Sieving the last seven decades of post-1947-era politics in a vast country like India to bunch together just 50 names of ‘leaders, politicians, citizens’ who might have been its influencers is not a simple task, even if the ambit of the exercise is restricted only to those who are no more.
The reason you pick up seasoned political journalist Rasheed Kidwai’s book is, therefore, primarily out of curiosity – about who made it to his list of 50 and who fell off the radar and why. Additionally, if you have followed Kidwai’s long and stellar political reportage career, what is assured is that the writing will never be dry. Even if it is essentially a cluster of obituaries.
Listed in alphabetical order, the features on these public figures have a pan-India span counting in, of course, the usual suspects but also accommodating the likes of Laldenga and Tarun Gogoi from the Northeast, to even, a Ottavio Quattrocchi, once a headline hitter.
Kidwai’s list of influencers also includes a clasp of Bollywood biggies including the thespian Dilip Kumar. Superstar Amitabh Bachchan and wife Jaya do find plenty of mention in the book for dabbling with politics and had their share of famous ups and downs but since the book is only about dead people, they pop up only in the narratives on, say, former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi or the one on their former ‘younger brother’ Amar Singh, once the master fixer of Indian politics.
That a reader finds Bachchan contemporary Vinod Khanna among the top 50 personalities to have influenced India’s politics seems not because he had contested elections (else, Rajesh Khanna too would have made it too, I guess) but because how that ‘sexy sanyasi’ conquered an unknown territory (Gurdaspur) for the BJP four times, making ample use of his superstar charms and that famed dimpled smile that could challenge even Bachchan on screen. Kidwai aptly portrayed the novice to politics in these words:
“The very day he joined the BJP in December 1997, he was asked to contest from Gurdaspur, in Punjab, for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in February the following year. Khanna was taken aback. “I didn’t even know where Gurdaspur was”, he later told an interviewer.”
Mention of little details to readers, like Khanna promising to turn the backward Gurdaspur, which shares its border with Pakistan, into Paris in his first election campaign, is as much a reality check on the tall pre-election promises our leaders have been making often to voters only to pocket their ballots and then forget about it, as it is a timely reminder that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not the first from the BJP to have made similar grandiose declarations during his maiden Lok Sabha campaign at Varanasi in 2014 – to make Kyoto out of Kashi (Varanasi).
A sharp journalistic mind with years of witnessing the heave and sigh of the Indian political picture, Kidwai places on his pages yesteryear heartthrob Dev Anand too – not because like several Bollywood biggies he also was following the norm of a matinee idol tilting towards the government of the day or the ruling party, but for questioning it. Dev saab famously took on Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at a time when she was considered unassailable – a voice of open dissent, unthinkable in the film industry today when most are either mute or openly supporting Narendra Modi, a prime example of an Akshay Kumar pumping in his star power to add wind to the prime minister’s wings, the highlight of which was that famous inane query, ‘Aap aam kaise khate hain? (How do you eat a mango?).’ Here, Kidwai’s book is a well-timed souvenir from the past about Dev saab’s stab at cleaning India’s politics and the state of affairs by forming a national party, rather a “crusade against poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and corruption”. Though the membership drive of that party was a success initially, it fizzled out without much media attention, the author rightly points out.
Comparing the 2019 Akshay Kumar gig with Modi with the bonhomie of the likes of Dilip Kumar with the then prime minister of the day, Jawaharlal Nehru, would be an overemphasis here, considering even top actors like Vinod Khanna in the Vajpayee era didn’t bow so low in front of the political masters. That, even while Dilip Kumar looked at Nehru with the same “affection and admiration” he had for his father “Agha ji”.
Kidwai holds up for the readers the rise and success of Kumar’s filmy career in the Nehru era (36 of his 57 films were produced when Nehru was the prime minister), chronicling the fact that dozens of his movies were hinged on the Nehruvian idea of India, perhaps the primary reason how he must have been an influencer aside from the author weaving in his friendships with Bal Thackeray and Rajni Patel and his stint later as a Rajya Sabha member. But then to each his own. While those Nehruvian era films injected into celluloid “optimism, which inspired Indian youth in the early days after Independence”, decades later, now, we do see a repeat of what the Indian political history’s biggest Nehru-baiters era has inspired a section of Bollywood to pick on – Pakistan, Kashmir – only to help sharpen the ruling party’s ideology around the communal divide between ‘them’ and ‘us’. That way, Kidwai’s book hints at history only repeating itself in Bollywood’s response to India’s turns in politics.
Not that the affability didn’t lead to quid pro quo then. The author underlines the connection between Nehru asking Dilip Kumar to campaign for his close aide V.K. Krishna Menon so that he could sail through the North Mumbai elections in 1962 against the ‘socialist warhorse’ Acharya J B Kripalini with the release of Ganga Jamuna inspite of the Censor Board’s objections to certain scenes.
