Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. Or is it politics? Certainly, with the general election around the corner, we Indians can be forgiven for thinking the latter. Each time, we’re treated to the same empty spectacle of loudspeaker-fuelled platitudes, shameless pandering, petty intrigue, and the staple array of electoral fraud.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “An election cannot give a country a firm sense of direction if it has two or more national parties which merely have different names but are as alike in their principles and aims as two peas in the same pod.” By this standard, we’ve been navigating rudderless for a very long time. Our elections rarely include a serious debate about the nation or its future, or competing ideologies of governance. All the chatter in the media is literally about the gaddi (seat of power): who will ascend the throne this time around?
Dynast: Penguin recently re-released a biography of Sonia Gandhi. Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Hobbled by their material, it’s hardly surprising then that books on Indian politics and politicians are just as uninspiring. The two biographies recently published by Penguin are no exception. A Life—Madhavrao Scindia by Vir Sanghvi and Namita Bhandare is less a serious biography than a hagiographic celebration of Scindia’s life, penned by a close friend (Sanghvi) with the blessings of his family and the Congress party, particularly party president Sonia Gandhi.
Gandhi herself is the subject of Rasheed Kidwai’s Sonia: A Biography. The updated version of a 2003 book charts the transformation of Sonia Gandhi from a quiet, pasta-cooking housewife into a political titan ruling the Congress roost. Kidwai’s journalistic credentials are impeccable, as is his detailed chronicle of Gandhi’s rise to power.
But the book’s limitations are clear at the very outset, writ large in the description on the jacket. Promising to offer “a fascinating insight into the inner world of Congress politics and the frustrations and jealousies that ensue as various leaders, powerful in their own right, vie for the honour of being part of the inner circle”, it offers a debased version of politics, stripped bare of ideas, values or vision, reduced to a raw-knuckled brawl for power.
Perhaps the flaws of Kidwai’s book lie less with the author than its subject. The lives of Jawaharlal Nehru or even George Bush—a man hardly known for his political acumen—were shaped by their deeply held ideological convictions. It would be impossible to describe their life history without addressing their politics. Gandhi, in comparison, is a politician driven by dynastic rather than political ambition. Her most dearly held aims are not for her nation but her son.
In Indian politics, Gandhi is not the exception but the rule.
In his book, Temptations of the West, Pankaj Mishra brilliantly captures how elections offer one of the few available means of economic mobility for underprivileged, undereducated men who, once in office, seek only to secure their financial future and that of their families. “They all seek power that in societies degraded by colonialism often comes without a redeeming idea of what it is to be used for, the kind of power that, in most cases, amounts to little more than an opportunity to rise above the rest of the population and savour the richness of the world,” Mishra writes.
Maybe, when we change our politics and our politicians, we will also get to read better books.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org