Indian politicians and the art of the tell-all memoir

April 18, 2011

Along with the likes of Shakespeare, Britain has a longstanding literary tradition of a different kind — the explosive political biography, memoir or diary.

An employee poses with the political memoirs of Britain's former Prime Minister Tony Blair, "A Journey", in a bookshop in London September 1, 2010. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor/FilesBritons can gorge on countless books of their lawmakers who wash their dirty linen — and other people’s linen — in public. The diaries of Alan Clark in the 1980s gave readers a glimpse of the tears and infighting in Margaret Thatcher’s government as well as his own amorous conquests.

The diaries of Alastair Campbell, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s press man, were a sensation, and were followed by the memoirs of Blair himself where he described his relationship with Chancellor Gordon Brown as like being “a couple who loved each other, arguing over whose career should come first”, then calling Brown a “strange guy” with zero emotional intelligence.

But while British parliamentarians willingly divulge what they had for breakfast, in India, the world’s biggest democracy, the opposite is true. Tidbits of news might make for good gossip in the corridors of power in New Delhi, but they rarely get a public airing.

A sizeable chunk of Indian public opinion also says it’s not anyone’s business what their politicians really think or what they get up to in their personal lives. Debate about prominent figures in public life is rare. Witness the furore after the publication of a biography which suggested Mahatma Gandhi was bisexual, which sparked moves to make insulting Gandhi a jailable offence.

Last year, the Congress party came down like a ton of bricks on a Spanish novel “El Sari Rojo” (The Red Sari), purporting to dramatise the “tale of the Nehru-Gandhi family told through the story of Sonia Gandhi”.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) and chief of India's ruling Congress party Sonia Gandhi attend a news conference in New Delhi May 16, 2009. REUTERS/B Mathur/FilesWhat a time it would be for Indian politicians to follow the British example. The country is in the grip of what is probably the biggest corruption scandal India has ever seen, which may have drained up to $39 billion from the public exchequer and which has battered Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government. Imagine a tell-all memoir by Singh — who unlike his European and American counterparts almost never gives interviews.

What does he make of a former minister in his own government being put on trial under the glare of India’s ferocious media, just two years after the Congress party’s triumph at the ballot box? What does he think of a WikiLeaks report, recently leaked and denied all round, that the trust vote on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal on which he staked his leadership involved bribes worth millions of dollars?

Where are the diaries of Sonia Gandhi, who is probably India’s most powerful behind-the-scenes politician but about whom very little is written? With around a quarter of sitting MPs reportedly facing criminal charges including for rape, theft and murder, it is hard to imagine the books as dull plods.


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Forget Singh and Sonia Gandhi, I’ll bet Shashi Tharoor will have more interesting stuff to report. Cricket, glamour and politics — it can’t get better than this.

Posted by ToeKnee | Report as abusive

Some of the Indian politicians have led really colourful life but carefully skirted those potentially exposive episodes while penning their autobiography/memoir. No wonder the end result is often a yawn-inducing boring account no one really cares about. A strange pretension on the leaders’ part despite an already abysmal public perception of their character and integrity.

Posted by amlan | Report as abusive

Narsimha Rao has his memoirs, so too does IK Gujral. The late Arjun Singh has penned his political life story. None of them really became best sellers in India or anywhere. Indian tastes differ I presume.

Posted by DaraIndia | Report as abusive

The reason why Indian politicians never come clean is because they never retire or fade away. They are always looking for newer pastures, and if timely or untimely death removes them from the scene, their progeny steps in. Writing a tell-all would not only be political would be a crime against the future generations too…and we all know what Thomas Jefferson said about binding the coming generations in chains…

Posted by VipulTripathi | Report as abusive

The common perception is that Indian politicians are ugly, lying scoundrels. So when they finally get pushed out of public life, we say “good riddance”. No one wants to have anything to do with their lives afterwards so their self boasting bundles of lies don’t sell.

Posted by Windturner | Report as abusive