Telegraph Calcutta

Endgame: Why Nitish Kumar broke with Narendra Modi and the other Modi’s role in it

 

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The Big Fight

An except from my new omnibus volume “The Brothers Bihari” on Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar on why and how Nitish Kumar fought with Narendra Modi and eventually broke away

 

Dream governance was rudely and repeatedly disrupted by troubled sleep. The NDA partners of Bihar had turned bitter bedfellows, they had rolled to far sides, mistrust had crept and lay in between. There were three in the marriage; it had become unworkable. Because he abhorred taking Narendra Modi’s name, Nitish called him the ‘third party’: ‘We made a great pair all these years, there were no problems between us. It is only when a third party began to interfere from outside that we broke apart.’ He thought Modi’s shadow an illicit violation of the JDU-BJP compact in Bihar.

One day at a rally near Gaya in mid-2012, Narendra Modi posters popped up below Nitish’s stage with a staccato burst of ‘Desh ka neta kaisa ho? Narendra Modi jaisa ho!’ It left Nitish stunned and livid. He had been playing the all-is-well charade for a while, but he knew all was not well. Every day the rift over Modi was becoming sharper, more apparent. Ministers came out of cabinet meetings and jeered their chief minister for opposing Narendra Modi. Spokespersons of the two parties duelled in television debates. In the public eye, Nitish’s government lost the complexion of solutions; it began to look like a problem.

But Nitish had seen this coming. More than anyone else in the JDU, he had a sense of the Sangh Parivar’s pulse. He suspected a split might become inevitable soon. He suspected Modi’s surge to the top of the BJP was irrevocable. It was not for nothing that he kept the BJP out of the Adhikar Yatra—the signature public campaign of his second term—launched more than a year before the split. He could well have made it an NDA platform, but he did not want any credit gone to the BJP. His Adhikar Yatra he used to rally the JDU’s workers across the state, to give them a cause and an identity separate from the BJP and the NDA. He was preparing them for a break.

***

In 2005, Nitish had said no to getting Narendra Modi to come to Bihar to help with the campaign, not even after he fell short in the first of two assembly elections held that year. Defeat did not tempt him to import Gujarat’s rising star to see if he could add to the NDA kitty. Some in the BJP did suggest it, but Nitish rejected the offer out of hand. Nitish believed that the antiMuslim violence under Modi in 2002 and his subsequent defence of it—calling it a ‘natural reaction’ to the burning of a train vestibule full of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra—was one of the reasons Vajpayee lost power in 2004. Nitish was a Cabinet minister in Vajpayee’s NDA government in 2002 but he had not quit over Gujarat. He had merely taken his reservations to Vajpayee, who attempted feeble and oblique corrections. Vajpayee had reminded Modi of the obligations of rajdharma, a concept of kingship that imbricates the great Hindu epics. The BJP, though, endorsed Modi sans an ion of censure, and celebrated his politics of fracture in Gujarat. After the defeat in the national elections of 2004 Nitish argued, albeit only in private, that Modi had rudely shaken down what Vajpayee had assiduously built up—a liberal, secular temper of governance. ‘Poore Hindustan ke Musalmaan aur dharma-nirpeksh tabkon mein bhay aur asuraksha ka message chala gaya Modi ki wajah se, NDA ko haani hui, divisive neta is desh ko acceptable nahin hai.’ . . . A message of fear and insecurity has gone out to Muslim and secular sections across the country because of Modi, the NDA has suffered. Divisive leaders are not acceptable to this country.

The one thing he had resolved ahead of coming to power was never to allow Modi anywhere near Bihar. Nitish had very different ideas of how he wanted to run the state, should he get the opportunity. When he got it, in November 2005, he presented the parameters of the alliance to the BJP. The alliance would run by special arrangement: it would be guided by secular ideas and policies of the kind Lohiaite socialists espoused; minority protection and promotion would be one of its directive principles; the BJP or the Sangh would cease to press the Hindutva agenda; Bihar would remain off-limits for Narendra Modi’s politics.

Of course, none of this was written down; such agreements between political parties seldom are. They are letters of trust notarized in the court of public opinion. Arun Jaitley and Sushil Modi, Nitish’s friend from university, who became the deputy chief minister with charge of the finance portfolio, would be the executors of this compact on the BJP’s behalf; Nitish, already signed on as junior NDA ally, promised to play by the BJP’s national ambition of regaining power at the Centre. Sanjay Jha was the intermediary between Nitish and Jaitley, ferrying messages to and fro, helping iron out what differences came up.

In Nitish’s first term, barely any problems arose. Jaitley and Sushil Modi remained honest to the coalition’s unwritten code, even through periods they may have had cause to quibble. Nitish reopened proceedings against those guilty of the antiMuslim violence of 1989 in Bhagalpur, a consequence of the BJP’s Ayodhya temple campaign. The culprits were located and punished. Properties sold by panic-stricken Muslims were restored to them or cash compensation handed out. The 383 government also opened its purse-strings for minority welfare programmes. As finance minister, Sushil Modi signed the cheques; in the BJP’s annals, he must rank as the man who has handed out the biggest doles to Muslims. He did so uncomplainingly and often at the cost of being chided by partymen.

