Telegraph Calcutta

What Wasn’t Written (June 7, 2020)

It makes no mention, for instance, of achchhe din, the portmanteau feel-good promise that became his pivot to power in 2014. It does not tell you in what garden the pledged golden bird — soney ki chidia — continues to elude our grasp.

It does not tell you that in the years since, India has been turned into an architecture of fractures wantonly and consciously wreaked; and that in the pursuit of fashioning these fractures, Indians have been encouraged to go after other Indians, liberally fed on lies and prejudice, exhorted by dog-whistling from the top and brazenly led to murder and mayhem by gas-lighter commanders possessed of run over the law. Indians have been killed for what they wear, what they eat, what they are called, what books they read, who they pray to. The killers have come to be treated like heroes of spectator sport; they’ve been garlanded and celebrated.

Continue reading “What Wasn’t Written (June 7, 2020)”
Politics 2020, Telegraph Calcutta

A ‘prayog’ against polarisation

Twice in successive Lok Sabha and Assembly rounds, Delhi has voted with instructive schizophrenia, endorsing Narendra Modi unreservedly at the Centre, effusively rejecting him in favour of Arvind Kejriwal for the state.

The number of those who vote bigamously depending on the election must remain astoundingly high.

Tuesday’s resounding verdict for the AAP suggests that while Modi remains unchallenged by party or person nationally, a credible regional dare to him can hold ground. And handsomely, as Kejriwal’s second sweep of Delhi demonstrates. Continue reading “A ‘prayog’ against polarisation”

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”

Telegraph Calcutta

These were no ordinary elections; these are no ordinary times

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Perhaps the most telling public message Pragya Thakur sent out after establishing dominion over Bhopal was a visual she tweeted. It had photographs of Giriraj Singh, Sakshi Maharaj and herself. It had their Lok Sabha victory margins superimposed: 4.19 lakh, 3.65 lakh and 4.01 lakh, respectively. It also had a caption emblazoned in saffron that read: “Yeh aankde bahut kuchh kehte hain… (these numbers tell a lot)”. Indeed they do. So too Pragya’s chosen trio — Giriraj Singh, Sakshi Maharaj and herself, all outspoken Hindu majoritarians who have made political careers taunting, bullying and baiting minorities; Pragya stands accused of worse, of having masterminded the Malegaon blasts of 2006 which claimed 40 lives. But here she was, rich and righteous in proclamation, underlining to whoever cared to listen the meaning of the landslide margins for the three — it was the unabashed, unapologetic Hindutva arrowheads that had won big in 2019, get the message from the mandate if you haven’t yet: jo Hindu hit ki baat karega, wohi desh par raj karega.

And guess who tip-toed to the centre stage from behind such chilling chorus just days later? Pratap Chandra Sarangi, newly elected MP from Balasore in Odisha, called out on the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt to take oath as minister of state in Narendra Modi’s second government. Sarangi of the bedraggled mane and beard has come introduced to the uninitiated as a devoted, austere, even saintly figure whose lifetime’s leitmotif has been simple living. There is another way Sarangi must be introduced. He was chief of the Odisha chapter of the Bajrang Dal when the Christian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two boys were burnt to death in 1999. Later, in 2002, Sarangi was charged with rioting, arson, assault and damaging government property. The government property in question happened to be the Odisha state assembly, which a violent VHP-Bajrang Dal mob had attacked. Sarangi too is to the hardened Hindutva manner born, a recruit marked out for services rendered and patted into the Lok Sabha and public office from the same stables as Pragya and other such notables.

If Pragya was a dagger brazenly wielded in the face of the conscionable and the correct — how could one accused of terror plots, one who hero-worshipped the assassin of Gandhi, be endorsed for the Lok Sabha by India’s ruling party? Sarangi was a dare, revealed on the honours list at Rashtrapati Bhavan. They were both tools, as it were, of pushing the boundaries of public discourse; it’s done to award a Lok Sabha ticket to a terror-accused, it’s done to honour a belligerent sectarian with a ministerial berth. That’s the direction to head in. But this is neither about Pragya Thakur nor Pratap Sarangi. This is about their enablers and promoters, namely Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, and his effective Number Two and home minister, Amit Shah. This is about the project that they have been systematically, and successfully, pursuing a good while now. This is about the euphemism they call New India. Do not be confused about it, New India is nothing like the New India Indians adopted and swore themselves to on January 26, 1950. This New India is a work in progress; it has consumed two general elections and the spaces in between. It will consume more, not slowly and steadily but speedily and sweepingly.

