Books by Has-beens is More About Rediscovering Their Imaginary Legacies
G K Chesterton, known for his adept turn of phrase, wisecracked, “A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” Former Gandhi loyalist-turned-Brutus Natwar Singh’s new book is not a novel, but fiction stranger than fact. His only claim to fame is the close access he once enjoyed to the Nehru-Gandhi family and its accompanying advantages. He doesn’t lose any opportunity to boast about his encounters with world leaders and how Indira Gandhi trusted him more than any other where diplomatic ventures were concerned. Predictably, his book reveals more about himself than his former benefactor, mentor and promoter, Sonia Gandhi. But for Gandhi Parivar’s indulgence and munificence, Singh would be spending his sunset days in some village of Rajasthan like many of his former colleagues. I haven’t read the book, but have read enough and heard his utterances regarding his interpretation of events, which is aimed at demolishing the already marginalised Sonia.
Natwar is a herald of hindsight; he has expounded anything and everything about Sonia’s style and substance, which he now finds dictatorial. The acolyte who revolted against former PM P V Narasimha Rao for Sonia’s sake, has now become her worst enemy. Modesty has never been Natwar’s virtue. Like many retired, tired and fired civil servants and politicians, he has followed the formula of hawking wisdom by writing selective memoirs. During the past decade, many retired babus and advisers have penned experiences, receiving much media space. All of them, perhaps, believe that public memory is short. It isn’t. Natwar, like many other authors before him, has been uncharitable with the truth. While some, like former President Venkatraman and BG Deshmukh, former principal secretary to Rajiv Gandhi, refrained from making political statements or embarrassing disclosures, others like T N Seshan and P C Alexander used privileged information to seek publicity or favour from the new establishment.
Natwar has the advantage of both degree and pedigree. His ‘damning revelations’ would have made sense if he had dealt with Volcker Commission’s Report on Oil-for-Food scam. His close aide implicated him. It was only after massive protests in Parliament that he lost his job as foreign minister. When India Today carried it as a cover story and followed up with a series of debates on Headlines Today, Sonia was forced to jettison Natwar. To be fair to her, she resisted all pressure to act hastily after the story hit the headlines. First she divested Natwar of his portfolio and asked him to resign only later. But Natwar seems to have glossed over this chapter, which marked the end of his relationship with the Congress and Gandhi Parivar. Trained in the bureaucratic and political tradition of compromise, he cleverly evades his and the Congress’ association or role in the scam.
Both Natwar and Congress were listed in the report as “non-contractual beneficiaries” of Iraqi oil sales in 2001. Natwar was mentioned as the non-contractual “beneficiary” in connection with four million barrels of oil routed through Masefield AG, named as the contracting company. The report also claimed that Congress also benefitted through the same company, a charge denied by both Natwar and the party. Surprisingly, after his disgraceful ouster, Natwar kept schtum for almost six years. He even let his son Jagat contest an Assembly poll on a BJP ticket.
The irony is that even after writing highly sensational prose, Natwar admits he hasn’t revealed all he knows. It is evident that the predominant objective is to establish his honesty and give a bad name to his former mentor. His attempt appears to expose as myth Sonia’s decision not to become PM by heeding her “inner voice, and that she did so because Rahul felt that she, too, would be assassinated like his father and grandmother”. Such rumours did appear in the media in 2004. Natwar’s details about the events tell more about the quality of the author’s wisdom than the heroine or villain of his labours. Evidence is scarcer than truth: like, an ex-adviser of a former PM, Natwar also mentions that official files were sent to Sonia for approval, but doesn’t offer any proof. I am positive that Natwar himself was sharing much sensitive information about his ministry with Sonia, but wasn’t significant enough to be appreciated by the Congress president.
If Natwar decided to give vent to his anger against the Gandhis, others have churned out volumes only to enshrine their virtues. For example, when Seshan, former Cabinet Secretary and later Chief Election Commissioner, wrote A Heart Full of Burden, he simply forgot to disclose his relationship with former PM V P Singh and the reasons that led to his removal. He also abjured any explanations for his decision to postpone the second phase of Lok Sabha polls after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Seshan, in fact, claimed that he consulted former PM Chandrashekhar before taking the decision, who flatly refuted this. Even Alexander never revealed the real reason for his ouster from Indira Gandhi’s office in his three tomes. He was asked to leave after the discovery of a functionary in his office embroiled in an espionage scandal.
A great example of a sunshine memoir is My Presidential Years by former President R Venkatraman. Contrary to general perception about his cloudy relations with Rajiv Gandhi, he revealed a few disagreeable facts. In one of my meetings with him, Venkatraman mentioned his problems with Rajiv, who he claimed came to meet him only to discuss the colour of Rashtrapati Bhavan curtains. Based on my interaction, I wrote a story in India Today. Soon after it hit the stands, he cancelled my scheduled meeting with him.
It is evident that the competitive urge to write books by has-beens and forgotten time-servers about their official roles seems to have more to do with positioning themselves as advisers-on-call and rediscovering their imaginary legacies. As a powerful personage in the current dispensation puts it, how come wisdom and truth dawns on babus and leaders only after they are sacked or retired? To paraphrase Sonia’s literary promise, I will disclose the truth when I write my encounters with untruth.
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