By Sandeep Bamzai
New Delhi, May 19 (IANS) Kunwar Natwar Singh in many ways is monotypical in that he served so many Congress dispensations in different capacities. Equally, he came into maximum proximity with celebrated Indian and world leaders, acclaimed writers and people in position of pre eminence. Influenced by novelist E.M. Forster during his years in Cambridge, he learnt the value of friendship from him. In the second and concluding part of this IANS interview, I let the raconteur in him take over:
“For five years I worked in Mrs Gandhi’s office between 1966 and 1971, it was a small one where the circle was extremely tight.
“There were seven officers — the fabled P.N. Haksar, S. Banerjee, H.Y. Sharda Prasad, Ramachandran, Monu Malhotra and myself. She became PM very hesitantly after Shashtriji’s untimely death. But she took the job like a duck to water, within two years she had destroyed the Syndicate and she had the good fortune to have a man like P.N. Haksar mentoring her at every step of the way as her principal adviser.
“For me personally given that I was a Foreign Service Officer, I got to accompany her on every foreign trip and this impacted my personality, for the exposure was stupendous at a young age. My outlook on world affairs changed since I had to handle world leaders personally.
“She had a great sense of timing, in March, 1971 she told Haksar that we should walk in tomorrow and replace the repression in Dhaka. Haksar called (Field Marshal Sam) Manekshaw who advised against it saying that India wasn’t prepared even as refugees were spilling into India.
“He said let us prepare and in any case wait out the monsoon months when such an operation could go awry. Once India was ready, the rains were out of the way, India moved in. Haksar was a first rate mind, he helped her in demolishing the Syndicate and handled the Bangladesh operations as well.
“Actually this is the first time that the Principal Secretary to the PM became more important than the Cabinet Secretary in the Indian main frame. I haven’t seen anyone close to him, barring Brajesh Mishra, who was equally adept and had a terrific world view. Haksar, a lawyer himself from Allahabad had enormous intellectual heft, he had been recommended by Sir Tej Bahadhur Sapru to Nehru and he played a pivotal role in Mrs Gandhi’s rise and rise in Indian polity.
“When Mrs Gandhi fought the powerful Congress Syndicate of Kamath, Atulya Ghosh, S.K. Patil, Nijlingappa, those were testing times. By 1970 she was the undisputed boss of the Congress and I saw the power game being played out before me. She was tough as nails, never backed down from a challenge. I remember when she came for a UN Anniversay, L.K. Jha was the Ambassador and Veep Richard Nixon had invited her for a dinner without extending a written invitation. She refused to go without one and when it didn’t she asked me to draft a massive regretting. I took it to Jha who said ‘Yeh toh bada rukha hai’, and I said that is the way she is. Of course she didn’t go.”
“Immediately before my staying with Mrs Gandhi, I had the singular misfortune of working with Ms Pandit between 1961-66 at the UN Permanent Mission in New York. It was an eye opener for me for just as the Central Hall of Parliament provides you with a view of India, the UN Lounge gave a similar view of the world. This was the time that the UN General Assembly sitting between September and December was crucial, for cataclysmic changes were taking place with regard to decolonization. It was a fascinating time, one travelled to all these countries and interfaced with world leaders. JFK was US President, the world was in his thrall. Krishna Menon was replaced by Vijaylakshmi and she took to me. Kennedy was assassinated and Vijaylakshmi represented India at his Arlington funeral. Thereafter Jackie Kennedy gave a reception for all the world elite which had gathered to pay its tributes.
“I was by her side right through and I remember Charles De Gaulle calling out to her and asking: How is your brother? She responded by saying he has his problems; His repartee: Tell him that I have mine.
“She had style and she entertained well. It was a fun time, I was Rapporteur of the Decolonization Commission and I was in touch with John Gunther, Dorothy Norman, Pearl Buck, New York was the happening place. I was a bachelor and New York was the ideal place. Of course when I married the Maharaja of Patiala’s daughter subsequently, for my civil wedding Mrs Gandhi was Witness number one.
Between 1960-61, I was P.S. to the Secretary General, Ministry of External Affairs R.K. Nehru and our offices were 20 yards from the PM’s office. Panditji used to walk in and out of our rooms such was the informality those days. All papers from the PM went to the Secretary General and then it was my duty to send them off.
“I remember the time when late evening a file came in for Nepal where the PM had written a four page letter to the King of Nepal and given him a raspberry. Next morning R.K. Nehru was to leave for China, blissfully forgetting about the letter. I accompanied RK to the airport where his flight was delayed.
“Panditji, meanwhile used to walk into his office 9.30 a.m. sharp He asked his office whether the letter had gone. His office said both R.K. Nehru and Natwar were missing. PM went ballistic when he asked Foreign Secretary M.G. Desai whether he had seen the letter and Desai said ‘No’.
“Panditji said where is the file? As I was also missing in action, so Panditji asked his office to alert the police and find about my whereabouts?
“In parallel, he wanted my cupboard broken. By that time someone alerted me at the airport. I ran back to my office avoiding Panditji and gave the file to Desai. Panditji was hopping mad till he was told that the matter had been settled.
“For seven days I avoided Panditji fearful of his wrath. On the eighth day, I bumped into the PM and Panditji behaved as if nothing had happened discussing a book called ‘Soul of China’.
“When Eisenhower visited India, I was made Liaison Officer and was in constant touch with Panditji. Seldom does one get such opportunities. They don’t make men like him any more. Litterateur and statesmen all rolled into one.”