Unfortunately for India's politicians, Shobhaa De has trained her sights on them in her 18th book, Sethji, whose protagonist is a wily, old-world, Delhi politician.
De discussed the murky world of Indian politics with Rediff.com's Savera R Someshwar and Vaihayasi Pande Daniel.
Sethji, Shobhaa De's latest novel, reflects years of observing and interacting with Indian politicians of all hues. The novelist feels the timing of the book's release could not have been better.
India, she says, is suffering a serious leadership crisis, with not an able leader to be found among its bumbling cast of politicians.
Incisive, razor sharp words slash through the rarified South Mumbai air, underscored by a knowing smile and a raised brow when Rediff.com's Savera R Someshwar andVaihayasi Pande Daniel met De recently.
Sethji, she says, has been in her head for over a decade; her readers will find many parallel in the current Indian political firmament.
De's 17 previous books – all bestsellers -- have covered everything from romance to sex to Bollywood to the Page 3 lifestyle with Sethji, she walks a different road.
The first of a two-part interview:
There are so many politicians in India today... Who do you think is most like Sethji?
(Laughs) Well, there's so much to pick and choose from... it's such a rich cast of characters.
I took elements from many more people (to write Sethji), but I would say Amar Singh because he represents the old school, much more than say a Jyotiraditya Scindia.
For readers who yet have to pick up a copy of Sethji, could you tell us a little more about the similarities that you see between Sethji and what you call an old style politician?
It's not based on Amar Singh, so I wouldn't really want to draw those kind of parallels.
It's just that, like Sethji, Amar Singh too was never mainstream; he could have never hoped to become prime minister. But he was still seen as a player.
His methods were crude, but they were upfront. He made no effort to make them appear better, more sophisticated. He spoke a certain bhasha (language) that was extremely representative of a certain generation and how they conducted political business.
His connections were interesting, but they all have connections. He just didn't bother to disguise it. This also made him more endearing because there was such transparency.
What you saw was what you got.
In that sense, I thought Amar Singh was much more -- if I can use the word -- honest about his ambitions and his modus operandi compared to the slick operators of today.
In your acknowledgement in the book, you mentioned Sitaram Kesri, a politician most people have forgotten today. I found that very intriguing.
Sethji has been sitting in my head for 13 years; he refused to go away.
At that time, Sitaram Kesri (who was then the Congress president) was the Amar Singh of his time.
There was something about him which was (pauses for a while) very disturbing.
Had we dealt with the Sitaram Kesri in our midst then, had we addressed it as something that is horribly wrong with the political system, we wouldn't have had so many clones.
Today, there are so many Sitaram Kesris. At that point, he was a little unique.
There was such outrage over so many of his dealings; there were so many rumours floating around him. We failed to recognise it for what it was; we are perhaps paying the price for that today.
You wrote Sethji much before what has recently happened in politics. It suddenly seems so prescient.
It's almost prophetic. I had goose bumps when so many things happened post Sethji being written and signed, sealed and sent off to the publishers.
The (Mumbai) Sea Link suicide (scene), for example, was written almost one-and-a-half to two years before the (first) Sea Link suicide happened.
I chose to name the model, Simran, much before Simran Sood was anywhere on our landscape.
Also, the kind of real estate wheeling and dealing, and the fight over prime property in Mumbai, was almost scarily prophetic. Now, when I read the book, it really does send a chill down my spine.
How do you see the future of India's oldest political party?
Sonia Gandhi seems to be determinedly pushing her son, Rahul, as her successor, while it is clearly Priyanka is who is the more charismatic Gandhi scion.
Priyanka's probably the magic card that will be pulled out when needed. Right now, they probably think they will be able to ride this out with Rahul; no one else, however, seems to have the slightest faith in that happening.
We witnessed what happened in Amethi; neither Priyanka nor Rahul could deliver even as a combine. The writing is on the wall.
Right now, things are at a crossroad -- either we are going to opt for a continuation of dynasty, and politics that are driven by dynasty, or we'll be able to make the big leap to the 21st century and modern day politics where the person who is the most competent and the most qualified will win the race.
But since we do not have an alternative yet -- a charismatic young leader has not presented himself or herself -- we are going to be stuck with the two Gandhi children. That might change if there's yet another magic card that we don't know about at this point.
