2007, Essay, Journalism, New Delhi, Tehelka

Last Among Unequals

 

Chandra Shekhar was a deeply flawed politician but in many ways he embodied an ethos that has little resonance or currency in today’s India.

In this, his seventh anniversary year, an appraisal I wrote in 2007

In extant public consciousness, the facial stubble probably lies copyrighted as signature statement to Anil Kapoor or to Abhishek Bachchan. But that could only be a trick of not knowing. The stubble was launched as street vogue on the face of a fledgling socialist called Chandra Shekhar in the mid-1960s and has endured through the decades as trademark lean and hungry look of the smalltown neta with bigtime ideas and ambitions. There was a tribe of north Indian politicians that came to subliminally believe you had to have a stubble if you wanted to be taken seriously. In an era where there was still some political premium on being and appearing rustic and rooted rather than cityslicker-swish, the unkempt visage was what made first impressions. The stubble was, if you like, the fashion statement of a certain political species — rough and always ready for the road, no time for personal care because public life wasn’t meant to be about any of that.

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Chandra Shekhar was no Gandhi, there can be no confusing them. (And even Gandhi was in many ways no Gandhi; didn’t Sarojini Naidu remark how she wished the world knew how much it cost to keep the Mahatma poor?) But if symbolism is a legitimate tool for setting norm and standard, we may have lost in Chandra Shekhar the last great villager-politician. Not because to the end of his days, the man wore nothing but rumpled dhoti-kurta, bandi, ahinsak chappals and, in the bitter cold, a khadi shawl; not because he preferred to squat and chat in the kutia he had had constructed in his 3 South Avenue Lane home; not because he kept open house there even when he was, for a trice, Prime Minister; not because he never went campaigning in choppers; not because he never got seduced by the dazzle of the celebrity-corporate complex that debuted harmlessly on Page 3 and has now extended its insidious grip, octopus-like, to all vital precincts of national life; not even because he was the only contemporary politician to have walked — his 1983 Bharat Yatra was no air-conditioned cross-country in a souped-up rath, it was a sole-splitting marathon at the end of which he had his feet wrapped in reams of gauze — the heart of the land.

It was because he was utterly unembarrassed about his lack of chic. It was because it would have embarrassed him to be seen as enamoured by it or aspiring to. That isn’t true any more of many of those who fashion themselves as sons of the soil. The list includes Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh, both of whom owed much to Chandra Shekhar that they aren’t generous enough to reveal. Mark this contrast — Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh have, in time, turned into prosperous and unabashed little dynasts; Chandra Shekhar, for all his years, access and influence, never promoted his family into politics. Sons Pankaj and Neeraj are private people, barely recognised beyond their departed father’s close circle.

It has become kosher, in some ways even obligatory, for the political classes to flaunt wealth, or the company of the wealthy, these days — the cocktail appearance, the shake-a-leg gig, the flash car or cell, the private jet courtesy so-and-so. In Chandra Shekhar’s book that was strictly schlock. Like most politicians of a generation getting framed up on the walls, Chandra Shekhar took a dim, even contemptuous, view of such ethics; he thought such exhibitionism uncouth and unseemly in a country still overwhelmingly populated by the poor. The last time I saw him — a brief meeting in the improvised hut at 3 South Avenue Lane several months ago — he lay already quite consumed by the rot in his veins but still typically irascible at the way things were. “Matibhrasht neta hain is desh ke jinko GDP ka das ank laakhon mare kisanon se jyada bada dikhai deta hai.” (The leaders must have lost their minds to view two-digit GDP growth as bigger than hundreds of thousands of dead farmers.)

It wasn’t as if Chandra Shekhar didn’t build personal wealth; the modest farmer’s son from Ballia in east UP came to acquire fabled — and dubious — estates in the name of the Bharat Yatra Trust at Bhondsi on the fringes of New Delhi and back in his native Ibrahimpatti. It was not as if he did not deal with big and dirty money; as leader of a political concern that had to be kept going and, later, as Prime Minister, he had to. But he had a way about money; money was not about personal ostentation, it was even less about losing sense of realities and perverting policy as a consequence. If ever he used one, Chandra Shekhar probably needed an aide to operate the mobile phone, but he knew his rabi from his kharif and was familiar with all the miseries that happen in between. And he wasn’t afraid to evoke that sensibility even if he was the only man doing so. He left the Praja Socialist Party to join Indira Gandhi because he became convinced that Congress conservatives were bent upon gobbling her — and socialism — up. He fought off the rightwing syndicate with Mrs Gandhi. He left her side when he sensed her turning autocratic and preferred jail to submission. He fought tooth and nail — and in vain — against the formation of the Janata Dal under VP Singh because he thought VP a Congress crony and an opportunist and said so openly. He wasn’t bothered to know if he convinced anyone.

