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When the Empress of India paid homage to Babar

August 19, 2014 12:17 IST

'The first 55 years of Natwar Singh's life give a fascinating narrative of our diplomacy,' says Ambassador B S Prakash after reading One Life is Not Enough.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

The Amul butter advertisement got it right. The butter in the ad was a sensational spread, it claimed, like the 'natworious' disclosures in the news.

The ad was catching a moment, when for days on end, on evening television there were revelations by an elderly gentleman with a well coiffured white mane that any octogenarian should be proud of, and with an impeccable all white attire to match, who was earning some notoriety.

Natwar Singh was centre-stage and was demonstrating that though 'One life may not be enough' -- the title of his autobiography -- there could be a third innings in one's life. Not every one retires, 'hurt' or otherwise.

Those of us from the Indian Foreign Service can claim to be his colleagues, for the Service has a fraternal feeling transcending generations. Natwar Singh joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1953 and by the time, I joined it a quarter of a century later, he had already reached stratospheric levels.

He himself has always been collegial taking pride in the IFS, as most of us do, and even in this book generously acknowledges some key stalwarts of the ministry, down the years, who played a role in the events described in the book.

There are two facets to Natwar Singh, a diplomat and a politician. It is natural that officers like me were curious about the key to his success -- in diplomacy and in politics -- and whether the two were somehow related.

In looking at the non-sensational parts of Natwar Singh's autobiography, the earlier parts of his life in diplomacy before politics, one can indeed see how the two interests reinforced each other in his interesting life.

But first, a brief word about what I mean by the sensational parts, which have been discussed amply in the media. Towards the end of his book, Natwar Singh, a self-proclaimed loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, speaks with bitterness about his being let down by the family, a 'betrayal', incidentally a charge that is being levelled against him by current loyalists of the family.

These revelations in the book and on television are essentially a peep into the 'Durbari' politics of the Congress culture: Who is whispering what venom in the ears of the party leader or the progeny; how access to the supreme Leader is secured or denied; and so on.

Natwar Singh, a life-long witness of this game, does reveal juicy nuggets: Rahul made his mom decline the prime ministership on offer; Sonia was more resolute and ruthless in her dislikes than a gentle and trusting Rajiv; and further, a tantalising take, that this aspect of her personality is attributed to she being a non-Indian!

It is these aspects that has made the book a competitor to Chetan Bhagat's next! Thus, Half a girl friend has to contend with 'No more a friend', that could have been a title of Natwar Singh's volume.

But what about the first fifty five years of the author's life, before he joined the Congress? For me, it is a fascinating narrative of the early and middle years of our diplomacy, of the role of the foreign service in it and of how within it, pedigree, luck, talent and brio produced an extraordinary success story.

For instance, how did a young entrant into the IFS get to know Nehru? Natwar Singh came from a privileged background, but his being noticed by Nehru and later getting close to Indira appears to be a matter of luck.

In school and college, he became friends with sons of Nehru's sister Krishna Hutheesing and this meant the opportunity of an occasional breakfast at Teen Murti Bhavan, Nehru's residence, with Indira hovering benignly in the background.

Luck, yes, but then he made his own luck. Not every officer at the junior level has the confidence and the chutzpah to seize an opportunity to ask the prime minister for a ride in her aircraft, which is what he did to return home on transfer from New York, when Air India was on strike.

Indira was interested in books; it so happened that the young diplomat had read the same book that she had picked up on the plane -- so goes a story within the fraternity. Soon a posting in the powerful PMO ensued. To identify the locus of power and to gain proximity to it is an art that highly successful diplomats cultivate.

It seems that this came naturally to Natwar Singh.

But one should not think that the celebrities that he came to know were only political personalities. A good diplomat ought to have a lively curiosity, be interested in ideas, cultures, and conversation and be open to opportunities that come his way in befriending interesting people. So goes the lore.

R K Narayan, E M Foster, Rajaji, Shanta Rama Rau, M F Husain are found in these pages as mentors, guests or friends. As a young officer on district training in the south, Natwar Singh curious to see R K Narayan, just drops in at his home to find a modest man in a vesti pottering in the garden.

The two get acquainted and talk about books. But it is entirely to the credit of the young diplomat, that over the years he is able to fulfil R K Narayan's modest wishes: To see the Mughal gardens at Rashtrapati Bhavan, to meet Nehru once, or get vegetarian meals in New York.

A relationship evolves, nothing to do with power, but pleasurable and prestigious in its own way. Somewhat similar is the case with Nirad Chaudhari, an acerbic man, who in the normal course was disdainful of most people, let alone Sarkari bhadralok.

As the late press advisor to Indira Gandhi and one of Natwar Singh's colleagues in her PMO, Sharada Prasad says, 'Natwar's world of friends and acquaintances is a large one. He has a fine feel for human comedy and a subtle understanding of what makes people say and do the things that they say and do.'

To be objective and non-judgmental about countries and customs and to be innately curious about them is another requirement in a diplomat. Natwar Singh went to China, when it was difficult, but brimming with enthusiasm and with a positive mind.

Thirty years later and with a legacy of differences between the two countries, he still saw the need to normalise the relationship and claims as a modest achievement on his part, Rajiv Gandhi's visit to China in 1988.

As a young diplomat in New York, he had become acquainted with the African freedom fighters who came before the UN decolonisation committee. Years later, what was deemed to be a punishment posting to Zambia, proved to be effective since he already knew Kenneth Kaunda, the leader of that country.

The proximity to power was easy once again. He had no illusions about Zia-ul Haq of Pakistan. But the dictator and the diplomat had a perfectly civilised relationship and 'both assaulted each other by good manners.'

Such are the stories of the diplomatic years.

One story illustrates how the different talents of Natwar Singh, deep reading, wit, and the ability to grab an opportunity reinforced each other in his ascendancy in the diplomatic career.

One day in Kabul, Indira Gandhi is being driven around accompanied by Natwar Singh, then in the PMO. They stumble upon a tomb and are told that it is where Babar, the first Mughal emperor, is buried. They get down, proceed to the tomb and Indira stands still for a moment under the trees, with her head bent. Her aide follows, a few steps behind her.

Relishing this unexpected discovery of the site, Mrs Gandhi says, 'Natwar, I have had my brush with history.' 'I have had two,' says Natwar and explains to her that he had the privilege to see the empress of India paying her respects to the first Mughal emperor!

He does not tell us Mrs Gandhi's response; perhaps there was none; but it is safe to guess that it did not hurt him.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador and currently a visiting Professor at Jamia Milia University.

B S Prakash