Telegraph Calcutta

Asaduddin Owaisi: From 2016, a meeting with the man who is attempting, controversially, what no Muslim leader in independent India has. Why is he doing it?

What makes people sit up and take notice of the man from Hyderabad? Like him, loathe him, but can you ignore him?

(The accompanying illustration is by dear friend and the godly talented Suman Chaudhury)

A more courteous pair of hands won’t serve you. They are big hands, like saucers when they open out. You’d want to imagine a cricket ball lodged in them, as there often used to be. Should you slide your gaze up those still sinewy arms and biceps, you’d probably sense the velocity they could impart that red leather orb down 22 yards. Asaduddin Owaisi once played opposite university number to Bangalore’s Venkatesh Prasad, opening the attack for Hyderabad.

That was once. That was before destiny caressed Prasad on to higher cricketing reputation and claimed Owaisi for the rough and tumble of politics. Prasad occasionally warms the dugout benches of club cricket now; Owaisi has spent far too long in the fiery trenches of politics to even feel the heat flaming around him. Insinuations of an underhand deal with the BJP – of illicit liaisons with the enemy – are again pressing upon him. Owaisi is making the offer of a warm plate of ” haleem“, simmered to a fineness on a slow burner all night, and bracing trotter soup. “How often and strongly should I deny that for it to be enough? How much time must I devote to such nonsense? I’ve begun to joke about it, I tell people, yes, I did strike a deal with Amit Shah, it was over a vegetarian meal. Even that is taken seriously. Taste the haleem please, our haleem is very special.”

At 47, Owaisi retains a sportsman’s swarthy frame, a tree-trunk of man looming a few notches above six feet even minus the skullcap, which is to his pate what the blond tuft is to Tintin’s – a hallmark crown. When he bends, torso down, to serve, he turns almost gallant of deportment; when he offers up a bowl voluptuous with haleem in those palms of his, he’s tempting you to believe atavistic hosting courtesies are back in fashion. We are on his patch, after all – his spartan MP’s accommodation a dog’s pee walk from Parliament House – and the emir of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has been brought up in the embrace of old world graces. “Haleem,” he pronounces out his presentation, “I’ll sprinkle roasted onions on it and squeeze a bit of lemon, then tell me how it tastes.”

This is not the man you may have seen exploding off your television screens ever so often – lavishing the treasury and Opposition alike with bursts of grudge and grievance booming from his remote bench in the Lok Sabha; breathing fire from rostrums across far corners of the country, an angsty evangelist of unassuaged grouses, whose fingers slash about like sabres, whose fists pummel the agitated air that swirls around him. When Owaisi takes the public stage he conjures tempests; they leave his constituency rippled with awe and excitement, they prompt his many detractors to label him a divisive rabble-rouser.

Asaduddin Owaisi ko gussa kyon aata hai?

Continue reading “Asaduddin Owaisi: From 2016, a meeting with the man who is attempting, controversially, what no Muslim leader in independent India has. Why is he doing it?”
2015, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Asaduddin Owaisi: This bit of Hyderabad isn’t going away from Kishanganj. #ManInTheNews

A report recalled from the Bihar campaign of 2015. Even then, the “outsider” Owaisi had a fifth column buzz about him. But he was clear and insistent his wasn’t a passing visit to the Muslim-preponderant Seemanchal region of Bihar. He stayed, and this time, in 2020, he won five seats in the Assembly.

There’s a bit of Hyderabad in Kishanganj. But only a bit, insists Asaduddin Owaisi, emir of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and, after Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the most talked about outsider of this election.

Owaisi is by now weary and more than a little annoyed of the insinuation that defies banishment: that he is the Modi-Shah fifth column in Bihar, sent out to divide the minority vote and create cracks for the BJP to slip through. “Just look at how small our entry is, just six seats in one pocket,” he protests, “And I have openly declared that on the 237 seats that we are not contesting, people should support secular parties and defeat Narendra Modi. Am I conspiring to bring down the anti-Modi coalition with six seats?”

We are in Owaisi’s camp quarters, the charmingly christened “Chanchal Palace” – no royal estate, merely a mofussil hotel as un-palace like as it can get. Owaisi, looming of built, probably doesn’t fit straight on the beds they provide. It will be a while before he sets out for the day. He is kitted out in crisp whites, before he leaves he’ll pick one of several trademark striped sherwanis that hang on the wire curtain behind him.

He’s been here several weeks now, living out of a suitcase and a duffel, and a personal retinue that serves up traditional Hyderabadi fare once each day.

Why has he travelled so far from home to cough dust in this bereft Bihar outback? “For no other reason than to inform Muslims, and also Dalits, of another voice, another tone. I would not have been required to come here if parties that claim to espouse Muslim interests had been true to their word. Muslims have been used and cast aside, called to iftar parties and been bidden goodbye, that can’t work any more. I have come here to do duty, this is more than politcal, this is a social mission I have been driven to.”

Continue reading “Asaduddin Owaisi: This bit of Hyderabad isn’t going away from Kishanganj. #ManInTheNews”
Bihar 2020, Journalism, Telegraph Calcutta

Tejashwi Yadav emerging from Laloo Yadav’s Shadows: Why he has become the most watched Bihari leader this season and what that could mean

To emerge from the looming shadows of Lalu Prasad is a tough task; to begin to cast your own even tougher.

Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD, anointed heir to Lalu Prasad, has debunked punditry and prediction and given the lie to his own default lassitude to make a phenomenon of his campaign charge in Bihar.

Win or lose, this election Tejashwi has made himself the man to watch in Bihar beyond the conclusion of the current contest. There’s a mandatory caption to the images of Tejashwi amid rapturous throngs wherever he goes: Lalu remains a force to reckon with even from his continued banishment in jail.

Paradoxically, this also makes the RJD’s run on the ballot double-edged. The more Tejashwi is seen to be the aggressor-trailblazer, the more likely it is to consolidate the ranks of his adversaries.

The BJP might, in fact, be not too displeased to see a surging Tejashwi; a section believes it can feed off a revived RJD by fanning fears of a return to “Lalu raj”. The BJP remains Bihar’s largest single force, the most resourceful and the most adept at twisting the course of the campaign to suit its ends.

Tejashwi’s feisty barnstorming across the state has forced hectic revision of how he was earlier assessed by ally and adversary alike; suddenly, in the turn of a few weeks, there is no Bihari leader able to match his ability to pull crowds and swing them.

Chief minister Nitish Kumar has been put deep in the shade with paltry pickings, unable to contain the vexation at the manner he is being thwarted. Tejashwi’s only real competitor at the hustings is a man not in the contest for Bihar — Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

To many, Tejashwi’s abandon of manner on stage and the energy he is bringing to crowds is a reminder of Lalu in his heyday — in a marked change of mien, he isn’t delivering speeches any more, he is conducting a dialogue, his meetings have become raucous gigs.

