I like Mani Shankar Aiyar, admire him, value his friendship and want to retain it. And I don’t believe that will be a tall order after he reads this column. Mani is a fair-minded man who would rather people spoke the truth to his face than snigger and whisper behind his back. Furthermore, Mani is not the target of what I’m about to write. He’s only the undeserving beneficiary of an act for which the blame lies elsewhere.
First, however, a word about Mani and I. He’s never hesitated to help when I asked for it. In 1985 he got me an interview with Rajiv Gandhi. Ten years later he briefed me to take on V. P. Singh. And he was the first to congratulate me when I battled L.K. Advani after the Babri Masjid demolition.
Of course, Mani bristles when I interrupt him during interviews and alleges I’ve obtained at least one by misrepresentation. But, equally, he’s never said ‘no’ when I’ve asked. On occasion he’s even stepped in to fill a breach when others suddenly backed out.
In addition, I was flattered to be asked to moderate the discussion when he launched his book Confessions of a Secular Fundamentalist. He more than repaid the compliment when he did a spoof interview at the launch of my book More Salt than Pepper.
Second, men like Mani deserve to be in Parliament. We need them and they do credit to it. He’s a brilliant orator even if he’s well aware of that. At his best he can be Burkian — rhetorically spell-binding but also analytically devastating. Mani’s defeat in last year’s elections was, therefore, more than a personal tragedy. It was also a national loss. I’ve often said his party should elevate him to the Rajya Sabha and together we’ve bemoaned the fact that’s unlikely to happen.
Last week, to my surprise, it did. Alas, I can’t say I’m thrilled. Dismay is closer to the truth. Of course, I congratulated Mani. “I’m delighted for you,” I wrote. And I am. But I’m disheartened at the implications for our politics and public morality.
The problem is the way the government has brought him to the Rajya Sabha. They’ve smuggled him through the nominated route claiming he’s a litterateur. The Mani I know would guffaw at the pomposity of that description. It’s a truly ghastly word. But, today, Mani is shackled by it.
The fact is he’s a politician — who is justifiably proud of his three wins — an author, a columnist and a retired diplomat. But Mani is not a man of literature. Even in his cups he wouldn’t make that claim.
What makes the situation worse is that Mani is also a defeated politician. The nomination route was not meant as compensation for candidates the electorate has rejected. It’s there to provide an opportunity for musicians, actors, poets and social workers who are not able to contest elections. Mani’s gain is a more deserving person’s loss.
No doubt the government can reel off precedents to justify this decision. But Manmohan Singh and Mrs Gandhi know that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Mani would have been a hero if he had declined. I half thought he might but I accept that’s easier to ask than do. Few of us can look a gift horse in the mouth. I admit I can’t.
So I congratulate Mani. I’m happy for him. But I criticise the PM and the Congress president. I expected better from them.
The views expressed by the author are personal