The history of a country is but a manifestation of the actions and decisions of leaders, politicians and other public luminaries. Giving readers a glimpse of history by narrating the lives of personalities who shaped it is a good idea, for epochal events, momentous decisions and defining acts of history form an integral part of the narratives of these profiles.   

Through the book,  Leaders, Politicians, Citizens: 50 figures who Influenced India’s Politics, Rasheed Kidwai takes readers through the post-Independence years, through the lives of 50 leaders. The choice of the personalities is interesting. Not only do national leaders such as the Gandhis, Pranab Mukherjee, APJ Abdul Kalam and Atal Bihari Vajpayee find a place in the book, many regional satraps such as Sheikh Abdullah, Jayalalithaa, Balasaheb Thackeray and Jyoti Basu are also included, which takes the book beyond national politics into the alleys of regional politics.    

The book becomes more interesting through the inclusion of some colourful personalities who left an impression on India’s political landscape such as Phoolan Devi, Chandraswami, Dev Anand, Vinod Khanna and Dilip Kumar. The actions of these eccentric personalities will provide a nice side show for those not too interested in the machinations of career politicians.   

For instance, description of Chandraswami runs thus, “By the time he died on May 23, 2017, at the age of 69, Nemi Chand Jain (alias Chandraswami) had traversed the entire gamut of fame and notoriety. The much sought-after mystic, a modern-day Rasputin, represented the seamy side of spiritualism and often found himself on the wrong side of the law…But to those who came under his influence, he was a man who could work miracles.” 

Of course, with the political leaders through the decades, running in to thousands, it is not possible to profile all of them. Kidwai has for some strange reason, chosen only those leaders who are dead. The profiles are therefore in the nature of obituaries, running though the important events and achievements of these 50 personalities. 

The author has been very careful to remain as factual as possible, trying to avoid being judgmental in his narrations. In his own words was plagued by doubts such as, “What if the dead could speak or read? Would they be vexed, pleased or bemused by my accounts?”  But the readers, especially the younger ones, may have benefited if the author had given his opinion on the actions and events. 

Re-living historic moments 

That said, the descriptions of some of the epochal events of the post-Independence era will be of interest to millennials and Gen Z. The assassination of Indira Gandhi was one such event that heralded a sea-change in economic and foreign policies.   

There is a detailed account in the book of the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated. “As soon as she (Indira Gandhi) reached the wicket gate, Dhawan said, Gandhi had folded her hands in a ‘namaste’ for the guards. Dhawan said he saw Beant raise his pistol and shoot. She spun around and fell to the ground. Satwant then started firing his sten gun. She was not even standing when Satwant opened fire… There was no ambulance to take Indira Gandhi to the hospital, so Sonia put her in an Ambassador. Still wearing a gown, Sonia Gandhi cradled her mother-in-law’s head in her lap as the car raced the 3 km distance to AIIMS.” 

Many may be acquainted with the ‘Bandit Queen’, Phoolan Devi, through the movie. But the book gives a gripping narrative of the atrocities committed on her and the manner in which she transformed into a globe-trotting politician from dacoit.   

The Behmai massacre which was Phoolan Devi’s revenge for the atrocities committed towards her are described in the words of Luke Harding of  The Guardian. “Several months later, she returned to Behmai. Dressed this time in a khaki coat, blue jeans and wearing bright lipstick. A sten gun hung from her shoulder and in her hand, she carried a battery-powered megaphone. Devi called out all the villagers and asked them to hand over Sri Ram and Lala Ram…The two men could not be found. So Devi rounded up all the young men in the village…At a green embankment they were ordered to kneel. There was a burst of gun fire and 22 men lay dead.” 

Foibles of the leaders 

The author has said at the outset that he would like to go beyond quotes dished out by politicians and the conversations over  chai and biscuits to look at the stories of human ambition, emotions, insecurities and the motivation behind individual quests for longevity in public life. While the narratives are for most part factual, supported by book extracts and media reports, there are also some glimpses into the character of our leaders. 

While writing about India Gandhi, for instance, the book talks about how she was very particular about personal aesthetics. So much so that even if a single strand of hair was out of place, Dhawan would indicate it to her by placing his hand on his hair. 

The account of Chandraswami’s influence on political leaders is also quite revealing. Elizabeth Taylor believed that his healing touch had cured her breast cancer. Margaret Thatcher had met him in the summer of 1975 when she was the leader of opposition in the House of Commons and he had floored her with his visionary predictions.   

Balasaheb Thackeray’s control of the Manohar Joshi government is described through the passage, “Within days of the Sena-led Manohar Joshi government assuming charge, Thackeray decided to show who the real boss was – the ‘remote-control’ as he often described himself. A bash had been organized for a select few in Mumbai to celebrate the victory. When Thackeray walked in, he was dismayed to note that liquor was not being served. On being told that liquor was not supposed to flow in the presence of chief minister, Thackeray lost his cool and immediately ordered champagne. A sheepish Joshi had to move to a corner to avoid getting photographed amid champagne bubbles.” 

Check out the book on Amazon here

 About the book

Published by Hachette India

Price: Rs 424

Pages: 463