New Delhi, Aug. 17: At least one political kiss-and-tell worth smacking lips at is promised not to come.
Potential victims, rest easy; publishers, slacken pursuit; politics junkies, curse your luck. For all his gnashing at this summer’s served up fare of inner-court revelations, Mani Shankar Aiyar, literary petrel of the power corridor, isn’t tempted to issue a riposte, not even with “my tremendous talent to abuse and amuse”.
He’ll tell you why with warming self-deprecation. “I am perfectly capable of producing a fairly readable kiss-and-tell,” he says. “The only problem is nobody kissed me. Actually, the only ones that kissed me were panchayati raj and disarmament, and even you will not be interested in any of that, please have the integrity to print that.”
Those that did consider themselves kissed and turned to tell, Aiyar likens to frogs and tadpoles.
“Frankly, these so-called tell-all books are no more than a frogs’ eye view from within the wells they found themselves imprisoned in. And if I am calling Natwar (Singh) a frog, I can only call (Sanjaya) Baru a tadpole. Between them they have produced no more than croaks from the well in the night.”
What piques Aiyar is that those “croaks” have begun to resound with the report of current history, that they come embossed with the seal of insider truth. It means him little comfort that the divulged “truth” of the season’s revelatory blaze has centrally befallen the Gandhis whose “loyal Labrador” Aiyar once charmingly proclaimed himself to be.
In the midst of the bitter 2014 campaign came The Accidental Prime Minister, a mandarin’s tale of the UPA’s first term in power, by Sanjaya Baru, media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh from those years.
Within months, and shortly after Narendra Modi’s accession to power, Natwar Singh, one-time arch-loyalist of the Nehru-Gandhi palace, turned subversive and rolled out his memoir One Life is Not Enough.
Together, they kindled recollection of another intimate tell-all from two years ago — columnist Tavleen Singh’s Durbar, a personal memoir whose most peppery parts were the author’s post-ejection dispatches from the Gandhis’ charmed socio-political circle.
These are tales of divergent style and genre with one common message: that the Gandhis delved in democracy with the demeanour of unassailable royalty and Sonia, in particular, came to wield overweening and enigmatic authority, constitutionally over the Congress, extra-constitutionally over the two Manmohan Singh governments.
“This cannot by any yardstick be considered history, or even the truth,” Aiyar rails. “The truth is more than fact; it isn’t a straight line, it is a kaleidoscope. I have no issues with people writing their stories, my issue is with everyone, including the media, taking them so seriously; even (Winston) Churchill’s histories are still being challenged and this lot think they have spoken the final truth! They’ve only croaked from a well. P.N. Dhar (Indira Gandhi’s fabled brains trust) and B.N. Mullick (former IB director) also wrote memoirs, but not like this. It all depends on what you want to say and how you say it. These new books are croaks.”
But to Shruti Debi, India literary agent for the London-based Aitken Alexander, a “croak” is good enough for a start.
“We are a nation completely starved of the real lives of the real rulers of India,” Debi says. “These books are all genuinely revealing and useful about how power works in Delhi and how and why many decisions that impact people seem inexplicable and irrational. If these books have created such an echo, it is also because the Gandhi family have kept themselves so tightly cloaked in secrecy, anything new or detailed about them is bound to create interest.”
Tavleen, who picked Debi as agent for Durbar, agrees: “I wrote Durbar because I believed it was important to describe the beginning of dynasty in Indian politics and because I wanted those who read the book to get a sense of how remote the people who ruled India then and now have been from India.”
But could there be a case here to argue — as many in the Congress have — that all of these accounts come prodded by bitterness for having been cast out of ruling circles, from an itch for vendetta?
“It has nothing to do with vendetta,” Tavleen counters. “Every two-bit foreign correspondent leaves India and writes a book. It is a mistake for Indian journalists not to write more books on historic events that they may have witnessed first hand. More politicians and bureaucrats should write because they know the workings of power more closely than journalists.”
Baru, whose book became campaign fodder for the BJP to cannon the Congress, says his book was an act of catharsis. “I had so much bottled up, so much I needed to tell. And nobody had done this before me in the manner I did it — not R.D. Pradhan, not P.C. Alexander, both of whom wrote books, and not H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who did not write. But I believe there are things people should know and I was in a position to tell them. I feel much the better for it; I have been told by people who matter that my book is now standard reading for knowledge in how Delhi works.”
Might he have written, as some allege, to cadge a sinecure with the new establishment? Baru guffaws, and posts a convincing riposte: “People stop themselves writing if they want that. In the Delhi durbar, everyone wants to live for another day, and they are careful. Do you think any Prime Minister or politician would trust me after what I have put out?”
But isn’t somewhere a tell-all tale by a former, or discarded, insider an act of betrayal of trust, an ethical, if not legal, transgression? Baru and Tavleen are one to robustly counter that.
“There isn’t a single confidence I betrayed,” Baru says. “I have not written most of what I know because those were things of confidence. And we ran a legal review on the text: I haven’t done what I did irresponsibly.”
Tavleen questions the very fundamentals of the privacy-confidentiality debate: “Nobody who enters public life has a right to a private life while in public office. In India, politicians are much less under scrutiny than in other democratic countries.”
So are we witnessing a new phenomenon of writer-publisher confidence, ready to dare the Establishment and bare it all? Is it a new phenomenon at all?
Chiki Sarkar, publisher of Penguin India, who delivered the Baru blockbuster, isn’t sure.
“Tell-alls have been there all the time. It is just that political books tend to get published about a period when that period of politics is coming to a close, as the Congress era is. There is tremendous appetite in India for (writing on) contemporary politics. I do not think these books, important as they are, reflect any deeper bravery or courage on the part of writers or publishers. I would still like to see a book telling how corrupt our corporates are: that would be courage.”
Of all of these works, Sarkar commends Tavleen’s the most, because it came out at a time when the Congress-Sonia complex was firmly in saddle. But for all her endorsement of disclosure narratives, she does not believe they are of more consequence than what they have to tell. “Tell-alls are eternal… they have always been there, they will come and go with political periods and they will generate a readership, nothing more.”
Baru agrees. “These will have zero impact on political behaviour, don’t expect politicians to be cautioned or start behaving straight,” he says. “Such books have been coming out a long time all over the world and they have not changed political conduct anywhere, I harbour no illusions.”
Perhaps a moral of some comfort to the political class. But none of Aiyar’s current indignation, or of the Congress’s larger loyalist ranks, has deflected reader interest, happily seduced by the pot-boiler prospects that lie between the covers — scoop, scamp, scandal, betrayal, chicanery, skullduggery, opportunism, some may choose to call it.
We are in the midst of another chill-and-spill time in the long annals of the Delhi takht (throne); the cloak is being serially lifted, the dagger being liberally plunged. It’s bleeding, among other things, good commerce. Between the opening and closing of the soiree that inaugurated Natwar Singh’s tome last week, Kapish Mehra of Rupa was able to update sales figures from 50,000 to 60,000 copies.
“It’s astounding,” he gushed, “but we expected it. Judged well, the appetite for such books is huge.”
It’s just been whetted anew. Sonia Gandhi has vowed to script a counter-narrative of her own. At least one more kiss-and-tell lies promised. Potential victims, shudder; publishers, get set on your marks; politics junkies, start to put your hunger to the strop.