Unlike your normal book, you cannot review an autobiography by its qualitative content only. At its heart, an autobiography is a narration of a person’s life and her (often highly coloured) opinion of the other famous persons in her life, masquerading as a true account of events whose veracity are often impossible to establish. Considering this, it is advisable to take the claims with a pinch of salt, especially from authors with an axe to grind.
And Natwar Singh does have an axe to grind. After close to six decades of association with the Nehru-Gandhi family, the first external affairs minister of the UPA regime was shown the door unceremoniously and without being allowed to present his case, after being named by the Volcker report in a food-for-oil scam with the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. The book was thus marketed as another of the tell-all accounts of what went wrong behind the scenes in the scam ridden regime of UPA.
However, apart from a few claims which are at best un-substantiated, this book is unlikely to have the residents of 10, Janpath Road running for cover. The headline grabbing revelation of what went behind the scenes during Sonia Gandhi’s famous renunciation of the prime ministerial position is comic at best (apparently, she was emotionally blackmailed by Rahul Gandhi’s petulance); however, that her act was not a pure selfless sacrifice will come as a news only to the most delusional of Gandhi family sycophants .
As far as brush with famous personalities is concerned, Natwar Singh had many. He started his career in the early 1950s as an Indian Foreign Service officer and had plum postings throughout his career (at UNO, China, UK, Pakistan, etc.). He started his career during the Non Alignment Movement (NAM) and ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai’ days of Nehru. He served in China in the late 50s just when the relationship between the two oriental giants was showing signs of breaking down. He was one of the officials involved in Chou-En-Lai’s 1960 visit to Delhi, the failure of which led to the 1962 war. He was part of multiple assignments in the UN, served in the Prime Minister’s secretariat during the initial days of Indira Gandhi, served as ambassador to Poland during the Bangladesh war, served in the UK embassy during the Emergency days, was banished to Zambia by the Morarji Desai regime, was made the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan during the Zia-ul-Haque days and was finally brought back in the last days of Indira Gandhi to organize the NAM and Commonwealth summits in New Delhi.
Natwar Singh regales us with interesting anecdotes during the long time he spends abroad. While these tales are amusing, he fails to provide any substantial critique of the Indian foreign policy apart from some standard clichés. In spite of a career of 30 years in the Indian Foreign Service and two separate stints in the External Affairs Ministry (as a minister of state and subsequently, as a cabinet minister), his foreign policy ideas are conspicuous by their absence. While he devotes individual chapters to each of the Nehru-Gandhi icons, he does not even write down three paragraphs outlining his foreign policy vision of India.
His criticism of people also appears biased. He defends Nehru, Indira and Rajiv, his former masters, gamely and treats PV Narsimha Rao, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi with thinly veiled contempt. His defends Indira Gandhi’s emergency as an uncharacteristic bad decision taken under pressure from Sanjay Gandhi, SS Ray and other such vile influences. He similarly blames Arun Nehru, Arun Singh and other close confidantes of Rajiv Gandhi for most of the mistakes of that era.
Interestingly enough, Singh comes across as good at taking credit for job well done by others and washing his hands entirely off mistakes that entirely should be his own. He basks in the glory of successfully organizing the NAM and Common Wealth summit in New Delhi and also pulling off the Indo-US nuclear deal, but portrays India’s IPKF blunders in Sri Lanka (when he was the Minister of State in External Affairs) as decisions that were taken by others. He conveniently brushes over his very mixed electoral records in Bharatpur (despite belonging to one of the formal royal families there), his unsuccessful scheming and plotting against PV Narsimha Rao, his dalliances with the BSP after getting expelled from the Congress and myriad troubles in his personal life (including suicide of his daughter-in-law and daughter under extremely suspicious circumstances). Also, his often personal criticism of Manmonhan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, while may be valid, comes across as capricious and poor attempts at score settling. His defense of his name appearing in the Volcker report is muddled at best.
His bloated sense of self-importance is highlighted in one passage when during his stint in Zambia, he reveals making an unexpected visit to New Delhi along with the African delegation without being invited. He gets called by Morarji Desai, the then Prime Minister, who asks him to offer an explanation. He only gives a self-righteous and pompous justification but also refuses to call his wife to meet the Prime Minister when he expressed interested in seeing her.
The book is, however, unexpectedly well written (my bar on autobiographies of Indian politicians was rendered really low by the recent insipid and soporific attempt of Pranab Mukherjee). Mr. Natwar Singh, it turns out, is an author of some repute, having come out with his account of Indo-China war and with several editing and review works under his belt. It is a light, breezy read, both because of the style of the author as well as light contents.
In the end, autobiographies seldom rise above their authors. ‘One Life is not Enough’ is also, like its author, pretty much a flawed if interesting work. The best pages of the book reflect the best days of the author, as an enterprising diplomat working abroad. In its bitter end though, it becomes an attempt to malign, sensationalize and a justification of failures. One can only wish a different end to the author in his next life.