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)”


A divided house: The Opposition is mimicking what Narendra Modi called it out to be

The good news for Narendra Modi just refuses to ebb, it oozes like the viscous sweetness of summer fruit. May 23 was breathtaking beyond expectation, a second-term endorsement that rendered the parliamentary polls almost presidential. What has followed that spectacular turn at the ballot is a high-calorie spectacle of sheer and unbelievable delight for the prime minister. It has come to be revealed that Modi had not merely won an election, he had also acquired a loyal and obliging Opposition, an Opposition keen to give the truth to his every prognosis and prophecy.

Mahamilavat, Modi called the effort to build collective electoral fronts against him. And so it has turned out. A bunch of opportunists with no objective or narrative other than to pull him out of office, he called them. And so it has turned out. Outmoded dynasts deluded on priority and entitlement to power, he repeatedly railed. And so it has turned out. The Opposition is daily mimicking what Modi called it out to be.

The boldest bid this summer to stymie Modi’s run on a second term — the unlikely tie-up of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Mahagathbandhan, so called — has swiftly collapsed under the burdens of defeat, and become quite what Modi christened it:

‘Thugbandhan’. Bua (Mayawati) and bhanja (Akhilesh Yadav) have terminated what they briefly attempted to pitch as a heart-warming kinship and returned to default practices — blame-gaming, vituperation, renewed oaths of separation. If power isn’t the prize, what are we on stage for together? It’s curtains. Mayawati has solemnly declared, yet again, she’ll go it alone. Akhilesh, never the one to display open disregard for Buaji’s wishes, has gone off to London. It’s a summer destination he usually makes it to; the dates happen to coincide with his birthday.

In neighbouring Bihar, the turn has been slightly more bizarre. It just happens that Tejashwi Yadav, anointed scion of Lalu Prasad and lead act of the challenge to the National Democratic Alliance, was so disinterested in helming the show that he did not stay back in Patna even to cast his ballot. He saw through the campaign, but felt so weary of chopper-stopping at the end of it, so requiring of things that B-towns like Patna cannot provide, that he begged off. He returned briefly to survey the size of wounds he must now lick — it was all wound for his Rashtriya Janata Dal scored a first-time duck — and vanished again. Last heard, he was still promising a return via social media missives fired from undisclosed locales. One party elder issued a stupefying response to questions on where Tejashwi had vanished. ‘You voted Modi and you want to seek out Tejashwi?’ There. No review of what went wrong where or how, no assurance to the ranks that this coma could be temporary and critical care is on the way. Bihar goes to the polls next year; on the basis of what happened in the Lok Sabha polls, Tejashwi’s party tallied a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member House. His legislators cannot be blamed for wondering if their future is secure under the Tejashwi umbrella, wherever it is that it currently lies pitched.

There’s a third son, the biggest, the eldest of them; he can be no stranger to the other two, they’ve all played power-power together at different times, though it can be doubted that they are able to look back on their tandems with any cheer. Rahul Gandhi, Congress president-in-resignation, is most certainly not in the mood. Not even the mandatory summertime jaunt to England, or thereabouts, has helped. He’s been playing Quits and not doing terribly well even at this from the looks of it. It has been a month since he put in his papers, but it would appear that his letter did not have a receiver’s stamp and signature. Might actually be worth a ponder, while the shenanigan drags on, who Congress presidents resign to. And who do Congresspeople resign to when the Congress president is in extended resignation mode? That too is a question worth a ponder because over the past couple of weeks a fair few resignations, or offers of resignation, lie piled at the door of the would-be former Congress president. This at a time when positions to resign from in the Congress are getting fewer and fewer.

Has any sense emanated from the Congress on what it thinks went so terribly wrong? On why nothing of what the leadership did seemed to resonate with the electorate? Any diagnosis of this debacle which, in real terms, is far worse than how the Congress fared in 2014? No. At least not yet.

