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Et tu, Natwar!

August 05, 2014 11:45 IST

How seriously should we take Natwar Singh's book? Indeed how seriously should all such memoirs and autobiographies be taken? The answer, I imagine, depends on the intent.

If the authors are merely settling scores, as many think Natwar Singh is, future historians would be entitled to ignore such autobiographies. But if there is no mens rea (guilty mind), so to speak, these books must be taken seriously, says T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan.

After so much discussion on TV, the only point of interest left about K Natwar Singh's autobiography is whether it will sell more than Sanjaya Baru's book. If nothing else, the sales figures alone -- and the royalties thereof -- should encourage other members of the Congress party to write their memoirs. Even if the pickings are small, if Sonia Gandhi writes her memoirs we can expect many members of her tail-wagging party to follow suit.

But even without crass commercial considerations, such memoirs do serve a larger public purpose. They confirm things that everyone knew about but had no direct proof of. They, thus, provide a reference point for future historians of the period.

Take, for example, Sonia Gandhi's access to government files. It happens all the time when some politically "sensitive" decisions have to be taken -- in all countries with properly elected governments. It doesn't matter whether someone from outside the government actually held the files in their hands. And even less, who took them to her. A proper briefing or summary serves just as well.

Nor does it matter very much, except as a question of gossip, whether Rahul Gandhi forced his mother not to become prime minister. It is unlikely that if she had really wanted the job she would have listened to him. Recall, here, what P C Alexander wrote about how she begged Rajiv not to take on the job, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences on October 31, 1984.

In any case, she had indicated a preference for Manmohan Singh as far back as 1999 after they had worked together as Leaders of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively. It was, as they discovered, a match made in heaven.

Nor does it come as a huge surprise that Sonia Gandhi is to the Congress party what the three Kims have been to the Korean Workers' Party in North Korea. The fact is that the Congress party has a long history of being dominated entirely by one person -- be it Gandhiji between 1920 and 1942, Jawaharlal Nehru between 1952 and 1964, Indira Gandhi between 1971 and 1984 or Rajiv Gandhi during 1985-91.

Gandhiji got rid of Jinnah to get full control. Nehru got rid of Purushottam Das Tandon to do the same thing. Ditto Indira Gandhi, who got rid of Kamaraj Nadar. And Rajiv Gandhi got rid of Pranab Mukherjee by not including him in the Cabinet because Mukherjee had the temerity to suggest that as Number Two in the Indira Gandhi government of 1980-84, it was he who should have become prime minister.

Mukherjee left the Congress and came back only when P V Narasimha Rao asked him to, perhaps thinking his chance would come. But the Congress lost the 1996 election and he reckoned without the party's attachment to the Family. In 1998, when faced with disintegration, it was to Sonia Gandhi that the party turned.

Does it ring true?

How seriously should we take Natwar Singh's book? Indeed how seriously should all such memoirs and autobiographies be taken? The answer, I imagine, depends on the intent.

If the authors are merely settling scores, as many think Natwar Singh is, future historians would be entitled to ignore such autobiographies. But if there is no mens rea (guilty mind), so to speak, these books must be taken seriously.

One other yardstick to use perhaps is to see how much of it rings true. Singh's statement that Rajiv Gandhi had no clue about Operation Brasstacks is possible, but only just. We will have to wait for Arun Singh to tell us what really happened. In any case, it is easy now to pin all the blame on the late General Sundarji for being reckless.

As to Rao being nervous about Sonia Gandhi, there is perhaps another explanation by a person, as the term now goes, "familiar with the developments". He only wanted her to stop his cabinet colleagues (like the late Arjun Singh, N D Tiwari and a few others) from blocking government policies during the initial years of reform. She didn't, and Messrs Singh and Tiwari both quit the Congress to form their own party.

On a personal note, I might add here that during a press conference in Bhopal in the first week of July 1991, I asked Arjun Singh what role Sonia Gandhi would play in the party now, and he said it would be a central one. But she didn't oblige till 1998, when the party started to fall apart.

The rest is India's tale of woe.

Image: K Natwar Singh. Photograph: Kamal Kishore/Reuters.

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan
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