Book Review

Book Review: Devesh Verma’s novel “The Politician” is about one man’s quest for unbridled power

Print edition : October 08, 2021

“The Politician” by Devesh Verma (Penguin/Viking, 2021)

A novel about one man’s quest for unbridled power, which warns us not to make politics a matter of emotional calling.

The enduring popularity of political novels such as All the King’s Men (1946), Advise and Consent (1959) and Milkman (2018), influenced by the “tradition of unease” creatively upheld by writers such as Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, is proof of the keen interest people have in the “downward moral spiral” that produces a wicked longing for ruling over others. Political fiction articulates how the unbridled quest for power is not clinched by brute force alone in a democratic world.

The political novel

The best political novels do not directly comment on the compelling issues of the day but examine how ideology, political manoeuvring and the unbridled ambition of an individual can exacerbate existing social and cultural inequalities, thereby leading to intolerance, division, hatred and violence.

Even the overtly political ones often poignantly narrate how narrow allegiances—political, religious, regional, cultural and social—end up effacing instinctive human traits such as dignity, freedom and compassion. The best political novel rarely carries an explicit agenda; its political underpinnings surface between the lines. It turns the reader’s attention to the various layers of deception perfected by self-seeking politicians. It locates the elements of politics such as manifestos, strategies, speeches, regional loyalties, caste equations and cultural and religious aspirations within the larger social order. In this way, it creates a space distinct from the world the reader lives in, and that is what sets political fiction apart from books of history and social science.

Notwithstanding their commercial success, many political novels falter on the count of storytelling. Political slogans, deceitful manoeuvrings and rhetorical flourish alone do not make a novel. Devesh Verma’s debut novel, The Politician, though, exquisitely upends this dominant model of the political novel that oscillates between fact and fiction and highlights the success and skulduggery of corrupt and ruthless politicians.

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With well-fleshed-out characters, Devesh Verma weaves a gripping narrative around a flawed hero’s quest for unbridled power. The novel pivots around Ram Mohan, an academic who belongs to the Kurmi caste. A man of erudition with a Machiavellian world view, Ram Mohan wants to learn all the lessons of political artistry as quickly as possible in order to realise his hankering for power.

Unrelenting ambition is destined to cause division and violence, and Ram Mohan’s story reveals this candidly. He gets defeated at the hustings twice, fails to make it either as a minister or a member of the Rajya Sabha, but finally becomes a member of the State Public Service Commission. His life story seems to validate the view that unflinching allegiance to caste and political ideologies produces intolerance from which all sorts of ills originate. While Ram Mohan’s life neither inspires nor disgusts, the depiction of his intolerance, self-righteousness and tyrannical attitude adds punch to the narrative.

Kartik Verma, the journalist friend of Ram Mohan’s son Deena, is the narrator of The Politician. The plight of Deena, who commits suicide, reminds one of Kafka, whose father made his life unliveable with continual humiliation, emotional deprivation and stifling surveillance. Before taking the extreme step, Deena hands over to Kartik Verma a file of diaries, letters and other material that reveal how his father’s debauchery and cruelty impelled him to seek solace in death.

The novel conjures up a world of political bickering and corruption, where politics is both socially and morally suspect. Ram Mohan’s actions prove that the exercise of power puts one’s soul at risk.

The novel discusses political agendas and activism against the backdrop of caste consciousness. While the central character seems to have put a premium on caste identity to further his own interests, he neither pitches for the empowerment of his caste nor enables the emancipation of a particular ethnic group that is reduced to voting as a bloc.

Unlike most political novels, The Politician is not the story of the meteoric rise of a middle-class man who uses all sorts of unethical means to cling to power. Instead, it is a moving recounting of the modest success, and many failures, of a pretentious academic who knows how knowledge makes a dent in the political arena.

Employing a nuanced narrative device, the author juxtaposes the portraiture of Ram Mohan with his son Deena’s. Whereas Ram Mohan’s approach to life and politics conjures up awe, dread, admiration and abhorrence, Deena’s story turns the reader’s attention to the human predicament of finding one’s way in a hostile world. It is the story of the profound emotional suffering that Ram Mohan inflicts on Deena; the son’s actions are the perfect antidote to his power-hungry father’s.

Revisiting the Nehruvian era

The novel seeks to revisit the Nehruvian era by focussing attention on India’s wars with China and Pakistan, the consolidation of caste and religious identities, language controversies, the implementation of policies, the bureaucratic wrangling and the communal divide that rocked the country in the first three decades after independence. The action is set in Uttar Pradesh, once regarded as the political heartland of the country, and particularly in Kanpur and its adjoining areas.

The changing dynamics of caste and political affiliations and the bullheaded mindset of the emerging middle class are evocatively illustrated through the narrative of Ram Mohan. A teacher and the most educated person in his area, Ram Mohan also has a way with words. For him, eloquence is to be supplemented with violence. He unabashedly declares, “I am the master of arms and argumentation both” (page 3). He believes that a combination of literature and politics is ideal because “while political power was bound to distinguish a man of letters in literary circles, a literary and linguistic bent would mark him off from fellow politicians.” (page 43).

