When 56-year-old Buddhadeva Bhattacharya was ushered in as West Bengal's chief minister by his venerable predecessor Jyoti Basu in Calcutta last fortnight, literature made another dramatic entry into the hurly-burly of politics. Rounding off his 40-minute speech with a verse from Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Basu turned to Bhattacharya, an ardent admirer of the poet's works, and said, "Buddha knows literature well, he will translate the poem for you."
That's no big deal for Bhattacharya. Every evening, for many years now, the bhadralok apparatchik has been spending his evenings at Nandan, the city's most popular cultural complex, translating—who else?—but Mayakovsky. That's not all. Bhattacharya, throughout his tenure as home and information and cultural affairs minister of the state, found time to pen some 10 books. They include poems, plays and essays on such famous litterateurs as Manik Bandopadhyay and Jibananda Das. His first play, Dushshamoy (Hard Times) was even staged. A few months ago, he published Poka, a collection of two plays, one original, the other an adaptation of Franz Kafka's fable Metamorphosis. His writing even finds a few admirers. Says well-known Bengali novelist Buddhadeb Guha: "His analysis is impressive and it does not take long to figure out that when he goes into his theme, he goes very deep indeed."
This response perhaps characterises India's indulgence of its leaders' literary aspirations. But it's an indulgence that's threatening to get out of hand. Suddenly, more and more politicians seem to have been bitten by the writing bug—from prime ministers down.
Heading the list, of course, is prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. "The truth is," Vajpayee confesses, "that poetry and politics can't go together. Especially when politics demands that you make speeches every day highlighting issues, then where is the leisure and ambience for writing poetry?" Thank heavens, his critics say. But Vajpayee has gone on to publish two anthologies of his poetry: Meri Ekyavan Kavitayen (My Fifty-One Poems) in 1994, while he was prime minister-in-waiting, and Na Dainya, Na Palayanam (No Pity, No Escape) in 1998, soon after he became prime minister. Earlier, another collection, Kaidi Kavirai Ki Kundaliyan (Poems from Jail), published in 1978 after the Emergency, sank into oblivion, together with its publisher.
Novelist Krishna Baldev Vaid has no problems with politicians writing poetry: "After all, didn't Churchill write well enough to win the Nobel Prize for literature? And both Gandhi and Nehru wrote very well, even if it was not poetry."
But in India, the quality of literary sallies by politicians is pretty much suspect. The problem with Vajpayee's poetry, according to Vaid, is that it is not an indulgence at all, neither for the reader nor for Vajpayee. "It's just old-fashioned versifying." If instead of lamenting that speeches take away the time and energy he wants to spend in writing poetry, Vaid suggests he stick to his speeches. "His oratory is far more poetic than his poems—there is a restraint and subtlety there."
Former prime minister V.P. Singh has also succumbed to the temptation, bringing out his debut collection of poetry soon after his flirtation with painting. "His paintings are better," says Vaid of the self-confessed Sunday painter. Nor does the other prime ministerial author, P.V. Narasimha Rao, emerge unscathed—he wrote his much-hyped first novel The Insider two years ago. "How can you take a man who declares himself a prodigy at the age of six seriously?" scoffs Khushwant Singh."There is nothing attractive in that huge novel of his, not even his escapades with his girlfriend. Rao hasn't got it in him to write fiction. There are large tracts of his novel which read like government handouts."
Rao, however, is unwilling to cure himself of his addiction. He is not only working on the second half of his magnum opus but is also half-way through two other books—on the Congress party and the Babri Masjid demolition.
But then," Vaid adds consolingly, "much worse is being published by writers who are not prime ministers." Only too true, if one scans the rash of literary outpouring among politicians. Take the self-acclaimed "poet of natural talent" Mamata Banerjee, for instance. In her first collection of English verse Motherland, released six years ago, Mamata craves the reader's avid appreciation for "their simplicity and emotional content". She is not too far from the truth, especially where simplicity is concerned: "India is our Motherland," goes the title poem, "Friendship with other countries is our stand/Everybody loves their Motherland as they love their mother/But selfish people have some selfish fathers/They can't tolerate the happiness of others."
