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.

She became a mother before she could fully become a girl — at 14 — and died before she could fully become a mother, eaten up in a hospital ward by a host of predators, including anemia, pulmonary tuberculosis, jaundice and that most terrible killer of them all: poverty. The fact is Shahida initially only had a few burn injuries in a domestic accident, the kind of injuries that are easily treatable these days. Her real problem lay not in her injury, her real problem lay in herself: she was poor, as poor as a million others in this country who die the way she did last week at age 16. But then Shahida died in Calcutta. That gave her death a signature. 

In no other city would the death of Shahida Khatoon, pavement dweller, have made news. But here in Calcutta, she was on the front pages. Perhaps that is why she can justifiably occupy this space as well. Insensitive and crude as it may sound to Shahida’s kin, this has not so much to do with Shahida as with Calcutta. For all the stains on her stars there was one bit that shone for Shahida: she was born to Calcutta and she suffered and died there.

It rained the morning she was reportedly lying at the gates of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters. She had been very badly burnt, trying to save Jarmina, her one plus daughter, from a stove flame. She was frail and lacerated, she was in urgent need of attention and she had nowhere to go because she hd no money. The old man walking up to the gates of the CMC in the steady drizzle that morning must have read all that in the newspapers and that spirit called Calcutta must have driven him out of home, umbrella in one hand, a few crumpled notes in the other. It wasn’t a morning for limping old men to go out walking but this one was there, desperately seeking Shahida. Shahida wasn’t there that morning; the rain had pushed her out into a bylane by the piggery on New Market’s northface. Mother Jubeeda was there — she perhaps knows Calcutta well.  she knew for sure that morning Calcutta would send out a few of her human beings. She was waiting for them right there at the CMC gates, where Shahida was supposed to have been. That is where she met the old man who had come with a plamful of rupees for Shahida.

It was a classic Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of Jubeda. The old man stood there, rupees on his palm like crushed rose petals for offering. And Jubeda stood there grabbing the notes hurriedly and pushing them down her blouse, furtively ensuring nobody saw and loudly assuring the money had gone to the right place. It was poverty extracting the price of its spectacle. It was a scene out of a Ray film, or an avant garde documentary that routinely gets lambasted around coffee tables on one side of the intellectual fence for selling poverty in exchange for pelf. Jubeda that morning was definitely the face of a woman expecting and demanding money for her misery. She was the face of stereotype that had successfully been sold off as Calcutta; perhaps a white man in place of the old calcuttan would have given that stereotype the hype and edge you sometimes require in documentaries. 

But depending where you were looking at the scene from, or depending on where the camera was positioned, there was another Calcutta moment unfolding: around the face of the old man with the umbrella and the palmful of rupees. He was no do gooderchasing fame; he had not brought reporters and camera crews in tow and it was clear he intended to do what he had come to do with the minimum fuss and in the littlest time required. He was no Richie Rich trying to get donation rebates on his taxes either; he hadn’t come with receipt books in his pocket. There wasn’t anything there apart from the crumpled notes he had come to give. He did not seem like a man who would have too many tax problems; his chappals were torn and the rain had worsted them more. Scarcely anybody noticed him arrive, give and leave. before Jubeda could put away the money he had brought the old man had become a walking umbrella among many walking umbrellas on Corporation Street. You won’t find that kind of man in too many other cities. In Calcutta, you won’t have to look too far. There is enough concern to be found, even in the time of the cholera of crime. Collapse on a street in New Delhi and collapse on a street in Calcutta, you’ll know the difference. 

In no ther city would Shahida have died cared for and mourned as she was here. In no other city would they have had time for her. Calcutta has time for its dead, and a little bit of honour (if space in the newspapers could mean that). Which is why life still lives here. 

