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View from a ringside seat

View from a ringside seat
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'Indira Gandhi was a highly complex personality, but Nehru, though I did not work with him, was very predictable,' said HY Sharada Prasad in this...

'Indira Gandhi was a highly complex personality, but Nehru, though I did not work with him, was very predictable,' said HY Sharada Prasad in this interview By far the most striking quality of Sharada Prasad was niceness, not only in the use of English with its skilled simplicity, its Sampler-like neatness, its frequent gaiety and colour, its very curious mixture of the telling detail and detailed telling, but in his own character
Glories, like glow-worms, from afar shine bright, But looked at near have neither heat nor light. These words from The Duchess of Malfi by John Webster floated into my mind unbidden when I started interviewing HY Sharada Prasad, former Secretary of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust, retired Information Adviser first to Indira Gandhi and then to Rajiv Gandhi. The latter's reliance on him was borne out by the fact that Prasad was given an extension after retirement. From 1966, when he joined the Prime Minister's Secretariat as deputy information adviser, to 1988 when he retired (with a two-year break during the Janata party regime when he preferred to work as Director of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, though rumour had it that Morarji Desai wanted him to stay on), Prasad had a ringside view of the political drama in India. Which of them turned out to be "glow-worms"? I decided to meet him after he had retired (or had he resigned?) from the post even of Secretary to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust. Few jobs could be more thankless than that of acting as a sympathetic counseller to one Prime Minister who, the world believed, was more inscrutable than the Sphinx, and to another who was increasingly being made, by his friends more than by his foes, to look fatuous. Anyway, in either case, it was the responsibility which must have been hard to bear in good conscience. I had, therefore, wondered if Prasad could have preferred to follow the primrose path of least resistance, always on hand to offer the attentive ear and impotent advice. After all, the Indian intellectual is being increasingly regarded as an impotent and, paradoxically, silent genius. But as the interview progressed, I realized that in this case the impotence, if that be it, was of a trenchant kind, that of one of rare sensibilities bearing hypnotized witness to the degradation and distortion of our national life. After all, a true intellectual like Sharada Prasad was a visionary capable of descrying the truth beyond appearances. With characteristic perversity, the first question I asked was about the stuff the set of advisers to Rajiv Gandhi were made of, and then realized that the interviewee could be indulgently paternal but also ferociously scornful, words snapping out like a flick-knife opening. "It would not be proper for me to answer that question. It is, however, true that both Nehru and Indira Gandhi were more fortunate in their friends as well as in their political adversaries." He had answered my question without seeming to have done it! "Indira Gandhi was a highly complex personality, but Nehru, though I did not work with him, was very predictable. He converted his personal dilemmas into subjects of public debate, and sought to involve people in his decision-making. What bothered the nation bothered him. For instance, Nehru formulated the foreign policy and helped found the UN even before India became free. He weaned people away from the British way of thinking and education. Nehru wanted villagers rather than the urban intelligentsia to tell him whether what he was doing was right. Above all, he had become known long before he became Prime Minister," said the then (in 1982) 73-year-old, well-built, cool, sometimes authoritative interviewee with hair swept back and smacked down. Then Prasad proved that he could be romantic and cynical, affectionate and hostile, all within the space of a few sentences. "On the other hand, Indira Gandhi started off as a conventional politician, known only as the daughter of Nehru and nothing else. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi grew and evolved in office, but Nehru was fully grown by the time he assumed it. He could not have grown further. But that was not the case with Indira Gandhi; unlike her father, she had to fight for her survival." Personally, Prasad was of genial temperament, quick but deep mind and of much force of character, and he talked with verve, never lapsing into melodramatics or burlesque, and giving credibility to remarks which might not otherwise have had it. There could be no doubt that he admired Indira Gandhi immensely; yet he preferred not to join in the mass anthem of praise that her popularity at its peak provoked. Most people believed, and some still continue to believe, that while she usually displayed cool judgment, Indira Gandhi was sometimes the victim of her own impetuosity, as exemplified, for example, by promulgation of the Emergency or the ordering of Operation Bluestar. Did Prasad agree with the assessment? "I don't know how you define 'impetuosity'. If thereby you mean reckless, that she was not; if you mean vehement, that she was; she was a great fighter and a risk-taker. She made effective use of the element of surprise, and when she hit she employed many times more than the minimum force required." Prasad's hands (my notebook says) fidgeted at this point amongst shining slabs of hair. Then he said: "I can vouch for her cool judgment, as you put it. She could do several things simultaneously. While listening to you intently, she could be thinking of something else. For instance, at the height of her confrontation with the Syndicate in 1969, one morning she granted an interview to the Editor of a Dutch children's magazine. From the spontaneity with which she answered every question, nobody could have suspected that she had just then dispatched to Morarji Desai a letter changing his portfolio." According to Prasad, "the popular perception of Indira Gandhi was that she was composite of a highly protective mother and a great fighter for people's cause. Women were proud of her because she had taught them a trick or two on how to deal with men. And men were convinced that she would never let the country down. It is, however, true that she was inscrutable. Once she remarked in New York that she often wondered whether her biographers understood her at all. Not many of them really knew the wellsprings of her motivation or what she thought was her primary responsibility. Her virtues sometimes went against her." How many of our intellectuals can combine that sort of psychological sensitivity with real political impact? And how many can achieve that impact with such artistry, avoiding didacticism and overt denunciation and, indeed, even withholding the precise nature of other leaders? What about Sanjay Gandhi? Many considered him infantile and pretentious, a shallow, spoilt, very nasty little boy who had deceptive charm and cleverness but who was basically very stupid, closely interested only in his personal power and pleasure, and that he persisted in his half-witted courses till his own followers saw through him and, finally, that he could bring plenty of verbal malevolence to his running duel with his critics. Did Prasad agree with that evaluation? Now the interviewee looked like a trial judge scrupulously excluding a good deal of prejudicial evidence and providing no grounds for appeal against the verdict. "The question is tough, but I cannot duck it. With any controversial person you cannot be non-aligned; you are either for him or against him. Your question reminds me of a passage in a book which pooh-poohed Richard Nixon. The question is posed: 'How deep is Nixon?' And the answer is: 'The deeper you go, the shallower he is.' I had seen Sanjay but cannot claim to have known him. He was an intense young man who gave the appearance of being Spartan, even ascetic. It is said that he never used a swear word. He had tremendous hustle and no patience with cost-benefit calculations. I don't know if he cared about what others thought of him or of the hurt he caused them." Once again my question stood answered though not directly. What about Rajiv Gandhi? "He had the advantage that he started off with the nation's admiration and trust. The foreign dignitaries who arrived for Indira Gandhi's funeral were so impressed by his self-control as to say that here was a young man to watch." All that was pretty old hat. What about his performance in office? "His superb management of drought was a negative victory; people looked to him for positive victories." By far the most striking quality of Sharada Prasad was niceness, not only in the use of English with its skilled simplicity, its Sampler-like neatness, its frequent gaiety and colour, its very curious mixture of the telling detail and detailed telling, but in his own character. Not that this personal niceness was in any way a reminiscing retired man's coverall quilt of kindness, a sugary nostalgia. It sprang fresh as a brook from an innate moral tact, a perspicacity of precisely the sort that confers greatness on some and thus distinguishes them from superficial smallness. I don't know if Sharada Prasad wrote his memoirs even though he merely watched, rather than participated in, high political drama. But then Gibbon, who never heard a shot fired in anger, remarked in a celebrated aside that his captaincy in the Hampshire grenadiers had not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire. � MV
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