Book Review: The Politician by Devesh Verma

Normally I read 3-4 books together, moving from one to another, but here was a book which once I picked up, I could not let go. It is simply unputdownable.

While it is classified as a work of fiction, as the by line says – ‘A novel’, it is only that, a work of fiction? As a novel what genre do we fit it in – historical novel, sociological novel, political novel or a novel dealing with gender and patriarchy? Frankly, it is all these and much more. In fact, it has a timeless quality to it, for while it does convey the ‘story’ of India from its early days since independence to the seventies, the issues/challenges/ideological debates that the novel grapples with are as much true today as they were in those days.

Set in the state of Uttar Pradesh, more specifically in the Awadh region of UP, the main protagonist of the novel is Ram Mohan, a backward caste Kurmi who uses the opportunity (how so ever limited and constrained) that the newly independent India offers to him to acquire education and rise in the social and political hierarchy. An eternal optimist, a character that makes him blind to problems and the pitfalls, (I found it totally understandable this optimism, it is the only defense mechanism that the non-dominant caste groups possessed to chip at the fetters, that the weighty caste hierarchy imposed on them – thus becoming a habit for many), not only is he extremely driven but also uses the power of cunning and guile (along with ‘lathi‘) in pursuit of his ends. There is a part of him though which is an idealist, and rebels at the idea of using primordial identity like caste in election, but gives in, when given a lesson in ‘realpolitik’ by his friend and associate Tiwary ji. Ram Mohan succeeds, though only partially, in his political endeavors (till the 70s when the novel ends, but I wait eagerly for the sequel, the real rise of OBC politics was a factor of late 80’s! So may be….)

The book is part fiction and mostly reality. Anyone having even a limited historical understanding of Indian polity since Independence can surely relate/understand to the novel. It mirrors the events and the trajectory of Indian politics since independence. Devesh Sir keeps it simple and straight. While some protagonists are real – Nehru, Gandhi, Sampoornanand, Kamlapati Tripathi, Indira Gandhi etc, others have their name changed, but you can easily understand who they are modelled after – so Chaudhary Baran Singh is actually Chaudhary Charan Singh, his party the Bhartiya Kranti Dal is India Revolutionary Party, the Jana Sangh is the People’s Union etc. It is historical reality disguised as fiction; history from the eye of the subaltern. There is nothing fictional about the support of the social coalition that the Congress party enjoys, neither the gradual rise and organisation of the intermediate castes against the Congress and into the fold of the Lohiaite socialists represented by leaders like Chaudhary Charan Singh (and Karpoori Thakur in Bihar). The fun part is that the book not only deals with high politics but also the games that is played at the level of constituency, the intrigues, back stabbing and compromises that political actors indulge in. It also shows a mirror to how Indian political system, though a parliamentary democracy, had since the beginning, has had a strong foundation of presidential style personality cult built into it.

The book also reflects the complexity of the Indian society of those times. The idealism and unity that characterised the national movement, the belief that all challenges and problems that India faced, would somehow evaporate had started dissipating and the ugly reality of caste and community consciousness had stated rearing its head. The novel in its very first chapter has the leader of the Kurmi community pleading for unity amongst the Kurmis, so that they acquire a share in the political pie. However, there are others even amongst the upper castes, like Tiwari ji, who challenge caste exclusiveness, and not only empathise but actively work for people of other castes, much to the chagrin of their fellow caste-men. The upper castes find the challenge from the subalterns disconcerting, the novel brings out an interesting secret note that Baran Singh shows to Ram Mohan, wherein the progressive and socialist CM, Sampoorananand argues that radical redistributive politics of the Congress is not helping the party for while it alienates their traditional supporters, it does not guarantee that those benefitting from these policies will actually support the Congress.

The novel also highlights the deep patriarchy that infused the Indian society – Ram Mohan being a torch bearer of it – but also the challenge that women were subjecting this patriarchy to. Actually, I found the women characters in the novel most fascinating, mostly those whom the elites would (even today) classify as the helpless (bechari).  Reflect and you understand how strong these women are, how they keep their struggle going and the robust common sense that they possess. They choose their battles wisely, stand up where they need to, and make compromises where they have to. So while an idealist may find women like Sughhari, Gayatri or a Malti morally compromised, but I found them possessing a will of steel. Ram Mohan’s wife and daughters might appear weak allowing him to have his way, but never without a fight, a fight which sometimes becomes physical leading to them being beaten black and blue. But fight and resist they do!

Without doubt, this has been one of the best works I have read of late. What scale, what canvas and what historical and political understanding Devesh Verma Sir displays. Kudos Sir, and eagerly waiting for the sequel. As it is, I could not get enough of the character Deena (the son of Ram Mohan) in this novel – the super sensitive, book loving, money stealing, insecure but happy Deena…!! Waiting for more of him….

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