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  Books   19 Aug 2023  Book Review | Secrets & surprises: Oral testimonies of India’s contemporary history

Book Review | Secrets & surprises: Oral testimonies of India’s contemporary history

Published : Aug 20, 2023, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Aug 20, 2023, 12:15 am IST

What Chowdhury unfolds is an engrossing narrative of event, turns out to be a political thriller.

Cover photo of 'How Prime Ministers Decide,' by Neerja Chowdhury. (Photo by arrangement)
 Cover photo of 'How Prime Ministers Decide,' by Neerja Chowdhury. (Photo by arrangement)

Journalist Neerja Chowdhury lays all the cards on the table. The narrative is built on what many people — politicians, friends and aides, bureaucrats — told her about how different Prime Ministers coped with the critical situations. While Prime Ministers Morarji Desai, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh are shown dealing with challenges they faced in office over a major issue each faced, that of Indira Gandhi was how she fought back once she lost office in the 1977 general election. What Chowdhury unfolds is an engrossing narrative of events, and as Rajmohan Gandhi said in a review of the book, turns out to be a political thriller.

Some of the stories are familiar like Rajiv Gandhi’s dithering on Shah Bano and on the Ayodhya. Chowdhury shows how Arun Nehru sat in Lucknow and saw to it that the Faizabad magistrate issued the orders for the unlocking of the niche where the trespassed idol of Ram was placed in 1949. In the case of Manmohan Singh, it is the India-US civil nuclear deal which the self-effacing Prime Minister saw through the issue with doggedness. The complicity of Rao in the demolition of Babri Masjid is established through the private conversations Rao had with Nikhil Chakravartty of Mainstream, and what Kushabhau Thakre and Sudarshan had said of their conversations with Rao to Som Pal.

So, who are the people who contribute the details for Chowdhury to build her story of political twists and turns. It is Kapil Mohan, Anil Bali of Mohan Meakin’s liquor factory in Solan, Ravi Nair, private secretary to George Fernandes when Fernandes was minister in Morari Desai’s Janata Party government, Kamal Nath, Karan Singh, Dumpy Akbar Ahmad, Naresh Chandra, Bhuvanesh Chaturvedi, K. Santhanam, Shahid Siddiqui, K. Subrahmanyam, apart from the Prime Ministers themselves, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar. And there is a reference to Sonia Gandhi’s call to Chowdhury.

What has caught the attention of the readers and created the buzz about the book so far is how Chowdhury pieces together the inner goings on around the critical turns in the story based on what she learnt from her interlocutors. It is a riveting story, almost a ringside view of the developments. It is although the many people whom Chowdhury talked to were speaking asides even as the drama was unfolding. This is the result of Chowdhury’s diligent meetings with all these narrators, who were themselves part of the political drama. So what Chowdhury manages to tell is a familiar story but enriched by the many details, some colourful and some significant.

The reader after having enjoyed the cocktail of political buzz through reliable sources whom the journalist-author had tapped with great resourcefulness in the well-paced narrative is left to ponder over the implications of what he or she has read. It seems that many of the critical turning-points were decided at a very personal level, with eyes focused on immediate consequences. And this is indeed how things work. But does it add up in making sense of how things turned out on the bigger canvas of contemporary history? Chowdhury’s narrative would go well with the Tolstoyan view of history that momentous events comprise small and insignificant causes.

What Chowdhury has done is to bring together all the little voices, almost the subaltern voices, people who were close to the big players and the big events and who also played their small and significant parts in the events. Historians will have a tough time choosing from Chowdhury’s recorded version. She has provided the blueprint as it were for the first draft of history which is what journalists are supposed to do. And she has done it. The evidence is partial, sketchy by nature and it cannot be helped. Though she uses as part of her narration what Pupul Jayakar has to say in her biography of Indira Gandhi or Narasimha Rao has to say in his fictional work and on Vinay Sitapati’s biography of Rao, she relies mainly on what she has gathered from the many people whom she spoke to. It is an authentic narrative in that sense — what the insiders, those in the anterooms, and sometimes in the situation rooms have told her. She has kept the journalist’s bargain — of quoting the sources. The many oral testimonies hang in the air as it were. Unfortunately, the oral traditions are a despair of a historian of India even in modern times. Indian politicians delight in speaking to each other on their views, differences on issues, and some of the key decisions are reached in the same manner. And these minutes are not ever taken down, or recorded.

How Prime Ministers Decide: An Unprecedented Explosive Look at How Decisions Are Taken at the Very Top of the Indian Political Establishment

Neerja Chowdhury


pp. 578; Rs 999

Tags: book review, rajiv gandhi, morarji desai