Obituary: Dinesh Singh

Dinesh Singh served as Indian foreign minister in the Sixties and again in the Nineties. In between, he headed several other ministries under five prime ministers before becoming minister without portfolio earlier this year.

Ideologically flexible and fiercely ambitious, the dapper Singh, forever with an eye to the political main chance, switched parties in the Seventies when he was slighted by the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, for perpetuating rather foolhardy insinuations.

Gandhi laid great stress on foreign policy and as her external affairs minister, "kitchen cabinet" member and political troubleshooter, Singh worked closely with her through the Sixties. But, somewhat indelicately, Singh encouraged hints that his relationship with the widowed Mrs Gandhi was more than just political, a myth which briefly enhanced his status.

But when the rumours finally reached the prime minister's ears in 1971, Singh was dumped overnight and though he continued as an MP, Gandhi never accepted his peace offerings until her Congress (I) party was dislodged by the Janata Dal coalition in the 1977 general elections.

Feeling slighted, Singh joined the Janata Dal which lasted a little over two years. He then managed to ingratiate himself with Gandhi, rejoined the Congress (I) and once again became an MP. But despite hectic lobbying and embarrassing displays of abject loyalty, which Gandhi encouraged, he never won back her trust or a berth in her cabinet.

Nor did Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi's son and successor, forget Singh's indiscretion and political treachery. But Gandhi fils changed his cabinet every few months, and Singh's seniority and experience led to his being made the commerce minister for a short while.

But the present prime minister, Narasimha Rao, a great believer in the occult, felt that Singh was lucky for him and made him foreign minister in January 1993. And, though he suffered a stroke soon after, and could rarely attend office, Singh was retained in that post till early this year when he became minister without portfolio.

Dinesh Singh was born in 1925, the son of Raja Avadhesh Singh, the talukdar, or landed nobleman, of Kalakankar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Though most rajas or rulers, and talukdars of Uttar Pradesh supported the British, Singh's family were staunchly nationalistic and committed to Mahatma Gandhi's freedom struggle.

His grandfather was one of the founder members of the Congress Party which led India's independence struggle and the Mahatma was a frequent house guest at the family house on the banks of the sacred Ganges river. Brijesh Singh, one of Singh's uncles, was a fiery Communist who married the Russian dictator Josef Stalin's daughter Svetlana.

After graduating from Lucknow University in the north, Dinesh Singh was sent by the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a close family friend, as private secretary to the Indian ambassador in London and later Paris. In 1944 he married Neelima Kumari, princess of Tehri Garhwal, a small principality in the Himalayas.

On returning home from Paris in 1951, Singh temporarily became private secretary to Nehru and tried joining the diplomatic corps but was offered a position only in category "B" of the Indian Foreign Service. He declined, opted for politics and was elected to parliament for the first time in 1957 from Banda in Uttar Pradesh.

Singh was appointed deputy foreign minister by Nehru in 1962 and four years later Indira Gandhi promoted him to junior external affairs minister. A year later he attained cabinet status as commerce minister before becoming foreign minister in 1969.

After falling from power, Singh discredited himself by refusing, despite widespread media criticism, to move out of the palatial bungalow in Lutyens's New Delhi which had been allotted to him after he became a minister in the Sixties. He successfully lobbied succeeding housing ministers to permit him to stay.

A natty dresser, Singh was a distant and somewhat reserved person who wrote two books, Towards New Horizons (1971, the year he was dismissed by Mrs Gandhi) and India and the Changing Asian Scene (1973).

Kuldip Singh

Dinesh Singh, politician: born Kalakankar, Uttar Pradesh 19 July 1925; member, Lower House of Parliament 1957-77; member, Upper House of Parliament 1977-95; Deputy Minister for External Affairs 1962-66, Minister of State 1966-67, Minister 1969-71, 1993-95; Minister of Commerce 1967-69; Minister of Industrial Development and Internal Trade 1970-71; Minister without portfolio 1995; married 1944 Neelima Kumari (six daughters); died New Delhi 30 November 1995.

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