A tell-all book on the Gandhis seemed too good to pass up (what? I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy, I read personal blogs, don’t I?), but although I couldn’t stop reading this excerpt of Tavleen Singh’s book Durbar, I ended with a bad taste in my mouth. More than revealing anything major about Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, it seemed to show Ms Singh as a petty grudge-holder, who couldn’t get over being sidelined.

Nevertheless, I bought the book, and I’m glad I read it. As someone on the fringes of the Delhi drawing rooms that Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi socialised in and friendly with a number of political people, Ms Singh was in the perfect position to write a fly-on-the-wall sort of book. Unfortunately, the details she came up with were only vaguely interesting, the way she presented them deeply prejudiced, and her own resentment seemed to take centrestage.

But apart from being friend to many in influential and political circles, Ms Singh was also a mid-level journalist living in Delhi at a very interesting period. Viewing history through her eyes turned out to be much more interesting than the promised gossip about India’s first family.

As a child of the 80s and 90s, my head was filled with Congress propaganda of the kind that made the Emergency invisible and Operation Blue Star entirely about the fact that Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.  The Congress version of history presented in our school textbooks and on Doordarshan was further burnished growing up in a family of Congress supporters.

I was startled to become acquainted with the Emergency when I studied political science in college and even more nonplussed to realise that Indira Gandhi was the undisputed villain of the piece. Nevertheless, the glamour of the Gandhis and frankly the fact that Rajiv was the first halfway decent-looking politician I had seen continued to influence me so that when I heard of the Bofors scandal, I could scarcely give it credence. I also was widely contemptuous of most other Indian politicians, mainly, I realise because they offended my sense of aesthetics.

This book effectively brought down that edifice for me. One of its main projects is to lay serious blame at Rajiv’s door for some of India’s current problems, particularly the communal ones, and it does make a case to be considered, if not completely bought because apart from her personal grudges, Ms Singh surely has her political leanings too. Nevertheless, many of the points Ms Singh brings up – Rajiv’s failure to liberalise the economy, for one – have been raised by more credible others too. I was particularly shocked by Rajiv’s revengeful stance after his mother’s assassination and the ensuing pogrom against the Sikhs. This is not news, but I had never quite faced the fact of it before.

I see Rajiv at the same level as Narendra Modi now. The only difference is that he is dead, so in voting Congress, one is not directly voting for someone that sanctified murder on a massive scale. Still.

I also got more insight into other political leaders like Vajpayee, VP Singh, the Rajmata of Gwalior and her son Madhavrao, Fahrook Abdullah, etc. In my Congress-bubble growing up, it felt like these people popped up out of nowhere onto the political stage, when in fact they had been around for ages, and were not national leaders and eventually prime ministers for no reason. I had never quite understood the appeal of Vajpayee but reading just one line of his speech during the Emergency won my admiration, and also my desire to learn Hindi properly.

I suspect that many of us, especially from English-speaking Congress-inclined households, are fuzzy on the details of that period. We lived through it, but as children so it was not our reality. If you are not inclined to pick up a proper history book, read this one for:

  1. Its description of the Emergency
  2. Its personal reportage of the Punjab problem, the period leading up to Operation Blue Star, the operation itself and the terrible days following Indira Gandhi’s death
  3. Insights on the political situation in Kashmir
  4. Backgrounds and personal impressions of some big political names
  5. A different view of the Congress heroes.