I think crises of different sorts throw up leaders in a most unexpected way. People who you least expect rise to the job, come out of the woodwork, claim their space, become stakeholders...
Who would have imagined that a Kejriwal (Arvind Kejriwal, the activist-turned-politician) would be a player at all? Two years ago, who even knew who he was?
It's interesting to monitor change from the point of view that, with circumstances being as tumultuous as they are, we could have someone very young, very charismatic, someone who is a moral leader as much as a political leader.
Do you see somebody like that? Do you think it's time for a leader from the middle class?
(It is time for) a moral leader who stands for something that is a complete contradiction to the way we have come to accept politics as being driven by amoral people.
And I don't mean a Baba Ramdev, who I don't respect.
I don't mean a moral leader of that kind, a spiritual leader; I just mean someone who represents something that the young of India, the middle class of India can actually look up to and be inspired by and feel more proactive (about).
Unless the middle class wakes up and engages itself in a more dynamic way with what is going on in the country, there's not going to be the kind of change we expect.
The tipping point is likely to come six months down the line. If we don't recognise it, we are going to lose out and then we'll be set back for another 50 years.
What that tipping point is, where it will come from... I'm not a prophet, I can't say (when) but we are moving towards it. It could be the winter of our discontent which leads to something very major in terms of change.
Coming back to the Gandhis, why do you think Priyanka Gandhi's mother has kept her away from active politics despite her obvious appeal?
Is it a case of a typically Indian mother pushing her son over her daughter?
I think it is a collective decision, quite honestly. Not that I am a Gandhi insider, but I have my ear to the ground. I listen closely to what people who know the family have to say.
It was a collective decision at the time because it was felt that Priyanka is not technically a Gandhi. We must remember she is Mrs Vadra, Vadhera, or however they pronounce it. Her kids too are not Gandhis.
But if Rahul marries, and if he produces an heir and a spare, then that would be the logical way for the Gandhis to continue to rule the country for the next 100 years.
Since that is not the case right now -- I would say, earlier, Priyanka's children were much younger and she was perhaps hysterically in love with Mr (Robert) Vadra. It was her decision to stay out of active politics and focus on her family, which may have been the right decision then, which her mother respected.
I do feel all three of them are in this together.
But she (Priyanka) is clearly the more political animal; she is more charismatic; she is better cut out for politics. And, going by how weepy and sentimental we get about dynasty, she is the one who most resembles her famous grandmother.
It would make perfect logical sense for her to be nominated and for the Gandhis to just get on with it and do it if that's the plan.
I mean, don't keep India on tenterhooks like this; it's crazy.
What is your impression about Mr Vadra -- you don't seem to like him too much?
It's not that at all. I've met him. He's a charmer and his muscles do all the talking. He loves his muscles! And, you know, why not?
Here's a guy who's worked on his body and he realises the body's going to help him much more than, perhaps, the brain. He has no issues about... flexing his muscles metaphorically and literally.
That he has suddenly decided he wants to play a more active role in politics was a slightly unfactored aspect of Mr Vadra's career.
But it's a democracy! Who says he can't ride into the sunset on his motorcycle saying I'm going to lead India?
Nothing will stop him; nothing can stop him; nothing should stop him.
What advice would you give Rahul Gandhi?
I would say do what you think you are best suited to do and if it's not politics, just say it. If it is something you are being pressurised into by Mummyji, (remember) you're a big boy now. You can certainly assert yourself and walk away from it.
But don't play this dilly-dallying, keep everybody guessing, sitting on the fence game. It's unfair to the country; it's unfair to the party; it's unfair to the next election.
We still don't know where Rahul Gandhi stands, what his views are and whether he has a vision for India.
If he's going to be propelled to a position of enormous power all of a sudden, in a role that he's clearly ill-prepared for or unwilling to take on, then I think it's time for him to say 'Ciao guys, I'm out of here.' We'd respect him more for it.
Do you feel he is being forced into this role? That it's not really something that he wants to do? Will he make a good leader or is he someone walking the political path because he has no choice?
I don't know the man, so I can only guess from what is in the public domain.
He seems like a reluctant prince to me and, at this point, we don't need a reluctant prince. We need someone who can actually take charge.
Has your anger towards the Gandhi family abated? Maybe five years ago you were willing to give it a try; now you feel enough is enough.