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The novel begins with the news of Deena’s suicide. A thoughtful debate ensues on how our metaphysical moorings prevent us from understanding the simple phenomenon of death. Death is the final termination point, nothing else. The comical aspect of death is frequently conveyed through scenes of black humour, such as when Ram Mohan gets his opponent Padhaiya Bhaiya mercilessly thrashed, then visits his house and offers his children money and chats with them.

The opening chapter featuring Deena foreshadows the events to follow. Ram Mohan gives Deena a new pen, suggesting that he become a thinker and a rebel. Sure enough, Deena proves to be a radical writer and a keen observer of human relations. Deena locates death in the larger flow of life and gives it no more importance than an ordinary and inevitable event. This is also why he is easily prompted, in his emotional turmoil, to give up his life.

Caste politics

The novel mentions how caste equations play a decisive role in a vibrant democracy. It discusses how the caste card is judiciously played by Chaudhary Baran Singh to push the faction-ridden Congress into a corner. The much-maligned caste-bred social structure is not only a reality but also reveals a new dimension of social cohesion as a motley group of upwardly mobile people of different faiths living in Parsadpur (Kanpur) lend a helping hand to an upcoming politician from the Kurmi caste which does not have a major presence in the area.

The author focusses on the undercurrent of social and cultural cohesion that makes its presence felt in fragmented society, which has been conveniently overlooked by the politicians, journalists and writers of fictional or nonfictional accounts of north India. Ram Mohan faces a formidable challenge from two fellow Kurmis, Padhaiya Bhaiya (who lives in his native village, Parsadpur) and Deep Narayan (a resident of his constituency) who, too, have political aspirations.

The author subjects to extensive and layered scrutiny a range of fictitious political leaders of the State such as Guptaji, Dixitji, Chaudhary Baran Singh, Raj Narayan and their political strategies against the backdrop of their relationship with the Centre, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi. Their identities are thinly veiled, but it would be unfair to take this fictional account for the truthful depiction of reality. Similarly, contradictory and divergent ideologies and the intense rivalry of leaders need not be applauded or castigated through the prism of historical evidence.

The novel offers a fascinating cautionary narrative of a highly politicised world where the political dispensation disregards virtues such as humility and care, and where political leaders no longer believe in moulding public opinion in favour of a morally correct cause. Instead, they work towards fulfilling their own pursuits, no matter how unethical and irrational. The characters are complex and compelling. While the characterisation of Kanti, Sughari, Gayatri and Malti, who make fleeting appearances, seem stoic and epicurean, the narrative lacks a fully developed female character.

Devesh Verma lays bare the various layers of Ram Mohan’s personality, whose penchant for knowledge, carnality and political authority had a particular resonance for this reader. Ram Mohan’s skirt-chasing rivals that of the legendary Don Juan as he has affairs with several women and tries to sexually assault a sweeper and his own daughter. His son Deena is left emotionally broken when he sees his father in flagrante with a young lady of the village. While Deena commits suicide, his brother Nishant starts visiting brothels and gets infected with HIV and later becomes a fugitive when Ram Mohan uses his knife to kill someone.

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The novel is replete with incisive and radical interpretations of several burning national and international issues, and political, ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural matters. The narrator Kartik Verma’s point of view is shaped by Deena’s suicide note and his diaries, whose observations give the novel an exhilarating cerebral touch. Deena’s classification of the unethical and the wicked may well rattle the reader. His list includes “religious crusades, the killing of women accused of witchcraft, slavery, apartheid, foot-binding, female genital mutilation, the Devadasi system, untouchability, sati, widows banished to far-off places, female infanticide, Namboodiri Brahmins deflowering the young brides of lower-caste grooms and Kuleen Brahmins marrying girls generations younger to them.” (page 35)

Kartik Verma’s reconstruction of Ram Mohan’s multilayered story seems to be a wry satire on the self-indulgent political striver whose strenuous efforts could only fetch him a modicum of success in the form of the membership of the State Public Service Commission. Contrary to his public espousal of democracy, self-dignity and freedom, Ram Mohan keeps his own family on a tight leash. Unable to endure his patriarchal outlook and feudal mindset, one of his sons commits suicide while the other becomes a criminal. For Ram Mohan’s wife, Kanti, married life is a nightmare as she is subject to all sorts of humiliation; she is not even permitted to have her ailing father stay with her for a few days.

While it is a truism that political ambition breeds ruthlessness and makes man bereft of essential human traits, Devesh Verma takes care to mention some conciliatory initiatives of diehard politicians such as Sansadji, Chaudhary Baran Singh, Dixitji and Ram Mohan, ostensibly to keep the flicker of hope for a better future alive. In The Politician, the distinctly political discourse, largely restricted to electoral battles and the formation of government, seeks to create an informed understanding of the contemporary political landscape and also vividly narrates how emotional responses rooted in religious and cultural consciousness overwhelm concrete facts.

The novel is a page-turner not for its political content but for creating a new humanised vision of political realism that warns us not to make politics a matter of emotional calling. Devesh Verma is clearly on the side of human solidarity.

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