History, seen as first draft

Written by Bibek Debroy | Updated: Dec 23 2007, 05:20am hrs
Tavleen Singh is one of my favourite columnists. There are columnists and columnists. In case this statement is necessary, Tavleen isnt a food or gossip columnist, or an agony aunt. She is branded as a political columnist or analyst and this comes across in columns chosen for this book too. What makes a good columnist My subjective criteria are the following. First a reader-friendly style, with short and crisp sentences, no sentences longer than 15 words, use of simple English. Second personalisation of the issue, so that readers relate and are grabbed in the first couple of sentences. Readers lost in the first two sentences arent going to read the rest of the column. Third a sense of anger and outrage at the way things are. However, the columnists role isnt that of changing the world, it is limited to pointing out to readers how things might be. Fourth no matter how serious the topic, an abundant sense of humour. These traits arent easy to imbibe. Otherwise, there would be many more successful columnists floating around. Here are the opening lines from The Gucci Gandhians (March 1989). It is that time of year when even the most privileged corner of privileged Delhi gets a taste of what its like to live in the rest of India. Despite our best efforts to steal power from peasants in neighbouring states power cuts happen daily and without warning, causing incalculable damage in these days of computers. Unless you live in lesser parts of the city the power comes back after an hour or so but by then your story could simply vanish off the screen as could vital statistics or important political secrets if you happen to be a minister.

Tavleen Singh has been a columnist since 1987 and sustaining columns over twenty years isnt easy. 98 columns from The Indian Express (there are a few from India Today) are represented in this compilation, segregated chronologically into two decades (1987-97) and (1997-2007). The first decade has 42 columns, the second 56. Some columns are to be tasted, others swallowed and only a few to be chewed and digested. Thats a columnists perennial dilemma, when columns are compiled into a book. A few columns are of the tasting category, only of topical and transient interest. With a longer shelf-life, books should have columns that suffer less from myopia, those that are to be chewed and digested. The core Tavleen thesis, set out in the Introduction, is unassailable. I remembered how different India was in 1987. Forty years of socialism had left us with more than half our people living in absolute poverty, no middle class to speak of, pre-modern infrastructure and a shabby, defeated sort of country. If we had something to be proud of it was only that we had survived as a democracy. India has changed immeasurably since then and the most important change in my view is that modern technology and revolutionary changes in communications enable India to be presented to Indians as never before. Thats the growth or India Shining story. However, As much as there has been dramatic change there has been a dramatic absence of change in areas of vital need. India remains a country that has failed to meet the basic requirements of its people like power, clean water, roads and sanitary living conditions. One reason for this abysmal state of affairs is that there has been almost no change in methods of governance.

The political and bureaucratic classes have failed to respond adequately. Notwithstanding the branding and positioning, Tavleen is more than a political columnist. She has views on the role of the State and has written good stuff on governance. My complaint is that only a few of those are represented in the 98 (A Welfare State that Knocks on Hells Door, Governance, Not Politics, Abolish VIP Healthcare, Get Back to Basics, ABC of Indias Future, Bypassing the Babus, Lesson in Education, Development Dud, Blast from the Past, Doctor, Heal Thy Government). These are substantive chewing and digesting columns.

But perhaps because of the positioning, this book is likely to be perceived more as concerning the peccadilloes of politicians and bureaucracy, the Camelot years of the Gucci Gandhians, Kanshi Ram, Sukh Ram, Jayalalitha, VP Singh and so on. Beyond a point, who cares about these durbar intrigues That history repeats itself several times, both as tragedy and farce. In this well-written compilation, one should read beyond that for the tragedy of the mis-governance agenda.

The reviewer is an economist