I was not willing to give it a try even five years ago! I always thought there was something wrong and skewered in the fact that we couldn't think beyond the Gandhis.
It's a cultural tradition in India, whether it's in politics or in Bollywood -- fortunately not in cricket because you actually have to deliver; you can't just be the son of a cricketer and hope to then make it to the India team.
For Bollywood and politics however, the only qualification you need is to be born into the right family.
I thought five years ago, even 10 years ago, that Young India would raise its voice and say we really don't need this; can we just please get on with our lives and elect a leader who we respect and look up to, who doesn't belong to any dynasty or any political family? But that didn't happen.
Let's talk about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Unlike Sethji, he seems to be a man who is unable to play the political game.
Would you agree and is that good or bad for India?
We are underestimating Mr Manmohan Singh by saying he has not been able to play the political game.
I think he's been a superstrategist in the political games that he has chosen to play. That he's played these games very silently is again the sign of a very astute politician.
A person who talks too much, I would say, talks themselves into a corner. He has never done that.
So we don't know. We don't know what he stands for, but the fact is he is still there and he's still the prime minister. Nobody has been able to get him to abandon his kursi (chair).
If he's there, he's there with Madam's (Sonia Gandhi's) blessings. He's there because (Finance Minister P) Chidambaram wants him there; he's there because (President) Pranab (Mukherjee) wants him there.
He's there because all the people who call the shots today in our country, and have been doing so over the last many years, want him there.
That he can withstand the harshest criticisms thrown at him by the international press -- calling him the weak prime minister, etc -- and still not resign shows he's a political animal. We should never, ever underestimate that.
Nor should we ever underestimate the fact that he's part of the World Bank tradition dominating and running countries; that he is surrounded by people who are ex-World Bank; that perhaps what we see today, the agenda that is being dictated to our country, could well be a World Bank agenda that we have not been able to identify for what it is.
I wouldn't write him off as a useless prime minister, not in the least.
I think he's been extremely strategic. We can give him brownie points for 1991 and take away a lot of brownie points for being 'Maun'mohan Singh and keeping his maun vrat (decision to not speak) for so many years. But that also takes a lot of deep thinking and strategising.
What advice would you give Dr Singh?
If we were to hear his voice more often, as citizens of a democracy it would really help. But I guess he is under strict instructions to not speak up.
Resignation, however, is not the answer; it's not going to solve a thing.
If he were to send out strong signals to the international community that he is in charge, even if he isn't, it might be good for our economy, if for not for anything else.
It will also be a good signal to send out to our neighbours. It will be a good signal to the young of India that there is someone there who is in a position to take charge of the country even though he may have abdicated in favour of Madam and others.
But he's still there, he's still our prime minister and he should start behaving like one.
What would your advice be to the politicians of India?
To resign en masse would be a good point to start because I can't think of a single politician today who is worthy of any respect. I think I speak on behalf of most right thinking Indians.
But that was just a facetious response.
What I would say is that the writing is on the wall. They should not ignore it.
They should not ignore the anger of the people they should not take it for granted that their political careers are assured; that they will win the next election based on the old formula of paying for votes, creating vote banks and everything else be damned... I hope and pray that doesn't happen in these elections.
It is a very critical election for us, for India, for our future. It will also be a critical election for those politicians who continue to display contempt to the very people who have put them in power by being so blatantly indifferent and brazening it out with the way they conduct business.
I hope and pray that they do, in fact, review themselves because if they don't, the country will, and then there may be a lot of people in jail.
What is your advice for Arvind Kejriwal?
Who am I to advise him? I don't think he seeks or pays the slightest attention to advice.
But Kejriwal has been the catalyst India needed; he's a wake-up call.
I don't personally endorse his politics. I think his decision to start a political party was not thought through and very naive.
He is, at best, an activist who raised the kind of questions that others have not dared to raise, who named names the others have not dared to name and that in itself is commendable.
Having performed that service, he can disappear back into the woodwork and continue whatever he is doing in a missionary way in the villages of India, because that's where they really need him.
Whatever he has triggered off is for others to take forward in a more meaningful way because he can't do it.
He's not a political leader. He's just a well-meaning guy who's shooting his mouth off night after night on television and, God bless him, but that's all. That's how I see him.
