K Natwar Singh

Superbly Bold, Highly Charming!

The redoubtable Kunwar Natwar Singh was practically a shadow of Indira Gandhi in all her external affairs dealings, whether in the country or on her tours abroad and had seen the best of her. Here, he recounts some of the most astonishing incidents in his career as part of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat

Indira Gandhi would have found a place in history as one of the greatest Prime Ministers but for her declaring Emergency in June 1975, and for allowing the Akal Takht on June 6, 1984, to be virtually destroyed.

These were, to put it mildly, horrendous errors. Despite these, she was still a great prime minister. She was at the helm for fifteen years, first from 1966 to 1977 and then again from 1980 to 1984.

Unlike her father, she had to constantly be vigilant to stay in power. Nehru had no challenger after the death of Sardar Patel in December 1950. The most serious setback for Nehru was China’s attack in 1962. He never recovered from that blow. He died two years later.

Indira Gandhi, in 1969 demolished the disreputable Syndicate consisting of Kamraj, Nijalingappa, SK Patil, Atulaya Ghosh and later Morarji Desai. 

Her greatest triumph was in December 1971, when India helped in the creation of Bangladesh.

For almost a decade she was among the top ten world leaders. Like most of the top level leaders she could be charming, warm, great fun and with joie de vivre. 

She could also be waspish, ruthless and at times unforgiving. She was ambitious and adept at the power game. She was good looking and was aware it. Her marriage was not a happy one.

She was widowed at the age of 43. She had very few friends   not unusual for top leaders. She was not a thinker but a doer. 

Stiff Returns

In 1982, she paid a state visit to the USA. In Washington, the Press Club held a lunch in her honour. Following lunch, there was a question answer session.

One of the questions was, “Madam Prime Minister, the impression in the U.S.A is that you tilt towards the Soviet Union. Would you comment?” Answer, “We do not tilt. We stand straight.”

Natwar Singh (left) was with her at all times

In 1967 she was in Warsaw, Poland. During her discussion, the Polish Prime Minister Gomulk referred to our strained relations with China and how these could be improved. Answer, “Mister Prime Minister, if you have any suggestions, I would welcome these.”

She was at the helm for fifteen years, from 1966 to 1977, and then again from 1980 to 1984. Unlike her father she had to constantly be vigilant to stay in power

So often Indira Gandhi is depicted as solemn and severe. Seldom is it mentioned that this graceful, sparkling, engaging human being was a caring humanist, a voracious reader, with wide-ranging non-political interests, that she was endowed with charm, elegance, good taste, that she enjoyed the company of artists, authors, poets, painters and the talented, that she had a sense of humour.

When she was assassinated on October 31, 1984, the spring went out of my life. She inspired in me a lasting affection and a degree of respect verging on veneration.

I have a deep sense of gratitude, as I owe her more than I can say. Probably much more than I know. She possessed what the French so delicately describe as je ne sais quoi (a quality that cannot be described or named easily). She had that certain style which made her the centre of attraction in any gathering.

She had little sympathy for those who recoiled from the forces of life, the cautious, the calculating. The pompous were deflated by one ignited look, the craven were treated as the craven ought to be.

She broke so many social and political barriers. Indira Gandhi was a major liberating force. She was a beacon of progressive thought.

Sense of History

Her father’s feel for history and understanding of the historical process had rubbed off on her. This side of her character I saw at first hand during her State visit to Afghanistan in 1969. On the third day, she had an hour free. “Let us go for a drive”, she said to me.

This was immediately arranged. In a few minutes, we were outside the city limits of Kabul. Her eyes caught a patch of green on the hill to the left of the road. We were told it was the resting place of Emperor Babur (1483-1530).

Mrs Gandhi’s respect for history transcended her adherence to protocol. She expressed her desire to see the spot. The Afghans were most agitated – no security, no one to receive and show the PM around.

She would have none of it. So up the hill we went. What at one time must have been an attractive garden-cum-graveyard was now semi-jungle. 

She had little sympathy for those who recoiled from the forces of life, the cautious, the calculating. The pompous were deflated by one ignited look

Indira Gandhi with the then US President Richard Nixon

Obviously,   Babur did not mean much to our Afghan friends. It took us a while to locate the great man’s grave. The Prime Minister of India stood there, with head slightly bowed, paying her homage.

I was a couple of feet behind her. It was a moment to cherish, recall and remember. At that moment the centuries seemed to blend and blur. After a minute she stepped back and said, “We have had our brush with history.” 

I travelled the world with Indira Gandhi. Whether it was a NAM Summit or a Commonwealth one, whether she was at the UN in New York or meeting Nixon or Reagan in Washington, she was the centre of attraction and a picture of beautiful composure.

I particularly remember her visit to New York in October 1970, for the 25th anniversary of the UN. Several Heads of State and Government also attended, naturally. 

Nixon Rebuffed

It was learnt through the papers that President Nixon had invited them all to a dinner at the White House. Indira Gandhi ignored this strange ‘invitation’. The next day our most astute trimmer of an Ambassador at Washington arrived in New York.

He asked the PM when she would be arriving in Washington for the Nixon dinner. She said she had not been invited. Our Ambassador LK Jha said that all the other Heads were attending. Mrs Gandhi said she would be leaving New York as planned and had no intention of going to Washington without a proper invitation. Certain basic proprieties must be observed. 

LK Jha had been her Secretary for one year. He was a persuasive and persistent individual. As Ambassador it was his duty to tell Mrs Gandhi that her absence would send the wrong signal.