Not surprisingly, Mamata's verse is now out of print. But her publisher in Calcutta, Sudhansu Dey, is delighted with her prose. Mamata's first book, the autobiographical Upalabdhi (Realisation) was a bestseller, according to Dey. "It sold over 30,000 copies in no time, which could well be a local record." Encouraged, Mamata began to churn out a book a year: Ma (Mother), Janatar Darbar (Court of the People), Pallabi and Manabik (Humanistic). Her only book of non-fiction, Why Trinamul, can also be classified as fiction, according to a Bengali wag, "because Trinamul ideology is fiction". Not everyone is as easy to please as Dey. Most readers find her prose as daunting as the feisty lady of Bengal politics: "Is this politics or humanism? Chandipur is a village in Midnapore's Tamluk area. Armed with a court order, a father and his son studying in class 12 had gone to till their land. This provoked a political clash, what are now called ‘rural disputes'. Their opponents beat them up, dragged them away. What happened to the boy? He was tied and pinned to the ground and around his exposed navel, they simply poured some paddy and kept crushing it for over an hour." Sometimes Bhattacharya's verse also borders on mere propaganda.
Bengal, despite Mamata, has never lacked politicians adept with their pens. The tradition was set by veteran leaders like Ashok Mitra and the tradition continues with Bhattacharya. But with Mamata entering the literary ranks, the non-Left camp can now boast of a new current in politicians' literature.
But it's not just Bengal. Tamil Nadu is another state that actively encourages its leaders to pursue literature. There is no Tamil leader worth his vote who has not got several novels and film scripts under his belt. Partly a result of the Dravidian movement which created its own media, with leaders writing, directing and producing plays and films. C.N. Annadurai, M. Karunanidhi and Murasoli Maran, for instance, have written more film scripts than most professional screenplay writers. Chief minister Karunanidhi can't keep away from literature, no matter how pressing politics gets. "Literature," he says, "is like a huge banyan tree providing shade to me whenever I needed an escape from the heat of politics."
It's a shade that aiadmk leader J. Jayalalitha must yearn for, being the only Tamil politician of note who stopped writing after she became party chief.Her need for self-expression, which lasted for barely five years, resulted in several novels and essays. Her first novel, Nee Enri Naan Illai (I Cease to Exist Without You), is semi-autobiographical, justifying the bigamy of a film actor.
In the other Marxist bastion of Kerala, oddly enough, politicians have remained largely immune to the writing bug. The only exception is cpi(m) legislator Kadamanatta Ramakrishnan. He was the kind of revolutionary poet who could draw large crowds by reading aloud from his poems. That is why his party decided in 1996 to pit him against rebel leader M.V. Raghavan. Ramakrishnan won the seat but lost his poetry. Ramakrishnan, naturally, does not see it the same way: "There is no contradiction in being a politician and a poet. I see politics in a poetic way."
Agrees Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit Panther leader from Maharashtra and its only poet-politician: "Literature has been my shakti in the practice of politics and politics has helped me in the pursuit of literature." But in his case, it was politics that failed him, not poetry. He received three Maharashtra state awards for his five collections of poems and the prestigious Nehru award for his Golpitha, named after Mumbai's red-light district. Golpitha, in describing the whole world as a red-light district, set a new trend in Marathi poetry and is now prescribed for the Bombay University masters' course in Marathi literature. Another collection is prescribed in Aurangabad University.
But for most politicians, it's not literary passion that leads to self-expression so much as the powerful need for fame and recognition. Inevitably, political clout comes before literary fame. Darjeeling-based Gorkha leader Subhas Ghising, for instance, had to wait till he was famous for his politics before his five novels began to sell. Especially Neelo Choli (The Blue Blouse). Readers were so titillated by their leader's account of the sexual exploits in a tea plantation that Neelo Choli even began to be pirated and sold, a singular honour for a politician. He wrote 22 novels and collections of poems, all of which have now faded into oblivion. But his itch to write is as strong as ever. Ghising has discovered a safer ticket to fame: he is turning his writing skills to bhajans. And his self-composed cassettes sold better than his politics this Dussehra.
It's a ticket that former Karnataka CM Veerappa Moily is also banking on. Moily plans to celebrate his 61st birthday in January by writing the first instalment of what may well turn out to be the mother of all epic poems. Based on Lakshman in Ramayana, the poem, explains Moily modestly, "will be written in five or six volumes, about 3,000 pages in all". Not an impossible task for a man who became smitten with the writing bug in his schooldays and went on to publish eight plays, six collections of poems and four novels, two of which have been turned into films in Kannada, and another, Kotta, made into a telefilm by M.S. Sathyu. His advice to fellow politicians: No, don't write but read literature. "It will make you a complete human being." That's a piece of advice Indian politicians with literary aspirations could well heed too.