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Anshul is a Political Science and Law graduate from the University of Delhi. He is interested in political, legal and policy developments and frequently writes on related themes. You can contact him on anshulkumarpandey [at] gmail [dot] com.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Book Review: One Life is not Enough, An Autobiography by K. Natwar Singh

I picked up the copy of K. Natwar Singh's recently released autobiography "One Life is Not Enough" from a railway station in Delhi while on my way home to Madhya Pradesh. The book had been the source of much discussion in the media as it contained an insider's account of life and politics at 10, Janpath, the official residence of Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Close on the heels of the party's devastating defeat in the 2014 General Elections, several books by those who had a chance to work for or in the UPA government have been released. "An Accidental Prime Minister" by Prime Minister's former media advisor and the former Editor in Chief of Economic Times, Mr. Sanjaya Baru and "Not Just an Accountant: The Diary of the Nation's Conscience Keeper" by the former Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, Mr. Vinod Rai are few examples.

Before reading the book, I happened to come across an interview which Mr. Natwar Singh gave to Madhu Trehan of Newslaundry where the latter complains that the amount of Nehru Gandhi family sycophancy evident in the book makes one's teeth ache. I fully endorse this critique after having finished reading the book. What the author has tried to portray as loyalty towards the family is nothing but slobbering sycophancy.

Having said that, one cannot deny that the author presents a very vivid account of his life in the foreign service and instances where his expertise in handling matters relating to international affairs saved the face of the government of the day. Mr. Singh joined the foreign service in 1953 under the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru. He goes on to give his evaluation of Nehru's foreign policy and points out his three major mistakes: "his disastrous handling of the Kashmir issue, his misplaced trust of the leaders of the People's Republic of China and his turning down of the Soviet proposal to give India a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council". By and large, a large number of people well read on the matter of foreign policy would agree with him.

Yet, the author lets go of a golden opportunity to delve deeper into the issues of foreign policy in which he has extensive professional experience and instead makes the book into an expanded slambook by namedropping the who's who of the literary and creative arts field including E.M. Forster, Nirad Choudhuri, M.F. Hussain etc. with whom he came to develop close relationship due to the nature of his work. I was disappointed to see an autobiography being reduced into an egoist monologue listing the bragging rights that the author achieved in the course of his career. One expected better of such a seasoned politician and diplomat.

Then of course, there is politics. Anything to do with Sonia Gandhi or the Gandhi family as a whole elicits a flurry of excitement from our media because:

1) Our media has stopped covering the real issues that are worthy of media coverage long, long ago.
2) The first family of the Congress party has jealously guarded their privacy unlike other families in the public life and their day to day dealings remain one of the favorite subjects of gossip and speculation in Lutyens Delhi.
3) Everyone in the media establishment wants to keep the Gandhi family in good humor as many expect that sooner or later, another Prime Minister would emerge from 10, Janpath.

Hence, one could understand the amount of buzz the release of this autobiography generated as Mr. Singh was at one point of time, extremely close to Sonia Gandhi and had also served Indira and Rajiv Gandhi before her.

The juiciest revelation that the book had to offer was that in May 2004, as the results of the General Election came in and the UPA seemed set to form the next government, it was not the inner voice of Sonia Gandhi, but the tough resolve of her son Rahul, which prevented her from occupying the seat of the Prime Minister. For a decade while the Congress was in power, an aura of sacrifice hung around the UPA chairperson for refusing the PM's post. Mr. Singh busts this myth in a single paragraph by recounting how Rahul Gandhi presented his mother with an ultimatum to refuse the post as he was afraid that like his father and grandmother, she too will become a victim of some future tragedy.

I think this single paragraph is the major selling point of the book. Thanks to Natwar Singh, we now know how political parties in power are adept at manipulating and creating an alternative history of events. In fact, this book has rendered a great service to the historiographers of the future generation by bringing out many secrets of the 10, Janpath Durbar out in the public domain. There is some sentimentality attached to the abuses that Mr. Singh heaps on the UPA Chairperson largely owing to the treatment meted out to him. However, by and large, I believe, the picture painted of the Congress Party as a den of bootlickers vindicates the perception that the party had come to acquire among the public long long ago.

All in all, Mr. Natwar Singh's autobiography belongs in the category of those books whom you just cannot ignore. Peppered with interesting anecdotes and eye catching revelations, the book is a breezy read for anyone interested in Indian politics. Moreover, by busting the myth of sacrifice of the PM's chair by Sonia Gandhi which was perpetuated so successfully by the Congress Party for over a decade, Mr. Singh has shown  that it will take many more books like these to finally bring out the truth.  One hopes that this autobiography turns out to be a trendsetter.