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A Friend And A Gentleman

K. Natwar Singh: imaginative and impeccable; a boss, yet a sport; a grand wit. His autobiography can be his final testimony, a redemptive fling, even a parting shot.

A Friend And A Gentleman
Illustration by Saahil
A Friend And A Gentleman

The most notorious story of Natwar and I is the one made notorious by Swapan Dasgupta writing up a private in-joke in an article on St Stephen’s in India Today years after it happened. I had been invited by the Informal Discussion Group, a venerable Stephanian institution going back at least half a century, to my own days in the college. Unusually, I was taken to the principal’s office, a dreaded spot because undergraduates were only ever summoned there to be rusticated, and confronted with a visitors’ book to sign. The syndrome of my late adolescence having overtaken me in these solemn surroundings that I was entering for the first time ever, I found myself, for once, failing for words. Therefore, in a desperate quest for inspiration, I started turning the pages back and came upon Natwar having signed it with a flourish:

Name: K. Natwar Singh
Designation: Minister of State for External Affairs
Remarks: ‘I am what I am because of St Stephen’s’!

I asked for a pencil and scribbled under it: ‘Why blame the College?’

Mildly alarmed at how Natwar would take this pubic revelation of an in-house giggle, I was much relieved to find him brushing it off with a wan smile, revealing the most attractive part of his character: a great sense of humour, which means the capacity to laugh at yourself. But he also has a ready wit—the capacity to crack a joke, usually at someone else’s expense. He was invited soon after to deliver the commemoration address at the college chapel, and ended his speech with the immortal retort: “And whatever Mani Shankar Aiyar might say, I am what I am because of St Stephen’s.” Touche!

That ready wit is what launched him on an enviable political career. He was literally kidnapped from New York and jetted in Indira Gandhi’s aeroplane to New Delhi to work as an under-secretary in her office in the immediate wake of her becoming prime minister. One of her early trips abroad was to Kabul. She kept asking that a visit to Babar’s tomb be included in her itinerary, but every time the draft programme was brought to her, she would find Babar’s tomb missing. When eventually she arrived in Kabul and glanced at the printed programme, she was distressed to find that Babar’s tomb had still not been included. Natwar spotted an opening in her crowded diary for 7 am one morning. He commandeered a staff car, had himself driven to Babar’s tomb and made arrangements for the PM to go there next morning. Babar is no Afghan hero. Hence, the tomb, located on a hilltop, was grossly neglected (this has since been rectified). As there was then no tarred road right up to the plateau, Natwar and Indira had to toil up the incline on foot next morning to reach the grave. She seemed overwhelmed by the occasion and stood silently before the humble sepulchre for several minutes. Then she heaved a sigh and murmured, “Natwar, I’ve had my moment with history.” And Natwar, quick as a flash, responded, “And I, Madam, have had two!” He never looked back after that.

He was able to feel so free and easy with Indira (something all PMs yearn for, because their high office strikes such awe in most of their tongue-tied visitors) as he had known her for years. Soon after arriving at St Stephen’s, as it happened, he struck up a friendship with the son of Nehru’s sister, Krishna Hutheesingh. Young Hutheesingh would occasionally take Natwar to breakfast at Teen Murti House with the future prime minister, Indira Gandhi, fussing over the two young men as a good hostess should.

