I Am Sure Modi Will Listen To Criticism And Learn

Natwar Singh in coversation with R. C. Rajamani

He presents a bundle of often tragic contradictions.  His excellent credentials as a writer and diplomat contrast with his current image as an isolated politician and a near recluse.  

Born a prince, educated at elite schools and colleges – St Stephens, Delhi and Cambridge, England;  diplomat for over 30 years, he was awarded the  Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian award.  He has moved and worked with some great minds and leaders of the 20th century including Pandit Nehru, Rajaji, Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, EM Forster, RK Narayan, Nirad Chaudhari, JK Galbraith, Indira Gandhi and others.  

An engaging writer, he is a man of letters with a world perspective.  His books include EM Forster: A Tribute, New York, 1964;  The Legacy of Nehru, New York, 1965;  Stories from India, London, 1971; Profiles & Letters, Delhi, 1997;  Heart to Heart, Delhi, 2003 and One Life is Not Enough (2014).

Natwar Singh, 86, has all these attributes but add to that being somewhat politically naïve.  An expelled senior leader of the Congress Party and former External Affairs Minister, he had resigned under pressure in December 2005 after Paul Volcker, heading the UN independent enquiry committee, named him and the Congress party as “contractual beneficiaries” in Iraq’s oil for food scam.  His grouse is that while he was punished ‘wrongly’, the leadership of the party he represented was allowed to go scot free.

The Congress suspended him after he gave notice of a privilege motion against then prime minister Manmohan Singh, over the leak of the report of the Justice RS Pathak Inquiry Authority that found him guilty of misusing his position to bring financial gains to his son’s friends.

In 2006, in an interview with this writer, Natwar Singh, without batting an eye-lid and with apparent conviction maintained that Pathak had “cleared me and my son”. Yet, he questioned the way the former chief justice went about his work and picked holes in his findings. His main grievance was that the Authority did not take cognizance of his affidavit in which he had explained how the Volcker Committee itself stood discredited on various counts.  

He presents a bundle of often tragic contradictions.  His excellent credentials as a writer and diplomat contrast with his current image as an isolated politician and a near recluse.

He spoke in riddles about some people in the Congress party and government being behind his ouster, but would not name them on the plea “it is not in my character to do so.” He also talked of “American pressure” in his removal as head of the external affairs ministry.  Natwar Singh maintained that he and the Congress cannot be divorced, thus implying that if he is guilty, the party is guilty too. He said not a leaf moves without the knowledge of Sonia Gandhi, lending his remarks open to interpretation that he had her backing in the entire episode.  Yet, he would not say anything against her or the entire Nehru-Gandhi family on the excuse that, “I owe a great deal to the family, from Indiraji down to Sonia.”

When asked how he could say justice Pathak has exonerated him, Natwar Singh replied, “I don’t say.   Mr Pathak says.  Mr. Pathak clearly says that Mr. Natwar Singh and his son derived no financial benefit from the contracts. They did not make any money. That was my sole objective – to clear my name and that of my son.  They tried very hard – nine months.  They could not find anything, because there was nothing.  

“They made a great deal about the letters.  First, they said Natwar Singh wrote three letters to Tariq Aziz, Iraqi deputy prime minister, asking for oil contracts for his son’s friends.  I had the correspondence with me and so I showed him (Pathak).   Aziz wrote to me inviting us (to Iraq).  I showed the invitation to Ms. (Sonia) Gandhi.   I took a letter from her.   

“On my return I wrote a letter thanking him (Aziz).   Then they said I wrote three letters to the Iraqi oil ministers, asking for contracts, coupons and vouchers. I said I did not write letters asking for oil, vouchers etc.  Pathak showed me a letter.   I said, yes it was a letter of introduction, there was nothing wrong about it.  Even in this letter, please show me where I mentioned oil, vouchers, contracts, receipts and bank accounts. No mention.   They did their damnest to involve me. There were two contracts – one for Natwar Singh, one for Congress party. Congress is clean, but Natwar Singh is… not..”

“No country except India took note of the Volcker report.   Volcker himself says his report is based on unverified facts.   Volcker himself says he changed the report to save Kofi Annan and his son.  He says he did not know Natwar Singh was a former foreign minister.  But Pathak says Natwar Singh created an impression that he was influential.”

Natwar Singh maintained that he and the Congress cannot be divorced, thus implying that if he is guilty, the party is guilty too. He said not a leaf moves without the knowledge of Sonia Gandhi

That was ten years ago.  Much water has flowed down the Yamuna since during which Natwar Singh went to and came out of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and also Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party, a decision he terms “a big mistake.”  He also lost his daughter and daughter-in-law under tragic circumstances, a personal pain he has borne with forbearance. 

