Truths and half truths – A session with Natwar Singh


Truth is a dangerous thing, and revealing it to the world, even more so.

As a first year in my first month of College, the last thing I anticipated was getting the opportunity to sit on a panel with Mr. Natwar Singh, one of the most well known Stephanians. The month before College began, Mr Singh was a staple on the front page of the newspapers, and his tell-all book, a rage on national television. The nation demanded answers. They received several, though there was often a disconnect between the questions and the answers.

His knowledge on international relations is formidable, as is his experience in the field. At the ripe old age of 83, the fact that he possesses such a sharp mind, with an active life, is testimony to that. His diplomacy and tact, possibly originating from his IFS days, have enabled him to deflect questions that put him in a spot. But politics has not been as kind to him. His closeness to the Nehru-Gandhi family is why he stayed on in mainstream politics for as long as he did, but the culmination of that loyalty led to his allegedly being used as a scapegoat by none other than Mrs. Sonia Gandhi in the infamous Oil For Food Scandal. He, along with the Congress party, was indicted in the Volcker report on the scam for having purportedly made illegal payments to Saddam Hussein’s government. External Affairs Minister at the time, he was rudely woken up after a trip to Moscow and told to pack his bags. Seemingly disgruntled by this and charges of nepotism, Mr. Singh decided to pen down his rich experiences in his new book. (Aside: His book is not a book on Sonia, as he is eager to explain. It merely contains one chapter on her.)

On the 22nd of August 2014, Mr. K. Natwar Singh, former bureaucrat, diplomat and minister, politician, and now writer, visited St. Stephen’s College to give a talk on the topic “Revisiting the Mandate : The Demise of the Congress.” The panelists were Michelle Cherian (IInd Economics), Rohan Talwar (IInd History) and myself. He walked into a crowded Seminar Room, dapper in a white kurta and sleeveless jacket, which had to be consequently abandoned because there was no electricity. After much drama over microphone batteries that did not work and a fellow panelist’s emergency requirement of wet wipes, the talk proceeded without a hitch (almost). Mr. Singh readily reminisced about his college days when he was SUS President and had college colours in 6 different sports, all the while maintaining a good academic record. He spoke of being a Cambridge boy, his interaction with E.M. Forster, being the first batch of civil servants and Nehru rising to greet each of them after their selection. He answered the question on everybody’s minds – will the Congress collapse without a leader from the Gandhi fold? He was extremely clear on this – the Congress would split up into several factions if there were no Gandhi at the centre.

He touched upon a variety of topics (I hear staying on topic is a rare phenomenon on this campus), ranging from the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement to Sonia Gandhi, China, his crucial role in shaping Indian foreign policy and of course, his book, “One Life is Not Enough.” Well, one session was definitely not enough to extract the wealth of information Mr. Singh has, especially given the skirting-the-point answers provided by him.

After a 40 minute talk, Mr. Singh faced a few questions from the Panel. The first was a question on his opinion on Nuclear Disarmament with regard to the Indo-US Nuke deal (as I felt he had made a minor contradiction on his role in relation to that in his speech) and the reasons for the Non-Proliferation Treaty being “flawed”. While he spoke of his being the man responsible behind the deal, and his change in policy with regard to the USA, he did not elaborate on reasons for having done so. The second question focused on International Relations – India’s relationship with China and Pakistan. Mr. Singh brought in his Chinese diplomatic experience (he was posted first to Beijing), parties with Mao and also spoke of the recent entry level talks between India and Pakistan. According to him, they should not have been cancelled by the Indian Prime Minister, but postponed. He was asked about Israel as well and gave an extensive background to the issue starting from India’s being against the Partition of Israel to present day friendly relations. The next question was a little controversial – he has often spoken about Rajiv Gandhi’s crucifixion in the Bofors scandal despite not having received a penny. My question to him was whether Mr Gandhi knew about the several pennies received by other parties and yet his doing nothing about it. He declined to answer and after much scrambling by the panelists, a replacement question was asked while we breathed a sigh of collective relief that he had not walked out.

The audience had several questions to ask as well, ranging from India spying on other nations (to which Mr. Singh replied saying that while India spied on no one, others spied on India) to the Volcker report and his book. He signed off on a note similar to previous interviews where he said he would write another book after Mrs. Gandhi’s proposed tell-all book hits the stores(because Stephanians are allowed to be “mischievous”).

In all, Mr. Singh is inspiring in terms of his achievements, the various hats he has worn and the courage it must’ve taken him to write such a book. I did not get the answers I was searching for, for some questions, but I did learn a lot, both from him and from the research that went in before the talk. There w contradiction and circumlocution, but one cannot help but admire him because he is, as someone said, a “very nice old man”.