Durbar and Idea of India

Some words and phrases gain traction from time to time in our daily discourse. One such word that I have noticed being used quite often these days is ‘Idea of India’. It is a lofty phrase and a flexible one too. Suddenly in every discussion from Gujarat elections to Minority rights you will find the phrase ‘Idea of India’ being used liberally. However, most of these commentators discussing ‘Idea of India’ usually do it from the confines of their studios and air conditioned offices. Tavleen Singh, reputed journalist and columnist, also tries to answer ‘Idea of India’ in her book Durbar, but not from the confines of air conditioned room. She does it the old fashioned way of understanding India by traveling throughout the country as a political reporter thus getting a unique perspective.

At the outset, it is important to get this disclaimer out of the way. Durbar is not about Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi. Durbar is also not about petty palace gossip and hearsay. Durbar does not reveal any great secrets that have been hitherto unknown. Durbar is certainly not a story of a bitter woman denied access to the hallowed echelons of power. Instead, Durbar is a story of India and its rulers. The real protagonist of this story is India and Tavleen Singh doubles up as a character and a narrator with an astonishing insight.

First thing that strikes you when you read Durbar is its title. Durbar or royal court is how Tavleen ironically chooses to describe the story of India from 1975 to 1991, story of two lost decades, story of oppressive dynast paving way for bumbling dynast and India suffering in between. The story of lost opportunities and tragic consequences. This story parallels her own story as a political journalist. Tavleen became a journalist by accident (by her own admission, journalism course in Delhi polytechnic was the shortest and she preferred that over other disciplines only for that reason). Her first journalism job came to her as an accident too, but she sinks her teeth into the profession metamorphosing in one of India’s finest political reporters with great deal of understanding, particularly about strife torn Kashmir and Punjab. Durbar mesmerizes the reader from the first word and as Tavleen makes India of 70’s and 80’s come alive and her book reads more like a thriller than history.

The basic premise of Durbar is disappointment in Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Prime Minister. With unprecedented mandate, as a result of sympathy wave created by Indira Gandhi’s assassination and people desperately looking for a change after Indira’s turbulent rein and brief but unsuccessful flirtation with Janata party, Rajiv symbolized youth, progress and modernity. Although Rajiv had no administrative experience, had been active in politics only for 5 years, yet after his mother’s assassination found himself in the Prime Minister’s chair. People of India were hungry for change. If this blatant and unfair dynastic succession bothered them, they were willing to gloss it over for ‘A shining city on a hill’. Rajiv of course was unprepared for the mammoth task of leading the world’s largest democracy. Right from the Sikh massacre of 1984 by Congress goons, which he sadly justified, Rajiv Gandhi was on a reverse trajectory. Surrounded by group of advisors who were chosen only because of their proximity to him and not because of any expertise, Rajiv’s tenure was marred by one misadventure after other. While Tavleen does not absolve Rajiv of any responsibility, she does blame it on his motley group of advisors or ‘Durbar’. Courtiers of Rajiv’s Durbar belonged to the same social strata that Tavleen belongs to. She witnessed their drawing room conversations and realizes how insulated they were from the reality. Tavleen in a sense is both insider and outsider. While she socializes with this group, her journalistic assignments also take her to the world this Durbar rules but never interacts with. This unique position gives Tavleen an advantage of better understanding the complete breakdown of communication between the Lutyens’ Delhi and rest of India.

Interspersed with interesting anecdotes and conversations, Tavleen walks the reader through Rajiv’s biggest follies. Kashmir has always been a cauldron of simmering discontent, but Rajiv Gandhi had one last chance to bring it back from brink. The disastrous coalition with Farooq Abdullah’s National Conference and subsequent rigging of elections was sufficient to blow the lid completely over. Separatists, who had been lurking in shadows, took advantage of the situation and terrorism engulfed the valley leaving the trail of death and destruction. Mishandling of Kashmir remains the biggest blot of Rajiv’s tenure perhaps following the trail of his grandfather, Jawahar Lal Nehru who initially lit the Kashmir bonfire by going to United Nations against Sardar Patel’s wishes.