Now, he has come out in the open to criticise Sonia and Rahul. His 2014 book “One Life is not Enough’ created political ripples.  Before its release in August that year, an apparently rattled Sonia and daughter Priyanka Vadra rushed to his residence to seek ‘some assurance’ from Natwar Singh. What was that mysterious assurance? 

We met Natwar Singh at his elegant JorBagh residence in Delhi.  Excerpts from the Interview

What is your assessment of Prime Minister Modi’s performance so far?

He is doing exceedingly well on foreign relations. Modi brings a personal touch to whatever he does.  His meeting Nawaz Sharif (at Lahore during Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding) was a bold move.  His touching Sharif’s mother’s feet was a gesture that bowled over many Pakistanis as no other single gesture did before.  His surprise Pak visit has brought changes in the mindset of Pak rulers.  The language spoken on Pathankot by Pakistan was possible because of his visit.

Modi is also reaching out to the neighbours as no Indian PM did for a long time.  He invited all the SAARC leaders for his swearing in ceremony in May 2014. That was a masterstroke in diplomacy.  I would like to think I may have influenced him a bit. I met Modi a couple of months before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections at his residence in Ahmedabad. My son Jagat, a BJP MLA in Rajasthan was also with me.   I pointed out to Modi that during his campaign he had not made any major remarks on foreign policy. I told him as and when he became PM, he would be practically his own foreign minister.  This has been so since the time of Pandit Nehru. I told him of the importance of constant and good natured engagement with the neighbours first to make our foreign policy a success.   He was all ears and asked me a number of questions on the nuances of diplomacy.

Modi has his own style. Are his cabinet colleagues complaining? Yes, he overshadows all other ministers. Apart from Jaitely, Rajnath, Prabhu, Goel and Javadekar one does not hear about others

But, domestically it has been disappointing so far.  Well, the pressure on him is tremendous because of expectations. He promised a lot but finds the going tough in Parliament. No doubt, he has injected a general mood of confidence in the country and people.  But Parliament is proving to be his bugbear.  The lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha is a challenge to his policies and programmes.  How he is going to handle the problem will be interesting to watch, whether he is able to win over the opposition anytime soon….time is running out, but one would like to wish him the best.

There is an impression that Modi has an “authoritarian” style of functioning and has even kept his distance from Cabinet colleagues

I do not agree fully.  Modi has his own style.  Are his cabinet colleagues complaining?  Yes, he overshadows all other ministers. Apart from Jaitley, Rajnath, Prabhu, Goyal and Javadekar one does not hear about others.

But it never happens in India that the PM does not consult his colleagues. Consultations always take place. Sometimes, it is visible and sometimes not.  After all what matters is substance and not style.  Are the common people worried about PM’s style?   It does not bother them or affect them at all.  I am afraid that some section of the media and the opposition are trying to make a big fuss about the whole thing.

I am sure Modi will listen to criticism and learn.   Yes, Modi has to get over the Gujarat mindset.  He is a great learner and there is hope he will be able to overcome certain shortcomings.

The lack of numbers in the Rajya Sabha is a challenge to his policies and programmes. How Modi is going to handle the problem will be interesting to watch, whether he is able to win over the opposition anytime soon… time is running out, but one would like to wish him the best

How do you see Modi’s general practice of not taking his foreign minister on his state visits abroad?

Well, he must have his own reasons.  Yet, this is a needless departure from established diplomatic practice, not only in India but the world over.

Is Modi still a “greenhorn” so far as diplomacy goes?

Well, Modi is still learning some finer aspects of diplomacy.  I think his remarks that India would not beg for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council but “demand it” have not gone well with the Permanent Members.  The Security Council is the most exclusive club in the world.  Five permanent veto-holding members are the US, China, Russia, the UK and France.  The democratisation of the Security Council is long overdue, but not one of the five wishes to share their privileged position with India or any other country.  In any case, India alone cannot be the single member to join the P5 club.  There will have to be a package, bearing in mind the geography of the world.  Even on the package, there will be no unanimity.

China is the sole member of the P5 from Asia, Africa and South America.  It will make wordy pronouncements about India playing a more active role in the UN and so on, nothing beyond that.  This is high-level verbalising – an art at which the US, China, the UK and France are past masters.  We should not get taken in.

