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Truth clouded by heavy shades of grey

October 25, 2004

An autobiography and a memoir are often thought to be, to use a quaint expression, one and the same. But although both autobiography and memoir are about personal history, they are not quite the same. Ian Jack, editor of Granta, once described the difference as that between 'showing and telling.' An autobiography is a mere record of accomplishments, artless in style and overburdened with minutiae; a memoir is about intimate, personal experience, rich in colour, devoid of deeds and fame.


A less sophisticated distinction that lays down the rule of thumb which separates autobiography from memoir, hinges on the author. Sanctimonious, pompous, self-righteous people with an exaggerated sense of importance and singularly lacking in humour, who actually believe they have never done anything wrong in their blessed lives, write their autobiography. Sensitive, self-effacing people who want to thank god for little mercies, look back at all the terrible indiscretions they committed and the horrible mistakes they made, and are not ashamed to tell others about an imperfect life well lived, pen their memoir.


P C Alexander's Through the Corridors of Power -- An Insider's Story, recently published by HarperCollins, could have been a memoir had he chosen to 'tell' rather than 'show' and not fallen prey to the 'I' syndrome which makes Indian writers of this particular genre so utterly tedious. Unfortunately, he belongs to that exclusive club whose members have never erred in their lives, are excellent fault-finders and have nothing good to say about those who have not done them a good turn.


As a probationer, he found his collector 'not worthy of being a role model;' as a junior officer of the IAS he found his chief secretary 'petulant' for not conceding his request for a transfer to headquarters; he found the post-Emergency dispensation 'vindictive' for seeking to punish those guilty of excesses, namely Mrs Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay; he was livid about V P Singh's decision to evict him from the Raj Bhavan in Chennai as part of the National Front government's move to purge the system of all Congress appointees; and, much later in life, he could not quite accept the fact that practitioners of realpolitik chose to overlook his services to the first family of the Congress, but for which he would have come to occupy Rashtrapati Bhavan.


Of course, it would be grossly unfair to even remotely suggest that P C Alexander compromised on principles or set aside ethics at any point during his rather long innings in public life. Unlike many bureaucrats who have displayed remarkable ability to crawl before those sitting on Delhi's masnad, P C Alexander walked the straight line during the years he spent navigating the corridors of power which, at the best of times, can be extremely slippery and treacherous. It must also be said, in admiration and to his credit, he remains as steadfast in his loyalty to Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi as he was when both were alive. Bureaucrats happily genuflect at more than one altar, not so P C Alexander.


As Mrs Gandhi's principal secretary, he had the twin responsibilities of looking after the functioning of the PMO as well as trouble-shooting in the political arena. By his own admission, he also tried to serve as Mrs Gandhi's conscience keeper. That he largely failed in this endeavour does not come as a surprise: the lady with a Mephistophelian smile was an astute practitioner of Machiavellian politics and had scant regard for ethical rights and wrongs.


Yet, this did not prevent P C Alexander from pointing out the pitfalls of first alienating Sheikh Abdullah and later sacking Farooq Abdullah and anointing a certain Gul Mohammed Shah who, a decade or more after the farce in Srinagar, does not merit mention even as a footnote to Jammu & Kashmir's recent history. Cynics will describe P C Alexander's belief that nobody in Delhi's durbar, including the presiding empress, knew about the plot to sack N T Rama Rao and replace him with an unknown and unheard of entity called Bhaskara Rao, as amazing naiveté. But that is his version of the truth, and only the initiated will doubt it.


The 'anti-foreigners' agitation in Assam, whose after shocks are still being felt in the form of gory violence practiced by ULFA, social disquiet over continuing illegal immigration from Bangladesh, tribal separatism in lower Assam and economic stagnation in this key north-eastern state, was one the two serious challenges -- the other was terrorism in Punjab fanned by Khalistani separatists -- that Mrs Gandhi faced in the last years of her reign. Instead of striking at the root of the problem, Mrs Gandhi chose to ride roughshod, as was her style, over popular anger.


The forced infamous elections in Assam, which P C Alexander helped to conduct with great gusto, continues to remain a lesson in how to aggravate a regional problem and turn it into a national crisis. The blood-curdling massacre of Muslims at Nellie, which witnessed suckling infants being speared to death and which has so conveniently been wiped clean from Congress memory, has found a passing mention in P C Alexander's 480-page total recall. But that does not absolve Mrs Gandhi of mishandling Assam.


P C Alexander valiantly defends Mrs Gandhi's misadventure in Punjab. Everybody, including President Zail Singh, was plotting and scheming, but not Mrs Gandhi. Conventional wisdom suggests, and with no little evidence, that if Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale turned out to be a monster (that was after Rajiv Gandhi described him as a 'sant'), his Frankenstein could not have been unknown to the prime minister's principal secretary.


The unkindest cut, of course, comes in the form of P C Alexander pinning the blame for the disastrous Operation Bluestar on General Vaidya who has been accused of planning and executing the offensive on the basis of inaccurate and poor intelligence. Later in the book, a similar charge has been levelled against General Sundarji for the IPKF's dismal failure in Sri Lanka. Since dead men tell no tales, it would be in order to record that the first stop of all primary intelligence, emanating from IB and RAW, is the principal secretary's desk.


Although public memory is short, it would also be in order to point out that the timing of Operation Bluestar was not decided by General Vaidya, as P C Alexander records on more than one page, but by the fact that Mrs Gandhi wanted to pre-empt the declaration of the 'Republic of Khalistan' by Bhindranwale on the martyrdom day of Guru Arjan Dev when thousands of Sikhs were expected to congregate at the Golden Temple.


But then, the truth, according to a popular BBC promo, comes in shades of grey. P C Alexander asserts that what he has to say in his autobiography is the truth. We should respect that assertion, as much as he should respect the reader's right to decide the shade of grey that colours his truth.


Through the Corridors of Power could have provided an intimate, tantalising view from the mountaintop of the political landscape of Indira's India. Instead, living up to the thumb rule that sets an autobiography apart from a memoir, it is all about life at the base camp.



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