One for the faithful and those keen to revisit that moment in Indian history.
It's not often that an author is upstaged at the launch of his own book. But that was exactly what happened to Ashutosh, the author of Anna: 13 Days That Awakened India, at the book's launch in New Delhi on March 21. As the managing editor of IBN 7, the Hindi general news arm of the Network18 group that also owns CNN-IBN, Ashutosh isn't exactly a nonentity. Yet the name on the lips of everyone packed into Gulmohar Hall at the India Habitat Centre was Anna Hazare. When the septuagenarian leader arrived, dressed in his trademark white khadi and Gandhi cap, the entire hall burst into cheers. In attendance were members of parliament, activists, and several well-known journalists. Not surprisingly, there was no one from the Congress party.
In the panel discussion that followed Anna Hazare's arrival, Ashutosh sat at one end of the table, happy to cede the floor to his fellow panellists, including moderator Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor-in-Chief of CNN-IBN, activist and close Anna aide Arvind Kejriwal, BJP spokesperson Rajiv Pratap Rudy, and Anna Hazare. Much of the discussion had little to do with Ashutosh and his book. It was centred on the issue of corruption and the passage of the Jan Lokpal Bill. Coming out of the launch, I feared that Ashutosh would be overwhelmed by his subject in his book in the same manner that he was overshadowed by him at its launch. Anyone writing about someone who symbolises so much to so many runs that risk. That, thankfully, does not happen. There is enough of Ashutosh in the book. Although he lacks a compelling writerly voice, he makes up for it through insightful analysis, drawing on his experience as a political commentator.
In a larger context
The book can be read as a historical account of the 13days of Anna's fast last August, as well as the reportage at the time. Ashutosh quotes media outlets and writers as diverse as The New York Times and Chetan Bhagat. For the discerning reader, though, the best parts occur when he steps back from the Anna issue and places it in the larger context of Indian political history. One is where he uses the Anna stir to shine his spotlight on Rahul Gandhi. He considers the Congress leader's hands-off approach during the stir a lost opportunity: “Rahul Gandhi could have seized leadership of the party, established himself as having grown out of his mother's shadow and having become a leader in his own right.” Sonia Gandhi, at the time, was ill and away in New York. The four-member team, designated to act on her behalf, was floundering. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's leadership skills, scant at the best of times, had been revealed in their utter penury. Rahul Gandhi, therefore, had the chance to assert himself by taking the bull by the horns. Commenting on his inability to do so, Ashutosh writes: “He should learn from his grandmother, Mrs Indira Gandhi, that if one is not adventurous, one is not victorious. Rahul Gandhi has ceased to be adventurous, so he lost the plot during the movement, and that's why I still see that small child holding his father's hand in a time of crisis. He has to learn to let go of that hand if he wants to grow up.”
Rahul Gandhi lives in a section of India that is cocooned from its own mediocrity by a sense of entitlement. Instead of having someone around him who will tell him like it is, he is surrounded by several who derive their own importance from their closeness to him. He does not have only father figures holding on to his hand, but a fair number of brothers, sisters and aunts. If he is to achieve anything, he has to pull away from their grasp. Ashutosh has a point.
Reason for writing
Ashutosh has been on record saying that the book was written in anger. Anger directed at the upper echelons of the Indian elite, read Planet 10 Janpath and its satellites who feel they have the right to dictate history. Such arrogance caused them to grossly underestimate the common man's disenchantment with corruption and commit the cardinal blunder of attempting to muzzle Anna. He has further indicated his main reason for writing in English, despite being a Hindi journalist, was for the message to get through to them. If he had written in Hindi, the message may have been lost.
Given such motivation, it is not surprising the book is anything but impartial reportage. That is not such a bad thing. The detached just-the-facts, ma'am, approach may work in the pages of newspapers where the standard article is no more than 800-1000 words long. But it reads flat over several pages in a book. That said this is not a book that is going to win any converts to the Anna cause. It is for the faithful, and for anyone keen to revisit that moment in Indian history.
Anna: 13 Days That Awakened India; Ashutosh, Harper Collins, Rs. 199.