The tale of an outsider

Published : Apr 25, 1998 00:00 IST

P.V. Narasimha Rao's book is a political account, ever so thinly veiled.

The Insider by P.V. Narasimha Rao; Viking (Penguin Books India) New Delhi; 1998; pages 767; Rs. 695.

AN observer and a participant in the maelstrom of Indian politics, P.V. Narasimha Rao clearly saw himself as a man with a dual identity, aware of the various enticements offered by his milieu, yet restrained from partaking of them by an innate faculty of self-criticism. His ascent to prime ministership in 1991 was in some part a consequence of the perception that he had neither a great appetite for the exercise of power, nor any serious stakes in the game. That was perhaps an accurate reading for the time. Narasimha Rao internalised the fundamentals of the power game on the job, after his ascent to the apex of the political pyramid. Prior to that, he was better known as one who maintained a distance - though inextricably caught up in the system, he could stand aside every so often and cast a cool, dispassionate and rather cynical eye at the shallow pretensions, the sordid bargains, and the brittle egoisms that animated it.

In his chosen guise as an observer, Narasimha Rao adopted two modes of expression. He was a prolific political commentator during the latter half of the 1970s, with a penchant for an over-sincere and almost obsessively literal reading of the self-serving ideological protestations of the ruling party. He was also, even prior to the publication of the current novel, known as a man with a pronounced tilt towards fictionalising his experiences. As important as Narasimha Rao the political commentator is the man as a chronicler in fiction of the innermost motivations and concerns of political individuals.

Although ostensibly proposed as a title for Narasimha Rao's novel by a senior journalist from New Delhi, the term "the insider" has a longer association with the political persona of the author. As a pseudonym, "Insider" was first employed by him in a political skit which the weekly magazine Mainstream published as far back as 1984 (Frontline, December 29, 1995). Entitled The Reshuffle, this was a rather heavy-handed satire on the culture of servility and careerism that had flourished in the Congress under Indira Gandhi, each Minister looking out for himself in the tussle for Cabinet positions that afforded the best rewards. The author was introduced to the reader as "an insider, who understandably, prefers to remain anonymous, in anticipation of the next reshuffle." There was a touch of frivolity about the introduction though it also suggested a sense of fatalism - an insider seeking an honourable exit but afforded few feasible avenues of escape, since the rewards that the system conferred could not be disdained. The "insider", in other words, was trapped within the system, aware of all its frailties and contemptuous of the rewards it reserved for mediocrity, yet compelled to play by the same rules since survival often meant getting ahead.

The Insider

The skit was reproduced by Mainstream in 1994 under the same pseudonym, except that the author was introduced as "an insider who continues to hold an eminent position in the government - in fact, more eminent than before". Although there is an obvious difference in scale, many of the themes and concerns broached in The Reshuffle have made their way into The Insider, Narasimha Rao's first acknowledged work of fiction.

TO trace the various lineages of The Insider would be a complex task in itself. Certain drafts of his work of fiction, for instance, appeared under the title The Other Half in various journals. And "the other half" is an image that recurs frequently through his recently published novel - a continual reference to the tug of conscience that keeps him on even keel as he negotiates the treacherous waters of provincial politics.

The Insider goes beyond the collectivity of Narasimha Rao's earlier work in attempting a measure of introspection. The outcome is far from convincing. Anand, the hero, is little short of an embodiment of personal virtue and political commitment. Those who might have expected a self-revelatory account of his long tenure in politics from Narasimha Rao's venture into fiction, will surely be disappointed. The Insider is more in the nature of self-justification. And those who might be seeking an excavation of the Congress party's internal machinations and manoeuvres would have to be content with a picture that revolves around the moral and ethical lodestar of Anand's personality.

Narasimha Rao deploys his powers of observation rather unevenly. Anand remains curiously untouched by all the intrigues that transpire in his immediate political milieu. Alone among all the characters in this sprawling novel, Anand retains his pristine virtue, his focus on basic political values. He draws moral sustenance from the companionship of Aruna as he ploughs his lonely furrow in a hostile world - it is a sense of bonding that often goes beyond the verbal into a sense of mystical communion.

The salience of Anand's virtue is accentuated by portraying other political creatures in the depths of depravity. Mahendranath, the first chief minister of Afrozabad, is a person who feels the urge for sex "like a physical itch": "The urge to fornicate wasn't very different from the urge to urinate...." His one-time confidant turned bitter adversary, Chaudhury, is also of similar disposition, seeking consolation for an election defeat "with repeated spells of drinking, womanising, and gambling in distant Naini Tal." It is following one such encounter with a "high-society prostitute" that he has his redeeming insight: "Appearance, make-up, not the real you; that was what politics was about." That cathartic moment transforms Chaudhury from an avowed sceptic about the "socialistic pattern of society" to one of its most fervent advocates, attracting the attention of Jawaharlal Nehru and paving the way for his ascent to the chief ministership.