By the by, that chiding turned to rebuke. During a leadership meeting in Delhi in 2008, some colleagues tore into Sushil Modi for behaving more loyal to Nitish than to the objectives of the party, of having turned the BJP in Bihar into a ‘subservient tool’ of Nitish. The chief minister is pursuing his political programmes and objectives, they complained, the BJP is at a standstill, it is not able to express itself, it is not able to expand, it has been reduced to Nitish’s ‘B’ team. Some of these voices belonged to party leaders from Bihar, men like Bhagalpur MP Shahnawaz Hussain and Rajiv Pratap Rudy. Sushil Modi turned to them and wondered if the party wanted to be part of the Bihar alliance at all? He underlined the framework under which the government ran and told his colleagues he would like to hear their views on whether they thought those terms worth their while. His critics went quiet, but that did not mean they were pleased. They wanted to control Nitish rather than be controlled by him, to dominate Bihar’s decision-making, its political discourse. Nitish was not even bothering to consult them, leave alone yield them space on government and governance matters. He was happy to deal with Sushil Modi and, in Delhi, with Jaitley. ‘What use is being part of a ruling coalition in Bihar,’ one BJP MP carped privately to me during that period. ‘What use is it when I cannot even recommend someone for a petty job, cannot assure a small contract, cannot manage to have a troublesome officer transferred? Nitish has hijacked this alliance and our own leaders have allowed him to.’ This lobby had its counterparts in Patna, equally irate, reduced to colourful cribbing: hum log is sarkar ke napunsak dulha hain, we are the impotent grooms of this government. Men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Naveen, both MLAs, men like Giriraj Singh, minister in Nitish’s government. Some of them had begun to spend time in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad as guests of the Gujarat government. Nitish had a good sense what was taking them on journeys across the subcontinent, and what messages they might be coming back with. Narendra Modi was upto something, and Nitish did not like the thought of it. But it still did not bother him as long as he did not have to deal with his Gujarat counterpart. That changed on 10 May 2009.

The NDA, pushing for L.K. Advani as prime minister, had scheduled one of its biggest shows of strength in the 2009 Lok Sabha campaign at Ludhiana on that date. Invitations had gone out to prominent leaders of all constituent parties and NDA chief ministers. K. Chandrashekhar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi had decided to participate, breaking away from the UPA. This had brought new buoyancy to NDA ranks.

Nitish was reluctant to join the rally, averse as he was to sharing a stage with Narendra Modi. He had requested JDU president Sharad Yadav to go. Two days before the rally, Jaitley called Nitish to say Advani was very keen he came, he had made a personal request. Nitish did not commit himself immediately. Jaitley then put Sanjay Jha on the job, and Jha was eventually able to convince Nitish that they’d go by chartered flight, attend the rally and return the same evening. Short and clinical. It would make Advaniji happy.

Nitish and Sanjay Jha flew to Chandigarh, then drove to the rally ground. The Akali hosts had planned the Ludhiana rally Punjabi-style. It was a big and boisterous affair—drums beating, swords flashing, bhangra dancers flexing about. Nitish was 385 probably too taken by the merry commotion to see the prospect he most feared hotfooting it in his direction. He had barely set foot on the crowded stage when Narendra Modi, having quickmarched from the other end, took his hand and held it aloft for the crowd to see. A cheer went up that must have buzzed like a fly in Nitish’s ears. Cameras popped and Nitish must have felt like he was being shot. It was over in a trice. Before Nitish could recover his wits, Modi had left him and retreated to his appointed place on the dais. When he got back into the car with Sanjay Jha after the rally, he lavished him with a hot mouthful. He was fuming. He said, ‘Isi liye yahan laaye thhe? Aap jaante the kya hone waala hai, provoke kiya gaya hai mujhe aur aapne mujhe phansaaya.’ . . . Is this why you brought me here? You knew this was going to happen. I have been provoked and you got me here for this. Sanjay Jha tried a stuttering pacification, but Nitish was in no mood to listen. ‘Sab deliberate hai, design hai, kal akhbar mein wohi photo chhapega jo us aadmi ne mera haath pakadke jabardasti khhichwaya. Is tarah ki rajneeti ke main sakht khilaf hoon.’ . . . All of this is deliberate, part of a design, tomorrow’s papers will carry the very picture which that man held my hand up for. I am strongly opposed to this kind of politicking. It was Sanjay Jha’s turn to be stunned. He hadn’t realized the depth of Nitish’s aversion to Narendra Modi; his anger dripped ghrina, repugnance. The two did not exchange a word until they reached Patna.

The next morning, when Sanjay Jha saw the photograph plastered across the newspapers, he conceded quietly to himself he may have been the instrument of leading Nitish into a trap; Nitish was flailing in it. Modi’s Ludhiana hand-grab would return to haunt him and the alliance very soon.

In June 2010, a few days before the BJP’s national executive was to meet in Patna, posters began to appear on the city’s the big fight 386 the brothers bihari walls thanking Narendra Modi for his mahadaan, noble donation, towards relief for Kosi flood victims: a sum of Rs 5 crore. On the eve of the session, giant hoardings went up on Patna’s vantage crossroads proclaiming Modi’s largesse and expressing gratitude to the Gujarat chief minister on behalf of the people of Bihar. Many of these were sponsored by lesser lights of the local BJP unit, men like Rameshwar Chaurasia and Nitin Navin. Modi was arriving in Bihar for the first time in many years, he had won successive elections in Gujarat, he was being feted by his partymen. Excitement eddied around him.

Nitish was not in Patna when the BJP session began, he was in north Bihar on a leg of his Vikas Yatra, laying the ground for assembly elections that were scheduled within months. He was returning, though; he had assured Sushil Modi he would host a dinner for BJP leaders before they left Patna. Sushil Modi had suggested Chanakya Hotel, where many BJP leaders were staying. Nitish said no, he would call them all home for a meal, hotels are impersonal. A shamiana had been erected on the lawns of 1 Aney Marg; the kitchen rigged at the back had been given a list of sweetmeats typical to Bihar—balushahi, belgrami, khaja, fine-flour wafers; and, of course, there would be litti and chokha. B.D. Singh, the energetic Maurya Hotel factotum, had been handed turnkey charge of a five-star menu and service, the chief minister himself would tick the boxes on preparations once he arrived back in Patna. Invitation cards were printed, individually addressed to each member of the BJP national executive and state leaders. The evening before the dinner, they were handed to Shyam Jaju, an old BJP hand who supervised the party headquarters in Delhi, for distribution.

