Pranab’s Book Row: Why ‘Liberal’ Congress Needs A Literary Adviser

From 1991 till December 2005, the erudite Natwar Singh was Sonia Gandhi’s informal but effective literary adviser.

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The latest row over the third edition of Pranab Mukherjee’s memoirs, My Presidential Years’ (Rupa Books) is a needless controversy bringing disrepute to the grand old party. The sibling rivalry turning into a Twitter war between Sharmishta and Abhijit Mukherjee was highly avoidable.

The Congress grapevine has it that some reckless leader[s] in Bengal Congress may have triggered the Vice President of Bengal Congress unit to go and publicly ask the publisher, Rupa Books, not to release The Presidential Years, till he went through it and vetted it. Abhijit may have been guided by a perceived adverse impact to his late father’s observations on the May 2021 Bengal polls. But in the process, he has caused acute embarrassment to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi.

Did Congress Ever Have A ‘Literary Advisor’?

The Congress, which often fancies itself as a liberal party, urgently needs a literary advisor. There are many such as Shashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid Manish Tiwari, Mani Shankar Aiyar and others who would happily advice the Congress leadership [read: Gandhis] on how to react to books, autobiographies, etc, to steer clear of controversies.

From 1991 till losing his ministry in December 2005, the erudite Natwar Singh was Sonia Gandhi’s informal but effective literary adviser.

Other Political Feuds Over Books

The Sharmishta-Abhijit slugfest is not a stand alone stance of legal heirs of a prominent politician fighting over book contents in full public glare. Soon after Arjun Singh’s death in March 2011, there was a bitter feud among the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister and ex-union minister’s children over the rights to the late leader’s autobiography, which was expected to be politically explosive. Daughter Veena, who was reportedly not on talking terms with her two brothers for years, had insisted she had equal claim over the book as Abhimanyu and Ajay Singh.

The key issue was reportedly related to a chapter in Arjun’s memoirs, A Grain of Sand in the Hourglass of Time (Hay House] dealing with UPA II.

When the book finally came out in 2012, there was not a line of direct criticism of Indira, Rajiv, Sanjay or Sonia Gandhi. Instead, author Arjun Singh hit back from beyond the grave at his old party rival Narasimha Rao in the context of the Babri Masjid’s demolition and former Union Carbide Chief Warren Anderson’s escape from India after the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy.

In the book, Arjun had accused Rao, a former prime minister who died in 2004, of questioning the right of the Nehru-Gandhi family to always head the Congress, while buttressing his own image as a Nehru-Gandhi loyalist.


Have Other Books Irked The Congress In The Past? Yes

That books have been a bother for the Congress was evident in 1988 too. Nearly 44 months in office, the Rajiv Gandhi government was enjoying a brute majority in parliament when it banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses nine days after it was published in the UK, even ahead of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on grounds of “maintenance of the security of India” and “the maintenance of public order”. The ban was executed by the customs department under the Indian Customs Act which falls under the finance ministry. P Chidambaram was a minister in charge of internal security then.

When the ban was imposed, Rushdie had written a letter to Rajiv that was published in The New York Times. Among other things, Rushdie had found it strange that “it is the finance ministry that gets to decide what Indian readers may or may not read.”Rushdie had also gone ahead to say that the Rajiv regime had “much to be ashamed about.”

While Rajiv had chosen to ignore Rushdie’s letter, Congressman and scholar Rafiq Zakaria had responded to Rushdie pointing out that a book published outside India could be barred from being imported to India under Section 11 of the Customs Act of 1962, which allows the central government to prohibit imports.

Zakaria, himself a man of letters, had given point-by-point rebuttal to Rushdie and told him, “We, in India, are ever so worried about communal violence, which erupts on the slightest pretext – we cannot allow a writer, whatever be his motive, to provoke it.”

Claiming himself as someone who had read The Satanic Verses, Zakaria had confronted Rushdie for ‘strongly denying’ that his book was not ‘a direct attack on Islam’. Zakaria had also quoted JP Dixit, Nissim Ezekiel, Jean Kalgutkar, Vrinda Nabar, Vaskar Nandy, V Raman and Ashim Roy – who had questioned Rushdie’s description of some revered figures of Islam.


The Essential Congress Reading List Or What The Congress Wouldn’t Want Us To Read

Here is a quick recap of some of the books that caused discomfiture to the Congress. It is a random selection merely to drive a point.

  • 1. Reminiscences Of The Nehru Age: Author MO Mathai was Special Assistant to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. What had hurt the Congress was an outlandish claim of the author to be Indira Gandhi's lover. How did Congress respond? The Congress sought ban on book
  • 2. The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi: Author Katherine Frank claimed that Indira's late son Sanjay had "murdered" several of his enemies. Sonia asked Kapil Sibal and K. Natwar Singh to examine the book. Both advised her not to seek ban. Maneka and her son Feroze Varun subsequently won an out of court defamation suit.
  • 3. Red Sari: Authored by Javior Moro Spanish, the nephew of Dominique Lapierre, the ‘fictional’ biography had reportedly upset Sonia and the Congress. It had apparently manufactured quotes and dramatised the entire life of Sonia, Rajiv and their children. The book, available in Spanish, was not published in India due to the Congress's threat to drag Indian publishers to courts. The book is now available worldwide.
  • 4. The Accidental Prime Minister: Author Dr Sanjaya Baru, former media advisor to prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh, claimed there that PM Manmohan Singh surrendered authority to the Congress president and that Sonia had the final say on major policy decisions. The Congress attributed motives, and rejected every claim made by Baru.
  • 5. One Life Is Not Enough: Author Natwar Singh, former foreign secretary, union minister, former Sonia Gandhi loyalist, said in his book, that “it was not her [Sonia Gandhi’s] inner soul” but Rahul Gandhi who asked her to turn down the post of Prime Minister in the general elections of 2004. Rahul feared that his mother's fate would end up like that of his father and grandmother. The Congress said Natwar's book was ‘politically motivated’.

(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Congress   Pranab Mukherjee   Rahul Gandhi 

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