For some time now, I find myself more drawn towards non-fiction writing. Time was when I used to devour fiction obsessively but now I find it almost impossible to finish a novel. Biographies, political writing and essays, on the other hand, have become my go-to reading.
Biographies are not easy to write and political biographies are a genre not many have been able to handle well. In India, where it is considered bad form to speak ill of the dead and keep a worshipful distance from one’s ancestors, few biographers have been able to go beyond hagiography. To recreate in flesh and blood the life of a person warts and all, while retaining one’s affection or admiration, is not an easy task. I discovered this when I wrote a memoir of my own mother, a writer and complex character.
A few years ago, one was introduced to a young writer, Vinay Sitapati, through a biography he wrote of the late Narasimha Rao. ‘Half a Lion’ was an eye-opener that gave me a totally new perspective of a man his own party seemed so eager to bury. Sitapati was handed a trunk full of papers by Rao’s son and although Rao himself had written a semi-autobiographical novel once, it was left to Sitapati to do full justice to a man who was not just a consummate politician, but a scholar and polyglot of extraordinary proportions. Sitapati based his work not just on the papers and personal notes he received from Rao’s son, but on long conversations with the men and women Rao shared a personal relationship with, including a woman journalist whom all of Delhi knew as his close friend and confidante. Recently, Sitapati has published a second book, titled ‘Jugalbandi’.
I have only read some excerpts yet, but my appetite is whetted. ‘Jugalbandi’ is a name given to a kind of musical form when two artistes playing different instruments improvise a performance that blends two styles and two kinds of music into a harmonious whole. Readers will recall some outstanding recordings of Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan on the sitar and sarod, respectively, that are almost divine. Similarly, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit VG Jog on the shehnai and violin played to rapturous audiences. There are countless examples of two artistes never overshadowing each other, playing in perfect sync with the mood of the raga and the beat. Sitapati has taken this metaphor to elaborate on the relationship of two outstanding politicians of the BJP and their lifelong friendship and political styles to bring the party to a stage where it is today.
These two are Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Not one to shy away from personal lives when assessing political careers, Sitapati has brought out of the woodwork Vajpayee’s intriguing relationship with his long-time companion, Mrs Kaul. Few ever saw her, fewer still ever spoke of her but the chatterati of Lutyen’s Delhi were full of stories about the power the lady wielded over her partner. Significantly, Vajpayee’s funeral pyre was lit by his foster daughter, Mrs Kaul’s daughter. Naturally, given the prissy and moralistic stand of his own party, many elders from the RSS and BJP evidently tried to coax Mr Vajpayee to consider distancing himself, but it must be said in praise of the man that he never caved in and although their relationship always remained discreet, it was never hidden away like those of several other leaders one can name.
India has always had a long tradition of women in purdah advising rulers without stepping out of the shadows. Yet, there is a curious reluctance in acknowledging such relationships openly. This hypocrisy needed to be exposed, Sitapati feels, because, as he explains rather convincingly, Vajpayee’s liberal views owed a great deal to the spirited political discussions he had with Mrs Kaul. Apart from this, Sitapati’s book also uncovers the dual relationship between the top two in the BJP that enabled one to build the organisation and the other to handle the affairs of governance and Parliament. From the beginning, when this was the arrangement between Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyay to the famous jodi of Advani and Vajpayee, the division of responsibility and the confluence of ideology and realpolitik created a political ‘jugalbandi’ that other parties ought to study and adopt.
It was this kind of ‘jugalbandi’ that made the Nehru-Patel jodi so special but later, once personal ambition became more important than loyalty to the party, a ‘darbari’ culture completely destroyed the Congress. Dynastic politics is in a large measure responsible for a similar decline in other parties as well, but working in tandem means working as a team, a way of operating that seems quite alien to our tradition. Today, it is each man, or woman, for himself and when that person declines, sadly so does the party.