Book: One Life Is Not Enough - An Autobiography
Author: K. Natwar Singh
Publisher: Rupa Publications India
Price: Rs 500
I remember how each of Sonia's speeches was an exercise that would take six to eight hours. Sometimes, these agonizing 'speech sessions' lasted till midnight. There were occasions when she and I would be alone, working on them. She would read the speech aloud, I would time it. It would then be translated into Hindi. The Hindi version would then be transliterated into English and printed out in bold letters. This situation did not last long.
Her English is near perfect; Hindi is the problem – she cannot speak the language without a written script in front of her. To my suggestion to her that she learn by heart a chaupai or two of Tulsidas's or Kabir's dohas and use them in her speeches, she threw her hands up. 'I go blank even with a written text. You want me to say something extempore? Forget it.'
Many senior Congressmen sent suggestions and drafts for her speeches; seldom were these used. Jairam Ramesh became a regular presence at the marathon 'speech sessions'. Being a wizard with the computer, he was useful. He is good company. His brain is razor sharp but his wit occasionally got him into trouble. At times I was the target of his wit. Sonia used to enjoy my discomfiture.
By now I was meeting Sonia frequently. I reminded her that her family had an international constituency which had been neglected since Rajiv's death. She must revive it. She asked how I would achieve this. I told her that with the assistance of my erstwhile colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs, I would ensure that visiting Foreign Ministers and Prime Ministers called on her. After all, as head of the Congress Party, she was the de facto Leader of Opposition.
I sounded out my friend Brajesh Mishra on this. He was not dismissive, but made no commitment. After some months, the MEA began to include a call on the Congress President in the programme of visiting ministers and Prime Ministers.
To begin with, Sonia did not look forward to these meetings. 'What do I say to them?' she would ask. My advice was, 'Listen. You will gather much information.' I used to be present at most of the meetings between 1999 and 2005, arriving at 10 Janpath a few minutes before the visiting dignitary. Initially, Sonia would turn towards me with embarrassing regularity. This did not go unnoticed. I asked her to try not to do so. As time went by, the media's interest in Sonia's exchanges with these visitors increased.
On 14 November 1998, I had bypass surgery at the Escorts Heart Institute. Throughout my stay in hospital, Sonia telephoned Dr Trehan, my heart surgeon, inquiring about my medical condition. She visited the hospital twice. Her genuine concern meant much to Hem and me. On several occasions, she would telephone late at night to ask if I was watching a particular TV programme. My wife, too, received such calls.
9 May 2002 was the darkest day in my family's life. Our beautiful daughter, Ritu, passed away. The family was shattered. The moment I informed Sonia, she came immediately to our house. She spent many hours with Hem, Jagat and me. She shared our grief. That we shall never forget.
Sonia used to worry a lot about the security of her grandchildren, as well as Priyanka's safety. I promised to speak to Brajesh Mishra and did sound him out later. He promised to do the needful discreetly, as Sonia had wished.
My growing proximity to Sonia could not go unnoticed. I was at 10 Janpath almost every day. I was seen as one of her closest confidants and some 'well-wishers' pumped me, saying, 'You are the best troubleshooter she has.'
My reply was: 'Nonsense.'
The political discussions between Sonia and I were exclusive, serious and to the point. Our informal chat sessions, though, were a delight. On returning from one of my trips abroad, 'I missed you,' were her opening words.
Sonia was becoming less diffident in public, but still had a long way to go. In a male-dominated society, she could never relax. Even in the Working Committee meetings, she was taut, and spoke very little.
Jairam once invited Sonia's wrath for an indiscretion. She refused to see him. Banishment from the darbar was the ultimate manifestation of her displeasure. Jairam could not take it beyond a week. He came to see me, distraught and anguished. 'Sir, if she does not see me, I don't know what I will do,' he declared. I told him, 'Ramesh, whatever you wish to do, please don't do it in this room.' I asked him to calm down, assuring him that I would speak to Sonia. I did, telling her about Jairam's agitation. Sonia eventually relented and Jairam lived happily ever after.