Book Review: Relentless

From a bureaucrat to a politician, and from one century to the next, Yashwant Sinha has had an incredible journey

Relentless, Yashwant Sinha

Yashwant Sinha was a witness to the history of India in the second part of the last century and many years of this century, and he himself has a story that ran through history. He actually thinks he links three centuries through his grandfather, father and himself. He was an administrator, part of the Indian administrative service that implements policies, and was later a part of the political class that shaped those policies. He left the service for politics when the changeover was not as common as it is now.

As a part of the ruling elite, he had the privilege to watch how the system worked, and as a person who moved from one world to another, he had the opportunity to be a part of the seminal changes that happened in politics, economy and society in the last few decades. He held important roles in various administrations and has had a reputation for efficiency. Sinha is in his eighties now, and the book is an account of his early years and life as a bureaucrat, a politician and a minister.  

Sinha was finance minister and external affairs minister under two prime ministers in different governments and had a direct and ringside view of events at some important turning points in the country’s recent history, like the formation and fall of the VP Singh government and the Chandra Shekhar government, the ascent of the BJP in national politics and its rise to power at the Centre. He was a finance minister in the short-lived Chandra Shekhar government and held finance and external affairs portfolios under Atal Bihari Vajpayee. After leaving the administrative service, his politics moved from the Janata Party to the Janata Dal to Chandra Sekhar’s SJP and finally to the BJP. He quit the BJP last year and turned a strong and vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government.  

Sinha gives detailed accounts of many events and situations in which he had a role. They are interesting and help to give a better perspective of many events of the recent past. He also throws light on the character, conduct and actions of some important leaders with whom he interacted. When he shifted parties and loyalties, he did not have to look back, and always gained from the changes. The decision to leave the service and join politics worked well and he moved up the ladder of power. As he moves on, we follow the logic of his changes but we are not always convinced of his justifications. Sometimes, he also gives the impression that something is left unsaid, even when he goes into the details of the situation and explains the reasons or compulsions that made him take a decision the way he did. In the early phase of his politics, he was a staunch supporter and loyalist of Chandra Shekhar whom he considers as his mentor. But when he realised that he had no future in Chandra Shekhar’s party, he switched sides to the BJP, which was up and coming, without as much as telling Chandra Shekhar.

The BJP was a party with a very different ideology, culture and style of working but that did not constrain him. He worked hard and faithfully for the new party and was amply rewarded. Politics, too, is a career, and perhaps it was the bureaucrat’s ability to serve different masters efficiently that helped him in politics too. 

But the picture that emerges is not just that of a careerist politician and a person who found opportunities in life and made good use of it. He had an early association with Jayaprakash Narayan and had even decided to leave the IAS and join the JP movement. That did not happen. Later, he decided to leave the service and work for the poor in the backyard Dumka district in Bihar. But it was politics that he finally joined, on the advice of Chandra Shekhar.

There is a self-congratulatory and sometimes even a self-righteous tone in Sinha’s accounts. This may sound natural in an autobiography which is rarely an attempt to discover oneself or make life an experiment to find the truth. In fact, Sinha has much to be proud of and be happy about when he casts a long look back on his life and career. His grandfather was a lawyer. His father was also a lawyer who had a flourishing practice but had difficult times later. That gave him some direct experience of poverty, and he says that his childhood was spent in poverty and deprivation. Poverty, however, is relative. In any case, he had the will and ambition to go up and make a mark in life, in a world that measures success by positions of power, and the willingness and ability to support his goals with hard work.

Sinha’s book has useful information for students of history and politics. it is also interesting as the story of a life which saw many turns but reached a high note. He is out of favour with the present BJP leadership and the government but he is not sure how the estrangement happened. But the greater concern, he says, is the manner in which the institutions of democracy in the country are being compromised. He declares that he will continue to raise issues of national importance as long as he lives. “Because, for me, my journey won’t end till I finally go to sleep. Until then, I will carry on relentlessly.” That is a fighting note to end an interesting account of life. 

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