But at the worst of times, he commanded patient hearing in the Lok Sabha or outside, whether it was running against the national mood and warning of the dire consequences of sending armed forces into the Golden Temple or, in the vortex of the post-Babri demolition turmoil, remonstrating with the Left not to push the Sangh Parivar so hard that there was no room for return. Too much a secular-socialist ever to agree with the Sangh and irate at the horror it had enacted in Ayodhya, Chandra Shekhar still counselled dialogue — don’t forget, they too are people who belong to this country, they have strayed, they need to be corrected, you can’t extern them. Not for nothing did the late PV Narasimha Rao say that the closest the Ayodhya dispute came to a resolution was during Chandra Shekhar’s premiership. But then that was a stint with “short-term” written all over it.

He was a die-hard inclusivist because he was grounded in the contrary pluralities of India and understood that contradictions cannot be fought, they would have to be managed. No wonder his friendships ran deep and across ideological lines. No wonder that little Chandra Shekhar wanted done went unrequited in the power corridors. The man only ever held one post — Prime Minister for seven lame-duck months — but he wielded influence far in excess of what he let on. He became much reviled too for the strings he could pull over the phone from 3 South Avenue Lane. Did he care? He didn’t much. On the contrary, he continued to offer plentiful fodder to critics. His weakness for Thakur aggrandisement — wasn’t the rivalry for the Rajput crown at the bottom of his visceral differences with VP Singh? — his loner’s inability to create an organisation, his clumsy late-life grab for high office, the sordid company he often kept. Suraj Deo Singh and Chandraswami, one a dreaded Dhanbad mafia don, the other a high-flying conman. It can’t be he didn’t know the truth about them. But here again, it was that stodgy streak of personal conviction working against public perception — they were friends, Chandra Shekhar couldn’t be bothered what the world thought of them.

For more than the last decade, Chandra Shekhar stood in the Lok Sabha as lone representative of a party that had no brand recognition and that has probably died unlamented with him — the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). But being solitary seldom shook him. He was, from the beginning, an as-is-where-is man, like me, lump me. A little before the end, he made another contentious, and solitary, flip — vote Shekhawat for President, not Pratibha. He was nearer to the Congress than he was to the BJP but then, Shekhawat was a friend. The stubble had by then turned from pepper to salt-and-pepper to pure salt on his face and now it’s turned to ash. But that was the original one and it lies copyrighted in his name.

 

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, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Single And Single: A Short Political Inventory of the Unmarried, the Separated and the Widowed

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The most powerful singles club in the country just got a little less crowded. Narendra Modi, has declared a long-denied wife mid-bid to Prime Ministership of India. But till just the other day, singlehood in Indian politics carried formidable heft. Modi’s chief adversary and undeclared pretender to the top office, Rahul Gandhi, has often teased a public and formal pledge not to marry. With one entry on his nomination form in Vadodara — “Jashodaben” — Modi announced himself as a living paradox: married in a marriage he neither committed himself to nor consummated. It was a bal-vivaha, child marriage, Modi was 17, Jashodaben two years younger. Even in that day, such coupling would not have had the sanction of law.  But on paper that now carries the weight of his signature, Modi is single no more. The singles club of our public people may just have lost its best known member.

It remains, even so, a mighty gathering possessed of influence across and up and down the nation.

When Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abduallah’s announcement in September 2011 that he was separated from wife Payal, he rendered himself the country’s eighth chief minister without a formally designated current partner.

Already in when Omar finally announced himself at the club door — squishing  speculation and kicking grapevine en route — were J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu, Naveen Patnaik of Orissa, Nitish Kumar of Bihar, Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh, Shiela Dikshit of Delhi and Mamata Bannerji of Bengal. Narendra Modi of Gujarat, still there at the time, has just stepped out. But Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan has just returned, having recently grabbed the state back from the Congress.

Single people still rule over close to half of India’s population — 49.47 percent of Indians according to last count. And in a nation so moored to family and family values and in a polity so overrun by dynasties, they also constitute a charming collateral trend. But does that alone make a case for speculation on similarities in public behaviour and governance patterns? Yes and no.

Single chief ministers can all, for instance, be said to have more time available to devote to affairs of state by the sheer fact of not having to bother with family at the back of the office. Some also argue that a single person is less liable to resort to nepotism or other forms of corruption. And it is often suggested that they are less liable to be driven by pelf because most may not have progeny to hand it over to. Experience suggests much can be said on either side of these generalizations.

An individual’s performance in political office — as indeed in other jobs — is likely to depend more on individual personality, energy levels, and ethical and value systems than on marital status, say consultant psychiatrists who specialise in family affairs. Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar have both been singled out by a US Congressional research group as the most efficient among India’s political administrators. But there the similarities between the two — personal and political — end. Mayawati is widely perceived to be a 24/7 chief minister but that has not put Uttar Pradesh among the best governed states in India.

