A book often loses its lustre when motives can be attributed to the author which might have tarnished his worldview . And this is particularly true of books written about individuals, where authors are known to harbour grievances and hence their outpourings are often dismissed as angst.
This seems to be true of the former foreign minister and Congress leader for decades, Natwar Singh’s autobiography, One Life is Not Enough, and his many references—and disclosures—about Congress president Sonia Gandhi. The personal miff is apparent as Singh crosses swords with his former boss, maintaining that while he is still being hounded and harassed, “Sonia Gandhi can neither run nor hide.”
His views in the one chapter that he has devoted to the lady who clearly preoccupies his political thought are unbefitting a senior leader who used to be privy to the inner doings and goings-on of the Congress Party since the days of Indira Gandhi. The ‘prima donna’, he says, evolved from a nervous and shy woman (which she certainly was), to an ambitious, authoritarian politician, who was obsessively secretive. “Politics has coarsened her” he concludes, as indeed it does everyone, Natwar Singh perhaps included.
The problem with such books is that while they like to sell on ‘honesty’, this honesty remains selective, going only so far as the politician wants to reveal. While that is every author’s prerogative, it is important for the reader to realise that the selective information hides more than it reveals, and adjectives such as those applied to Sonia Gandhi are in order to create impressions that might not necessarily be all correct. The problem with autobiographies is and always has been the tendency of the author to gloss over some facts, while lingering on others to project him or herself in a more favourable light, than perhaps history would confer. And Singh’s book seems to be guilty of the same, more so than less.
This is not to say that Sonia Gandhi is a goddess, she is clearly a non-politician with faults that have actually impacted on the functioning of the party, and led to its early decimation. But while Singh’s glee over the last is visible, perhaps he can hold himself responsible as well for the gradual decline of the Congress Party over the years because of arrogance, inaccessibility, authoritarianism, corruption and unaccountability. Singh, the Minister, was guilty of much of this as well, and contributed as far as this writer knows, to creating a dynastic fiefdom within the party from which many of its ills stemmed.
Singh, in his heyday was no different from the archetypal Congress politician, feeding off the Dynasty, and confining himself to an ivory tower where the masses of India did not really matter. He defended the absence of inner party democracy more vehemently than many, and blocked efforts as far as this writer knows, of the few odd Congress leaders to open the doors to even those not in the good books of the family at one or the other time. He was a good member of the coterie with Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and also in the initial days with Sonia Gandhi, until the Iraq gas kickbacks hit him hard. He lost favour with the Congress president with the story on the grapevine of that time being that she was actually upset that Natwar Singh had not disclosed the commission he got!
Relations soured from that point onwards, leading to the final exit of Singh from the Congress Party, more so when he seemed to be supporting the BJP at one point or the other. In his book of course, he has recorded his admiration for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hoping that with his majority, he will “restore the image” of the country.
Betrayal is always a sexy undercurrent for these kiss-and-tell autobiographies/biographies with the media in particular, hoping to be fed on the juicy tidbits emerging from such books. On the Natwar Singh-Sonia Gandhi relationship, Sonia has said he betrayed her, while he insists that it was a question of the pot calling the kettle black. The truth can be shared by both as he felt betrayed when the Congress Party under her directions, left him to battle the Iraq disclosures of corruption on his own. No one came out to defend him and the senior leader of the Congress, who had spent decades serving the Family, suddenly found that he was no better than a new ‘employee’ with no support from the party he had always considered his own. Sonia Gandhi’s sense of betrayal of course has come from Singh’s constant carping — with reason — from the manner in which she deserted, and dropped him, at the first hint of trouble that could envelop her as well.
This has been Sonia Gandhi’s hallmark. She is in the business of politics to do good for her family, and all else is secondary. So if a Congressman comes under attack for some perceived or real wrongdoing, her first instinct is to move away and prevent any of the flak from attaching itself to her or her family. This has upset any number of senior Congress leaders, who openly wonder what is the point of being with a political party where, instead of their being protected when the chips are down, the leadership drops them like rotten tomatoes, without even giving them a chance to explain.
Natwar Singh has been smarting under this for a long while now, and his sense of betrayal has been acute, colouring his perceptions and now as it appears from the book, even his ‘reasoned’ comment.
Sad, and a bitter reflection on the Congress Party today.