What has emanated in dribs and drabs are such things: Priyanka Gandhi, party general- secretary in charge of east UP, made one trip to the truncated family borough in the vicinity of Rae Bareli-Amethi and unleashed an accusatory finger at party workers. Inspired leaks set the blame for bloated pre-poll Congress ambitions on Praveen Chakravarty, head of the party’s data cell. The shadow boxing between old courtiers and the new set is still playing out. The one-upmanship between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot has been resumed in Rajasthan. Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu press on with their theatre. There are uneasy murmurs rising from the party in Maharashtra. The coalition government in Karnataka is tottering on the brink. Another set of elections looms. Nobody seems to be able to arrange a Rajya Sabha renewal for Manmohan Singh. Who’s minding the floor? Sonia Gandhi took on the job of chairing the Congress parliamentary party, but for some reason, Rahul Gandhi did not want to move up the benches and shoulder the responsibility of party leader in the Lok Sabha. Suddenly, he wants to be party MP from Wayanad, no more. And the party is lapsed into its all-too-familiar posture, prostrated at his retreating feet. Whereas it should have been at the barricades, fighting the battles it must fight. But then, a house in deep disorder must first fight to set itself right.

Meanwhile, in the five weeks that have gone since May 23, Modi has put in place a new government, appointed a new working president for his party, announced a new, expanded membership drive, re-jigged his Twitter handle and profile picture, reordered and upscaled the office around him, cleared necessary appointments at the top of the bureaucracy, addressed Parliament twice (if not more times), hosted an array of foreign dignitaries, made multiple visits abroad, posed in a Kyrgyz choga and hat, inaugurated a bromance with his Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, guffawed with Donald Trump, been cold to Pakistan’s Imran Khan, convened meetings of the cabinet and chief ministers, confabulated with current and potential allies, extended governor’s rule in Jammu and Kashmir, relentlessly assaulted his political adversaries, as if he were facing an election and not just triumphed in one. Last Sunday, he also resumed ‘Mann ki Baat’, his version of the fireside address to the nation. It was about water. The Opposition, if indeed there is one out there, needs it dearly.



People may be silent, but they will want to be counted: Tejashwi Yadav


The palpable pro-Narendra Modi pulse doesn’t tell the whole Bihar story, not by a far distance. There’s a counter-narrative in play, and a robust one. It’s not an extrovert narrative, it doesn’t seek to dominate the chatter in town squares and rural crossroads, its decibel is subdued, often by design. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

A good location to get a sense of it is the ringside of the campaign calls of RJD spearhead Tejashwi Yadav. It’s one place where the other side to Modi feels bold enough to rear it head and roar; the other would, of course, be the privacy of the ballot booth. The Modi voter is vocal and socially ultra-aggressive; the competition often prefers silence, and speaks only when it can sense the strength and security of numbers.

I spent a day choppering across Bihar, north and south of the Ganga, with Tejashwi. Here are vignettes from that outing and snatches of conversations with the RJD leader.

As we begin spiralling down over Lakhisarai in Munger (Lallan Singh of JDU versus Anant Singh of RJD), we see droves converging on the meeting ground, like bees to a honeycomb. By the time the chopper rotors halt and Tejashwi steps down, a flank of the barricading has collapsed under the press of people lunging for him. The air is rent with dust and “Tejashwi! Tejashwi!!” It’s already getting oppressively hot and humid.

There’s a visible peppering of Muslims — men, women, their children who are most keen on the helicopter —- and, predictably, a preponderance of those whose names end in Yadav or Rai or Ahir. They make a tight crowd. They make a very noisy and energised crowd. They are the Lalu Prasad kind of crowd, turned out in numbers partly also because Lalu cannot. “Hum log ke neta ko jail mein band kar diya hai, abhi support dikhana aur jaroori hai (They have kept our leader locked up in jail, we need to show our support all the more now),” Lachhman Yadav, a small dairy owner tells me.


