Most book reviews often start or conclude by stating what they think is absent or lacking in the book. Here the author, a journalist of long standing, whose first book – a biography of former prime minister H.D. Deve Gowda – was widely appreciated for shedding first light on several facets of this largely little-written about Indian premier, starts his new book by stating what it is not.
The book’s first sentence in the ‘Introduction’ for Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi could not have been straighter: “This book is not a biography”. Over the next few paragraphs, Sugata Srinivasaraju states that the purpose of the book is not to assess Rahul Gandhi’s failures and successes and juxtapose them in tabular form. He also does not attempt to “seek to answer questions of (Gandhi’s) suitability or unsuitability for a public role.” The book is also not “an excavation” of the subject’s personal life. Finally, the author states that this book is not a “myth-busting or myth-making exercise nor is it an inquisition.” The downside of this approach is that there is little new information about Gandhi and his life.
What then is this book in the author’s words and does the book succeed in achieving its purpose? The latter part of the question shall be taken up later, but let us first list out what the author has attempted to do. To begin with, Srinivasaraju is conscious that previous efforts at writings on his subject, “either run down” Gandhi or “simply celebrate him.”
In fact, most Indian biographies or books in the genre that the author chose tended to be hagiographies or sympathetic accounts. There are few works that appreciate the subject’s positives and critically view only the negatives. I was aware of what Srinivasaraju terms the “binary pitfall” while working more than a decade ago on the biography of the country’s most polarising leader to date: Narendra Modi.
Gandhi certainly is the second most popular leader in India today and probably the second most polarising too – but for reasons markedly different from the Indian premier. Being aware of the need to walk on the path of neutrality, the author successfully creates a space for himself between the two pathways.
The book is true to the stated objective – a “pursuit of political insight”, and an analysis of different ‘verticals’ on the basis of which Gandhi’s life and his political career are scrutinised by the author. He also examines various circumstances in Gandhi’s life and how he navigated through these channels. The book provides detailed accounts of the subject’s thoughts and views on important issues and developments. In doing so, the author painstakingly researches and cites available sources – interviews, speeches, commentaries and other published material that is available in the public domain.
Because of this approach, information and opinions that lie scattered get collated in a single text with the author’s perspective. On the personal side of Gandhi’s life, Srinivasaraju is sensitive to the fact that his subject’s life was tragically disrupted by the violent deaths of the two people to whom he was extremely close – grandmother Indira and father Rajiv. As a result, his “has been a life like no other in Indian politics.”
Srinivasaraju does not stick to mere narration – for everyone knows that Gandhi was hurtled into a pit filled to the brim with grief when still in his teens. There is a poignant narrative section of the young lad discovering that the two policemen, who taught him how to play badminton, were the ones who assassinated his grandmother. The author goes beyond this and jumps to the awkward silence for which even the interviewer, historian Shruti Kapila appeared somewhat repentant for having asked a question about how he processed the violence in his life, during his 2022 interaction in Cambridge. The author is of the view that even a few decades later, Gandhi was “still struggling to negotiate his grief and the labyrinthine emotional world.”
Gandhi’s anguish, says the book, as a result of the tragedy that shook his core in 1984 and again seven years later in May 1991 when a suicide bomber sneaked close enough to blow his father, Rajiv Gandhi, into smithereens, has always remained personal. He never embarked on avenging it either personally or by calling upon people to do so. In contrast, revenge is an integral part of Hindu rightwing politics – from the time of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination till date. Nathuram Godse viewed his act as a form of reprisal or retaliatory act for the values that Gandhi expounded and for the politics he pursued. Even today, hardly a day goes by without someone from the Sangh parivar making a call to seek revenge, for what ‘is being done’ in some part of India, or for what happened in history.
For a moment, it is worth a thought – what kind of a man would Rahul Gandhi have been if he too was driven by feeling of revenge or if he was as ruthless as, say Modi? Because negotiating grief is an integral part of the public life of the surviving three Gandhis in the Congress. The author digs out old forgotten shreds of emotional exchanges. Particular poignant are details of Priyanka’s meeting with Nalini Sriharan and Sonia Gandhi’s letters to her husband’s assassin besides those to V. Mohini Giri, then the president of the National Commission for Women.