“A single person may appear to have more time on hand than a married person, but how much and what a person sets to do and actually achieves is influenced by these factors — not marital status,” said Anjali Chhabria, a consultant psychiatrist in Mumbai who runs a clinic called Mind Temple.

“But a person who is married but unhappy is likely to have less energy and ambition than a single person who’s happy,” she said. “The state of mind determines ambitions — someone who’s happy, whether single or married, is more likely to want more and achieve more.”

One expert said the value system that is part of an individual’s personality will guide behaviour in handling issues where there is scope for nepotism or corruption. “It may seem that a single person without family concerns has less chance of being greedy — but that is necessarily true,” said Shashi Bhushan Kumar, a consultant psychiatrist in New Delhi. “Take the case of Bihar’s [chief mimister] Nitish Kumar — he’s got a family, but has a very modest lifestyle,” Kumar said.

More time on hand may not necessarily translate into efficiency. Several studies in the past have suggested that marital status can influence mental health, sleep patterns, and even work performance. A study by social scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark released earlier this year, for instance, showed a positive association between being married and work effectiveness. The study based on an analysis of expatriate academics in Nordic countries showed that married people appeared to have better work outcomes than single individuals.

Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who lost his wife to pulmonary edema in 2007, and Omar, who probably lost his wife to incompatibility, may both disagree. Nitish advocates seldom tire of arguing that his “single” status is what gives him the edge over competition. Omar has suggested his being single has not impacted his work.

Nitish has a credible ring to his claims on being clean — he is a widower, his son is a meditative recluse, he has nobody to accumulate money and pass on to. The same does not hold true of Jayalalithaa who suffers a credibility deficit on the cleanliness count; she may not have a family but she does, like former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, has a foregrounded foster family. In both cases, the foster families weighed heavier on the “single” leaders than many other real families do.

So a club it is, but between one single and another lies a fair duality. Narendra Modi only just underlined that to us, unveiling Jashodaben on his ticket to Prime Ministership.

 

 

2014, Essay, Patna, Telegraph Calcutta

Double Jeopardy For Nitish: Bihar 2014, Roll Of The Dice For Bihar 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is going to be a two-in-one enactment, make no mistake about it. On paper, assembly polls are still a year and a half off, but this summer’s Lok Sabha verdict will be a decisive roll of the dice in the battle for Bihar. It’s a fool’s estimate the parliamentary numbers of 2014 will bring closure to the re-division of the Bihari pie; they will only set the stage for the final settlement of 2015.

Who’s to tell if the climax will even hold off that long? Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s is, after all, a minority government perched on a wafer that could give to the slightest shift in the balance of power.

Of all the paradoxes that pervade the radical re-arrangement of battlements since Nitish abrogated his alliance with the BJP last June, the hardest to miss is probably this: he survives on the support of arguably the most insignificant player in the field called the Congress, and the Congress is running three-legged with his old adversary Laloo Yadav.

Continue reading “Double Jeopardy For Nitish: Bihar 2014, Roll Of The Dice For Bihar 2015”

2006, Essay, New Delhi, Tehelka

The Tailor Of Telinipara: On Blood Brothers & MJ Akbar

A 2006 piece on what MJ Akbar meant to a generation of journalists and consciousness

Life is not an equal opportunity employer. Literature is an even more discriminating concern, for the press of dubious claimants at its gates is frenetic. MJ Akbar is a Brahmin of that world, although he would have us believe he is a Mussulmaan descended from Kshatriyas born of the arms of Brahma. In truth, he came from the mouth of the Creator, already possessed, in the dreary deficits of an eastern jutemill slum, of a sense of preordained priority… “I was born a Capricorn, with Scorpio Ascendant along with Scorpio Navamsa and Pisces Dreskana in the fourth house of Anuradha, indicating that I would have fame, travel, wealth, worldly comforts, energy, determination, and the comforting ability to convince others of a course of action while nursing an alternative idea in the quiet depths of my heart, making me practical, self-motivated and therefore successful…” Only a Brahmin can arrive so anointed with entitlement. This, mind you, is the meritocracy of the Word, a reservation from which Mandal remains providentially banished. Rights of Admission Deserved.

As a sample of what conditions apply, this from Blood Brothers:

“Starvation is a slow fire that sucks life out in little bursts, leaving pockets of unlinked vacuum inside. Death comes when the points of emptiness suddenly coalesce; there is a silent implosion. The worst is in the beginning, when the body still has energy to rebel and the mind enough hope to fear. When hope fades, fear evolves into a dazed weariness. You turn numb and it no longer matters whether you are alive or dead…” Continue reading “The Tailor Of Telinipara: On Blood Brothers & MJ Akbar”