It’s not often that an Indian cabinet minister gets the time to write fiction. They must suppress their creativity to carry out mundane ministerial works or let it flow in short spurts as then-Law Minister Kapil Sibal during the Manmohan Singh government. He became arguably India’s first ‘Mobile Poet’ when he published his anthology of poems I Witness: Partial Observations in 2008. He had written them all on his cellphone while he travelled in a car or on a flight.
So when Union Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Zubin Irani’s Lal Salaam was launched in New Delhi on Saturday, it had to figure on the top of the otherwise ever-expanding must-read list. Not because I am a big fiction lover but because the minister’s debut novel promised to give a glimpse of her worldview from the corridors of power. Like Sibal, her phone was her writing instrument, and she wrote it in eight months, mostly while travelling.
I picked up Lal Salaam for my weekend read. It was good fun, especially after I turned to Alexa to play songs like Ullu ka Pattha from Jagga Jasoos to go with the text. The Agatha Christies and the Sujata Masseys of the world couldn’t draw me so much into their plots as Irani did as I kept sifting fiction from what the BJP presents as facts about Maoists and ‘urban Naxals’. The plot of the novel was drawn from the brutal massacre of 76 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada in 2010. So here was Ambuja Superintendent of Police Vikram Pratap Singh pulling out all stops to get to the killers of his best friend and fellow Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Darshan, who, along with other CRPF officers and personnel, had been ambushed and massacred by Maoists in Ambuja.
Smriti Irani was right when she said nobody looks for a message in fiction. But the fact is that fiction, howsoever imaginary, also reflects an author’s life, her innermost feelings, and the experiences that shape her worldview. But before one comes to discuss what the novel might tell us about Smriti Irani’s worldview, let’s first get some facts out of our way.
Minister-authors in Modi government
Irani is the first woman in the Narendra Modi cabinet to write fiction, but she is the third Indian minister to author a book when in office. The first to write fiction was Minority Affairs Minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, who wrote the Hindi novel Balwa last year. It was about two lovers from different religions in communally-polarising times during the 1990s. Amid rising tensions between India and China following the latter’s transgressions across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) last year, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was writing—and later giving talks about—a book titled The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World. Minister for Labour and Employment and Environment, Forest and Climate Change Bhupendra Yadav has also co-authored a book with economist Ila Patnaik titled The Rise of the BJP: The Making of the World’s Largest Political Party.
The moral of the story is that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) may be running ministries directly, rendering ministers virtually irrelevant, but no one can accuse PM Modi of stifling their creativity. In arguably no other country today, there are as many serving ministers writing books as in India. This is not to suggest that the ministers who aren’t penning books are overburdened with ministerial responsibilities. Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah have made many of them in-charges and co-in-charges of poll-bound states — Dharmendra Pradhan, Anurag Thakur, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Prahlad Joshi, and Bhupendra Yadav, to name a few.
Full-time ministers no better than minister-turned-authors
That’s par for the course when governance is fully dovetailed with political imperatives. There are many others who no longer have political or electoral responsibilities but are doing as good or as bad as minister-turned-authors. The Indian Express reported in October that the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), which comes under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, “flagged several anomalies and questioned some provisions” in the draft e-commerce rules issued by the Department of Consumer Affairs. There was nothing unusual about government departments differing on something, but for the fact that both the departments came under the same minister — Piyush Goyal.
In October, as the economy was opening up after the second wave of the Covid pandemic, India was staring at a coal crisis due to supply-side constraints. Union Power Minister R.K. Singh told The Indian Express in an interview that he was bracing for a trying “next five-six months”, as bridging the fuel gap could be a touch-and-go affair.
It was a bit ironic because one expected our policymakers to foresee the surge in demand post-pandemic and focus on supply-side management rather than rueing the fuel shortage post-facto. It took a courageous retired bureaucrat—former Coal Secretary Anil Swarup—who pointed out in ThePrint’s article how a number of issues had contributed to the low–coal availability over the years, with our policymakers choosing to look the other way.
When the Supreme Court asked the Centre about the rationale for fixing the same income criterion ceiling—Rs 8 lakh per annum—for eligibility for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) quota for post-graduate medical courses and for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the government’s law officers were fumbling for words to explain the same.
That’s because neither the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment nor the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) had any answer. Did someone in the government just dream of a Rs 8 lakh income criterion? Or did they just pull it out of thin air as Justice D.Y. Chandrachud wondered?
Fiction writer Smriti Irani’s worldview
Anyway, it’d be unfair to seek accountability from ministers for the decisions that many of them aren’t privy to. Why blame foot soldiers for the general’s decisions? The fact is that many ministers are now coming to appreciate that a centralised command and control structure in the government isn’t that bad after all. It gives them the time and the opportunity to pursue other interests.
Coming back to Smriti Irani in her new avatar as an author, she has successfully bolstered her party’s stand even in a fictionalised account what bolsters her party’s public stand—Maoists are rapacious marauders who have nothing to do with any ideology or larger social cause; they rape and kill at will, like any other hardened criminals.
There are uncanny similarities between many characters in her novel and those tried for Maoist links in real life. For instance, there is a character in a wheelchair called Professor Prakash Padmanabh from Delhi University. He hails from an impoverished family from Andhra Pradesh and was born in 1967. Incidentally, DU’s Professor Saibaba, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for links with Maoists, was also born in 1967 and has been wheelchair-bound since his childhood. Only that Professor Padmanabh in Smriti Irani’s novel is a villain, who along with fellow Maoists, raped and killed a minor girl.
There is a Maoist PhD scholar under him called Rudra, whose emails contained horrendous videos of the massacre of the CRPF personnel. After watching the video of his friend Darshan being brutally killed, SP Vikram Pratap Singh—the novel’s protagonist—attacks him in police custody, leaving him bloody-faced and with broken ribs in the hospital. “This is the first time I’ve raised a hand on a prisoner. But I have no regrets,” says the protagonist. Then there are Maoist-linked NGOs and doctors treating Naxals in villages.
Author Irani is unsparing when it comes to unravelling the nexus between Maoists and politicians, contractors, and police officials. Remember her novel’s plot pertains to the period when the BJP was in power in Chhattisgarh, and Raman Singh was the chief minister from 2003 to 2018. Even in her ‘exposure’ of ‘urban Naxals’, she lays bare the connivance of the State machinery with Maoists, that is, until SP Vikram Pratap Singh exposes them all.
D.K. Singh is Political Editor at ThePrint. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)