Continue reading “Tejashwi Yadav emerging from Laloo Yadav’s Shadows: Why he has become the most watched Bihari leader this season and what that could mean”
2015, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihar

The Brothers Bihari: The great hand-grab and a dinner not served

Or, the roots of the animosity between Nitish Kumar and Narendra Modi. Excerpt five from my book

In 2005, Nitish did not want Narendra Modi to come to Bihar to help with the campaign, not even after he fell short in the first elections in February.  That defeat did not tempt him to import Gujarat’s rising star to see if he could add to the NDA kitty. Some in the BJP did suggest it, but Nitish rejected the offer out of hand. The anti-Muslim violence under Modi in 2002 and his subsequent defence of it — calling it a ‘natural reaction’ to the burning of a vestibule full of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra — Nitish believed was one of the reasons Vajpayee lost power in 2004, almost against the run of play. In 2002, Nitish did not part with the NDA, but he took his reservations to Prime Minister Vajpayee, who attempted feeble and oblique corrections. Vajpayee reminded Modi of the obligations of rajdharma, a concept of kingship that imbricates the great Hindu epics. The BJP, though, patted Modi on sans an ion of censure, and celebrated his politics of fracture in Gujarat. After the defeat in the national elections of 2004, Nitish argued, albeit only in private, that Modi had rudely shaken down what Vajpayee had assiduously built up — a liberal, secular temper of governance. ‘Poore Hindustan ke Musalmaan aur dharma-nirpekshtabkon mein bhay aur asuraksha ka message chala gaya Modi ki wajah se, NDA ko haani hui, divisive neta is desh ko acceptable nahin hai,’ … A message of fear and insecurity has gone out to Muslim and secular sections across the country because of Modi, the NDA has suffered. Divisive leaders are not acceptable to this country.

The one thing he had resolved ahead of coming to power was never to allow Modi anywhere near Bihar. Nitish had very different ideas of how he wanted to run the state, should he get the opportunity. When he got it, in November 2005, he presented the parameters of the alliance to the BJP. The alliance would run on a special arrangement: it would be guided by secular ideas and policies of the kind Lohiaite socialists espoused; minority protection and promotion would be one of its directive principles; the BJP or the Sangh would cease to press the Hindutva agenda; Bihar would remain off-limits for Narendra Modi’s politics.

Of course, none of this was written down, as such agreements between political parties seldom are; they are letters of trust notarized in the court of public opinion. Arun Jaitley and Sushil Modi, Nitish’s university friend, who became the deputy chief minister with charge of the finance portfolio, would be the executors of this compact on the BJP’s behalf; Nitish, already signed on as junior NDA ally, promised to play by the BJP’s national ambitions. Sanjay Jha was the intermediary between Nitish and Jaitley, ferrying messages to and fro, helping iron out what differences came up.

In Nitish’s first term, barely any arose. Jaitley and Sushil Modi remained honest to the coalition’s unwritten code, even through periods they may have had cause to quibble. Nitish reopened proceedings on the anti-Muslim violence of 1989 in Bhagalpur, a consequence of the BJP’s Ayodhya temple campaign. The guilty were located and punished. Properties sold by panic-stricken Muslims were restored to them or cash compensation handed out. The government also opened its purse-strings for minority welfare programmes. As finance minister, Sushil Modi signed the cheques; in the BJP’s annals, he must rank as the man who has handed out the biggest kitties to Muslims. He did so uncomplainingly and often at the cost of being chided by partymen.

By the by, that chiding turned to rebuke. During a leadership meeting in Delhi in 2008, some colleagues charged Sushil Modi with having become more loyal to Nitish than to the objectives of the party, of having turned the BJP in Bihar into a ‘subservient tool’ of Nitish.  The chief minister is pursuing his political programmes and objectives, they complained, the BJP is at a standstill, it is not able to express itself, it is not able to expand, it has been reduced to Nitish’s ‘B’ team. Some of these voices belonged to party leaders from Bihar, men like Bhagalpur MP Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Sushil Modi turned to them and wondered if the party wanted to be part of the Bihar alliance at all? He underlined the framework under which the government ran and told his colleagues he would like to hear their views on whether they thought those terms worth their while. His critics went quiet, but that did not mean they were pleased. They wanted to control Nitish rather than be controlled by him, to dominate Bihar’s decision-making, its political discourse. Nitish was not even bothering to consult them, leave alone yield them space on government and governance matters. He was happy to deal with Sushil Modi and, in Delhi, with Jaitley. ‘What use is being part of a ruling coalition in Bihar,’ one BJP MP carped privately to me during that period. ‘What use is it when I cannot even recommend someone for a petty job, cannot assure a small contract, cannot manage to have a troublesome officer transferred? Nitish has hijacked this alliance and our own leaders have allowed him to.’

This lobby had its counterpart in Patna, equally irate, reduced to colourful cribbing: hum log is sarkar ke napunsak dulha hain, we are the impotent grooms of this government. Men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Naveen, both MLAs, men like Giriraj Singh, minister in Nitish’s government. Some of them had begun to spend time in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad as guests of the Gujarat government. Nitish had a good sense what was taking them on journeys across the subcontinent, what they might be coming back with. Narendra Modi was up to something, and he did not like the thought of it. But still it did not bother Nitish as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.

Continue reading “The Brothers Bihari: The great hand-grab and a dinner not served”
2020, Bihar 2020, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020: The BJP has a bunny in Bihar, the name is Nitish Kumar

Or, why the chief minister is headed for drastic diminishment even if he were to secure a record fourth term

Chief minister Nitish Kumar has become the hare of the Bihar campaign, the BJP its hound. The two are running together; it doesn’t test imagination to tell how hare and hound tandems usually end.

Bihar has turned into a teeming melee, thick with the kicked-up dust of battle that defies clear deciphering, just as it also defies cognition of a rampant and killer pandemic.

But the verdict on Nitish Kumar already lies inscribed in bold letters on the unintelligible skirmishing for Bihar’s honours: he is headed to drastic diminishment. Should Nitish manage to secure — as Union home minister Amit Shah has publicly promised — a record fourth term as chief minister, it will be as chosen bunny of the BJP.

The Nitish who used to dictate terms to the BJP is long history; the Nitish now in the making — or unmaking —  is one who will take dictation. Amit Shah’s guarantee on Nitish becoming chief minister again “regardless” of who gets how many in the alliance must be read as just that — a chief minister on Amit Shah’s guarantee, an office granted at his pleasure.

The one clear message ringing out from Bihar is that Nitish’s public image has nosedived — “sushasan babu” has become a thing of ridicule. He has been mocked and taunted during election outings, angrily motioned to go back where he came from, called, among other things, a “chor”.

Continue reading “Bihar2020: The BJP has a bunny in Bihar, the name is Nitish Kumar”
2020, LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

LazyEye: Let us do some Tann ki Baat

The thing is that it is not a thing to last. But while it lasts it is the thing you might hold most dear. Because it is the thing you are, this tann. You know that, of course. If you didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this. It is because you know that, because you have a tann, that this is a thing that can be conveyed. It is because you know that you can receive. Without the tann, that would not be possible. Not for me to tell, not for you to hear.

Lots of things would not be possible without the tann, it is the vessel of our beings, the house where we house ourselves while the tenancy of life lasts. Tann is the factory floor on which we become who we are, it is where we might do the things we might do, or mightn’t, it is the womb of our souls. And then the soul escapes the womb one day, of course, and leaves the tann behind. That is what we call death. The expiry of functions of a most complex concoction of things, innumerable things, let’s not even begin to count or draw an inventory of the tann, there would be no time for that. The tenant departs, those quarters would no longer admit another occupant. End of tann.

