Award winning journalist & political commentator Neerja Chowdhury has written an outstanding book packed with information, revealing anecdotes and penetrating analysis of India’s PM’s have made critical decisions which shaped their political careers and the country at large. The book is written with pace & verve (Mr Srinivasa Raghavan says that the style of the book is similar to that of Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s celebrated book, ‘All The President’s Men’). The book will give you a more nuanced, deeper understanding of Indian politics (especially if you are someone who sees politicians as being black or white).
Here are three layers of insight that we gained courtesy Ms Chowdhury’s outstanding book. Firstly, as Mr Srinivasa Raghavan writes “What emerges from the book, but not explicitly, is that good prime ministers need not be good politicians and good politicians need not be good prime ministers. It’s rare to find someone who has both qualities, like Indira Gandhi, Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Narendra Modi. Two were re-elected and two were not. The better ones were not.”
Secondly, the intertwining of religion and modern Indian politics goes back to the 1970s and the protagonist of this confluence is not someone you might expect. As Ms Chowdhury says in her interview with the Indian Express, “Indira more than most PMs, understood the nature of power. She understood statecraft. It is not that she believed in the RSS but it was a factor. From the early 1970s, she had her point people who were in touch with the RSS. ML Fotedar (India’s political secretary) that Indira had told Rajiv not to discuss his talks with the RSS at the dining table since she knew Sonia was dead against the RSS….”
Thirdly, much like investing, political success is a mixture of skill & luck. Mr Srinivasa Raghavan writes: “…the book gives us a real sense of how it all happened. That, I would say, is its best part because, after all, we all know what happened — Shah Bano, Babri Masjid, Indo-US nuclear deal, those sorts of huge events that have shaped the country’s politics. But, hardly anyone knows how the prime ministers handled them.
When you read this book, you realise how much at sea they all were. It’s scary to see so much trial and error. If it worked you were hailed as a mastermind; if it didn’t, you tried to put on a brave face and moved on. It was pretty much a 50:50 thing. Neerja gives an excellent account of all this.”
Fourthly, whilst the book very deliberately steers clear of analysing the incumbent PM’s decisions (Ms Chowdhury says that when a PM is in office you cannot possibly get rational perspectives of him/her from the people around him/her), Ms Chowdhury explains that most people from the chattering classes still haven’t got the full import of Narendra Modi: “Modi took a leaf out of the book of many PMs – like OBC empowerment from VP Singh, economic reforms from Rao, strengthening the strategic relationship with USA which was started by Vajpayee and taken forward by Singh. And yet, he represents something very different – a move towards a civilisational project. There’s Hindutva, nationalism, social welfarism, the growing aspirations of the OBCs (a group to which he belongs), representing what I called the ‘subalternisation of Indian politics’, which has been dominated by elites. Yet, I sometimes feel we have not understood the Modi phenomenon, which is essentially a response to an Indian changing at the ground level, with spiralling aspirations, even as there is economic hardship…”
Deep research, penetrating insights and outstanding writing makes Neerja Chowdhury’s first book a superb read.
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