Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map

Politics is the art of the possible”, said Otto von Bismarck. And then there are those who make it their business to attempt the art, or risk it.

What’s the bet Prashant Kishor will pop up in Bihar next, having posed his happy hug with Arvind Kejriwal and left the celebrations of Delhi? But whatever for? He’s just been rudely cut cold by Nitish Kumar. He doesn’t have a backroom in Patna. Nor a client. He doesn’t have a party in Patna. Nor a post. What might he be headed to Bihar for? Continue reading “Prashant Kishor and his improbable power map”

State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Happy Birthday Bapu: The nation and its practitioners of unspeakable things — Oct 2, 2019

Several years ago, in a rural recess of Bihar where I come from, a girl, barely ten, woke up one morning and slipped out into the open to relieve herself. Returning, she came upon a crop of spinach and coriander leaves. She gathered a clump in her palm and pulled at it. She was caught in that act. They chopped her fingers off, as they would the spinach and the coriander.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

In 1989, in a village called Logain near Bhagalpur, a mohalla was set aflame. When the rage had calmed, the dead, probably even the near-dead, were carted to a field and shoved under the earth. Presently, the field was seeded with mustard and cauliflower. It was kites and vultures hovering overhead that caught the stench and blew the cover on the crime.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

Returning home one evening last month – to a precinct of Gurgaon, the ‘millennium city’ – I heard the destitute wailing of a man. It came from the belly of a jagged circumference of folks, arranged as though riveted on a snake charmer’s tricks. There was, instead, an auto-rickshaw with a shattered windshield. There were two youngsters in shorts and Ts, their limbs gym-toned to envy, their forearms and biceps copiously tattooed. They stood over a man sprawled in the dirt, bleeding. The wails came from him. They were taking turns to pummel him, a burst of fists, then a knock of the knee. One would retreat to a gleaming motorbike parked to one side, wipe his arms and watch. The other would take over. The auto-driver was a bag, a yowling, bleeding bag. Nobody said a word. Nobody moved. This was a spectacle unfolding, cold, focused violence. The boys looked nowhere but at their victim; this is how it is best done, a blood ritual, with singular attention. There was nothing to suggest they would heed or halt. But one of them I was able to persuade to tell me the reason for their gory enactment. He took me to his bike and motioned to a splash of mud. It had rained. There was slush on the roadsides. The auto-driver had driven past with a spray of muck. It had landed on the boys’ bike; a few specks had also strayed onto the pillion’s shins. Therefore. “Don’t mess with these boys,” one from the crowd cautioned me, pulling me by the arm, “They are known goondas, they have backing, they will come back and touch you later.” Those words: they have backing. They will come back and touch you. The police, if it arrives or acts, will arrive and act later. By then, the boys will have “touched” you.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

A girl complains of serial sexual abuse by a charlatan who is also a well-connected political thug masquerading as a sanyasi. The thug first takes ill and has himself wheeled into an air-conditioned hospital chamber. From there he manipulates power levers to have the girl arrested for extortion. Her father is warned of consequences if he speaks out. Another young victim of rape. Another thug from the same gang. The girl loses her father, then gets smashed by a truck on a highway, loses her aunt and ends up precariously injured in hospital.

Videographed ceremonies are carried out by monsters of their primitive headhunting – fellow humans cursed, humiliated, kicked about, slapped, knived, killed. Those monsters are then either draped in the national flag or garlanded in the name of a Mata whose provenance is at best ambiguous and whose blessings for such savagery have nowhere been explicitly or implicitly cited.

Photographs have floated up of a certain Ratan Biswas, his ribs pressed hard against the membranes of his flesh, his skeletal wrist chained to an iron bed, his expression drained of the last dregs of hope. He is in detention in Assam for the alleged crime of not belonging, a prisoner of our collective prejudice. We plan to put many more where we have dumped Ratan, in huge facilities we have designated camps but where our unwanted human beings will be penned like livestock, like cows that have ceased to bear milk or offspring.

But we’ve already created the blueprint for such a human pen, have we not? It is the heaven called Kashmir, where we have driven the clamps on eight million people we call our own. For close to two months now, they have not been allowed the common courtesy of free communication with each other or the outside world. Their movements have been restricted, for the better part frozen. They live razor-wired and bayoneted. They have been stripped of political stature and personal dignity. They have been forbidden expression. They have been forbidden protest. They have been turned into an agency of dictation. They have been told it is bad manners to complain; you’re alive, be thankful. They have been interned sans allegation, imprisoned at home or thrown into faraway cells. On occasion, their dare has been brutally pelleted. But nobody has been hit by a bullet above the chest, we have been assured on good authority; what would we do for the lack of such favour? We are told they are happy. The sense of siege is the figment of a “few minds”. What is being done is for their best; this persecution will teach them a lesson they long deserved to learn, they will emerge better citizens from it. We love Kashmiris, we should hug each Kashmiri. Conditions apply. Abominable conditions.

We are the practitioners of unspeakable things.

