The world reciprocates by garlanding him with gold-threaded marigolds of deference. People make way for the ‘high’ person in passage-ways. They rise, bow, wait as he or she approaches. Shakespeare has a name for them: ‘smiling pick-thanks’. A stir precedes the arrival upon any scene of such a personage and a trail of talc sparkling with mica seems left behind on the path trod.
But no sooner than Death retrieves the personage, like it does all persons, that the vibrating hum evaporates, the red-yellow flower looks for a new neck, a fresh pair of shoulders.
The garlanded change, garlandry remains deathless. Mala vahi ki vahi rahti hai, gala badalta rahta hai.
Our national capital is the very home of this rite. New Delhi is a city where position counts, clout matters. Only position matters, clout alone counts. The rest — those in authority or wealth or in a position to influence — are just digits.
It is five years, today, from the day a much deferred-to, much garlanded, namasakaared and salaamed man of real clout left us. Dr Lakshmimalla Singhvi knew everyone who was anyone in the citadels of power and in the chambers of wealth. He was one of those who had access to men and women in power across the political divides of our republic. He knew Congress’ leadership as to the manner born. He was convivial with the Hindu Right, the Swatantra-Right, the Secular Left, JP-style Socialists, Lohia-ites, Gandhians. He did not fail to acknowledge, even propitiate, the Ambedkar school. Did this make him a bit of a chameleon? Those who knew Dr Singhvi well knew that he was no colour-change, only very fond of the rainbow. Dr Singhvi had, in terms of political colours, no single colour. There used to be, in my childhood days, before Kwality stormed the ice-cream world, an ice-cream called Vibgyor, an acronym for the rainbow’s seven colours. Dr Singhvi’s was a Vibgyor mind, a Vibgyor temperament. He felt genuinely and strongly that all the colours of Indian politics had a claim to our chromatic appreciation.
Whenever he went to someone important, as he did often, to persuade him to support this or patronise that, he held their attention and their respect, even when he sharpened the pencil-point of persuasion to near-breaking. A jurist and lawyer by training, an aesthete by instinct, a scholar by sheer application, a parliamentarian by careful design, and a diplomat by the courtesy of good circumstances, Dr LM Singhvi could influence, persuade, cajole, argue or just overwhelm the person he was talking to by a cataract of well-meant and well-chosen words.
Referred to by his many friends as ‘Doctorsahib’ and by peers as ‘LM’, he will be best known by the last public office he held, that of high commissioner for India in London, from 1991 to 1997. ‘I have crossed Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit’s term in the office’, he told me with justifiable pride, when he crossed her six-year innings in London. His was, by any standard, an outstanding innings in London. He could start the day drafting in Hindi verse a message for a poet’s birthday to be faxed to Delhi, breakfast with a visiting Indian minister, call on the foreign office mid-day, lunch with a senior British journalist, have tea and scones with a member of the English nobility, address Indian students later in the evening, host a dinner for a Nobel laureate and end the day either asking for a Shakespeare bust to be put up somewhere in India or a Tiruvalluvar, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi or Ambedkar bust somewhere in England. He did this, more or less, for six years.
Doctorsahib would, I am sure, have liked to move on to higher positions and would, I am equally sure, have held them with distinction and flair. But a translucent mother-of-pearl ceiling seemed to formed itself over him after he returned from London, like a decoration but also an obstruction, barring further ascendance. And his joining the BJP, in the high noon the NDA , remained sadly barren of any personal results for him. The former high commissioner seemed to belong to the corridors of waiting than to the corridors of high passage. The personage in him became a person. And there is this thing called ageing. Hands that reached out to him in respectful greeting now went out to help him.
In his involuntary retirement, Doctorsahib continued to bring to bear a thinking sight and a seeing mind on a staggering range of subjects, issues and activities but the institution-builder in him, the job-provider, the Padma-nominator, the seminar-inaugurator, the anniversary-chair, the book-launcher, the obituary-writer was now being replaced by emeritus roles. Nothing can be worse for a chapter of living narrative than being forced to change its form and font into a passage of reverie. New Delhi is made for the present that is ever busy becoming the clever future. Our national capital is unkind, even cruel, to the living past.
It is a matter of regret that a man who had done so much as a parliamentarian (where he first introduced the concept of a lokpal), as a leader of opinion, patron of the arts, of literature, as India’s hugely successful high commissioner in London, and as a policy-formulator for the Indian diaspora has become another casualty of our systemic amnesia.
Chagla was Chagla, Palkhivala was Palkhivala and Singhvi was Singhvi. They are not to be compared to each other. Yet, they had this in common: Whether as lawyers, ministers or ambassadors, they thought for, spoke and worked for the Republic of India. Leaders of shards, segments, scraps stand tall today. Those who think of and speak for the republic as a whole stand to a side. And pondering that, it seems incredible that one like LM Singhvi was around till just the other day.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
The views expressed by the author are personal'