Phoney Idealism

Rao's emphasis on intellectual honesty and ethics rings false
The Insider
By P.V. Narasimha Rao
Viking India Rs 595; Pages: 767
WHEN Outlook published excerpts from the first draft of P.V. Narasimha Rao's book, which was then tentatively titled The Other Half and has now been published as The Insider, there was understandable curiosity among readers. Not so much because of its political content but for the sleaze it promised about practitioners of that devious art called politics. And who could be better than Rao himself to divulge all? Delhi's watering holes, including the bar at upmarket IIC and the one at downmarket Press Club, were the source of much bawdy gossip about Rao's weakness for the other sex during his prime ministership. Politics, let us also admit, can be utterly boring if compared to what transpires behind the bedroom doors in Lutyen's Delhi.

It was, therefore, a bit of a letdown when the book was finally published minus much of the sleaze; in fact, the text has been sanitised of all that reminds you of bodily "pores, blood vessels and reflexes". The Insider is a boring tale that tells you nothing that you already do not know about low politics in high places.

The Insider, which hangs between fact and fiction and could thus be described as faction, traces the evolution of politics in the princely states, which is characteristically different from the evolution of politics in the British provinces. Events centre around the protagonist, Anand, the name that the author has given himself in the book.

The story is set in the State of Afrozabad, ruled by a despotic king. This is the name Rao has given to Hyderabad which suffered the Nizam's excesses, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. The Insider is about how Anand, of humdrum origin and a brilliant mind, gets drawn to politics after rebelling against the Nizam's autocratic rule and rises to become chief minister. The rest is a story retold about inner-party politics in the Congress; the marginalisation of the deserving and the celebration of mediocrity; and the shift in politics after Nehru's death and the coming to power of Indira Gandhi. Rao's tale ends with that period in Indian politics when Mrs Gandhi was at the zenith of her power, just before the Allahabad high court judgement came, followed by the Emergency. He has promised a second volume that will cover the remaining decades and conclude with his prime ministership.

While he was prime minister and no longer as poor as he was when he first became a minister in the state government, Rao once referred to his humble origins. In The Insider, Rao tries to evoke the reader's sympathy by elaborating on life in the village where he grew up: how he shared a room with his uncle, aunt and two cousins; how pennies would be counted before being spent. Right through the book, Anand (Rao) leads a spartan life. There is no ostentatious display of power or wealth—he borrows a friend's car on his first visit to the house of the woman who would later become his mistress of sorts. Nasty stories, which you don't have to believe, have been told of Rao and Lakshmikanthamma, a woman who is reputed to have enjoyed more than his confidence.

Rao, of course, is no longer poor. Neither does he have to borrow a friend's car. He is among the prime accused in a series of scams involving sums of monies impossible to count. So much for humble origins and virtues of middle-class values, or for that matter the relevance of intellectual honesty of which he makes a fetish in the book.

In real life, Rao, who once famously said that "politics is the art of the possible", is an example of a politician who successfully took opportunism, duplicity and cynicism to new levels of acceptability by India's morally and otherwise corrupt middle class. He is the man who demolished the last vestiges of the welfare state and made the poor and the helpless redundant by converting the country into India Inc. He is the man who sat Buddha-like while the disputed structure at Ayodhya was pulled down brick by brick and later explained how the soul of India was at peace even while Mumbai was being blown up by RDX. He is the man who made globalisation fashionable and ripped off the Congress' badge of socialism, robbing the party of its pro-poor image.

Commenting on a senior minister, Rao writes in his book: "Behind the socialistic veneer, however, his political philosophy was exquisitely simple and logical, a masterful exercise in sophistry. Political power is the only means by which you can serve the poor in an underdeveloped country like India, he said. So you have to be in power continuously, for the sake of the poor. If you happen to get rich en route, that is only incidental. And logically, therefore, whatever you do to gain power is legitimate, since it is meant for the poor." Rao could very well be speaking of himself and not a fictional character.

Readers are also bound to snigger when Rao tries to analyse the concept of power: "He (Anand) spent a long time meditating on the concept of power. Ennobling. Intoxicating. Corrupting... Ennobling? What is ennobling about power, as one finds it wielded today? Mostly for self, only incidentally, if that, for the people." Rao should know.

Much has been made of Rao's attempt to free the Congress from the apron strings of the Dynasty. In The Insider, Rao does question the blind loyalty that was demanded by the Nizam and later comments that a person can be loyal to an idea but not an individual. But he unabashedly praises Nehru and Mrs Gandhi; he has said nothing about Sonia Gandhi's takeover of the Congress, not even in the last pages where he briefly mentions events after Mrs Gandhi's assassination. Senor obviously does not want to rub Senorita on the wrong side. As for the minor barbs, she will definitely not plough through 767 pages, nor would her Man Friday, George. Who else reads English in the Congress and has time to spare?

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