When the morning’s papers were brought to Nitish the next day, what he saw left him so irate he couldn’t hold his cup of tea straight. Full-page advertisements had appeared in two of Patna’s largest circulated Hindi dailies—Jagaran and Hindustan—thanking Narendra Modi for the Rs 5 crore flood relief money. The sponsors were a hitherto unknown set that called themselves ‘Friends of Bihar’. The issuing agency was the Patna-based Expression Ads owned by a PR conduit called Arindam Guha, well-known to both media and government circles. None of those filters could mask the author of the ad. The text on it was irrelevant, it was the subtext that burned into Nitish—the Ludhiana photograph leapt off the page: there it was again, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar, palms clutched and held aloft. Nitish thought it a distasteful and offensive taunt; worse than a rude joke, a makhaul, mockery. Narendra Modi had come to Patna, and in one go, twice violated him. He had paid to have a photograph published that Nitish was hustled into and which he wanted deleted from the memory boards. He had made to belittle Bihar by publicizing his relief contribution as a favour done. About the first thing Nitish did on recovering from his rage was call Sanjay Jha. The dinner won’t happen, recall the invitations. Nitish’s tone told Sanjay Jha it was no time to argue or reason. The chief minister also instructed his home staff to have the shamiana pulled down and the kitchen put out.

Sushil Modi learnt Nitish had scrapped the dinner with the BJP executive still in session. He wasn’t surprised, having seen and remarked upon the newspaper advertisement himself. His worst fears were taking shape, a showdown between the alliance partners just months short of the elections. He had, in fact, advised party leaders not to hold the session in Patna, he didn’t want to be dealing with intra-alliance irritants when the focus was on the approaching polls. The BJP leadership had settled on Patna for quite the same reason—a session ahead of elections would serve to galvanize party cadres. Sushil Modi tried the big fight 388 the brothers bihari reasoning with Nitish through intermediaries, but in vain. Galat message chala jaayega chunav ke pehle, he argued, this will send out a wrong message before elections. The deputy chief minister knew he would fetch no quarter. He knew his boss to be a stubborn man, and now that he had taken a position, he wouldn’t give. Nitish was curt and unmoved. ‘Galat message chala gaya hai, aap logon ne bheja hai, meri jaankari ke bina yeh sab chhapa kaise?’ . . . The wrong message has already gone out and you people have sent it. How did this get published without my knowledge? That afternoon Nitish had invited journalists who had arrived from Delhi to cover the BJP session to a casual interaction over lunch at the Chanakya Hotel. He came visibly upset and told his guests he had withdrawn the dinner invitation to BJP leaders and was seeking an inquiry into how the advertisement was published. ‘Serious maamla hai, iski tehkikaat hogi.’ . . . it is a serious issue, it will be probed. Beyond the political immorality Nitish saw in it, there was also a case, if thin, for legal violations. No paid-for material that carried a photograph of the chief minister was meant to be published without the approval of the government’s information department. Rakesh Dubey, a mid-level police officer, was asked to investigate the paper trail of the ad. His mission took him as far as Surat but the tracks had been efficiently covered. Dubey gathered that among the backers of Friends of Bihar, an outfit never heard of before or since, was the BJP MP from Navsari, C. R. Patil, and that a sum of Rs 30 lakhs had been paid, through Expression Ads, as fees. At this point, Nitish was reconciled to breaking with the BJP. He told confidants to be prepared to strike out on their own in the elections. Gloom had descended on the BJP camp; many top leaders, including the then party chief Nitin Gadkari, L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley, sensed Narendra Modi had 389 caused unnecessary provocation, jolted the alliance. It wasn’t good news. They had lost to the Congress at the Centre a second successive time in 2009. Narendra Modi’s public sneer could rob them of another key state.

But Narendra Modi could not understand what the fuss over the advertisement was all about. He grumbled about Nitish’s bad manners—how rude and uncultured of him to withdraw a dinner invitation, he ranted to his set of loyalists that night, and why should I not be welcome in an NDA-ruled state? It is time these questions are asked. When he addressed a party rally at the Gandhi Maidan the next afternoon, he rubbed the Gujarat-Bihar comparison in—‘You folks in Bihar are just about emerging from the ditch you have been in. Come to Gujarat and see what a prosperous place we have created there . . .’ He was putting Nitish down. He concluded his speech without naming him. For the next few days it seemed a parting of ways was imminent. Nitish announced he had sent back the Rs 5 crore cheque to Gujarat; rebuffed, the BJP leadership reacted: it wasn’t a personal cheque for Nitish, Gadkari countered in a meeting with JDU president Sharad Yadav in Delhi, it was meant for the people of Bihar, Nitish is insulting us. Sharad Yadav was grim and silent, he hadn’t the authority to speak on Nitish’s behalf. He only informed the BJP chief calmly that his indignation may be a little misplaced because from what he knew, the Gujarat government had cashed the spurned cheque into its account the day it arrived back. Nitish had pre-publicized Vikas Yatra outings in the vicinity of Patna and two of his cabinet colleagues were meant to accompany him—Sushil Modi and Nand Kishore Yadav, both of the BJP. They were advised by their party not to go until the row had been resolved. Sushil Modi took ill, Nand Kishore Yadav discovered urgent personal engagements. Neither went. the big fight 390 the brothers bihari The crisis was getting out of hand. The government was on hold. Neither side was willing to explore a way out. The one man who could have played peacemaker was far away; immediately after the Patna session, Arun Jaitley had set off with his family on a cruise vacation across faraway seas.

