Rao’s alter ego, Anand, is born into a ‘middle middle class’ family in a sleepy hamlet of Afrozabad state of princely India.
Author: P.V.Narasimha Rao
Review by: Sreeram Sundar Chaulia
Published by: Penguin India
“The common motivation: power. The common point of unity: self. That was the game, by whatever name you chose to call it” (p.206)
P.V.Narasimha Rao presided over India during some of its most tumultuous years in the Prime Ministerial hot seat, gaining notoriety for bribery scandals, Hamlet-like reticence and tight-lipped silence. It is almost as if to compensate for those five years of brooding inaction and “law will take its own course” taciturnity that Rao has come up with a tome of a fictional autobiography that could easily have beaten
A Suitable Boy for volubility if more than four chapters and an epilogue were added to the new edition (the original hardback edition of 1998 had only 56 chapters!). Vikram Seth’s record for the longest English novel of the 20th century remained intact, although Rao broke all existing records for the highest authorial royalty received by an Indian for one book.
David Davidar, CEO of Penguin, must have granted the cheque calculating the status of the writer, his unique position as an insider who has ‘seen it all’ and the controversial subject matter he was delving into- “the fascinating institution of politics.” (p.122) Sure enough, The Insider possesses all the necessary ingredients that deservingly make it a bestseller and a standard reference for analysing and debating the successes and failures of India’s democratic safari.
Rao’s alter ego, Anand, is born into a ‘middle middle class’ family in a sleepy hamlet of Afrozabad state of princely India. Aged five, he takes a fascination for Hanuman, the wind god, and sets fire to his uncle’s hut hoping it would be as spectacular as the burning of Lanka in the Ramayan!
As he grows up in a state notable for Hindu-Muslim amity, the precocious child is gradually sensitised to a new phenomenon engulfing India in the 1930s-communalism. Identity crystallization around religion takes such a tenor that Anand’s understanding of Hindu and Muslim as mere accidents of birth is brought under a cloud of suspicion. Afzal Chacha’s taunt on Janmashtami, “It’s your festival, isn’t it? So Hindus only should celebrate” (p.43), rings in his subconscious for long.
In the district headquarters, Gulshanpur, where Anand proceeds for high schooling, slogans like ‘Naara-i-takbeer Allah-o-akbar’ and ‘Bajrang bali ki jai’ attain a politicisation and violence unheard of by his parents’ generation.
On a routine bullock cart ride to his village, Anand is humiliated by a girdawar (revenue inspector) who misuses his local authority to oppress the toiling labourers: “I know you are all plotting against Ala-Hazrat…all Hindus have become members of Gandhi’s Congress and want to overthrow the king” (p.61).
This incident makes a decisive dent on Anand’s career trajectory and he veers away from his father’s dream of a son entering government service. He secretly begins vetting Nehru’s writings in school and earns the ire of the principal for ‘disloyalty’ to the Nizam.
A revolutionary organisation spots his talent and clandestinely absorbs him into violent rebellion for freedom. Anand becomes a fugitive, fleeing the brutal persecution of Rahim Alvi’s Khadimaan secret police and carrying out deadly attacks on the feudal-military infrastructure upon which Afrozabad’s power superstructure rests.
When freedom comes in 1947, the guerilla fighters of Anand’s state still lock in combat with the dynastic ruler who intends to declare separation from the Indian union. “As many of their countrymen woke to freedom, these young men and women found themselves in fetid prisons, or in thick forests among snakes and wild beasts.” (p.95).
They wage an intense struggle for 14 more months, a time bloodied by Khadimaan depredations on the countryside, until Sardar Patel moves decisively to integrate the state into India. Having forsaken education for the freedom struggle, Anand faces a dilemma for the future, but on the advice of his revolutionary accomplice Sudershan, he decides to remain in public life, serving his state party which now merges with the All India Party.
Anand’s first shock in politics comes at the 1952 Assembly election, when despite his grass-roots popularity and in spite of enjoying the unparalleled advantage of Jawaharlal Nehru’s charisma backing his party, the opposing candidate carries the day with him promising voters “five acres of land and a milch cow for every vote cast.” Anand’s friends and relatives begin chastising him for ‘straightforwardness’.
Demoralised but undaunted, he continues to do party work and this pays dividend in the 1957 election and he becomes an MLA. Once admitted into the ‘system’, he realises that beyond superficial change, the old feudal values of loyalty and authority have been transposed onto the democratic order.
“Democracy in action at best consisted of the question ‘Who Should Reign’? The essence of democracy as people governing themselves had not taken root.” (p.130). Chief Minister Mahendranath and his rogue Industries minister wage an internecine feud for power in the party, treating Nehru’s socialistic and federalist slogans as ballast for ulterior self-promotional ends.
Newcomer Anand finds to his utter dismay that “the interests of the people figured nowhere in the high-voltage political drama that had engulfed the state.” (p.138). Infighting and political gossip hardly matter to the common man, but a sensation-hungry press skillfully creates illusions with blazing headlines that nothing else matters to him!
