December 23, 2012

‘Durbar’ written by journalist Tavleen Singh has received a mixed response in the media. Some papers, like Tehelka, have rubbished the book by describing it as gossipy tattle against the Gandhi family in an attempt “to settle old scores.” On the other hand, The Asian Age has hailed the publication by titling its review of the book “Unraveling the mystique of Delhi’s durbar.” However, no one can deny that Tavleen’s new book makes for extremely interesting reading.


tavleen-singhAsian Age reviewer Ashok Malik is very correct in his observation that for all their access, political journalists in the capital are often the ultimate outsiders in Lutyens Delhi. At least in so far as 10, Janpath is concerned, this is cent per cent true.


In a book review written for Niti Central, Ashok Malik describes Tavleen as “an insider   with insight,” and sums up his opinion on the book in the opening sentence of his write up:


“Tavleen Singh’s new book Durbar has the stories, the anecdotes, and the sheer gossip that only a Lutyens Zone natural can provide. It also has the sharp opinions, the political insights, and the assessments of India’s social and economic problems, and policy failures, that it takes a watchful journalist to provide.”


India is a vast country with myriads of problems. The constitution and the law empowers government with all the authority needed to administer the country effectively. As in all democracies the prime executive in a democratic establishment is the Prime Minister. But as everyone in the country knows, the topmost person in India’s hierarchy today is not the Prime Minister, but the Congress President. It is this situation which is at the root of most maladies that afflict the country these days.


rajeev-soniaThis book tells its readers that there was a time when its author had very close relations not only with Rajiv Gandhi but also with Smt. Sonia Gandhi. Then suddenly, this closeness came to an end. Ashok Malik comments: Tavleen’s book helps us somewhat to breach “the secrecy or mystique of 10 Janpath.”



ashok-malikMalik’s quaint comment referring to a “bizarre rogue operation to implicate Rajiv’s and Sonia’s social friends in the Indira Gandhi assassination case ‘made me read closely all the eight pages of Chapter 14 of the book which formed the basis of Malik’s remark. Tavleen herself was questioned by the I.B. in this regard. Tavleen’s concluding paragraph of this episode adds up to a severe indictment of our intelligence agencies thus;


By the end of the inquisition, I found myself seriously worried about the standard of our intelligence agencies. It did not surprise me when, some months later, the investigation into whether there had been a larger conspiracy to kill the Prime Minister of India was allowed to quietly die away.”


This 312- page memoir is preceded by a four-page Author’s Note. You may disagree with Tavleen Singh’s comments in the book, and dispute some of her conclusions. But I feel that there is great weight in the thrust of her opening note which is succinctly contained in these concluding paragraphs:


Durbar has been difficult to write. I started to write it soon after Rajiv Gandhi died. I knew him well from the days when he was not a politician and found myself in a unique position to tell the story of how a prime minister with the largest mandate in Indian history ended up as  such a disappointment. Not just because I happened to be a part of the same tiny social set in which he moved, but because my career as a journalist, that so changed the way I saw India, ran almost parallel with Rajiv’s career as a politician. I believed then that he had failed India but when I started to write the book I realized that he was not the only one who had let India down. An entire ruling class had. A ruling class to which I belonged.


As the story unfolded it became as if a mirror of my own life, a memoir not just of the short life of Rajiv as a politician and how the seeds of dynastic democracy were sown, but of my own as a journalist. I discovered how much the clear lens of journalism had changed my understanding of the country in which I had lived all my life. And this fundamentally changed the way in which I saw the people I had grown up with. I saw how aloof they were from India, how foreign her culture and history were to them, and how, because of this, they had failed to bring about renewal and change. I saw how my life as a journalist opened up doors that made me constantly ashamed of how India has been betrayed by people like me. I believe that it is because India was let down by her ruling class that she failed to become the country she could have been. If we had been less foreign and more aware of India’s great wealth of languages and literature, of her ancient texts on politics and governance and her scriptures, we would have wanted to change many things. But we failed and instead brought up our children, as we had been, as foreigners in their own country. Fascinated by all things foreign and disdainful of all things Indian.


A new ruling class is slowly replacing the old one. A newer, rougher breed of politician has come to control the levers of power. The sons of peasants and peons and the children of castes that were once considered untouchable have ruled some of India’s biggest states. But in emulation of the old ruling class they teach their children English and send them to Western universities. There would be no harm in this if they did not also bring them up removed from their own languages and culture.


The possibility of an Indian renaissance, that as the first generation of Indians to grow up in post-colonial India should have been ours to ensure, recedes further and further away. Dynasty, a political tool in the hands of the ruling class, has become the catalyst for a new colonization of a country whose soul has already been deeply scarred by centuries of it. This is the main reason why an expanding and increasingly educated middle class is becoming disenchanted with democracy and democratic institutions.


Tavleen’s summing up reminds me of Lord Macaulay’s revealing remarks made in the British Parliament way back in February 1835:


lord-macaulay “I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think that we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her cultural and spiritual heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them – a truly dominated nation.”


