BJP — which continued churlishly to make her foreign-born status an issue despite losing the election — and enjoy the fruits of power, without jeopardising the future position of her children in the likely event that she proved inadequate to the demands of the prime ministership.
This is what I wrote in a column the next morning, referencing the Gita’s concept of nishkaam karma: “Sonia Gandhi is not exactly giving up all the fruits of her actions during the election campaign but in a … society which has come to valorise power more than anything else, letting go of the PM’s chair will inevitably be seen as an act of unparalleled sacrifice… It is dangerous to make predictions in politics but Sonia’s decision to renounce the throne will almost certainly ensure that her children will inherit it.”
I concluded that piece with a bit of advice: “The Congress leader should now go one step further: she must ensure that the person who becomes Prime Minister in her place is able to function with all the dignity and respect that the office commands. A remote control chief minister may work at the state level, but the PM cannot be answerable to any extra-constitutional authority. Sonia Gandhi has given up the PM’s chair. She must also decide to set aside the remote.”
If Rahul Gandhi did not inherit the throne in 2014 it was not due to lack of intent on Sonia Gandhi’s part but because of a fatal flaw in the family’s approach to power. Modern mass politics demands leadership from the front, not the assertion of authority by remote control. As the president and vice-president of a party that was leading the UPA government, Sonia and Rahul were within their rights to push policies that they felt were in keeping with the Congress manifesto. Unlike the RSS, which used to intervene in policy matters during the Vajpayee prime ministership, the Congress had fought and won an election. But the interventions of Sonia and Rahul — especially on the appointment of key personnel — were frequently disastrous and often they crossed the line of propriety, undermining both the efficiency of the government as well as its credibility in the eyes of the public. The end result of this shabby arrangement was the loss of 160 seats.
It is tempting to argue, as some have done in the wake of Natwar Singh’s revelations, that Rahul’s reluctance to lead from the front may also be the subliminal product of his own fear of assassination. But Rahul played a highly visible political role in the last few years of the UPA government, travelling all over the country and addressing numerous meetings. In security terms, he has been in many more vulnerable situations than his mother. His public profile has been that of a seeker of power, not a renunciate, even if he once famously equated power with poison. In 2013, Manmohan Singh publicly declared he would be happy to see Rahul as PM. But Rahul shunned the easy route of inheriting a rickety going concern for the bigger challenge of winning a fresh mandate for a government that he and his mother controlled from behind the scenes anyway. What he didn’t realise was that the card of renunciation can be played only once in the life of a dynasty. His mother used it effectively in 2004 and the boost the Congress got lasted till beyond the 2009 election. In 2004, Sonia stepped aside before her prowess as the leader of India could be tested. Rahul hoped to avoid the taint of misgovernance by staying outside the UPA government. Unfortunately for him, power is poison; if you have it, you must drink it too, and suffer the consequences.
Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University
The views expressed by the author are personal