BOOK REVIEW: Sugata Srinivasraju’s Strange Burdens

BOOK REVIEW: Sugata Srinivasraju’s Strange Burdens
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The making and unmaking of Rahul Gandhi

by Samvartha ‘Sahil’

Rahul Gandhi, without exaggeration, is a Shakespearean character. If someone spoke of him standing by the grave of Shakespeare, our imagination can easily view the bard waking up from his grave and requesting for pen, paper and ink. Yet, no wordsmith in India seems to have attempted to closely understand the man and the politician Rahul Gandhi is and the strange tension between these two inescapable and intertwined roles of his.

During his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi, addressing a press meet at Haryana, declared, “Rahul Gandhi is in your mind. I have killed him. He does not exist.” 

Rahul Gandhi during Bharat jodo yatra. File Photo

Recollecting this moment, Sugata Srinivasraju, in his latest book mapping the ‘politics and predicaments of Rahul Gandhi’, aptly titled Strange Burdens, observes, “Nobody asked Rahul Gandhi to clarify his statement,” and, “The Congress party did not clarify his statement either.” 

Trying to understand the silence of the Congress party, Sugata wonders – What could the Congress party that is “meant to deal with the worldliest matters” possibly have said about “an unworldly declaration.” He then suggests the silence of the press could be a “mortal fear” of being “held captive to a discourse on the immortality of the soul.” This moment – tragic and funny at the same time – suggests the conundrum that Rahul Gandhi is for everyone, and also suggests how nobody – those with him and those against him- seems to know how to decipher him and understand him.

In the times we are in, where things- news, ideas, opinions, spirituality, politics, cuisine, ‘content’, dating etc. – are ironed out to be simplistic, the complexity of Rahul Gandhi is not easy to meet eyes with! The larger culture that is nurtured by and encourages simplistic approaches, readings and narratives, makes it easy to be dismissive of Rahul Gandhi or defensive of him, than to engage with him in all his contradictions, complexities, complications and confusions. But Sugata takes up the challenge and approaches the phenomenon of Rahul Gandhi both critically and compassionately, and delivers a book marked by clarity.

The knot that Rahul Gandhi has become, to himself and to those witnessing his time in history, is not just because of his past – underlined by privileges, loss and trauma – and his responsibilities – towards himself, his party, his family legacy and country. It has also been complicated and turned knottier by his entanglement with his key opponent in politics – Narendra Modi (and BJP and RSS), and the shifting landscape of politics in India, adapting to which has not been easy for him. Sugata examines these struggles of his, with past and present, in great detail and brings to surface not just the history that made Rahul Gandhi, but also the history of the present that is unmaking Rahul Gandhi. 

Very impartially Sugata recognizes the brave attempts of Rahul Gandhi, with few successes and lot of failures and limited impacts, to fight unequal battles in personal and political realms. But, even while registering the resilient strength of Rahul Gandhi, the book unhesitatingly critiques him. 

The critique of Rahul Gandhi is not for failing in politics but for not understanding the rules of the political game and not playing it with all seriousness. While the book is sympathetic to the battles in his inner world, it is not sympathetic of him for failing and falling short in the outer world, because a conscious choice has been made by him to enter the political battlefield, and no official declaration has been made about his disinterest in power.

Spelling out very early in his book the impossibility of speaking on Rahul Gandhi without referring to Narendra Modi, Sugata maps the methods and strategies of both the star politicians and exposes their politics, and examines how and why they create the impact they create in the social sphere and the reasons for their successes and failures. This inadvertently becomes also an examination of the Indian mindscape and how it perceives and responds to politics.  

Sugata, holds a magnifying glass over the languages used by both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, and also BJP and the Congress in political rallies, press meets, parliament debates and also in their tweets. All these come together to form narratives, and Sugata dissects the ripples these narratives create in society, given the Indian cultural context with its own memories of history and mythology informing and influencing thoughts, beliefs, and commonsense. 

Sugata also brings to the table the symbolism of the gestures, actions, inactions, photographs of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, and the impact they have on the Indian mindscape. In these juxtapositions, uncomfortable truths such as “he [Modi] knows faith cannot be fact-checked” emerge and hold a mirror to the complex reality and makes evident why the imagination of a majority has been captured by one and not by the other, while the two are battling for their own ideas of India.

Some of the insights on why things are the way they are, is likely to help politicians and activists to reflect on their methods to resist and combat the hegemony of the current regime. Along with these indirect suggestions, Sugata, at places, also makes clear suggestion on how politics could be done to ensure the seeds get sown in the Indian cultural soil and bears fruit too.

Strange Burdens is soulfully sympathetic and sharply critical at the same time, because the author understands the complex context, and knows how to contextualize things too, without losing the gravitation of history.

The book is a history of the present, political analysis/ commentary, deep dive into the character of Rahul Gandhi (and also Narendra Modi) written with epic sensibilities, literary sensitivity, and journalistic commitment. 

Probably what makes this possible is not just Sugata’s worldview being shaped by literature and his sharp analytical skills to examine the here and now, but also his political understanding churned by working in both national media and regional media. Also, not to forget his distance from Delhi, his rootedness in a region, his cosmopolitan vision, and the bilingual mind of Sugata. Without these multiplicities and complexities with which the author engages personally and reflectively, an understanding of a complex phenomenon such as Rahul Gandhi and the politics of our times couldn’t have been achieved.

Samvartha ‘Sahil’ is a translator, freelance writer and a teacher of film screenplay writing with the film and television institute of India