Feel-good hagiographies

There's a spate of biographies on politicians. But, they are hardly interesting and leave only the subjects happy

September 13, 2013 04:44 pm | Updated November 10, 2021 12:35 pm IST - chennai

Every age rewrites its history. Even an age as daft as ours is neither short of aspiration nor pretension. General elections present an opportunity to provide a bleary-eyed account of our leaders and wannabe prime ministers. Little wonder we have many writers penning the life stories of politicians. It matters little that most seldom have something interesting to say. Fewer still say it interestingly. Their life is rarely short of drama, but the sieve of prudery makes sure only a distilled, very distilled, version reaches readers.

Nobody goes to politicians for lessons on propriety, but the zeal with which hagiographies masquerading as biographies are being penned in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections is disconcerting. Most books are poorly-veiled attempts at lending enchantment to the ugliness of politicians and their lives. No uneasy questions asked, no confessions expected. Integrity is often considered surplus to the requirements of such exercises. Only words rehearsed at leisure and ready to use at a moment’s notice are ferreted out. Though often penned by seasoned academics and career journalists, they, at times, remind me of the works of the courtiers of the bygone era, when the kings could do no wrong!

Narendra Modi, Akhilesh Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, Nitish Kumar, JB Patnaik and Lalu Prasad Yadav have all been covered. With seasoned journalists such as Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, Sunita Aron, Kingshuk Nag, Wasbir Hussain, Soumya Ranjan Patnaik and Sankarshan Thakur writing the books, leaders and their acolytes could not have got a better opportunity to cover themselves with a modicum of grace. In most cases, the opportunity goes abegging. Only a part of the blame lies with the authors; a big chunk rests with the leaders.

For instance, one waits endlessly for the real Akhilesh Yadav to show up in Aron’s otherwise well-researched Winds of Change . He never does. As a reader, I am left to glean information about the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, now caught in the firing line following the Muzaffarnagar violence. He was called Tipu in childhood, was never quite naughty, got a rare chance to name himself, courtesy one Mr Tiwari, and as a student pursuing Masters in Environmental Engineering, wanted to do something good for the country. Sugary? Syrupy? Umm.

If this sounds too sweet, read what JB Patnaik has to say in The March to a Modern Odisha, edited by S.R. Patnaik and Wasbir Hussain. “I had always been a dreamer. Ever since I was a student, I was bent on doing something significant for my home state, Odisha, something that would make this ancient land stand out with honour and pride. As a young man….we were inspired by the fire of non-violent struggle for Independence by Mahatma Gandhi, the statesmanship of Nehru and the philosophy and spiritualism of Swami Vivekananda.”

Not too different from the spirit of hagiographies has been Arun Sinha’s Nitish Kumar and the Rise of Bihar . Incidentally, Sinha was Nitish’s college-time friend. He writes like one too. The most effortless in heaping platitudes has to be Aarthi Ramachandran in Decoding Rahul Gandhi .

Fortunately removed from the types of ‘Jee, Huzur’ has been the revised edition of Ajoy Bose’s political biography of Mayawati, Behenji . Much like Thakur’s revised Subaltern Sahib: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav . Coming up next from Thakur is a biography of Nitish Kumar.

However, unlike many others who are willing to don the cloak of a courtier, Mukhopadhyay’s book on Narendra Modi is nuanced. He does not go gaga over the man who was the CM when the State witnessed its worst violence. Often, he takes gentle stabs. Yet he does not allow himself to be absent of reality. So, he shows some fissures in Modi’s profile and ends up suggesting that Modi’s dream is far from being fulfilled. Thereby, he takes the book a notch higher than Kingshuk Nag’s Narendra Modi: A Biography .

With due respect to exceptions, what does one make of this prolific spree? The language is seldom taut, hardly ever playful or poetic. At the very best, most are feel-good exercises. Unfortunately, the only people who probably feel good after such life stories are the politicians themselves.

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