Everything is done in the name of the people, like the Hindu deity, but the worshipper and the priest share the prasad.
Anand befriends a likeminded legislator, Aruna, and tries to avoid taking sides in the CM versus Chaudhury jousting. Shekhar, a young vakra buddhi (evil genius) and rank opportunist MLA, however joins the Mahendranath ‘camp’ and plans to build up a personality cult of the CM through a regal and pompous birthday celebration of the chief minister’s greatness.
He tries to win over Anand to this ’cause’ arguing, “this is pure power politics, my friend! What role do the people have in this dirty game?” (p.172). People’s cynicism at the game comes home to Anand when they tell him repeatedly, “we have a new tribe of kings to loot us these days. If this is what we get, why not have the old king back?” (p.183).
When Mahendranath’s profligacy irks the party high command in Delhi, he is eased out through a sinecure posting at the centre and Chaudhury wins the war, but little improvement in governance ensues. Anand is a surprise choice for Chaudhury’s new cabinet, alongside Shekhar and a motley crowd of criminals, caste leaders and landed gentry.
That criminalisation of politics had begun even before the decade of the sixties is driven home when Anand as a temporary minister of prisons is pressurised by prominent MLAs to accord special treatment to a serial killer whose ‘respectability’ derived from landlordship. Conscientiously rejecting this petition, Anand the idealist takes a principled plunge into a fatal whirlpool.
Anand turns into a bete noir of the landlord lobby and enters the bad books of numerous influential power brokers. His quality of “testing everything on the touchstone of the common man, Mahatma Gandhi’s daridranarayan” (p.247), is met with snideness and ridicule. Disgruntled contractors and politicians gang up under Shekhar’s tutelage and plot a strategy to demolish Anand’s pious image.
They try a smear campaign in the press alleging liaison between Aruna and him, failing which Shekhar convinces the CM that Anand should be moved to the dicey portfolio of land reforms, which Nehru was exhorting all over the country.
Anand takes up the new job egging himself on, “don’t cavil at the system, change it if you can; replace it with a better one if you know how!” (p.312). Shekhar poisons minds of rural bigwigs like Aruna’s brother, Balram, and adds fuel to the landlords’ fire against Anand’s fanaticism for reform ideology and equity.
They threaten Anand that he is “just an individual swimming against the current…the entire administrative machinery of the government is behind the landlord class.” (p.354). Nehru’s death and the ensuing confusion in political succession puts paid to many of Anand’s plans, as does continued sparring between Chaudhury and Mahendranath loyalists in the state.
Anand observes with horror that even in a seemingly innocuous event like Legislative Council elections faction fighting prevails and “kidnapping, intimidation, money, liquor, carnal pleasure, cajoling and every other form of inducement was used.” (p.419) The 1965 war with Pakistan completes the obfuscation of Anand’s ministry as the nation wobbles from uncertainty to crisis.
Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden demise reveals deep schisms within the ruling party at all levels and layers, with the Indira Gandhi- Morarji Desai race defining alignments in the states. The 1967 elections, (“the time that the rot really set into the electoral process” p.495), set against the backdrop of an infirm Indira Gandhi and a limping party provides perfect grist for Shekhar & Co’s new attempt at ‘Anandocide’.
Leading landlords like Balram and Shyam Sunder mobilise a massive conservative movement against Anand’s re-election, employing the caste factor as well as booth capturing tactics.
Anand barely scrapes through and retains his ministership under Chaudhury, but this time around land reforms attain a compulsive importance in the party’s programme as Naxalbari emerges with vengeance in many states including Anand’s.
He analyses Naxalism as a systemic challenge to Indian democracy and proposes a fundamental transformation through land ceilings to avert land hunger from feeding into violent upheaval. Ironically, the threat to the system goes unnoticed in the party and the sadistic game of seeking each other’s downfall is followed.
At every national contest, be it the Zakir Hussain-Koka Subba Rao duel for Presidency or the 1969 vertical split between Congress S and Congress I, Chaudhury and Mahendranath play the game to consummate grace, ignoring the pressing problems of the public.
Anand starts taking sides arguing in terms of which candidate would support land reform, hoping all the time that his guesses about leaders’ intentions come true. He supports Indira Gandhi’s candidate (VV.Giri) against Sanjeeva Reddy in 1969, under the impression that Nehru’s daughter would deliver her father’s socialistic promise.
But in the rest of the party, it is a game of kowtowing and displaying ‘loyalty’ to the dynastic central leadership, a continuum from feudal-monarchical times. “It was a depressing a demoralizing scenario. Scruples seemed to have taken leave of the party more than ever before.” (p.563). Notorious central manipulators and ‘fixers’ like Gopi Kishen and Ranjan Babu are placated endlessly by all state factions in a bid to be in the good books of Mrs.Gandhi or Morarji Desai.
