2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Pracharak To Pradhanmantri: Narendra Modi’s Extraordinary Journey

The last time India elected a single party to rule itself Narendra Modi was an anonymous pracharak of the RSS apprenticing in the debris of devastated barracks. Indira Gandhi’s assassination had handed Rajiv a merciless Lok Sabha majority; his adversaries lay decimated. The BJP had two members of Parliament. There wasn’t much to apprentice with in the Sangh Parivar’s mainstream precincts. It was 1984, a time for solitary reaping in the Opposition’s ransacked ranks.

The next time India elected a single party to rule itself, three decades later, the 16th day of May 2014, Narendra Modi stood adorned with the coronet of unprecedented achievement. In fact, a string of unprecedented achievements. The spearhead of the first non-Congress party to wrest power single-handed in New Delhi. The first from a classified backward community to arrive at the helm of the nation. The first chief minister to become Prime Minister in a single, stunning leap. Pracharak to Pradhan Mantri. When he mounted the Vadodara rostrum on Friday evening astride an electoral avalanche and pronounced himself merely “Mazdoor No 1”, he spurred his delirious votaries to roaring. It’s solitary reaping time no more, it has become a harvest beyond the imaginings of those who sowed the seeds of this saffron tempest.

Risen at twilight was a man a constituency far wider than Vadodara’s millions, far wider than India’s billion-plus, was looking at with a rainbow range of sentiments — hope and expectation, rapture and ravishment, bewilderment and keen curiosity, even fear and apprehension. Narendra Modi is about to be sworn into leadership of the world’s biggest democracy, the globe is tuning in, or will have to. A leading EU ambassador in Delhi told The Telegraph as the EVMs were wheeled in for the cascade count on Thursday night: “For us he has been a man not to ignore for a while now, which is why we made our openings to him more than a year back. Now, we cannot afford not to know who this man really is, what he means, what he intends, how he will conduct what he intends to conduct. At the moment he probably dictates the highest curiosity value the world over.”

Curiosity may not prove enough to fetch answers, though. Narendra Modi remains an enigma even to those who have been closest to him. The mother of the 64-year-old Prime Minister-designate included. In 2002, following his first victory in Gujarat, I travelled to his native Vadnagar to attempt piecing together a face that even then seemed worth a close look at. She lived at the time in a tiny two-storey house abutting a water-tank that’s hub to Vadnagar. The old lady was reticent to begin with and remained so through the half hour of time she granted. All she offered me was: “But what do I really know about my son? He left us as a teenager saying nothing to me other than that he was going. He has rarely come back, he has always had us told he is at work. I know little of my son.”

Ask a top PR executive who has worked closely with Team Modi and he sounds like an echo of the mother. “The one thing I can tell you about Narendra Modi is that anyone who claims to be close to him or to know him is lying. It isn’t possible to become close to Narendra Modi.” There is a territory Modi has practised to shield zealously from any prying — the core of Narendra Modi. At the end of the day — or at the beginning of it — the man who has courted, and won, stirring mass adulation, is a solitary man.

But clues to some of what he wanted to fashion for himself he had begun to drop early. That same year I went to Vadnagar following Modi’s 2002 victory, I wrote a long piece which began thus: “There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company — and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.”

Continue reading “Pracharak To Pradhanmantri: Narendra Modi’s Extraordinary Journey”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta, UP

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 14/Bihar-UP: Along Buddha’s Last Walk, The Vibrant Myth Of Messiah NaMo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gautam Buddha’s last walk has become a Narendra Modi inroad. It must have been along these banks somewhere that Buddha crossed the Gandak bed and carried on to his mahaparinirvana at Kushinagar in 483 BC or thereabouts.

Having preached his last sermon at Vaishali, where part of his remains were later brought; having persuaded weeping Lichchhavi disciples to give up their pursuit at Kesaria, where a denuded stupa stands, a massive red-brick rotunda islanded in flat farmland; having brushed off his last pursuers with the gift of his begging bowl near Khajooria. Thereafter, he walked mostly alone and incognito until he crossed the river and came to rest in Kushinagar.

All along this 200-odd-kilometre run from Vaishali in north Bihar to the jagged fringes of east UP, we came upon again and again the Buddha legend in repose and a Modi newly rampant.

Irrespective of who wins these contests that closed on May 12 — all of these are gridlock battles, mind you, meshed in complex caste-creed loyalties — the spectre looming over the field is Narendra Modi’s.

He has come to acquire exclusive cross-country command of the discourse in a way neither national adversaries nor local competition can match. Few people even mention Rahul or Sonia Gandhi; Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad figure often, but only as counterpoints to Modi, where they can match him, where they’ll get rubbed.

Continue reading “Poll Recall: Telegraph May 14/Bihar-UP: Along Buddha’s Last Walk, The Vibrant Myth Of Messiah NaMo”

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 7/Kashmir: Final solution: Mind Your Business

 A shop to run, a lathe to work at, a field to till — Baramulla knows too well not to wait for messiahs

Under the simmering canopy of the Kashmir dispute lumbers the realm of the forgotten Kashmiri.

