Master of restraint

August 31, 2014

A seasoned diplomat and politician K. Natwar Singh’s memoirs have generated a lot of interest and controversy

Master of restraint

Henry Kissinger once said, "Diplomacy is art of restraining power". Politics, on the contrary, is the art of playing with power. K. Natwar Singh had a chance to get a taste of both: after pursing a career in diplomacy for thirty one years, he resigned from his job to join politics in 1984.

The shadow of his lengthy diplomatic career can be seen in his political life. In the early 1980s he was India’s ambassador to Pakistan, and in the summer of 2004 he visited Pakistan as the Minister of External Affairs. His memoirs that have recently been published have generated a lot of interest and controversy too. In a separate chapter on Pakistan he offers solutions. His advice to South Block "to deal with Pakistan in a pragmatic manner if we are not to make a mess of the relationship" is a bold one coming from a person who has spent three decades in the Indian foreign office.

Born on May 16 1931, Natwar Singh comes from an aristocratic Jat family from the princely Bharatpur State. A year after his birth, his father was appointed Nazim and District Magistrate of the ancient Hindu town Deeg or Dirgah, adjacent to Bharatpur in Rajasthan. When Singh was born, there was no electricity or motorcars in those areas yet.

In that period the Bharatpur State had many Muslims, mostly Meos. Interestingly, when Singh contested the Lok Sabha elections of 1984, he got 65 per cent votes from the Meo community who had nostalgic admiration for his father Govind Singh. In 1953, he began his career in Foreign Service.

He married a Punjabi lady Heminder Kaur who was the daughter of Maharaja Patiala and eldest sister of Captain Amarinder Singh, former Chief Minister of the Punjab (2002-2007). Chapter 8 of the book ‘I Marry a Princess’ is about his wife and her powerful family. Yet like a seasoned diplomat, the author did not forget the art of "restraining power" in private life too.

In New Delhi, his memoir has sparked controversies, especially in relation to local party politics, both within and outside Congress. In the book, Sonia Gandhi is described as "deliberately capricious, authoritarian, obsessively secretive and suspicious… She has behaved like a prima donna." The author being in love with the Gandhi family fails to mention the legacy Sonia was bound to carry -- that of Indira Gandhi.

In the book, Sonia Gandhi is described as "deliberately capricious, authoritarian, obsessively secretive and suspicious… She has behaved like a prima donna."

The book has made headlines in the Indian media, partly due to the criticism on Sonia Gandhi, and also because it has come in the wake of the biggest defeat of Congress in the 2014 elections. On page 319, the author shares an account of a meeting with Manmohan Singh, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Suman Dubey. Rahul feared that his mother would lose her life much like his grandmother and father. But the author did not mention the presence of such larger-than-state forces in the South Block (The secretariat building that houses the Prime Minister Office, Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of External Affairs).

In this debate, the author smartly ignores the issue of Indian Citizenship Act which allows a naturalised Indian to become a member of parliament but prevent her/him from becoming a prime minister. It was a time to break that tradition of narrow nationalism but Congress did not challenge the orthodox law.

So it proved a double edge weapon; on the one hand it promoted narrow nationalism while on the other Sonia Gandhi was replaced by a political technocrat who had a flair in economics than politics. It is now presumed that Congress and India could have performed better under the premiership of Sonia. But it did not happen and not only Congress but India had to bear its consequences.

The book provides good insights into the Pak-India conflict especially on the core issue of Kashmir. Singh admits that Kashmir is the ultimate hurdle between India and Pakistan but in his analysis his emphasis remains "territorial" rather than "political".

He writes "I do believe that no government in India and no government in Pakistan would agree to concede an inch of territory. Any government doing so would fall the next day." It is a typical diplomatic answer but in a political approach people would have more importance than territory.

As a career diplomat, he criticises Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru for taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations Security Council under Chapter VI of the UN Charter rather than Chapter VII, which deals with aggression. He also says that it was a monumental mistake on the part of Nehru to act upon the advice of Mountbatten.

Mountbatten was even against sending Indian troops to Srinagar until the Maharaja of Kashmir had signed the Instrument of Accession to India. Brushing aside his advice, Nehru and Patel (Sardar Vallabhbhai) decided that Indian troops should be flown to Srinagar immediately. So, in a way, Natwar Singh accepts that India first sent its army and Maharaja signed the accession document later.

Some of his revelations are worth a read. On Pak-India relations he writes: "Many people take a black-and-white view of Pakistan. That is a simplistic and superficial way to look at this devilishly complex phenomenon." He also reproduces advice of Pakistan’s former foreign sectary Abdul Sattar which is even relevant for all Indians: "Before leaving for Islamabad, I had called upon the Pakistani Ambassador to India, Abdul Sattar. We had first met in London in July 1954 during a four-week course at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London….Finally, I said to Sattar, ‘I have, like you, been long in the diplomatic arena. I know what to say to our friends across the border. Tell me what I should not say.’ His candid answer was one which I have not forgotten to this day: ‘Never say that we are the same people. We are not. If we were, then why did we part company in 1947?’ Throughout my stay in Pakistan, I kept his advice in mind."

He registered his reservation regarding Simla Accord, showed his anger against Bhutto, but like a loyalist of Gandhi dynasty did not criticise Indira, "The Simla Agreement, signed on 2 July 1972, continues to haunt us."

Singh criticises the role of Pakistani Urdu press in souring Pak-India relations but does not talk about the role of Indian or Hindi press in this regard.

He is certainly a master of "restraining power"; as a seasoned diplomat he also has some out of box solutions but as a politician he is not a visionary. For him, Kashmir is a simple issue about a piece of land only. For a politician it is a question of more than 20 million people (more than 75 per cent Muslims, 21per cent Hindus and the rest Sikhs and Buddhists) who are still living in a state of confusion. If we need democracy, peace and freedom for India and Pakistan, why can’t we do so for the people of Jammu and Kashmir? Instead of restraining power, one should support political solutions.

One Life is Not Enough
Author: K. Natwar Singh
Publisher: RUPA publishers, New Delhi, 2014
Pages: 410
Price: Rs895

Master of restraint