Defining India through their eyes Book Review

Four women, three Bharat Ratnas and three Nobel Laureates, with two each of lawyers, economists, activists, private-sector mavericks, sportspersons and actors, and politicians — all figure in this book edited by Sonia Singh of NDTV.

Sonia declares that she wanted to bring out the human side of the fifteen celebs she interviewed between July 2018 and March 2019, while ascertaining from them “the defining moments in Indian history in the 21st century”. One, therefore, searches for those promised defining moments.

Pranab Mukherjee leads the collection declaring that “defining moments in the history of a great nation like India” is difficult. With three ethnic groups, 122 languages and 1800 dialects, seven major religions...he asks (backed by a Westphalian definition): “How can we say India is a nation state?” He was Head of State.

With reference to the “surgical strikes”, Arun Jaitley professes full confidence in “the professionalism and assessment of the armed forces”…which raises basic questions about military decisions — political or operational. Sonia does not ask them. Jaitley also says that Article 35A prevented investment in the state, implying that the ever-present fear of not-returning-home-in-one-piece was incidental.

Smug with the success of the “surgical strikes”, Nirmala Sitharaman opines that “if we had taken substantive action after 26/11, terrorism probably would not have been so blatant today”. Concerned citizens have their fingers crossed.

The Dalai Lama, is the lone religious-political leader and one of the three Nobel Laureates, Amartya Sen and Kailash Satyarthi being the other two. Sen laments over “what is happening to India today” with killings based on community and for differences in ideology. He confesses, though, to optimism over humanity’s ability to reason out what, if anything, we can do about our problems.

Kailash Satyarthi speaks of his discovery of slavery in Rajasthan and his reaction which became history, while Raghuram Rajan and Aruna Roy decry the secrecy in the electoral bonds. Rajan also considers the bureaucracy as a black hole where many worthwhile projects get absorbed. Nandan Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar, says that he had complete freedom in doing his job, thanks to the leadership at that time.

Aruna Roy’s “defining moment” was when power passed to ordinary people through laws ensuring rights to information, employment and education. Aamir Khan, who reinvented himself through Satyameva Jayate and the Paani Foundation, is inspired by the courage and inner strength of people who have no power whatsoever, while Kamala Haasan (said to have been interviewed in December 2019) shifts smoothly from the reel-world to realpolitik.

Fali Nariman says that majoritarianism is not peculiar to the BJP. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw’s “defining moment” was in July 1991 with the economic reforms. Sania Mirza’s success, says Sonia, led to several other women’s successes, including Saina Nehwal, Mary Kom and others, but Sania paved the way. About Sachin Tendulkar, Sonia says, “it is only fitting he became the first sports person and the youngest to receive the Bharat Ratna”. But our search for the defining moments continues…