It was a memorable time because I got to see world leaders up close and personal — sitting in 10 Downing Street, having a cup of tea with Tony Blair, or having vodka-infused lunch with Boris Yeltsin. Meeting the Chinese president and the Japanese PM as well.
Kofi, often, had great words of wisdom, and was anchored in himself like a yogi, that he attributed to his own father. He would always find an appropriate homily to suit a particular moment. Whenever at work, I would be targeted, Kofi would say: “Little children only throw stones at trees that bear fruit.” It was a way of saying that I was being targeted because I was productive at work. I remember something that he said but I never understood until after joining Indian politics. It is an African proverb: “When the sharks bite you, do not bleed.” I said, “I don’t understand.” Kofi asked me to think about it, and years later, when I was being vilified by the media and hounded by photographers and cameras, literally like a pack of animals, a lot of people were surprised, some disliked, and others admired, that I was staying calm and unruffled. That’s when I realised what Kofi had meant: don’t give critics the satisfaction of knowing that you are bleeding. Because if they know that you are bleeding, they would devour you completely.
In 2001, when Kofi won the Nobel prize, he came to the office and I was there to receive him at the building. He said a few words to the staff, accepted their congratulations and stepped into the elevator with me to go up to his office. On what was clearly the greatest day of his life, he turns around and asks me, “How are your children’s college applications coming along?” Now, he was the one, who had recommended them for the Yale university. But the fact that on a day like that he could think of somebody else’s children, you can’t help admire a man like that. I learnt a lot from Kofi — gentle, soft and polite to a fault who never showed any anger or yielded to pressure or pleasure.
It was sometime around the end of 2005, when Manmohan Singhji asked me if I would be interested in contesting for the post of the secretary general, because 2006 was to be Asia’s term. In the end, seven candidates came forward from Asia, all ranked higher than me. But since my name was not announced for candidature by then, various ambassadors came to me saying that I was better than the other candidates. In fact, any government could nominate a person, irrespective of his nationality. The-then ambassador of Papua New Guinea told me that his country would propose my candidature. I replied to him, “Sir, it’s very thoughtful of you, but I’ll only want to be a candidate if India puts me up.”
In June 2006, foreign secretary Shyam Saran called me to say that my name was going to going to be suggested. But, by then, there was some backbiting in New York. People questioned Kofi as how a member of his staff could run around for the secretary general’s post while being a serving UN official. According to policy, I had to be placed on administrative leave. So, I did that to canvass my support.
I was the forerunner after Ban Ki-moon during the ballots, but he was gaining support. The US under-secretary for political affairs called me up and said, “I am sorry, I want to let you know we are not going to vote for you.” I asked, “Why? I thought you had good relations with India.” He said South Korea had asked for support a year ago, and the vote was to maintain the bilateral relations. While that was the official stance, I had heard from a senior American, that the US did not want anymore Kofis. They didn’t want somebody who could appeal above the heads of governments and to the public. So, I knew the game was over.
I suddenly had to confront a dramatic transformation. It was a career I had enjoyed all my life, from the time I was 22, and here I was, on the 2nd of October in 2006, at 50, realising that a career that I had expected to continue till 62 was suddenly 12 years prematurely over!
Ban Ki-moon graciously asked me to stay on, but I realised that it would be viewed as a compensation for somebody who lost. I didn’t feel it was right to hang around. So, I just asked for a one-month extension and began looking out for options.
I didn’t initially come back to India and served as chairman of Afras Ventures for a year and a half, a subsidiary of Afras Trading, a Dubai-based company looking to expand into India. It involved frequent travelling to India initially, there was enough time to go to the gym, write more or less at leisure, have minimum number of meetings. But it wasn’t motivating enough, and money had never been a driving force in my life.
During my visits to India, I would go to Kerala to seek opportunities for Afras, and also meet up with ministers in Delhi, both from the Congress and the BJP. I would often meet Sonia Gandhi, and she would increasingly share, in confidence, about how things were going on in the government. With Jaswant Singh, I spoke mainly on foreign policy and a little bit of domestic politics. I once told him, “How can a man like you be in a party that promotes such bigotry and communal hatred?” His response was, “You know, we are all not the same.” Though he did ban Sadhvi Rithambara from his constituency and didn’t allow her to campaign; for me, there was no doubt that the party that embodied the right values for the country was the Congress.
