Dazzled by Their Soul

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
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Our politician poets such as Kapil Sibal are so in love with themselves that they believe every eructation of theirs deserves a readership. Our literary culture is more than happy to oblige
My World Within | Kapil Sibal | Roli Books | 159 pages | Rs 295

We must, in defining a bad poet, keep in mind that a poet can be awful in different ways. For one, he could be afflicted by the triteness of emotional or personal feelings; for another, he could suffer from lack of talent.  Kapil Sibal qualifies on both counts. Consider his offering on friendship:

Your friendship is / a gift that’s rare / and that is why / I really care

Sibal’s new offering of verse, still composed on SMS text, offers no explanation  for why we should care for My World Within, or for that matter the world ‘without’—the title of its part II that provides such food for thought:

The duality of women / a few can understand / males perceived as symbols of / a uni-dimensional brand

The reason then for dwelling on it cannot be the quality of the verse. It has to do with what he represents in our politics, a certain type—the politician poet. It includes among others Varun Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Najma Heptullah and Mamata Banerjee. Two former prime ministers—one dead, VP Singh and the other who remains only a memory in public life, Atal Behari Vajpayee—round off a list not meant to be exhaustive. These are men and women who play or have played a significant role in our public life, and they have decided to bare their selves to us. What does this say about them and us?


Sibal is not the only one to assume he can take our attention for granted. Narendra Modi, at the launch of his own volume of verse a few years ago, asserted, “People ask me how I can be Chief Minister and still write poems. But I ask them, am I not human? I am not a piece of furniture. I also have feelings.’’ It is a claim open to debate, but even when taken at face value, it doesn’t explain why we should not have been spared this:

The one who loves my Gujarat, / Is my soul. / The one who loves my India, / Is my God

Najma Heptullah has explained that her Impressions is ‘a collection of the moments of my joys and sorrows that I have shared with time’, but does not bother to tell us why she should share them with us.

Life should be like a mountain stream / Clear like crystal / Clean like the soul / Which gathers no moss

Only Atal Behari Vajpayee preempted the question with the testimony of ‘some friends’ who he claimed had said ‘that had I not been a politician, I would have been a leading Hindi poet’. Modesty, obviously, was never the point of his grandiloquent poetry, even if the soporific melancholy (the term is courtesy Siddhartha Deb) of some of his verses now seems more apt:

The evening of life begins to fall. / My years are spent / My journeys are done / The evening of life begins to fall

For all that his friends may have said, and we have only his word for it, there is very little in Vajpayee’s poetry to suggest he would have been published if he has not been PM. The possibility that they have been published thanks only to their position in politics does not seem to cross any of their minds. They presume that the lyric expression of their personal feelings will be of interest to us all. It is this state of mind Milan Kundera has rather lucidly analysed: ‘…the notion of lyricism is not limited to a branch of literature (lyrical poetry) but, rather it designates a certain way of being, and that, from this standpoint, a lyric poet is only the exemplary incarnation of man dazzled by his own soul and by the desire to make it heard’. Only such bedazzlement can explain the lack of self-doubt that lets our politician poets feel we should be subjected to their verse. And if evidence is needed for the claim, it lies both in their politics and their poetry. 


Consider Mamata Banerjee’s:

I will leave my address / Where peace has found a home / I will leave my mark / With the people, not in a tomb

Or Varun Gandhi’s:

I’ve sold myself, / I’ve sold myself short again / pretending not to / Understand the effluvia is / as solid as thought / the effluvia of isolation: / We must not be tactophobic, / yet mania / is the only reprieve / the only surrender / to the gases of darkness, / into that space / where genius hides / only from itself

The self-serving aspect of Vajpayee’s poetry is so acute that he can reflect on everything but his own hypocrisy:

To those who try to reach / The throne of power / Over mounds of dead bodies / Of innocent children / Old women / Young men, / I have a question: / Did nothing bind them / To those who died? 