Is Mr Kejriwal good or bad for India? And 'Anna' Hazare?
At this point, definitely good, because, like I said, there are so many sacred cows in India and he has boldly gone ahead and named every single sacred cow (laughs).
He has performed a huge service, so he is good for India right now.
Whether he's good for India down the line, I don't think so. He simply does not have it in him. There's nothing statesman-like about him. There's no vision for India. He has not said anything that is concrete.
He says the people will elect the candidate. Listen, we are in a democracy, we've always elected candidates so what is he talking about?
In that sense, he's school-boyish and naive. I don't know how well-meaning he is, but he has performed a service and we must acknowledge that.
'Anna' Hazare is essentially a peasant with no real political thought, no statesman-like qualities, no leadership qualities...
He's just a little old man who tabled the C word.
Again, that's a service he performed. Now, he can go back to his village and flog those people and cut off hands and do whatever he was doing before he became a symbol for national change.
It may sound rather unforgiving, but I have met him. I respect the fact that he did bring corruption into the public arena on a mega scale. We owe him a big one just for that.
What is your advice to the Opposition parties?
What Opposition? Where is the Opposition? What advice?
They are all cut from the same cloth. They just call themselves by different names.
There is no Opposition in this country. We've all flattened ourselves and said, 'Roll all over us, guys, it's fine.'
So, I'm sorry, I have no respect for anybody in the Opposition -- they are all the same creatures with different masks.
Do you believe Narendra Modi is a gamechanger in Indian politics?
Not at all! If he has any such illusions about himself and his 'vast' following believe he is a gamechanger, they are deluding themselves.
I think he has done enormous disservice to how politicians are viewed, particularly in the international arena.
That he's somehow back in the fold -- they are going about reinstating him in the international community, giving him a visa, calling him to their countries -- has more to do with economics. They will be using him as much as he will be using them.
He has offered Gujarat with all the infrastructure and all the advantages for investors, which perhaps makes Gujarat an attractive destination to them.
They are not doing it because they love Narendra Modi. They are doing it because they think it will be a good way, and the fastest way, to make money in India.
Modi will probably fast-track everything that comes from whichever country, regardless of what his politics are and what their politics is and how they view him.
But there is no taking away from what Godhra did in terms of the way India was seen; it was a huge disservice to the party he claims to represent because everybody was painted in the same colour.
There is no way one can justify that. There is no way one can say, 'Can we move on?'
We can't and we mustn't.
If Mr Modi becomes prime minister, as he is being projected now, what will that augur for India?
Who is projecting him as prime minister? He himself? His followers? His band of merry men? Who is projecting him?
Polls in India have roundly, soundly rejected any plan to propose him as prime ministerial material.
Why don't they say he is our nominated candidate? They don't have the guts to do it. They are testing the waters. And I can tell you the waters are not saying, 'Yes, India will endorse Narendra Modi as prime minister, no matter what his record as the chief minister of Gujarat may be.'
Go to places outside of Ahmedabad and see for yourself what that 'progress' is all about. A lot of it is eyewash.
Yes, he has served the rich of Gujarat very well. What he has done for the poor of Gujarat is something worth tracking.
Who are the politicians who should retire today?
Most of them.
It's not just about age. I am not ageist when I say this, but we saw what happened with S M Krishna. We can hardly afford to have a person like him, who messed up every time he opened his mouth, in charge of a portfolio that's that sensitive.
So, without going into age as the determining factor, I would say all the politicians who had had their shot at most of the portfolios and have not delivered should move on and give a chance to fresh blood.
Who do you like as a politician?
That's probably the toughest question in the world to answer right now in the Indian political scenario. But if one had to pick -- and it's a pity because she's the Speaker -- I like Meira Kumar. I like what she stands for.
She was my nominee for the President of India, not Pranabbabu.
If I had to pick at gunpoint between a Narendra Modi and a Sushma Swaraj; I would pick Sushma Swaraj.
From the Congress party, I really don't see even a single person I can confidently endorse...
(Bihar Chief Minister) Nitish Kumar?
He hasn't done a thing he promised!
Much was expected from Akhilesh Yadav, from the other band of very promising young politicians, but he crashed even before he took off.
Nitish Kumar has done a lot for his state but, as a prime ministerial candidate, I don't know.
