A day after speaking at the Kolkata Literary Meet, journalist-writer Tavleen Singh joined PR consultant Rita Bhimani for a Red Sofa Conversation at The Conclave. The power-packed chat touched upon everything from Tavleen’s latest book, Durbar [Hachette India, Rs 599] and Salman Rushdie to Narendra Modi’s Gujarat model.
Rita: Books are being banned, movies are being censored and censured, cartoonists are being put in jail and authors are being pushed away from environments where they ought to be. Are our rulers diverting our attention away from the real issues by doing such strange things? And how come your book hasn’t entered the “banned” list?
Tavleen: No, no, no, no... it’s not going to be banned. Because there was no prior publicity. The Hachette team and I had a strategy that nobody should know about this book until it was in the shops. And by then it was too late! The censorship thing would have definitely fallen on this book.
Governments in India have been doing it for years. The great difference now is that there is this huge middle class that speaks up when they are banned.
I’m almost ashamed to have come for the Literary Meet with Salman [Rushdie] having being banned. And in a city like Calcutta, which has been a hub of creativity, old traditions of intellectual discussions and all that....
As for why bans happen, they happen because they’ve happened for many years. And it’s not always the Centre’s fault. As Shashi Tharoor pointed out, what can the Centre do if Jayalalitha decides to ban Vishwaroopam? Or if Mamata Banerjee decides to jail a cartoonist?
There was a book called Nine Hours to Rama [by Stanley Wolpert] that was banned 50 years ago. We must be the only democratic country that has a ministry of information and broadcasting, copied from the Soviet Union, which to this day vets movies and says you can’t make this movie or you can’t do that. And we’ve never objected. In a way we deserve it. My friend Deepa [Mehta] wasn’t allowed to make Water in India. She had to make it in Sri Lanka.
The media is also being cowardly. The Emergency was better in a way because that was repression that was obvious. But what’s happening today is insidious repression.
Rita: Let’s rewind to the time when you started talking about Nehruvian socialism, how inexperienced the dynasty after him was and how our policies were really not geared towards opening up our country...
Tavleen: I’ve covered politics and government now for 30 or 40 years and what really upsets me is that India should have been the richest country in the world. Look at the natural resources we have. Coal, natural gas.... Let’s take West Bengal. If I was the chief minister, I would put so much emphasis on tourism. I would put money into the port, clean up the river.... What a great city Calcutta was, and it’s being destroyed day by day.
I don’t think the Gods have been kinder to any other country. But to make up for the fact that they gave us so much, they also gave us our politicians!
Rita: Sonia was so kind to you, she would bring you wonderful presents, she would come to your barsati and chat. Yet, in Durbar, you talk about her foreignness, her empty-headedness, the fact that she didn’t take up power because she didn’t want the accountability....
Tavleen: What if you had a friend who suddenly became the most important political leader in India? Would you put your friendship over your country? Would you?
This book is not my petty grouse against her. I don’t have a grouse against her. I still like her, I admire her for what she’s achieved, you know, for a foreigner to learn Hindi, to go from being an Italian housewife to being de facto Prime Minister is a big deal. But what I do NOT admire her for is the kind of policies she has brought in India. What I don’t admire at all about her, and what is actually the main theme of this book, is dynasty.
Just like if your doctor was sick, you wouldn’t want his wife to operate on you, I don’t believe Sonia gained political wisdom because she was married to Rajiv or because she was Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law. That is my problem.
I certainly don’t approve of Sonia as the leader of India, I don’t think she has done well by India. And I think that when her son’s going to take over, if he does, things are going to get much worse. I feel that I owe it to India as a journalist to say this.
Rita: You were once in the car, with Rajiv driving, when Sonia remarked to you, ‘I would rather my children begged on the streets than got into politics’....
Tavleen: Well, she certainly changed her mind! But I actually think that even when she was of no consequence, when Rajiv was not the favourite son, I think she enjoyed power. She was somebody who enjoyed being the Prime Minister’s daughter-in-law. She was not this shy, retiring flower as everyone seems to think.