He is riveted on Tejashwi, who spends more time reaching the podium and heading back — having to plough through a raucous throng — than he spends getting jostled at the lectern. Tejashwi makes his points directly and succinctly and this is broadly what he’d tell his audiences all day:

  • The return of Modi raj will endanger the Constitution and India’s plurality
  • The return of Modi raj will endanger reservations for the underprivileged and government job prospects
  • Prohibition is a trick Nitish Kumar has played to fill his coffers with bootlegging cash
  • There’s a deep conspiracy to keep Lalu Prasad imprisoned and isolated during elections and that conspiracy needs to be defeated

Lakhisarai is repeated chopperstop upon chopperstop. The same exhort to the crowds, and pretty much the same crowds: alive, rippling, exuding almost a sense of common purpose and relief that there is someone up on stage to amplify a counter-narrative to the Modi juggernaut.

We fly off — bump along in 3,000-feet turbulence, rather — to three destinations north of the great river — Ujiarpur (state BJP chief Nityanand Rai versus RLSP chief Upendra Kushwaha), Darbhanga (Gopalji Thakur of the BJP versus RJD veteran Abdul Bari Siddiqui), Simri (a rural outback on the Kosi riverbank, part of Darbhanga). We end the day at Jehanabad (Surendra Yadav of the RJD versus Chandreshwar Prasad of the JDU) back south of the Ganga.

The Jehanabad crowd is the biggest and the most vigorous of the day; it seduces Tejashwi into staying so long on stage that the chopper pilot sends word he’s leaving without his charge for the day; it’s getting dark, he must get to Patna before night closes in. Tejashwi will have to do the home run by road. “Not that I mind,” he says, at the end of the day, “These people had been waiting in the heat all day, couldn’t leave just because I had to catch the chopper.”

The Telegraph: Is this going to be a repeat of 2014? Modi is everywhere. And he has Nitish on his side

Tejashwi Yadav: Look, it’s a battle and we are in it. We have far fewer resources, the administration is trying every trick in the book to impede us, even chopper landing permissions are a problem. But we are fighting back hard. People may be silent now, but they have votes, each one of them, they will want to be counted, mark my words. People make a mistake when they say we only have Muslims and Yadavs backing us. Don’t forget we have added the Kushwaha, Musahar and Nishad vote, they matter in almost all constituencies, we will spring surprises, just watch.

TT: Are you missing your father? You are making a big point of his internment

Tejashwi: Of course. No one can communicate better, nobody has such energy, he oozes energy. We are missing him hugely, and he is being denied bail deliberately. If he and I were campaigning, dividing the work, we would have swept.

TT: Your brother Tej Pratap is in open rebellion, is he hurting you?

Tejashwi: No.

TT: Why could you not contain him, though?

Tejashwi: There are people around him who have ambitions and they provoke him. He will learn soon, he will not be a problem.

TT: Modi has a strong narrative, an ultra-nationalist narrative that many have bought into. What is yours?

Tejashwi: Our narrative is the narrative of the Constitution, of saving the Constitution. Of strong pro-poor, secular politics, of giving everybody their deserved place. Ours is not a narrative of fear and hate. And you can see people respond readily to that narrative. India has been derailed, we have to get it back on track.

TT: Did you take Rahul Gandhi by surprise by endorsing him as Prime Minister at Samastipur? That was your first rally together

Tejashwi: I think I did, yes. Privately he knew my views, of course, but he may not have expected a public declaration from me. I think it was time. There was some chatter that we were not on the same page, that we were not campaigning together. I wanted to put an end to that. Now there is no confusion.

TT: Why did you not support Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai, though? Many argue you should have been large-hearted enough if you are serious about strengthening anti-Modi voices.

Tejashwi: But he (Kanhaiya) is contesting against secularism. Our candidate Tanweer Hassan lost Begusarai last time by less than 50,000 votes. Do you expect me to sacrifice him? And the argument for Kanhaiya is he can talk straight to Modi. Who cannot? And why are you campaigning for a man who can talk straight to Modi? Are you assuming he is becoming PM again? I am not assuming that, I want Modi defeated now, in this election.


