Book review: On Leaders and Icons by Kuldip Nayar

Book review: On Leaders and Icons by Kuldip Nayar

A scribe’s integrity

Kuldip Nayar is not judgmental and has no prejudices, but he makes his commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights clear in these pages.

When writers write about others, they are writing about themselves, too. When the late Kuldip Nayar wrote about the leaders and icons he had met and interacted with in his long career, he wrote about himself, too. He did not describe himself, he was too good a journalist to write directly about himself and to allow his ego to take over his narrative.

He profiles some of the greatest leaders of pre-and post-Independence India — Gandhi, Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi. Jayaprakash Narayan and many others — and narrates many epoch-making events which made the history of the subcontinent. He also writes about the contributions, styles of life and work, and personal habits and predilections of those leaders and the principles or motives that drove them.

Great men and women too have their weaknesses, and greatness sometimes co-exists with baseness. It is remarkable that even after watching from close quarters all the selfishness, unprincipled dealings and baseness of politicians, Nayar did not become cynical and did not lose faith in the principles and ideals he considered important and believed in all his life. The persona of Kuldip Nayar which emerges from his accounts is an ideal that journalists, activists, and every public person can strive for. 

Nayar was witness to the Partition of India and the misery and pain that it inflicted on millions of people. He was himself a refugee from Sialkot in Pakistan. His personal experience and the collective trauma that he saw did not embitter him but made him a strong believer in secularism and an advocate of friendly relations with Pakistan. He believed that the gulf between Hindus and Muslims in India only increased after Partition and Muslims in India are still paying the price for it.

Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah had different visions but Nayar believes that India-Pakistan relations would have taken a better turn if both leaders had lived longer. His interactions with the two are not detailed, but they give a fair idea, though not entirely new, of the personalities of the two. He felt Jinnah, in his later life, was not sure if Pakistan was a "good thing to have" and thought it was a matter for posterity to decide. In any case, his vision of Pakistan as a tolerant, progressive and modern state failed, with the country turning into an Islamic state. 

Nayar was an observer of history as it took shape in independent India, and he throws fresh light on the personalities of some leaders who played seminal roles in it. In some cases, it is not a fresh insight but an observation that confirms an impression or an opinion in currency. He had great admiration for Nehru, who he thought laid the foundation for a modern and democratic India. But he did not fail to notice that Nehru wanted Indira Gandhi to succeed him, though he denied it in public. It was Indira Gandhi’s name that, in fact, came to the fore as Nehru’s successor after his death. But the mantle fell on Shastri, and Nayar explains how. 

Some of the most readable parts of the book are about Nayar’s interactions with Lal Bahadur Shastri before and after Shastri became prime minister. He was information officer to Shastri when Shastri was home minister and prime minister. He was present in Tashkent when Shastri died there after signing the agreement which put an end to the 1965 war with Pakistan. He was the first to enter Shastri’s room after his death. The mystery about Shastri’s death still continues, though he notes Shastri had had two heart attacks earlier and had gone to bed slightly agitated. All that Nayar says, as he has said elsewhere, is “whether Shastri was poisoned, as some have alleged, is a still a matter of debate.’’

He writes of a foreboding he had which defies explanation: “It so happened that I had had a premonition that Lal Bahadur Shastri would die during the peace talks. Because of my premonition I was not altogether surprised when the knocking started on my door. Inwardly I was prepared for the worst.” (A Russian lady had knocked on the door of his hotel room at midnight to announce: "Your Prime Minister is dying.")

Though Nayar was an observer of history, he felt that he may have been a participant who had an unwitting role in a major event, the choice of Shastri as Nehru’s successor. Immediately after Nehru’s death, Nayar put out a story through UNI, which said that Morarji Desai had started making his move for the prime ministership. Many MPs  who read the story were disgusted with Morarji’s move even before Nehru’s ashes had gone cold, and that swung the situation in Shastri’s favour. The story was based on reliable information and Nayar had done only a journalist’s job, without a motive. But Kamaraj thanked him and Morarji never forgave him. 

Nayar’s commitment to individual freedom and democracy comes through in his accounts of interactions with Indira Gandhi and his experience of the Emergency. He had known Indira Gandhi from the time Nehru was prime Minister and had friendly relations with her. He saw her grow into a dictator who brooked no criticism and imposed the Emergency. Nayar was also in jail for three months during the Emergency. Nayar had great admiration for Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and describes how JP was betrayed by the Janata Party government and its leaders who came to power after the Emergency.

Nayar’s recollections and accounts are vivid. Some of them bring to light a dominant part of the personality of the leader he writes about. He found Zulfikar Ali Bhutto brilliant but ambitious and egoistic. Bhutto thought that he deserved to be the prime minister of the entire sub-continent. Manmohan Singh is also brilliant but was bureaucratic and subservient to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who made him the prime minister. 

The book is not just about political personalities. There are interesting vignettes about personalities in business and arts like JRD Tata, actor Meena Kumari, singer Noor Jehan and poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Nayar’s idea of India was more than political, though he was the best political reporter the country has seen. Journalism is said to be the first draft of history, and the articles in this book give a sense of India’s history through the profiles of some of the subcontinent’s great leaders. Like a good journalist, Nayar is not judgmental and has no prejudices, but he makes his commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights clear in these pages. He ends the book with a chapter on Narendra Modi, whom he has not met. He notes that Hindutva has gained ground under Modi and the minorities are feeling insecure. He has an advice for Modi to ask himself “if this scenario is good for the people’’. 

Kuldip Nayar finished this book a few weeks before he passed away at 95 years of age. It was published after his death, and as the family notes in the epilogue, he never lost hope or the will to fight to make India better, till the end. The book is a testament of that hope.