Unlike the British who preserve their letters and publish them eventually to serve the latent Peeping Tom in all of us while making some money, Indians in public life have tended not to do so. Our history has been poorer for that, because valuable source material has not come into public domain.

Thankfully, there has been a gradual change in this preference for privacy over the last decade and half. Indians who held high public office have begun publishing their memoirs. Much of it is dross but, inevitably, a few grams of gold do emerge from the sand.

But not many have opted for publishing their correspondences which are always more revealing.

It is just as well, therefore, that Dr Karan Singh, former ‘Maharaja' of Kashmir, former Union Cabinet Minister, Sanskrit scholar and, at one time, a political confidante of Indira Gandhi, has made bold to do so.

The volume has been edited by Professor Jawaid Alam of Jamia Milia University in Delhi. His footnoting is perfect but — unconsciously perhaps — he has got the title the wrong way around. It should have been select correspondence between Karan Singh and Indira Gandhi, and not the other way. After all, it is his letters that have been published, not hers.

This reversal of the order is indicative of the culture that Indira Gandhi fostered in the Congress. It still persists, as we saw when the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, said last year that Mr Rahul Gandhi would make a fine cabinet minister, quite forgetting that Mr Gandhi has not done much to demonstrate his skills and abilities so far.

Cold shoulder

This set of correspondence also reveals Indira Gandhi's attitude to people. You could not tell her she was wrong. If you did, then no matter what the earlier relationship was, she would give you the cold shoulder.

Dr Singh says she was actually quite a nice person. Well, de mortuis, nil nisi bonum (of the dead, nothing but good should be said). But you have to read this book to see what a change there was when a day after the Allahabad High Court held her election void on June 12, 1975, he made the mistake of writing to her, telling her she should resign.

This earned him her annoyance. Earlier, when he wrote to her, she would reply warmly, even to the extent of calling him by his nickname Tiger; after that, the letters became mere official acknowledgements.

More often than not, they went unanswered, as when he protested in August 1975 about a report in the Indian Express that he, Karan Singh, had instigated a massacre of Muslims in 1948.

I was only 16 then, wrote Dr Singh to Indira Gandhi; I was in New York; I was in hospital; I will sue the paper; how dare one of your Cabinet Ministers spread such things about me when censorship is in force; please guide me, madam.

No guidance was forthcoming. Instead, two months later, on October 22, he got a rap on the knuckles in the matter of some out-of-turn promotions of some doctors. Watch it, said Indira Gandhi.

Dr Singh replied, in a rather plaintive tone, a week later on October 29, that she had been misinformed. That is the last letter until March 1980. Earlier, in January 1980, she had been re-elected as Prime Minister after the defeat of 1977.

So, did he not write to her at all between November 1975 and March 1980? Indira Gandhi does not seem to have replied to his letter of March 1980 which was about Auroville.

He kept writing, she sometimes replied, always curtly. The last letter from him is dated October 23, 1984, eight days before she was assassinated. It was about setting up a tourism institute. She didn't get around to replying.

The Maharaja's fortunes

Dr Singh has included a large number of letters he wrote to her about Indian Airlines and Air India. He used to be minister for civil aviation and faced the same problems as his successors, confirming the old adage that you can't straighten a dog's tail.

He wrote on October 7, 1972, that, of the many solutions being suggested, merger was one and setting up a holding company another. It was a long letter full of ideas — and Indira Gandhi ignored it completely.

At least, no reply has been included in this book. Instead she wrote on November 5, 1972:

Dear Tiger,

I should have been delighted to come and hear Amjad Ali, but, as you know, the first days of Parliament are extremely rushed and I am normally in Parliament till very late.

Yours sincerely,

Indira Gandhi.