Bihar allies dwarfed & domineered by Modi


A video clip snowballing all across may contain clues to political consequences in Bihar well beyond May 23.

It shows chief minister and JDU boss Nitish Kumar twisting uneasily in his chair as Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds hands with BJP colleagues on stage and takes the crowd through a shrill “Vande Mataram” drum-roll. Stuck on stage, Nitish doesn’t participate in the chant, but he seems not to know where to look.

The message has been conveyed close to his bone — the BJP wouldn’t flinch from playing a bully ally, and would turn more aggressively on the JDU and the LJP to toe the line. As the Modi shadow looms larger on Bihar, the BJP’s partners — the JDU and Ram Vilas Paswan’s LJP — too are feeling dwarfed and domineered. Modi effect has scathed them too, and might rub them harder after May 23.

Nitish, for instance, has avoided putting out a manifesto this election because the BJP had drawn a few red lines for him: drop commitments to Article 370 and the Uniform Civil Code, and endorse construction of a Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya. Not willing to comply, but not able to defy, Nitish shelved the manifesto altogether.

It’s clear from the tenor of the campaign that Modi is far and away the only leader in whose name NDA candidates are contesting; most often NDA contestants get no mention from the voter, it’s Modi they are endorsing and it is he who is making the difference between victory and defeat. The BJP will bring that factor to bear upon its Bihar allies.

Bihar goes to the polls next year and it may be a cause of some worry to the JDU and the LJP that Modi has come to be established as the overarching electoral factor.

The BJP may, in fact, drastically review ceding exaggerated space to allies — Nitish’s JDU and Paswan’s LJP — and contesting only 17 of Bihar’s 40 Lok Sabha seats.

Privately, senior BJP leaders are already beginning to admit the allies may be a drag on the NDA’s strike rate. In particular the JDU, which was given 17 seats to contest when it had only two sitting MPs.

In effect, the BJP lost five seats even before the polls began because it had 22 MPs in the last Lok Sabha. “Having allies and building a broader social coalition is essential but the distribution of seats was loaded disproportionately against us,” a senior BJP leader here admitted, adding, “It is clear we are much stronger on the ground in Bihar than our seat share suggests.”

The future of the alliance in Bihar — and how seats get shared in the 2020 Assembly polls — would also depend on who secures how many seats in the Lok Sabha polls. The JDU and the LJP are, therefore, keen on their “strike rate” being good. And both are worried about losing out.

The Paswans of the LJP have more to worry, the campaign suggests. The NDA backroom is not convinced Chirag Paswan has won in Jamui, their hope is he may scrape through.

In Samastipur and Hajipur, both reserved seats, the Paswan brothers Ram Chandra and Pashupati Paras, respectively, are fighting against widespread resentment; voices off the trail suggest that in both constituencies people are angry for having been taken for granted by the Paswan clan.

“We are not here to serve the interests of the Paswans who seem to think they are our only choice, they can’t take us for granted,” a Paswan votary at Sarai Ranjan in Samastipur said. In Hajipur too, part of the campaign has taken the shape of a “Pashupati bhagao” tableau. The Paswans are resourceful, and they are backed by the Modi cry, but they have good reason to be concerned.

The slightest dip, and the BJP could begin pushing them to the side. Some have even begun to suggest that if the BJP does better than its partners, it will ride roughshod even at the expense of breaking the alliance and proceeding alone, or with a reworked alliance whose engine is the BJP rather than the JDU.

The prospect that the current arrangement may not work in 2020 is the chief reason Nitish is conveying visible signals of discomfort with the BJP, as he did from the Modi stage in Darbhanga.


Kanhaiya in his labyrinth


Kanhaiya Kumar may have just played out not Kanhaiya but another much fabled character from the Mahabharat in Begusarai: Abhimanyu.

