Book review: The Candidate
Author: Anirudh Bhattacharya
Publishing House: Penguin Books
Indian politics is an absurdist's delight. Where else would you have a prime ministerial candidate tom-tomming his 56-inch breast, and another whose only real qualification is his family name? It's a pity that such few writers have tried a hand at penning a satire on Indian politics and elections. Toronto-based journalist Anirudh Bhattacharyya fills the gap with The Candidate, a novel about an NRI techie who comes back to India after losing his job in the 2008 economic recession and finds himself a candidate fighting general elections from rural Bengal.
Jaideep 'Jay' Banerjee, Bhattacharyya's protagonist, is not just no politician, he's also completely innocent of the ways of Indian politicians, having lived abroad for two decades. He's honest, wants to improve the lives of his electorate and somewhat naïve — all qualities that his party workers believe will not bring in the votes and so try hard to get him to change. Will Jay win the elections, his integrity intact in the anything-goes world of electoral politics?
Excerpts from an interview with the author, in India to observe the elections.
Is this book drawn from your experience as a reporter?
To an extent, yes. I have covered a few election cycles in Bengal and have travelled extensively through the state. That came in very handy. (A few years ago) I was looking through my notes and felt I should write about it, but in a way that I don't get sued or stoned. I figured the best way to do that would be to fictionalise.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
Having covered politics in India for a long time, spent many days on the campaign trail with various people across the spectrum, I have lots of friends in politics so I am not going to name anyone. But a lot of characters have kernels of various people. And I want people to play the game — identify who this or that person could be.
Is Jay modelled on Arvind Kejriwal?
I started writing this book towards the end of 2012 when Kejriwal was a mere blip on the radar. Jay is not Kejriwal. He's very much an inadvertent candidate, more or less pressured into it by his friend, the prototypical slime ball politician. But all of us in India are armchair critics and politicians who have definite opinions on the way things should be, and feel that if I ever get into politics this is what I would do. I think Jay reflects the candidate within all of us.
Why Bengal? Is it because being Bengali, you were familiar with the language, the ethos, or is it that Bengal elections are more absurd than, say, those in Maharashtra?
The Bengal elections are in a complete league of their own. For one, there's the concept of 'scientific' rigging. And now with the Trinamool Congress, it just layers bizarreness upon bizarreness. The only other state that comes close is Tamil Nadu. Maybe Delhi is getting that way, with a new political entrant that is creating drama.
Given that it provides rich material, why aren't satires written on Indian politics? Do we lack a sense of humour?
I have always wondered why. I can't think of anything beyond Raag Darbari. And in English, just about the only book I recollect is Anurag Mathur's Making the Minister Smile, his second book after The Inscrutable Americans. No, it isn't that we can't laugh at ourselves — look at all the online satire. Maybe we don't like getting sued and stoned. Also, the level of absurdity in Indian elections is truly difficult for satirists to keep up (with). I have a passage on election symbols and prohibitions on symbols being allowed close to an election centre because it may influence voters — I don't know what they do with the hand though. And then, in the assembly elections in December, the Congress was asking them to cover up lotus ponds. I wish I had thought of that!