Violent street oppression, even lynching, barely makes news or gets notice, it has been pushed to brief mentions in the inside pages, if that. You can be beaten up, even killed, for what you wear because in doing so you have publicly identified yourself as the Other. Nobody cares. You can be harangued and threatened into forsaking your faith, if only temporarily, and paying obeisance to another. Nobody cares.

Godse worship has leapt out of closets and now occupies more than just one seat in the Lok Sabha; many more than one, if only the Pragya example would encourage others to come out. Marginalization of the minorities is a badge proudly worn by the ruling party; it’s almost a manifesto resolve of theirs, we don’t want their votes, strong majority governments can be achieved without them. In fact, they can all go to Pakistan, so can those who espouse their constitutional rights. All of this has swiftly become the new normal over the last five years.

But more is to come, inevitably. For what Modi began in 2013 is only understood in part if it is understood as a quest for power. It was a quest for empire. We have seen two general elections in that period, but what we may be missing out on is the referendum that was simultaneously triggered and has not come to the end of its course yet. It is a referendum that seeks to establish a majoritarian India. It is the quest for an empire that predates the many empires that ruled these parts over the last eight hundred years or so, empires fashioned by those that came from land, and empires fashioned by those that arrived via the seas. The little problem with those that arrived from land is that they stayed; they became part, and even when they parted, more chose to stay than go away. That problem needs solutions.

And so what has rolled out between the general elections of 2014 and 2019 is an undeclared open-ended referendum on what the arrival of Narendra Modi in power should really come to mean. These were no ordinary elections. Their meaning needs to be understood beyond the numbers in the Lok Sabha and the arrangements of executive governments. The time that passed between the arrival of the first Modi government and the installation of the second also needs to be carefully grasped. This was no ordinary time. And the time to come may be even less ordinary. For if there is one thing the last two general elections have done, it is this: validate the values Modi and his worldview embody and vacate the values of several, or all, of his prviaedecessors. Majoritarian India has never been so audaciously enthroned. The majoritarian ethic has never appeared so unflinching in its determination to impose itself. It has promised not to stop doing so, and is in a daily dare to those who will come in the way. The proliferating use of the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ cry as a heckler hoot is merely the street symptom of it. There’s more in the works where that came from. There is the promise to dismantle Article 35A of the Constitution which enshrines special guarantees to Jammu and Kashmir; there is the promised push for a Uniform Civil Code; there is the issue of space for the ‘Mandir’, of course, forever on the board; there is too the foregrounded pledge to effect a National Register of Citizens, herald of an indigenous lebensraum. It’s part of the playbook of the powers, now better than ever abled with 303.

Those who cannot see the fracture between Modi bowing before the Indian Constitution in the Central Hall of Parliament and the Modi that prodded the likes of Pragya and Sarangi into our top legislative House are deluding themselves. Or perhaps, and unfortunately, they see it and like what they see. Pragya Thakur was probably right to put out the image of that trio of which she is part; it proclaims not the victory of the BJP but of those in the ranks who won bigger than most… yeh aankde bahut kuchh kehte hain.


Telegraph Calcutta

Conversations with Mr Modi


In the midst of the Modi mayhem that May 23 was, an alert sounded on my phone. It was a text from a politically engaged friend. It read: “If these are the results then this is not politics. This is not an election. This is a cultural revolution and it cannot be defeated. It will play out and do whatever it has to do.”

The image you see above was rapturously lampooned.

The images from around the time and locale of the image above were rapturously lampooned. Why is this man behaving as if he were walking the red carpet at Cannes? Who meditates with cameras all around? How could you be meditating wearing glasses? Meditation in a 5-star cave? You must be joking. But there you are, what a joke this whole thing is!

All those years ago, when he began to stir tea for Barack Obama on the lawns of Hyderabad House dressed in a suit pin-striped with the fullness of his name — Narendra Damodardas Modi — he was lampooned. What low megalomania is this?

When he said, having announced himself “no expert” on the subject, that he gave the go-ahead for the Balakot airstrike because he thought cloud cover would mask radar detection, he was lampooned.

When he screamed for votes in the name of jawans massacred at Pulwama, he was lampooned.

When he chose filmstar and treacly acolyte Akshay Kumar for an intimate interview — his first during the election campaign — he was lampooned.

When he returned from that copiously photographed and filmed getaway in Kedarnath at a press conference in New Delhi and said not a word, he was lampooned. This man, he thinks he is not answerable?

He isn’t. Not to those who believe he should be answerable to them.

Modi cared a lemon for all the lampooning.