Sanjay Jha found himself helpless and confounded in the tangle. He was relatively new to such scrapping between leaders, he was rattled. After much trying, he got through to Jaitley on the phone and told him things had turned much worse after Nitish’s decision to spurn Narendra Modi’s cheque. To hear out the minutiae of the squabble on holiday left Jaitley a little exasperated—how could a successful alliance break because two fellows had flung their egos in the way, people will laugh at the NDA, we will lose Bihar, do something, I am sure something can be done, just hold on a few days. Before hanging up, Jaitley left Sanjay Jha with one underlined instruction: do what you may but don’t leave Nitish’s side until I return, hear him out, keep him engaged, don’t leave Patna.

Jaitley must have burned the phone lines thereafter. When Bihar BJP leaders met at Gadkari’s Ferozeshah Road residence in Delhi a couple of days later, the mood was calmer. Some of them—Shahnawaz, Rudy, Giriraj Singh—were still keen on pulling out: we’ll see what happens, Nitish cannot be allowed to hold the alliance to ransom in this fashion, he cannot dictate to us who goes to Bihar and who does not. Sushil Modi fought them off strongly. The alliance was critical to the BJP, he argued, and Nitish was its anointed leader, we must be able to accommodate his reservations. He carried the day. On his return to Patna, Sushil Modi organized a meeting at the residence of C.P. Thakur, then the Bihar BJP president. Anant Kumar and Dharmendra Pradhan came from Delhi, several top leaders of the Bihar BJP were called in. Nitish was the only one representing the JDU, but he was a handful. ‘Deewar ki 391 likhawat padh leejiye, aap log zameen ki rajneeti karte hain to samajh leejiye ki Bihar ka itihaas badalne jaa raha hai aur aap log usko barbad karne par tule hain. Agar yeh alliance raha to 180-200 seat aayegi chunav mein, aur aap is gathbandhan ko todke woh mauka ganwa bhi sakte hain.’ . . . Read the writing on the wall. If you are politicians with your ears to the ground you should understand that the history of Bihar is about to be rewritten, but you are bent on destroying this. If this alliance survives, we are going to get 180-200 seats in the coming election, but you can also choose to rob this alliance of that opportunity.

The BJP said little. The alliance and the government had survived. Narendra Modi stood expressly barred from any political role in Bihar that day on. On the ride back from the meeting, Nitish turned to a colleague, who had waited out the meeting and said sheepishly: ‘I hope I did not overstate my case saying we are about to get 180-200 seats. It is not in my nature to make such claims, but I was very angry, and I wanted them to know what they were putting at stake.’ Nitish was to obliquely reveal the bar on Narendra Modi a few days later. He told a journalist who had wondered, provocatively, if he would invite Narendra Modi for the ensuing election campaign: ‘Bihar mein ek hi Modi kafi hai.’ . . . One Modi is enough for Bihar. He meant his deputy Sushil. The alliance won 206 seats in the elections that followed. It was a landslide. The JDU bagged 115, a whisker from a majority of its own. Nitish settled into office more securely. But when Narendra Modi won his third term in Gujarat two winters later, he turned quickly aggressive and reached out long distance to score a hole in Nitish’s cushion.

***

A month before he pulled the plug on his seventeen-yearalliance in June 2013 and robbed the BJP of its biggest political partner, I went to meet Nitish at 1 Aney Marg. We sat for close the big fight 392 the brothers bihari to two hours under his favoured gazebo on the lawns. It was a hot afternoon but the gazebo is Kumar’s preferred adda, or haunt, on the premises. Revolving fans mounted on wooden posts whirred overhead. Home-made savouries lay served in china bowls on a centre-table—puffed rice tossed in mustard oil, onions and green chillies, roasted gram, boiled peas. Two of his most trusted political aides—R.C.P. Singh and Sanjay Jha—and a senior official sat with Nitish and when I arrived and took the chair beside him, we made a semi-circle.

Nitish was relaxed and expansive, but quick and careful to lay down the rules. ‘Let’s keep this informal, nothing for immediate publication. Tea?’ Without waiting for an answer he signalled a liveried attendant to fetch a fresh round.

Before long the conversation turned to Narendra Modi. Would he keep the alliance if Modi was named to lead? It was as if the very mention of Modi caused his brow to crumple. His grey stubble to prickle. His hairline lips to collapse tighter into each other. His eyes to begin boring through his rimless oblong glasses. He held the arms of his chair, mulled intently, then let out a simple declarative sentence: ‘Us vyakti par koi compromise nahin hoga. Jo vyakti desh ke logon mein bhay paida karta ho uski mahatvakaanksha ke liye apne usoolon ko sati nahi kar sakta. Aap kisi bhram mein mat rahiye.’ . . . There shall be no compromise on that man. I am not prepared to sacrifice my principles at the altar of the ambitions of a man who creates fear in the minds of my countrymen. Have no doubts on that count.