Continue reading “LazyEye: Let us do some Tann ki Baat”
2015, Bihar, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate

Excerpt Four from my book is a swivelling snapshot of what power and its sudden loss can do. Here’s Laloo Yadav at the height of his reign, and after losing it

It was a private coronation with a public message. Sometime in mid-1995, twenty-two years and nine children into their marriage, Rabri Devi decided to change her manner of referring to Laloo Yadav. She began calling him Saheb. All these years she had done with a ­common enough pronoun: eeh, the untranslatable third ­person singular Bihari wives are wont to use for their ­husbands. When they had got married in 1973, Rabri Devi had neither sense nor cause to call her husband Saheb. She was a village girl of fourteen and probably unaware of the weight of words. And Laloo Yadav was no saheb. He was, in fact, serving time at the other end of the social order, among those the sahebs lord over. He was a lowly employee of Patna Veterinary College, a clerk who brought tea to tables and carried files from officer to officer. Eeh sufficed.

Through several lightning leaps up the ladder of rank and fame, Rabri Devi had found no reason to alter Laloo Yadav’s domestic description.

Then, quite suddenly, after the assembly elections of 1995, she went on an urgent hunt for alternatives. Her husband had won a remarkable victory in the face of heavy odds, not least of which was the messianic Chief Election Commissioner T.N. Seshan, out with rockjawed determination to grab glory by enforcing a blemishless election in Bihar, the graveyard of free and fair polls. Seshan had choked the state with para­military forces. He had postponed elections four times. He made daily threats of countermanding the process ­altogether at the sight of the slightest misdemeanour. The campaign had become a duel between the chief election commissioner and the Bihar chief minister. Laloo Yadav had been relatively unbothered by the Opposition but Seshan had worried him. This scourge is meant to ensure people vote but he is going on postponing their opportunities to vote,” he would complain aloud at his daily morning durbar, issuing colourful threats that sent his audiences in raptures. “Seshan pagla saand jaise kar raha hai, maaloome nahin hai ki hum rassa baandh ke khataal mein band kar sakte hain (Seshan is behaving like a raging bull, he does not know that I can tame him and tie him up and lock him among the cows in my shed). The night Seshan had faxed his fourth postponement order to the chief minister’s office from Delhi, Laloo Yadav had been a bit of a raging bull himself. He had called up the state’s chief electoral officer, a copybook bureaucrat called R.J.M. Pillai, and blasted him as only Laloo Yadav could. “Ei ji Pillai, hum tumra chief minister hain aur tum hamra afsar, ee Seshanwa kahan se beech mein tapakta rahta hai?” (Pillai, I am your chief minister and you are my officer, where does Seshan keep dropping in from?). Before Pillai could begin to stutter at the other end, the chief minister had let loose the second burst of fire. “Aur fax message bhejta hai! Ee amir log ka khilaona le kar ke tum log garib log ke khilaaf conspiracy karte ho? Sab fax-foox uda denge, election ho jaane do” (And he has the temerity to inform me on fax! You people are using expensive toys to conspire against the poor? I’ll send all your fax machines packing, let the elections be over).

Continue reading “The Brothers Bihari. The Outsider as Insider: How Laloo Yadav brought his politics of revolt into its own in 1995 and stamped himself as Bihar’s potentate”
2001, Archives, Indian Express, Journalism

Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men: Watching this fine film reminded me of this story I had written in 2001. A real man – Tulsi – using his real son – Thathagat – as material for his outlandish experiments

For those that have seen Serious Men, and for those that have not: This is from the Indian Express Sunday Magazine of August 19, 2001

There is, somewhere, subterfuge stalking this story. Perhaps it has confiscated centerstage from the protagonist, perhaps it has run away with the story itself. For if this is meant to be the story of Tathagat Avatar Tulsi — at 12, the youngest postgraduate of the human race — there isn’t a story to tell. Tathagat never had a story of his own; it was always the story of Tulsi Narayan Prasad, progenitor and sole proprietor of what he calls the Tathagat Patent and what the world has called by various names at various times — whizkid, genius, aberration, fraud. Take Tulsi off the stage and Tathagat vaporizes from the plot, like a character whose role has been expunged. There is no Tathagat if there isn’t Tulsi, just as there isn’t a creature minus creator, or a puppet without puppeteer. That Tathagat story could be nothing but the story of strings with Tathagat attached. Or, shall we say, Tulsi wouldn’t allow it to be anything but that.

I go to meet Tathagat and I meet Tulsi. He is guardian, gatekeeper, regent. You talk to Tathagat  and Tulsi talks to you. You ask Tathagat questions about his work and Tulsi begins to answer them. “You see, he won’t answer all your questions because secrecy is the key to the work he is doing, don’t try to decode the secret because Tathagat will not tell you.” Tulsi is proxy and protector too. “I know more about Tathagat himself because I made him Tathagat much before he himself realized he was Tathagat. He is my programme, my product. Ask me.”

And before you have begun to wonder at the strangeness of the father’s choice of words for son, the product has responded to programming — Tathagat has slunk away like an admonished spaniel and installed himself beyond the forbidden boundary of the bedroom. Genius does not need to offer proof of genius by act of personal presence, not in the photocopy age, not when the Maker of Genius himself is notary to those photocopies. He has kilos and kilos of them, catalogued in the chaos of mouldy newspapers — certificates, degrees, marksheets, testimonials, what not. He is happy to pull them out of his pygmy steel almirah, from among uncertain texts on tantra and astronomy and Kamasutra and scatter them like confetti of self-congratulation. Tathagat is only incidental to Tulsi; and, in any case, he is currently engaged — being spoon-fed rancid kheer by his mother. The essence is here, spread out around me, a paper trail of the making of Tathagat and the glazed enchantment in the eyes of his Maker. Imagine Rumpelstiltskin on the morning after the miller’s daughter’s night of labours. “Do you know it took me almost 20 years to make Tathagat? But I made him and the proof is before you. Can you deny all this? Can anyone?”

Continue reading “Sudhir Mishra’s Serious Men: Watching this fine film reminded me of this story I had written in 2001. A real man – Tulsi – using his real son – Thathagat – as material for his outlandish experiments”
2020, LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

