Eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm once said that when he met heads of governments, he was not interested in what they said on record as it was for building a legacy. What he was interested in more was what they said off the record, because the real stuff was a different story altogether.
So picking up a book on a former prime minister that is penned by a close aide in his office, one expects to find several anecdotes on what the person said in moments of privacy. Such nuggets could be relating to political pressures, back-room machinations related to policy-making, or with regard to personal relations with other key personalities of the time.
Judged on this parameter, Shakti Sinha’s Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India could be a little disappointing, for the book does not really reveal much that is not already known. One expected much more from Sinha considering he was Vajpayee’s private secretary during the latter’s first term in office during 1998-99 (the book details events of this period). Later, during Vajpayee’s second term from 1999 onward, Sinha was joint secretary in the PMO. He also served as Vajpayee’s private secretary when he was leader of the opposition after the fall of his 13-day government in 1996.
The limitation with Sinha not writing about such incidents could be because he did not maintain a daily diary, as BN Tandon did when he was joint secretary in Indira Gandhi’s PMO. Or it could just be that Sinha does not want to reveal much. But he has not put a cover on things either.
Generally officials serving the PM from such close quarters tend to pen hagiographies. Not in the case of Sinha. He is very objective in his account and does not shy in putting on record where he thinks the former PM went wrong. Where Sinha’s account needs to be lauded is that it creates a record of those times, helping build contemporary history. Indians may be great at remembering the times of Akbar, but conveniently forget what happened 20 years back.
At a time when there is a single-party majority government, critics of BJP and Narendra Modi have begun a narrative how such governments tend to be authoritarian. Terms like ‘electoral authoritarianism’, ‘illiberal democracy’, ‘tyranny of the majority’, etc, have been coined and have made an entry into the discourse on political theory. These voices have suddenly discovered the advantages of coalition governments and how they are more accommodating and balance the interest of disparate groups. Sinha’s book is a great reminder for such people, who before 2014, used to wax eloquent as to how coalition governments lacked political stability and slowed economic reforms, but have now changed their tune.
The pulls and pressures of various allies like Jayalalithaa, Mamata Banerjee, Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, etc, have been well recounted and apart from refreshing the memories of intellectuals who have suddenly discovered a love for rickety governments, the book also serves as a good history lesson for youngsters who are being fed the new political theories of electoral authoritarianism.
In fact, the chapters on the events leading to the formation of government by Vajpayee and the various demands and antics of coalition partners, both before and after government formation, make for hilarious reading for even people who lived during those years. It would not be far-fetched to say that if a film was to be made on those antics today, it would be a great comical hit. The most interesting part is that all regional coalition partners wanted Vajpayee to dismiss the governments in their respective states led by opposition parties as a price for supporting him. The number of times such demands came and the manner in which Vajpayee dealt with them may also embarrass those who have suddenly discovered the virtues of a coalition government.
Sinha’s greatest contribution through this book is bringing back to public memory the misdemeanours of then president KR Narayanan, who, because of his distaste for BJP and its ideology and love for Congress, threw constitutional norms to the wind. Also, when the government fell after 13 months, Narayanan again did not heed constitutional practices to enable Sonia Gandhi to form the government. That he did not succeed is another story.
The most illuminating chapter is on the nuclear test where Sinha details the Pokhran exercise, the American duplicity vis-a-vis India and Pakistan and how the superpower that time knelt towards China to bend India. Though the flavour of the times is to see Trump as a clown and rightfully so, reading the account of post-Pokhran period certainly reveals Clinton to be a big villain, something like Nixon during the Bangladesh war.
As we currently witness the farmers’ agitation around the capital, demanding rollback of certain farm laws, Sinha provides vignettes from the past which remind us that some things never change in Indian politics. The book talks about several similar protests by allies of the government demanding rollback of certain reform measures, particularly relating to curtailing of fertiliser and power subsidies. The rollback was such in nature that then finance minister Yashwant Sinha earned the sobriquet of ‘Roll Back Sinha’.
A book on Vajpayee cannot be complete if it does not bring out the self-deprecating humour he possessed, which also livened his speeches. Here Sinha offers several nuggets: “The year was 1998. The BJP-led Delhi Government had invited him (Vajpayee) to be the chief guest at the inauguration of the flyover at Yamuna bazar. The master of ceremonies kept referring to him as the ‘bhootpoorv pradhan mantri’. When it was his turn to speak, Vajpayee said that he knew he was the ‘poorv pradhan mantri’ but had no idea where the ‘bhoot’ came from.”
Two aspects of the book need special mention to establish that Sinha is no hagiographer but an honest and objective chronicler of times. Writing about the trust vote which the Vajpayee government needed to win in 1998, he says, “The Vajpayee government had also got two Anglo-Indians nominated to the Lok Sabha, as allowed by the Constitution, but before the government could win the confidence of the house. Even I was surprised that President Narayanan had gone along with this step, since it effectively added to MPs to the ruling side.”
In another instance, where certain decisions related to corruption cases pertaining to Jayalalithaa were taken to save the government, Sinha writes, “While politics is not about ethical behaviour, however desperate the circumstances, this was a cynical move that neither enhanced Vajpayee’s image, nor in the final analysis, prolonged the life of his government. Even if it was Vajpayee acting on legal advice, it was not a happy occasion.”
The most interesting irony or say hypocrisy which Sinha brings out in the book is how people who today sing praises of Vajpayee, calling him a liberal and not hardcore and communal like Modi, sang a different tune when he was the PM. Sample the criticism of leftist historian KN Panikkar on the issue of conversions, which became controversial during Vajpayee’s time: “The response of Prime Minister Vajpayee, who is considered a good man and a liberal by many, was the most devious. By calling for a public debate on conversions, he suggested that the blame, in fact rests with the victims…this anti-Christian tirade was…another example of the unfolding of the fascist agenda of the Parivar.”
For the generation who lived and saw Vajpayee’s time, the book serves as a good lesson not to forget the limitations a rickety coalition government imposes on a good leader; and for the millennials it brings an equally important lesson: that in order to criticise the present do not idealise the past.
Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India
Penguin Random House
Pp 368, Rs 599
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