I have always believed that reading political autobiographies/biographies of national leaders is one of the best ways to understand the contemporary history of the nation and its politics since they are not just ringside views (Kuldip’s autobiography), but can be revelationary (PVN’s semi-autobiography), controversial (Indira’s biography) and explosive (Mathai’s autobiography) as well. While it cannot be denied that each leader (or the author) describes events with his own tinted glasses, the amalgamation of several such (auto)biographies (and hence several tinted glasses) will begin to show common patterns which can be extrapolated by readers to get an approximate & overall picture.
When I first came across a news-piece which said Natwar Singh, who had several decades of political experience, would be authoring a political biography, I was under the impression that it would be a semi autobiography on the lines of PVN’s “The Insider” with fiction cautiously blended with reality which allows the reader to form his own interpretations about characters. However, over the next few days, I was surprised to find that the book turned controversial to the extent of seeking a ban even before its launch, which seemed to suggest that it is not a semi-autobiography but a full fledged attack on the Congress party, which he had actually been a part of, for several decades. Fortunately, the court overruled the plea and for the time being, allowed its sales.
Coming to the content of the book. As with any other political autobiography, Natwar begins with the first chapter detailing his childhood & schooling and like other Congressmen of the prevailing times, had to bear the brunt of being a Gandhi/Nehru fan. For example, the following excerpt suggests how Gandhi was perceived as a “wicked man” by school authorities. (Click following excerpts to enlarge)
Compare it with PV Narasimha Rao where he had also faced similar issues with school for being a Gandhi/Nehru fan as the following excerpt from PVN’s “The Insider” suggests:
The author surprisingly goes into even the minute details of his admission & experience into Indian Foreign Service (IFS) over the first few chapters (I was expecting it to be more political) which sounds more like a personal journal and less of a political biography. However, those chapters, if not political, are still insightful (and sprinkled with some humorous anecdotes) as it sheds more light into the intricacies of IFS and the kind of training one had to go through and the kind of “dignitaries” an IFS officer had to deal with. (Click following excerpts to enlarge)
The next few chapters are purely about his life as a diplomat. The events and anecdotes described in these chapters gives us insight into the bilateral relations India had with countries including China & Israel which comes straight from the horse’s mouth. (Click following excerpts to enlarge)
After finishing almost 40% of the book, the real pulp begins as the author describes his political journey, starting from his appointment as PM Secretariat by Indira Gandhi which puts him into the centre-stage of the world’s biggest democracy and first hand experience of the grave follies of Gandhi family. Although he portrays Indira Gandhi as a great leader (afterall he was indebted to her for providing him an opportunity into politics), he makes no qualms about the dictatorial methodologies used by Indira which could be considered as an attitude of “My way or highway”.
For example, the author claims that Dr. Radhakrishnan had to pay the price for being critical of Indira Gandhi in a speech during which she took the impulsive decision of not giving him a second term for President. (Click following excerpts to enlarge)
Similarly, the author shows no mercy in exposing Rajiv Gandhi and his immaturity in handling major issues like Shah Bano, Ayodhya & LTTE. Also, the author goes on to say that Rajiv Gandhi’s immaturity would have caused turmoil if not for timely intervention of seasoned politicians. For example, in the following excerpt the author claims that Rajiv Gandhi was ready to let off a political offender just because he was a “good friend”. (Click following excerpts to enlarge)
To provide a quick overview: 30% of the book is about Natwar’s personal biography including his childhood & IFS training, 30% is about his diplomatic biography & 40% is the political biography which is not just a reflection of his journey but vicious towards his own party.
What are the major takeaways from this book: Understanding the intricacies of diplomacy, foreign relations, along with the immaturity of Rajiv’s Politics & rise of Sonia Gandhi’s politics. In Natwar’s own words, a part of this book (and its gist) is about “How Sonia Gandhi managed to reduce the Congress, one of the greatest political parties of the world, to a rump of 44 members of the Lok Sabha”.
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