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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

POWER GAMES

A former Indian premier talks about his debut novel

By Ruchira Gupta / NEW DELHI


MEMOIRS, DEFINITELY. EVEN A scholarly tome about butterfly collecting. Books by former prime ministers attract some attention whatever their subject. P.V. Narasimha Rao, India's premier from 1991 to 1996, can be assured of plenty of interest for his literary debut - he has written a political novel set against the semi-fictional backdrop of his country's struggle for freedom and its evolution as a self-governing nation. For most readers, the lure is what may be a glimpse inside the backrooms of the Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics for much of the five decades since the country's Independence in 1947.

With a lifetime in the corridors of power, Rao has seen it all. The 77-year-old has headed the government in his home state of Andhra Pradesh, served as minister in several cabinets and was Congress president until he was forced to resign in the face of corruption charges. The Insider follows a bumpy political career not unlike his own - that of Anand, a wide-eyed idealist who eventually becomes prime minister. The first volume of a two-part epic, the book also traces the descent of the once-mighty Congress into decadence. The Insider is his way of making people "understand the implications of democracy," Rao says. He wrote it for the younger generation: "They have to understand what they are in for, what the country is in for. Democracy cannot be a weak-kneed thing. It is a battle of wits. You have to fight and find strategies to preserve and promote it." That, he declares, is what The Insider is about.

Rao's first novel is as much an indictment of the corrosive effects of the Nehru dynasty as an attempt to present a different perspective on the Congress party. The writer prefers to call his book a "recapitulation" of past events, but it may well recast his role in the future - Rao is the most likely challenger to Sonia Gandhi for control of the Congress party. Certainly, The Insider is keeping him in the news at a time when he has been marginalized from the political mainstream.

This is not an autobiography, though Anand's experiences are admittedly "often derived" from Rao's. Some aspects are clearly fictional. Anand, who enters politics "in the name of the dreamers," refuses to make compromises. He does nothing that could tarnish his pristine image. Yet, mysteriously, he manages to negotiate the perilous path up the ranks of a corruption-ridden party. Any political neophyte knows that is impossible - a payback is extracted sooner or later. As Anand observes, everything is a transaction. But even as he is named chief minister of Afrozabad (the fictionalized version of Hyderabad), Anand is oblivious to the rotten political system that he is part of. It is only when he tries to implement land reform that he realizes how limited his influence is as an appointee. He is not the torch bearer of any group - there is neither class nor caste to back him. He could not have reached that exalted position "except through Indira Gandhi's blessings." So when he is removed from office for trying to push through a bill detrimental to the landowning class, Anand remains silent.

Unsaid is a sense of what Congress could have achieved, and therein lies the author's success. Without ever mentioning the party by name, Rao conveys his disillusionment and a fatalism about its inexorable decline. Anand is trapped in the system, hating the compromises and pay-offs, yet compelled to play the game to ensure political survival. In a hurried epilogue, Rao rushes through Indira Gandhi's ascendancy, the consolidation of her grip on Congress, the state of emergency declared in 1975 during which she assumed sweeping powers, the rise of her son Sanjay, the Janata years, Indira's assassination and Rajiv Gandhi's term as premier. And just when Anand plans to retire from active politics, "he is called upon to shoulder the Prime Minister's task." The novel ends on this tantalizing note.

Aruna, a legislator with whom Anand has a tempestuous affair, is perhaps the most convincing of the characters. Her charisma is undeniable - she is "fearless, disdainful of her male colleagues, rivals and detractors, extremely compassionate and hopelessly erratic." Aruna is Anand's only weakness besides his addiction to Congress politics, but their breakup is inevitable. Anand is "too hesitant, too uncommitted and too reflective for her taste." If Aruna's portrayal is especially vivid, it may be attributed to the writer's friendship with the person she is based on: Laxmi Kanthamma, a legislator who left Congress during the Emergency. Rao gave her character and the relationship considerably fuller - and more sexually explicit - treatment in an earlier draft. The manuscript was toned down when a friend he sought comments from leaked the details to a magazine. In the fuss that ensued, Indian political fiction lost one of its best, and most liberated, women characters.

The romance points to an unexpectedly flirtatious side to Rao, a prime minister who has raised the practice of saying nothing to a fine art. A playful Anand tells his lover: "Staring at a lovely woman is not a penal offense. And when the staring is committed within the chamber of the legislature, it is also protected by parliamentary privilege." Such flattery cuts little ice with the real Aruna. Laxmi Kanthamma says of her characterization in the book: "I consider myself a political personality. If somebody wants to drag me to Bollywood as a duet-singing figure, what can I do about it?" On Rao's revelations about their affair, she draws comparisons to Janata party veteran Morarji Desai who was involved in a controversy about urine therapy. "He was a person of integrity and courage. He need not have spoken about it in public. Rao's book is in the same category."

Unrepentant, the writer raises the shield of artistic license. "Anand is not my alter ego," Rao says. Besides, "you have to dramatize to create interest." As with Primary Colors in the U.S., readers may derive much enjoyment in trying to see how closely the fictional characters resemble the public figures on whom they are based. The character of chief minister Mahendranath is clearly patterned on former president Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, for instance, and political rival Chaudhury on one-time Andhra Pradesh chief minister Brahmananda Reddy. But Rao insists that except for four prime ministers, the people in his book are fictional, "like movie characters." Of course as composites, he adds, "they may have traits lent by friends and colleagues."

This hedging is typical of Rao. During his tenure as prime minister, India suffered its worst Hindu-Muslim riots when zealots razed the 16th-century Babri mosque at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992. The premier visited the site and offered prayers for peace but failed to do anything to prevent the demolition. The worst stock market scam in Indian history also took place during his stewardship, as did the first steps to free India's closed economy. The sequel will touch on some of these events, but Rao insists he will not discuss them at any length. The bloody tragedy at Ayodhya is an exception. "I feel I owe it to the people," he says.

Rao's novel has been 20 years in the making - a labor of love for a busy politician. "Just like people have an interest in golf, my passion is politics and writing," he explains. "I combined the two here." The result has drawn mixed responses in political circles. It found admirers in unexpected quarters. Among them: Sharada Prasad, a senior Congress figure and former press adviser to Indira Gandhi. Critics range from such Congress loyalists as Najma Heptullah, who faults Rao for doing the organization a disservice, to supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who trash the novel as an exercise in sleaze.

But the serious core of Rao's book is his thesis that the Congress had failed its voters. Characters like Chaudhury personify the betrayal. "I don't care what happens to the landlords or the landless," he says. "My interest is in keeping my party in power." As ideals were truncated to deals, the socialist concepts that Jawaharlal Nehru espoused were lost. In his understated way, Rao takes a dig at the Nehru clan. His hero is unable to reconcile to the fact that "loyalty to his party meant not just to Nehru and the party's ideology but to the family as a whole."

Not that Rao is advocating revolution. "If you want to bring about change, you have to do it through the state government," the former premier insists. "Each player has his own justification. You have to balance stability and implementation of policy - and the difficulties which can arise in the process. Just like [your opponents] have strategies, you have to have strategies." Often viewed by his rivals as a modern-day Machiavelli, Rao no doubt has a few in mind.


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