It was the beginning of Natwar’s passion for collecting celebrities like others collect postage stamps. He succeeded only because of his warm and generous hospitality and his remarkable felicity for keeping the famous informed and amused. Even as a very junior foreign service officer, he had added to his catch E.M. Forster at Cambridge (where Natwar was sent as a probationer); Han Suyin and Dr Radhakrishnan in Peking (he chose Chinese as his compulsory foreign language, when his colleagues were opting for more salubrious climes); R.K. Narayan and C. Rajagopalachari and a host of African leaders, whom he met in New York as freedom fighters of Africa roamed the corridors of the UN, looking for diplomatic support for decolonisation. As the ‘winds of cha­nge’ (Harold Macmillan’s phrase) blew over Africa in the ’60s and ’70s, these were the ones who became their nations’ first prime minister or president. They ate out of his hands—literally, because he was so hospitable, and figuratively, because the friendships he formed with the African mighty endured through their years of glory and fall from grace. Closest of them was Kenneth Kaunda, soon to become life president of Zambia, with whom Natwar shared his favourite soothsayer. Kaunda kept that Indian astrologer and savant virtually imprisoned by his side. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was another close friend. Because I was familiar with all this, I persuaded Rajiv Gandhi, when he was about to embark on a five-nation tour of East and Central Africa, to take Natwar along—which is how he went on to become MoS external affairs and eventually Manmohan Singh’s foreign minister: one small good turn for the numerous good turns he has done for me.

Photograph by T. Narayan

After the ‘ullu’ fiasco at the NAM summit, I was sacked. Natwar made the PM overturn it. It was a noble gesture.

Soon after Natwar returned to Delhi, he met and married Hem, the eldest daughter of the maharaja of Patiala. Ever since, generations of IFS officers have roared with laughter over the (probably apocryphal) story of Romesh Bhandari and Natwar Singh going to Hyderabad House for a VIP reception. Natwar, so goes the story, as behoves the junior of the two, respectfully took his place in the queue behind Romesh Bhandari as they went up to shake hands with the VIP. Romesh is said to have introduced himself saying, “I am Romesh Bhandari, and this is my wife, the daughter of the maharaja of Patiala.” And Natwar, coming right up behind Bhandari, introduced himself, saying, “I am K. Natwar Singh and this is my wife, the daughter of the maharaja and maharani of Patiala!”

Although I had been 17 years in the foreign service before I really met Natwar Singh, it was only when I was serving as consul-general in Karachi and he was posted in May 1980 as my boss-ambassador in Islamabad that I got to know him. He had acquired a wholly undeserved reputation for haughtiness and pomposity. So, not a little nervous, I rang a colleague and friend of long standing, Chan­drashekhar Dasgupta, who had served under Natwar in London through the Emergency (which was when he gained a nationwide reputation as Indira Gandhi’s hatchet-man). Shekhar assured me that, contrary to his reputation, Natwar was really a hail-fellow-well-met kind of chap, but for one thing—publicity and press coverage, which he wished to monopolise. I replied that in the eighteen months I had already served in Karachi, every move of mine was covered by the press and nary a photo-opp­ortunity missed. Shekhar laughed and said that was alright, Natwar wouldn’t mind, provided I did not get any exposure in the Indian press. That had to be Natwar’s prerogative. As things turned out, Natwar revelled in my Karachi press coverage and when, towards the end of my tour of duty, India Today posted a very flattering tribute to my performance in Karachi, it was Natwar himself who was the first to point it out to me, with, I might add, considerable pride and even ownership. Of course, I had by then become a favourite of his, not because he endorsed my benign view of Pakistan, but because he was democratic enough to give a junior colleague his head. (Some time later, Natwar was to earn a permanent place in any Indian Book of Quotations by his famous put-down of an uppity journalist who asked whether on Pakistan he was a ‘dove’ or a ‘hawk’. Natwar snapped at him, “We are running foreign policy here, not an aviary!”)

My becoming a favourite had much to do with his many visits to Karachi. Bhutto had just been hanged and Benazir was mostly under house arrest. I knew her mother well and had met Benazir a few times. Natwar was very keen to meet her—but clandestinely. So, I arranged with a good friend, Makhdoom Amin Fahim (who really should have become Pakistan’s PPP prime minister after Benazir’s assassination), for Natwar to ‘accidentally’ meet Benazir at Amin’s house. The meeting went off splendidly and I believe the full story is told in Natwar’s forthcoming autobiography. Next day, I hosted a luncheon in Natwar’s honour at India Lodge to which I invited my whole spectrum of Pakistani political friends (all were taking refuge in relaxed Karachi from Zia’s tyranny in Islamabad). Natwar later told me that one of the guests had whispered to him his amazement at my guest list, seeing as how most of those present were waiting only to come to power to hang many of the other guests! I think that one remark got me an ‘outstanding’ in my annual confidential report.

