Sunil Sethi: In the chambers of princes

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 23, 2012 20:42 hrs

It was a sort of Communist version of the Chamber of Princes. The ceremonial launch of Xi Jinping, China’s new president for a 10-year term, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing recently had some of the grandiose trappings of a feudal anointing. As secretary general of the politburo, Mr Xi, together with his fellow members, lined up in Western suits and red ties on stage against a gigantic decorative backdrop of mountains, lakes and gushing waterfalls. The new helmsman then proceeded to pay flowery tribute to the greatness, heroism and strength of the Chinese people — who, of course, had no direct hand in choosing him.

As the supreme unelected leader of the world’s most populous nation and longest-serving authoritarian government, he is every inch a prince. His father was a key political figure in the Chinese Communist Party, once head of its propaganda wing and later vice-chairman; and Mr Xi’s biography notes, no doubt as a compliment, that he is the first Chinese supremo to speak the language without a trace of a provincial accent. Preparations for his inaugural were so elaborate that the heavily monitored internet was all but blocked to prevent the spread of unsavoury speculation or rumour; guards with fire extinguishers were placed should anyone try to immolate themselves; and window cranks in taxis were removed to eliminate the possibility of leaflets, bombs or ping pong balls being hurled. Given the proximity of the Great Hall to historic Tiananmen Square, the entire proceeding had the aura of an imperial durbar.

The word durbar applies specifically to the court of an Indian ruler and, coincidentally, is the title of a political memoir by the columnist Tavleen Singh (Durbar, Hachette, Rs 699) out this week. It is a vivid, opinionated, energetic and often gossipy account of last phase of Indira Gandhi’s years in power and the rise and fall of Rajiv Gandhi up until his assassination in 1991. Unlike many journalists’ self-aggrandising memoirs of political rulers that come laced with their scoops or proximity to leaders in influencing policy, her account is of how power in New Delhi flows not from dusty ministries and fractious newsrooms but from the leafy bungalows and elegant salons of Lutyens’ capital. It is the story of a generation of leaders – Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, Vasundhara Raje and Naveen Patnaik among others – who were catapulted to power by virtue of their political ancestry and connections.

“Coterie” was a phrase made infamous in the early 1970s for the oddballs that surrounded Sanjay Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s political heir, and led to the imposition of the Emergency; it was the moment that Tavleen Singh started out as a lowly, inexperienced newspaper reporter but because – she makes it clear at the outset – she came from the same privileged background, she fell in with the Rajiv-and-Sonia set, then political nobodies. At her first encounter with Rajiv Gandhi at a dinner party after Indira Gandhi’s electoral defeat in 1977, she buttonholed him to ask how much he knew of the Emergency’s excesses. He candidly admits that he “tried telling Mummy ... but she didn’t believe me. She said I couldn’t possibly know what real people were thinking because I moved in ‘elitist’ circles. What would your elite friends know, she said. These are people who have never voted in their lives.”

Durbar is a story of fraught lives, of personal and professional betrayals, political failures and hope squandered. As a new prince moves centre stage in New Delhi, it is a cautionary tale of the illusions of courtiers and elitist delusions.

Here is what China’s Xi Jinping said in his opening address about the “pressing problems” that need to be resolved within his Party — “particularly corruption, bribe-taking, being removed from the people, and some Party officials’ reliance on formalities and bureaucracy.” If that sounds familiar to Indian ears, then it is because we are more accustomed to listening to the Raag Darbari.

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