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Book Review: Vir Sanghvi's 'Mandate' Gets My Vote

12/05/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Arvind Passey

Discussing politics fills us with enthusiasm. We hear discourses on it in buses, on kerbsides, in shops and offices, in homes, on the television, on radio, in colleges, and, I sometimes suspect, even in the whispered conversations of lovers in parks. But there is another truth that must accompany this first one, and that is about the disordered way we go about making conclusions and summaries about politics. As a result we go about living our excitedly politics-imbued lives without even realising that our passion often floats far from facts.

Therefore, when I first held Mandate: Will of the People by Vir Sanghvi in my hands, I muttered, "Can political truth really fit into this slim volume?" Moreover, a foreword written by Amish Tripathi, a writer of bestselling thrillers that merge fantasy and mythology, seemed odd -- my first thought was, "Has Vir resorted to marketing gimmickry or will the book stand on its own feet?" However, just a few pages later I realised that even politics is a fast-paced thriller that has a fair share of fantasy and mythology.

"[T]he book effectively lifts the haze off personalities as well as events, and works as a great primer for anyone who wishes for some insight into the history of political juggling in India."

As I read through the chapters I could feel cobwebs of misconstrued political facts dropping off the walls of my memory. I realised that Indira Gandhi wasn't just "some nasty woman who had let the lights go out on the world's largest democracy," and that Manmohan Singh had "stopped functioning as prime minister and nobody in the government, not his cabinet and not his bureaucrats took him seriously. Everyone simply did what they wanted." What I'm saying is that the book effectively lifts the haze off personalities as well as events, and works as a great primer for anyone who wishes for some insight into the history of political juggling in India.

I remember once Specky, my wife, while talking about her D.Phil guide at the University of York, said, "I attended a few PG classes in mathematics in my first year as a doctoral student and Dr Sheil-Small made every big and small concept absolutely clear without a single pause of ambiguity."

As I read the book it became clear to me that Vir Sanghvi can be to a great many Indians what Sheil-Small was to my wife. Yes, the book is an absolute must for anyone who wants a reasonable introduction to Indian politics. The truth is that if we have generations of Indians with "no real understanding of the political history of the last three decades" it could be partly because of misinformation and also because "there was so little that was available to them in the form of popular history".

Our political thoughts and summaries are like cosy cartels lobbying strongly to keep us tilted to one side and so we happily remain in a perpetually fuzzy state. This book effectively breaks up these cosy cartels.

"There are clarifications of historical events on which many of us (including myself) have the most tenuous of grasps."

There are clarifications of historical events on which many of us (including myself) have the most tenuous of grasps. Cases in point are the notorious Bofors issue, or the truth behind the Ram Janmabhumi issue, or the facts behind Operation Black Thunder, or the background of the inflamed Mandal issue. Despite the brevity of information, each one of these issues is explained clearly. I can imagine many readers exclaim: "Aha! Now I'm clear about what really happened... and how."

In addition, the book unpeels the layers of dynastic politics, gives us enough reasons to believe that Narasimha Rao was indeed a PM who made a spectacle of himself, and also tells us of the little known secrets of the way Zail Singh literally silenced Rajiv Gandhi. At every step of mind-boggling political changes were the mandates of people closely woven... some with a fair knowledge of the reality and others because of the real fiction that they chose to opt for. The book, according to Tripathi, "gives one a sweeping vision of the mandates that the Indian people have blessed their politicians with over a fifty-year period." Like him, I too believe that "the impact of these mandates is felt even today." Therefore, it is essential to read and know all about these past mandates... so our future ones don't go awry.

Another reason why I loved the way this political history is written is because Vir Sanghvi is no slave to political correctness. For instance, he rubbishes his own previously written assessment of Narasimha Rao as being "a small-time manipulator who masquerades as a statesman" and admits he was wrong because the man "was not a small-time manipulator. He was a very big-time manipulator."

To all those who intend to initiate their reading of political history with the tomes as written by the likes of Meghnad Desai or Ramachandra Guha: hold your horses. You must first charge their thirst with this slim volume. The book effectively transforms the multitudinous ingredients of Indian polity into a cohesive dish that satisfies and pleases.

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A version of this review was first published on 'The Real Fiction'

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