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Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25, 2022 [Double issue]

From Harsh Childhood to Top Politicians | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 17 June 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy


Leaders, Politicians, Citizens: Fifty Figures Who Influenced India’s Politics;
by Rasheed Kidwai

Hachette India;
Pages: 348; Price: Rs 499

It is amazing to know that Narendra Modi is not the only politician in India who rose from humble beginnings to ride high in politics.

As a young man, N.T. Rama Rao struggled to make ends meet as he cycled long distances every day to supply milk to households, hotels and other business establishments. After his mess in Mumbai failed, he was back in Vijayawada and dabbled in tobacco, beedi and cigarette trade, and later worked as a court attendant for a monthly salary of Rs 64. His first role as a police officer in a 1949 movie earned him Rs 500. From thereon, NTR, as he was known, became a superstar in Telugu films before becoming the political king of Andhra Pradesh.

Congress leader Rajesh Pilot, whose real name was Rajeshwar Prasad, too had a brush with tough life in his younger days. After his soldier father died young, Pilot was brought up by his elder brother who sold milk in affluent localities in Delhi. Pilot himself began to sell milk to MPs in Delhi – before destiny made him join the Indian Air Force and eventually politics where he became a high-profile Lok Sabha member.
These nuggets are part of a fascinating book on 50 men and women who went on to influence Indian politics in different ways. Some cast long shadows that enveloped the entire country and who were heard even abroad with respect. A few remained largely unknown. With his ability to weave stories from modern Indian history, Kidwai has deftly combined all that he gathered in his long years as a reporter with research to come up with the gripping, to-the-point profiles.

The Congress produced two men who played immensely important roles in the growth of the country’s oldest party. One was Motilal Vora, a quintessential Congressman who was party treasurer for 18 long years – the longest among his party peers. But despite holding high offices, both in the Centre and in Madhya Pradesh, he was devoid of arrogance. He would always answer the landline phone himself and see off guests as a matter of routine. If any visitor left behind a half-consumed cup of tea, he would politely point out that each cup of tea cost eight rupees! As treasurer, Vora knew the most fiercely guarded secrets of the Grand Old Party – and the identity of every faceless donor.

The other Congressman who remained rooted to the earth despite wielding tremendous power and clout was Ahmed Patel, whose death was a major blow to the Congress. Patel was somewhat of an enigma. Self-effacing, he was also affable, attentive and had a relatively clean image. Kidwai feels that while the world thinks that it is the Gandhis who kept the Congress glued, party leaders acknowledged that it was Patel who really held it together. When he was asked to write his autobiography, he quipped: “These (secrets) will travel with me to the grave.”

It is shocking to know from Kidwai that the one man who was singularly responsible for widening the gap between Sonia Gandhi and then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was the former’s private secretary, Vincent George. It all happened because Rao denied him a Rajya Sabha ticket. For 10 long years until 2001 when he was finally sidelined, George had the distinction of having constant access to Sonia Gandhi. He used that privilege to derail Sonia’s ties with Rao.

Iconic actor Dilip Kumar, whose birth name was Mohammed Yusuf Khan, was the son of a fruit merchant and had no formal training in acting. But the Peshawar-born was so versatile that Satyajit Ray described him as “the ultimate method actor”. Acting apart, Dilip Kumar was deeply influenced by Jawaharlal Nehru and secular values. He often attended Nehru’s political rallies.

One man whose financial position went from bad to worse was the tenacious Abdul Jabbar, who led a 35-year crusade for justice after the Bhopal gas tragedy. His was a lifelong mission. After years of single-handed struggle for justice, Jabbar became penniless. Shockingly, even Muslims who doled away huge amounts annually as part of their zakat (charity) were not too generous with him. Jabbar was opposed to both Hindutva hardliners and Muslim hawks. He challenged and took on every government official he found apathetic to the plight of the gas victims. Mercifully, he was awarded a Padma Shri in 2020. He had died a year earlier.

There is plenty more in the book: Congress veteran Abdul Rahman Antulay was once invited by Atal Bihari Vajpayee to join the BJP but he did not and he regretted the decision during the end of his life; Rajiv Gandhi wanted Jyoti Basu to be the Prime Minister during the politically tumultuous times of 1990-91, years before the CPI-M forced Basu not to accept the post in different circumstances; Chandraswami predicted to Margaret Thatcher when she was in the opposition that she would become the Prime Minister of Britain for 9, 11 or 13 years (she ruled for 11 years); in 1963, a year before Nehru died, Indira Gandhi had toyed with the idea of leaving India and living in England where her sons were studying.

The otherwise comprehensive work lacks three biographical sketches which I think would have made it a fuller book: L.K. Advani, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. All three have played a critical role, in different degrees of course, in the evolution of Indian politics. Their absence is glaring since the book has come out only now. Since Kidwai knows Indian politics intimately, I believe he must have had his reasons to omit them.

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