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The truth behind Natwar's bluster

No matter how much he has lied in last few months, it's unjust to judge him on the basis of that, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint. Do you feel bad for Natwar?

india Updated: Aug 13, 2006 04:37 IST

Am I the only person in India to feel at all bad for Natwar Singh? I’m beginning to feel that this may be the case. The Congress has deserted one of its most senior members. The doors of 10 Janpath have been shut in his face. He has ensured — through his own behaviour — that they will not let him get past reception at Race Course Road.

And his new friends are treating him like a prophylactic: extra protection in their effort to rape the government. The Left has already distanced itself from him. The BJP has fired its bolt and has no further need for his rhetoric about the nuclear deal. Amar Singh may still invite him for dinner but my guess is that, in future, the two men will dine alone. The sad reality is that once the attempted rape is over, poor Natwar will be discarded and thrown away.

So why do I feel bad for him?

Partly it is because I have always had a certain regard for Natwar Singh and no matter how badly he has behaved over the last few months, that regard remains. He is one of the most literate politicians in India. He writes well on a variety of subjects. He reads nearly every important book that is published. He has the best private library of almost anybody I have ever met in Delhi. And it is nice to see a politician who, when he has half an hour to spare, would rather go to a bookshop than hang around plotting strategy with sleazy political cronies.

Moreover, he is an essentially transparent man. His agendas are written all over his face and there is nothing scheming or duplicitous about him. Most politicians are full of guile and cunning; you have to count your fingers after you finish shaking hands with them. With Natwar, on the other hand, what you see is what you get.

And partly, it is because of the human tragedy that his downfall represents. It is no secret that in the years before he became Foreign Minister, he had suffered the sort of traumas that would have undone anybody. His son’s estranged wife killed herself, leaving behind two small children. Just as the family was recovering from that shock, his daughter, a manic depressive, also committed suicide.

When, against everybody’s expectations, the Congress won the election and Natwar got the job that he had always wanted, I had hoped that the bad times were finally over for him. In fact, things got worse.

There was something sad and tragic about him when he held his press conference on Friday. He wore his best suit, tried to retract some of his sillier statements and affected a confidence that you could tell he did not really possess.

As I watched him on television, I could not help thinking: should this man, one of the country’s most civilised politicians and best-known former diplomats, be reduced to this at the age of 75? Any lion deserves a better winter.

And partly it is because, as political crimes go, I don’t think what Natwar did is such a big deal. Politicians make hundreds of crores. They have rivals bumped off. They incite communal riots. They spread fear and hatred.

And what exactly is Natwar accused of? If you believe the charges — and in all fairness, I have to say that I do — then he wrote three letters while he was in Opposition, introducing his son Jagat and his son’s friend Andaleeb Sehgal to Iraqi ministers. No matter what he says now, there seems little doubt that he was put up to writing these letters by his son who hoped to use the contacts to make some money for himself. And yes, money was made: around Rs 75 lakh to be shared between Jagat and Sehgal.

When the Volcker report was first published, the BJP argued that Natwar’s behaviour represented a serious conflict of interest. Was it a coincidence, it asked, that Natwar should have pushed Parliament into opposing the US invasion of Iraq? Shouldn’t he have stated that his family had profited from Saddam Hussein?

It is interesting that the BJP has now dropped this objection and has quickly aligned itself with Natwar in opposing the US. But I suppose you could make the case that a man whose family profits from foreign countries should not be put in charge of evolving a policy that involves those countries. Nevertheless, I don’t think anybody seriously believes that Natwar’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq was bought by Saddam Hussein for Rs 75 lakh.

If you dispose of the conflict of interest argument, then all you’re left with is the charge that an Opposition politician introduced his businessman son to some of his contacts in foreign countries.

It is not an entirely proper thing to have done. But it’s hardly a major crime on par with murder, rape or governmental corruption.

So, why then, is Natwar Singh in this mess?

I believe that the ‘crime’ itself is not the reason for his problems. It is his own behaviour in the aftermath of the Volcker report that has finished off his political career.

Natwar made two huge misjudgments. The first was that he used the name of the Congress party as part of his son’s money-making activities. This meant the Volcker report named the Congress as one of the beneficiaries of Saddam’s largesse. No political party could allow that kind of allegation to go unchallenged.

To make matters worse, rather than admit that he had screwed up, Natwar blustered: dropping Sonia Gandhi’s name, shouting at Manmohan Singh and alleging an American plot against the party.

The second misjudgment was that he thought that Jagat and he were geniuses and that everybody else was an idiot. Could he really have believed that the truth would never come out?

Apparently he did. Otherwise, why would he tell such blatant untruths? He must have known that he had written the letters. Even if you take the line that he is an old man and had forgotten (one of the many defences he has offered over the last month), there is no doubt that Jagat remembered.

And yet, father and son lied and lied. There were no letters. Okay, there may be letters but they were forgeries. All right, they were not forgeries but so bloody what? And on and on the lies went, each more pathetic than the last.

With the lies came the characteristic bluster of a man who has been found out but thinks he can get away with it if he shouts loud enough. Manmohan Singh is a fool. Pranab Mukherjee is a midget (a bit rich coming from Natwar, who is no giant). Chidambaram is a nasty little conspirator. Justice Pathak (his choice to head the commission, by the way) is an ungrateful so-and-so who has forgotten all that Natwar did for him. And so on.

In the process, Natwar Singh lost almost every friend he had in this government. By the end of it, he had become a liability to the party. And even the Gandhis, to whom he swore undying dynastic loyalty, began to treat him as an embarrassing disappointment; as the sort of ancient family retainer who had been found watering the whisky and filching the grocery money.

Nobody can defend the things Natwar Singh has done in the aftermath of the Volcker report. The urbane, literate diplomat has been replaced in the public imagination by a blustering old man who is rarely photographed without his son standing sinisterly behind him. The man who wrote letters to EM Forster has been forgotten; instead, younger people see Natwar as just another political crook.

But of course, Natwar is much more than that. No matter how much he has lied in the last few months in an effort to defend his son’s money-making (and let’s not forget that whatever we may think of him, Jagat is all that Natwar has left), it would be wrong and unjust to judge him on the basis of his behaviour during this period.

Despite the tantrums, the untruths and the bluster, Natwar Singh is still an essentially honourable man. In a political environment where murderers become ministers and politics is no more than a business enterprise, he has spent most of his career focusing on the things that should matter: on issues, on ideas, on public service and on his vision of India’s foreign policy.

I do not dispute that he has only himself to blame for his present predicament. But that does not stop me from feeling bad for him. Or from feeling that this story should have had a very different ending.

First Published: Aug 13, 2006 01:24 IST