That lad of Arjun and Subhadra, sister to Kanhaiya, was feted from his term in the womb to become destiny’s child. He would live it out in his teens, or so the lore goes, and live it out in a way that he would scorch his name on time as metaphor for gall and gallantry.

Abhimanyu it was who dared the worthy Kaurava veterans and their impregnable chakravyuha. Abhimanyu it was who breached it and took the most formidable of his foes, pitamah Bhishma and guru Drona included, by shock and awe.

That breach Kanhaiya Kumar has achieved in Begusarai; he has blazed through the chakravyuha that he had come to tear asunder and arrived at its core. There remains, of course, the critical issue of return from where he finds himself at the end of all the battling.

The chakravyuha of today’s battlefields — for certain the chakravyuha of Begusarai — is this: hard, calcified social fortifications of political allegiance, fortifications so strong that they afford assumptions of safety to those on the ramparts, fortifications that have “impregnable” emblazoned across their walls.

Forget names and individuals for a moment, let’s just consider the entrenched camps.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp. Appointed local Legionnaire: Giriraj Singh, newly, and reluctantly, imported from Nawada. His army: The entire ranks of the upper castes led by Begusarai’s preponderant Bhumihars. Add to their huge and influential numbers, the rainbow coalition of the non-Yadav backward castes, those that are known figuratively in Bihar as the pachhpaniyas (the 55ers) or the paanch-phoranas (or allspice) — Kurmis, Dhanuks, Tantis, Nonias, Kamtis, Telis, Dhunias and a myriad others. The Paswans, the many thousands of Paswans. Over and above all of them, the resounding might of the one and only Narendra Modi.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) camp. Appointed local Legionnaire: Tanweer Hassan, the educated loser of 2014, a loser by as narrow a Lok Sabha margin as 50,000 votes. His army: The entire ranks of Muslims, who are many in Begusarai. The entire ranks of the RJD’s loyal Yadavs, who too are not insignificant of numbers. The ranks of Koeris. The Nishads. A fair chunk of the non-Paswan Dalits. This camp is no pushover, it is capable of overcoming the 50,000 deficit of 2014.

Enter Camp Three. Enter Kanhaiya Kumar, Begusarai ka Beta.What shall we call this camp? The Communist Party of India (CPI) camp? Well, yes. Well, no. Kanhaiya Kumar is CPI nominee from Begusarai, but he is far more than just the CPI nominee. Kanhaiya Kumar is a reputation a party nomenclature cannot contain. Kanhaiya is Kanhaiya. What he says is not what the CPI tells him to say, what he says is known as Paighaam-e-Kanhaiya, Kanhaiya’s Message. The slogan that rings for him through the campaign is not the CPI slogan. That slogan is from a popular folk song, and most unlike a CPI slogan. It goes: Haathi, Ghora, Paalki, Jai Kanhaiya Lal Ki!

Kanhaiya is not the CPI candidate in Begusarai; the CPI is Kanhaiya’s party in Begusarai. The ventricles of the Kanhaiya campaign lie in Bihat, his native village on the south-western edge of the vast constituency, the CPI office in Begusarai puts the stamp on what may require the party stamp. And probably rightly so.

The CPI used to be a Begusarai party. It used to be THE Begusarai party. But that was an age ago. That was nearly as long ago as the Soviet Union. The Leningrad of Bihar outlasted the original by about half a decade. But once it collapsed in the mid-1990s, it did not merely collapse, it collapsed and shrivelled beyond recognition. It was ousted from the Lok Sabha, it gradually lost all space in the Assembly. It became a spectre that haunted itself.

Then Kanhaiya arrived and stoked life into the ghost. And made a marquee of the CPI once again. It became a camp, Camp Three. Appointed local Legionnaire: Kanhaiya Kumar. His army: Well, a hundred thousand cadre votes in a constituency nearly two million strong. Humph. Nothing. Extras. The vote that forfeits deposits. But well. Look again. This is not the CPI camp. This is the Kanhaiya camp. The camp of the Commissar of Dissent. Count now. And keep counting. Kanhaiya goes everywhere. Kanhaiya picks up a count wherever he goes.

