2013, Calcutta, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Calcutta And The Art Of Political Seduction

Calcutta, March 23: Three noble notions jousted on the lawns of the Calcutta Club this evening. A fourth won.

The Telegraph National Debate 2013 was, in a sense, about none of the three ideas flung into the crucible of competition — democracy, freedom, equality. It was about a calling that serves or subverts them: Politics.

In the end all it took to conquer the House was a dose of well-meditated flattery. And who’s to be better at that than a politician, a dyed-in-the-khadi Congressman to boot? Arriving last at the lectern, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid just how — and why — politics, for all the ignominy it earns and exudes, remains the arbiter of superior things. Democracy, Freedom and Equality may be higher virtues; the art of charming goes the longer distance.

“This is the brightest, the most intelligent audience you can hope to find,” he proclaimed of his audience, “Don’t try to confuse it because it won’t be confused. This is Calcutta, ladies and gentlemen, and if equality doesn’t get support in Calcutta, it hasn’t a chance anywhere else.”

The House had been smartly stood up by Khurshid, its conscience tickled by entreaty to endorse equality, its cockles warmed by glowing praise. It’s weight fell on his side of the stage. A day after he tethered the runaway Italian marines back to face trial, the external affairs minister had lassoed a domestic constituency of eminences.

His victory had been so facile, it drove junior colleague Sachin Pilot to falicitation from the other end of the floor and, cheekily, seek part of the trophy. “Two politicians on my side have been beaten by three on the other,” Sachin chortled amid the hubbub of an overwhelming vote, “That only goes to show politicians are still doing a good job of debating.”

Ravi Shankar Prasad of the BJP giggled in approval beside him. Mohammed Salim of the CPM, Saugata Roy of the Trinamul Congress and Khurshid, of course, beamed in the valedictory shower of arclights. The politicians had made the stage their own.

None of novelist Kunal Basu’s erudite expositions on the philosophic linkages between the what he called the “Aristotlian abstractions” eventually came to bear on the outcome. Although he made a persuasive, and doughty, case for equality being a long-term consequence of freedom, without which democracy was untenable. Freedom and democracy, he argued, couldn’t be pitted against each other, like Dhoni and Tendulkar; both should fire. But freedom, he held, was the midwife of democracy; equality its outcome.

Neither was playwright-director Suman Mukhopadhyay’s indignant championing of freedoms able to resound to the end. Mukhopadhyay made and engaging case based on the hounding of his film “Kangal Malshat”, but probably dwelt too long on a personal illustration to leave a larger emboss on the evening. “What will I do with equality when I don’t have freedom,” he railed, “Equality is the banner of power hungry politicians.”

Just the kind of lead-in CNN-IBN boss, Rajdeep Sardesai, was waiting for in his blazing red kurta, to walk all over on. “Freedom is an elitist and esoteric concept,” Sardesai boomed back at Mukhopadhyay, “Agitation over censored films and such like are the preoccupations of the elite. What are the hungry in the shanties of Calcutta or the jungles of Chhattisgarh to do with such freedom? Go ask them what they want. Go ask the Dalits in Bihar and UP what they want, or the wome in Haryana, or boys from Kashmir who get branded as terrorists. Equality is the beginning of all democracy, it must be defined first of all by equality of opportunity.”

Sardesai, who brought some his television studio energy to the live stage, was not averse to taking a dig at the hosts themselves. “This is the right subject but the wrong venue,” he said, “the Calcutta Club has revelled in its unequal rules. How few years ago was it that women were allowed in? I ask the women here, didn’t you want the equality to be members here?” Laughter rippled down the lawns, punctuated by applause from the approving ladies.

Sardesai’s belligerent equality-mongering, in fact put Mohammed Salim’s “have lots versus have nots” meditation rather in the shade. Enough for moderator Rudrangshu Mukherjee to remark more than once upon the possible symbolism of the colour Sardesai had chosen to sport.

Ravi Shankar Prasad did attempt valiantly to put-down of Sardesai’s dismissal of freedom as an elitist pursuit not worth aspiring to in the absence of equality. “Let me remind you Mr Sardesai, you would not be speaking here and on television every night if there was no freedom. Let me also remind you that the fight against Emergency showed us that freedom is more sought after than bread. When you remove freedom, you lose equality too.”

The reference to bread was quickly snapped up by Saugata Roy to make a riposte. Quoting an un-named poet he made to assert bread was the basic yearning of man, not freedom; to the hungry, even a full moon begins to look like a burnt chapati, such can be the pangs of inequality.

Prasad’s unlikely ally, Sachin Pilot, similarly knocked opponents who advocated precedence for equality over freedom. “We pride ourselves because we are a free people, we had a freedom movement, not an equality movement, equality follows,” Pilot said, “Don’t we know why the so-called equal societies (the USSR-led Soviet Bloc) collapsed and perished? Because people were suffocating, they were not free.”

But Pilot was not beyond taking a subtle, though sharp, political dig at his team-mate of the evening. As the unsuspecting Prasad nodded in assent to Pilot’s rhetorical dismissal of equality at the expense of freedom, the young Congressman let loose one on him. “Equality is a relative thing, after all,” Pilot suggested, “All things are not equal, are all cricketers equal, are all editors equal, some of them get into the Rajya Sabha, some don’t. Are all BJP chief ministers equal?” That reference to Narendra Modi’s surge over counterparts in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh may have turned a nail into Prasad. He did his best not to notice, though, and kept a benign smile pasted to his lips.

The elder Congressman on the other side of the floor — Khurshid — couldn’t suppress his glee. But he was probably already contemplating the simple ploy of politics he was about to bring the House down with. Democracy, Freedom and Equality rang high over the arena, but flattery was going to travel far.

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