Kidwai’s book stands out for several such nuggets of information, which today’s readers interested in knowing about the times that were through the political trajectory of prominent personalities will find interesting. Perhaps where it surprises the most is where you think you have heard it all – say, in his delineation of Indira Gandhi’s tumultuous public life as Congress chief and the prime minister, also mother to Sanjay and Rajiv. The piece on Indira Gandhi is the longest. Apart from re-telling beat by beat the sequence of events on October 31, 1984, the day of her assassination, which will certainly revive the memory of older readers and serve as a clump of minute details for the younger lot, the chapter on Mrs Gandhi is striking on many a count, some put in black and white by the author and some left to be understood better if a conscious reader juxtaposes the current times led by yet another powerful prime minister, Modi, whom several political observers have already compared with her.
For instance, when Gandhi for the first time contested the 1967 general elections, her popularity and personal charisma knew no bounds. And yet the author points out while her personal ratings were high, “the country was struggling on many fronts”. It is a near déjà vu for a discerning reader to note this, vis a vis the deplorable economic scenario in Modi’s India today even while his personal popularity remains intact. The author holds up how popular she was in spite of the famine (1966) and severe drought leading to food riots in some parts, with “Mizo tribals revolting, and a linguistic agitation was taking shape in Punjab”. In the pre-IT cell era, Gandhi still faced attacks then with defamatory posters emerging in Delhi and elsewhere reminding people about her (a widow) bringing in a bad omen to the country.
At a time when a section of political observers and opposition leaders are calling the Modi era an instance of ‘undeclared Emergency’, Rasheed’s take on the Gandhi-called Emergency is also a well-timed prompt about its failure to make any permanent dent to Indian democracy, and how even within the Congress the 42nd amendment was opposed. Why the author needs appreciation for this chapter is also because through the portion on Punjab’s fight for statehood on linguistic lines, he indirectly gives, at least to the politically conscious readers, a taste of why the RSS and Modi-era BJP are not quite seen gunning for Indira Gandhi’s political legacy as they do with her father’s.
Rasheed’s takes on Sheikh Abdullah, P.V. Narasimha Rao, N.T. Ramarao, A.R. Antulay, Chandraswami, Jyoti Basu, Atal Bihari Vajpayee among a few others are also good and engaging reads. The anecdotes are what make Rasheed’s obits highly engaging. For instance, in the chapter on Jyoti Basu, he quotes former diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi who, during his tenure as the director of Nehru Centre in London, had invited Basu as the chief speaker at a commemorative event. “Basu continued to read from a prepared script with his head down and Gandhi could see the audience ‘switching off’. A sharp politician who could always sense the public mood, Basu raised his bespectacled eyes from the pages in front to say, ‘You can see I am reading this out. It has been written for me by an expert who knows all these things. I do not know all this myself. I am also learning as I read this. You see, for most of my life I have been among the people, with little time to read or study.’ The audience burst into applause in appreciation of the candour of this man who had shaped history…”
The anecdotal approach of Rasheed’s writing continues through the book to add touches that ensure that the profiles are not dull and overcast with only factual details. In the section on NTR, the author, while highlighting the Telugu Desam Party’s sweep, noted that an angry Indira Gandhi tried toppling the NTR government while he was away by placing a rebel on the chief minister’s chair from within TDP. NTR rushed back and could wrest back power from the rebel, N. Bhaskara Rao, in less than two weeks’ time. While looking at the recent Shiv Sena episode engineered by New Delhi under the BJP, it is a timely reminder of the times repeating itself in Indian politics. The author also needs appreciation for retelling in a para or two how during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership too, the country witnessed several “topple dramas”. His minister Buta Singh was so notorious for this that the prime minister once told him in jest, “‘Buta Singhji, ab aap kirpan andar rakhiye.’ (Buta Singhji, now please sheathe your kirpan.)”
The chapters on the likes of Arjun Singh, Ajit Jogi, Babulal Gaur, Capt. Satish Sharma, Madhavrao Scindia, Ahmed Patel, Ram Vilas Paswan, S. Jaipal Reddy, Rajesh Pilot, Bal Thackeray, Buta Singh, Kansi Ram, Namdeo Dhasal, etc. are certainly a cue to the times when they hogged constant political limelight even while TV media was not a 24-hour circus.
Though Rasheed must be appreciated for including at least two political actors — Laldenga and Tarun Gogoi — from the Northeast, to my mind, he doesn’t quite do justice to either’s persona and the role and memory in that region’s politics. The chapter on Laldenga comes across as more a wrap on the post-independent history of Mizoram leading to formation of a state than on Laldenga the leader, the man behind it. The inputs in the book on his trajectory comes across as only borrowed information.
The obit on Gogoi, though, reveals much more about the person than that of Laldenga’s. But it misses out the key to Gogoi’s success in Assam politics – dilution of Congress’ national politics with sub-nationalist (Jatiotabadi) elements, which helped him re-establish the party in a state where it was vehemently rejected. He led his party forward not as a Congress yes man of Delhi but as the son of the soil. His alliance with the Bodo People’s Front instead of Badaruddin Ajmal’s party (AIUDF) was a masterstroke. In 2016, BJP followed the same formula adopted by Gogoi to keep Congress sailing through for three terms in a row – sprinkling Jatiotabadi elements into national politics of the party.
In spite of some shortcomings, younger readers would do particularly well to go through this book to get a reliable impression on some of the diverse prominent names of post-independent India and realise that history did not begin in 2014.
This article was first published on The Wire.