Subsequently, Natwar returned to Karachi in the aftermath of the horrific police firing at Muslim worshippers coming out of their Id prayers at the Idgah in Moradabad in the summer of 1980. A rash of anti-Muslim riots then broke out all over west UP and spread as far as Bihar. It seemed like a repeat of 1857. I was in India on leave at the time and rushed back to contend with delegation upon irate delegation coming to register their protest. Natwar had distinguished himself and risen sky-high in my estimation by confessing to the Pakistani press that the carnage left him “ashamed as a human being and humiliated as an Indian”.

The day of his arrival, a mob began gathering outside the consulate gates. I had previously faced such a mob when India House was invaded by a gang of wreckers who broke the furniture in the reception area and were beating up the staff. I asked the DSP, Martin D’Souza, to point out the gang leaders to me and took them up to my room while he pushed back the rioters. There, I offered them coffee and asked them to share their grievances with me, one by one. The last of them had just said his name was Rajeev and he was a medical student and he just could not understand why we were killing Muslims in India while he, a Hindu, was treated so well by his Pakistani colleagues when the phone rang. It was the DSP. “Sir,” he said, “the mob are getting restive. They say their leaders are drinking coffee with you.” “So they are,” I heartily responded. “Please bring them down, sir, otherwise I’ll have arson on my hands.” I rushed the leaders down and escorted them to the locked gate. There, a particularly incensed young man was grabbing the gate’s iron bars and jumping up and down, shouting, “Morarji, kutta! Morarji, kutta!” (I was sorely tempted to cross the gate and join him!)

Diplomatic immunity requires that demonstrations be stopped some distance from the consular premises and a junior officer of the establishment walks to the barred entrance to accept at arm’s length a petition from a single representative of the demonstrators. I, however, had my personal precedent. I suggested to the ambassador that we walk to the gate and invite the leaders in. Sportingly, Natwar instantly agreed. We kept the mob out but a dozen leaders accompanied us to my third floor office to receive a patient and sympathetic hearing from the ambassador—until one guy, a Jamaat-e-Islami type, yelled that we had killed 90 lakh Muslims in India, at which the other leaders asked him to stop talking nonsense. At this, a fight broke out among the Pakistanis and we ended it with Natwar cordially escorting them out of the consulate. That’s the kind of head of mission he was. There could be few like him.

But my all-time favourite story of Natwar in Karachi was his visit there after Zia, in a bogus gesture towards wider participation in his rule, had nominated ‘first ministers’ of the different provinces. The first minister of Sind was a jolly, fun-loving former Bhutto acolyte whom Bhutto had badly cheated and had since turned into an ardent Bhutto-hater called Rasool Bux Talpur—a member of the unbelievably wealthy upper landed aristocracy of lower Sind. Natwar suggested on the last morning of his visit that it would perhaps be appropriate for him to call on the first minister a few hours before his scheduled departure for Islamabad, and would I please arrange it? I rang the local protocol branch of the foreign office to receive an earful that there was no prior notice given and how were they to get Islamabad’s permission for the Indian ambassador to meet the first minister in the hour that remained for the ambassador to take his flight out of Karachi? Getting no change from the foreign office, I called Rasool Bux—an old and tried friend I had invited as chief guest for our Independence Day celebrations—directly. He asked me to bring the ambassador over immediately. I called protocol to say we had been summoned and we had no alternative to going. The poor protocol officer was furious but powerless to overrule the first minister.

Natwar rose in my estimation by confessing to the Pakistani press that the anti-Muslim riots left him “ashamed”.