Srinivasaraju does not go beyond the standard “it was said” regarding Sonia Gandhi’s decision not to become the prime minister was actually her children’s decision. No bones about that, because some matters are too personal and increasingly not being put on record by leaders at any place. For instance, what details beyond what is available in the public domain would historians and analysts of the future find on Modi? Would they ever be able to fathom what thoughts or considerations went through Modi’s mind before he went on air to announce demonetisation in November 2016?
Likewise, till the time any of the three Gandhis write their own memoirs of those days, the ‘true’ story will never be known. But if what Srinivasaraju writes is actually correct, can one presume that neither Rahul nor Priyanka would ever become the premier even if opportunity knocks on their doors? If this answer is in the affirmative, it would considerably alter equations in the opposition space either before 2024 or till the time Modi, or any other BJP leader, is in office. Rahul Gandhi’s view of political power is important because at another place, the author points out that he said at one point that “power never interested him” and that a “part of it also perhaps meant that he did not really understand power.”
The book analyses Gandhi from four different facets – the privilege into which he was born and from which he could never escape, especially after the two assassinations that punctuated his life before he matured as an independently thinking adult; the ideological ‘rigidity’ which many – including this reviewer – would term, ‘steadfastness’, after years of dithering on taking a stand on resolute secularism; Gandhi’s idealism and his constant search for political utopia; and finally, what Srinivasaraju terms the ‘conservative project’. While the first three facets are self-explanatory, the fourth is somewhat muddled.
Gandhi is now attempting to reclaim and restore the vocabulary of the lost liberal era, says Srinivsaraju. Gandhi is presenting the past as perfect, whereas it was not always unwavering, especially from the late 1960s. The hazard of writing about someone who is evolving by the day and when the political narrative is swiftly changing is that several suppositions, observations and conclusions would change with the evolution of the political discourse. For instance, would, between now and the next elections, Gandhi continue to speak about V.D. Savarkar the way he did during the Bharat Jodo Yatra? If he does not – as it is likely after the words of caution following his last tirade – would Gandhi still be considered ideologically firm?
It is not that Srinivasaraju is not sympathetic towards Gandhi, especially when there is need. For instance, while writing on the hostilities he has faced, the book notes that “to criticize (Rahul Gandhi) became a parasitic industry that the BJP heavily invested in.” But there are errors and naïveté that the author points to. Top of the list of immature actions is undoubtedly the tearing of the ordinance which the UPA government promulgated to circumvent the Supreme Court’s order on disqualifying convicted legislators. In the author’s mind, this is little but “sheer impulsive behaviour and indiscretion.” Ironically, it came back to haunt him in 2023 – if the ordinance had become law, he would not have been disqualified.
Srinivasaraju is scathing for the showcasing of Gandhi’s status “at the top of the Hindu caste heap”. The author argues that instead of this, Gandhi and his team should have presented him as “an egalitarian ideal”. With Modi once again trying to emerge as the sole protector of Hindu prestige, especially after Sanatan Dharma became the Sangh Parivar’s political tool, Gandhi and other INDIA constituents shall be tempted to go back in time. Already there are signs of not entering into a contest with the BJP in its territory and point out that not all Hindus are Sanatanis. Although written when few could have ever imagined the way this controversy erupted and how the BJP will try to enlist the issue, the Congress and other leaders could do well to deliberate on a suggestion in the book:
“The strategy is not about relentlessly speaking about being a cultural Hindu in an academic language but acting it out in plebeian ways.”
That’s how Modi and others in the Sangh parivar have succeeded. This book may not arm the readers with more ‘information’ about Gandhi, but will surely arm them with new ways to comprehend the enigma of a public figure who continues to baffle most – within his party and outside. Whatever else it may or may not do, Srinivasaraju with aplomb establishes that his subject certainly is no ‘Pappu’.