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Laying bare the politician's soul

Print edition : Apr 25, 1998 T+T-

The truth about Indian politics as reflected in The Insider is not half as explosive as the reality.

FORMER Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's book The Insider is, as the author himself admits, neither a regular autobiography nor a work of fiction. It is offered as a novel, but it is anything but a novel in the conventional sense of the word. It is not a chronicle of history, nor does it mirror aspects of human emotions other than the humdrum. It claims to be a tale of Indian politics spanning half a century, but it offers no new or sensational insights. And in preparation for a sequel, it breaks off at a stage when the reader's curiosity is at its peak.

And yet, the claim of both the author and the publisher that Narasimha Rao's flashback into history brings out "the explosive truth" about Indian politics is tantalisingly inviting. So tantalising, in fact, that the reader is tempted to put aside every other chore in order to delve deep into the novel. But between promise and fulfilment lie hundreds of pages that tell little that was not known earlier, and tell it in ponderous and tedious prose that often impels the reader to skip pages in the hope that the narration will pick up momentum and begin to grip at some point in the interaction between the "fictional and semi-fictional characters and situations."

Finally, the truth about Indian politics which emerges from Narasimha Rao's narrative is not half as explosive as the reality, especially of the post-Nehru period, which has led inexorably to the current mood of disillusionment with the political class as a whole.

However, the author skilfully mirrors the happenings of his early years in politics, a long stretch of time spent mostly in Hyderabad State (Afrozabad in the novel) as a politician in the making. The central character in the novel, Anand, whose experiences are admittedly "often derived" from the author's, encounters much in public life that in turn shocks and disgusts, but seldom surprises him. Through it all, Anand, Narasimha Rao's alter ego, political clone and activist replica, remains rigidly, perhaps too rigidly, committed to the highest values of public life and personal conduct. He is a typical "gentleman politician", full of ideals and good thoughts, raring to do the right thing, unattracted by power or pelf, indifferent to riches, and committed to socialism.

The incredible deeds which are done in the name of politics and their rationalisation and justification by the perpetrators, constitute grist to Narasimha Rao's mill. And Rao keeps grinding away till the end, exulting in Anand's moral superiority, his great intellect, his efficiency and competence, his skills at analysing and interpreting delicate, sensitive political nuances, his resistance to the philosophy of compromise and surrender. Here is an illustrative description of this paragon of virtue: "Anand was a committed devotee of logical thinking. He had overwhelming compassion for the afflicted. He suffered from a total absence of personal ambition. He possessed a storehouse of knowledge accumulated over a long period of study and reflection."

Narasimha Rao has the image of a shy, reticent and self-effacing personality, but his alter ego is anything but modest. Anand is a political rebel, who lives only for doing good to the people at large, but he is neither a mass leader nor a rabble rouser. He often finds the world peopled by cynical and hostile opportunists but is able to tolerate them since he has assiduously cultivated a "stoic detachment".

This detachment serves him well even in the one non-political activity he is drawn into, namely engaging himself without inhibition in a passionate affair with Aruna, a temperamental, high-strung, extrovert, beautiful, extremely compassionate though hopelessly erratic comrade-in-arms in the State Legislative Assembly. There must have been something really uplifting in that affair since the passages dealing with it are written with an appealing sensitivity.

The better part of Anand's life is spent as a Minister in the State Cabinet, where he serves as the perfect foil to a couple of hardcore politicians. Then a conspiracy of circumstances lands him in the Chief Minister's chair before he is catapulted to the Congress headquarters in New Delhi. Here, he comes face to face with his political role model, leader and mentor, Indira Gandhi. But then the narrative fades out, with the promise of more to come in the following volume. Since it is a tale by an "insider", there is naturally a certain degree of curiosity centred around the characters and the possibility of their identification with real life personalities. Those acquainted only with the high points of the period since the advent of Indira Gandhi may find it an irksome job to get a fix on personalities who dominated the politics of pre-Independence Hyderabad state. The three characters who run through several hundred pages of the novel are named Mahendranath, Chaudhury and Shekhar, the first two of whom precede Anand as Chief Ministers of the fictional state of Afrozabad.