The conning is mutual and all encompassing, so that these central ‘brokers’ milk provincial hopefuls by exaggerating their influence over ‘Indiraji’. Corruption pollutes the body politic excessively, the only morality being “not so much that one should condemn corruption, but that one should not be incompetently corrupt.” (p.710)
After her spectacular victory in the 1971 elections and the crowning moment of her political career, the liberation of Bangladesh, Anand expects Mrs.Gandhi to finally address the festering sore of landlessness and do justice to the party’s garibi hatao manifesto.
Accumulation of power in her personal hands does not bother Anand, who believes that this power will soon be employed for economic uplift of the masses. Controversial dismissals of chief ministers that ensue are interpreted by Anand as Mrs.Gandhi’s style of eradicating reactionary obstacles to reform at the state levels.
But the cult of personality overreaches all imaginable limits in the process, so that obsequious MLAs and MPs could claim nonchalantly, “my constituency is the Prime Minister’s house (not the people). Make no mistake about that.” (p.706) Chaudhury’s axe is ground as CMs fall like ninepins countrywide and, suddenly, the state is thrown into a flurry of political speculation as to his potential successor.
Shekhar hatches a conspiracy to defame Anand’s reputation by planting lurid details of Anand’s alleged illicit smuggling of timber wood. But ‘Indiraji’ plumps for Anand and a new phase in life beckons.
A nominated chief minister, Anand convinces himself that he has been granted this responsible office for the purpose of finally overturning centuries-old inequalities in rural relations. He retains the land reforms portfolio and feverishly probes an executable ceiling on rural property.
Starting from the bureaucracy in the Secretariat and the vociferous landlord lobby to the corridors of the Legislative Assembly, status quoist elements warn of cataclysmic consequences and an unimaginable backlash against the “overenthusiastic fool of a chief minister. ” (p.739)
‘Land ceiling scare’ is disseminated throughout the countryside, leading to a deluge of benami transfers, fake divorces, spurious gift deeds, inter-state partitions and boring of holes in cultivable land to get them entered for salt manufacture.
Wild rumours are also circulated that Indira Gandhi is out to impose Soviet-style collectivisation upon small, medium and large farmers alike. Anand first gets an ordinance passed making it mandatory for all transfer actions of holdings above 30 acres to be reported and verified by district collectors.
Through state publicity and information, poor tillers learn of the cover-ups underway and fraudulent deeds are exposed. In the eyes of the layman, “for the first time, a peaceful law was seen as being used as a weapon of effective attack for a just cause.” (p.760)
Anand then wins over disgruntled Village Officers and coaxes them into conducting a survey of landlord holdings and identifying pattadars (proprietor peasants) owning more than 30 acres wet crop land in each village. As the final assault on feudalism, the Land Ceilings Bill, is around the corner, trouble comes calling from the centre.
Desperate Nomenklatura and Kulaks resort to the last weapon to halt Anand’s dogged march- petrifying Indira Gandhi. It is initially insinuated in the central hall of Parliament that land reforms in Afrozabad are going to neutralise the newly blooming Green Revolution by stealing property from the most efficient producers who were responsible for achieving grain self-sufficiency in India.
Shekhar arranges for news stories screaming, “landlords are offering ten crores for every acre above ten, while our great socialist chief minister is sitting firm on twenty five crores- not a rupee less.” (p.771). Once the Ceilings Bill goes into discussion stage in the Assembly, procrastination is ensured by filibustering MLAs, while more brazen attempts to drive a rift between Anand and Mrs.Gandhi are made.
‘Professional agitation gangs’ are pressed into service to create an artificial crisis ambience in rural areas and send signals to Delhi that the state was in a major law-and-order inferno. Afrozabad is converted into a “huge anti-government demonstration camp for the entire duration of the discussion in the legislature.” (p.795)
Zilla Parishad chairmen all over the state join the agitation displaying total disregard for rules governing local self-governing institutions, alarming the high command that Anand is destroying all elected bodies in one swoop.
A sustained disinformation crusade is launched in ruling circles in Delhi that Anand is planning to start an independent party of his own and as a last straw, obscene graffiti targeting Mrs.Gandhi are painted on walls of many towns cursing her for supporting a “land-grabber CM.”
Against all odds, the Act is passed in the Assembly, but Anand’s goose has been cooked in Delhi with the PM aghast at the libellous murals and the law-and-order situation in the state. Article 356 is invoked and Anand’s government is dismissed.
The honest party servant complies with the central decision, reasoning with sangfroid, “when you (Indira Gandhi) arrive at the pinnacle of power, the inevitable result is the preoccupation to retain it. Nothing is more important…for this you make compromises with the status quo.” (p.831)
The Insider, according to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, “is a mirror not of people but of the life and times they have lived in.” Endowed with a sprinkling of colloquial humour, biting sarcasm and a deeply perceptive narrative, it is meant to be Part 1 of Rao’s political memoirs, the sequel of which would pick up the story from the point when he becomes Prime Minister in the early 90s.
The epilogue briefly runs over events in the interregnum (mid-seventies to 1991) and leaves readers with an itch for the next volume. One only hopes that Part 2 does not run into 800 pages too! But knowing the can of worms that promise to be opened, Rao could be forgiven another epic in a bid to disclose the innards of India’s polity.
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