Powerplay Lit for Life

Reign men

2014 The Election that changed India. by Rajdeep Sardesai.   | Photo Credit: Scanned in Chennai R.K.Sridharan

This book touches you like a soft breeze, elevates you only marginally, but holds you to your seat, often on the edge. Rajdeep Sardesai’s title — 2014: The Election that Changed India — suggests an ambitious sweep but does not take you on a philosophical sojourn. Instead it is a weekend picnic filled with fun company and hot snacks. A procession of India’s colourful political characters — Lalu Yadav, Amit Shah, Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and many more — come intimately close through the author’s accounts.

The advantage is that the author has been an eyewitness to most of the events that led up to the 2014 election, starting from the Gujarat riots of 2002 that made Narendra Modi the most polarising political figure in India’s political history, probably only after Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The fractious times that we live in hardly allow for nuance and subtlety, but Sardesai’s anecdotal odyssey is not soulless or casual. For those who appreciate the fine distinction between being guided by fundamental values and predetermined notions, in political analyses, this is a treat.

So, what does the book say about Modi and the riots? The case is strong that Modi was not in command of the situation; and that it was his failure more than complicity. But Sardesai makes the point strongly that Modi found the opportunity for a Hindu consolidation in his failure — if it was one — rather than regretting it.

The Gujarat riots, and the author’s narrow escape from death while covering it — the mob wanted him to undress so that they could check whether he was circumcised and therefore Muslim, while he was returning after an interview with Modi — makes a gripping prelude to the story of Modi’s long march to power in Delhi. From then on, the book brings to life two simultaneous and interconnected worlds — the BJP and the Congress. The Congress ascent in the years following 2004 left the BJP confused; from 2011 it was role reversal for both. The people, events and ideas of this transformation may sound familiar, but the author’s success is in stringing anecdotes, big and small, into a coherent contemporary account of Indian politics.

The refreshing stream in the narrative comes from the unrivalled access that Sardesai had to all politicians. The series of vignettes from his interactions could invoke envy among journalists, but other readers would devour it. What did Sushma Swaraj say about Arun Jaitley? What did Modi say about Sanjay Joshi, his archrival in the RSS? What did Amit Shah say when the author complained to him of being pushed around by BJP workers? How did the well-qualified bunch of whiz kids around Rahul Gandhi fail him? Read the book for answers, but I can tell you that Sardesai failed miserably in a test that Lalu Prasad challenged him to — milking a cow. The most important — and to me the most revealing — among these are the author’s telephonic conversations with Modi through the last decade.

The author’s success is in keeping his role firmly as a witness and not claiming self-importance as many journalists and other contemporary commentators are tempted to. The only brief exception to this is in the paragraphs where Sardesai seems to claim ownership of the idea of Anna Hazare’s fast in Delhi, which more or less marked the beginning of the Congress’ slide. Overall, the presence of the narrator is unoffending and non-intrusive.

Though the book’s focus is the 2014 elections, it strays into related worlds, providing insights that only an insider like him can do — the relations between journalists and corporate media owners; the debates around media freedom and most importantly, the terms of engagement between the journalists and politicians. Sardesai comes across as a clear-headed professional who managed to walk the tightrope of engaging everyone, without surrendering to any.

But what this book does not do, at least not adequately, is answer the question as to how it changed India. Or why it so happened. The jury is still out on the question of whether the BJP’s victory marked the end of an old era and the start of a new era; the demise of the ‘Nehruvian consensus’ and the heralding of a new republic. The sociological, political or economic explanations for the BJP’s unprecedented victory and the Congress’ total collapse are not attempted. It is not that a book would be incomplete without answering these; the point of protest is that the book’s title promised so. A sense of history is only fleeting, but it engages, and it refreshes. It is superbly written and edited; is flawless in its structure and gripping in prose. One should not be greedy.

2014: The Elections that Changed India; Rajdeep Sardesai, Penguin/Viking, Rs.599.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 10:09:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/lit-for-life/reign-men/article6667701.ece

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