Janardan Thakur was a mercurial, untiring journalist. His eyes and ears were always open to people, events, slight shifts in political power, the implosive nature of ethnic or religious strife, and the zany makings of high-society crooks. Born in 1936, he was an author and political journalist with The Illustrated Weekly Of India and later in publications such as The Asian Age before he decided to move to Mumbai in the late 1990s to revive the newspaper The Free Press Journal. I was lucky to have worked with him as a trainee for a few months—they were months of intense learning and reportage. He was an editor who felt news-gathering, interviewing, and most importantly, questioning every fact a journalist gathers are skills that would take a lifetime to master.
Thakur’s best-selling book, All The Prime Minister’s Men (1977), now unavailable to buy but downloadable on a few sites, is a classic in political writing, and still compellingly relevant.
When Sanjaya Baru’s book The Accidental Prime Minister, an insider’s account of how former prime minister Manmohan Singh was “defanged", was released in 2014, times were intolerant and opinions fuelled by frenetic social media activity. The book is now in the news with the release of the film based on the book. Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), by promoting the film on social media, and the Congress, by articulating its views on the film’s release, have made it a political tool.
Thakur’s book takes us to another realm of political writing—neither sycophantic nor censuring, but with the unabashed, informed opinion of a columnist and reporter. He writes in the book’s preface that the idea for a book about the making of Indira Gandhi and the men who rallied around and solidified her power was extremely difficult to execute because almost everybody he wanted to interview banged their phones down on him. So he decided to meet bureaucrats and men in the smaller offices of Delhi’s secretariats. The result is a book full of anecdotes about Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister leading up to the Emergency and her electoral defeat thereafter, but substantiated with years of rigorous political reporting—on the who, why and how of the Indian National Congress from Jawaharlal Nehru to Indira Gandhi (and Sanjay Gandhi).
The book was written during the Emergency, when editors were arrested and threatened, and being published towards the end of the Emergency in 1977 may have led to it becoming a best-seller. While revisiting the book for this piece, I called up Vikas Publishing House to ask if copies were available but they weren’t even aware that this title was published by them.
All The Prime Minister’s Men is a caustic indictment of how Indira Gandhi rose from being “Nehru’s chatelain and protector" to the prime minister. It helped that the nation was disillusioned and stunned by two years of tyrannical President’s rule; the English-speaking elite was ready for a book like this. A mass movement was gestating, undetected by complacent celebrators of Indira Gandhi’s hegemony.
It is not a book just about the Emergency. Thakur delves into the roots of the nightmare of Emergency, and tries to make sense of some of the principal characters who helped execute it in relation to their past. He compares then cabinet minister Vidya Charan Shukla to Joseph Goebbels, and recreates the brute displays of power by the “Jat bully" Bansi Lal. He explains why Dhirendra Brahmachari was “India’s Rasputin" and how Indira Gandhi’s principal secretary P.N. Haksar built a cerebral veneer around her. The book also maps the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, and how politicians like N.D. Tiwari fawned over him and validated his brazen narcissism. Other men like Siddhartha Sankar Ray, Yashpal Kapoor and Lalit Narayan Mishra make engaging portraits.
A waist-deep wallow in the 1970s of Indira Gandhi, Thakur’s high-energy romp of a book also serves, inadvertently, a serious need: he has the eye for illuminating details and by excavating the detritus of the political culture of that decade, All The Prime Minister’s Men reminds us that when an entire political class and influential forces in society cement the power of one leader, it leads to dangerous compromise to the idea of freedom, and to political instability. “Eleven years ago, Indira Gandhi had taken the reins of government with the promise to be a ‘worthy servant of this great people’. She had risen to great heights, but she couldn’t keep herself there, because her ‘greatness’ was a mere facade, a build-up. It lacked authenticity. …She raised hopes which she had no intention of fulfilling. Her government was as schizophrenic as herself; it sought to draw its power from the poor and the downtrodden and serve the interests of the exploiters—of her own class," he writes.