If I may quote a line from your book -- 'a major news channel had done a report on Sethji's 'extremely' close ties with industrialists and how he had compromised his position as minister of road transport.'
That seems to be a direct reference to BJP President and former Maharashtra public works minister Nitin Gadkari.
But look at when this was written... it was written when none of this was even known.
There are several such parallels; it's just that my characters who are fictitious are playing out their roles in ways that I could never have imagined.
Is there a reason for that? Because you can't miss the references in the book.
The guessing games are inevitable. But, at the end of it all, (Life Of Pi director) Ang Lee said it fabulously when he said 'Fiction is the only reality.' You can't have a better line than that.
The kind of people we are surrounded by... how can you not be 'inspired' or cannibalise bits and pieces of their lives. They are so in your face; there's no escaping it.
When you switch on the television channels, it's there; when you open the newspapers, it's there; you go to any Web site, that's all you're actually witnessing.
How can a book about contemporary politics be devoid of the parallels and people you are bound to put names to?
But I am not helping and saying yes, that's the one because, actually, it isn't. My characters are people who are composites. They are not any one individual, but they are certainly inspired by the people we are living with, and tolerating, right now.
I thought you had split Mr Thackeray between Sethji and Bhau.
(Laughs) Am I supposed to be answering that?
What will you do when you see the Thackerays next? How will you answer if they ask you the question.
(This interview was conducted before Mr Thackeray's death.)
Well, I don't expect that they would come and ask me a foolish question.
At any rate, it's not directly about them.
Maharashtra politics has always been extremely complex and it has always had a chieftain. Why not Sharad Pawar in that case?
Why not so many chief ministers who had full control and ruled the state in a way that was almost tyrannical? What about all the supremos we've had?
Apart from that, I think the Thackerays have been remarkably cool even about the movies that reflect their lives and (the movies) do so in a way that is pretty brutal and pretty direct.
They are very close to Amitabh Bachchan who played Balasaheb -- there is no ambiguity there -- in Sarkar.
And there was a Marathi film called Jhenda, if I am not mistaken, which even had look-alikes. There was an Uddhav and a Raj; the Uddhav character was a photographer and the Raj character was a Raj character... And there was Balasaheb.
I think they had a special screening for them and the Thackerays had taken it completely in their stride, as they should.
Today, we live in an era where there are movies about Queen Elizabeth. There are movies about Margaret Thatcher. There are movies about Princess Diana and her children are not tearing at anybody's hair.
Kate Middleton's butt is all over the Net and the world hasn't collapsed and the sky hasn't fallen... There are several movies on Obama, on the elections in the US, on how the election games are played out...
There's nothing secret any more; it's an era of such transparency. And, like they say, hamam mein sab nange hain (Everyone's naked in the bathroom).
What is there to hide? It's all there in the public domain anyway!
You've seen Mumbai grow, both in the positive and negative way. How have the Thackerays, and the Shiv Sena, impacted Mumbai's growth and development?
If they had not been there, how different would Mumbai have been today?
I cannot even think of Mumbai right now without the Thackeray presence, particularly Balasaheb. He has had an overwhelming impact on the Marathi Manoos; there's no taking away from that.
What that impact has been, as seen by those who are not or don't consider themselves Marathi Manoos, is different.
Balasaheb did restore a tremendous sense of pride.
There was a kind of a gung-ho 'We should be proud to be Marathi, we should be proud to belong to Maharashtra' feel which could have been leveraged into something much more impactful from the point of view of the state and its growth and development.
That it didn't happen was such a pity, because he lost a huge (opportunity). It could have been a movement that could have got the Marathi Manoos to do something beyond burn buses and lament how the city had been taken over by outsiders.
The message in itself was not terribly off -- every regional leader cashes in on regional sentiments, whether it is a Mamata Banerjee or a Jayalalithaa or Lalu Prasad or Mayawati or Narendra Modi.
But the Shiv Sena could have led to greater employment, for example, or could have had aggressive programmes to educate women and educate their own rank so that they wouldn't be left out in the tremendous competition that exists.
In a city like Mumbai that is so cut-throat, you have to be out there, you have to be competing.
It's a bloody unforgiving city.
If the Shiv Sainiks couldn't match the spirit and the dynamism of the city, I think they lost out!