She said she had come to the UN, not for a visit to the USA. President Nixon could have asked his Ambassador in New Delhi to convey formally his dinner invitation.

She would then have arranged her programme accordingly. But this was not an invitation, it was a summons. She was having none of it. LK Jha then appealed to her to write a letter to Nixon saying that how sorry she was not being able to attend his dinner. She asked me to draft one. I did. She signed it. 

Disaster Averted

There come moments in our lives when luck plays the decisive role. For me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime – to organise both NAM and CHOGM. Everything that could go right did go right.

Nevertheless, we had one or two nerve trying moments before entering smoother waters. The Asian Games closed on December 2, 1982. From December 4, the NAM Summit preparations got into top gear. To use a space-flight phrase, all systems were A.O.K. Then suddenly a thunderbolt out of the blue.

The Prime Minister sent for me and asked why NAM leaders and their delegations could not be put up at the Asiad Village. Not only would it save much expense, this arrangement would be most welcome to the security people.

They would have the Heads of State staying in one compound. She went on to tell me that the Asiad had an excellent dining room, a modern media centre, parking space etc.

I was dumbfounded. After I had recovered I thoughtlessly said, “Madam, you can’t be serious.” The Prime Minister closed the file she was studying, took off her spectacles, fixed her eyes on me and in a steady voice said, “Dear Mr Natwar Singh, I am very serious.” Pause.

“Where do you think the money is coming from? Why can’t we do all this in an austerer way”?  I reminded her of the accommodation provided for Heads by host Governments at past Summits.

Recently I had been to Baghdad, Belgrade and Havana to see what these capitals had provided for their NAM guests. We could not do worse than them or Australia.

“My accommodation in Lusaka was nothing to write home about,” was her answer. “New Delhi is not Lusaka. The Zambians did the best they could. You were given a villa, so were the other Heads. The delegates were put up in hotels, not in university hostels.”

She was not convinced. A huge delegation examined Asiad Village. Finally, I succeeded in convincing Rajiv Gandhi that it simply would not do for us to put up Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers in the Asiad Village where they would have to share bathrooms, telephones, etc.

Some silly ass had sold this idea to him and he in his innocence had accepted it. Neither G Parthasarathi not PC Alexander openly backed me. We were losing precious time. Then fate intervened.

The Ambassadors of NAM Countries got wind of what was afoot. They told me and my deputy SK Lambah in plain English: “We hope the rumour about the Asiad is just a rumour. If not, then we are telling you that our President/PM will not attend the Summit.”

I conveyed to PC Alexander and G Parthasarathi what the Heads of Mission had told us. To me, it was abundantly clear that we would be making a laughing stock of ourselves if we persisted in offering boarding house facilities to world leaders.

I said the same to the PM and Rajiv Gandhi. I actually said that it was one thing to conduct the Asian Games, another to organise a Summit of world leaders. Finally, a status quo ante was restored but we had lost almost a week.

Master Stroke

Outside the CHOGM Summit, a mini-crisis was averted. As far as I remember, it was on the second day. Mrs Gandhi asked me to quietly enquire from Rashtrapati Bhavan if the Queen was holding an “Investiture” at there for giving Mother Teresa the Order of Merit.

The Rashtrapati Bhavan confirmed what the Prime Minister had heard. Invitations for the “Investiture” had apparently been issued, that too on “Buckingham Palace” stationery, without consulting the Secretary or the Military Secretary, to President Giani Zail Singh.

I conveyed this to Mrs Gandhi, who did not like what she heard. Only the President of India could hold an “investiture” at Rashtrapati Bhavan. If the Queen was to go ahead with the “Investiture” then Opposition leaders would be compelled to raise the matter in the Lok Sabha.

She almost derailed global protocol by saying that guests during Nam meeting should be put up in the hostels of Asiad village for the sake of frugality

It was quite evident that the British, who are known for being experts on ceremonial, had, in good faith, erred. That error had to be rectified. It fell to my lot as Chief Coordinator of CHOGM to sort this quite unprecedented and spectacular protocol cock-up.

Mrs Gandhi asked me to get in touch with Mrs Thatcher and get back to her. I asked the British High Commissioner, Robert Wade-Gary to convey to Mrs Thatcher that the proposed “Investiture” could not be arranged at Rashtrapati Bhawan.

It could be held either at the UK High Commission or the residence of the High Commissioner. Gently I reminded Wade-Gary that Her Majesty was Queen of Australia, Canada and New Zealand but not of India.

Within two hours he rang back to say that his Prime Minister felt it was too late to change the venue. Invitations had been sent and above all the Queen would be inconvenienced.

The UK Press too were aware of the “Investiture”. This was bad news. Here was high-grade protocol dynamite. The dramatis personae consisted of four world-famous ladies.

Two powerful Prime Ministers, one Queen and the fourth something more than a Saint. What if the Indian Press got hold of the story? I reported to Mrs Gandhi what her British counterpart had said.

“Natwar, go back to Mrs Thatcher and tell her from me that the Queen can have the “Investiture” at Rashtrapati Bhavan. But leave her in no doubt about the matter being raised in Parliament the next day.

Critical references would be made and the Queen’s name would be dragged in. It was only fair the Queen be made aware of this.” It really was a brilliant riposte. No “Investiture” was held at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

The Queen invited Mother Teresa to tea in the garden where she handed the O.M. to the Nobel Laureate, who was blissfully unaware of the diplomatic upheaval she had caused.

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