Good as politicians, bad as poets
Their poems are an ode to their massive egos, feted and established as literary pieces by fanatic party workers.
New Delhi: "Music rippling, blazing - Not knowing where you are; In the fire of your own tune, resound, resound; I love songs; There is tempest in tunes; Resound, resound in the fire of music; And compose a tune....; Sway your Vina in the dreams; Let beauty rise in your tune and rhythm; Beat by beat with your Vina; So many sorrows I forget" - Mamata Banerjee (Melody of the Vina)
On West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's party website is a section dedicated to her publications and English translation of eight of her poems. Most of them borrow heavily from her new-found radical socialism post West Bengal's Nandigram episode. Her poetry, like many other politician poets in India, is an ode to her massive ego, feted and established as great literary pieces by fanatic party workers.
Historically, poetry has been the fuel for radical thinkers and often the vehicle for dissemination of ideologies, philosophy and even propaganda. Revolutionary thinker Pablo Neruda and statesman Winston Churchill are known both for their oratory skills and their literary achievements. They are joined by former US president Jimmy Carter, a published poet, French politician Dominique de Villepin, former US defence secretary William Cohen and South African politician Mongane Serote.
Former Czech President Vaclav Havel, the anti-communist dissident of the 'Velvet Revolution' fame, inspired rights campaigners around the world. When the celebrated playwright and poet died in December, 2011, a rock concert and a festival of his plays were organised at the Lucerna Palace that the Havel family built in the early 20th century.
But in India, political leaders have brought poetry out of their hobby shelf into a money-spinning machine of self flattery fuelled by publishers eager to cash in on big names. The content, often laughable, is peddled as ponderous works of self-introspection.
In India, where pre-election oratory is granted greater importance than those inside Parliament, poetry is often a tool for influencing the electorate in the far flung cow belts. Most politicians liberally use couplets and limericks to poke fun at rivals and expose the misdeeds of those in power. They haven't yet set the literary world on fire, but many have established themselves as enthusiasts more than practitioners.
At the time of his fallout with grandnephew Dayanidhi Maran, former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu M Karunanidhi's 'War Song of Memories' was full of bitter irony and heartbreak. Karunanidhi has recovered since he wrote it, but the words draw an astute portrait of the infighting in one of Tamil Nadu's most intriguing political families.
"Some friends who pierced me through betrayal; Wasn't it a dream, people putting their hands on my shoulders to support me; Unfulfilled dreams don't hurt the mind; Stones that don't shine are thrown away as worthless; It is useless even to polish it." (translation from Tamil in this Caravan article). What the fans of Karunanidhi and Mamata's poetry will not tell you is that the leaders are utterly mediocre poets with prose that lack layers.
Ironically, Kapil Sibal, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, has published books of poetry written as short mobile text messages. He said in an interview he annoyed his wife by either sleeping or writing poetry on his phone while travelling. The minister who earned the collective wrath of Twitter and Facebook users with his comment on pre-screening of content, bravely tackles subjects as varied as politics, religion and the global meltdown in his poetry.
"The meltdown of 2009, its genesis, mortgage, sub-prime; the financial world felt at a loss, global leaders met at Davos, the mood effete, sombre with gloom; steps needed to avert a doom, global markets in recession; much like the 30s Great Depression," reads one of his poems.
In 'Parched Terrain', another 'SMS poem', Sibal writes:
Your lips are parched
The summer dry
Each moment seems
Like years gone by
The Left has suffered
for a lifetime now
from an ailment
they cannot diagnose;
the symptom, however,
that troubles them most
is that they
cannot just see
beyond their nose...
Sadly, Mamata or Sibal are no geniuses when it comes to literature. The above quoted verses are hopefully self-explanatory. While expression is a right granted to any individual, famous or common, their poems beg the question: Why us? Let's be honest, if you did not know the name of the eminent authors, would you read past the second line in the poems cited?
Karunanidhi's daughter Kanimozhi seems to have inherited her father's genes. After she was named by the CBI as a co-conspirator with A Raja in the 2G spectrum allocation case and sent to Tihar jail, she wrote poems pining for her son from inside the prison. A Raja himself is known to write poems.
Former Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is known for his love for Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. He went out on a limb even calling his party comrades "dwarfs who never understood Rabindranath Tagore and his vision".
One of India's best known politician poet is BJP patriarch Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose mellow style makes his poems bookmarks of times of his personal crisis. His method is reminiscent of a Kavi Sammelan infused with strong sentiments and a political vision unsuited for his time. He gives the impression of a man trapped in a party that is struggling to adjust to idea of modern India.
He had once said: "Some friends say that had I not become a politician, I would have become a leading Hindi poet. I don't know about that, but there is no doubt in my mind that politics did interfere with my evolution as a poet."
"Never place me so high
That I cannot embrace
those who are not my own.
On earth among the living
Only a human being
Feels alone in a crowd, and
Besieged by crowds when alone."
When they are not writing party manifesto, our leaders are filling volumes with poems. Most of them treat it no more than an amusing hobby. Their poems are also a way of portraying a softer image - their finer, more sensitive sides.
Nothing wrong with that as long as they remember that ours is a culture that respects literature, the politicians are being continuously evaluated and oratory has known to sway public opinion.