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  Books   23 Sep 2023  Politics, Pakistan were the two fatal attractions of Aiyar’s life

Politics, Pakistan were the two fatal attractions of Aiyar’s life

Published : Sep 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Sep 24, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Do we really believe all Pakistanis are jihadis

Memoirs of a Maverick: The First 50 Years (1941-1991) By Mani Shankar Aiyar. (Image DC)
 Memoirs of a Maverick: The First 50 Years (1941-1991) By Mani Shankar Aiyar. (Image DC)

This is a book written by a brilliant mind with, in my perspective, an occasional flawed judgement, often due to affection clouding his perspective. He has on some occasions attracted adverse publicity for failing to think through in advance the consequences of a brilliant but politically incorrect quip. Does that make him a maverick? Not at all!

As chronicled on page 240, I was Mr Aiyar’s devoted undersecretary (UN) and chauffeur, since his wife Suneet used to use the car and he never mastered the public transport system! I used to drive him home and spend time with his delightful family. In return, he painstakingly mentored me on the intricacies of drafting UN documents. His incisive comments and flawless command of English gave a whole new dimension to a ‘diplomatic dispatch’.

Alas, he had this fatal fascination for politics, and he left the foreign service soon thereafter.

The above also debunks the popular concept of being a child of privilege. As he has honestly penned, he had a difficult childhood He may have gone to revered institutions, but money was always short.

The two fatal attractions in his life are revealed a little later in the book. His affair with Pakistan began as CG Karachi in 1978. It blossomed into a full blown romance. The author does not accept that the Pakistan of that era is gone forever.  Public diplomacy is his forte and his reminiscences about his time there underlines that at that time his carefully cultivated people to people contacts yielded excellent dividends. As he writes, one evening Suneet mused if Pakistan was really an enemy country? The question continues to haunt him till today.

The problem is that the author is highly personalised in dealing with our neighbour. On page 230 he muses: While we are sure-footed in Paraguay, we stumble in neighbouring Pakistan! ….Do we really believe all Pakistanis are jihadis…? Why stop the Samjhauta Express when we wish to retaliate for some act of terror that has nothing to do with 99.99 per cent of the Pakistani population?”

The real issue is the author’s refusal to accept that in post Zia Pakistan, India is dealing with a semi failed state with a formidable nuclear arsenal, with the ‘Deep State’s’ raison d’être being to destroy India. Could it be that the author’s Pakistan policy is frozen in time? Or it reflects the Pakistan of 1978 when he was a highly feted CG Karachi?

The second passion in the author’s life is politics where he still remains greatly attached to the Congress Party of the Nehrus/Gandhis. He underlines he was not really ‘chummy’ with RG in school since he was senior to him. The relationship evolved during his move to PMO and the ‘Golden Year’ of the ‘Congress Centenary’ session.  

His great affection for RG is evident even as  he tries to take as impartial a view he can on the obvious flaws of the Prime Minister ship, which enabled a Chanakya like V.P. Singh to become RG’s political nemesis. On page 292 he rues: “RG’s Prime Minister ship was rocked by controversies that wrecked his reputation: Shah Bano; Babri Masjid; Brass-tacks; the Indian Peace Keeping Force; Bofors. Public disenchantment grew and significant sections of the party turned against him”.

The author is of the view in page 300: “Had Rajiv Gandhi stuck to his basic values and fought the 1989 elections on his secular convictions… and not allowed himself to be led to fighting the elections on turf prepared by his opponents, he might have prevailed”.

The author feels that RG should have stuck to the ‘secularism plank’ of the Nehru/Gandhi Congress. That this thesis was not acceptable to senior Congress leaders becomes clear in page 335 when he is tasked by Narasimha Rao to respond to questions by constituents regarding “tushtikaran (appeasement) of the Muslim minority” by the Congress.

A sample of the questions actually explains the debacle of the Congress and the inexorable rise of the BJP! They included:

• Why should we not have a uniform civil code?

• What justification was there for negating the Shah Bano judgement by an Act of Parliament?

• What is the logic of persisting with Article 370?

• Why should we make such a hue and cry over secularism when no Muslim country practises it?

• Why do Muslims object to singing the national song ‘Vande Mataram’?

• Why do foreign missionaries proselytize in India?

• Why should we permit Christian missionary activity?

The sections relating to RG’s assassination are truly poignant as is the concluding paragraph on page 362: “…My life in politics rose in spurts to its highs and then spluttered out to the point where I find myself sidelined by Rajiv Gandhi’s heirs and marginalised even in the party”.

These are not the memoirs of a maverick but a brilliant ideologue caught in a time capsule. Evelyn Beatrice Hall in a biography of Voltaire in 1906 said: “I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

So it is with my review of the tragic chronicle of my review of Mani Shankar Aiyar’s ‘half-life’ in politics.

Bhaswati Mukherjee is a retired foreign service officer and writer, most recently of Bengal and Its Partition. She is also the president of the India Habitat Centre.

Memoirs of a Maverick: The First 50 Years (1941-1991)
By Mani Shankar Aiyar
pp. 362; Rs 899

Tags: book review, memoirs, mani shankar aiyar, politics, ideology, congress party, indian politics, personal perspective