Ek ladki ko dekhaa to aisaa lagaa

What we also do to our girls

As if a… hmmmmm. As if a monster need. As if a vandal greed. As if a trickster tryst, accidental, at unplanned crossroads. As if a meeting that should never have been. As if a crossroads nobody should have been despatched to. As if a place that is no meeting place. As if a place that needs abrogation. As if a place we are fortunate not to know the address of. As if a crossroads we are fortunate to have no roadmap to. As if another name we cannot print. As if another tale we should not tell. As if another dare we must defy. As if another law that’s no more than a flaw. As if another bell ringing. As if a need to respond. As if a jab and prod — wake up, if not now, when? As if a last call. As if a no, no, no, no, nooooo of disbelief resounding. As if a yes, cold as reality, cutting as the truth. As if a victim. As if a villain. As if a lone victim. As if a number of villains. As if a victim wrecked. As if a villain revelling. As if a cry. As if a cry of relief. As if a cry that is rending. As if a cry of protest. As if a cry of surrender. As if a cry after which there will no crying. As if a cry after which there will be more crying. As if a cry that will not be heard. As if a cry in vain. As if a tear welling. As if a tear that dried before its dropping. As if again. As if another one. As if a thing that will not stop to happen. As if a thing just waiting to happen. As if a thing that was always going to happen. As if a thing that has no end and leaps from one satanic end to another. As if another name that will not be taken. As if a name already banished. As if a name already silenced. As if a name that haunts from that pyre of proscriptions and banishments. As if a name that will now not be gone. As if a name that will insist. As if a name that will tug. As if a name that will ask. As if a name that will implore. As if a name that will look you in the eye. As if a name you cannot excise from your eye. As if a name that will not be rubbed away. As if a dream. As if a darkening dream. As if a tumult under the eyelids. As if a piercing. As if a pain. As if a devil in it. As if a devilish devouring of a dream. As if a thing done to death but not quite yet. As if a thing still of use. As if a thing still to abuse. As if a little more. As if a life not yet entirely throttled. As if a life not yet gone. As if a life requiring snuffing. As if a hunger not yet fully fed. As if a thirst not yet slaked. As if a lust not stopping to ooze. As if a breath of spring she never breathed. As if a winter she did not shiver. As if a raindrop she never drank. As if a summer never burst her cheeks to redness. As if a spring never relieved her. As if a tune she did not hum. As if a dance she did not dance. As if a thing to drool over. As if a thing to paw. As if a thing to slap. As if a thing to smother. As if a thing to cut. As if a thing to bruise. As if a thing to knead. As if a thing to scratch. As if a thing to sandwich. As if a thing of appetites. As if a thing to squeeze. As if a thing to bite. As if a thing to bleed. As if a thing to drug. As if a thing to dig. As if a thing to pinch. As if a thing to twist. As if a thing to tear. As if a thing to impale. As if a thing to rupture. As if a thing to break. As if a thing to plunder. As if a thing to silence. As if a thing to throw. As if a thing of no life. As if a sign. As if a signature. As if a body of proof, a body quite done, a body quite dead. As if a reminder to who we are. As if a claim to fame. As if a bleeding medallion of infamy. As if a rage rightly exhausted. As if a vengeance robustly wreaked. As if a collective conscience fed. As if a diktat of burial. As if a censor on the senses. As if a scale turned off-balance. As if a pronouncement blind by a bench blinded. As if a truth we do not wish to countenance. As if a name we cannot print. As if a forlorn grave. As if a gravestone with no name on it. As if a burning. As if a smoke. As if a sight that will live. As if a smell that will travel. As if a stench that will hang. As if again.
 
As if a demon’s feat
As if a human defeat
As if an ugliness, nothing neat
As if a sordid repeat.

2015, Bihar 2020, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

I often get collared for criticising Bihar, but I do that only because of my investment in Bihar and Biharis

Or, why the “Naya Bihar” story still awaits the courtesies of its people

Excerpt Three from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to Elections 2020

Someday soon these men will slip out of these pages and become greater or lesser. There are no last words on lives; they end in ellipses, often suffixed with a question mark. The protagonists of this volume are a work in progress; when the last word has been written, a trail would already have leapt off it. There will be more to tell. Part of the charm and challenge of this pursuit has been the chase itself.

Laloo and Nitish together make a seamless continuum of the narrative of contemporary Bihar. Two of its great sons, who embossed the state with their imprint on either side of the millennium. One made a story of hope wantonly betrayed, the other ventured its unlikely kindling in the mire of collective cynicism and resignation. They make a strange diptych, Laloo and Nitish, a fracture of the same bone, separated by radical contrasts yet locked on the hinges by an uneasy sameness. For far too many reasons, understanding Laloo is critical to understanding Nitish, and very often the opposite is equally true. One significant change they have together wrought on Bihar is that, like in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, upper-caste dominance of politics has become a thing of the past. In the twenty-five years since Laloo came to power in 1990, the transfer of power hegemony from the minority upper castes to backward and Dalit representatives has become complete; that process is in irreversible stability.

When I wrote The Making of Laloo Yadav: The Unmaking of Bihar in 2000, Nitish Kumar was barely necessary to the narrative; he made sundry appearances, very often roaming the footnotes. By the time the book was revised and reincarnated in 2006 as Subaltern Saheb: Bihar and the Making of Laloo Yadav, Nitish occupied the better part of two new chapters. In 2006, Laloo was gone, swept aside by a dam-burst of unfulfilled aspirations; Nitish had begun to step ahead, squeezing Laloo out to the footnotes of the new Bihar story.

But should we call it that yet—The New Bihar Story? A part of me hesitates. A part of me celebrates. I am attached to the Bihar story because I was born a Bihari and proudly remain one. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be Bihari. I can begin to exult in small things—a length of pucca road, a stable hour of electricity, a school that has students and teachers in it, a health centre that isn’t padlocked. But the cheer always comes stained with concern. How far will the new road penetrate into the dark and flung corners of Bihar? How durable is any of this?

Continue reading “I often get collared for criticising Bihar, but I do that only because of my investment in Bihar and Biharis”
2015, Bihar 2020, Journalism, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020 from Bihar2015: The Artful Dodger called Mukesh Sahni

When I first met him, this young man had merely dipped a toe into electoral waters. It appears he liked what he sensed and had the resources to indulge his fancies. Here’s Sahni, “Son of Mallah”, who now heads Bihar’s VIP, and has extracted 11 assembly seats from the BJP. A throwback piece from the 2015 campaign.

This is the story of the negotiator of this election. He belongs to no political party, has zero political lineage and next to no grooming in rough and tumble. But he has bargained artfully with Bihar’s big adversaries – the NDA and the Mahagathbandhan – switched loyalties with aplomb and extracted more purchase and notice than might be expected of a 34-year-old Bollywood set decorator.

Mukesh Sahni, “Son of Mallah”

Meet Mukesh Sahni, also known as “Son of Mallah”, consummate “apolitical” politicker, a man pursued alike by Nitish Kumar and Amit Shah, a man who shuttled tantalisingly between both before agreeing to be seduced by the latter. “I am no politician,” he says, “All I had were votes, I went for the one who gave me and my community the better deal. Did I do any wrong?” Money? And how much? “None,” he counters, “Not a pie, I am not for sale, I am here to secure the best for my Mallah (boatmen) brothers. I have made money, and I am aware what happens once you’ve sold yourself.”

Continue reading “Bihar2020 from Bihar2015: The Artful Dodger called Mukesh Sahni”
Bihar 2020, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Polls2020: The Method in Bihar’s Madness

Or, why the state’s election battlefield makes you wonder who’s fighting who

Those familiar with the serial adventures of Asterix of Gaul would perhaps best be able to visualise the emerging contours of battleground Bihar. Multiple armies converging upon each other in raucous streams with no cognition of ally and adversary, heft or hollowness, as if animated solely by the prospect of an anarchic enactment.

What looked like a humdrum contest between two alliances until last week has overnight been transformed into a shambolic melee that has so blurred the battle-lines that it is tough to tell who’s fighting who. Bihar is headed towards an onomatopoeic crescendo ringing with comic-grade sonics — Piff! Paff! Bong! Aaaargh!!

Raring mid-battlestrip is the exaggeration called Chirag Paswan, a political rookie handed reins of the LJP by his ailing father, the veteran Ram Vilas Paswan, who passed away in a Delhi hospital on Thursday evening. 

The young Paswan is clearly punching impossibly above his weight or his party’s. The LJP’s Assembly numbers have been steadily tumbling; from an all-time high of 29, they plummeted to two in the 243-member house in 2015. On such a match-box presence, Chirag has unveiled ambitions of erecting a mansion — the LJP will contest 143 seats, in abject violation of reason and of accepted coalition norms.

But to focus on Chirag’s implausible leap of political pretence — probably buoyed in some measure now by sympathy sentiment — is to lose sight of the launch pad that has shot him towards distances way beyond his horsepower. Chirag’s sudden voracity of appetite and his violations of NDA entente are a thing of the BJP’s encouragement.