Having said this, I must, however, acknowledge that at the moment, our standing in the world is high – much, much higher than it was during the United Progressive Alliance-II.  The current prime minister is a leader.  His immediate predecessor was not.  What Modi says carries weight.  Never in the past have so many presidents, kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers come to India as in the last two years.   This is no small achievement.

How should Modi handle China, Pakistan?

Well, there is no quick-fix solution to the Sino-India border dispute.  None for Kashmir, for that matter. It’s a long haul and Modi should be both patient and watchful.

Rahul has wasted precious time, now twelve years as an MP.  He has gained little experience in administration. He should have agreed to be a minister at least during UPA-2.  That would have given him valuable experience

You were a member of India’s Permanent Mission at the UN during mid 1960’s. What was your experience?

Well, in the in 1965 war India enjoyed an upper hand and Pakistan was facing a dire situation.  U.N. Secretary-General U Thant brought the matter to the Security Council on September 3, 1965. I was the first secretary at the Mission and was part of the delegation in the Council hall.  Our Permanent Representative to the U.N. was G. Parthasarathy (senior diplomat who later became PM Indira Gandhi’s adviser), and Brajesh Mishra (diplomat who became Principal Secretary and NSA to PM Vajpayee).

M.C. Chagla our permanent representative, gentle and suave, was no match for his Pakistan counterpart, the hot-blooded Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who poured scorn and venom on India over Kashmir.  Prime Minister Shastri then sent Foreign Minister Sardar Swaran Singh to counter Bhutto.  Singh and Bhutto knew each other as they had been in talks for about six months.  The Sardar was endowed with the gift of being able to speak interminably, unperturbed by disturbances.

We told Swaran Singh, “Sir, we have to do something.  Mr. Bhutto makes these objectionable speeches, and gets away with it, and we have to send a strong message to the UNSC.” So he asked, “What should we do?” Brajesh Mishra and I said, “Let’s walk out the next time he speaks.” Now neither Swaran Singh nor G. Parthasarathi had done anything as unconventional so far. But we persisted, so Swaran Singh called the PM. Shastriji responded, “Sardar Sahib you are on the spot, you decide what to do.”

So we waited for Bhutto to start his invective. As soon as he did, Sardar Sahib called a point of order.  Bhutto objected. Swaran Singh carried on.  At the end of his speech the four of us: Singh, Parthasarathi, Mishra and I stood up and marched out. Even as we walked out, Bhutto said “Indian dogs are leaving”. But Bhutto’s point-scoring speech was short-sighted, and our walkout had a bigger impact on the UNSC. Stunned by our reaction to Bhutto’s speech, they lost interest in engaging with India and Pakistan on Kashmir.

As a result, there was hardly any reference to Kashmir for the next few decades at the UNSC, barring one resolution after the 1971 war. The credit should really go to Swaran Singh, who decided in that moment to put convention aside and simply walk out of the U.N. Security Council.

Is the Indian dogs remark still in UN records?

No, the wily Bhutto did a smart job.  He removed the remarks from UN records when his speech was sent to him for correction and confirmation, as per the UN practice.

How is the Congress party doing now?

Can there be two opinions on this? 44 out of 545 members House tells it all.

How do you see Rahul Gandhi shaping up as a leader?

Well, he has wasted precious time, now twelve years as an MP.  He has gained little experience in administration. He should have agreed to be a minister at least during UPA-2. That would have given him valuable experience. 

It was a surprise that he refused the job of leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha.  Unless one is in the rough and tumble of politics and polemics one can’t learn.

Rahul’s pre-election interview with Arnab Goswami was a catastrophe.  He must learn to speak on every major issue, domestic and foreign, social and other issues. Mere mindless attacks on Modi will not help.  In fact it may turn out to be counterproductive.

How do you spend your time?

I am enjoying a quiet life, reading writing.  Occasionally I go out to attend functions. I attended the book release of President Pranab Mukherjee’s book on January 28 – the second part of his autobiography.

Do you expect any fireworks?

(Smiles) Well, let’s see. There was none in the first part.

Sonia and Priyanka came to meet me. All Sonia came for was to know just one thing. She asked me if I had written on a particular matter. I assured her not. She was satisfied

Now the question most people want to know the answer to.  Why did Sonia Gandhi and PriyankaVadra visit you a few days before the release of your book ‘One Life is notEnough’?

Sonia and Priyanka came to meet me here (gestures). Sonia was sitting here Priyanka there (shows the chairs opposite each other). All Sonia came for was to know just one thing.  She asked me if I had written on a particular matter. I assured her not.  She was satisfied.

What was that matter?

I am bound by my word. I would never speak or write about it.

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