In a vale so tiny — it is 130-odd kilometres long and 40 kilometres at its widest — that realm is never far to seek but it seldom attracts notice.

The tourism industry doesn’t mark out routes to it, the guides will never take you there, the state stays mostly away and averse, the politicians, oh but they barely even remember. Barely even at the time they require this realm most, at election time.

Hamara siyasat se matlab nahin, siyasat ka hamse nahin (we have nothing to do with politics, politics have nothing to do with us),” so saying, Mohammed Alam, cloth merchant in the one-lane bazaar of Kamblinar, wished us on.

In a day or two, men and materials will drone into the heart of the village, churning dust and curiosity, and set up a polling centre in the tumbledown structure that calls itself a middle school.

Alam won’t be bothered going in to vote. Nor his mates in the Kamblinar bazaar that stocks nothing beyond the most rudimentary things — you can acquire torch cells but not torches; they would have to be got from Handwara, the closest retail hub, two hours on a local bus that plies once a day.

Alam’s reasons for not voting are not what you’d classically expect from a Valley Muslim. His reasons are not about subscribing to the Hurriyat’s boycott call, or about the protracted sub-continental quarrel over where Kashmir should belong.

It’s merely about what Alam said in the first place: about not giving anything to politics because it gives nothing to you. “I will not acquire a bigger shop or a plot of land or a better school for my children if I go and vote,” Alam said sardonically. “I have a chance of doing that if I run my shop well. We are happy being what we are, let me not be told some masiha (messiah) will change things overnight.”

His friends from Kamblinar’s little merchant community — half-a-dozen shopfronts including a bread-and-tea vend — said they wanted to add no more to what Alam had said.

“You can see we are happy with what we have, and you can see what we do not have,” one of them said. “Should we be fooled it will come from casting a vote? We’ve tried that. All we have heard is talk of a final solution to Kashmir. Meantime, what are we meant to do?”

We had arrived in Kamblinar quite by accident. We had strayed looking for quite another village in the up-and-down maze of rural Baramulla — Chandoosa, the native place of Supreme Court lawyer and PDP candidate, Muzaffar Hussain Beg. We had climbed up the arrow road from Srinagar to Tangmarg, humped over Gulmarg — teeming with the summer’s first tourists scratching about the dregs of remnant snow — and plunged down the back of the forested shrine of Baba Reshi.

Quite suddenly, the clamour of tourist Kashmir had faded and an ante-dated Kashmir had taken over. We had travelled no more than 10 minutes downhill and we had plunged in time, into a radically removed environ from the luminous signposting of Gulmarg, shorn of its glitter, bereft of the excited hubbub of its hotels and eateries, the tinkle of easy cash and the chirp of commerce.

There was barely a dwelling to be seen that wasn’t ramshackle, barely a field that wasn’t being worked with bare human hands. We passed struggling horse carts and farmers pushing wheelbarrows. We barely came across motorised transport. We saw no hospitals or health centres, only the odd school where the classrooms were empty. There were no security people either, as they are elsewhere in the Valley.

The road had vanished and rubble had taken over. The Chandoosa of Beg was nowhere to be found. Somebody told us it may lie beyond the bend north of Kamblinar

That’s how we came to meet Alam.

Chandoosa was not one but several bends in the undulating valley from Kamblinar. “You’ll find nothing special there,” Alam said to us by way of caution. “It’s just the same as here, a forgotten place.”

In the centre of Chandoosa, we found iron smith Abdul Khaliq working his denuded lathe, the only man in the village with the time or the patience to talk. “I’ve been at this since I was a child,” he said motioning to his workstation of scattered metal things, “since the angrez (Englishman) ruled. Nothing has changed, not even my tolls or how I craft them.”

Khaliq was happy to have pictures taken; to look at him was to see a man from centuries ago. “I voted once, for Sheikh Abdullah, but never after, they all come and say good things and go, the fools, they are no good, a waste of time.”

The mustard was being harvested, and soon it would be time to sow paddy; Khaliq had his hands full crafting or sharpening farm tools. Isn’t he happy to have a fellow villager in the fray, the famous Beg? “But who?” Khaliq cocked his ears. “Yes, we are told he is from here but does he ever come? I have never seen him.”

Baramulla, one of the three Valley seats other than Anantnag and Srinagar and probably the one with the longest LoC run among them, has another famous contender — Sharifuddin Shariq of the National Conference. Shariq has represented the constituency three consecutive times. But with little to show for it.

It’s a harsh place, the Baramulla countryside; its bedraggled beauty does little to offer relief from the daily grind of subsistence life. Neither do those who compete to represent it in the high halls of legislature. For them, the lot of the people, remains in abeyance until they are done with the high rhetoric of Kashmir’s “final solution”, which looks nowhere in sight in this abandoned wilderness.

