By: Utpal Borpujari
Ousted Congress leader K Natwar Singh’s latest book My China Diary 1956-88 could raise the heckles in Congress for reasons completely different than his subject – his not-so-subtle digs at the late prime ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao and his claim that he was the one who had advised Gandhi to improve relations with China.
Singh, whose book is an important document for those interested in India-China relations for the fact that it gives a rare insight into what went inside the minds of leaders of both countries in the run up to the 1962 war and the 1988 historic visit by Gandhi to China, has given some frank opinions on the two.
Rajiv Gandhi, whom Singh otherwise praises highly for his “stunning good looks”, “style”, “panache”, “capacity to switch off”, “natural wit” and “self confidence”, had a “serious shortcoming” of not reading books and of “lacking” a sense of history.
Always a master with words, Singh, however, cushions his comments in the Rupa-published book with lot of praise before and after that. “Like John F Kennedy, Rajiv Gandhi had a gamesman’s sense of politics. I don’t want to carry this comparison too far, because Kennedy had an acute sense of history that Rajiv Gandhi lacked,” he says.
“Unlike his grandfather, his mother and Kennedy, Rajiv Gandhi did not read books. This was a serious shortcoming. Michael Foot wrote, ‘Men of power have no time to read, yet the men who do not read are unfit for power.” This is an extreme view, but there is much to be said for it,” says Singh, who was Minister of State for External Affairs in Gandhi’s Cabinet.
He also claims in the book that it was he who had advised Gandhi to improve relations with China when the latter had asked him about his foreign policy priorities.
However, he also adds that Gandhi made no claims to being an intellectual and was receptive to ideas. “Rajiv Gandhi enjoyed being prime minister, sometimes excessively,” he writes, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was endowed with an uncluttered, practical, not an introspective mind. Action, not reflection was his forte,” writes Singh, at another place. “He could be impetuous and infuriating. He could equally charm you by his disarming candour… Like his grandfather, he had not an iota of poison of malice or pettiness in his character.”
Narasimha Rao, on the other hand, was a “great peever” and was part of an “influential anti-China lobby” in Delhi along with G Parthasarathi and S Gopal, says Singh. “Rao was visibly upset and peeved that the PM had not asked him to accompany him for his talks with Deng (Xiaoping). But PV was a great peever.”
Singh says “the PM was not complimentary about PV. Not pulling his weight. Negative, indecisive and uncommunicative. Lacking candour,” he writes.
In fact, Singh writes that he had even suggested to Gandhi to make Rao, who later became the Prime Minister, a Governor. “The PM asked about PV. ‘Can I speak frankly?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ said the prime minister. I suggested Narasimha should be made a governor… I said if we had to go ahead with New China Policy, PV should be instructed to get actively involved, more committed. He is erudite, has a cultivated mind but lacks a well-defined, rooted point of view on grave matters of foreign policy.”