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”
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”
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”
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”
2002, Ayodhya, Indian Express, Reportage

This piece was first published in December 2002, the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid

“What Do You Do, Even the Gods are Locked in Dispute”

Sankarshan Thakur, Indian Express, Ayodhya

You will go back disappointed, said the former Raja of Ayodhya. Nothing here ten years later, he said, the action was further west, in Gujarat, where Babri VIPs were lining up to cheer their new hero. So Sankarshan Thakur and photographer Prashant Panjiar let Ayodhya’s residents tell their stories: from an ailing architect of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement to boys who sell Babri demolition cards they can’t read. From a Muslim shoemaker who watched his shop burn to a mason who’s chipping away at the pillars of a very real and, at the same time, a very imagined temple.

 

The time was about right, we were told, but we had got the place terribly wrong. However could we have mixed up Godhra with Ayodhya? That is where it is all happening this year, isn’t it, in Gujarat, that last surviving fortress where a make or break battle rages. In Ayodhya it was going to be all symbolic and this time, unlike December 6, 1992, they honestly meant it. There weren’t enough of them around to manage anything beyond the symbolic.

Continue reading “This piece was first published in December 2002, the tenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid”