Where are the historical plays of modern Indian history? Yes, there is Karnad’s Tughlaq. And Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar. But these are merely nuggets in a gold-mine, a gold-mine of characters who have dotted India’s political landscape in the last fifty years, each of whom is worthy of an entire anthology but whom the Indian Shakespeares have left untouched. I have looked in vain for a portrait as rich as the hunchback Richard the Third, murdering his young nephews in the tower while gloating over the conquest of his dead enemy’s wife, in the annals of fictionalized Indian history. I have looked for the counterpart of Henry the Fifth, leading his troops into a seemingly hopeless war, crying “Once more unto the breach!”, I have sought him within the masses of biographies and autobiographies that our politicians star in, and found no glimpse. In fact, in those books the characters I have found are scarcely human. They are idealized narratives, in which the men and women do nothing more than sit at office and talk politics, discuss diplomacy, and make strategy. They are stripped of all that humanizes them. Their complex personalities and complicated inter-relationships, all assembled in front of a backdrop of a nation of a billion people freshly empowered by democracy and struggling with birth pangs that still last, seventy years later – no author can ask for broader canvas and brighter paint than that.
And yet the book-racks are bare. Is it fear, perhaps, that holds back the hand? Or just laziness? I fear the real reason is an unwillingness to depart from a formula, which makes it easy to make caricatures instead of characters and still have our books and movies sell well enough.
But I have resolved that one day, when I throw caution to the winds and embark on a career as a playwright, that I will start making my own contributions in this genre.
And I will start with Rao.
He was the most complex politician of our times, and of all our prime ministers, he was the one who, I think, knew power most intimately – what it meant, how to use it, what to do with it. Rao’s story is beautiful and compelling because I think he was a man who knew, even donning the mantle, that his was not a reign for the history books; he would never win again; this was his last chance, his big drum-roll, and it was all-in or nothing. So, with nothing to lose, not even his majority (which he never had), he tried the most dramatic things – liberalization, wiping out militancy in Punjab, creating the Bomb – and changed the face of India.
The cast of characters in the Rao play is bewildering in its richness, from the crony Chandraswamy, to the small-time pickle-maker, Lakhubhai Pathak, who claimed to have bought the Prime Minister for Rs 1 Lakh, populating the corner of small-time comedy gags, to the big, meaningful, substantative relationships. Like his relationships with the two Prime Ministers who (after a forgettable gap) succeeded him – Vajpayee and Singh – both of whom, in large measure, owe their premierships to him. I would make the relationship between Rao and Vajpayee the central theme in the play, I think. They were two colossi, more respectful of each other, perhaps, than any other pair of leaders of the ruling and opposition parties, intellectual heavyweights, and at least occasionally, one got the impression that they were patriots both. When Rao sent Vajpayee to deliver the UN address, it was an act of statesmanship that the country hadn’t seen in decades.
Also worthy of richly narrating is the climax of Rao’s reign – the Babri Masjid – that changed everything, caused him to be branded an instigator of religious rioting, commentators all painting his most intricate of decisions with the broadest of brushes. I think Rao let it happen because he wanted to expose the dirty side of Hindutva on his terms, not the kar sevaks. He knew, as a threnody of sorts, that he would not come back into power; he knew that the next Government would veer to the right, and would have the Temple high up on their agendas. Better, then, to let them have it early, to unleash the riots and the repugnance, that would not only still the rising tide of saffron-allegiance that was dangerously building up, but for an entire generation associate the Temple movement with boorishness and bloodshed and violence. Better under his watch than under that of a Government which, he feared, would have popular sanction for th demolition, better an act of illegal violence than (under his would-be successors) an act of sanctioned deconstruction. It was a gambit, I think, in which he let go a small prize – his own reputation, his legacy – and got a big prize instead – tainting forever the brand of the BJP extreme-right with the bloodshed of the Babri. It is because of Rao that Advani will never be Prime Minister.
Rao was the only scholar who was ever the Prime Minister. Neither Vajpayee nor Singh were his academic equals; and he was a polymath and a polyglot, speaking seven languages fluently, and writing a book – a novel – ironically called the Insider, almost when he was still Prime Minister. He was impeccably educated, a freedom fighter, loyal to the throne of Indira Gandhi, and died unmourned, though considered by many – us entrepreneurs especially, for whom he still remains The Man who Made it all Possible – India’s greatest Prime Minister.