Continue reading “Polls2020: The Method in Bihar’s Madness”
2020, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Gandhi. JP. Lohia: Wolfed legacies and our necessary hypocrisies

This month, we observe the anniversaries of three eminences in ways that have turned farcical, even fraudulent. It would have been a mercy had we stopped at lip service as the annual rites of remembrance; we’ve brutally wolfed those legacies.

The first among the three is, of course, the man who has become familiar to us, courtesy his round-rimmed glasses embossed on ‘Swachh Bharat’ tumblers and streamers. October 2 became an occasion to trigger a rampant online celebration of his assassin, such is also our manner now of greeting the man we call Father of the Nation.

The other two are entities we routinely invoke and consign where they belong for safekeeping — in the shuttered almirahs of necessary hypocrisies. One belonged to Akbarpur in east Uttar Pradesh and died on October 12 nearly half a century ago. The other came from Sitabdiara, a riverine island between the Ganga and the Ghaghra on the shifting margins between eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. He was born on October 11.

Both travelled West to study as young men during the first half of the twentieth century. Both turned to public life during the freedom movement under the Congress canopy. Both were protégés of Jawaharlal Nehru and occupied the socialist precincts in the party. Both rebelled in later years, turned critics of Nehru, and became rallying posts of anti-Congress politics.

Continue reading “Gandhi. JP. Lohia: Wolfed legacies and our necessary hypocrisies”
2020, Column, Telegraph Calcutta

What you see, What you can’t

Or, lies about the dark side of the moon and yet more lies we tell ourselves

There is so much talk about darkness all around. But there is also talk about light. Contrary talk, it can leave you confused, like a ram that might wonder if it’s being fed out of love or being fed out of the love of… well. There is always this thing, and then there is that thing. Think about the dark side of the moon. Then think about the absurdity of it. The dark side of a darkness. Scientists, Astronomers, Spacemen, lend me your ears, I come to bury lies, not to perpetuate them. Darkness is where you do not take the lights. Light is where darkness flees in fright. Where it flees to we do not know; where it comes from, this darkness, we may have some notion. Darkness comes from dark things. What are dark things? We should have some notion, we’ve had a few years of trying, six or thereabouts. If we still do not know where darkness comes from, it is probably darkness we deserve. We kid ourselves, or delve in delusions.

The dark side of the moon is the twilight of a lie of your invention — the moon has no light, darkness cannot have a side, the dark side is defined by where the sun casts its light, or does not at a given time. So, please, end the lie. And the pretence of your erudition. Unmask the moon, let darkness be whole, do not tell us darkness has a side. Do not defame the moon. It has made us love, which is not a mean thing it has done. It has made us pine in its waning, and dine over its waxing, and those are no mean things either. Illusion has served survival far more than reality, no matter that illusion is appropriately a synonym for a lie. If truth afforded us living, not so many of us would be living, and not for the lengths we do. If truth afforded us living, we would be swearing by the moon. For it has no dark side or a side that is not lit. It passes not a waning or a waxing. It has no light. It has turned even its scars into a thing of beauty remarked upon, or some such thing. Wastrel poets and their even more wastrel leagues of investors would know.

Continue reading “What you see, What you can’t”
Bihar 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar 2020: Nitish Kumar Vs. Narendra Modi Redux?

Is this going to be a de facto battle between the state’s ruling allies? Read on, and never exclude a twist in this tale

A sour irony is descending upon Nitish Kumar, aiming for a record fourth straight term as Bihar chief minister — his main ally, the BJP, is emerging as main opposition to his ambition.

As the Assembly polls near, the BJP appears less and less a coalition partner, more and more a challenger trying to manoeuvre itself into the driver’s seat and dictate power post-election at the expense of Nitish’s Janata Dal United (JDU).

Sunday’s decision by Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) to reject Nitish as leader of the NDA in Bihar is a proxy ploy by the BJP not only to erode the chief minister of agency as unchallenged alliance leader, but also to chip away at his tally in the new Assembly to a degree that he is left emaciated.

Officially, the BJP still maintains Nitish will be the face of the NDA’s campaign, but it is apparent the chief minister is a placard the BJP is preparing to maim, even discard. Irrespective of the party’s official position, the LJP’s anti-Nitish overture isn’t without the BJP leadership’s endorsement; it is more likely a concerted move.

Chirag Paswan, put in charge of negotiations by his ailing father, met BJP president J.P. Nadda last week in the presence of home minister Amit Shah, the de facto party boss.

Long reined-in, the BJP’s renewed aspiration to pilot power in Bihar has been fed in no mean way by the limp RJD-led gathbandhan. Drubbed in two successive Lok Sabha elections and minus the stage and backroom abilities of Lalu Prasad, the gathbandhan (the Congress and the Left parties are part of it) holds out little promise of making a fight of it.

Continue reading “Bihar 2020: Nitish Kumar Vs. Narendra Modi Redux?”
2019, Bihar, Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Tejashwi Yadav: The Patriarch’s Pale Shadow

Revisiting the consequences of Laloo Yadav’s absence from the Bihar’s battlefield

Tejashwi’s anointment as leader of Bihar’s Opposition gathbandhan in the approaching elections must be music to the ears of the rule NDA

Zero. It has never been this bad; it cannot get any worse.

Or it probably still can.

It is one thing for Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to have drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha this summer; it is quite another for him to have nobody around to take that blank and build on it. The party, as it used to be under Lalu’s helmsmanship, is over. Bihar’s once fabled and formidable House of Yadu has become the shape of a pack of cards tumbled upon itself.

Here’s what fragments of a clan in collapse can look like up close. The confetti of serial abuse of power and public office floating about the defeated air; there are bills to be paid yet, and someone will come knocking. The unseemly rites of a turbulent son’s ruptured marriage playing out on the doorstep. Spewing from within, grim tales of competing grouses and internecine family feuding — son versus son, daughter versus mother, sister versus brother; in the absence of the arraigned father, there’s nothing to quell the quarrelling over what may remain. The man he left behind in charge having also skipped station. There’s nobody around to pick up the pieces.

The Bihar Assembly came into session this Friday. Tejashwi, who leads the Opposition benches, wasn’t there. There were rumours he’d turn up, but they turned out to be rumours. Tejashwi Yadav has been gone from the scene a long and inexplicable while. So long and so inexplicable that his own ranks have begun to wonder if he’s interested in his bequeathed job. So long and so inexplicable that Lalu no longer bothers with worrying, what would be the point? He is 71 and ill. He is incarcerated on a medley of corruption convictions and charges in Jharkhand. The circumstances of his coiled labyrinth allow him to do so much and no more. Tejashwi has stopped to heed his command. Where is Tejashwi? In Delhi. Probably. But he will come. Oh look, he has already tweeted a long distance hello to “My dear Bihar!” on the plea of orthopaedic treatment that nobody hitherto knew of. Bihar should rest assured.

Lalu wanted Tejashwi to stay on the deck and take the storm, like he himself had often done in the past. Tejashwi was in such a rush to get away, he did not wait to cast his vote this election. Tejashwi was not drawn to the hollering tragedy of 130-odd children snuffed out by encephalitis in Muzaffarpur. Tejashwi did not arrive to lead his flock in an Assembly that faces re-election just next year. Tejashwi has been gone from Patna a whole month. Tejashwi is Lalu’s chosen mantle-bearer. Such as that mantle is; it has zero freshly inscribed on it.

Political obituaries can turn treacherous on their authors. When they are about someone like Lalu, feisty and defiant through his roller-coaster life, they can turn and sting too.