The NDA’s 2009 defeat had left Nitish totally convinced Narendra Modi’s brand of politics was a game of diminishing returns; people, by and large, reacted poorly to sectarian confrontation. He had added Varun Gandhi to the list of those who had hurt the NDA with their truculent posturing towards minorities. In Uttar Pradesh, Nitish had concluded, it was Varun’s virulent Pilibhit campaign that had pushed Muslims 393 towards the Congress which, against all expectations, won twenty-two Lok Sabha seats from the state. Nitish was not ready to allow the communal spew to spill over into Bihar. He had set condition after condition, set deadline after deadline, and without ever naming him, sharpened his critique of Modi’s sectarian image. Consistently he had played a Hofbrauhaus game around his Gujarati bête noire. Nearly everybody that goes looking for Hofbrauhaus in the lanes off Munich’s Marienplatz town square is driven there by its notorious history. Hofbrauhaus is the beerhall where Adolf Hitler formed the Nazi party in 1920. The grand Bavarian arcades and oak gardens of Hofbrauhaus served as a celebration of Nazi ways and values through the lightning decade-and-a-quarter spanning the 1930s and 1940s that changed the shape of the world. It remains a vibrant and popular dive for dining and drinking. Live symphonies boom about the high-arched halls in waves of exhilaration, beermaids shuffle about the bench tables decanting foamed oceans of the house drink. Yet nobody on the premises so much as whispers ‘Adolf’ today, not to talk of Hitler, the cardinal disrepute of this house of repute. It’s a funny self-proscription, a quaint pretence hatched between consciousness and cognizance. Hofbrauhaus, for all its imposed amnesia, is a relic to Hitler but nobody there mentions his name. Narendra Modi, for all the third-person pronouns and adjectives employed, was the man Nitish was always crossing out, but he never brought that name to his lips. Privately, he had lobbied feverishly with the BJP leaders to prevent Modi from taking the centrestage. Till about a year before, he had been assured by Gadkari that the BJP would do nothing without consulting him, assured, in fact, that any future leader of the NDA would be chosen through a consensus in the alliance. But soon thereafter Gadkari was relieved of the BJP presidency and his assurance lay vacated.

Barely a month before, in April 2013, Nitish had raised the pitch against Modi at a session of his party’s national executive in Delhi: ‘Yeh desh ek model se nahin chalne wala, is desh mein bahut saare logon ko, bahut models ko, saath leke chalna padega.’ . . . No single model is going to run in this country, in this country you will have to take many people, many models along. He defined a deadline to the BJP: name your man for PM by December 2013.

I took Nitish back to the winter of 2011 in Saharsa. Hadn’t his worries over Narendra Modi begun to resurface as early as then? He had spelt it out in an interview to me for The Telegraph: ‘The leader of the NDA should be a man of secular image and no rough edges, he should be acceptable not only to NDA partners but should enjoy acceptability across the board; we live in a pluralistic country and we cherish those values.’ It was the first time he had spoken of what was ideal, what he wanted, what ought to be, rather than what oughtn’t. I had asked if that meant he was ruling out Narendra Modi and he said he did not wish to name names: mai ne kabhi kisi ka naam nahin liya, don’t go on individuals, go on what they mean and represent. We moved to the dinner table at the Circuit House, and I asked again, this time informally, if he had meant Modi. He said again that he would not name names, adding, buddhiman ko ishara kaafi hai, to the intelligent, the merest hint should suffice. I got the impression he distinctly did not have present company in mind when he said that; he was sending a signal out to the BJP brass. A few months later, in June 2012, he added a critical rider to his Saharsa conditions in an interview to P.R. Ramesh and Ashok K. Mishra of The Economic Times: the BJP should consult NDA partners well ahead of the 2014 general election and announce its prime ministerial candidate. His message was clear: he was not prepared to be strung along by the BJP and have Narendra Modi imposed on NDA partners as fait accompli at too late a juncture. A new migraine had begun to trouble his sleep. He had warded off Narendra Modi from Bihar, but what if he became his boss in Delhi? As future prime minister, or even as the NDA’s prime ministerial nominee? He wouldn’t be led into that situation. As a close ally for more than a decade-and-a-half, Nitish had a good sense of how the BJP and the Sangh worked. During his years as minister in the Vajpayee government, he had acquired wide penetration in the Sangh Parivar warren—sleeper contacts, acquaintances, friends, men like L.K. Advani, Arun Jaitley, Nitin Gadkari. Lately, he had also pulled Sanjay Jha, Jaitley confidant and key alliance intermediary, to his side. Sushil Modi and Sarju Rai he knew since there were all university students. Rai had shifted base to Ranchi and now worked for the BJP in Jharkhand, but he was intermittently in touch. There is no cause to believe Rai was ever disloyal to the causes of the BJP, but he was a finely nuanced man, a man to value old friends and friendships. He celebrated the JDU-BJP alliance and offered advice to both sides when asked. He had worked hard, and often singlehanded, to build the fodder case against Laloo Yadav, and wished the government that had replaced the Laloo regime well. He was pained to see it come apart. But being a man of few words, he seldom spoke openly about it. So Nitish’s inputs on developments within the BJP were rich. He had a far better sense of the subterranean stirrings in the Parivar than many BJP leaders themselves. Information was always coming his way, formal, informal, hushed only-between-you-and-me nuggets that helped him piece together the shape of things to come. To him, there was no confusion about the shape emerging: it was the shape of the man whose name he abhorred bringing to his lips.

 

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2015, Nepal, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Anger of Quake Hit Nepalis Comes Home To Nepali Leadership

Kathmandu, April 30: At the Tudikhel tent shelter mid-town last evening, Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had

A day before, deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam nearly pulled out of the completion rites of a major rescue mission near the Shobha Bhagwati Bridge on the capital’s outskirts for fear of being heckled; he had to be assured by senior Indian officials in charge of the operation no harm would come to him before Gautam agreed to go.

On the boundary rails of the Singha Durbar, seat of Nepal’s government, Kathmandu residents have put up a missing-person notice as taunt to their representative in the Constituent Assembly: “Dhyan Govind, where are you? And where is the aid?”

The quake-hit remains of the Gorkha Boys School at Rani Pokhari in central Kathmandu.
The quake-hit remains of the Gorkha Boys School at Rani Pokhari in central Kathmandu.

