Byline By M.J. Akbar : A Prattler’s Rattle
Deep into Dr Ashok Mitra’s new book, A Prattler’s Tale: Bengal, Marxism and Governance (Samya, Rs 595), I began to feel a growing sense of irritation. Here was this virtually ceaseless, seamless sequence of the most wonderful political anecdotes I had read in years, and so many of them lost the last-mile edge because the author had refused to name names, although the descriptions took you near enough the identity. Dr Mitra’s career is packed with “former” designations — chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission and Chief Economic Adviser to government of India when Mrs Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister (she called him Ashok), finance minister to Jyoti Basu after the Left Front triumph in Bengal in 1977 — and his memoirs are a treasure house of incident, perception, analysis, and sheer good fun, replete with the kind of story that is a highlight of the epicurean adda, or gossip, sessions that were and are a preferred privilege of the Kolkata Bengali elite. This book will be exploited by the intelligent historian and should be enjoyed by anyone remotely interested in public affairs. Dr Mitra has a justified reputation for fearless honesty. So why had he hidden so many names?
And then, ouch! I came across a comment about me that was sharp to the point of being merciless. Relief followed: Ashokda, which is how I have called him for well over two decades, did not mention my name. I went down on a metaphorical knee to offer thanks to God, in whom Dr Mitra does not believe, and the author, in whom Dr Mitra does. Was the comment accurate? Yes. It was absolutely correct and I fully deserved the toxic barb. Dr Ashok Mitra is honest, but he is not ruthlessly honest. Phew.Mine was a case of trivia, but the absence of names in one story was of serious import. Dr Mitra has a startling revelation about the surprise appointment of Dr Manmohan Singh as P.V. Narasimha Rao’s finance minister in 1991. This is his narrative: Foreign exchange reserves had shrunk to a point where they could cover only a fortnight’s imports. India was “fast approaching bankruptcy”. The US administration, in coordination with the IMF and World Bank, sent a “categorical message” to Delhi through “secret talks” that began as soon as the Lok Sabha results were known: obey and save yourselves, or object and go hang. Delhi agreed to obey. But wary of similar assurances that had been belied in Latin america, Washington sought an implicit guarantee. It was decided that “the IMF and the World Bank would nominate the finance minister of the country after consultations with the US authorities”. It is an astonishing assertion: in the words of the author, “the prerogative of naming the new finance minister was also transferred to Washington”. This is followed by a second bombshell.
“The first person whose name was proposed by Washington DC, thought things over and declined the invitation to be the finance minister.” Who was this person? We are not told. This is a serious gap in information, because the credibility of such a damaging revelation dwells at least partly on the name of this first offer-and-decline. We all know who the second choice was; today he is Prime Minister of India. Dr Mitra describes this as an “ignominious surrender” and asserts the “high noon of that state of affairs continues”.
Dr Mitra has seen power in Delhi and Kolkata; he has no political ambitions left. Two of his mentors, Indira Gandhi and the CPI(M) guru, Promode Dasgupta, have passed away. The third, Jyoti Basu, is 93 and has retired. Anyone who knows Dr Mitra will vouch for his integrity. He describes Dr Singh as a once close friend, and is disillusioned only when he realises that “Manmohan had meanwhile matured as a skilled politician” who could sidestep facts with political rhetoric. He is not charitable about Manmohan the politician: “I am afraid there is little scope for politeness here: his timidity is the product of his civil servant’s mind, which many mistake as humility”. Dr Mitra is experienced and mature enough to measure each word he writes, and if he claims that Dr Singh’s sudden rise to eminent political office was at the instructions of Washington, he definitely means it.I have no information against which to measure this claim, and must take it at face value. But my view is of no consequence. The more important question, given current political equations, is, whether the CPI(M) believes the man it made finance minister of Bengal in 1977, and who could have continued as finance minister till the end of the last century. Dr Singh cannot remain Prime Minister without CPI(M) support.
A further question: does the American establishment believe this? The present American ambassador, David Mulford, is gauche enough to admonish Delhi on the eve of Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Iran through a press conference. Even if he had to convey a message, what was the need for a gratuitous press conference? Would Mrs Indira Gandhi have tolerated such an indiscretion? I think not. Will Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh accept it? I hope not. Their response does not have to be belligerent; that is always unwise. But their actions should speak louder than Mulford’s words.
Dr Mitra does not let political animosity — and no one could be more animous than him — interfere with his judgment. There is an evocative and almost sympathetic portrait of the RSS titan, M.S. Golwalkar. The two met when Indira Gandhi appointed both to the cow-slaughter committee, set up after the famous march to Parliament by sadhus in November 1966. The Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Puri was also a member. Golwalkar, says Dr Mitra, was “extraordinarily intelligent, modest in manner, soft-spoken. (He was) fluent in all the fifteen languages recognised by the Constitution, and made it a point to converse with me in the most chaste Bengali. It was the Jagatguru who was single-handedly capable of driving us to desperation”. Later, Dr Mitra met Golwalkar on a train to Bhopal: “we embraced each other and exchanged many stories” until the train picked up speed and the men brought out their books. “Suddenly I noticed that Golwalkar was reading a juicy novel by Henry Miller.” Dr Mitra adds, as well he might, “Inscrutable India!”
It gets more inscrutable, with gossip about a Bengal governor’s wife carting away the excellent wine cellar from Kolkata’s Raj Bhavan on her husband’s retirement. Apparently, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru’s sister, seemed to have similar tendencies. When she returned from Washington, where she had served as ambassador, she brought back expensive carpets which she “forgot” to pay for. Any interest in what Ramakrishna Hegde thought of his fellow chief minister N.T. Rama Rao’s sleeping costume? I am not going to supply the answer.
The book is spiced with one-liners that could form an independent manual. The one I particularly liked was: “Parents without an adequate dose of humour are a social menace”. The context is extremely funny: fortunately for the publishers, who would like to sell copies, there is no space here for this wonderful episode from the day on which Dr Mitra was first elected. No space either for the reasons that compelled Dr Mitra to resign as finance minister. Suffice to note that conscience, now a stranger to politics, played a key role.
A close encounter with death is dealt with the light touch of a master. He recalls his impressions when his pulse rate, fluttering between 25 and zero, would drop towards the death zone: “…my whole consciousness would be wrapped in a steady, serene, very comfortable purple glow and the feeling would be of excruciating happiness”. He does not go beyond this, but that sentence is heavy with possibilities for an atheist.
If there is one fault, then it is the coy and cloying intrusion of nicknames. But nickname mania among the Bengali elite is also a message of inclusion; only the outsider uses the formal nomenclature. Ashok Mitra might have been a Marxist-rebel, but that does not mean he was excluded from the elitist club. Indeed, the prodigal is always enhanced by a touch of glamour.Don’t wait for details about the withering reference to me. I might be a fool, but I certainly am not an ass. If you do want to play hide and seek with seven fascinating decades, buy the book and open it anywhere. You won’t put it down.