This is not a political obituary. This is a Doctrine of Lapse notification. Lalu has a legacy, but those he entrusted it to have bungled it. The entity central to Bihar’s politics for three decades is tearing out like a meteor in tailspin.

This is the first election of his political career that Lalu stood barred from turning up to campaign; this is not the first time he has lost, but this is the first time the RJD can hear what death-rattle sounds like.

Consider this: Based on the Lok Sabha results — a stunning 39 out of 40 for the NDA — the RJD managed to win a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. Tej Pratap, Lalu’s elder and maverick son, lost the Mahua seat by more than 10,000 votes.

Tejashwi held on to Raghopur by its membranes, barely 200-odd votes. Misa, the eldest of Lalu’s children, lost the Yadav borough of Patliputra a second time running, bested once again by Ram Kripal Yadav, once Lalu’s trusted protégé.

Everything suggests a daylight heist on the Yadav vote which once kept Lalu securely banked in power. 2014 was probably the first sign Narendra Modi had disrupted traditional voter behaviour and snatched away a section of Yadav loyalty from Lalu. 2019 is resounding confirmation of not merely a drift away from Lalu but of a new polarisation behind the BJP and its Bihar allies. Nearly 40 per cent of the Yadav vote has shifted base; there is little to suggest on the ground that number will not mount. The RJD has been turfed out across its traditional Yadav strongholds — from Madhepura and Saharsa, from Saran and Siwan and Sonepur, from Maharajganj and Gopalgunj, from Danapur and Maner which, for decades was quite literally the family’s personal backyard. “Laluji ke bina ab kya raha?” asks Jitender Singh, an avowed Lalu loyalist and apologist, “Kuchh bhi kahiye, Laluji neta thhe, ab kaun raha?” (What’s left after Lalu? Say what you will, Lalu was a leader, who’s left?) We are at a tea shack in Maner, about 30 kilometres west of Patna. Jitender can’t stop ruing what’s happened and what’s to come. “I feel for Laluji, I am committed, but look at his children. Why did Misa have to contest the Lok Sabha when she is already in the Rajya Sabha. She is laalchi, greedy. Tej Pratap is a vagrant, nobody knows what he is up to. Tejashwi makes no effort at communicating, spending time with people. They control the party, but nobody has a clue what they are doing or what they have in mind. Kya future hoga?” The anger and the unease is palpable. It can no longer be called a crack in the RJD voter base, it is more akin to a sundering. “Lalu’s party minus Lalu looks like a wipeout,” a senior RJD leader and Lalu’s contemporary says, “Tejashwi and his ranks have failed to deliver, the party is nervous, its faith lies shattered, we are in a mess.”

Continue reading “Tejashwi Yadav: The Patriarch’s Pale Shadow”
Journalism, Politics 2020, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Adityanath’s UP and the Imagination of Hell

Twice in two years has Ajay Mohan Bisht, also known as Adityanath, been voted the nation’s best chief minister in polls that purport credibility.

It may be fair to wonder which sordid corners of hell those pollsters went scouring. Or perhaps they were merely scouring Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, which answers to multiple descriptions of hell.

Such as the one whose grisly layers we might yet want to banish as the fiction of a traumatic nightmare. Unfortunately, we are living it and being cynically denied the ordeal of the dead.

A 19-year-old is gagged, raped and bludgeoned by an entitled crew of criminals in Hathras, barely 200km southeast of Delhi. So brutally that her spine snaps and leaves her paralysed.

When news of the savagery breaks, district authorities damn it as “fake news”. But she survives the multiple assaults and the slur of official lies. She struggles for life a fortnight, shifted from hospital to hospital, and eventually dies in Delhi. She can no longer be dismissed as “fake news”, she has become a dead body.

But this is Adityanath’s realm, what it decrees dismissed will have to be dismissed.

Continue reading “Adityanath’s UP and the Imagination of Hell”
2015, Book Excerpts, The Brothers Bihari

Patna: Return to Good Riddance

The second excerpt from The Brothers Bihari in the run-up to elections in Bihar. This one on my beloved hometown, and a few other things new visitors to Patna might want to keep in mind and see for themselves.

Patna is not a nice place to be. I was born in Patna, it’s where I came to formative consciousness. While my father waited upon my birth in the corridors of Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH), material for a series of reports on the state of healthcare in Bihar’s premier hospital gathered around him. They were published in Indian Nation, the most read local daily of the day. One of his reports was written around the photograph of a dog scurrying away from the maternity ward of PMCH with an umbilical chord in its jaws. Many years later, when I was researching my book on Laloo Yadav’s Bihar, I saw stray cows pulling sheets off comatose patients on rusted gurneys.

About the first story I reported from Bihar was about a man called Bir Bahadur Singh. He was an independent MLA from Bhojpur in central Bihar, a big fellow with a straggly beard and moustache-ends that sat like coiled centipedes on his cheeks. He wore colourful bandannas and dark glasses and loved having pictures taken with his guns and his private guards. He would look into the lens as if the first thing he intended after the picture was taken was to shoot the photographer. One late evening Bir Bahadur Singh walked into a four-star hotel in central Patna with a band of roughs. They had brought along a goat which Bir Bahadur’s sidekicks proceeded to slaughter in a corner of the lobby. The party lounged while the goat cooked in the hotel kitchen; they had scared the lobby empty, it was theirs while they wanted it. They feasted, and a few hours later, they rolled out in an acid-cloud of burps. That is what my early story was about. Patna is an education; it still is.

Continue reading “Patna: Return to Good Riddance”
2017, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Adityanath: He always promised to make Uttar Pradesh the horror story it has become

As Yogi raj marauds around the state, wreaking atrocity upon sordid atrocity, reposting a piece in The Telegraph from the day he took over reins as chief minister. What is happening today under him was never tough to foretell

***

March 18, 2017: As widely perceived and often stridently promised, the Bharatiya Janata Party has brought the D word to Uttar Pradesh’s centre stage; it’s not development, it’s divisiveness.

Few can match the unwavering sectarian virulence of Yogi Adityanath, who steamrollered his way to unanimous election as Uttar Pradesh chief minister this evening amid vociferous “Jai Shri Ram” cries from a cheer-mob that clotted central Lucknow’s arteries.

And far too many, even among those he outstripped, stood better qualified to handle the country’s second most important political and governance assignment. The Uttar Pradesh BJP doesn’t lack for leaders with administrative experience. The man it has picked doesn’t have any.

About the only institution Yogi Adityanath, aka Ajay Singh Bisht, originally from Garhwal, has ever presided over is Gorakhpur’s Gorakhnath Math, a prosperous temple trust. As mahant of the Math, Adityanath has been used to wielding unquestioned authority and expecting blind obeisance. Such, that he has often brooked no restraint from the law and flagrantly violated it. Jailed once in 2007 for encouraging Hindutva rioters and flouting prohibitory orders, Adityanath has often not been ashamed to play outlaw. This man is now the law in Uttar Pradesh.

He hasn’t baulked at bringing social peace to peril. He has shared a stage with hate preachers and those that have made open exhorts to violence against minorities. Much of what Adityanath has to say from the public stage probably deserves no repetition because it is patently violative of constitutional values, the law and good sense. But for those that might seek a sense, social media sites store an abundance.

Continue reading “Adityanath: He always promised to make Uttar Pradesh the horror story it has become”
2015, Book Excerpts

Friends to Foes and Friends to Foes Again

As Bihar enters another election season, here’s the first of select excerpts from The Brothers BIhari, the lives and times of Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar and the state they have taken turns to boss for three decades now

***

Appan maath ke tetar kakro sujhaai chhai?

