Exclusive interview with Daman Singh author of ‘Strictly Personal’

Updated - April 21, 2016 02:55 am IST

Published - August 09, 2014 02:37 am IST

This is the closest and most personal view anyone has offered of the man who led India for ten years. What drove you to write a book about Dr. Manmohan Singh?

Actually, the book is about my mother as well as my father. I guess being a parent made me think a lot about my own parents. I mean, I just have one kid, they had three – sounds so scary. I wondered how they managed. And then I realised how little I really knew about them. For instance, I didn’t really know what they were like when they were young, what they thought of each other when they first met, etc, etc. So we started talking and one thing led to another. I had just finished my second novel and I thought, wow, all this is far more exciting than any novel I could possibly write.

Your parents come across as endearing but simple, down to earth, un-ambitious people...what do you think brought them to 7RCR?

That’s a tough question. Maybe some people would call it fate, but I don’t think it’s just that. Basically, my father started his career as a lecturer in Punjab University. He’s never applied for any job ever since, the offers just came to him. That’s how he went to the UN, to Delhi School of Economics, to the Ministry of Foreign Trade, the Planning Commission, RBI etc etc etc. That’s how he became finance minister. That’s how he became prime minister. So, I suppose his work sort of spoke for itself.

Even so, the book ends abruptly on the day he became PM...leaving many disappointed that it doesn’t even deal with how he became PM. Was it Dr. Manmohan Singh who didn’t want to speak about that?

He doesn’t tell his family anything about his work. I certainly didn’t expect him to talk to me – of all people – about this. Maybe you should ask him, he might actually tell you...

Was it hard as a daughter to try and find out about the early lives of your parents? There is a bit when you speak of your father’s thoughts being “occupied by a girl”. It’s the only real hint of romance in his life, and yet he gives it up when his grades suffer...was he, according to you, timid or boring?

I was absolutely delighted to know that my father had thought about a girl, any girl, when he was a student. Was there a romance? I have no idea. I hope so.

I remember interviewing you some years ago, when between your mother and you and your sisters, you couldn’t recall a single family holiday since Nainital in the 1970s. That doesn’t seem right...did you feel bad about that?

No. I don’t remember feeling bad. My sisters and I were never bored in the holidays. We were pretty busy with books, secret hideouts in the garden, racing around on our cycles, music, hanging around with our dog, things like that.

There is so much about PV Narasimha Rao in your book. Did Dr. Singh feel bad about the way he was treated by the Congress party after he lost elections in 1996? Why didn’t he speak out about it, even when Mr. Rao died, and his body wasn’t allowed into Congress headquarters.

I haven’t asked him this question, so I don’t really know. But I do know that my father visited Rao Sahib – that’s what he calls him – quite often. I think he even sought his advice after – or maybe just before, I don’t remember – he was sworn in.

I ask that specifically, because of the charge levelled by both Mr. Natwar Singh and Dr. Baru in their books: that Dr. Singh didn’t stand by his ministers. By extension, that he didn’t stand up for his friends....is that unfair?

I haven’t read Sanjay Baru’s book or Natwar Singh’s book. But the funny thing is that some people say the exact opposite – that my father was over-protective of his ministers. I guess there are different points of view.

The book says absolutely nothing about Dr. Singh’s relationship with Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. Yet he worked closely with her for a decade before becoming PM. Why did you decide to not write about her?

I think Mrs. Gandhi became Congress president in 1998 – but I may have got the date wrong. Yes, my father did work with her before 2004. The book does talk about that period.

As the family of the PM, did you ever meet the Gandhi family? What is your impression of Rahul Gandhi as a leader?

I met Mrs. Gandhi once. My father was just back from hospital – he had heart surgery in 2009 – she came to see him at home and I just happened to be around. I think I met Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi for a minute or two at the SPG raising day.

In Washington in 2013 we saw the impact that images of Mr. Gandhi tearing up the ordinance in Delhi had on the PM’s aides. They were stunned. How would you describe your reaction? Is it true that your sister Amrit counselled your father to quit?

I don’t remember where I was at the time, but I obviously wasn’t watching TV. Why don’t you ask Amrit about this?

Were there other times in the ten years that he was PM that you or your family thought he should resign? I ask that because there was a sense that no matter what he wished to do, whether it was to crackdown on corruption, or build ties with Pakistan etc....it was the Congress Party that stopped him.

Frankly, I think this whole business of resigning every time something bad happens is taken a bit too far. I mean, all of us remember how Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned as railway minister after a bad train accident. That was very noble of him. People were moved. But did he actually cause that accident? And did his resignation improve railway safety? Somehow, I doubt it.

Dr. Singh said “History will judge him more kindly.” Do you believe he was unkindly judged?

I think a certain amount of time must pass before we can get a clear perspective of things.

Were there parts of your research, speaking to your parents, reading their letters, that were a revelation to you, that came as a surprise?

Everything in the book was a revelation to me. That’s why I wrote it.

It is courageous of you to speak about your own mental breakdown after the 1999 election campaign for the South Delhi seat. Your mother once described the loss as the worst time in her life....was she referring to the impact it had on you?

Well, you’ll have to ask her what she was referring to. But I do think it’s really important to talk about mental illness. So many people suffer in silence, there is so much shame, stigma. Why should this be so? If I were diabetic, I wouldn’t have to keep it a secret.

Now that you your father is no longer PM, your parents are no longer in 7RCR... what do you miss?

I don’t miss anything. Not one bit.

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