Itihaas: Dishing out the dirt

Political memoirs in India have been few and far between, perhaps to protect scions who are already leveraging heritage

The American and British reading public can devour countless books of politicians washing their dirty linen — and other people’s linen — in public. Indian politicians, on the other hand, have by and large been reticent, hesitant about creating explosions of the memoir kind, although Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi set a good example by dissecting his experiments with truth. And we have nothing like the diaries of Alan Clark in the 1980s, which told a gripping tale of the infighting in Margaret Thatcher’s government as well as his own ‘conquests’ of an altogether different kind.

In India, it was MO Mathai, private secretary to Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who broke the code of secrecy and silence about iconic figures by writing Reminiscences of the Nehru Age (1977), projecting the latter in an unflattering light in a chapter titled ‘She’.

The lady, of course, was livid at the portrayal, which she saw as betrayal of a venal kind. The middle classes in general were shocked by the highly subjective critique that Mathai offered and also sceptical about its veracity.

It was left to veteran journalist Janardan Thakur to unravel the bitter truth about first, all the prime minister’s men, and subsequently all the Janata men, giving the public a virtual goldmine of information about personalities shaping India’s polity in the 1970s and 1980s. His engaging style and ability to artfully render a political anecdote won him countless friends but also several enemies among the ones he had portrayed. The political class then as well as now has shown a distinct lack of sporting spirit while such political biographies have unfailingly created a storm.

But while British parliamentarians willingly divulge what they have for breakfast, in India, the world’s biggest democracy, the opposite is true. It was left to Lady Pamela Hicks, daughter of India’s last Viceroy Louis Mountbatten, to tell us about the drama behind India’s independence, which she attempted as late as 2012.

Only a fourth of Daughter of Empire: My Life as a Mountbatten was devoted to India, but it had its memorable passages, especially as it tells us former British PM Winston Churchill refused to talk to Mountbatten after 1947, as he held him responsible for letting the sun set over the British empire.

Tidbits of news might make for good gossip in the corridors of power in New Delhi, but they rarely get a public airing. The manner in which the media and the political class have reacted to Natwar Singh’s nuggets reflects an unwillingness to give credence to what parliamentarians who have fallen by the wayside reveal. Especially when their scions have joined a rival party. If Sonia Gandhi does stay true to her promise to tell her own story, this is likely to have much more traction, perhaps because one can see she genuinely has a reason to put pen to paper.

PV Narasimha Rao, unfortunately, opted out of revealing all and wrote a fictionalised account of his life, leaving it to bemused readers to sort out fact from fiction. Here was a man with a literary flair who could have set the record straight about how events unfolded at such crucial junctures of the nation's history as the demolition of the Babri Masjid. An insider account would have been an occasion for introspection and revealed the dirty underbelly of communal politics.

Manmohan Singh too would do well to answer the questions that his one-time media advisor Sanjaya Baru raised in his book a few months ago. The biggest corruption scandals exploded into the open during Manmohan Singh’s second term in office. He and other dramatis personae of the epoch owe it to posterity to come out with their version of the truth — he did drop hints about coalition dharma, but that was all.

Talking of prime ministers, IK Gujral did pen his memoirs in 2011, a couple of years before he died. He might have been PM for only a year (1997-98), but he committed his experiences to print in Matters of Discretion: An Autobiogra-phy. It covered such delicate matters as the emergency, the Soviet Union's funding of Indian communist parties, and the ‘sudden and unplanned’ friendship with Israel.

A reviewer wrote appreciatively of the memoir: “India’s skyrocketing corruption, the vengeful, squabbling politics and the tumultuous ‘80s and ‘90s are chronicled in the book, which has a ‘dear diary’ feel to it — in a positive way.” A far better approach than the ‘dear voter' feel of Natwar Singh’s memoir.

Perhaps the reason why Indian politicians don’t come clean is because they never retire or fade away. They are always looking for newer pastures, and if timely or untimely death removes them from the scene, their progeny step in. Writing a tell-all would not only be political suicide, it would tar future generations with the same brush. But at least a memoir can change the perception that Indian politicians work in mysterious, venal ways — an impression that only they themselves can correct.

One would like to see more Sanjaya Barus and Natwar Singhs in our midst, even though they may have been tendentious or subjective in their conclusions.

(Pradyot Lal is a political analyst and commentator)

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