(Does anyone ever see the bump on their own forehead?)

—Maithili proverb

Midway through the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign that would decimate both of them, Laloo Yadav vehemently asserted his rejection of Nitish Kumar. Journalist Madhu Trehan had brought her multimedia portal ‘Newslaundry’ team to Patna and persuaded Laloo to sit down for a live studio interaction that would be aired on NDTV. I was among those invited to the makeshift studio on the upper floors of Patna’s Maurya Hotel and I asked Laloo if he would, in order to fend off what he called the ‘grave threat’ of Narendra Modi, consider joining hands with Nitish Kumar.

He stared coldly at me a moment, as if I had tossed him an incredulous query, then said: ‘But I thought you knew Bihar, Thakurji. This man (Nitish) has been sitting all these years in the BJP’s lap, he unseated me from power, he is the BJP’s pet. How could you even ask if I will join hands with him? Out of the question, Laloo Yadav is here to fight communal forces and those that connived with them to serve their own interests. Hum Nitish se haath milayenge? Hunhh! Kabhi nahin, never.’

Continue reading “Friends to Foes and Friends to Foes Again”
2020, Column, LazyEye, Telegraph Calcutta

Oh, but did you know this about him?

About me, rather. When they say about him, they are actually speaking for me and on my behalf, but they don’t want to embarrass me totally, you see, so they use the third person. That’s all right. That is only right. I am saying, rather asking, did you know this about me, and they are kind enough to put it another way so I don’t directly come in the way.

They are devoted people, they don’t want me to be seen as a publicist of myself, that is why they do it. They are well paid and looked after, do not worry, that much I do for services rendered to me, I have commerce in my blood, as I once famously or infamously said, you know, so I pay. Dhandho chhe, it’s business, and there is honour to keep in business. The honour of business is, you know, money. Money, money, money. Maal Baalendra. Oh sorry, I got that wrong, when everyone’s shouting your name aloud as if it were some magic mantra, the echoes can sometimes confuse you. It’s Baal Maalendra.

Continue reading “Oh, but did you know this about him?”
Telegraph Calcutta

What War Also Does

A meditation on the 21st anniversary of the Kargil conflict

Wars are lost and wars are won, but it is probably in the nature of wars to never end. They get seeded in memory, uniquely rigged and purposed — as vanity, and often vainglory, of victory, as twisting humiliation of defeat, as tenuous truce waiting to come asunder and settle what was left unsettled, a singularly human stain that refuses to wash, or only bleeds to all washing. What war did not beget another? What war did not begin to resemble the debris of lessons not learnt from the previous one?

Among modern-world reporters of war, Leo Tolstoy blazed a trail. In the mid-19th century, he travelled to the Crimea with the battery of his soldier brother Nikolai and began to write about what he saw; he would later join the infantry and fight on a front that is still alive with combat between Russian expansionism and Ukrainian resistance. His Crimea time would become The Sebastopol Sketches, a classic of war reportage. Tolstoy also ran raids against “rebel mountain tribesmen” — the Chechens — in the north Caucasus. He conjured from that stint a haunting novella called Hadji Murat, an allegory of empire and defiance, and valour and betrayal. Its sounds and setting have often reminded me of Kashmir. A century-and-a-half on, the Russians were still busy cutting the Chechens down. They pounded Grozny, the capital, to pulp, then resurrected it and put a neon-and-granite polish on it. They still haven’t put out the Chechen fires. Hadji Murat, a Chechen protagonist crafted by a Russian writer at the turn of the 19th century, lives on.

Tolstoy’s later work became a searing invective against war; it was not about glory, it was “chaotic, disorienting and humbling”. His critique became one of the reasons he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize — his work had “denied the right of both individuals and nations to self-defence”. It’s probably what war also does, it insists on its necessity to the human condition.

Continue reading “What War Also Does”
State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Compliant and complicit (September 1, 2020)

We are living a future that we are not recognizing as our present; it is taking us in, layer upon layer, in ways that we probably need to recognize if we are to be able to combat its consequences. Else we run the peril of leaving ourselves irredeemably diminished. Continue reading “Compliant and complicit (September 1, 2020)”

Telegraph Calcutta

Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)

 

Those who live by the sword don’t always die by the sword; they are able to hold on, for a time, with the pretence of a sword. It is when that pretence is no longer sustainable that they perish. Often, there is not even the requirement of a sword at that stage; the accumulated consequences of the pretence are enough to sound an end.

Scarcely a year on from his “ghar mein ghus ke maarenge” pyrotechnics against Pakistan — a hyper-chested fire-breather act post Pulwama that delivered him a handsome electoral endorsement — the strongman image of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has suffered blows that he appears too shocked and shaken to even admit to.

The military purchase of the Balakot air-strike remains clouded in a welter of claim and counter-claim but there was a swift and dramatic response to the horrific terror-strike at Pulwama for which blame was summarily nailed on Pakistan. Fighter jets were scrambled and sent across the LoC for the first time since 1971. They did exhaust their lethal payloads over Pakistani territory before returning home. A punch was delivered, an intention stated: “Hamara siddhant hai, hum ghar mein ghus ke maarenge.” Modi received vociferous applause at every stage he mounted thereafter. He made many belligerent speeches on the back of Balakot and became the Rambo pin-up of the 2019 election. He earned a wholesome victory as Papa-Protector.

Last summer seems funnelled so far and deep in the past this summer. The Chinese — not some proxy mercenary infiltrators, as in Kargil, or a shoot-and-scoot terror outfit, as often in Kashmir, but the uniformed People’s Liberation Army — have ingressed deep into what India considered its flank of the conundrum that is the unmarked Line of Actual Control. Not at one point, and not a furtive breach. At multiple points, with a brazen dare — come get us. They have come in large numbers. They have come with construction and military hardware. They are settling down, as if it were their rightful squat. They are pitching tents where Ladakhi horses would go summer grazing, they are digging kitchens where Indian patrols would often take breathers. In the course of achieving all of this, one day they killed 20 Indian soldiers, injured dozens of others and took 10 captive, whom they later released. A few days later, Beijing’s envoy to Delhi issued a chit of paper blithely proclaiming the Galwan Valley as Chinese real estate from his office a stone’s throw away from the prime minister’s residence. 

Continue reading “Pinch for punch (July 2, 2020)”

Telegraph Calcutta

In Ladakh, Kargil echo and variance (June 14, 2020)

The reported deep incursion by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into eastern Ladakh — now the trigger for growing concern over a full-blown military confrontation — has eerie and uneasy resonances to the origins of the Kargil war of 1999.

There is one significant, probably ominous, difference

Continue reading “In Ladakh, Kargil echo and variance (June 14, 2020)”
State of Play

A mildewed life – The migrant is trapped between the home and the world

In a succession of thousands of years,/ In years of poverty and disaster,/ What existed was not a person,/ But countless disfigured cripples.

One spent his whole life as a cobbler/ Formed no judgements higher than his boot tree./ Another turned two millstones all his days:/ Behind their pointless turning he turned grey./ A third man plowed the soil from childhood on/ And never visited the nearby town...

... And in the villages, emptied of people/ Where brutish fear of the city prevailed/ A mildewed life, barbarically wretched,/ Limped from one hut’s doorway to another,/ Like a blind old nag, ribs sticking out,

Walking in its sleep around/ The same old pile of manure:/ The wooden plow, the tavern, the priests...”