We reached the Sind secretariat, to be met by a surge of petitioners. Elbowing our way through them, we took the lift to the first minister’s floor and walked straight into his chambers to an overwhelmingly expansive welcome. I saw out of the corner of my eye that the representative of the foreign office, armed with a notebook, had beaten us to the draw. But even before we were seated, Rasool Bux grabbed the conversation and said, in his earthy Urdu  (which I must here use to convey the full flavour of what followed): “Safir sahib, mein jaanta hoon ki aap mujhse kyon milne aaye hain. Aap mujhse jaanna chahte hain ki Bhutto kis kism ka insaan tha. Mein bathaaoon. Hitler se bhi behuda tha.” Natwar was so taken aback, it must have shown in his eyes. So, Rasool Bux bounded on: “Aap kehte hain ki Hitler ne 60 lakh Yehudiyon ko jaan se mara. Maanta hoon. Lekin kisi ki g***d tho nahi li!” At which point the foreign office rep’s hand came to a frozen stop while we looked on with what insouciance we could muster. (You can now appreciate why I have refrained from translating Rasool Bux’s colourful Urdu into English! This is a magazine for family reading.)

My final story of Natwar in Pakistan relates to his deciding to show off his princely heritage by wearing a saafa to the presentation of his credentials to President Zia-ul-Haq. A photograph of the ceremony hung on the wall behind his head that I had to gaze at every time I visited Islamabad. One day, Natwar made the mistake of asking me what I thought had been India’s greatest achievement since Independence. Without thinking, I responded that I thought “India’s greatest achievement since Independence was that at Rashtrapati Bhavan receptions, the waiters looked like maharajas” and, pointing to the picture, “that the maharajas looked like waiters.” Instead of reprimanding me for my insolence, Natwar heartily joined in the merriment. Yet another example of his truly exceptional sense of humour.

I returned to Delhi as external affairs spokesman in January 1982. A few months later, Natwar was summoned back to take charge of the Non-Aligned summit that had been suddenly shifted from Baghdad to Delhi because of the Iran-Iraq war. I was named the conference spokesman. The big issue was the Khmer Rouge’s ‘killing fields’ in Kampuchea (Cambodia) on which Singapore held one view and most delegations the opposite. The issue was finally resolved at 3 am. I immediately called a press conference. One drooping correspondent asked why NAM always arrived at key decisions when everyone else was asleep. I shot back that perhaps the symbol of the mov­ement should be changed from the dove to the night owl. Next day’s Hindi papers screamed that I had called the Non-Aligned leaders ‘ullu’. Whether or not that was the proximate cause, I was sum­moned by PM’s principal secretary, P.C. Alexander, and informed that I was being relieved of my responsibility. I was such a hit as conference spokesman, even if I say so myself, that my dis­missal at the height of my achievement crushed me and my spirits. Natwar seized the opp­ortunity of driving to the airport with the PM for a vip’s arrival to sternly insist that I be restored to my post. He prevailed; my honour was saved. How can I ever forget his noble gesture?

It was now my turn to do him a bit of good. While we were all in the political wilderness during the eight-year interregnum of the Gowda-Gujral-Vajpayee regimes, Natwar would write an occasional column in one of several newspapers. One of these described how Indira Gandhi was an avid bibliophile, who would read books whenever she could and highlight or underline lines that particularly struck her. Natwar went on to say that he had also made a habit of identifying his favourite lines from his wide readings and went on to give examples, including, he said, the following lines from Hamlet:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

I rang Natwar and whispered, “Sir, it’s not Hamlet; it’s Macbeth.” The slip-up was never discovered!

Then came our wholly unexpected victory in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. I had won my seat by nearly two lakh votes and rushed to Delhi to claim a place in the council of ministers. While Arjun Singh and other senior leaders were non-­committal, Natwar insisted that I must demand a cabinet position. I was taken aback. All I aspired for was an MoS-ship, perhaps an independent charge. But Natwar was insistent. Whether due to his intervention or because it was the Con­gress president’s own wish, I became and remained for the entire term of UPA-I a full-fledged cabinet minister. How can I ever forget my gratitude to Natwar for that great good turn?