For the India flying into the 21st century in Kentucky fried wings, satellite dish tucked in armpit, cellular phone in hand, this might be a great area of darkness. Why India, even for the Calcutta south of Park Street the city might be the great area of darkness where there are no air-conditioned Wimpy’s burgers and no Mexxs next to Allen Sollys. The prided Mero might have been sneaked afielf underground breaking the great north-south Calcutta barrier. But then, isn’t the poor northern underside responsible for the mess that the Metro currently is in? Those fellows in Shyambazar and DumDum do not know how to use modern tansport, they ruined it for Calcutta.
But no, South Calcutta is not Calcutta. Not, at any rate, the Calcutta that is the area of darkness, the Calcutta where life still lives, the Calcutta where Shahida belonged — vibrant, throbbing, terrible, miserable, colourful, dark, bright, dead, alive. That is the Calcutta of the street and the slum, where man comes against man without his name, address or social label attached. That is where Calcutta scores.

Bombay has its showpiece in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia (that’s something to take pride in)  and a convenient set for the film industry. What would they do without Dharavi? New Delhi has its share of shanty towns — the JJ (jhuggi-jhonpdi) colonies they call it. When the capital holds its big festivals — a non aligned movement summit for instance — its rulers put bamboo screens across the JJ colonies so its honoured guests are spared the ugliness.

Calcutta lives with its heart poured out onto the streets, nothing comes between people and their lives, not even the misery of poverty. take a ride one late night across Park Circus and Raja Bazar or Kadapara. It might teach you that life or joy does not necessarily have to do with that thing called money. bathing under streetside gargoyles can be more fun than eating a Wimpy’s burger — at least it is more unrestrained, more unrestricted fun. Or just be in Calcutta during the puja. It is celebration and everybody celebrates. There is, after all, no toll on being festive, not yet. And during the puja Calcutta is festive like no other city can be. And the important thing about the festivity of Calcutta is that the beaten underside of Narkeldanga, tied down with all the difficulties of a dying-dead economy, can be as festive and funfilled as posh Alipore or Ballygunge, The underside certainly is more unrestrained, more felt, more pristine joy. 

Their lives and conditions would make the festivities seem so out of place — there is very little in Calcutta not to complain about. But there is very little calcuttans complain about. Perhaps because they are too busy living and making a life of it with a smile where there is so little to smile about. Shahida may be dead and a hundred others may be dying but they are less inconsequential than they might have been elsewhere. This is no dying city, this is a city trying to live. Someone got it terribly wrong.     


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.


The Kanhaiya paradox: riveting yet onerous


They begin to ripple like the intimation of a tide, those red plastic flags and those excitable hands holding them. Then rises the hubbub of anticipation, like the spur of a wind. “Aa raha hai, aa raha hai, aa raha hai, dekhiye, dekhiye aa gaya, aa chukaaa! Kanhaiyaaaaa! Kanhaiyaaaaa Zindabad!!”

The tide itself astride an SUV, a tide struggling to proceed against its own current. It’s not possible to see Kanhaiya Kumar although he is in the front seat, judging by where the eye of the storm has formed. The vehicle has been swallowed up — heads, hands, any limb that can get there reaching for the man inside. “Kanhaiya! Kanhaiyaaa!”

A party of bikers awaits at the culvert a little ahead, to lead Kanhaiya onto the day’s road show. But Kanhaiya has been stranded by his own. Some break into dance, mid-road, some into shrill cries of “azadi!”

What azadi, I wonder to one of them and the youngster turns to say, “Azadi from lies, from false promises, from unemployment, from divisive netas, azadi from what has kept us poor.”

We are in Bachhwara, a deep-rural Assembly segment of Begusarai — you see the odd pucca house, you see broken mud trails, you see cattle and humans sharing the same bereft spaces, you see subsistence quantities of harvest, freshly cut and piled, you see many young unemployed. “Kanhaiya is the promise of delivery,” the azadi chanter continues. “We have seen far too many netas promise and not deliver.”

