24 Akbar Road By Rasheed Kidwai, Hachette, Rs 495
The book under review deals with that unforgettable address in New Delhi: 24, Akbar Road, the official headquarters of the Congress party and a seat of power. But the book is not only about the place, which has witnessed so many of the ups and down in the political history of the country; it is also a short account of the Congress party and some of its most prominent members.
In the 64 years since Independence, the Congress has dominated the political scene in India. Till 1977 it reigned unchallenged, shaping the Indian polity as it pleased. It was only after the Emergency that a combination of other forces formed a political opposition. Since then, the fortunes of the Congress have ebbed and flowed. After the Babri Masjid was demolished and the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power at the Centre, political pundits had almost written off the Congress. Some believed it would shrivel to a regional party. But the Congress would prove political theorists wrong by winning two successive general elections. It is this resilience that still characterizes the party.
Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist who is considered an authority on the Congress and has written a biography of Sonia Gandhi, attributes this resilience to a kind of ‘continuity with change’. Instead of sticking to a particular agenda like other political parties, he says, the Congress is constantly reinventing its ideology in order to keep up with political realities.
It is not an easy task for a writer of contemporary events, to talk about, as well as judge, political characters and not get embroiled in a controversy. It is also not easy to write about a party that many consider elitist and inaccessible to outsiders. But Kidwai uses books and other sources to write about the party and its members as if he had actually witnessed the inner stories. The book deals with a wide range of personages, from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh, covering P.V. Narasimha Rao, Sitaram Kesri, Pranab Mukherjee, Arun Nehru and V.N. Gadgil in between. Kidwai recounts the immediate past in the manner of a stoic observer. He also writes about the present with the prudence of a writer who knows how to place his arguments without getting caught in a dispute. But he does not always shy away from criticizing people who are or were in positions of power. He is frankly critical of Sanjay, Maneka, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, for instance.
Kidwai has a way of compressing years of history into a few pages. We are taken through the pre- and post-Emergency years, Rajiv Gandhi’s intervention in the Sri Lankan crisis and his assassination at Sriperumbudur. Sonia Gandhi’s refusal of the prime minister’s post and Rahul Gandhi’s ‘talent hunt’ are also given space in the book. The last chapter includes the events of the last year, covering the WikiLeaks controversy, the 2G scam and the furore over the Commonwealth Games. The book is as riveting as any work of fiction, with situations that develop and finally lead to a climax. The story of each character and the changing ideology of the party is intertwined with the story of 24, Akbar Road.
Readers will find this an engrossing account as Kidwai has catered to the current obsession with the Congress. He often treats the story like a political suspense thriller, which will appeal to all readers, irrespective of their party affiliations. Here is the stuff of fiction, found in real men and women who matter — from manipulation and intrigue to assertions of power, from the hum drum details of life to the pinnacles of tragedy.