The words of silence

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST

A Long Way: Selected Speeches by P.V. Narasimha Rao; D.C. Books, Kottayam; Rs.195, pages 192.

P.V. NARASIMHA RAO has converted his silences into an art form. He uses one word where two would do. He is endowed with a superlatively penetrating intellect. He is, what the Americans call, "a slow burn". If only his subtlety of mind combined an openness of character, he would go down in history as a substantial figure. Once he became Prime Minister he exposed a little known side of him - that his moral postulates were for preaching, not for practising.

His scholarship, his erudition, his originality as a thinker, his urbane enlightenment, make him an exceptional politician. Yet, the diamond is flawed. Emotional and spiritual aridity spoil it all. I know him well. Not so long ago he did me and several friends grave injustice. I have a forgiving nature and a generous heart. Life's too short for wasting time to settle scores. I shall, therefore, judge his book on its merit, and merit alone.

The other day Narasimha Rao sent me a copy of his new book A Long Way. Collections of speeches, unless of the highest order, do not generally hold together. Inevitably some are better than others. So is the case with this collection. I read the book in one day. Portions of it are pure literature. What a gift he has to invent memorable lines! Here is one: 'Life has been a perpetual walk on a razor's edge.' Take his credo:

My basics are secularism, non-alignment, removal of poverty, opening up avenues for the younger generation, for the genius of the people to blossom forth; my basic task is to remove all that comes in the way of the nation's initiatives and progress, which means progress of individuals composing the nation by making opportunities available to different sections; all the barriers are to be removed. That is what I am trying to bring about. I don't say that I am doing it tomorrow. I am not that foolhardy or that unrealistic. But you have to have a vision.

In 1992, P.V. Narasimha Rao delivered the convocation address at Santiniketan. He began on this lyrical note:

To come to Visva-Bharati is to come to a universal home. It is a pilgrimage. In the inner quietude of this vast and beautiful expanse, we hear the words of silence; and we seem to be transported into the age of the Upanishads. It is in such an environment that the ancient Rishis transmitted knowledge to their disciples. We begin to have visions of the sages sitting in their groves ready to teach and test the seeker... And we seem to listen to the exhortations of the teachers to the pupil, "Satyam Vada, Dharmam Chara, Swadhyayam ma Pramadah" - Speak truth, walk in the wake of the duty, neglect not the study.

These excerpts give us the quality of Narasimha Rao's learning and literary sensitivity. This is high-class prose. It elevates the mind and provides a window to our past in language free of jargon, free of cliches and free of the mundane.

I have, during the past 50 years, read and re-read much of what Gandhiji wrote and even more of what others wrote about him. Nothing surpasses or equals what P.V. Narasimha Rao said on Gandhiji in his lecture on the Mahatma at the Unesco in Paris on June 11, 1995, Gandhi For Ever Relevant. Here Narasimha Rao excels himself. His delineation of Gandhiji's character, his deep understanding of Gandhi's methods and his analytical exploration of Gandhi's thought processes are simply masterly. Octavio Paz, the Mexican Nobel Laureate, called Gandhi "a miracle". Narasimha Rao's essays give us the rationale for our calling Gandhiji a miracle.

Narasimha Rao and Octavia Paz agree that Gandhiji's satyagrah movement was both spiritual and political. Gandhiji's political actions are inseparable from his religious and spiritual ideas. Narasimha Rao observes:

Indeed, in a span of three decades he initiated a number of nation-wide protests with two strategic purposes in view - first to knit together the social, linguistic and religious communities within India into modern nationhood, and secondly, to demonstrate to the British that their Empire... would have to be dismantled at the earliest.

Narasimha Rao gives the spectacular example of the Dandi March - 1930:

The incredible economy of Gandhian action; the inverse relationship between the scale of satyagrah and the demographic momentum of popular arousal, illustrate the tactical genius of the Mahatma.

Gandhiji gave us chetna, awakening to millions, both in India and abroad. Gandhi always emphasised the importance of means. Narasimha Rao gives us the nichod - essence of Gandhian thought and Gandhi's achievement in a memorable paragraph on page 33. This, every thoughtful human being should read over and over again. Narasimha Rao deftly tells us how non-alignment was an offshoot of our freedom struggle under Gandhi's noble and heroic leadership. In Narasimha Rao's judgment, "Gandhi stands out as one of the towering figures of our century... Gandhi stands in lonely eminence in the 20th century." I would not confine Gandhi to the 20th century - he is an all-time great, if we leave the Buddha out.

Even among Congressmen, there is cynicism about non-alignment and its relevance today. I would advise them to read Narasimha Rao's brilliant rationale and defence of the Non-Alignment Movement in this book.

Non-alignment is not a business, not a crusade, it is a state of mind. The Congress party in recent weeks has compelled the National Democratic Alliance government to put NAM centrestage. You give up non-alignment and you end up diplomatically naked. Worse still, India would no longer be India but a camp follower of the Americans. Narasimha Rao's essay is most enlightening and hard-hitting.

The ever-green and ageless V.R.Krishna Iyer has written a rather whimsical introduction, which he calls "an ambiguous assessment". He concludes on a gracious note:

I have reservations about the 1991 version of Narasimha Rao and his political process. Taken all in all, the book sometimes touches the divine, often dwells at high levels and throughout deserves sustained study.

I have no quarrel with this. I do, however, wish to say that the arrangement of essays in this book is unsatisfactory. The first chapter, "The P.M. Speaks" runs into 18 pages. It is an interview Narasimha Rao gave to a mediocre Delhi hack. Some of the questions are inane and some of the answers do no credit to P.V. Narasimha Rao. If this book is reprinted (it should be) this chapter should be dropped. Also, the book is crying out for an index.

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