When Benjamin Disraeli penned Coningsby in 1844, it was dubbed by many as a self-serving account involved as it was with events in which the future British Prime Minister was a participant or a close observer. Closer home when P. V. Narasimha Rao wrote a quasi-autobiographical book The Insider and a much later sequel Ayodhaya: 6 December 1992, the intent was obvious. The books attracted reviewers’ ire and rightfully so.
Those were cases of individual aggrandizement. What about a political party trying to re-write its own history? Matters take an altogether different turn in this case, for a political party is first and foremost a political animal, involved in the rough and tumble of politics, trying to pave the way for success. The lines between the past and the future get blurred beyond a level that passes for history writing. The best history writing need not be dispassionate but it is certainly never self-serving. Indian politicians and political parties have never risen beyond the demands of their own short-term interests in such exercises.
The Congress has just engaged in an encore of that kind. It has come out with a two-volume history of the party, The Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation. The rewrite is interesting. Sanjay Gandhi, son of late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, has been praised and criticized at the same time. The emergency has been defended by claiming that vast sections of the population welcomed it initially. Narasimha Rao has been “rehabilitated” almost in Soviet style after at least 15 years of relentless castigation. Rajiv Gandhi’s run-in with “powerbrokers” has been elaborated upon.
Each of these episodes, if handled in their proper historical perspective, would require a much more elaborate treatment than what the Congress’ effort does. Consider the emergency years. Apart from a series of domestic events, such as Jayaprakash Narayan’s agitation, there is a chain from the Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) crisis to Indira Gandhi’s legal travails that culminated in a declaration of emergency. The role of personalities, the prime minister of the day or her son, needs to be seen against that background. That would have made for a richer understanding of political life in that age. The Congress’ tomes, however, are more interested apportioning blame and credit to the actors in that drama. That hardly makes for good history writing.
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