Then when Shyam Saran and other MEA recalcitrants were bitterly opposing my plans of building a ‘peace’ pipeline to bring gas from Iran through Pakistan to India, Natwar played my side with consummate skill. He rang me to ask what he should say in cabinet. I advised him to say nothing at all, adding that if he did not speak, no one else would, and I knew the PM backed the proposal, so it would sail through. That is what happened. And I had my brief fifteen minutes of fame. A few months later, I was let down. But that was not Natwar’s fault. He had come to my side when I most needed him. A friend in need is a friend indeed.

When I rushed in late, as usual, to my very first cabinet meeting, Natwar waved the draft of the president’s address at me and asked if I’d seen it. I replied in the negative. “Here, see,” he said, pointing to a paragraph that said we were going to pursue a “strategic partnership” with the United States. I was appalled. How could a Non-Ali­gned country be strategically alig­ned to a superpower? “You bring this up first,” advised Natwar, “and I’ll support you.” We were, of course, overruled. But when the axe fell on him over the Volcker report, Natwar was convinced the Americans had done him in. He warned me that the next to go would be me. That happened.

The story of the food-for-oil deal that finished Natwar’s brilliant career will unfold once again over the next several weeks as the debate is resumed with the publication of his autobiography. I am unconvinced that such an honourable and decent human being as Natwar was really caught with his hand in the till. Why would he need the money? After all, he had added to Bharatpur’s millions, Patiala’s zillions, and belonged to an era when gentlemen just did not resort to fin­ancial deception. Yes, there was indiscretion and perhaps a helping hand that should not have been there. But defalcation? Sounds incredible. And if other UPA ministers could be rehabilitated after a period of vanvas, why was so able a min­­ister as Natwar not given a second chance? Perhaps bec­ause he allowed his tongue to run away with him when he was cornered. But is that a crime deserving of a life-sentence? Let us see if his autobiography will vindicate him or not. I certainly hope it does. For I remain convinced that, at heart, Natwar is a good guy. I hope he finds his resurrection.


From Natwar’s Pen

A Correct Call

The clock was ticking away. Chandraswamy was in no hurry. He asked for a large piece of paper. Went through the same routine as with my wife. He gave Mrs Thatcher five strips of paper and requested her to write a question on each. She obliged, but with scarcely camouflaged irritation. Chandraswamy asked her to open the first paper ball. She did. He gave the text of the question in Hindi. I translated. Correct. I watched Mrs Thatcher. The irritation gave way to curiosity. Next question. Again bull’s eye. Curiosity replaced by interest. By the fourth question the future Iron Lady’s demeanour changed. She began to look at Chandraswamy not as a fraud, but as a holy man indeed. My body language too altered. Last question. No problem. I heaved a sigh of relief. Mrs Thatcher was now perched on the edge of the sofa. Like Oliver Twist, she asked for more. Chandraswamy was like a triumphant guru. He took off his chappals and sat on the sofa in the lotus pose. I was appalled. Mrs Thatcher seemed to approve.

We were saying our goodbyes when Chandraswamy produced his sartorial bomb. Turning to me, he said “Kunwar Sahib, kindly tell Mrs Thatcher that on Tuesday she should wear a red poshak”. I felt like hitting him. He was overdoing this. I firmly told him it was the height of bad manners to tell a lady what she should or should not wear. Mrs Thatcher looked a bit apprehensive at this not-so-mild altercation between a distraught deputy high commissioner and a somewhat ill-mannered holy man. Very reluctantly, I said to her that the holy man would be obli­ged if she wore a red dress on Tues­day. I was looking down at the floor as I said this. On Tuesday, at 2.30, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, leader of the Conservative Party, arrived at Sun House, Frognal Way, Hampstead. It was a beautiful day. She was wearing a stunning red dress.