To my pleasant surprise, Ramesh Chandra of the Congress asked me if I would contest from Kerala, though my Malayalam was not what it is today. He thought I was ‘Rajya Sabha material’. Subsequently, I mentioned this conversation to Soniaji. Congress had fared very badly in the previous elections in Kerala, besides there was no likelihood of me getting a Rajya Sabha seat. In fact, Gandhian actress Nirmala Deshpande died when two and a half years of her term were left. Manmohan Singhji needed economist C Rangarajan to take that seat, as he could have an economic advisor without making him a member of the government. All this was explained to me, in confidence, at a later stage. So, I took the decision to contest from Kerala, not from my constituency Palakkad, but from Thiruvananthapuram, for two reasons. One, there would be a lot of urban, educated people who knew about my work. Also, I thought that my kind of persona would be easier to sell to an urban electorate than in a predominantly rural region.
Needless to say, my name was not treated with enthusiasm. You know, it really takes an awful lot of hard work to deserve that kind of nomination, and I had to live through a period when my own party workers were burning my effigies, and people openly saying that they didn’t want me. But I won a record majority against the Communists. The tactic the Opposition tried against me was that I couldn’t speak Malayalam, which I was able to overcome.
It was a tough choice to give up a life in the West. The moment I came and contested the election, my marriage was on the rocks because I was not going to America every few months. I would meet my wife on a holiday when she would visit India. She didn’t want to move here, since she couldn’t relate to the country. So, we agreed to part the following year, after I became minister of external affairs (MEA). When I stepped down from the MEA post, I started devoting a lot of time to the constituency. Even when I was reappointed as minister for human resource development (HRD), I kept coming because of the domestic responsibility and shamelessly did what all Indian ministers do — bring benefits to their respective constituencies. I brought a regional office of CBSE, got some record sum of money for roads and for neglected projects such as the mental hospital. I was beginning to learn the ropes. Though I was very sad and hurt about leaving the MEA, I was gratified with the extraordinary downpouring of praise I got, both from anonymous and still-serving officers who had initially been sceptical.
This year has been tough amid the Modi wave, when a lot of my young voters gravitated towards Modi. Thanks to some high decibel campaigning, a lot of college kids voted for Modi even in Kerala, particularly in my constituency, partly because of the nastiness surrounding the death of my wife, Sunanda. I believe some of my women supporters, too, may have stayed away. So, it was a tough election that I managed to win narrowly with 15,700 votes.
I have anchored myself a lot to live with adversities. At the UN, the career that I worked for, all my life, and where I had expected to serve for another decade, was over in a matter of hours. I had to essentially reinvent my life. You discover your inner strengths when you are really under duress. I needed it time and again, when the fake scandal precipitated my resignation from the MEA.
I am still fighting the scurrilous, voyeuristic, sensationalist lies being peddled around the demise of Sunanda. I am enjoined by my lawyers to say nothing on the merits of the matter, as it is sub-judice. The lady who wrote a book on my late wife did contact me to hear my side of the story, but I had to refuse. As a result, there is a completely one-sided account of Sunanda’s life, which is full of inaccuracies, starting with her birth date. At this point in time, I cannot do much, I can’t do it till the matter is before the court. But one day, I’ll probably get to tell my side of the story. The police have a preposterous theory of abetting suicide, so I have to fight my battle. Giving up or hollering in misery is never a solution to anything, and I feel very sorry for those who are tempted to do that, as self-pity never gets you anything in life.
You have to find your own defence mechanism. I remember, when the incident occurred, I just didn’t read the papers for a few days. Though I knew, one should know what others are saying about you, I didn’t want to in this case. Friends would tell me “you keep making these appearances at dinner parties, but the moment you leave, people whisper behind your back.” In fact, the same gentleman who sat in my house and condoled the death of my wife would go ahead and say nasty things about me at a party. That’s something I have to live with, though I feel it is easier if you take people at face value. If people are nice to you on your face, be nice to them and accept their niceness as genuine. Your own integrity is your most precious asset — whatever you do or whatever others say. And as long as you can wake up and look at yourself in the mirror, and pray to your God and say, “I know I have not done anything wrong,” that’s what gives you the strength to carry on.
This is the third part of a three-part series. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.