April 23rd is celebrated as the World Book Day. An important area where many Indians lack access to published word is the post Independence period – the contemporary period – because our text book histories stop with the country being free from the British. This “… and they lived happily ever after..” approach to understanding the events around us needs to be discarded. There needs to be a greater emphasis on critically assessing what went on in the terms of policy making and politics, impacting our own lives and of our generations to come.
In this context, the World Book Day is a good time to reflect on events which shaped us as a country and learn about how the country has been governed in the modern era.
One Life Is Not Enough by K. Natwar Singh
Natwar Singh spent many years in the Indian Foreign Service and later joined the Congress party, assuming many senior ministerial positions in the government. His closeness to the Nehru-Gandhi family, which has controlled the Congress party and the Indian government for most part since Indian independence is well known and well documented – including by Natwar Singh himself. This book is an intriguing account of the way Delhi functions – from someone who had a great view of the process. This is an ideal autobiography – he attempts to hide nothing or no one. His likes and dislikes are made public and so are his own qualities and shortcomings.
Singh covers how the bureaucrats stand to benefit by being close to powerful politicians. And conversely how things can go wrong when these relationships fall by the way. Singh gives frank opinions on key personalities who he worked with. Pandit Nehru is lauded as the leader who brought India together after Independence but fell from his high pedestal in the later part of the tenure. On Indira Gandhi with whom Singh worked the closest, the book covers the qualities – power and authority and the flip side of the same qualities – carte blanche and dictatorial ways of operating in a democracy. The husband-wife duo of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi are examined through the lens of reluctant politicians becoming omnipotent. The author presents a not so charitable view of PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh who are described as weak but opportunist individuals who made the most of political windfalls.
Singh gives as many details as one possibly can from such a long and connected career. He ends with covering the “Oil for Food” program in Iraq sketchily which caused his own downfall. The links to the eventual beneficiaries aren’t spelt out, but Singh ends his story describing two closed door Manmohan Singh – Paul Walker meetings and Walker’s later role as the UN committee head for “Oil for Food” probe. The reader is left with unspoken words and events to be pieced together.
1965 Turning The Tide – How India Won The War by Nitin Gokhale
The title of the book itself provides a big hint on what the author – veteran journalist and defense expert – Nitin Gokhale brings out in the detailed account. The 1965 Indo-Pak war has been the least celebrated of the four Indian victories in the battlefield (though some authors describe 1948 and 1999 as localized skirmishes, not full blown wars like 1965 and 1971). The popular accounts in the media and on television commonly describe 1965 as a tie or a stalemate.
Gokhale narrates the war not as a monolith but takes a battle by battle, theatre by theatre approach, looking at every engagement between the two armies in isolation. Every such event is then analyzed for impact on the war as a whole. The research is meticulous and the reconstruction very real. The detailing is authentic covering everything including locations, directions, terrains, troop positions, troop movements, and the actual battles. The author has taken several first hand inputs and going through this account is almost reliving the events of 1965.
The book clearly establishes that India had a net advantage in this war – a statement which hasn’t been categorically made very often in media or in TV studios. This book fills a big void in the Indian military history writing.
Confessions of a Swadeshi Reformer by Yashwant Sinha
Yashwant Sinha, a bureaucrat turned politician, served in key ministerial positions with two Prime Ministers – Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihar Vajapayee. This book, styled as an autobiography, but with greater emphasis on his professional life as a politician, is an excellent account of not just Sinha’s contributions to Indian politics and policies but also serves as a precise summary of the tough operating conditions for the country through the 1990s.
Sinha can be called the architect of the first wave of economic reforms in 1990-91 when he was the Finance Minister in the Chandra Shekhar government. His iconic 1991 budget document was never presented in its entirety with Congress pulling its outside support to the government. But this document formed the basis for the changes which Rao – Manmohan combine pushed vigorously in the later part of 1991.
Sinha also talks about the immense difficulties through which the Vajpayee government completed its term. The government faced hostility not just from opposition, but from NGOs, bureaucracy, interest groups, and from its own allies at times. Sinha, who served as the Finance Minister for part of the term, describes how the government still pushed reforms in the areas of Agriculture, Banking, Taxation, Electricity, Telecom, and Disinvestment with a strong will.
Reading this book is like imagining riding a roller coaster while being in charge of the controls of the apparatus – it is a great account of the context in which the Vajpayee government worked and eventually lost in 2004.
Ayodhya – The Finale by Koenraad Elst
This book on the Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi movement recaps “science versus secularism in the excavations debate” as the tagline mentions. Koenraad Elst laments why with modern techniques available, the debate on the disputed Ayodhya site continues. Elst also explains how science fell prey to the sociologists in this matter and how the procedures and assumptions involved in the Ayodhya excavations followed a path guided by historians and not by scientific methods.
The book covers the events from 2002-2003, when the Supreme Court had ordered the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) to determine if there was any extant structure underneath the disputed Ayodhya site. The radar based underground imaging studies conducted in this period had revealed the existence of “something” under the ground. The ASI then had to build up on these studies via excavations.
The author explains how the ASI could have inferred nothing else but the presence of a temple under the demolished Babri Masjid. Evidence after evidence pointed to the presence of a structure which could have been nothing else but a Hindu place of worship. But as the details continued to emerge and leaked, various groups of sociologists and historians continued to put pressure on the ASI and kept presenting alternative histories like they have done since 1950.
In this short book, Elst rubbishes these alternative versions and bats for using proper scientific methods to prove what should be obvious.
The Sanjay Story by Vinod Mehta
Vinod Mehta wrote this book soon after the Emergency was lifted and a beeline of authors came forward to write on the life and times of the worst period of Indian democracy ever. Mehta does not talk about the Emergency much, but focuses on the life of Sanjay Gandhi, who was the main protagonist of the Indian politics in the 70s.
This book is actually quite an average one – it has basic research, sweeping statements, conflation of events with no sense of proportion, and sketchy details fill the book. It is a collection of hearsays with several author made inferences on what may or may not have gone behind scenes. And the best part is the author himself accepts that in the course of the book.
Yet, the book provides an account of Sanjay Gandhi’s life, personality, style of thinking, friendships or lack thereof, and ambitions in one single account. Mehta does bring out the total control Sanjay had over the Congress party starting in 1976 and how his schemes actually brought the worst face of Emergency closer to the voting masses.
It is worth going through this account not so much to learn about a rather ordinary individual who had his place in the sun given his surname, but to understand the backdrop of how a country was run by a family over several years as its personal fiefdom.
(The author had written a similar piece last year too, recommending 5 other books)