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If politics is the war of ideologies, literature is the battleground of ideas. Both the BJP and the Congress are focused on the medium over the message; for the former it is the excessive use of social media, and for the latter, intellectual acrobatics on the pages of a compendium of the virtues and victories of the Congress doctrine. For the past few months, GOP’s intellectually inclined leaders are flaunting their literary skills involving romance, the arts, the environment and lately politics. While BJP leaders are content with blogs, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts, their counterparts are being feted by content-hungry publishers as sought-after wordsmiths willing to write political potboilers that are partly rants and partly taunts. Going by the numerous book releases nowadays, more tomes have been hawked as political literature in the past four years of the BJP regime than in previous decades.
The pages of history are full of former prime ministers, presidents and senior civil servants describing their glory days of youth and power. Their books do not tar or tame their opponents. But recent works hold a subjective view of contemporary politics and economics; their authors coming from all conceivable shades of the political spectrum. Since the Congress cannot best the ruling party in resources and media access, its messengers have become social influencers. Senior former ministers have zeroed in on politically potent subjects like Hindutva, UPA scandals, Kashmir, demonetization, GST and the cult and culture of Modinomics and politics as vade mecum topics.
Their strategy is to produce political literature for intellectual aggrandizement to trivialize hostile one-liners on TV channels. After losing ministerial perks and berths, P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Manish Tewari, Jairam Ramesh, Saifuddin Soz, Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi have embarked on a voyage of self-rediscovery to engage the literati and the chatterati. Their mission is to launder the UPA’s tainted image through their interpretations of the catastrophes that led to its downfall. These publications are seen as part of a subtle yet high-voltage campaign choreographed to defend the Congress, which suffered its most humiliating defeat since Independence in 2014. Camouflaged as literary and intellectual exercises, their real war cry is ‘Defend the UPA and Offend the NDA.’
Interestingly, all these books are not written on the same subject or at the same time. There are no overt signs of a coordinated effort to declare a literary war against the Sangh Parivar. But the subjects and the titles of each magnum opus reflect the hidden agenda of their begetters, whose objective is to idolize and eulogize the work and wisdom of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi and to demolish and minimize the overarching Modi-Hindutva narrative.
To meet the hard Hindutva push of the BJP and its leaders to consolidate their hold over their core constituency and bring more religious middle and lower-class Hindus into the fold, former minister and prominent author Shashi Tharoor responded with the bestseller Why I am a Hindu. Using clever turns of phrase and innovative interpretations, he interrogates the BJP band of Hinduism while portraying himself as a better Hindu. It’s a smart strategy; by asserting that India’s Hindu majority keeps the country secular and democratic, he is endorsing the decade-long claim of RSS and BJP leaders, but with a subversive undertone that sounds more plausibly inclusive.
In the same vein last week, former HRD and Telecommunications minister Kapil Sibal launched a frontal attack on both, the Modi government’s policies and also on his definition of vindictive and false accusations against the UPA government. Shades of Truth was released with much fanfare, discussed on TV and in newsprint, and buzzed in Lutyen’s Delhi chatterhouses. Its thesis is the Congress built modern India through the Green Revolution, industrial revolution and a strong and decisive leadership that inspired the IT revolution. Alongside this boastful narrative, he takes on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team for undermining the Congress’s role in nation-building.
As part of this literary orchestra, Speaking Truth to Power by Chidambaram throws down a gauntlet to the government; his collection of newspaper articles aims to excoriate the NDA’s economic and fiscal policies by demonising demonetization and GST as flawed misadventures. Against the BJP’s claims that India’s economic performance has beaten all records, Chidambaram predicates it is just a rainbow of illusions.
The most aggressive defence of UPA scandals like 2G appears in former law minister Salman Khurshid’s Spectrum Politics: Unveiling the Defence. Tracing the history of India’s telecoms policy, he argues his party only followed the policy and guidelines established by the BJP when it was in power from 1998 to 2004. Salman has visualized the 2G scam not as political corruption but as a corporate battle over scuttling of optimum and judicious allocation of spectrum to various players.
Disapproving of the excessive and favourable coverage of the Modi government, former Congress I&B minister Manish Tewari has embarked on an autobiographic tirade against the media’s conduct during the UPA’s rule. His target is the influence of corporate power on the declining quality of reportage. Avoiding naming and shaming, he attempts to prove that the current media discourse is dictated by bottom lines and not bylines. Tewari suggests the highly visible media space the ruling party gets is driven by commercial compulsions, not actual performance.
The above-mentioned author-leaders have taken note of the BJP’s strategy of decimating Congress icons Nehru and Indira Gandhi. As top saffron leaders attack the Nehru/Gandhi Family on a daily basis, Jairam Ramesh, the UPA’s former environment minister, has taken it upon himself to project Indira Gandhi not only as a powerful political leader but also as an eco-warrior through the pages of Green Signals: Ecology, Growth and Democracy in India; a leader who struck the right balance between ecology and economy.
While Congress leaders have chosen a variety of subjects to kick-start a political and economic debate, equally powerful saffron voices are absent. Most BJP leaders are either intellectually defensive on social media and at captive forums or confine themselves to repetitive discussions on Deen Dayal Upadhyay, RSS, Pakistan and Kashmir. Modi is their only medium and message. They must realize that the Congress has been able to sustain the Nehru hagiography by literary means. If there is no alternative to Modi, there is also no substitute for incandescent literary description and interpretation of rule and rulers. The time has come for the Hindutva leadership to catch up with the Congress to create alternative political literature. Only then will a new vocabulary emerge to read between the lines of history’s perorations.