When Sonia Gandhi questioned my integrity, something snapped inside me

Sonia Gandhi’s grip on the Congress party is firm and more complete than that of Jawaharlal Nehru, says Natwar Singh in his new book.
Sonia Gandhi’s grip on the Congress party is firm and more complete than that of Jawaharlal Nehru, says Natwar Singh in his new book.
Image: AP Photo /Manish Swarup
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In 2004, the NDA, led by Atal Bihari Vajpeyee, lost the Lok Sabha elections. They could not manage to sell the ‘India Shining’ mantra to the voting public. Sonia and the leaders of several non-NDA parties put together the United Progressive Alliance with Sonia as chairperson. The expectation was that Sonia would occupy 7 Race Course Road as Prime Minister.

The Gandhi family, however, was a house divided. Rahul was vehemently opposed to his mother becoming Prime Minister, fearing that she would lose her life, much like his grandmother and his father. Matters reached a climax after Rahul said that he was prepared to take any possible step to prevent his mother from taking up the prime ministership. Rahul is a strong-willed person; this was no ordinary threat. He gave Sonia twenty-four hours to decide. Manmohan Singh, Suman Dubey, Priyanka and I were present at that moment.

Sonia was visibly agonized and in tears. As a mother, it was impossible for her to ignore Rahul. He had his way. That was the reason for her not becoming Prime Minister.

Only Manmohan Singh and I were aware of Sonia’s decision. Later, she called a meeting in which she announced that she was offering the post of PM to Manmohan Singh.

Once, I pulled Sonia’s leg on this, telling her that only two people in history had refused the crown, both Italians by birth. ‘Who is the other?’ she asked. ‘Julius Caesar,’ I replied.

A few days before the new government was sworn in, Sonia hosted a dinner on the lawns of 10 Janpath. Amar Singh came along with Harkishan Singh Surjeet. At the dinner, Manmohan informally told me that I was getting External Affairs and Arjun Singh, the Ministry of Human Resource Development. After dinner, Sonia asked me to come with her. She told me that she was under great pressure from various quarters, including the Americans, to not appoint me as External Affairs Minister. Would I consider taking another ministry? With some heat, I turned down her suggestion. I had been her principal foreign affairs adviser for several years. None in the party had the expertise or the experience I did. Did she feel I was not up to the job? ‘For heaven’s sake, Natwar, I am not an idiot,’ she replied with some asperity.

Rahul’s arrival, followed by a cute puppy, eased the tension. I asked him which of the books I had lent him he had read. He reads quite a lot and Sonia, too, is a voracious reader. He told me he had finished the autobiography of Shimon Peres and Anthony Sampson’s biography of Nelson Mandela. He had found the autobiography disappointing. He had yet to read Roosevelt’s biography by Conrad Black. Sonia asked Rahul which of my books the puppy had chewed. He did not remember the name. I gave him the title, Against All Enemies, a book analysing America’s war on terror by former US Chief Counter-Terrorism Adviser, Richard A. Clarke.

Once the UPA came to power, it was widely known that Sonia very discreetly monitored the functioning of the most important ministries in the government, displaying a Machiavellian side to her character. Even mine was not spared. There was a mole on my staff feeding false information to 10 Janpath. Little men can, without realizing, do much harm to institutions. While they are mere chaff, they destroy the wheat.

On 22 February 2005, I drove to 10 Janpath to accompany Sonia to her meeting with Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai. The moment I entered the meeting room, she said, ‘I shall not be taken for granted. There will come a time when I will do something unpredictable.’ Then followed the outrageous remark, ‘You are getting involved in defence deals.’

This was verbal terrorism. Something snapped inside me. I said, ‘You are making a serious allegation and questioning my integrity, honour and honesty. You must provide evidence of these allegations. I am not enamoured of a ministership—I will resign, but questioning my integrity is unacceptable.’

There followed another preposterous insinuation: ‘There is a delegation from Africa and you have passed a file on some defence deals to Pranab Mukherjee.’

I said I had only spoken to him. ‘Do my signatures appear on the file?’ I enquired. She had no answer, and never referred to the matter again. Obviously, the mole was at work. It seems that she had access to confidential information. She then asked, ‘Did you take M.J. Akbar with you on your special plane?’

I told Sonia he had not travelled on my special plane. Besides, we had no control over journalists’ travel to cover international visits of important ministers. The external publicity division sends a circular to TV channels and newspapers to send names of journalists to it, out of which selections are made. Akbar had not approached the division; he had directly applied to the Pakistan High Commission for a visa. We could not prevent him from flying to Islamabad. Sonia asked, ‘Why did you meet him?’ I told her I had not. He had merely been present at my largely attended press conference.

Later in the summer of 2005, Sonia and I flew to Moscow by special plane for a convention. After the meeting, Sonia and I flew to a little town called Vladimir by helicopter. I was mystified, wondering why she had chosen this town which I had never heard of. Located in the middle of a forest, Vladimir offered peace and tranquillity. Sonia walked towards one of the larger buildings, which had been converted into a small museum. We entered an octagonal room, the walls of which were covered with little handwritten pieces of paper. She was intently looking at these chits. Turning to me, she said, ‘Natwar, my father, during the Second World War, was a prisoner of war in this room. He escaped and walked all the way to Italy.’ We then roamed around the village. It was a beautiful summer day. The pace of life in Vladimir was unhurried. Ladies smiled and waved to Sonia but their curiosity was not intrusive. Vladimir was an ideal place to read, relax and retire.

Sonia’s behaviour during my implication in the Volcker Report was vicious and venomous, and caused me great pain. I was in Frankfurt when the allegations surfaced. Before I left for New Delhi, Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran showed me an email which stated that Ambika Soni of the Congress Party had said in an official statement that the party was clean and Natwar Singh should take care of himself. I was outraged. This statement had obviously been issued with the approval of the Congress President.

After returning to Delhi, I did not contact Sonia and she did not contact me.

On 8 November 2005, a fortnight after the report was made public, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told me that it had been decided by the Congress President and himself that I should give up the External Affairs portfolio and be a minister without portfolio. I resigned on 6 December. Manmohan Singh is a decent though spineless man, who never stands up for his colleagues. He asked me to meet Sonia. I refused. Where honour was involved, no compromise was possible.

Excerpted from One Life is not Enough: An Autobiography. Published by Rupa. Copyright (c) K. Natwar Singh 2014.