Book: Durbar – by Tavleen Singh

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If one must narrow down to a timeframe in post independent India which witnessed a dramatic political transformation, it is undoubtedly the decade of 1970s & 80s, due to the rise of non-Congress parties, Total revolution, Emergency, ouster of Indira Gandhi, infighting within Janata Party, followed by return of Indira Gandhi, Punjab unrest, assassination of Indira Gandhi, the ascent of Rajiv Gandhi as Mr Clean, self destruction due to Bofors scam and ultimately his assassination.

It is precisely this timeframe which is narrated in this book with much fervor in the form of a first-person account which keeps the reader hooked till the end. Starting her career as a journalist in Delhi in 1975 when the Emergency was declared, Tavleen Singh begins with a ringside view of the turbulent years when media was gagged & fundamental rights were suspended during Emergency and the subsequent transformation of Democracy into “Durbar” rule under Gandhi family.
The author goes into a detailed account of the horrendous policies & events during emergency, which makes for an insightful read, since most of these details were being censored and hence were never available in public domain. For example, following is an excerpt in which she recollects how the notorious sterilization drives by Sanjay Gandhi had triggered riots.
Although the book is basically a decent chronology of events during the 1970s & 80s, what really makes it interesting & different from other books is the first-person account & informal presentation of information which evokes further interest. The author recollects some really interesting anecdotes from her extensive coverage of the 1977 election which had very strong anti-Congress sentiment. Especially the chapters related to the rise of non-Congress alternatives and alignment of contradictory forces towards a common cause might take the reader by surprise. For example, in a bid to defeat Indira Gandhi in 1977 elections, Muslim organizations had joined hands with RSS!!
This single page excerpt detailing a rally from 1977 election campaign depicts how Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee had captured the imagination of the masses as a great orator and used the anti-Congress sentiments to his party’s advantage.
During the course of narration of the emergency & its aftermath, the author manages to introduce Sonia Gandhi’s story seamlessly, but is mostly critical of her throughout the book with constant references to her “foreign origin” & her disdain towards politics.
sonia_children_politicsThe author does not spare Rajiv Gandhi either, and recollects anecdotes, satires & jibes which are funny but critical of the former PM. One such satire is the “Pani ki samasya” which depicts Rajiv Gandhi’s naivety, as perceived by the people.

The book concludes with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and in an overtly critical tone, criticizes Sonia Gandhi’s Durbar style of politics and raises pertinent questions about dynasty politics, and the role of media & opposition.

Who should read the book? I think every Indian must read this book because it fills the void in our knowledge about Indian history related to the events of the dramatic decade of 1970s which unfortunately have been censored & hidden for a long time. Also, the informal style of narration would reverberate even with readers who are not interested in political content but might be curious to find out how events under the Gandhi family rule disrupted the nation & turned Indian Democracy into Mughal Durbar.

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