 

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Poll Recall: Telegraph May 1/Kashmir:Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014

As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan
As polling begins for Srinagar, a soldier takes position atop a polling station in the northern rural pocket of Kangan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Srinagar, May 1: At a little past ten in the morning, the wan morning sun began to pick out little groups of women in the village square across from the polling station. They waddled out the lanes in twos and threes and soon they turned into a buzzing congregation, like birds sniffing out the safety of their course. Then one gathered steps and vanished past the ajar iron gates where armed jawans stood. Then another, and another, and then the children of some of them began to tug them forth. The plunge was taken. The women had joined their men; two queues began to curl out the polling booth at Dardpora in Budgam.

Not long after, as the hubbub mounted around the polling hive, a group of youngsters walked up and stood across the jawans at the iron gates. They wore track-suits and gelled hair, their sneakers were slaked with mud; they may have come off a morning’s nets on the cricket field. One of them revealed a voters’ slip in his palm but none of them was going in. “Baayecaaat!” he shouted out and then the others shouted too: “Baaayecaat!!”

Continue reading “Poll Recall: Telegraph May 1/Kashmir:Freedom To Boycott: The Horrendous Enactment Of 60 Percent In 1996, And The 26 Percent In 2014”

2014, Kashmir, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Poll Recall: Telegraph April 29/Kashmir: Hands Off Buttons, Eyes On Modi

Farooq Abdullah being assisted off the dais by security personnel at Margund in north Kashmir
Farooq Abdullah being assisted off the dais by security personnel at Margund in north Kashmir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The surest sign that the Kashmir campaign is part of a mainstream election is that Narendra Modi has come to drop in the thick of it.

The surest sign that the mainstream here is differently defined is that three-fourths of Kashmiris aren’t bothered voting.

Panchayat elections have drawn upwards of 80 per cent voters in parts of the Valley. Assembly polls this last decade and a half have seen an average 45 per cent turnout.

Electoral engagement in Kashmir comes tethered to compulsions of quotidian utility, local means and ends; it’s no benchmark of political endorsement. If it is, the interpreters of the Kashmiri Morse in New Delhi and beyond should spell out the message of 25-odd per cent, no more, coming forth to vote for Parliament.

But between those insistent truisms has sprung a teaser that captivates voter and boycotter alike: Is Modi coming? Is it going to be iss baar Modi sarkar? More Kashmiris are interested in how India is voting than Kashmir itself. Is Modi really coming? What will that do?

Is this election Kashmir’s renewed interrogation of the idea of India? Having spurned the polls themselves, are they reading in the 2014 ballot-leaves clues to the prospect of a re-negotiation?

What could Modi do? For better or for worse, but surely something new, something beyond remaining knocked as the “arch-stone” in the edifice of secular India?

Continue reading “Poll Recall: Telegraph April 29/Kashmir: Hands Off Buttons, Eyes On Modi”

2014, Bihar, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections

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Blacktop highways, powerlit villages, teeming schools, beehive health centres and block offices are not the news from Bihar any longer. The news from Bihar is you fetch no votes for any of that.

All along the 300-odd-kilometre journey I made north-east of Patna to this rural outpost, the state and its people offered resounding testimony that chief minister Nitish Kumar’s dream of fashioning “Naya Bihar” is a fiction of his fancies, no more. It’s a dream he had the silly cheek to dream; it has turned into a nightmare slapping him. If he thought — as he told The Telegraph repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 — that he had created a new Bihari identity that overarched caste and creed and endorsed development with common purpose, he thought erroneously and fatally ahead of time.

Constituency after constituency, Bihar is voting neither indigenous work nor imported wave, but current and counter-current of caste and creed. If Nitish is floundering in those currents it is down to him having no history of winning a mandate on his own. He wrested Bihar from Laloo Yadav after a decade-long effort only upon allying with the BJP. His wager that he had achieved enough through governance to hold his ground is about to become a sorry manifesto of how poorly he read the ground he has ruled for nine years. Democratic victories in Bihar are not yet achievable through delivery; they remain a tribal rite of alliance-building, cynical but effective “jod-tod”. Continue reading “Why Development Doesn’t Pay, And Caste Does: The ABCD of Bihar Elections”

2014, Patna, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh

Patna: A country egg hatching in a remote poultry pen has become Giriraj Singh’s thing of armour against invited assault. But we shall come to the eggs presently; first, the reason why this tale’s protagonist is on eggshells.

Such a torrent of censure and rejection he never did expect to descend on him for uttering the “undiluted truth of my heart”. Such a clap of overhead thunder it was, resonating from foe and friend, it left the bellicose Giriraj moping in a corner of his west Patna bungalow.

“I have been told I must hang, I have been told I must be arrested, I have been told I should be charged with treason, I have been told I am anti-national, and nobody is defending me. Everybody, even people in my party, is tearing into me. For what? For telling the truth? I am devastated, this moment has brought me to think if I should leave public life altogether, what’s the point if I cannot say the truth?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The counter-torrent issuing from Giriraj is in spate. He won’t stop. “I am telling you, and maybe I should not be telling you, but I feel like leaving politics, doing something else. I have probably won the Nawada Lok Sabha seat (polling in Nawada was held on April 10) , but even so, I feel so wronged, I want to give it all up.” Continue reading “Zero-Cost Eggs, And The Loneliness of Giriraj Singh”