“Innovation and originality were frowned upon and mediocrity was a virtue.” That is one of the first lessons that the author of this book learnt about Indian Civil Services. The author joined the civil services at a young age and if the book is any indication he did not deviate into the “risk” of surpassing mediocrity.
Though the book is subtitled “an autobiography,” it is more a political history of contemporary India. The first few chapters throw some light into the personality of the author, but the light remains too scanty for the reader to gauge the personality and its formative factors. What the reader gets is a hasty tour through Bharatpur (the author’s birthplace) and the Mayo College, Ajmer, as well as the Scindia School, Gwalior. The author is evidently proud of his alma maters as well as his college, St Stephen’s, Delhi.
The rest of the book is about the author’s experiences with the various political leaders of the country starting with Jawaharlal Nehru. The first half of the book (exactly 11 chapters out of a total of 22) is too episodic and anecdotal to be a coherent autobiography. The author is too much in a hurry. We understand the reason for that haste when we come towards the last chapters: he is more interested in exonerating himself with regard to what he calls “The Volcker Conspiracy” which implicated him and his son in the Oil-for-Food Programme initiated in Iraq by the UN Security Council after the ouster of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The events that followed the Volcker Report led to the expulsion of Natwar Singh from the Congress Party.
Nothing happens in the Congress Party without the knowledge and consent of Sonia Gandhi, according to the author. Hence Ms Gandhi becomes a target of attack in a chapter devoted to her. But Natwar Singh has much to say in appreciation of her too. He is fairly balanced in his appraisal of the lady. He is not so kind towards Dr Manmohan Singh who is described as a “spineless” man.
The second half of the book is fairly interesting because it achieves some sort of coherence. Chapter 12 titled ‘In Pakistan’ gives us certain insights into the way the government works (or fails to work) in that country. The following chapters read like political history of India though they are also not entirely free from the episodic approach that plagues the first part.
Particularly interesting is the chapter on the CHOGM Summit and the NAM summit that Delhi hosted in 1983. We see certain heroes like Yasser Arafat throwing tantrums because he was asked to address the plenary session after the King of Jordan. Saddam Hussein threatened to arrive with a hundred-member delegation on a Boeing with another Boeing carrying his bullet proof cars and commandos. The Iranian delegation had serious reservations about sitting next to the Iraqis. The Jordanian Foreign Minister demanded a seat far away from both the Iranians and the Iraqis. Kim Il-Sung was paranoid as he insisted on an entire hotel for himself and his delegation with elaborate security arrangements. The kings and leaders of nations are quite interesting like little children when we see them at close quarters and Natwar Singh does entertain us when he presents such episodes.
The book would have been much better had the author put in a little extra effort to add more substance to it. As it is, it remains a very superficial political history of the country from the time of Indira Gandhi to the ascent of Narendra Modi. Natwar Singh does not fail to praise Mr Modi on the last page while at the same time have a dig at the previous regime: “With a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha, the PM, to begin with will, I have no doubt, restore the image of the country which for the past few years has been on a downward path.” After all, Mr Natwar Singh’s son, Jagat, had switched from the Congress and become a BJP MLA from Rajasthan.
“Politics is a blood sport where there are no friends at the top,” says the author on one of the last pages. The books reveals the superficiality of that game called politics where friendships are necessarily diplomatic relationships.
Acknowledgement: I’m grateful to a student of mine who lent me his copy of the book. I wouldn’t have cared to buy one.