Chaudhury's intrigues against Mahendranath take a byzantine course in which he draws in the services of Shekhar - an individual of humble origins whose presence, as Anand's intellectual equal and ethical opposite, pervades the entire book. Working from within Mahendranath's camp, Shekhar succeeds in undermining him, in the process winning the favour of the successor dispensation under Chaudhury. It is a fascinating scenario, though sketched out in over-broad terms, with a surfeit of judgment and little description.

Anand's debut as a Minister under Chaudhury is, naturally enough, little short of brilliant. But his absolute sense of probity - described in the novel as a notion of "neutrality" towards the exercise of power - soon gets him into trouble with the entrenched interests which have taken over the ruling party. His liaison with Aruna becomes grist to the mills of tabloid sensationalism, driving him in despair to the verge of permanent self-exile from politics. But the fighting spirit predominates, and Anand decides that his only response would be to plough deeper into the furrow of righteousness that he had cut.

Fortuitously, circumstances come to his assistance. Entrapped by his socialist rhetoric, Chaudhury is under pressure from Jawaharlal Nehru to show results on the land reforms front. Shekhar puts him up to the idea of entrusting the portfolio to Anand, since an encounter with the forces and interests involved in the problem of land reforms would surely be the end of the pesky idealist. This opens up a narrative sequence that proceeds fitfully through the book and climaxes at its end, when Anand as Chief Minister introduces a Bill on land reforms that is little short of a masterpiece of legal draftsmanship. The inspiration comes to him on a troubled night, when besieged by doubt and anxiety over the course he had adopted, he encounters "the other half" in a mystical experience that lays out before him the path to revolutionary social transformation.

Anand's legislative and administrative moves completely outflank the landlord lobby. But finally it all comes to naught. Indira Gandhi shifts him out to take up organisational responsibilities of an undefined nature. The blueprint of social transformation that Anand had meticulously crafted, remains unimplemented. Narasimha Rao's remarks in various forums since the release of his novel make it clear that this particular narrative thread is of serious consequence in his own scheme of things. Yet perhaps on account of certain infirmities of literary technique, it is a narration that often gets submerged in a welter of less important detail. Between first grappling with the problem of land reforms and finally resolving it, Narasimha Rao has his protagonist traversing a complex and treacherous terrain. Take this description of the Congress Legislature Party that Anand made his political debut in, and Narasimha Rao's sharp, if rather disdainful political style becomes apparent: "It was a strange crowd - simple, complex, heterogeneous, spineless, variously motivated, united, divided and on the whole indefinable."

As a political vehicle, the ruling party was seemingly designed to default on all its promises. And as the narrative of The Insider wears on, the awakening sense of disillusionment is sharply captured, especially in the twilight years of the Nehru era. Hope is rekindled by Indira Gandhi's populism, which Anand eagerly embraces. "The Naxalites," he argues, "have served notice that social tensions can lead to unmitigated disaster. There has to be change, Indira Gandhi represents that change, like it or not. She simply doesn't represent more of the same."

Anand was a virtual evangelist in Indira Gandhi's cause, restless at the lukewarm commitment of his peers who all seemed to confuse "personal adulation with political support." He earned his reward when growing discord with the "high command" provoked Chaudhury's resignation from office, and he was sworn in as the first "nominated Chief Minister" of the state of Afrozabad. It was a piquant situation: "Anand was not the torch-bearer of any single interest in the state. No particular class, no dominant caste, no identifiable section. Could he have reached this position in the normal course, even with luck? Obviously not, except through Indira Gandhi's blessings..."

In an earlier phase of his political career, Anand had looked upon this miraculous freedom from encumbrance as an attitude of "neutrality" in the exercise of state power. Towards the climax of this narrative, it is revealed to him that it is lonely at the top, when you have no compelling political interests to serve.

The title of this novel perhaps is a serious misnomer, since the tale it tells, of a conflict-ridden individual never quite able to adapt to his environs, is quintessentially that of an outsider. Narasimha Rao's metamorphosis into an insider perhaps came after the period that this novel deals with.

This book offers very little assurance that the promised sequel will portray this transformation with a greater sense of self-critical candour. But as one of the pioneers of the genre of the political novel, Narasimha Rao surely is entitled to a second hearing.

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