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Rahul Jacob: Book values

Why I didn't write a biography of Manmohan Singh

Rahul Jacob  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Jacob

Like many journalists whose ambitions run ahead of their abilities, I have a past littered with book projects. A few got to the stage of writing a proposal. The most recent one on the prospects for democracy in China based on my reporting of a remarkable village of Robin Hoods in Wukan in southern China who elected their own government floundered after I had written 30,000 words. My plan to write a biography of Manmohan Singh as a way to tell the story of India’s reforms met the most ignominious end of all. I never even got started.

When I first interviewed him in 1992, I fell under the spell of this gentle man, who is soft-spoken, even timid to a fault — as the telecom and coal scams show at huge cost to his reputation and the country’s. This is perhaps a foolish admission for a journalist to make this weekend of all weekends. But, I am wary of people such as Vinod Rai who are egotistical enough to call themselves “the nation’s conscience-keeper.” Rai has, shall we say, a gift for exaggeration, which may explain why he was responsible for the utterly implausible uppermost estimate of $39 billion the government supposedly lost in foregone proceeds for 2G spectrum licences. Mahatma Gandhi never crowned himself with such epithets. Not Just an Accountant is a more apt and revealing title for Rai’s book than its subhead. Of course, the 2G auction stank. Of course, Singh should have asserted himself to keep a coalition partner in line, but if $39 billion was the actual loss to the government, India ought to have the most expensive telecom services in the world.

In my twenties, I was less cynical. I was still a cub reporter at Fortune magazine in New York, entrusted with a cover story on how multinationals were looking at India anew. Before I left New York, the managing editor of Fortune discussed his vision for the story, which was to focus on the large Indian middle class. Thus, the journey to Delhi and my meandering path through the august corridors of North Block to the finance minister’s office was freighted with more than the usual tension before a big interview. From the perspective of an inexperienced 20-something reporter, the finance minister’s office seemed the size of a ballroom. As I sat down to interview Singh, I became tongue-tied. I was unable to make small talk, let alone ask a question. Singh seemed alert to the problem and asked if I wanted a cup of tea while keeping a one-sided conversation going. I was then able to at least blurt out that his eldest daughter had taught me history at St Stephen’s College. Singh is a proud parent and beamed with delight. The tension broken, I was able to get on with it and interviewed him a couple of times after that.

The late Dom Moraes had a similarly embarrassing account of his first meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru exactly 30 years earlier. Overcome by the pomp and circumstance of liveried peons showing him to the office, Moraes got entangled in the heavy curtains leading into Nehru’s room. When he emerged, Nehru was looking at him with amusement and concern.

Several years after my first meeting with Singh, bored with being a business writer at Time magazine, I quit to write his biography. I duly wrote a long letter to him explaining the project. His response was… complete silence. This left me with an existential dilemma; I was a biographer in search of a subject. I no longer had a job. Explaining what I was doing at the time left me writhing with embarrassment till my mother gently chided me: journalists often took time off to work on books so there was no need to be defensive about it. In any case, she added nonchalantly, “I can support you for a year.” She was months away from retirement.

The publication of Daman Singh’s lovely memoir of her father and mother is a reminder that Tolstoy was wrong and yet right when he wrote, “Happy families are all alike.” The Singhs are a loving, happy family. Daman has teasing descriptions about the hypochondria of her father and his way of walking as if in a spasm when exercising. Such a normal family life ought not to be rare among prime ministerial families, but it is. From Nehru with his apparent affection for the canine looks of Edwina Mountbatten to Indira Gandhi and her devotion to the handbag-toting Dhirendra Brahmachari and her very public squabble with Maneka Gandhi to Narendra Modi and his abstinence from married life, most of our prime ministers have had unconventional domestic arrangements. Anyone who watched the CNN-IBN programme a few years ago about the Singh family will recall the apparent affection with which his family regard him. They took in their stride that their last family holiday was in Nainital in the 1970s. We learn from the book he offered his resignation at different points in his career, including as Reserve Bank of India governor and as finance minister after the securities scam. We do not come away with an understanding of why he did not threaten to resign more often as prime minister and leave the unwieldy mess the Congress-led coalition was to Sonia Gandhi and her acolytes. Which only goes to prove that Singh did me a favour by not replying to my request to write his biography. With such a reticent subject, only a daughter could have written a book worth reading.

First Published: Fri, September 12 2014. 21:49 IST