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Democracies must celebrate political memoirs

We continue to see insider accounts as ‘kiss-and-tell’ stunts instead of as necessary additions to public knowledge. Any wonder then that our culture of personal record-keeping as an early draft of history is so under-developed?

One of the good consequences of the defeat of the Congress Party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and a decline in its prospects, is that Congressmen have started writing their memoirs, contributing to our knowledge of contemporary India. Thanks to Jairam Ramesh, we now have an authentic insider account of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s historic contribution to the turnaround of the Indian economy in 1991 ( To the Brink and Back: India’s 1991 Story). And thanks to Congressman Makhan Lal Fotedar, we now have an account, albeit partial, of the goings-on in the “Indira-Rajiv-Sonia Darbar” in his recently published The Chinar Leaves: A Political Memoir.

While senior civil servants have been writing their accounts of their time in this ‘darbar’ for some time now, politicians are new entrants to the field of memoir writing. P.C. Alexander’s My Years With Indira Gandhi and Through the Corridors of Power, R.D. Pradhan’s My Years With Rajiv and Sonia, and earlier publications like B.K. Nehru’s Nice Guys Finish Second and Jagat Mehta’s The Tryst Betrayed are examples of political memoirs written by civil servants that throw light on issues of larger public interest. They contribute to a better understanding of policymaking and contemporary history.

Launching Jagat Mehta’s book, Negotiating for India, in April 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh famously observed, “I do hope that we do not have to depend only on individual memory and personal notes for a record of policymaking. I think the time has come for us to have at least a fifty-year rule, if not a thirty-year rule, that allows scholars and researchers free access to declassified official papers.” The Narendra Modi government has since taken careful steps towards declassifying official papers but, as the Subhas Chandra Bose saga demonstrates, there is still considerable reticence within the government as to what files of even half a century back can be placed in the public domain.

So, while one waits for declassification of official papers, personal memoirs will remain for now, with all their inherent subjectivity and memory recall biases, the best window into the corridors of power and decision-making. One should, therefore, wholeheartedly welcome Mr. Fotedar’s book.

It is facile to dub Mr. Fotedar’s book, as indeed any political memoir, ‘self-serving’, as some have already done, or as the product of gripe and grievance. A memoir, that too a political memoir offering the reader a glimpse of the rise to national prominence of a provincial party worker and the inner workings of an important centre of power, is by definition the subjective and personal view of the writer. It is not an archival and research-based tract with footnotes and references. The value of such storytelling lies in the information made available by the writer, even if the accuracy of a text is dependent on fallible memory.

Should then such a biased, subjective story not be told? Hardly. Such books can help researchers ask interesting questions and seek more factual answers. Moreover, this genre of writing is well-developed in most advanced democracies and has contributed to our understanding of contemporary history. Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House (1965) was a Pulitzer-prize winning classic. In the United States and Britain several government officials and politicians have written about their time in public life. More recently, former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates wrote a great book on his tenure and the conduct of the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of these accounts are partial, subjective views of players embedded in the system. They were all welcomed as useful additions to public knowledge about politics, policy, power and governance in modern democracies.

It is, therefore, surprising that in India even the media often deride political memoirs as either self-serving or, to use cynical journalese, ‘tell-all’ and ‘kiss-and-tell’ books. Mr. Fotedar’s book is certainly not a ‘tell-all’. He holds back quite a bit, leaving several teasers all over the place waiting to be further elaborated. Yet, The Chinar Leaves tells us a lot about the way the Indian National Congress, the political party of our national movement, became the ‘Indira Congress’ and then the ‘Sonia Congress’. In between, there was a ‘Tiwari Congress’, that Mr. Fotedar claims authorship of, and other such ventures planned and executed by various political actors ranging from G.K. Moopanar to Sharad Pawar.

But that is not the story Mr. Fotedar tells us. His story is about how, as one perceptive commentator of contemporary politics put it to this writer, the “Gandhi-Nehru” era evolved into the “Nehru-Gandhi” era and the INC became a family enterprise. Mr. Fotedar takes great pride in his role in enabling this transition. How he helped Indira Gandhi survive the tragedy of Sanjay Gandhi’s death and “groomed” Rajiv Gandhi to take charge of his destiny, later ensuring that Rajiv rather than R. Venkatraman, P.V. Narasimha Rao or Pranab Mukherjee succeeded Indira. How Rajiv Gandhi lost power after he gently nudged Mr. Fotedar out of the family coterie and into a ministry. How he facilitated Sonia’s rise, after first having installed PV, to the disappointment of Pawar. He then helped Sitaram Kesri succeed PV and then made him abdicate in favour of Sonia. But then, he complains, Sonia empowered a new coterie around her and he was left out, forcing him to migrate from Lutyens’ Delhi to Gurgaon.

With his many tantalising tales Mr. Fotedar whets our appetite, but then pulls his punches. He does not reveal all. So, we do not know why Indira warned Rajiv not to induct Amitabh Bachchan and Madhavrao Scindia into his cabinet, or who the “XYZ” was who Mr. Bachchan wanted made chairperson of the women’s wing of the Rajasthan Congress! There are scores of such incomplete stories and the reader may well feel cheated for not being told all. But it would be churlish to dismiss the book as self-serving, for it reveals as much as it hides, and in doing so, does great public service. It educates us about how the ‘Delhi Darbar’ functioned during the heydays of the Nehru-Gandhi family rule.

An important part of the book is tucked away in Annexure 4. A letter that Mr. Fotedar wrote to Ms. Gandhi on June 8, 2006, drawing her attention to the constitutional impropriety of the Union government amending a law that disqualified Sonia, as member of Parliament, from holding an “office of profit” – namely the chairpersonship of the National Advisory Council (NAC). Ms. Gandhi had to resign from the Lok Sabha and seek re-election. Instead of winding up NAC, the law was amended and NAC revived. Why cock a snook at the Supreme Court? Mr. Fotedar attributes this misjudgment to pressure from the Left Front since the court order also hurt some communist MPs. But he also holds Ms. Gandhi guilty of trying to run the government through the NAC, thereby demeaning the office of the Prime Minister. Why seek to influence the functioning of government through the spurious route of NAC? Why not become Prime Minister herself, Mr. Fotedar asks.

This view was taken by many in the government at the time. Sadly, however, several worthy liberals and radicals associated themselves with this ill-advised move, and some even justified NAC and Sonia’s interference in government in Leninist language, upholding the supremacy of the Party over the Government. The office of the PM was diminished, concludes Mr. Fotedar.

Mr. Fotedar’s book has a villain and a heroine. The villain is P.V. Narasimha Rao. The decline of the Congress is attributed almost entirely to him. PV’s attempt to give The Party life beyond and apart from The Family is viewed as an unpardonable sin. From the Congress defeat in Andhra Pradesh in 1982 to the party’s decision to align with AIADMK rather than DMK in 1996, all political failures of the Congress are laid at PV’s door. Fotedar was on the side of Arjun Singh and N.D. Tiwari and actively sought to unseat PV.

The heroine is Priyanka Vadra. It was Indira’s desire that Priyanka lead the party after Rajiv, he tells us. Rajiv seemed to agree. Mr. Fotedar sees no hope for the Congress under Rahul Gandhi. Sonia is no Indira and Rahul is no Rajiv, as he puts it. Priyanka can be Indira Redux. It is perhaps a sign of the marginalisation of the Congress that Mr. Fotedar’s book has not made the waves it should.

Sanjaya Baru is the author of ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 9:52:42 PM |

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