A fair assessment of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure has never been done. His tragic and untimely death prevents any dispassionate analysis of his leadership. However, as Tavleen describes in her book, understanding of Rajiv’s era is very important if we want to make sense of current political scenario. Seeds of dynastic politics that were sown with his ascent to the top job have fructified now with Sonia becoming the de facto Prime Minister and Rahul being groomed as future Prime Minister. If there is any resentment about this within the Congress party it is not visible or has been suitably silenced.

Rajiv’s lack of leadership and inability to grasp complexities of India are evident from two issues that are his legacy to the nation. Disastrous Shahbano case and Ramjanam Bhoomi Temple issue. As Tavleen says the word ‘Appeasement’ began to be heard a lot around Rajiv’s era. By trying to appease Muslims by overriding Supreme Court judgment Rajiv laid foundation for the word that is now used frequently- ‘Pseudo Secularism’. Similarly if Ramjanam Bhoomi temple locks were opened to appease Hindus and balance out his earlier pandering to Muslims, it achieved just the opposite effect. Rajiv was largely instrumental in festering the anger of ordinary Indians and a fresh wave of communalism gripped the country. Rajiv was not suitable for the job, he had been thrust into. An airline pilot who had showed no interest in politics till his brother Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash was a reluctant politician. Indira groomed him as her heir after Sanjay’s death and her assassination propelled him into the position that he was completely unprepared for. To compensate for his unpreparedness he needed ‘Durbar’, a group of courtiers who advised him. However, a leader is known by the advisors he chooses. Rajiv’s advisors were as ‘babalog’, as unprepared, as outrageously out of touch as he was. The tradition of Durbar had been bequeathed to Rajiv from his mother. Towards the later part of her regime Indira had also cultivated what was popularly known as her kitchen cabinet, sycophants who rarely disagreed with her.

The finest moment in Tavleen’s career and therefore in the book as well is her coverage and insight into Operation Blue star and Punjab insurgency. Tavleen painstakingly describes rise of Bhindranwale covertly with the prodding of Congress, and then turning hostile. She had a chance of interviewing Bhindranwale and witness Sikh insurgency first hand. Tavleen braving all odds to enter Amritsar, in spite of curfew and martial law like situation after Operation blue Star has to be the finest moment of her journalistic career. Another fine moment comes later when she covered Orissa famine. Operation Blue Star saw a very high number of casualties amongst armed forces. Tavleen describes how under prepared they were for such an operation. An operation of such a magnitude with flawed intelligence and lack of even basic maps of Golden Temple could only result in high fatalities.

Durbar is an important book, because it is not merely a narration of historical events. It is important because it tells us what is wrong with the ‘Idea of India’. Dynastic succession which makes a farce of our democracy apart from stunting merit, and politics of entitlement which keeps India poor and corrupt. Tavleen rues basic city planning, welfare schemes and corruption. A recurring theme in her book is ‘Socialist’ India that is gnawing the real potential of India. Rajiv with his mandate had the chance of reversing the free fall but chose to go with his mother’s disastrous socialistic ideas. While Rahul Gandhi goes around the nation screaming that his father brought computers to India, Tavleen describes without opening the economy up, how difficult it was to acquire computers in Rajiv Era. Real change came only with Narshimha Rao’s dismantling of license Raj and first round of economic reforms that let the country breathe.

General Elections in 2014 will be another turning point in India’s history. Will India choose continuation of Dynasty or will it welcome Meritocracy? Will India choose appeasement of some or progress for all? Will India choose politics of entitlement or will it choose growth and opportunities for everyone? Will India choose more of the same or will it choose to break from history? Will the ‘Idea of India’ be defined by today’s Durbar or will it be defined by ordinary person and his aspirations? Nobody knows the answers but it might well be worth reading Tavleen Singh’s Durbar before we head into 2014.

 (Image Courtesy -HT via Google Images )

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Sunanda Vashisht

Sunanda Vashisht

Avid Reader, news junkie, always on the move, mother of two little hyper-active kids and member of the CRI editorial team.
Sunanda Vashisht

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