Macaulay’s colonising strategy was ingrained in the education system introduced by the British in India. Somehow, its effect has survived even after Independence. Those who speak only Hindi or other Indian languages, and are not very conversant with English, are generally looked down upon in our country. I have often given a personal example to illustrate this point. I knew very little Hindi during the first twenty years of my life that I spent in Sindh. I was conversant with only two languages – my mother tongue, Sindhi, and with English. I could not read and write Devanagri. However, I studied it diligently after I came to Rajasthan. But it was only when I shifted to Delhi in 1957 that I realised how English enjoys a higher social status even in independent India.


For example, whenever the telephone rang and I happened to pick it up, my first expression would be – it still is – ‘Haanji’ (Hindi for ‘yes, please’). To which, many times the response from the other side used to be: ‘Sahab ghar mein hain’? (Is sahib at home?)  The presumption obviously was that some servant in the house was speaking. And I would tell them, ‘Aap ko Advani se baat karni hai, to main bol raha hoon.’ (if you wish to speak to Advani, you are talking to the right person).




Readers of Tavleen’s book I am sure, would greatly savour Chapter V captioned 1977 Elections, particularly this sample of poll oratory, VINTAGE VAJPAYEE.


When the first posters appeared on Delhi’s walls announcing that a rally was to be held at the Ram Lila Maidan that would be addressed by the major opposition leaders all of us thought it was a joke.


In the Statesman reporters’ room the feeling was that even if the posters were genuine the rally would be a flop because people would be too scared to attend it. The Emergency was still in effect and the atmosphere of fear that the past eighteen months had created had not dissipated.


Mr. Raju, the chief reporter, was his usual pessimistic self and pronounced that since Mrs. Gandhi was undefeatable there was no point anyway. ‘Even if there’s going to be an opposition rally,’ ‘it will make no difference. She wouldn’t have gone for elections if she had any doubts about winning.’


‘Yes, but she could have made a mistake,’ I said. ‘I have heard that the son and heir was totally opposed to the idea. He told her they could lose.’ Many years later when Sanjay’s best friend Kamal Nath was a cabinet minister in a Congress government in Delhi, I asked him whether it was true that Sanjay had opposed his mother’s decision to have elections and he confirmed that it was. He said that Sanjay and he were together in Srinagar when they heard about the elections and Sanjay had been very upset.


When we got to the grounds we noticed that people were streaming in from all sides. But not even this prepared us for what we saw when we got inside. There were more people than I had ever seen at a political rally. The crowd stretched all the way to the end of the Ram Lila grounds and beyond.


At about 6 p.m., the opposition leaders arrived in a convoy of white Ambassadors. One by one they rose to make long, boring speeches about their travails in jail. I said to a colleague from the Hindustan Times that I thought people might start to leave unless somebody said something more inspirational. It was past 9 p.m. and the night had got colder although the rain had stopped. ‘Don’t worry,’ he replied with a smile, ‘ nobody will leave until Atalji speaks. Everyone here has come just to hear him.’ He pointed to a small man with steel-grey hair, the last speaker that evening. ‘Why?’ ‘Because he is the best orator in India.


It was well past 9.30 p.m. when Atalji’s turn finally came and as he rose to speak the huge crowd stood up and started to clap. Softly, hesitantly at first, then more excitedly, they shouted, ‘Indira Gandhi murdabad! Atal Behari zindabad!’ He acknowledged the slogans with hands joined in a namaste and a faint smile. Then, raising both arms to silence the crowd and closing his eyes in the manner of a practiced actor, he said, ‘Baad muddat ke mile hain deewane.’ (It has been an age since we whom they call mad have had the courage to meet) He paused. The crowd went wild. When the applause died he closed his eyes again and allowed himself another long pause before saying, ‘Kehne sunne ko bahut hain afsane.’ (There are tales to tell and tales to hear). The cheering was more prolonged, the last line of a verse that he told me later he had composed on the spur of the moment. ‘Khuli hawa mein zara saans to le lein, kab tak rahegi aazadi kaun jaane.’ (But first let us breathe deeply of the free air for we know not how long our freedom will last). The crowd was now hysterical.


Despite the night being so chilly, and a thin drizzle starting again, nobody left. They listened to Atalji in complete silence.


Eloquently, in simple Hindi, Atalji told them why they must not vote for Indira Gandhi. I no longer have a copy of the speech he made that night, and he spoke extempore, but I paraphrase here what I remember of it. Freedom, he began, democratic rights, the fundamental right to disagree with those who rule us, these things mean nothing until they are taken away. In the past two years they were not just taken away but those who dared to protest were punished. The India that her citizens loved no longer existed, he said, it became a vast prison camp, a prison camp in which human beings were no longer treated as human. They were treated with such contempt that they could be forced against their will to do things that should never be done against a human being’s free will. The opposition leaders (he said ‘we’) knew that something needed to be done about India’s expanding population; they did not oppose family planning, but they did not believe that human beings could be bundled into trucks like animals, sterilized against their will and sent back. The clapping this remark evoked went on and on and on an it would be only on election day that I would understand why.


Long after Atalji finished speaking and the opposition leaders got back into their white Ambassadors and drove off the crowds stayed as if they had collectively decided that they needed to do more than applaud a stirring speech. So when party workers appeared carrying soggy sheets in which they collected donations everyone gave something. On that cold January night as I watched rickshaw-wallas and those who lived on a pittance from manual labour on Delhi’s streets donate what they could I got my first inkling that there was a chance Indira Gandhi could lose the election.



L.K. Advani

New Delhi

23 December, 2012