The tag of Rasheed Kidwai’s book—“a short history of the people behind the fall and rise of the Congress”—hides what is in fact an absorbing tale rather than a scholarly history, written as it is in a racy style. Like “a political thriller”, as Rajdeep Sardesai says in the foreword. Despite the flashbacks to the Nehru era and to Indira Gandhi’s first innings as prime minister, the story is essentially of the period beginning with her humiliating defeat in the post-Emergency 1977 election. For that is when the Congress (I) shifted its headquarters to 24 Akbar Road, conveniently close to Sonia Gandhi’s residence since 1989.
Much of the story is well-known, though Kidwai has dug up some juicy gossip that adds spice to his narrative. Of the large cast of characters in the unending drama, many have been long forgotten. Who remembers Sanjay Gandhi’s “close associate and socialite” Rukhsana Sultana, who attracted so much limelight during the Emergency? But she gets a few pages here if only because of her antics and the intense dislike she evoked, especially in Maneka Gandhi and Ambika Soni. Interestingly, figures like the flamboyant Akbar Ahmad “Dumpy”, once very close to Sanjay, hardly find a mention. But some utterly inconsequential individuals do.
Kidwai is a biographer of Sonia Gandhi and, for some reason, has a reputation of being sympathetic to, and supportive of, the Congress president, who is also the chairperson of the ruling United Progressive Alliance and the final arbiter of anything that has to do with the Congress and its government. To his credit, it hasn’t made the slightest difference to his work. He writes with complete objectivity and fairness.
A few samples of his forthrightness should suffice. “Once the party shifted its office to 24 Akbar Road,” he writes, “inner party democracy was truly dead and gone”. On Sanjay and his shenanigans, his verdict is: “The Nehruvian-Gandhian principles of probity in public life, simplicity, and a thrust on values were given the go-by. Indira watched with detached bemusement and a tinge of sadness, but she made little effort to change Sanjay’s style of functioning”.
Equally candid is his take on the current state of affairs: after Wikileaks, the 2G scam, Commonwealth Games scandal, etc. “The UPA under Sonia-Manmohan appeared defensive.... Paradoxically, most of these challenges came from within—not without. These events showed that both Sonia and Manmohan lacked a firm grip on the Congress”.
Some of the pen-portraits in the book are vivid and evocative. Of the lot, I think the best is that of Arjun Singh, the wily Thakur with a Byzantine mind and overweening ambition.
Regrettably, there are a few factual errors in the book. The relatively minor ones, including a mix-up of crucial dates, can be ignored. But two mistakes are glaring and need to be corrected. After Nehru’s death, the Congress Working Committee did not “authorise” K. Kamaraj to “recommend” a successor. His mandate was to “ascertain the Congress party consensus”, which the silent strongman did with becoming transparency. Similarly, in July 1969, when Indira Gandhi divested Morarji of the finance portfolio, he did not stay on in the “ornamental” office of deputy prime minister. Not for a second. This said, 24 Akbar Road remains an enjoyable read.