The book opens a window on Indian politics, painting a fictional picture of a world peopled by self-seekers, sycophants and crooks.

The author insists the book's characters mirror real people who have governed India - and being a former prime minister he is in a position to know.P.V. Narasimha Rao admits the central character in "The Insider" is drawn from his own experience: a boy from a dusty village in southern India who gets caught up in the struggle for independence, moves swiftly into state politics and rises above his scheming enemies to the highest public office.

But other characters in the 767-page novel, published Wednesday, are composites, he says.

Rao worked on the book for more than 20 years and kept tinkering with it late at night during his five years as prime minister, ending in 1996.

"It has been following me around from a distance," Rao told an audience at his book-launching party that included the current prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and three of his predecessors.

"When I write about back-room politics, conspiracies, musclemen and money-men, I'm only writing the truth. Everybody knows it," he said.

The book tells more about the author than he has publicly disclosed before. As prime minister, his image was dour, reticent and indecisive - hardly the type to gossip about colleagues or discuss sexual yearnings as he does in the book.

Despite a political career that lasted 40 years, Rao takes a cynical view of people who enter public service.

"The gravitational pull for many of these individuals was power alone; few seemed to be aware of the responsibility devolving on them, and still fewer were ready for it," he writes.