The one thing he told me in the raucous mill of his roadshow in Bachhwara one blistered afternoon and which rings on, is: “Main sameekaran ki rajneeti nahin kar raha hoon.” I had asked him if he would succeed in breaking the sameekaran, or the caste-arithmetic, of Begusarai. In effect, I had asked him if he would be able to break the Begusarai chakravyuha. He had said, in effect, that that chakravyuha did not bother him. He sounded certain he was going to breach it. He sounded, in fact, as if he did not see, or recognise, the chakravyuha he necessarily had to demolish.

That chakravyuha, those calcified caste and creed forts, are a reality, a Bihari reality, of course, but a reality far beyond the frontiers of Bihar. Votebanks exist; votebanks flourish. Identity politics exists; identity politics flourishes. If that weren’t the case, Narendra Modi would be knitting cardigans.

Kanhaiya always knew he was short of yarn in Begusarai, he needed to pull it off everywhere he could reach in order to sew it up for himself. He had a party long run aground. He knew he had to fire it to a storm. He knew he had to take that storm to every port. His opponents — Camp One and Camp Two — well know what visited them and what they had to withstand. When all is done and dusted on May 23, they’ll see the breaches Kanhaiya scored.

Irrespective of what happens on Verdict Day, there are two things that cannot be taken away from Kanhaiya Kumar’s Begusarai effort. One, and probably singular: he made the Begusarai campaign the most watched campaign. In Bihar. In India. Around the world. At a given time, Kanhaiya battling for Begusarai was the story in 170 countries. And why? Because here was one diminutive fellow, literally from nowhere, or from JNU, taking the fight to Mr 56 Inches. A fellow widely vilified for being anti-national, a fellow persecuted and jailed on trumped up allegations, a fellow tossed on his ears as inimical to the nation and who the hell is he, he cannot even speak a straight sentence of English and he claims a doctorate from JNU? Well, Kanhaiya is someone, and you better take note, like it or not. He brought to Begusarai a caste of campaigners the boondock has never known. From Jignesh Mevani, the Dalit Congress MLA from Gujarat, to Shehla Rashid, the new political challenger from Kashmir. Betwixt: Yogendra Yadav, Shabana Azmi, Swara Bhaskar, Prakash Raj, Javed Akhtar — different political hues, one hangout in Begusarai: Kanhaiya’s.

Two, and probably more significant: he dared the Begusarai chakravyuha. He said no to sameekaran, the touchstone of electoral politics in Bihar. He said yes to attempting everybody, every caste, every class, every religion, every political pursuit. Yes, there is a chakravyuha, yes, there are calcified fortresses of entrenched camps. But no, let me not say I see them as calcified, let me not see a chakravyuha. As one independent warrior for Kanhaiya in Begusarai put it to me, rather idealistically and rosy-eyed: “This election has the potential to bury the politics of Hindu-Muslim division and caste division on all sides. Increasingly, this kind of politics has come to be the core stalemate of Indian politics. One perpetuates the other. Mandal and Kamandal are not only two sides of the same coin, they perpetuate each other. The shared hatred towards Kanhaiya of the BJP and the RJD is nothing but a reflection of their shared political inheritance and pursuit.”

Polling Day in Begusarai — April 29 — may not have been far different from the dawn on the day Abhimanyu resolved to take on the daunting adversaries in Kurukshetra and break the Kaurava chakravyuha. It is past doubt now he made the breach. It is past doubt he made several breaches. Among the Muslims. Among the Bhumihars. Among the Paswans. Among the panch-phoranas, the Kurmis and the Koeris. Among the women, most of all. Begusarai ka Beta travelled on poll day. But did he travel far or deep enough? Would his inroads add up?

Kanhaiya, like Abhimanyu, has broken through the chakravyuha and bravely waded in. That’s the story so far. May 23 awaits.