Memoirs by South Asian Insiders: Their Strengths and Weaknesses

In the past few decades, there has been an increasing trend in South Asia –especially India — for those who have held important positions in government; former bureaucrats, ex diplomats, retired heads of intelligence agencies and retired military officials, to write their memoirs, post retirement, and provide an insider’s perspective on important issues (prominent politicians have been doing so for much longer). There is understandably more interest in books written by individuals who have occupied important positions in the midst of challenging policy situations – external and domestic. 

The increasing trend of former government officials writing their memoirs is a welcome trend, since those outside the realm of policy making are curious to learn more about what actually is going on in the minds of politicians, civil servants, defence officials etc in complex situations, and what are the key constraints they have to contend with during tough scenarios. 

Everyone would agree, that it is rather simple to criticise a person who has to contend with a myriad of challenges, and in certain situations does not have the luxury of time while making decisions. It is not easy to put yourself into his/her shoes and understand his/her immediate challenges – without of course overlooking any mistakes the individual may have committed when in a position of power. 

Memoirs also give an opportunity to those who have been in the thick of things to set the record straight and dispel certain myths which have built up over a period of time. With the advent of social media, Jonathan Swift’s quote ‘Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it’ has become even more apt. 

The problem however is that in South Asia, certain retired government officials —  in many instances —  overestimate their academic and scholarly skills, and focus more on collecting multiple secondary sources and summarising them (such accounts lack analysis and new insights), rather than using these secondary references as a back up to bolster their key arguments. 

Second, while there is a habit of passing the buck onto others with regard to the failures and shortcomings of other important players during a particular situation/epoch, seldom is there any admission of personal inadequacies. While it is no one’s expectation, that individuals should indulge in self-deprecation, but to simply apportion the blame for failures to other dramatis personae during a particular situation – many who have moved on, and in certain instances may not be in a position to respond to these criticisms, due to ill health, is unfair. Here, it would be pertinent to point out, that politicians, bureaucrats and other retired officials while distancing themselves from any failures, while they were in responsible positions, miss no opportunity to highlight what they may consider as their personal successes (memoirs by erstwhile politicians, diplomats and military leaders in the west are far more candid).

It is true, that no individual can be held responsible for failures, but it can also not be denied that the individual writing the book can not detach himself from events, after all the memoir/narration of an event is being taken seriously, because it is written by an ‘insider’ who was at the forefront during a crucial period.

Third, many of these accounts are dubbed as ‘original’ or ‘path breaking’, but they actually do not really shed light on aspects which have been relegated to the side lines, for a number of factors, but endorse what is already known, without really delving into issues which could be dubbed as controversial by some. In many instances, information already revealed by someone else is presented as though it is an original contribution to the existing information on a particular issue.

While it is true, that those who have served in government are bound by rules, after retirement they are in a position to speak freely and shed political correctness, which some of them fail to do. It would also be fair to say, that the critique of many of these memoirs are not as candid and objective as they should be, either because many of these books push an agenda or an argument which the media is comfortable with, or in many instances reviewers are not able to de-hyphenate personal relationships from their intellectual responsibilities.

Those former insiders who manage to write their memoirs must be commended – these are always an important addition to the existing literature. While a significant number of these efforts are candid and do provide crucial information, it is important, that former government functionaries when writing their memoirs leave no stone unturned in bringing to the fore issues which only they are privy to, and which would truly add to the existing literature on a particular subject/issue.

[Photo by Anna/Pixabay]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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