The quake has opened a chasm between Nepal’s political class and the people that’s brimming over with ire and indignation.

“Our leadership has collectively retreated from responsibility in a time of grave crisis,” says Kumar Regmi, one of Nepal’s better-known constitutional lawyers.

Continue reading “Anger of Quake Hit Nepalis Comes Home To Nepali Leadership”

2015, Nepal, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

No hands to dig, no time to cremate

Sindhupalchok (Northern Nepal), April 29: This is where nature often marinates havoc before serving up tragedy for Bihar – the confluence of the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi which collaborate to make a frequent killing field of the Kosi’s benighted floodplains downstream.
It isn’t their turn to wreak turbulence this season though, at least not yet. Death has sprung from underneath them and cannoned into the skies, ripping whatever fell its way – habitations, cattle pens, orchards, vegetations, mountain bends and causeways, often plain rock.

To see the state of boulders pounded, you’d think ‘rock solid’ isn’t a metaphor to use for impregnable strength anymore.

Where the quake passed, it plundered the mountain to powder and sent it down in showers. What survived the tremor underneath was buried from above.

Villagers of a remote mountain village in Sindhupalchok in Nepal’s north try to salvage what they can from their collapsed homes

 

Destruction has leapfrogged the hills of Sindhupalchok, scoring stab wounds in remote crannies that will take days, even weeks, to discover, much less heal.

“We’ve been left to ourselves all this time,” Bishnu Tamang, a Nepal police constable, told us in Sangha Chowk, a remote hill hamlet. “Everything has collapsed, how much can we dig with human hands, people and cattle are still buried under. We haven’t heard of help, we haven’t been able to call for help.”

Tamang, a strapping lad, his blue fatigues stained with the rigours of desperate rescue, complained, but he also spoke with faith and fortitude: “The truth is there’s destruction everywhere, our turn to be found and helped will come.”

They were a team of eight jawans, he said, too few hands to make a difference to the mayhem that had taken hundreds of families in its grip.

About 120km north-east of Kathmandu, Sindhupalchok is among Nepal’s northern-most districts. It is also, in many parts, hard to access.

At Tatopaani, higher up, Sindhupalchok abuts China on a “Friendship Bridge” manned by the red-hatted People’s Liberation Army (PLA); it’s where the road to Lhasa leads from. But the road to Tatopaani currently lies breached by avalanches and rock falls.

There are too many parts of Sindhupalchok defying access; when they are finally reached by search and rescue teams, it may well turn out this patch was especially favoured for devastation. The toll from these parts has mounted swiftly over the past three days; it’s estimated by district authorities to cross 2,000.

“Hundreds of villages are affected, we do not even know precisely which,” said Ganesh Shreshtha, a junior, but only official at the sub-district offices in Chautara. “It is impossible to have an estimate of those dead or affected but bad news is coming all the time, and we do not have many resources, not even enough men.”

Families escaped from affected villages were camped in Chautara’s open spaces, left to their own devices. Some had pulled vinyl sheets overhead, one group had found a length of corrugated roofing. They had lit wood fires, the women cooked what there was, sitting haunched. The children rolled in the red dust.

From the gorge of Dolalghat, where the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi meet, we had climbed a steep road to come upon the windy spur of Sangha Chowk; it had been blown off its perch like a straw thing in the wind. On both sides of the road, the rubble of what were homes rolled down the slopes.

Under a surviving tree lay the body of a dead man, covered over in a sheet of plastic held down by bricks. Nobody had claimed the body, nobody seemed to know who the man was. Probably just a passer-by taken by shock. They would have to cremate him sooner, but nobody in Sangha Chowk seemed to have the time.

Just across from the dead man under the tree stood Ganesh Giri amid the ramshackle mess of what he had been able to salvage from his fallen home – a dresser, its mirror miraculously intact, a wrought iron television rack with the television gone, a few bowls and ladles, dust-laden cushions, torn bed sheets, his granddaughter’s stuffed monkey toy.

Alas, the quake buried the girl, just six; by the time they got to pull her out, the rubble had asphyxiated her. “There are too many people down the hill and everywhere and there is no way to rescue them,” Giri wailed.

“And there are lots of cattle heads and goats and material. People are so afraid for their lives, they would not even go into rescue because they fear another tremor will strike and they will be gone. Why can the government not come to help? Why do the helicopters just fly by and never land? Why have we been forgotten?”

Forget what doses of strife the Indravati and the Sunn Kosi might offer Bihar post-monsoon, at the moment the recipes are being readied for Nepal – a hot pot of public anger with liberal sprinklings of dereliction.

2015, Nepal, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Bhairav’s rath and wrath – A marvel of architecture lies in ruins in Nepal

The Bhairav rath stranded in the devastated Durbar Square of Bhaktapur.

Bhaktapur, April 28: When Shiva’s chariot runs amok, it’s naive not to expect devastation in its wake. Bhaktapur is witness.

Once every year, and no more, residents of this cameo township 30 kilometres north of Kathmandu festoon their “Bhairav rath” and cart it around in celebration of the Nepali New Year, which falls in April’s first half.

It’s a mastodon chariot, fitted with four chunky wooden wheels; atop sit three tiers of a pewter pagoda. It only stirs when half of Bhaktapur strains to pull, and the other half pushes.

Last Saturday, the quake loosened its many tethers and rolled it down the alley it was parked in, a behemoth in free trundle. By the time it came to rest in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur’s brick-lined central piazza, the town lay plundered.

The “Bhairav rath” had travelled no more than a few metres, and no longer than a few seconds, but that is all it often takes strong quakes to wreak their havoc. And this was no earthly quake; this was the dance of Bhairav, revered manifestation of Shiva’s wrath.

