Walking with Lions; Tales From a Diplomatic Past, K Natwar Singh; HarperCollins; Pp 213, Rs 299.
Natwar Singh, a diplomat, was born in a rich Zamindari family, got married to the daughter of the Maharaja of Patiala, inevitably joined the Indian Foreign Service, rising steadily in rank and quite understandably has dozens of stories to tell about the celebrities he had to literally meet on a daily basis and what a lot of captivating stories he has to relate!
He knew Indira Gandhi, of course and got along famously with her, as he did with her two aunts. To belong to a royal family must have helped. But then he had also close links with Presidents, Prime Ministers and a whole lot of bigwigs like, for example, Dr Radhakrishnan, Giani Zail Singh, R Venkataraman, Morarji Desai, not to speak of foreign leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Fidel Castro, Benazir Bhutto, Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin, not to speak of lesser celebrities like Don Bradman and Dev Anand.
Strangely he doesn’t have much to say about VK Krishna Menon who was a terror, except to say he was “acerbic’ and his nine-hour speech at the UN Security Council on Kashmir in 1956 impressed nobody. Natwar quotes Security Council members as saying: If Menon’s case was so strong, what was the necessity to take nine hours to explain it?
The stories Natwar relates are informative, engaging, titillating and often very revelatory. Take this one, for example: when Idi Amin became dictator of Uganda when many resident Indians were forced to flee, he wanted to have the country named after him as Idi. A shivering minister was summoned and told to do as ordered. “Your Excellency” said the minister, “There is a problem here”. “Problem? What problem?” Idi Amin demanded. “Your Excellency”, said the minister, “There is a country called Cyprus. Its people are called Cypriots. If Uganda is called Idi, then its people will be called idiots!” That settled the matter.
Does one know how PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister? The first name suggested by Sonia Gandhi, following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, was that of then Vice-President Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma. Sharma declined the honour saying he was too old to shoulder grave responsibilities. It was then that Adviser P N Haksar suggested Rao’s name. The rest is history.
Rajiv Gandhi got along well with US President Ronald Reagan who told Rajiv to address him as “Ron”. So Reagan became Ron to Rajiv and the two got along famously. Natwar Singh was an attendant at their meeting and writes: “They were comfortable in each other’s company. Both enjoyed irreverent jokes… Their sophisticated informality broke down several barriers…”. As an allegedly competent organiser, Natwar Singh was frequently assigned to do some tough jobs like handling international conferences in Delhi. He performed them in style, even when he had to deal with difficult men like Fidel Castro and PLO leader Yasser Arafat and North Korea’s president Kim II Sung who would make impossible demands. It required a lot of diplomacy and tact to handle them and the way he did makes salubrious reading. As he put it: “Everything that could go right”! As for Castro and Arafat, this is that happened. Castro had asked Arafat whether he was a friend of Indira Gandhi. Arafat replied: “Friend? She is more than a friend. She is my elder sister! I will do anything for her”. Whereupon Castro told him: “Then behave like a younger brother and don’t create trouble for her!
“There is the story of Chandraswami, an alleged bogus spiritual guru who could read not only people’s minds but could predict their future. Natwar arranged to get him introduced to Margaret Thatcher who was then not yet Prime Minister of United Kingdom, but was told by Chandraswami that she would become one! Chandraswami turned out to be right to Thatcher’s pleasant shock and growing astonishment, Chandraswami was known also to have beguiled Indira Gandhi, but Natwar makes no mention of their relationship.
Then there is the story of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto who reportedly could not get along with the very man he had promoted to lead the Pakistan Army, Zia ul Haq. The general had no hesitation in sending his men to the gallows. Reportedly Bhutto was hanged. But according to Natwar Singh that isn’t true. It seems Bhutto had been visited the evening before he was supposed to be hanged by an Army officer. The officer apparently told Bhutto that he may be spared death if he owned responsibility for what happened in East Pakistan, rather than blame the Army for it. Bhutto, says Natwar Singh, was so offended by this that he hit out at the Army officer who hit back and in the scuffle that followed Bhutto fell and his head hit the floor and he died on the spot. Is this believable? It is anybody’s guess. It would seem that when Bhutto’s body was being lowered into the grave, it was noticed that the usual ‘post-hanging features’ of his face, like swollen tongue and bulging eyes were not noticeable.
Natwar, needless to say, has high regard for Indira Gandhi who could put anybody in his place, as once she did to Nixon, a man, incidentally, who hated her guts. While in the US to attend a meeting of the United Nations, Nixon sent word that he is hosting a dinner to heads of delegations to the UN, without formally inviting each. The then Indian Ambassador to Washington hoped Indira would accept the unwritten, unspoken invitation which seemed more like summons than a respectful request. But Indira chose not to and asked Natwar Singh to draft a ‘chilling’ letter of regret. The Ambassador was shocked. Writes Natwar who drafted her letter: “What a contrast to a letter written by Manmohan Singh to President Bush saying the people of India dearly loved him! Indira Gandhi could be forgiving and charmingly gentle, but no one could be allowed to treat her in an off-hand manner. Behind the velvet glove there was steel. She made us all feel proud”.
The title of the book refers to the King of Ethiopia, Selassie I, ‘Negus Nagast’ (King of Kings) whom Natwar met once. The Emperor was seated on his golden throne, but on each side was a lion which Selassie patted on the back nonchalantly. He was subsequently dethroned but Natwar saw to it that his surviving grand daughters were saved from army terror. All credit to him as is his book of pleasant and memorable reminiscences.
(Harpercollins, A-53, Sector 57, Noida: 20 301)