Today, 2 February 2021, marks the 106th birth anniversary of literary giant Khushwant Singh. Besides being a prolific author, having written 80 books, Singh was also a lawyer, a former diplomat, and an up-front political commentator and social critic. He was also known for the close relationship he shared with the Gandhi dynasty.
Born in Punjab, Khushwant Singh was educated in Modern School, New Delhi, St. Stephen’s College, and graduated from Government College, Lahore. He completed his LLB from the University of London. After working for the Lahore High Court for eight years, Singh joined the Indian Foreign Service upon the Independence of India in 1947. He was appointed journalist in the All India Radio in 1951 and was later moved to the Department of Mass Communications of UNESCO at Paris in 1956.
His last two tenures encouraged him to pursue a literary career. He is best known for his book Train to Pakistan, written against the backdrop of India’s partition. Living for almost a century, Singh chronicled his journey in detail in his several books and his weekly column With Malice Towards One and All, which appeared every Saturday in Hindustan Times.
Singh was known for his irreverent wit, sarcasm, humor, and his enduring love of poetry. While Singh had a stellar career spanning different fields, he was also known for his close relationship with the Nehru-Gandhis. Being a close Gandhi-aide and having lived for over 99 years, Singh had the privilege of intimately knowing and observing the four generations of the Gandhi clan—from Jawaharlal Nehru to the current Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi—and uninhibitedly expressed his opinions on them. Being close to the Gandhi family, Singh was all-praise for Jawaharlal Nehru, Sanjay Gandhi but he did not hold back from voicing disapproving views against the dynasty.
‘Indira Gandhi was insecure because of her poor education’: Khushwant Singh
One of the highlights of Singh’s assessment of the Gandhi dynasty was his critical views on Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and the current Congress President Sonia Gandhi. According to Singh, Indira Gandhi was “not qualified” for the post of Prime Minister. Singh, in an interview with Rediff, opined that Indira Gandhi was insecure among educated people because her own poor education and therefore surrounded herself with second-rated people, hangers-on and tolerated their corrupt practices. Even though Singh was one of the ardent supporters of The Emergency imposed by Mrs Gandhi, he later opined that she did great harm to the country.
Singh also opposed Indira Gandhi’s move to let the Indian Army enter the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Singh was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1974, however, he returned the award in 1984 in protest against Operation Blue Star in which the Indian Army raided the Golden Temple in Amritsar to eliminate the Khalistani terrorists.
‘Rajiv Gandhi was not a leader. He was not cut out for politics’: Khushwant Singh
Similarly, Singh had a dim view of Indira Gandhi’s elder son Rajiv Gandhi as well. While Singh was in the thrall of the younger and impatient Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv, the elder of the two Gandhi brothers, failed to impress Singh. In his book ‘Absolute Khushwant’, Singh was unrestrained in criticising Rajiv Gandhi. He said that Rajiv Gandhi was not a leader.
“Rajiv was bullied into a position he wasn’t equipped to handle. He was pleasant enough and had some good ideas, but none of them extraordinary…He wasn’t really a leader. And I don’t think he was cut out for politics,” Khushwant Singh noted in his book.
Singh was also unhappy with Rajiv Gandhi’s role in the Shah Bano case and his handling of the Babri demolition incident. Furthermore, Singh remarked that Rajiv Gandhi followed in his mother’s footsteps and repeated many of the same mistakes.
‘Sonia Gandhi appointed undeserving and incapable people to lead the Congress party’: Khushwant Singh
After initially lauding Sonia Gandhi for refusing to be appointed as the president of the Congress party, Singh’s praises for the Gandhi daughter-in-law gradually vaporised, making way for criticism of her leadership style. In an interview with Deccan Herald in 2004, Singh said that Sonia Gandhi was not a confident leader because she did not allow leaders around her to grow. He accused Gandhi of rewarding undeserving candidates while disparaging the ones who deserved to be rewarded and elevated in the party.
“I don’t think she has allowed other people to grow, which most leaders who are not confident of themselves do. Such people’s worst enemies are the No 2 and No 3. And so they keep them at a distance and belittle them as best as they can. She has done that successfully, so we have no one really coming up. Two or three people – Ambika Soni, who would not win a municipal election and Pranab Mukherjee, who would not win an election from Kolkata for a municipality? – are ruling the roost,” Singh said in the interview.
Khushwant Singh liked Rahul Gandhi
Singh had not been critical of Rahul Gandhi. A younger Rahul Gandhi had once sought an appointment to meet Singh and had spent an hour with him. Writing about Rahul Gandhi, Singh had mentioned that Rahul is ‘more talented’ than his father and he is impressed with the way the young Gandhi dynast is conducting himself.