Natwar Singh recounts his encounters with historical figures during his days as an IFS officer
This collection of 50 articles reproduced from Mail Today, where they were first published in 2011 and 2012, covers Natwar Singh’s recollections of encounters with mighty figures from politics, the arts, and even sport. Most of the stories are drawn from the author’s time as a highly distinguished officer in the Indian Foreign Service and his later tenure of ministerial posts, including the External Affairs portfolio, and therefore have to do with rarely-seen sides of very eminent people.
The author does not mince words. When ordered by the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai not to accompany a 1978 Zambian prime ministerial delegation to India, Natwar Singh accompanied the delegation, and told a furious Desai that not to have done so would have breached protocol seriously and would have damaged India’s standing with Zambia and other African states, many of whose leaders had the highest regard and respect for India.
That the famous and the powerful, some of whom Natwar Singh calls the messy and the mighty, often put civil servants — even those of other countries — in awkward positions need be no surprise, and at least one such episode shows how long the colonial hangover can last. During the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Delhi, there was no British consultation with India before invitations went out on Buckingham Palace stationery for the Queen’s proposed investiture of Mother Teresa with the Order of Merit at Rashtrapati Bhavan; the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher rejected India’s suggestion that British high commission premises be used, saying it was too late for a change. Indira Gandhi’s reply, via Natwar Singh, was that Rashtrapati Bhavan could be used, but that questions would surely be raised in Parliament and the Queen’s name would be “dragged in.” No investiture took place; the Queen invited Mother Teresa to tea in the Mughal Gardens, and handed her the award.
Some of the civil servants are remarkable people too; when Ambassador R.G. Rajwade presented his credentials to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, protocol required that he walk out with two lions — the lions of the book’s title — following him. Staring straight ahead, the Ambassador continued walking, and replied to an astounded Ethiopian official that his eyes were fixed only on the Emperor.
Questions of status, always available for exploitation, appear often. Richard Nixon, who sent no invitations to national leaders to a dinner at the White House, seems to have required that permanent representatives at the United Nations advise their respective leaders to write confirming attendance. Indira Gandhi saw this as a summons, not an invitation, and sent an icy letter saying she would not attend; not for her Manmohan Singh’s remark to George W. Bush, ‘The people of India deeply love you.’ Natwar Singh also provides a pertinent reminder of how the former U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull — who drafted much of the U.N. Charter — saw the world body: the veto power was an “absolute condition” for U.S. participation, and ensured that neither the General Assembly nor the Security could “act against the permanent five.”
Not all leaders, however, stood on status; Zia-ul-Haq, a head of state and not, like Indira Gandhi, a head of government, made a point of calling on Ms. Gandhi when they were at international events, and clearly maintained personal links which stood in sharp contrast to the political positions he took. Fidel Castro, when Yasser Arafat threatened to leave the 1983 Non-Aligned Movement conference in Delhi because he had had to speak after King Hussein of Jordan, famously asked the PLO leader how he saw Indira Gandhi and on receiving the answer that she was like an elder sister, told Arafat to behave like a younger brother and attend the rest of the event. The episodes, however interesting, are all located in wider political contexts, and there are chapters on the author’s encounters with truly legendary figures, such as General Vo Nguyen Giap, who drove imperial France out of Indo-China, and Nelson Mandela, though why the V.P. Singh government sent an Additional Secretary from the Ministry of External Affairs and not a senior minister to greet Mr. Mandela on his release from prison remains a puzzle. There are plenty more, including a few surprises, in this entertaining, illuminating, and often instructive, collection.
(Arvind Sivaramakrishnan is senior deputy editor with The Hindu)