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New Kid on the Block

The Great Performance

The awkward alliance of poetry and politics.

Published:March 16, 2014 3:11 pm
It appears that as the masses adored a political party, they catapulted its leader, a pedestrian peddler of rhymes, into the orbit of the greatest bards. It appears that as the masses adored a political party, they catapulted its leader, a pedestrian peddler of rhymes, into the orbit of the greatest bards.

Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Kumar Vishwas has all but seven cheesy rhymes listed on  http://www.poem­, a website of global poetry  — Main to jhonka hun hava ka uda le jaonga, jaagti rehna tujhe tujhse chura le jaonga (I am a draught of air, I will take you away. Remain awake, I will steal you from yourself). But he occupies the 26th slot among top 500 poets, higher than Kabir and Mirza Ghalib and many others, on the website. His CV informs about his birth in a “Gaur Brahmin family” (apparently the highest sub-caste of Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh), the only poet in the list to showcase his caste.

The lone Indian above him on the list is Rabindranath Tagore. Vishwas’s status, the website editors say, is determined by the hits his pages get. His website,, has other gems. “Main tujhse door kaise hoon, tu mujhse door kaisi hai; Ye tera dil samajhta hai, ya mera dil samajhta hai. Not something that needs translation for Bollywood song buffs. His site proclaims him as a “new-age poet, credited with reviving Hindi poetry among young generation”.

It appears that as the masses adored a political party, they catapulted its leader, a pedestrian peddler of rhymes, into the orbit of the greatest bards. Vishwas is not the first politician to take to poetry. His courage to foist verses on readers follows a lineage of illustrious predecessors. Former education minister Kapil Sibal believed he composed poetry as he texted and got the SMS published as a collection of poems. The Urdu poet who inhabited his Chandni Chowk constituency in the last century must have angrily considered the Right to Recall. The minister insisted poetry for him was a meditation on life. He confirmed it by celebrating his first month on Twitter with what he wanted to be called a poem: “30 days, 84 tweets/ They say I’ve reached over 2cr peeps/ As much I am on this medium sold/I gather all that twitters isn’t gold/ Here I gather plenty insights/from politics to basic rights.”

The Pokhran-II king, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, recited with valour paralleled only by Rajput emperors; Bofors crusader VP Singh did write some reasonable verses but once also cheekily compared a woman with a kettle. All of them found their muse, and publishers, only when they were in the office. The leap of AAP’s resident poet’s popularity corresponds with his party’s surge. That’s how politics trumps poetics.

But why only politicians as poets? Why so few novelists or story writers? First, the failings of language and emotion get exposed in fiction. Poetry lends no leniency either, but since it can be performed, staged and sung, it is handy for politicians, the great performers. A novel may take years. A poem is accomplished by pressing just a few keys of the BlackBerry.

Third, connoisseurs might disparage mushayaras as chintzy binge but the romantic halo cast by a lyricist over the crowd is the precise aspiration of a politician. A poet is essentially a romancer, a seducer. In its finest moments, politics carries an inescapable yearning for poetics. Not to write great poetry, but to achieve the poetic effect. To be called a poet. A soul smoldering for love, suffering for the pain of others. Remember the archetypal image of the poet in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa. This poetic halo invokes instant public empathy. Vajpayee acquired a romantic charm solely because he was established as a poet.

Kapil Sibal and Vishwas have not left Hindi poetry any richer than it was earlier. Nor are there any signs that poetry made them better politicians or at least enriched their politics and discourse. But when Vishwas invokes a “poetic licence” to justify his kali-peeli remark against Kerala nurses, he shows how a politician could misuse poetry.

There are some exceptions. Not politician-turned-poets, but primarily poets who later joined politics like Sahitya Akademi winner Shrikant Verma. Among the closest confidants of Indira Gandhi, he supported her during Emergency, wrote her slogans and speeches, and was boycotted by his artist friends. But his nightmarish political experiences eventually led him to compose Magadh, probably among the finest poetry collections of modern Indian literature. Chahta to bach sakta tha, magar kaise bach sakta tha, jo rachega, kaise bachega? (I could have saved myself. But how could I? How could a creator ever save himself?) He wrote remembering the Emergency, and died in a US hospital of cancer soon after the award.

Poets repelled Plato. Poetry for him was an inferior genre, an imitative art and found no place in the Republic. For centuries, poets have resented the Greek political thinker. They would applaud if a few politicians were asked to focus only on the sovereign, socialist republic and leave poetry untrampled.  n

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