“Before we could sense what was happening, it was all over,” said Raviraj Luintel, a Bhaktapur cafe owner.

“We were taken by a cloud of dust and when it lifted, it revealed half our town razed. It came and went quick, like a cannon bolt. It left us stunned.”

To Luintel it means little today that Bhaktapur is globally feted as a marvel of architecture and certified by the Unesco charter as a World Heritage City. “But where’s the city? It’s gone, what we have is remains of it.”

Guardian deities at a collapsed shrine.

King Ananda Malla, medieval potentate of the Kathmandu valley, was a pioneer and patron of fine design; he invested resource and rigour in laying out the capital of his Newari kingdom at Bhaktapur in the 12th century.

It was to be a polished red-brick city crafted around expansive squares, crisscrossed by paved lanes and dotted with ornate temples and gazebos. Successive Malla rulers embellished Bhaktapur’s masonry with intricate wood, metal and stone work, such that each structure was a unique piece of art.

Most of what took centuries to painstakingly arrange, it took only a trice to wantonly dismantle. At the mouth of the township, a sandstone dragon gaped pitifully from a pile of brickwork, a once proud figurine knocked rudely to the ground from its august perch.

Round the corner, in one of the tinier squares, stood granite lions and elephants and mythic bulls flanking a pyramidal stairway leading up – guardian avatars to a shrine that had now turned to irretrievable rubble.

To its side stood a temple, a chaste white steeple draped around a crimson Durga. Bamboo poles formed a makeshift circumference around it to prevent people from coming to peril. The quake had riven cracks right up the inner dome; the temple would collapse to the slightest hint of a tremor.

The artefacts museum close by had been marked off limits; an army guard said its walls had been rendered so fragile they could fall any time.

The squares, usually overrun by tourist footfall, were all taken by residents. They had spread out mattresses and stoked kitchen fires, and pulled out what worldly goods they could from their fallen homes – jewellery boxes, utensils, mirrors, linen, poly bags stuffed with clothing, fish and vegetables crated in styrofoam. Some still had dregs of ice.

“Even those whose homes are standing are afraid to go indoors,” said Malati Bishta, a goods store owner. “Somebody or another is forever warning of another quake, nobody wants to die, and so we are all living in the open, sleeping, eating, bathing, just looking at what has suddenly become of our lives.”

Bhaktapur is shaken, and petrified of being stirred again.

The Durbar Square is a restorer’s dream, and everybody else’s nightmare – escarpments of trampled roofs and shattered brickwork everywhere you look. It’s like a dinosaur has been on the romp, and forgotten to take its toy along – that humongous chariot, stranded in the middle of the vista, its wheels jammed into the ground, its ropes disarranged like a witch’s hemp hair.

Bhaktapuris fear to approach it yet, preferring a dazed bewilderment from a safe remove. Their eyes are still glazed, they move about as if in stupor, tourists in their own town surveying the ruins of the new, demolished Bhaktapur.

Unesco’s surviving heritage plaques on sundry walls must mock their reality. None of its proclaimed protections to the heritage city stood a chance when Bhairav resolved to dance.

2015, Nepal, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Deluged by the dead – Pyres set water on fire

Pashupati, Kathmandu, April 27: The Bagmati flows scant and shallow through Kathmandu. Today, it flowed slow and sorrowful, laden with far too heavy a mortal consignment to push along.

The banks had run out of ground to stack pyre on. The bodies would not stop arriving, each attached to its tableau of the inconsolable.

There was nowhere to go. They had to be waded in on a wobbly bamboo raft and set alight midstream.

 The Bagmati had become a river deluged by the dead, its waters on fire, its pebbled bed choked with the remains of what is no more.
Victims of the earthquake being cremated in Kathmandu on Monday.
Smoke rose in blue plumes and hung still on the trees, evading the drifts. The forbidding pagoda of Pashupatinath brooded over the proceedings, the eternal eye presiding over ephemeral rites.

Rush hour at the open crematorium by the Bagmati had run more than 24 hours. There was no sign it would come to ebb anytime soon.

Continue reading “Deluged by the dead – Pyres set water on fire”

2015, Meerut, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Back in Hashimpura after 28 years: It is not about memory alone; it is about not forgetting

After mass police acquittals, survivors ask: How can we forget loss of 42 sons?

Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987
Zamanuddin, Hashimpura victim-survivor, breaks down as he displays a portrait of son Qamruddin who was shot dead by the PAC in May 1987

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Meerut, April 4: Hashimpura lives down the belly of a violated orifice gaped upon the midtown street. Ripped walls and leaky sewer veins make the darkened cavern; its low dwellings are a mangle of rusted girders poked through unfinished masonry; fly and mosquito squadrons drone about leprous pools of defecation, decay is a work in progress.

It’s a molested air Hashimpura wears. Over the low-voltage trundle of its many loom sheds, residents look upon the arrived outsider with furtive victim eyes.

” Hamari khabar 28 saal purani hai, uske baad yahan kuchh nahin hua (Our news is 28 years old, nothing has happened here after that).”

A patina of weary resignation has come to settle on their anguish and anger, and any hope of redemption there might have been. The pleas they regularly put out – one such vinyl banner hangs limp on the Hashimpura walls calling attention to, among others, the Prime Minister – are no more than notes to themselves, tatty dressing gauze on what won’t stop to bleed.

To sit down in Hashimpura’s bedraggled courtyards and listen to its people talk is to feel the cold suspicion they won’t be terribly beset if justice doesn’t step into their street after all. It’s been gone too long.

Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid
Zamanuddin replays how Hashimpura’s adult men were paraded out of their dwellings in the raid

Almost three decades ago, in May 1987, male residents of Hashimpura were rounded up in a cordon-and-search op by army jawans, herded out onto the main road and handed over to the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), Uttar Pradesh’s chief paramilitary formation.

It has never been clear what Hashimpura had done to call upon itself the raid, save that it was a time of communal simmer and confrontation. The unlocking of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute had spurred sectarian fires across Uttar Pradesh; Meerut had erupted recurrently – arson and clashes between rival processions in February 1986 that put the city under curfew for a fortnight; in April, just a month before, a more purposeful and bloody collision that brought up a dozen dead, several more injured, and a city beginning to fear itself. Meerut was on the burner.

The custody of Hashimpura from the late afternoon of May 22 accounted for more than 250 persons. They were all loaded onto the back of constabulary trucks and driven off – most to lockups and jails, and 55-odd to the banks of the Gangnahar, or the Ganga canal, which cuts through Muradnagar on the Meerut-Delhi road.

There, by dark, they were ordered down and lined up by the waterfront, arms raised, shot and left to float down the water. Forty-two of those died, a handful survived, feigning death until the PAC jawans thought their job done and departed, lying still on the mud-bank or slithering into thickets of elephant grass.

The Telegraph ‘s front page of June 1, 1987, carries a photograph of Zulfiqar Nasir, then 17, vest pulled over his head displaying wounds from bullets that had grazed his armpit. He’d escaped, pretending to be dead, and come to Delhi, aided by rights groups, to tell his tale.

Zulfiqar’s account was widely put down at the time as “exaggerated” or “hallucinatory”. It was only when dead bodies began to float up and along the Gangnahar as far downstream as Hindon, close to Delhi, that the horrific contours of the Hashimpura massacre began to emerge and be accepted.

An execution squad had gone to work and put dozens of blameless men to death in the lee of the nation’s capital, no more than 60 kilometres from Delhi.

Last week, a lower court let off all 16 surviving policemen accused of murder for lack of evidence. In effect, 42 lives had been collectively and abruptly put to end but nobody had done it. After three decades the combined resources of the executive and the judiciary had conjured a whodunit. Justice delayed, then denied.

Much of it was achieved through serial denial and dereliction – destruction and disappearance of evidence, tardy investigation and case-making, leaden progress in the courts.

One of the first FIRs in the case vanished, the weapons used to kill were never seized or cited, the bodies of victims were swiftly cremated rather than being buried so they could not be exhumed for examination.

Vrinda Grover, counsel for the Hashimpura litigants, is blunt to allege a collusive conspiracy to bury the massacre: “From the very beginning, there was a deliberate plan to either not collect the crucial pieces of evidence, to conceal them or allow them to be lost in the passage of time.”

Zulfiqar, now 45, might well believe it irretrievably lost. In the 28 years since he stood up at a press conference in Delhi to display his wounds and tell the story few survived to tell, Zulfiqar has trained himself as a machine-tools worker, established a small trade, got married, had three children and built a life of sorts.

But his central pursuit has eluded him – murder he witnessed first hand and himself narrowly escaped, but murder he cannot pin on the guilty, a constant shadow he can see but cannot grasp and nail.

” Khaate-peete hain, lekin naa izzat hai naa insaaf,” he says. ” Lekin chhor kaise dein, bhool kaise jaayen (We are well-to-do but we have neither self-respect nor justice; but how are we to let it be, leave it alone)?”

You don’t give up on your living; often, you don’t give up on your dead. It is not about memory alone; it is also about not forgetting.

It may seem a despondent enterprise but it is the enterprise of each Hashimpura home – an honourable closure. Unassuaged shadows shift about in these homes, heaving in dank corners, waiting to present themselves to anyone who would care.

Each home had men. Each home suffered scars from the operations of the afternoon of May 22, 1987. Those scars have aged but they remain sore, awaiting the poultice of, if nothing else, respect.

Zamanuddin, 78 and retired from most of life’s chores – “Now I just sit around and enjoy the company of friends while I can, there’s not much else to do” – wouldn’t bring up his murdered son until more than an hour into our conversation.

He wouldn’t bring up his battered other son, he wouldn’t bring up the rifle-butt wounds received on his own back that afternoon. He spoke at length of general grief and grievance.

“Everybody suffered, this whole mohalla, each of my friends, all these men you see.”

Half a dozen of them were there, seated under the dappled shade of a wizened creeper in the old-fashioned well of the house. Then the squeal of a child from some quarrel in some part of the house brought on the tears: ” Bachche rote hain to dil phat jaata hai (When children cry, it tears the heart).”

And the tears brought on a photo-frame and in it the fading image of a young man. Qamruddin, Zamanuddin’s eldest, photographed as he set out at the head of his baraat, handsome as a groom can get on wedding day, garlanded, portrait-ready.

It’s the only picture Zamanuddin has of Qamruddin, or would still be willing to see. There exists another but he has refused to hold or see it all these years.

Azizuddin, Zamanuddin’s youngest, fetches it – a black and white image turned sepia. It shows Qamruddin prone, a bullet hole in his upper chest, dead. He was among those the execution squad took to the banks of the Gangnahar on the night of May 22, 1987, and never came back.

“I was taken out too that afternoon and because I came back I assumed Qamar would too, we had done no wrong,” Zamanuddin says, now choking.

“I was 50 and they spared me for my age, they were after the younger lot, but it did not strike me while they were separating us, it did not strike me that was the last I was seeing of Qamar.”

He asks for the photo-frame be taken away, back to its dark corner in the anteroom; he gives his face a wipe, and then he steps out into Hashimpura’s rancid belly to point to us the way they were taken by the bayonets.