It’s a question he could well have posed to himself, but the man it seems directed at does not even feel the need to justify himself. For Modi, all that begins meets an end: 

All that begins meets an end, / Every end onsets a new beginning, / From the heart of autumn / Rises the cooing of spring…

At sweet sixteen, melody of a cuckoo within / On whom showers romance, the flowers of spring? / Appearing poor, but rich within… / From the heart of autumn / Rises the cooing of spring… / Who’s getting wedded in woods? / Each tree is lit in festive moods! / Bestowed with divine blessing / From the heart of autumn / Rises the cooing of spring…

Even in such company, Sibal stands out. Among bad poets, he is the worst. And this steadfast exponent of ‘no loss in 2G’ sees no contradiction in preaching corporate morality:

The corporate world / must take the lead / seek wealth without / avarice and greed, / dupe not holders / of equity / the key word is / integrity / values, ethics / must underscore / the desire to / acquire more / revamp, reform / inspire trust / make sure the system / is robust


None of these politician poets is, or was, a great political thinker. They have practised a politics based on the theatre of symbolism and public gestures. Writing of poetry and politics in the US, David Kaczynski, a lawyer who turned in his brother, the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, has observed, ‘Bad politics is like bad poetry—rife with cliches, stereotyping, predictably cheap emotions of outrage, patriotism, sentimentality; it tells us what to think instead of challenging us to think more deeply’. He could well be writing of our politician poets. 

Their belief in themselves, largely devoid of a belief in any larger principle, also allows them a flexibility that serves them well in Indian politics. Changing parties is a common pastime in Indian politics, but even so, these politician poets stand out. Mamata Banerjee and VP Singh successfully went on to found their own parties after parting from the Congress. Najma Heptullah left the Congress for the BJP after several decades of espousing secular beliefs. Varun Gandhi has repudiated an entire legacy by first joining the BJP and then leaving even Sangh veterans uncomfortable with his rhetoric. Modi remains with the BJP, but within the party he is as much of a maverick as Mamata once was within the Congress.

Kundera has noted how Stalin’s epoch of terror was also an epoch of lyricism ruled ‘hand in hand by the hangman and the poet’. Thankfully, our  politician poets have been denied the absolute power that allows such terror to prevail, but Narendra Modi has already exercised his own brand of tyranny with Vajpayee’s complicity, and it is not difficult to imagine what Varun Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee would do with absolute power. In the little fiefdom that Sibal has been granted in his ministry, totalitarian ideas of censorship have found a comfortable home.

Their tyranny, though, does not run deep enough for them to command that they be read. In this, it is we who oblige them. Publishers, understandably can always rely on bulk purchase by various government libraries, but why are critics so charitable, why do our literary festivals not treat them with the derision they deserve?


Flipping through some of the stuff written about Sibal’s poetry, I came across this piece in Tehelka: ‘We have so far believed that poetry and politics may only be step sisters who don’t get along, or perhaps step sisters who malign each other to their own benefit. Kapil Sibal has, however, proved otherwise with his new book of poems titled My World Within to be launched next week. Sample a verse:

Your lips are parched / the summer dry / each moment seems / like years gone by  (Parched Terrain).’

I was hoping this was tongue in cheek, but apparently not.

Our literary and artistic life has always been darbari, mediated through government handouts and festivals. The bureaucrat who writes or the politician who pontificates has been central to its existence. Unsurprisingly, Najma Heptullah had a long tenure as President of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), only to be succeeded by Karan Singh, who among other things is also a poet.

Like Sibal, he has also dwelt on friendship:

Whoever you are, unknown to me, / we are fated to meet, I know not when / but I hear a sound like a distant sea / deep in my heart, I sigh and then / like a radiant flame of myriad hue / my heart leaps up as I hear you call / from distant hills, O, where are you!

It comes as no surprise to know that it was a former director general of the ICCR, Pavan K Verma, who translated Vajpayee’s poems into English. But the ICCR is also among the sponsors of the Jaipur Literature Festival that has hosted Kapil Sibal two years in a row for his prowess as a poet. The main sponsor is, of course, DSC Ltd, a company indicted in the Commonwealth Games scam for the contracts awarded to it by the Shiela Dikshit government. It would only be fair then to use the term ‘semi-sarkari’ for the new cult of festivals that has taken over from the festivals of India. And when you see that mediapersons most prominently associated with the festival are largely from NDTV and Tehelka, it is not difficult to see how appropriate the term is. Even the invitation to the launch of Sibal’s new book of poetry in Delhi said the author ‘will be in conversation with Barkha Dutt, Group Editor, NDTV’.

The mismatch between the quality of Kapil Sibal’s poetry and the pretence of literary excellence that marks Jaipur then is no aberration. It is the culmination of a development where the  sarkari culture of openly fawning upon people based on hierarchy has given way to this new semi-sarkari culture that is less transparent but equally servile. The favours sought range from an invite to chair a session in Bhutan or Jaipur to a blurb for a young author’s new book, a good word to a publisher and a review that helps things along. 

Sibal writes in his introduction to his new book, ‘This is the sense of the journey I am making. I find beauty in everything ugly.’

Indeed, and he is not alone.