Durbar by Tavleen Singh; Hachette India; Pp 312, Rs 599.00
TAVLEEN Singh, now in her early sixties, hails from a Punjabi landed aristocracy. Her maternal grandfather was one of the five Sikh contractors who helped Edwin Lutyens build the city of New Delhi. As such Tavleen has been part of the rich and the powerful in the Indian capital’s super-rich society, having access to the drawing rooms of the great and the gregarious, including the Nehru-Gandhi, and if she writes about them, she does so with first hand knowledge.
She started working for the print media in 1975 and writes with full awareness about the grave political events that followed and to which she was a personal witness. Her account of the Emergency, the way it was called off and the election that followed, Indira Gandhi’s defeat, how she took it, the coming into power of the Janata Government, the failure of the Janata, the fresh elections and the return of Indira Gandhi to power, the growth of Sikh fundamentalism and the sensational rise of Bhindrawale, Operation Blue Star and the subsequent assassination of the Prime Minister, followed by the killings of thousands of innocent Sikhs and the coming of Rajiv Gandhi as the natural successor to his mother and finally Rajiv’s own assassination are all described with such intensity and inside knowledge that the book is literally un-putdownable.
The first thing that comes clear in this, what can be described as ‘bio-history’, is that mone of the ‘Gandhis’ – Indira, her sons Rajiv and Sanjay, her daughters-in-law Sonia and Maneka come out with clean hands. Nor do any of the politicians of those times. Sycophancy was the order of the day. So was political terrorism, first as practised by Indira and subsequently by her son Sanjay. As Tavleen puts it: “In the first month of the Emergency I learned to understand brute political power and the terror that the Indian state could instill in those who chose to defy its will”. All India Radio had become All Indira Radio and, as Tavleen says, “almost evry journalist knew relied on foreign radio stations to get the real story”.
When Tavleen first met Sonia, she found her “as foreign as any foreigner I had ever met”. Indira Gandhi stayed aloof and rarely gave interviews to Indian journalists and treated the Indian press “with disdain”. When Indira Gandhi was first defeated in the post-Emergency elections, Tavleen says there were rumours that Rajiv and Sonia were seeking refuge in the Italian Embassy! When Rajiv became Prime Minister, says Tavleen he “seemed to represent hope and change” but was soon to show “a weakness for the English-speaking, Doon School educated Indians with whom he had grown up”. His closest aid was his wife who “understood little of politics and made no effort to hide her contempt for Indian politicians”.
As for Rajiv “rumours of crony capitalism…. started to spread and he was getting to be known for becoming a big spender and both he and his wife looked like “they suddenly had lots of money”. They were living it up. Money was being spent lavishly. He had become part of the corrupt society. Tavleen refers to V.P. Singh “a man of impeccable integrity” who had, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, allowed bandits to kill his brother than pay a ransom and who, as Finance Minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s cabinet got “friends of Rajiv Gandhi and financiers of the Congress Party” raided. To prevent further damage Rajiv transferred VP Singh to the Defence Ministery, but that did not deter Singh from “digging into shady defence deals”, even before the Bofors scandal broke.
Writes Tavleen: “VP Singh’s eagerness to find the officials who had taken bribes from Bofors was matched by Rajiv’s public reluctance to do so.” It put him in direct confrontation not just with VP Singh but with his friend Arun Singh who found himself in the very difficult position of having lied in Parliament. Rajiv, according to Tavleen, “had put him (Arun Singh) in the position of making a false statement in Parliament”. When Rajiv realized that V.P. Singh seemed determined to delve into the Bofors issue, hehad Singh sacked. All of this was apparently rankling rural people who, according to Tavleen, linked Rajiv’s behavior to his marrying a foreigner. As she saw it, that marriage “alienated” Rajiv from Congress Party workers who mocked the Gandhi couple for not understanding Indian realities. It is apparent that Tavleen is not particularly enamoured of Sonia, to say the least.
As she put it, “the sycophancy Sonia inspired was stunning and for me, as an Indian, shaming because it was inspired not by (Sonia’s) political achievements…. but by her white skin”.
Tavleen has much to say about Ottavio and Maria Quattrochi. As she saw them, “Ottavio was loud and full of bluster and Maria had a coarse, bossy manner”. At a party Ottavio apparently met an uncle of Tavleen who was working for a big American construction company to tell him that he, ottiavio, was so close to the Gandhi family that he could help the uncle get government contracts. Rajiv himself had become a snob whose closed circle of friends were from the Upper Middle Class who could boast about their Doon School past and, adds Tavleen, there was no hiding the Gandhi family’s “pretensions to aristocracy”.
Tavleen speaks from her heart. She is pained to see corruption creeping into the media as well. As she put it: “In an insidious form of bribery they are offered not just access to leaders and foreign junkets when such leaders travel abroad, but nominated seats in the Rajya Sabha, subsidized housing and all sorts of other perks that are usually available only to politicians and high-ranking government officials”. As for politicians, she says: “With a handful of rare exceptions, most Indian politicians enter politics today not for reasons of ideology or public service but because they believe that their own interests and the interests of their family are best served this way” and that “in almost every Indian state, Chief Ministers use their power to send their wives or sisters to the Lok Sabha from constituencies that are not pocket boroughs but private estates”.
We are living in a world of ‘Durbar’ which is a most appropriate title for the book. To succed we need to be sycophants of the rich and the powerful. To read Tavleen is to get to know the darker side of Indian politics. It is a silent call to her fellow citizens to wake up to the growing menace of dynastic politics and the havoc it is doing to the country. To be forewarned is to be fore-armed.
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