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How To Judge A Biography

T.C.A. Srinivasa Raghavan

By Vinay Sitapati
Penguin Viking, New Delhi, 2016, pp. 391, Rs. 700.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 9 September 2016

How do you judge a good biography, especially in a country where the tradition of writing them is virtually nonexistent and where even the few that do get written, tend to be hagiographies? It is hard to say but Vinay Sitapati’s biography of P.V. Narasimha Rao, a former Prime Minister of India, fulfils the five criteria that could be applied, namely, length, style, research, new information and novel interpretation. Last year, Daman Singh, Manmohan Singh’s daughter wrote her father’s biography but it failed on three of the above five counts: research, new information and novel interpretation. It was an interesting read but added little to what was not already known. In contrast, Sitapati who is a journalist, lawyer, academic and Ph.D candidate, provides a huge amount of hitherto unknown detail, such as it was Rajiv Gandhi’s friend, Satish Sharma, to whom Rao first turned for advice when he heard he might become the next President of the Congress after Rajiv’s assassination and therefore, electorate willing, Prime Minister.  Sitapati’s style, however, is a bit confusing as well. He writes like a journalist but footnotes like an academic. He cites sources in the text as well as in the notes and references at the back—all 75 pages of them. He keeps you riveted but disappoints often with his tentativeness. In short, it is an excellent biography which falls short of being a comprehensive and definitive one, like, say S. Gopal’s of Nehru. Rao, like Nehru had spent 30 years in the service of the Congress; but he had only five as Prime Minister unlike Nehru who had 17. But like Gopal, Sitapati also presents Rao in the best possible light, except that unlike Nehru, politics isn’t perhaps the best way of doing that. Nehru was an idealist; Rao was a cynic. Sitapati doesn’t flinch from portraying Rao as one but in doing so, he fails in his primary task of portraying Rao as a man who has been wronged by his Party. But Party is not the same thing as country because, except for Congressmen and women speaking for the record, there is hardly an educated person who doesn’t acknowledge Rao’s contributions to India, the greatest being the economic reforms that he set in motion in 1991. The Congress Party, on the other hand, prefers to dwell on that great blemish in ...

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