Cadres of the CPI, whose candidate Kanhaiya is, have by now taken over the road, and pulled away the throng; Kanhaiya’s SUV is beginning to slide along. Ahead of it are many dozens of bikers, all sporting the CPI red, and many similar dozens from a long, flailing tail. Many who have arrived to catch a glimpse of Kanhaiya are merely walking along, trying to keep pace. Here and there, women and young girls have jostled to the roadside to wave at someone they can barely see; several of them have their phones brandished for pictures. So what if they cannot see Kanhaiya, they know for sure it is him passing by, THE KANHAIYA, a one-man tableau who is scripting the most exciting election in Bihar this season.

There is nothing quite as riveting as the sight of a debutant young challenger taking the arena to dare formidable challengers; there is probably nothing quite as onerous as carrying that dare through. Kanhaiya is daring that dare in Begusarai with little more than a reputation that is celebrity to some, notoriety to others.

To both sets, Kanhaiya is a name that has arrived home in Begusarai to want to be reckoned with. “This is not an ordinary time and not an ordinary election,” he tells, over the din all around. “Fundamental things are at stake and fundamental corrections are required, that is what I am here for, to convince people to send to Parliament a person who will talk forthrightly about those things and fight for them. I always have.”

He barrels through the countryside, amid swirling dust and clamour, revealing a campaign Begusarai has probably never seen the like of. It has been peppered with political heavyweights and star arrivals each day; it is being fed and fuelled by huge ranks of supporters who have come from far and away to contribute what they might — students, activists, civil society apparatchik, those whom politics excites and want a real piece of it. From reputed wing commanders like Shehla Rashid to anonymous entities like Sudip Dalvi, an environmentalist and musician from Goa who believes “everyone should contribute to sending a man like Kanhaiya to Parliament”.

Kanhaiya already wears the air of much-sequinned enterprise, but that may not yet afford him a winner suit. That will have to be cut from local cloth and stitched with hard aggregation of numbers on the ground. Begusarai isn’t easily sliced through and rearranged, although that clearly is Kanhaiya’s effort: to break through the defences of adversaries in a manner never attempted before, to become that debutant who dared and eventually grabbed the shining armour.

It may once have been easier than it is now. Begusarai, the only patch of Bihar that can pretend to call itself an industry hub, was once a CPI fortress, such that it was called Bihar’s Leningrad. But that was a long, long time ago. Bachhwara, where Kanhaiya is today, was the last Assembly seat the CPI held before it shrank and yielded the entire realm to players who boss the scene — the BJP, the JDU, the RJD, even in pockets the LJP. The CPI has nothing; what there is of the CPI has in fact been kindled to life by Kanhaiya.

Across the pit from Kanhaiya are formidable adversaries — Tanweer Hassan of the RJD, who lost the last election by a little over 50,000 votes, and Giriraj Singh of the BJP, which effectively means Narendra Modi. Giriraj came to Begusarai a reluctant candidate but was probably immediately gleeful to find a constituency already rallied on returning Modi as Prime Minister. Neither Giriraj nor Tanweer will be pushovers; they come with established cadres and loyalties. And Kanhaiya, if he has to make a match of it, will probably need to ransack both their vote banks — ranks of his Bhumihar brethren and backward voters from the BJP, huge chunks of Muslims from the RJD.

While his challenge is energetically frilled out enough not to grab prime notice, it’s the hard plating of numbers that Kanhaiya requires to turn winner gladiator. The jury on that remains out, despite the spectacular act Kanhaiya has unpacked on the Begusarai battleground. A stellar campaign, as we learnt from Arvind Kejriwal’s swashbuckling challenge to Modi in Varanasi five years ago, often doesn’t add up to enough. Kanhaiya, smart son of this soil that he is, may know that better than most.

On the journey back we ran into tortuous roadblocks — one near the GD College in the centre of Begusarai, another at a highway crossroads called Bathua Chhota. BJP president Amit Shah has been choppering overhead the same geography and both logjams had been caused by spillovers from his campaign stops. The echo heaving off both mired venues was “Modi! Modi!!”


