Balancing acts

A general view of the Indian parliament building is pictured during the winter session in New Delhi on November 29, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)

A general view of the Indian parliament building is pictured during the winter session in New Delhi on November 29, 2021. (Photo by Money SHARMA / AFP)

The recently concluded winter session of Parliament took place not just amid a fierce confrontation between the Government and the Opposition, but also in the shadow of the new under-construction Parliament building. The reimagining of the Central Vista and much of Lutyen's Delhi is being seen not as a manifestation of a particular architectural expression but as a sign of changed power structures in India’s Durbar city, and much is being written, good and bad, about this proposed disruption. Political disruptions, however, are not just etched in stone, sometimes the etching in stone is an afterthought.

Biographies of former Prime Ministers, Indira Gandhi, V.P. Singh, H.D. Deve Gowda and Atal Bihari Vajpayee are demonstrative of this. It has been a while since Katherine Frank’s well-regarded biography of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi , came out, but the appeal of the book hasn’t dimmed in the way that it illuminates both the strength of Mrs. Gandhi’s politics but also her inner world, letters to friends, and what it revealed during crucial moments of her life. Especially illuminating are the chapters dealing with the Emergency and some attempts to explain one of the greatest mysteries of Indian politics —what prompted her to impose and then remove the draconian measure.

Debashish Mukerji’s The Disruptor: How Vishwanath Pratap Singh Shook India is a book that tries, in the author's own words, to redress the neglect of history writers over the legacy of perhaps India's most disruptive of prime ministers. The forces unleashed by Mr. Singh, in his all too brief stint at the PMO, brought Mandal politics to the fore in India and defined the coming decades of Indian politics. The biography, detailed and well-researched, is sympathetic but not starry eyed and clearly sets out the power politics between V.P. Singh and his deputy Devi Lal as being one of the triggers for the timing of the announcement of the implementation of the Mandal Commission recommendations. The announcement changed the contours of Indian politics, so much so that in the whole of north India, where once upper caste chief ministers held sway, backward community leaders now occupy pole positions.

Nearly six years after V.P. Singh, India’s first OBC Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda was sworn in to head a fragile coalition of like-minded parties called the United Front government. If V.P. Singh’s legacy was overlooked because he suited neither the Congress nor the BJP, Mr. Gowda suffered from the tyranny of distance between the north and the south. An exhaustive biography of Mr. Gowda, Furrows in a Field: The Unexplored Life of H.D. Deve Gowda , by journalist Sugata Srinivasaraju goes into not just his early life and political rise but also his outsider status in Delhi despite being Prime Minister. Mr. Gowda’s eye problems, which made him sensitive to bright light and often had him shut them while listening to others, was forever branded as a habit of nodding off to sleep at inappropriate times, whereas in his very short term as Prime Minister he tackled tough issues facing the country including restarting the political process in Jammu and Kashmir. The book quotes the April 11, 1997 speech by Saifuddin Soz participating in the debate on the motion of confidence on the Gowda government: “I want to tell you one thing, which only I can tell you. The Prime Minister created a situation of hope in Jammu and Kashmir State. He went to Jammu and Kashmir four times. For six years nobody went to Kashmir.”

Preceding and succeeding Mr. Gowda was late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. An examination of his prime ministerial tenure in Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India by former bureaucrat Shakti Sinha, who served under him, is an intimate look at the balancing act of the first coalition government that survived its full tenure and the challenges of the Kargil War, the hijacking of IC-814, economic sanctions by the United States following India testing a nuclear device at Pokhran all the while heading this multi-party government.

These books look beyond the fixed images of these Prime Ministers to examine their life, work and public impact minutely, which does much more than etchings in stone.

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Printable version | May 20, 2022 8:52:07 pm |