More Than A Kiss-And-Tell
Like it or not, Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is definitely worth a read. If only it was a more complete book.
If you’ve been following Tavleen Singh’s weekly column in The Indian Express, you should be fairly familiar with her politics. At the very least, you would be aware of her antipathy to Congress policies, or more specifically to Sonia Gandhi. Yet, regardless of whether you agree with her politics or not, there are three reasons why you should read Durbar.
First, Ms Singh is a been there-done that journalist, covering every important event in contemporary India, and covering it the old-fashioned, hard way: by train, staying in dusty circuit houses, riding through pot-holed constituencies, sneaking into curfew-bound Amritsar, going the extra mile for The Story. You have to respect that and you have to concede that Ms Singh has certainly earned her gripes.
Second, Durbar traverses the most momentous years of Indian politics, from the summer of 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared a state of Emergency to an equally hot day in the summer of 1991 when a suicide bomber assassinated her son, Rajiv. Ms Singh touches on significant milestones: the Emergency and its excesses, the failure of the Janata experiment, the rise and fall of Bhindrandwale, the Sikh riots of 1984, starvation in Kalahandi, the beginning of insurgency in Kashmir. You cannot claim to be interested in current events in India and not know the backdrop of these events.
Third, while the excerpts and headlines have almost inevitably focused on the masala bits – the Gandhi “durbar” – this is a book that goes way beyond the rise of the influence of one family. Durbar is no kiss-and-tell. Sure, there are minor revelations (a fur coat here, details of eye makeup there) but nothing that hasn’t already been in drawing room gossip circulation. Perhaps Ms Singh did not have that sort of access to the Gandhi durbar. Perhaps Ms Singh has chosen to be discreet (as she told an interviewer, “If I wanted to be bitchy, I could’ve said more.”). Perhaps Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi were really as low-profile as they are often made out to be. But Durbar is not a Kitty Kelley hatchet job. This is a book that talks about a certain type of politics during a certain period of India’s history and the impact that that politics continues to make.
Starting out as a cub reporter just days before Indira Gandhi imposed a state of Emergency, Tavleen Singh was very much a part of a social set, a durbar-ite if you will, where Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, not yet in politics, frequently dropped by. The account of that gilded circle comes not from “according to sources”, but from a fully paid-up member of a circle where members go by names like Mapu and Vasu – and if you have to ask Mapu-Who or Vasu-Who then clearly you’re an outsider.
With time, Ms Singh’s relationship with the Gandhis deepens. At first there are casual meetings at parties, but then it moves to a stage where Sonia Gandhi comes visiting with gifts of clothes for Ms Singh’s young son and helps out as a “good friend” by arranging an introduction with Amitabh Bachchan for a story. It’s a relationship that ends not because of Ms Singh’s growing concern that newbie prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was botching it up (“a prime minister with the largest mandate in Indian history ended up as such a disappointment”) but at Sonia Gandhi’s initiative.
As Ms Singh tells it, the end comes after a less-than-sympathetic profile she co-wrote on Sonia Gandhi with journalist Dilip Bobb for India Today. “My New Year’s card in January 1987 was not written by hand and signed by both of them as it was the year before. It came from the prime minister’s office and was formally signed by Rajiv Gandhi. I had been dropped.”
Ms Singh explains her antipathy to the Gandhis in terms of the dynasty. The seeds of dynastic succession, an anomaly surely in any democracy, might go back to the Nehru-Gandhis but now infects every party and has become a “political tool in the hands of the ruling class”. In fact, as Patrick French points out in his book, India; A Portrait, a full 100 per cent of all MPs under the age of 30 and 65 per cent of MPs between 31 and 40 are “hereditary MPs”.
This should worry every Indian citizen. However, since Ms Singh’s book limits itself from 1975 to 1991, the rising subaltern dynasties are mentioned but not discussed in any detail. What are the implications? Is there a way out? How is this legitimate democratic space to be reclaimed by those without patronage? Ironically, Rajiv’s son, Rahul Gandhi has spoken about the closed circle of politics. But no solutions have ever been forwarded. And this is the book’s great weakness. Yes, we know durbars exist. We know they give rise to dynastic politics. Now, what is the way out?
Ms Singh writes: “So the dynasty continues, and its example is emulated by almost every political party in India with dangerous consequences for Indian democracy.” There is brief mention too of the co-opting of mainstream media who are not “more incensed by something that has caused such severe damage to the political fabric”. But there is no deeper analysis on the impact of dynasties.
Durbar is a rewarding read for its insight into events and for its understanding of the incestuous power relationship between the oligarchs that run this country. But what Ms Singh fails to mention in detail is that every dispensation, every ruling regime and every court has its own durbar. A more complete book would have looked at it all. Perhaps we need to wait for her next one.