Bihar election minus Lalu like a cabaret without Helen

This is an election like no other Bihar has seen for generations. Lalu Prasad isn’t there. It’s a bit like Helen having left the cabaret floor. Cabarets are no cabarets if Helen isn’t dancing; Bihar elections aren’t quite Bihar elections without Lalu storming the barns.

Over the last three decades, since he arrived almost unheralded as chief minister of Bihar in 1990, Lalu has won elections and he has lost them. He’s been raved about and reviled, a celebrated mass hero for many, a damnable villain to others, but always the centre of the election stage — the man to espouse and the man to eschew. Now, for the first time, Bihar’s tryst with the polls has its axis missing, banished by judicial verdicts on misdeeds that keep Lalu arraigned and away in Jharkhand. Gone from this campaign like a receded wind. Gone too, it would appear, are the sting and spice he peppered the trail with, all that daring and drama.

But it was far more than electricity and entertainment that Lalu brought to the conduct of a Bihar election. He brought to it values on stage and backstage that must now remain a void. And that absence will willy-nilly come to bear on the outcome. As a senior RJD functionary, visibly a little bereft at the party headquarters in west Patna, told The Telegraph: “He had a presence and voice that nobody could match, but far more important than that was his deep knowledge of the Bihari battleground, a knowledge nobody can claim to match; he knew people in the remotest villages, he knew how to play them, how to play complex equations, he was a master at managing. We in the party are going to miss that Lalu the most, especially during a critical election. There is nobody that comes even close across the political board.”

How much Lalu’s physical absence from the stage will eventually come to bear on the fortunes of the Mahagathbandhan is yet moot, but everybody seems persuaded he is a loss nobody or nothing can replace. RJD spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member Manoj Jha was blunt when asked: “Lalu Prasadji being the pivot of the RJD as well as the entire Mahagathbandhan, crafted around the idea of social justice and secularism, we are certainly missing the best political communicator we have. However, more than us the people of Bihar are greatly missing him as an entire generation never imagined an election without his presence.”

The holes scored by his absence are visible, often gaping. The most insistent of them is the absence of the trademark Lalu energy on the campaign trail itself. Even post multiple surgeries to keep his heart going, Lalu scorched the trail with eight or ten chopperstops each day during the make-or-break campaign of 2015. Nobody is able to keep that score, not even his youthful and younger son, Tejashwi, now thrust into a spearhead role. Rather than put speed on the campaign, Tejashwi took a four-day break last fortnight — two on account of a grounded chopper and two, we are told, because he had a dodgy tummy. It’s unimaginable Lalu would succumb to such setbacks mid-campaign. In 2000, when Rabri Devi was chief minister and the RJD was fighting with its back to the wall to retain power, Lalu campaigned incessantly by road and air, with a sore and troubling ulcer in his back.

There are also issues of command and control that Tejashwi hasn’t shown himself equal to. There are rebellions in pockets that he has not been able to control or been bothered to — the pyrrhic one by party veteran MAA Fatmi in Madhubani, for instance, and by a lesser leader in Supaul where the Congress’ Ranjeet Ranjan has virtually been left to fend for herself. There are also quibbles about the distribution of funds, some of it voiced by seniors like Abdul Bari Siddiqui, who is contesting from Darbhanga.

“Such issues would not arise if Laluji were physically present,” said a party functionary close to the first family of the RJD, “Laluji knew where to exercise his authority and where to use persuasion, Tejashwi hasn’t learnt or displayed that art.”

The hopeful among embattled RJD ranks are pinning their hopes on the Lalu magic working even in his absence — some even believe he will be able to shore up sympathy for “being denied bail despite his ill health” — but that’s a far far cry from his persona being on this stage in person. Lalu had once famously said, jab tak samosa mein rahega aaloo, Bihar mein tab tak rahega Lalu. The quote’s turned on him, it would seem, but who knows he could yet come back and quip, “But I am not even allowed to be in Bihar, you’ve sent me to Jharkhand.”