“Fragments and the Whole” — Nikolai Bukharin

We can all now sigh in relief and feel a little pleased too, why not? We are sending the workers home. They are not having to walk any more, we are sending them back in chartered buses and special trains, never mind who paid for tickets, who didn’t, at least they are going home. Washing comes highly recommended these days, we can give our collective conscience a collective wash. Very soon we will stop being haunted. We will no longer see images of our countrymen and countrywomen trudging thousand-mile routes through the heat of day and the darkness of night, often smacked or whipped along the way, often forced to frogleap, sometimes sprayed with chemicals, sometimes tear-gassed. But no longer that ghoulish everywhere spectacle of them dragging their trussed worldly goods, their bewildered kids, hungry, thirsty, hapless, exhausted, and yet so tormented by their present that it had to be fled and a future chased. A future that lay in most of their pasts, their homes, those homes that they had had to forsake to arrive here, from where they are now being driven, hither-thither, in panicked tens of thousands, like frantic wildebeest droves in crocodile-ridden waters.

Continue reading “A mildewed life – The migrant is trapped between the home and the world”
State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Ruled by decree (April 3, 2020)

Where we all are today has left us deeply shaken and worried, but this will pass. We do not yet know when or how, but the Corona shadow will pass. We will still have those clouds to contend with that the pandemic swept over and temporarily shunted from our attentions and apprehensions. 

Where we all are today has left us deeply shaken and worried, but this will pass. We do not yet know when or how, but the Corona shadow will pass. We will still have those clouds to contend with that the pandemic swept over and temporarily shunted from our attentions and apprehensions. 

Continue reading “Ruled by decree (April 3, 2020)”
Telegraph Calcutta

RUN, RAHUL, RUN

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is not only the Congress MP from Wayanad in Kerala.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi is nobody in the hierarchy of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi cannot be nobody in the hierarchy of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi does not want to return as president of the Congress party.

Fact: Rahul Gandhi wants to return as president of the Congress party.

Continue reading “RUN, RAHUL, RUN”
2020, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The Delhi violence is a symptom of a vastly altered India (March 4, 2020)

“Mobs smash, loot and burn”

“Fires and bomb wreck town…”

“Furniture and goods flung from homes and shops…”

“Bands rove… plunderers trail wreckers… Police stand idle…”

Familiar headlines. Headlines we’ve seen leap out nearly ten days now from a strip of Delhi gone phosphorescent with hate and the mayhem it often spells. These could well have been headlines from Delhi. They aren’t. They are headlines from more than eighty years ago, from a faraway place called Germany and its overrun neighbourhood whose uneasy resonance amidst us we must begin to sense.

Here are the real, fuller headlines. Continue reading “The Delhi violence is a symptom of a vastly altered India (March 4, 2020)”

Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map

Politics is the art of the possible”, said Otto von Bismarck. And then there are those who make it their business to attempt the art, or risk it.

What’s the bet Prashant Kishor will pop up in Bihar next, having posed his happy hug with Arvind Kejriwal and left the celebrations of Delhi? But whatever for? He’s just been rudely cut cold by Nitish Kumar. He doesn’t have a backroom in Patna. Nor a client. He doesn’t have a party in Patna. Nor a post. What might he be headed to Bihar for? Continue reading “Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map”

Miscellaneous

Home is where the heart is (October 28, 1995)

There is perhaps no reason for an inconsequential little dead girl to be occupying this space. perhaps the editorial pages of newspapers should concern themselves with larger things — with men and women and events that make eras and epochs and history, however horrible a job they do of it. So why this inconsequential little girl? Why Shahida? She made no history. She made nothing; her life, in fact, was a life of constant and dreary unmaking. Continue reading “Home is where the heart is (October 28, 1995)”

Telegraph Calcutta

Our nation to keep and guard

 

Someone in the shivered hubbub around the Shaheen Bagh picket did bring up the mention of Sharmila Irom of Manipur and how long she fought against the AFSPA before she pulled out the feeder tubes, ended the hunger strike and proceeded with her life. Sixteen years she battled. Irom is now off stage; AFSPA remains.

The state is powerful, in time it breaks the will and bones of those that stand in its way. But the thing about protests is not always whether they have surmounted, but often just that they have been waged. Continue reading “Our nation to keep and guard”

Essay, Journalism, Telegraph Calcutta

The Swan Whose Song The Aussies Won’t Forget

VVS is 46 today.

Here’s to him and the singular talent he is: A throwback piece on one of his classic outings.

At Mohali in 2010,VVS Laxman revealed why for the last time 

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

–William Blake

They counted on that sore lower vertebra of his too much and forgot the man had a spine attached to it. In the first outing, pain had chained his reach and rasp. He came late and left early, half cocking a benign dipper into the slips: VVS Laxman, caught Michael Clarke bowled Nathan Hauritz for two.

This morning he put a bone to his back, like a warrior would put sword to scabbard, and strode into the field of slaughter, unbothered that it was already soaked in blood and more would leap from the spoils to stain his whites. For him this was a classic triple-relish moment. Laxman favours the second innings, he favours a fight to the finish even more. But ever more than any of that, he has a fondness for favouring the Aussies with silken dictatorship. It began as an adolescent fancy, punishing the men from Down Under, then flowered from hobby to habit to hallmark.

Continue reading “The Swan Whose Song The Aussies Won’t Forget”

2020, Bihar 2020, Column, Telegraph Calcutta

Bihar2020: Naya Bihar is down to Biharis, not to the state’s politicians alone

Elections can be, in a manner of speaking, occasions for diagnosis and prescription —what’s wrong, what can right it. The people do it, and they do it very often with contrary, even conflicting, assessments of disease and cure. Bihar has lived a schizophrenia for three decades now, bossed in equal measure by two remarkably different men. One, a man of spellbinding charisma and chutzpah who came from nowhere to unleash a ruling manner all his own. Subaltern hero, unshakeable guardian of communal concord, a captivating political entity. But he was woefully lost on governance and often in abject abuse of power. The other, an introvert, almost babu-like of mien, a dour doer, who made correction and revival his mission, a power-beaver adept at locating the means to back his ambition. But he turned out a whimsical proposition, implacably averse to conference, loose on convictions and so spectacularly promiscuous to the purposes of personal power that he lost way and political credibility to the left and right of him. Neither Lalu Prasad nor Nitish Kumar brought to the table what they began by promising its people: ‘Naya Bihar’.

For the better part, this piece must be a repetition of things already said, for Bihar often seems struck by amnesia over its own sorry past; the more things refuse to change, the more they seem to forget what hasn’t, the more they remain swayed on the disarrayed booty of their unfulfillments. We can still be moved and motivated by the promise of drinking water, as if it were a promise of magical novelty.

The ‘Naya Bihar’ slogan is an old one. Every time it rings off a new throat, Biharis begin to stir with hope like only the hopeless can — this time, surely. They’ve discovered, unfailingly, that the shimmer that promised to relieve them of their scorched lives was a mirage, no more. I am part of the ineffable construct of what it must mean to be a Bihari. I can begin to exult in the smallest things at home — a length of pucca road, a stable hour of electricity, a school that has students and teachers in it, a health centre that isn’t padlocked, an office that isn’t a runaround, an officer who minds an office. Can that happen? And when that happens, will it last? The Bihari cheer always comes stained with doubt: how real or durable can any of this be? That doubt has reliably and regularly choked the prospect of cheer.

Continue reading “Bihar2020: Naya Bihar is down to Biharis, not to the state’s politicians alone”