Last week, two Dalit children were beaten to death by villagers for defecating in the open. Their family had been denied toilet facilities by the panchayat, and so they went out. And paid. We have been told we are already an open-defecation-free nation. But we are routinely told lies. Those kids were done to death. There is another way of looking at how this works. You die defecating, you may also die clearing defecation. Fifty people died trying to clear the waste excreted by our bodies in the first half of this year, consumed by noxious sewer gases, hydrogen sulphide in the main. In ‘Swachh Bharat’, 740078 households still require manual removal of human filth each day; 182505 families in rural India earn their livelihoods yoked to daily manual scavenging. This nation stinks.

Someone just got awarded a high-voltage global honour for a slogan that our filthy reality daily mocks; it must by worn, if at all, as a badge in memory of those who are still dying trying to put away what we daily excrete. That same someone is also sought to be supplanted on this nation as paterfamilias, dislodging the noble one whose 150th anniversary it happens to be today.

Happy Birthday Bapu,

We remain,

Yours ruefully,

The Practitioners of Unspeakable Things

Bihar, Telegraph Calcutta

Lalu Prasad: Autumn of the Patriarch

The mercurial Lalu Prasad has finally been pushed off stage and an epoch is whimpering to demise

Zero. It has never been this bad; it cannot get any worse.

Or it probably still can.

It is one thing for Lalu Prasad’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to have drawn a blank in the Lok Sabha this summer; it is quite another for him to have nobody around to take that blank and build on it. The party, as it used to be under Lalu’s helmsmanship, is over. Bihar’s once fabled and formidable House of Yadu has become the shape of a pack of cards tumbled upon itself.

Here’s what fragments of a clan in collapse can look like up close. The confetti of serial abuse of power and public office floating about the defeated air; there are bills to be paid yet, and someone will come knocking. The unseemly rites of a turbulent son’s ruptured marriage playing out on the doorstep. Spewing from within, grim tales of competing grouses and internecine family feuding — son versus son, daughter versus mother, sister versus brother; in the absence of the arraigned father, there’s nothing to quell the quarrelling over what may remain. The man he left behind in charge having also skipped station. There’s nobody around to pick up the pieces.

The Bihar Assembly came into session this Friday. Tejashwi, who leads the Opposition benches, wasn’t there. There were rumours he’d turn up, but they turned out to be rumours. Tejashwi Yadav has been gone from the scene a long and inexplicable while. So long and so inexplicable that his own ranks have begun to wonder if he’s interested in his bequeathed job. So long and so inexplicable that Lalu no longer bothers with worrying, what would be the point? He is 71 and ill. He is incarcerated on a medley of corruption convictions and charges in Jharkhand. The circumstances of his coiled labyrinth allow him to do so much and no more. Tejashwi has stopped to heed his command. Where is Tejashwi? In Delhi. Probably. But he will come. Oh look, he has already tweeted a long distance hello to “My dear Bihar!” on the plea of orthopaedic treatment that nobody hitherto knew of. Bihar should rest assured.

Lalu wanted Tejashwi to stay on the deck and take the storm, like he himself had often done in the past. Tejashwi was in such a rush to get away, he did not wait to cast his vote this election. Tejashwi was not drawn to the hollering tragedy of 130-odd children snuffed out by encephalitis in Muzaffarpur. Tejashwi did not arrive to lead his flock in an Assembly that faces re-election just next year. Tejashwi has been gone from Patna a whole month. Tejashwi is Lalu’s chosen mantle-bearer. Such as that mantle is; it has zero freshly inscribed on it.

Political obituaries can turn treacherous on their authors. When they are about someone like Lalu, feisty and defiant through his roller-coaster life, they can turn and sting too.

This is not a political obituary. This is a Doctrine of Lapse notification. Lalu has a legacy, but those he entrusted it to have bungled it. The entity central to Bihar’s politics for three decades is tearing out like a meteor in tailspin.

This is the first election of his political career that Lalu stood barred from turning up to campaign; this is not the first time he has lost, but this is the first time the RJD can hear what death-rattle sounds like.

Consider this: Based on the Lok Sabha results — a stunning 39 out of 40 for the NDA — the RJD managed to win a little more than a dozen seats in the 243-member Bihar Assembly. Tej Pratap, Lalu’s elder and maverick son, lost the Mahua seat by more than 10,000 votes.

Tejashwi held on to Raghopur by its membranes, barely 200-odd votes. Misa, the eldest of Lalu’s children, lost the Yadav borough of Patliputra a second time running, bested once again by Ram Kripal Yadav, once Lalu’s trusted protégé.

