The Book of Revelations

The Book of Revelations

By M.J. Akbar | 2 August, 2014
Heady Days: The then Foreign Minister Natwar Singh with the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi, on 7 September 2005. REUTERS
The central question is: Does Mrs Sonia Gandhi have something to hide? A simple, single word, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, would do.

Why write a fat

book when a single sentence might suffice?

There are many excellent reasons why Mrs Sonia Gandhi should pen a memoir, but Kunwar Natwar Singh's autobiography, One Life is Not Enough, is not one of them. Once her "closest friend" and now nemesis, Natwar Singh has raised some important questions about Sonia Gandhi's character and use, or misuse, of power during the UPA decade between 2004 and 2014. His revelations and remarks have got traction in media and among the people because they seem credible. Mrs Gandhi has to answer them now, not a few years later.

The central question is: Does Mrs Sonia Gandhi have something to hide? A simple, single word, "yes" or "no", would do.

If Mrs Sonia Gandhi has nothing to hide, why did she and her daughter Priyanka call on Natwar Singh in May this year to plead that he should delete certain portions from this book?

If Mrs Sonia Gandhi believes that her erstwhile colleague, advisor and friend is indulging in fabrication, she has an effective recourse: she can sue the author and publisher for libel and collect handsome damages if she wins. She has enough lawyers in the party baggage who will appear for her pro bono. A legal notice can be sent within an hour.

So far, the Congress response has veered between a private squirm and a public shout. Hapless spokespersons on television have resorted to high-pitched diversion: when asked about Delhi they launch into a vigorous assault on Mumbai. Ask if Mrs Gandhi refused to become Prime Minister in 2004 because of her widely-advertised conscience, or her son's fears, and you get some sustained invective against the author rather than a direct answer. In any case, this pales before the charge that official files were being shown to Mrs Gandhi by a bureaucrat, Pulok Chatterjee. It is not illegal to be afraid, but it is illegal to violate the Official Secrets Act. Dr Manmohan Singh has said, rather blandly, that he was not aware of any files being sent to Mrs Gandhi, but he would say that, wouldn't he? Otherwise he would be guilty as well.

Natwar Singh claims that he was dropped from high office and driven out from Congress in 2005, after being named among the "non-contractual beneficiaries" of Saddam Hussein's oil-for-food programme, because Mrs Sonia Gandhi needed a scapegoat. Note, however, that the term is plural: beneficiaries. Among them was "AICC". Mrs Gandhi certainly led the assault against Natwar Singh with a fury that she never displayed towards anyone else in AICC; nor was any effort made by her or Congress to discover who precisely in "AICC" was in play. Nor did Mrs Gandhi later show any such vehemence against corruption when the telecom or coal mine scandals broke, or indeed when her son-in-law Robert Vadra became wealthy in quantum leaps.

Natwar Singh values his honour. He had a distinguished career in diplomacy. He is erudite. He was very close to three generations of Mrs Sonia Gandhi's family. Mrs Sonia Gandhi told her daughter Priyanka in his presence, at the meeting in May, that he was privy to information that she could not confide even in her children. Mrs Gandhi and Congress might now try and portray him as bitter or false, but the basic question will not go away: would Mrs Gandhi have made that enormous psychological effort to go to his home and plead if she believed that his book was only a load of bunkum?

Natwar Singh was obviously devastated in 2005 when his integrity was minced and he was flayed by a ruthless political machine. Philosophy cannot hide such scars, nor reason erase them. But he did do Mrs Gandhi and Congress one enormous favour: he did not permit publication before the general elections, when it could have done even more damage. If Mrs Sonia Gandhi is not just buying time, and does actually want to write her version then one presumes she will lend her name to a book, rather than a pamphlet. Emperors of yore employed the finest minds in court to set down their official story. The lords, ladies and knights of the British Raj, who ruled India after the Mughals, were prolific memoirists. It was an obligatory rite of passage between retirement and the last goodbye. Their heirs after 1947, the "English Indians", have not done too badly either in the genre. It is a grand tradition.

Those who have tasted power know that their historic value will be measured by memory. In 1945, in the closing phase of the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill were relaxing after a day of hard negotiations at the Yalta conference.

Roosevelt wondered how history would treat them. Roosevelt was pessimistic, Stalin was enigmatic, but Churchill was perky. History, said Churchill, would be kind to him, because he would write it.

Amen to that.

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