Are these biographies or hagiographies, asks the writer of the latest crop of books on political leaders.
In the year of the general elections, hagiographies seem to be in. Barring occasional rays of hope, authors today increasingly resemble medieval courtiers.
Pick up the latest biography of Narendra Modi, Sudesh Verma’s The Gamechanger and you could be excused for thinking that the Gujarat Chief Minister is the panacea for all the maladies afflicting the nation. The title of Verma’s book, though, seems tame when one comes across D.P. Singh’s Narendra Modi: Yes, He Can… Only He can save India from Impending Doom. The cover leaves no room for speculation. Or try Akhilesh Yadav: Winds of Change by Sunita Aron. Then there is Rahul by Jatin Gandhi and Veenu Sandhu that tells us the Gandhi scion is a patient man ready to bide his time for final success. But, Rahul Gandhi being both inaccessible and inscrutable, the husband-wife team had a mountain to climb.
Add other books on our leaders, their economics, their politics and it seems there is no dearth of modern-day Chanakyas! We are spoiled for choice. Some of the books attempt to woo slinking shadows, others prop up individuals squandered in a maze of narcissism. Our media is often accused of being both pliant and given to predilections. But authors? In the season of elections, nobody, it seems, minds a good harvest. And some authors have turned into able allies. They paint their subjects with a halo — men who never sinned, were only sinned against. Alternately, they build a myth around them.
Sample this: On the failed marriage of the Gujarat Chief Minister, Verma writes, “Narendra was able to defend his action by remembering Gautama Buddha. Narendra’s friends recall his explanation in private talks that even Buddha had left his wife, son and all pleasures and luxuries of a royal life in search of Truth….”
And how is this for an anecdote from childhood to embellish the narrative: “Once, Narendra was badly injured when a crocodile hit his left foot with its tail. A croc’s tail is strong; a hit by it can be fatal… Narendra was an eighth grade student then. He got nine stitches on his left foot near the ankle and was bed-ridden for more than a week… This incident would have scared any other child for the rest of his life, but not Narendra. Within a month, he was back in the lake.” Later Verma adds, “While coming back from his swimming routine, he found a baby crocodile lying alone at the side of the lake. It was more than a foot long. ND took the baby croc to his residence to nurse it…”
Verma claims he gleaned these details because of his team of five members. “I took leave for eight months to write the book. I spoke to his relatives, his neighbours. I was privileged enough to meet Modi more than half a dozen times. It changed my perception of him. He was more sinned against.”
Aron, on the other hand, does not attempt to invest Akhilesh with a halo; she gets help from unexpected quarters. Akhilesh, in a direct reference to the much-hailed sultan, was called Tipu in childhood. However, when talking of his birth, Aron cannot resist painting a picture that reminds readers of the birth of Krishna, replete with songs, bhajans and gaiety. Aron writes, “…There was anxiety in the air as a frail Malti Devi moaned with labour pains…The midwife tried to comfort Malti, who was in her early thirties, in a room faintly lit by a lantern. An infant’s first cry around 5.30 a.m. triggered a flurry of activity in the house. An excited midwife announced the birth of a baby boy and triggered celebrations. There were smiles all around and sweets were distributed even as people started pouring in to bless the boy. The sound of dholak reverberated as women with their faces covered in ghunghats sang jachcha and jananas to welcome the new arrival in the family of an ordinary farmer.”
Aron, however, says that she wrote the book like a journalist. “I don’t know how the book is going to be positioned in the election year. It is up to the publishers. It has formally not been released yet as the CM is busy. Incidentally, I found him very reticent in my talks and I spoke to a lot of relatives and others to take the story forward. I used a novel-like narrative, built the story on anecdotes.” But winds of change? “Yes, there are winds of change; there is a generational shift in U.P. politics,” she insists.
Not too different in mood and spirit is Arun Sinha’s Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar. Sinha, a college-time friend of the Bihar CM, writes like a friend too. No uncomfortable questions, no sneak asides.
Then there are others who have revisited a political subject. For instance, veteran M.V. Kamath and Kalindi Randeri with The Man of the Moment: Modi, or Sameer Kochhar with ModiNomics. Kamath and his co-author had earlier authored another book on Modi, The Architect of a Modern State.
Many of these works are not easy to read. Their prose is laboured, tainted with pedantry, breathless with stuffiness. Life is not linear; a single-strand narrative cannot render it accurately. These days, as we have discovered, the language of political discourse is both banal and inaccurate.
Some works, when they shift focus from the immediate subject, make interesting reading, like Aarthi Ramachandran’s Decoding Rahul Gandhi, but where is the bravura, that dash of irreverence? Certainly not in Pappu Yadav’s Hindi autobiography, or even Sutanu Guru’s more nuanced Beyond Rahul versus Modi.
However, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s and Kingshuk Nag’s books — Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and The NaMo Story respectively — are a breath of fresh air. Neither seeks to impart a halo to Modi nor run him down unnecessarily. Mukhopadhyay says, “On Modi there is tremendous polarisation; either you are 150 per cent with him or against him. It is difficult to be nuanced. I was taking a risk of being isolated by either camp. I spoke to Modi many times. Fortunately, there has been a huge response from the market. But, yes, Modi has stopped speaking to me. Probablybecause he found the style offensive as I have taken small jabs at him. No bookstore has had an event in Ahmedabad.”
A Hindi version of the book has been brought out by Yatra and several Malayalam books have borrowed from his biography, but no Marathi or Gujarati publisher has come forward.
Nag did not interview Modi. He says, “You can love him, or hate him, but there is no way that you can ignore Narendra Modi.” Interestingly, Nag had the idea for the book from 2002 but when he approached a publisher, he was advised, “Write a book from the Hindu point of view.” It took another 10 years before a publisher (Roli Books) agreed to a biography that would neither “demonise” nor “lionise” the subject.
Another similar case is Sankarshan Thakur’s well-researched, persuasively-argued book on Nitish Kumar Single Man. Incidentally, Thakur had, much earlier, written about Nitish’s main rival Laloo Prasad Yadav in The Making of Laloo, the Unmaking of Bihar.
These are, however, exceptions in an age keen to rewrite its times.