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Evaluating the Role of a Public Figure

Malvika Maheshwari

Edited by Prashanto Kumar Chatterji
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp. 381, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXXIV NUMBER 9 September 2010

In his insightful essay Writing Political Biography, Rae Wear claims that there is a little bit of autobiography’ lurking beneath the surface of every biography where its foremost reflection is through the choice of subject. While some biographers may be drawn to subjects they admire, others are led by the curiosity to understand those whom they consider important despite having little regard for them. It is the former that outlines the book in question, the direction of its argument being markedly evident in the title itself Prashanto Kumar Chatterji, a former Professor of History at the Burdwan University, conveys to the reader his reasons for writing on Mookerjee and also consistently reminds us of the nature of feelings that have accompanied him in the task.The reader thus sets out from the first line of the preface through the following three hundred and fifty odd pages with the author’s firm opinions and deep regard for his chosen subject. Chatterji attempts to convince the reader that, ‘Dr. Syama Prasad is one of the most remarkable public figures that adorned the Indian political scene in the crucial pre-independence and post-independence decades of Indian history. He was a fearless patriot for whom his country always came first.’ Focusing on the period between 1938–53, we encounter this claim in each of the five chapters, with systematic elaborations of how Mookerjee negotiated his politics in a colonial context and thereafter in the early period of the nation’s postcolonial democracy. The author, in his sympathetic portrayal, elaborates on various facets of Mookerjee’s statesmanship and political tact: as a parliamentarian, as a provincial and central minister during and after the Raj, and above all, as the founder of the Bhartiya Jana Sangh. The chronological, linear narrative traces Mookerjee’s steps to this final culmination, advocating for his looming presence in contemporary politics. He notes, ‘Bhartiya Jana Sangh, in its new incarnation as the Bhartiya Janata Party, has been ruling in about a dozen states and ruled the centre from 1998–2004.’ In Chatterji’s reasons for writing this book also lies its biggest strength, i.e., a contribution to the otherwise very limited scholarship on Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Born in 1901 to renowned educationist and established jurist Sir Ashutosh Mookerjee and Jogmaya Devi, Mookerjee followed in his father’s footsteps by graduating and succeeding in the legal profession. In 1934 he was appointed as the youngest Vice Chancellor of ...

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