Why do Indian memoirists, especially politicians, hide the truth? Mani Shankar Aiyar has some answers

The former diplomat and Cabinet minister discusses the tricks and travails of writing memoirs

August 18, 2023 12:41 pm | Updated January 18, 2024 02:12 pm IST

Most autobiographical accounts by politicians tend to shine the light on their successes rather than their frailties, says Mani Shankar Aiyar. 

Most autobiographical accounts by politicians tend to shine the light on their successes rather than their frailties, says Mani Shankar Aiyar.  | Photo Credit: Bharat Tiwari

I had never considered writing my memoirs, largely because it is monstrously egotistic to imagine that your life might be of interest to others. I was persuaded by my publisher to write because she thought I would amuse the reader and was under the wholly mistaken impression that I was a confidant of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. But once I got going, I began to think about what I would write and how.

My mind turned to two books. The first was Jawaharlal Nehru’s autobiography, utterly remarkable for the absence of “I” from many of its pages. I loved the way Nehru philosophised his many doubts and was self-deprecatory, such as the arch comment he made about being “something of a prig” on returning to India from England.

Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and The Story of My Experiments with Truth taught me how to deal with maverick ideas such as the Mahatma’s on modernisation and industry, which still seem to me to be eccentric. At the same time, I wasn’t sure about “revealing all” as Gandhi does about his digestion and his “sinful” thoughts, not to mention the handling of his excreta.

I don’t suffer from constipation and didn’t want to embarrass close lady friends from long ago who are now grey-haired octogenarian grandmothers. So, I drew a discreet veil over that part of my life. Everything else in the story of my life I considered fair game.

So, I’ve told it as it was, warts and all, including my being no confidant of Rajiv Gandhi, just his ‘Manager, Tours and Travels’, as India Today cruelly but accurately labelled me. I have also written openly about the troubled marriage of my parents; my terrible problems with my bosses in Hanoi and Baghdad; and my weird decision to chuck up an assured career for the dreadful uncertainties of politics.

Eye on the consequences

My daughter tells me that the book reads partly humble and partly arrogant. That is the way many would describe me — and so it might be said that I have managed to write a book that is as much a mirror of myself as I could make it. This, according to my publisher, is rare for an Indian, especially an Indian politician. What I want to ask is: why is this so? Why is it felt that Indian memoirists, especially politicians, hide the truth?

Most Indian politicians — I would think 99% — do not write their memoirs. A few like Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh do, even if they tend to glide over events that perhaps need more explicit recounting, such as Arjun Singh, as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, keeping Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson safe from public ire in a state guest house and then flying him out to Delhi in a state plane after the Bhopal gas tragedy, possibly on instructions from above (but how high?). Or in the case of Natwar Singh, the full details of the oil-for-food allegations that abruptly ended his stewardship of the ministry of external affairs. They did not hide these facts so much as skate over them. I do not regard that as condemnable.

After all, for those who have held great offices, there might be events which past fidelities or oaths of secrecy would prevent from being revealed, leaving them with little option but to tell their tale tangentially. Reviewers (and publishers) come down heavily on that.

Would, for example, even Nehru have told ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’ about the China debacle? He would certainly have had to keep a sharp eye on the grave consequences of doing so. In my case, since this first volume deals with my childhood and early career, I have not faced these dilemmas. Such a final assessment of my “honesty” might await the sequel.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the All India Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi on June 1, 1957.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the All India Congress Committee meeting in New Delhi on June 1, 1957. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The truth is, politicians must dissemble every day of their political lives — whether, like me, they are seeking to climb the greasy pole or, like Arjun Singh and Natwar Singh, after achieving high office. They do this to put an acceptable spin to unpleasant facts, to ensure they get their way, and that their political lives can continue. It would be too much to expect our breed to change our ways in this final reckoning of our lives.

I certainly smarmed my way up, fully knowing that if I made my reservations about public policy known to the Gandhis or voiced them in public, I would be stalled. For instance, I was dead against the nuclear deal and still am, for I strongly advocate nuclear disarmament, which is perhaps the subconscious reason for my having pressed the wrong button, ‘No’, when it came to the vote (I quickly rectified that).

But because such contrary thoughts against the official line often stumbled off my tongue in the media, I was dismissed by my own leaders as a “loose cannon” and eventually sidelined in my party. I do wonder sometimes whether I might not have served my cause better by being the soul of discretion. So, “judge not, lest ye be judged”.

Then there is a larger, more human, reason. Everyone hides the truth unless it’s to expose someone else. Take the most recent example of Prince Harry’s bestselling memoir. Or they are honest because it’s now safe to say the truth, this first volume of mine being one such. Or they offer honesty in the guise of fiction as in the case of P.V. Narasimha Rao. It’s usually other people’s secrets that come out, especially in memoirs by bureaucrats, as in the case of T.N. Seshan.

I have been defending the politician’s right to fudge but it must also be admitted that on the whole, most Indian accounts rarely admit to any foibles. I can’t recall any major Indian politician complaining of being sidelined or bested or admitting to making errors in their books. The reason political memoirs focus on achievements and are less concerned with the human angle is intimately linked to the nature of power. Powerful men and women, especially in our country, are used to being worshipped. Autobiographies by such politicians — few as they are in India — would tend to shine the light on their successes rather than their frailties.

The Obama memoir

And on the whole they resist from making assessments of others. The Obama memoir (A Promised Land), which played it disappointingly safe, if in exquisite prose, had at least some interesting assessments of international leaders such as Putin and Manmohan Singh, no doubt because it was easier to be honest about a politician from abroad than of a domestic rival or colleague. Our Indian politicians never retire — and thus the old rules of discretion, not burning bridges and political survival, remain in place until death.

In India, many politicians would also regard their public lives as public and their private lives as private. I can’t imagine anybody here writing about making love to his wife as Tony Blair cringe-makingly did in his memoir. Much as publishers and reviewers (and even serious historians) would have wanted, would Nehru have been willing to reveal the nuances of his relationship with Lady Mountbatten, a notorious nymphomaniac as the historian Andrew Roberts has detailed?

For such eminences, the public face is far more important than the private whereas for ‘kiss-and-tell’ biographers — of whom Nehru’s private secretary, M.O. Mathai, is the basest example — it is the private that prevails over the public. As to my personal life, I have made numerous mistakes but never done anything I would view as a transgression of the values on which I have been brought up. So, I don’t see what there is to hide. But perhaps the very qualities that derailed my career also meant I didn’t mind being more open. More ‘successful’ politicians than me have made different calculations.

To be honest or not to be honest can’t then be the sword on which the memoirist should fall. It’s too complicated, there’s often too much at stake. It seems to me that it’s far worse to be a bore. Like L.K. Advani and Pranab Mukherjee, who go into so much tiresome detail that they miss the wood for the trees and render themselves unreadable.

My guiding principle in life was taught to me by Holdy, my English teacher at school, who explained the difference between ‘wit’ and a ‘sense of humour’, saying ‘wit’ is a device used against others while a ‘sense of humour’ is the ability to laugh at yourself. I have been wickedly witty but have saved myself by being able to also take cracks at me. Hence, I am quite ready to take on all comers.

The former diplomat and Cabinet minister’s new book is ‘Memoirs of a Maverick’, published by Juggernaut (August 2023).

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