Book review: Memoirs of a maverick

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

Even those who are not particularly favourably disposed to Mani Shankar Aiyar, either because they disagree with his politics or because they are put off by some of his occasionally bombastic outbursts, will find it difficult to deny that his latest offering, a memoir covering the first 50 years of a rather eventful life, is a captivating read, the likes of which are becoming thin on the ground in India. Part of a projected three-volume work, this tome combines anecdotage, analysis, punditry, and much else, all delivered with wit, urbanity and just enough self-deprecation to ward off accusations of immoderate conceit and pomposity.

Of the title, he says, unabashedly, that it describes him accurately. ‘A maverick is defined by most dictionaries as “an unconventional thinker, independent-minded, one who blazes their own trail” … something of a lone wolf, eccentric in their own way’. (p. viii) Only the churlish would gainsay Aiyar’s formidable talents, which saw him pass through the portals of three elitist educational institutions, the Doon School, St Stephen’s College (both in India) and Cambridge University, despite straitened family circumstances, followed by a creditable career in the Indian Foreign Service. Where perhaps he was less successful was in politics which he entered at the rather late age of 48, plighting his troth to the Congress Party under the tutelage of Rajiv Gandhi and from which he was, in effect, sidelined and marginalised less than two decades later under slightly humiliating circumstances (he does not shirk from acknowledging that fact, and promises to return to a discussion of it in a later volume).

Arguably, there are certain impulses which appear to have driven Aiyar from an early age to chart the course that shaped his life and career. One of these was an unshakeable admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru, who went on to become India’s first prime minister and who, despite enjoying enormous popularity during his lifetime, has left a legacy which has been called increasingly into question in recent years (there is an amusing section in the book where Aiyar describes the joy he experienced when his admission to the Indian Foreign Service was approved by the great man himself after many roadblocks had been placed in Aiyar’s way by bureaucrats on the grounds that he had been a communist sympathiser while at Cambridge).

Commonwealth Update (2005)
Commonwealth Update (2006)
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Another abiding impulse in Aiyar’s worldview is secularism about which there is much in the book (the term, disappointingly, does not feature in the otherwise handy back index to the volume). Such is the fervour with which he has, over the years, cleaved to this increasingly contested idea that he even wrote a book entitled Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist not so long ago and became, briefly, the president of an organisation called Society for Secularism. In the present volume, he writes feelingly about what he sees as the erosion of secularism even before the ascendency of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party currently in power. He is scathing about many in his own party – which has played the secularism card with vigour, especially during elections – and goes on to accuse one of its tallest leaders, P.V. Narasimha Rao (who is credited with taking India out of the dirigiste socialism which all but bankrupted the nation around 1990), of being an accomplice in the dismantling of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya which has been the cause of so much contention and strife in recent decades.

Interestingly – but not surprisingly – Aiyar comes out strongly in defence of Rajiv Gandhi in the matter of his secular credentials which have been impugned repeatedly within India, especially after he responded, through legislation in 1986, to a landmark 1985 judgement of the country’s Supreme Court which decreed maintenance for Muslim divorcees after overruling the iniquitous arrangements then prevailing under Muslim personal law. Most people considered that response to be a capitulation to conservative Muslim voices. But Aiyar disagrees. ‘I believe’, he asserts, ‘[that] he was innocent of the allegations and charges made against him, charges that continue to stain his reputation’ (p. 294). He points out that Rajiv Gandhi’s position was vindicated in a Supreme Court judgement delivered in 2001 which held that ‘no fundamental rights of divorced Muslim women had been abrogated by the Act of 1986’ (p. 297).

Aiyar mounts an equally vigorous defence of the former prime minister over the very serious allegations he had faced on corruption in the Bofors defence deal which had rocked the nation in the 1980s (pp. 301–5). Whether or not Aiyar’s exoneration will command widespread acceptance is an open question. Astute readers may also detect in Aiyar’s comments on these issues a certain disappointment that he was not allowed by Rajiv Gandhi – for whom he was working at the time – to include strong assertions of Rajiv’s innocence in the speeches that Aiyar had drafted for him. In a revealing passage, Aiyar narrates the rather poignant story of how, two days after Rajiv had been assassinated, his entry into the late prime minister’s house was blocked by security personnel who wanted to know who he was and why he had come visiting. ‘[C]learly’, notes Aiyar recognising the transitoriness of power, ‘a new age had begun’ (p. 359).

Despite his die-hard commitment to secularism, Aiyar had to face a few awkward moments, especially during his political career, on account of his family background. Having been born a Hindu and a Brahmin to boot, he could not escape the consequences of that accident of birth. To make matters worse, his name loudly proclaimed his high caste status – which is a serious disadvantage, especially in southern India. He recalls an embarrassing incident when, while addressing a meeting as president of the Society for Secularism in his prospective parliamentary constituency, he was cornered by a member of the audience who asked ‘how I dare to speak on secularism when my caste was emblazoned in my surname’ (p. 352). All he could do was lamely reply that, had he forsaken his surname, the credit that he got for standing first in the Economics Honours exam at Delhi University a few years earlier, would have been denied to the province in south India where he had been speaking! Aiyar also faced the awkwardness, common to most westernised Indians, of not being fluent in native tongues – essential while addressing rural audiences – or in comporting themselves in Indian clothes – subjects of much mirth which he refers to self-deprecatingly.

More seriously, however, he takes understandable pride in the fact that, by winning a parliamentary seat in south India where victory was all but denied to Brahmins on account of caste politics, he had brought honour back to his family: his father, a talented chartered accountant, had, some 65 years previously, fled that part of the country for better job opportunities in Lahore simply because his Brahmin identity had turned out to be a liability.

The book abounds with many such revealing nuggets of information which open a window to an India that has come a long way since Aiyar’s childhood in the shadows of independence from British rule and the horrors of Partition.

Venkat Iyer is the editor of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

Memoirs of a maverick by Mani Shankar Aiyar, New Delhi, Juggernaut Books, 2023.