Armed with an unpretentious style and powered by the sheer pull which political anecdote and gossip has for the great Indian middle class, Shekhar Gupta has effectively sustained his column week after week. He writes on subjects as varied as the last relics of the quota raj to the decline in the fortunes of the Indian National Congress, and has sought to position himself as an involved bystander in the world around him.
Like most journalistic accounts, this one has an immediate context as a point of reference, and many among its potential readers would perhaps recall having read the pieces when they originally appeared. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage, because for every one reader who would like to recall what was written and what really transpired, there would be many others who would perhaps move on to the next piece that they may have left unread. There is a problem, though. In the sheer breathlessness of writing for the moment, the larger perspective becomes a casualty. Later revelations of what was actually happening in the cloisters of government, politics and business often surprises the most informed of commentators, innocent of secret interventions that may have been made at that given point in time.
In the contemporary context, the assiduous larger-than-life projection of Narendra Modi jostles for space with the dimming of the Congress as a pan-national factor. Shekhar Gupta does not seem to quite share the trepidation within the liberal intelligentsia about the rise of Modi, although he does detect more than a hint of cronyism in the way his government in Gujarat has related to industrialists and businessmen — he is more categorical about the blunders that the UPA and the Congress have made as contributions to their own decline. It is ever so convenient to comment on the latter than stick one’s neck out on what effect Modi will have on the polity.
The best parts of the book are where Shekhar Gupta dwells on the changing mores and attitudes of the Indian middle class which has acquired unprecedented trappings of modernity through higher disposable incomes but where a concomitant change in socio-cultural attitudes hasn’t quite taken place. The sheer dimension of changes in the metropolitan mindscape and in the cities and towns has been well reflected in the columns. While the often violently volatile world of politics comes in for copious comment, it is the more reflective parts of the narrative which are bound to have shelf value. The author is clear in his mind that the Delhi Durbar has failed to decipher, much less tackle, the kind of ‘alternative’ proffered by Left Wing Extremism and it is this failure above all which is going to undo the convenient growth models that are projected here, there and everywhere. The unre-constructed revanchism of the RSS and its affiliates on the one hand and the worldview of the Left ultras is bound to collide some day with tell-tale results. ‘The Bleeding Heartless’ is an appropriate label for the myopia that besets the rulers when it comes to comprehending Maoist insurgency and attendant phenomenon. As a refreshing aside, there is also a devastating write-up on actor Sanjay Dutt and how the elite has greeted his trysts with the court with huge dollops of hypocrisy.
The book tries to answer why contempt for politicians does not go beyond the bubble of sullen drawing rooms. But if one is looking for indepth observations on the men who would rule India, then one would be rather disappointed, because there is very little of such analyses in the narrative. The phenomenon that is the Aam Aadmi Party, with all its strengths and obvious shortcomings, deserved a more incisive and detailed examination. The very fact that such an unlikely outfit has captured the imagination of the people and has displayed the nerve to take on Modi ought to have been given more importance than it has been given. The fact that Kejriwal has been able to transcend the limitations of the Anna movement, for one thing, should have merited greater comment. But that may be a subjective view.
The compilation comes at a time when the country is poised on the cusp of profound change. To the extent it has detailed the run-up to the eventual outcome of today’s mega battles, Shekhar Gupta has a good thing going.