‘Nehru-Gandhi legacy facing its biggest crisis’

Former External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh during an interview with The Hindu in New Delhi  

The former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh had been a loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi family for several decades, until his bitter parting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi in 2005 after a U.N. report named him among the beneficiaries of an ‘oil for food’ programme in Iraq. His autobiography, One Life is not Enough, released on Friday, has created a political storm for its insider account of the functioning of the Congress and his take on why Ms. Gandhi chose not to take up the Prime Minister’s post in 2005. In a candid interview with Varghese K. George and Suhasini Haidar, Mr. Singh explains the context of his book and says there are things that he has chosen not to write.

Sonia Gandhi approached you when she heard about the book. How did that happen?

After a newspaper interview with me on the book appeared on April 28, Suman Dubey [friend of Ms. Gandhi] called me the same day. He wanted to know whether I could meet Ms. Gandhi that day. It was not possible for me that day. Then on May 6, Priyanka [Gandhi Vadra] called, saying she wanted to meet me. I asked her to come the next day. She came and while we were talking, Sonia just walked in. I was surprised. I did not expect her.

What did she tell you?

I repeated to her what I was telling Priyanka. How hurt I was with the way the entire government machinery came after me in 2005 following the Volcker report, about the rough time I had to face. She said she did not know about it. I said I couldn’t believe it. “Nothing in the Congress moves, not even a leaf, without your approval,” I told her. I said, “I have no bitterness or vengeance. But I must be honest to myself and remain answerable to myself.”

What did she come for?

She wanted me to take some bit out of the book.

About the circumstances of her not taking up the Prime Minister’s post in 2004?

Yes, I said I am not vindictive but the truth shall be stated. That bothered them.

But how did she know what you were planning to say in the book?

I had given an interview to a newspaper on April 28. That is when Suman Dubey called me.

You have called the Volcker report, which mentioned you as beneficiary of the ‘oil for food’ programme, a conspiracy. Who conspired?

[The then Prime Minister] Manmohan [Singh] himself told me that the Americans did not want me as External Affairs Minister. He mentioned to me how powerful the Americans were and that perhaps they could go to any extent to destabilise certain countries. I told him that I am for good relations with the U.S., but strongly opposed some aspects of U.S. policy. What they did in Iraq, Chile, Vietnam?

So you are suggesting a link between this and your exit from the Union Cabinet in 2005?

Yes, absolutely. It is the U.S. establishment. I told Manmohan, I don’t bow my head before them.

You said you were let down by Ms. Gandhi.

Yes. When the Volcker report was out, I was in Moscow. I thought I would return to India and explain. But within hours, an AICC spokesperson issued a statement saying, the Congress was clean and Natwar Singh would explain himself. This could not have happened without Sonia’s approval.

When I returned, I did not go and meet her. She is not used to people being defiant. And I was not going to buckle down. Manmohan told me to go and meet her. I told the blood of my ancestors ran in my vein. We had fought the Mughals and the British and now I am fighting you. I said, “I don’t know whose blood is in your vein.” She expected me to crawl, I was not willing to.

You said this to the Prime Minister?


You think Dr. Singh was also part of a conspiracy to get you out?

He was certainly not comfortable with me.

Did he play mischief?

I cannot say that, but he never stood up for his colleagues.

You have said Rahul Gandhi told Ms. Gandhi not to become Prime Minister. The question is whether she wanted to be Prime Minister.

That I do not know. But then the question is why did this objection [Mr. Gandhi’s] arise if she did not want to.

Some accounts have it that Ms. Gandhi had decided to make Dr. Singh Prime Minister much before the 2004 election results were out.

That I don’t know. But all of us in the Congress were surprised when she announced him as Prime Minister. UPA [United Progressive Alliance] partners were not only surprised, but even outraged.

You were present in a meeting where Mr. Gandhi said his mother must not be Prime Minister?

Rahul was not there. It was Priyanka who said this.

That Mr. Gandhi feared for his mother’s life?

Yes, not in that language. But to that effect.

What was Ms. Vadra’s opinion?

That I do not know. We were not there for half an hour; we were there only for five or six minutes.

You write that there were tears in Ms. Gandhi’s eyes. Why was she crying?

It was an agonising moment for her. Her son was so agitated about her safety. She is after all a human being.

But do you think Ms. Gandhi would have become Prime Minister if Mr. Gandhi did not object to it?

I cannot say that. I do not know.

It is not particularly surprising to hear that Mr. Gandhi feared for his mother’s life. Ms. Gandhi came to meet you to stop a reference to that? Or was there something else that she did not want you to say?

The fact that she came, and wanted me not to write this, means she was bothered.

Are there things about the family that you know, but have not written in this book?

I had to apply some standards of propriety.

So this is not a tell-all book, but there has been some self-censorship?

I am not the kind of person who hits below the belt. That is not in my character.

Will there be a sequel to this book?


Are there secrets that you will never let the world know?

Yes, yes.

What will be the legacy of Ms. Gandhi?

She is still around, and we cannot talk about how history will judge her. But she certainly has a place in history, which is assured. The Nehru-Gandhi legacy is facing the biggest crisis in its history.

You think Rahul Gandhi can lead the party out of this current crisis?

Expectations from him are very high. He is a young man, though he could not deliver the results in the recent elections. The Congress needs him. Though people call it dynasty, the fact is that they have been winning elections. Much will depend on how the Congress performs in the Assembly elections.

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 11:11:16 PM |

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