There would be a strong temptation to identify these characters with some of the political stalwarts who dominated Andhra politics for long. But such identification could be misleading or unrealistic, for the simple reason that while personalities from contemporary history such as N. Sanjeeva Reddy, K. Brahmananda Reddy, D. Sanjivayya, Alluri Satyanarayana Raju, Jalagam Vengal Rao and Mari Chenna Reddy display some of the personality and political traits of the characters, their resemblance has been deliberately made remote and distant.

Yet there is a lurking suspicion that the author would like his reader to conjure up mental images of these leaders and relate them to his characters. This writer tried it, with results neither credible nor satisfactory. Of course, those who were privy to the gossip of the 1970s in New Delhi may be able to "give a name and local habitat" to the fictional Aruna, but here too they could find the correspondence remote and unreal beyond a point.

As archetypes of the political beings not only of New Delhi but of several State capitals, many of the characters are easily recognisable. Not so surprisingly, there seems to be little difference between the ruthless and unscrupulous politician in whose company Anand grew up and their successors of the day.

Reader interest would naturally be centred on events of contemporary importance and relevance. It is here that a majority of readers, who may otherwise be impressed, could be a trifle disappointed.

Narasimha Rao is unsparing in exposing the deviousness, the circumvention of institutions and due processes, and cloying sycophancy of politicians. Even the cynic may find some of the stratagems adopted by the three dominant politicians in Narasimha Rao's narrative - Mahendranath, Chaudhury and Shekhar - rather astonishing. Public well-being, Narasimha Rao demonstrates with telling instances, is the last thing on the minds of politicians, although on occasion it would seem that sentiments of compassion and concern do overtake them when they are struck by the enormity of their doings. It is in delineating some of the weaknesses of his political peers, which has in turn contributed to the cumulative disabilities of the system, that the author is at his best.

Narasimha Rao sheds his innate reticence when he permits Anand to be critical of the authoritarian traits that seem an inbuilt part of the psyche of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The ruling philosophy of the current-day Congress, namely that the supreme leader can do no wrong, seems to have existed all through the last 50 years, with Jawaharlal Nehru himself being partly guilty. Anand is indeed left inconsolable after Jawaharlal Nehru's death because there was neither a second rung of leaderhip nor a clear line of succession. While Indira Gandhi is portrayed as someone out of this mundane world, she too gradually falls in Anand's estimation.

The Garibi Hatao slogan is very much to Anand's liking, and bank nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses evoke his admiration. But his whole being seems to revolt against Indira Gandhi's divide-and-rule tactics and her preference for nominated Chief Ministers. These were a means of accommodating "dwarfs of all persuasions", who would carry out her bidding or fawn over her.

The Emergency of 1975, the defeat of Indira Gandhi in 1977, the advent of Morarji Desai as Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi's comeback in 1980, Operation Bluestar, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the advent of Rajiv Gandhi, are all swiftly and mercilessly dismissed in a single page. Maybe a more detailed account, certainly worth looking forward to, will embellish the promised second volume.

Anand rises to higher positions "almost as though he were part of some giant bureaucracy," but he seems to be quite surprised that "no one asked him what he had done in his last assignment". The "last assignment" was perhaps a high point in the political life of Narasimha Rao when as Chief Minister he tried against all odds to push through land reforms. In its successful sweep, this almost threatened the political base of Indira Gandhi herself, necessitating his removal from Afrozabad in as painless a manner as possible.

There is rich material here; material full of every essential ingredient of an absorbing novel. And the sequel, if it delivers on this promise, could hopefully provide more intimate details of the steady decline of the once great Congress party and the manner in which Congressmen contributed their own little bit to it.