You know there’s this great myth about how Sonia renounced power [in 2004]. She didn’t renounce power, what she renounced was accountability. So Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is blamed for taking the country down and she gets praised for anything good that might happen. We’ve been ruled the wrong way. It’s feudalism disguised as democracy. And it has to go.
I’d really like to know what is it about this family that makes people, including very well-known journalists, so meek?
Rita: You’ve used this interesting phrase, “dynastic democracy”...
Tavleen: This book starts with the beginning of this dynastic democracy, which is when Mrs Gandhi brought Sanjay in during the Emergency. If that hadn’t happened, you wouldn’t have had Lalu Yadav being able to hand over Bihar to his wife. Or Mulayam Singh Yadav being able to bring in his son or daughter-in-law or his brothers or Kashmir and Punjab being virtually private estates.
I believe what we need is more democracy. Why do political parties not initiate a system of primaries? That’s a democratic process that throws up better people.
Rita: You’ve had access to people in high places. After Durbar, do you feel people might think it’s a kiss-and-tell job and become wary of you?
Tavleen: All journalists have access at their level. I live in Delhi, so I have access there, I don’t have access in Bhopal. The truth is, in Delhi, journalists don’t get killed if they write against the chief minister. Journalists in state capitals are killed routinely for writing against the chief minister. So, access to a certain point, everybody has. The thing is, this is not a book about Sonia Gandhi, no. It is a book about the problems that were created in my time as a journalist.
I firmly believe that if Rajiv had been a more sophisticated politician, if he had spent some time in politics, he would have made up for the flaws in the system that were caused by not emphasising on public healthcare, public education, sanitation. I think the entire problem happened in 1985, when he became Prime Minister.
Rita: You’ve also talked about your dream for India, a regenerated India. And about Narendra Modi in your recent columns...
Tavleen: I believe that Narendra Modi is an important leader, despite his flaws. Please remember, what he did in Gujarat was emulated from what Rajiv did in Delhi in 1984. So, if you can excuse Rajiv for killing 3,000 Sikhs in two days in Delhi.... What happened in Gujarat is already 10 years ago. Of course it was wrong.
Since Nehru, we haven’t had a political leader either in the states or in Delhi who articulates a new economic vision. Modi talks of India becoming a prosperous country. It’s the opposite of the Congress idea, which is kind of a glorification of poverty.
I’ve been into tribal areas in Gujarat, jungle areas, and seen roads and primary health centres that work, 24-hour electricity in the villages, water... he’s emphasising on the right things. We need that kind of a leader to be thrown up in all the states.
Rita: Coming to Operation Blue Star, you’ve mentioned in the book that Indira Gandhi was afraid of attacking the Golden Temple but Rajiv and his coterie convinced her to go ahead?
Tavleen: The reason why I have emphasised so much on Punjab and Kashmir in the book is because they were problems that didn’t need to be created. In Punjab, Bhindranwale was actually propped up by Sanjay Gandhi and then picked up by Zail Singh. I met General Shabeg Singh, I think just three weeks before Operation Blue Star, and I actually tried to go back and tell them [in Delhi] that if you talked to General Shabeg Singh and got him out of that, you didn’t need to have this great attack on the temple.
The real terrorism in Punjab came after Operation Blue Star. So from ’84 to almost the end of the ’90s, you had Punjab, one of your border states, in complete turmoil.
Kashmir is even worse. I went up to cover the Kashmir elections in 1983. Sheikh Abdullah had died towards the end of ’82 and they [the people] felt they owed him this election. So Farooq Abdullah won that election fair and square, in a state where elections had been rigged since 1950s. Now what Mrs Gandhi did, for no reason really, is topple his government in 1984, one month after Operation Blue Star! So you destabilise two of your most important border states. For what?!
Also, and here my disappointment with Rajiv comes through again, in 1986, all he needed to do was order elections. Farooq would’ve won and the Congress Party would’ve been a good Opposition party. Instead what you got was a huuuge Muslim front that came together in the name of azaadi and took on two moderate parties who had been forced into a coalition on bad advice.
Rita: But you’ve ended the book by saying there’s hope...
Tavleen: Yes. But the huge middle class has to start demanding public education, healthcare, infrastructure, urbanisation, jobs.