Everything suggests a daylight heist on the Yadav vote which once kept Lalu securely banked in power. 2014 was probably the first sign Narendra Modi had disrupted traditional voter behaviour and snatched away a section of Yadav loyalty from Lalu. 2019 is resounding confirmation of not merely a drift away from Lalu but of a new polarisation behind the BJP and its Bihar allies. Nearly 40 per cent of the Yadav vote has shifted base; there is little to suggest on the ground that number will not mount. The RJD has been turfed out across its traditional Yadav strongholds — from Madhepura and Saharsa, from Saran and Siwan and Sonepur, from Maharajganj and Gopalgunj, from Danapur and Maner which, for decades was quite literally the family’s personal backyard. “Laluji ke bina ab kya raha?” asks Jitender Singh, an avowed Lalu loyalist and apologist, “Kuchh bhi kahiye, Laluji neta thhe, ab kaun raha?” (What’s left after Lalu? Say what you will, Lalu was a leader, who’s left?) We are at a tea shack in Maner, about 30 kilometres west of Patna. Jitender can’t stop ruing what’s happened and what’s to come. “I feel for Laluji, I am committed, but look at his children. Why did Misa have to contest the Lok Sabha when she is already in the Rajya Sabha. She is laalchi, greedy. Tej Pratap is a vagrant, nobody knows what he is up to. Tejashwi makes no effort at communicating, spending time with people. They control the party, but nobody has a clue what they are doing or what they have in mind. Kya future hoga?” The anger and the unease is palpable. It can no longer be called a crack in the RJD voter base, it is more akin to a sundering. “Lalu’s party minus Lalu looks like a wipeout,” a senior RJD leader and Lalu’s contemporary says, “Tejashwi and his ranks have failed to deliver, the party is nervous, its faith lies shattered, we are in a mess.”

He wouldn’t go on the record yet with his fears and misgivings, but he believes that time is near. “People in the party will speak out, they will have to. If for nothing else, for sheer survival; Assembly elections stare us in the face and we have just taken our severest blow. What do these results tell the aspiring RJD contestants? That they should be very nervous. What does the response of the party leadership tell them? That they should seek answers and correction.”

Failed Four: Tej Pratap, Misa, Rabri and Tejashwi. Photograph by Sankarshan Thakur

Some of the murmur is already bubbling up in anger. RJD elder and spokesperson Shivanand Tiwari turned blunt at a recent party meeting. “We should take a hard look at how the party is being run,” he is reported to have said, “Laluji’s absence has been a big jolt to us, but we have to figure ways of dealing with that, and if we don’t do that it is over… yeh hamare astitva ka sawal hai… this is a question of our survival.”

Tejashwi has made himself deserving of an in-house chargesheet; it cannot be that the clamour hasn’t reached him, even in his removed camp addresses.

— He ignores his father’s counsel

— He doesn’t consult or respect party elders; he did not allow them to campaign when they were eager to

— He is opaque and often unapproachable; he is also tight-fisted with resources

— He did not take allies on board during the campaign for fear that he would have to share the accolades

— He has made little effort to build a connect with his constituency

— He took whimsical off-days during the heat of the campaign

— He has neither energy nor gut for a fight

— He has no blueprint hereon, none that anybody knows of

— He appears not accountable for the debacle he has presided over

— He is swiftly scattering his inheritance away, at the cost of the party.

“Does Tejashwi know how to win elections, even his own?” That’s a close confidant of Lalu for decades asking. It is probably the most damning question the leader of a political party can be asked. But that question is being asked of Tejashwi by those in the boat who still reckon it can be saved from sinking. “Through the campaign, Tejashwi and his camp kept telling us we were doing well. It turns out we never did as badly. He was either bluffing or was deluded, in both circumstances, his leadership needs to be questioned.”

The worry and scurry in the RJD ranks is not merely on account of the Assembly polls next year. It is not merely because MLAs have begun to individually and collectively wonder if the RJD is a good ticket to ride on, or should the opportunity to jump be taken. It is equally because of the overt manoeuvres they see the adversary making.

From the time of his first foray into Bihar as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013, Narendra Modi revealed a focused intent to woo Yadavs away from their chief and loved patron. “Yaduvanshi bhaiyon!” he called out to them; he flagged the mythology of Krishna and Dwarka to kindle a kinship. He kept at it, as a work in progress. It wouldn’t be easy to wean Yadavs away from their anointed benefactor, but he has worked with time and with ways. “Don’t forget Yadavs are the most privileged among the backwards castes and they have become used to the stakes and fruits of power,” says a Lalu-era bureaucrat who likes sailing close along the power corridors, “But for a brief spell, Lalu has been out of power nearly 15 years now and his successors hold out no hope they might deliver it any time soon. Lalu may yet enjoy their unshaken sympathy, but that is translating less and less into votes. That’s one key takeaway from this election. The Yadavs will want to stay close to power.”

Narendra Modi may only be too keen to demonstrate to them how. One clue might be the elevation of Nityanand Rai, a Yadav MP from Ujiarpur in north Bihar, as central minister of state for home affairs. Another could well be Bihar’s verdict on the RJD itself: Zero.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/india/lalu-prasad-autumn-of-the-patriarch/cid/1693429

Elections2019

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

imagee75fc221-600e-41f5-9d4e-2929d9bb6f5c.jpg

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.

36b93587-fd0f-4d7d-a5c2-8200ffc863e4.jpg

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.

Elections2019

Bihar allies dwarfed & domineered by Modi

Untitled-design-5.png

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.