She asked many questions but the most important related to the chances of her becoming prime minister. Chandraswamy did not disappoint Mrs Thatcher. He prophesied that she would be prime minister for nine, eleven or thirteen years. Mrs Thatcher no doubt believed that she would be PM one day. Nine, eleven, thirteen years was a bit much. Mrs Thatcher put one final question. When would she become  prime minister? Chandraswamy announced—in three or four years. He was proved right. She was PM for eleven years.

Dud And A Cool Hand

In September 1970, Indira Gandhi attended the third Non-Aligned Summit at Lusaka. In those carefree days the prime minister used commercial flights. The only concession the airline made was to leave the seat next to hers vacant. We took off from Bombay on the seventh. Half an hour out of Bombay, B.L. Joshi, her sole security officer, came to me with startling news. The captain of the Air India plane had just been informed by Bombay that a passenger was carrying a bomb! The name of the culprit was Patel. Before I could catch my breath, Joshi added that there were at least thirty Patels on the flight, which was first landing in Nairobi. I got up and as calmly as I could and told the PM that we had a serious bomb threat and should immediately return to Bombay. She kept reading. Without turning a hair she said, “It is a hoax. Let us keep flying to Nairobi”. How cool could one be! I then went to Haksar and retold my tale. “Have you told her?” “Yes, I have”. “What did she say?” “It is a hoax”. After a short pause, he said something which I shall never forget. “Go back to the PM and tell her that in matters relating to her security, it is her principal secretary who decides and not the PM. This is not a personal matter. Tell her we are returning to Bombay”. I did as I was asked. The PM listened and said, “Do what you like.” And to Bombay we returned. A four-hour search produced no bomb but lots of illegal foreign currency.

Imperfect Invitation

I remember Mrs Gandhi’s visit to New York in October 1970, for the 25th anniversary of the UN. Several heads of state also attended. It was learnt through the papers that President Nixon had invited them all to dinner at the White House. Mrs Gandhi ignored this strange ‘invitation’. The next day our most astute trimmer of an ambassador L.K. Jha at Washington arrived in New York. He asked the PM when she would be arriving in Washington for the Nixon dinner. She said she had not been invited. Jha said that all other heads were attending. Mrs Gandhi said she would be leaving New York as planned and had no intention of going to Washington without a proper invitation. Certain basic proprieties must be observed. L.K. Jha had been her secretary for one year. He was a persuasive and persistent individual. He was at the same time (how should I put it) pro-American.  As ambassador it was his duty to tell Mrs Gandhi that her absence would send the wrong signal, etc. She said she had come to the UN, not for a visit to the US. President Nixon could have asked his ambassador in New Delhi to convey formally his dinner invitation. She would then have arranged her programme accordingly. But this was not an invitation, it was a summons. She was having none of it. I was silent witness to this. L.K. Jha then appealed to her to write a letter to Nixon saying that how sorry she was not being able to attend his dinner. She asked me to draft one. I did. She signed it. When Jha saw it, he was, to say the least, disagreeably surprised. It was not what he had hoped for. The letter was correct and polite and nothing more.

Deng’s Way

Much excitement in the Indian delegation. Meeting with Deng Xiaoping fixed at 10:30 am at the Great Hall of the People. Deng appeared wearing a grey Mao suit. His opening words were, “I welcome you, my young friend, This is your first journey to China?” PM: “Yes.” The Deng-Rajiv meeting lasted quite a while. It signalled that Deng wanted the Indian PM’s visit to succeed. Symbols send messages in China more than in any other country. Had the handshake been a perfunctory one, the visit would have collapsed. “I met your grandfather and your mother when they visited China in 1954. I was then the general secretary of our party.”

Rajiv Gandhi introduced P.V. Narasimha Rao, Dinesh, Shank­aranand and me to the diminutive Deng. The two leaders then withdrew. So did we, but in different directions. Rao was visibly upset and peeved that the PM had not asked to accompany him for his talks with Deng. But PV was a great peever.

(Excerpted from K. Natwar Singh’s Profiles and Letters, My China Diary and Walking with Lions)

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