He lumped it, although secretly he may even have loved it. The more he is lampooned by some, the more he is lavished by others. Modi is wise to that. Give to him the genius of the populist. Modi is wise to the merits of playing anti-hero just as Lalu Prasad of Bihar once was. His adversaries had nailed into him the ignominy of “jungle raj”; Lalu wrenched it off his chest and fashioned it on his head like a crown. “Jungle Raj? They are calling Biharis junglees? Are you junglees?” Bihar voted him back, against the run of play.

So too Modi, as he arrived at the press conference to potentially defy the dare that he had spent an entire term in office without opening himself to a press conference. He had his say. Thereafter, he sat there chewing on his jaws, mussing his manicured beard, surveying the field for who might hold his stare. Mocking it with his animated silence. You will ask me questions? You? And you think I will answer? Me? Chaliyedhanyavaadnamaskar. The tone was vanakkam, or the obverse metaphor he has created of the word, buzz off.

Most of the lampooning of Modi has been legitimate lampooning. Prime Ministers should not be turning out in public like fancy-dress exhibitionists. Prime Ministers should not resort to patently unrealistic brags. Prime Ministers should not serve out myth as science. Prime Ministers should not be invoking the armed forces as political ancillaries. Prime Ministers in democracies should take questions and furnish answers. What sort of Prime Minister is this? Legitimate question. Normal, and, in fact, right and necessary in the democracy to raise it.

But no. Who set these rules and standards? Off with them. There is a new setting of things — a new right, a new just, a new normal, a new playing field that is not level, it is majoritarian and it demands obedience: Bharat Mata ki Jai!

Modi has gone along inventing a new language and grammar of public and political ethics and exchange. Its first rule is to put inverted commas on words as they were previously understood. Legitimate — “Legitimate”. Normal — “Normal”. Necessary — “Necessary”. Right — “Right”. Question — Depends on whether I framed it.

His conversations are with those that understand the new language and grammar of his crafting. He stopped conversing with those that cannot, or would not, comprehend it. They are not worth his while. He has talked at them, not with them.

The outcome of May 23 is probably proof to him that the stoppering of some conversations paid off. And not only because it opened a new and robust one. The one that was happy to let it be one-sided. The one that was merely happy to listen. The one that did not ask questions of him. The one that allowed him to raise questions that he best answers. The one that believed what it is hearing is music. The one that wanted more of it. The one that will give more of itself to Modi if he goes on the way he has been going: “Ek kaam 70 saal mein nahin hua thha, woh ek kaam Modiji ne kar diya.” (There was one job left undone in 70 years, that job Modiji has done.)

There’s no code to understanding what job; it’s an open-code thing, it’s the thing that chorused from the rostrums throughout the campaign just gone. But if it still needs explaining, that was Durgesh Jaiswal speaking in a recent report in this newspaper. Dateline: Varanasi, parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi; Durgesh also calls Varanasi Pakistan because there are so many of “them” in Varanasi.

No need to specify what’s that one thing; everybody knows. It’s the pointed exclusion and othering of India’s largest minority, their formal notarising as the unwanted and dispensable ones, even as the ones that constitute the enemy.

But Durgesh is not happy to stop at that, the othering is the first step, it cannot end here, it has to be taken forward. “Hum log kuchle jaa rahe hain apne hi desh mein, abhi bhi ghulam hain, iska kuchh karna hoga. Isiliye Modiji ki zaroorat hai. (We are being crushed in our own country, we are still slaves, something will have to be done. That’s why we need Modi.)”

Durgesh must be introduced again. Durgesh is in his mid-twenties. He is unemployed. He works for the Samajwadi Party. He is an undying dyed-in-the-wool Modi-bhakt. For that one reason. For that one “job” Modiji has done. Durgesh might just explain to us the meaning of what my friend jumpily texted to me as the Modi numbers became a blizzard on May 23 — “…this is not politics. This is not an election. This is a cultural revolution and it cannot be defeated. It will play out and do whatever it has to do…”

The underpinnings of this election do really go beyond just the political. They are about the cultural. They probably even are about the civilisational. They must necessarily take us back to Modi’s triumphal proclamation when he emerged the victor in 2014. That India had emerged, with his arrival in power, from 800 years of slavery. His liberation date was not August 15, 1947; it was May 16, 2014. The marker for India’s enslavement well predated the takeover by the British crown, his marker was closer to the last battle of Prithviraj Chauhan and the arrival on Muhammad of Ghor. Modi’s narrative of India is steeped far deeper in history than the history of what came to emerge and be known, much later, as India. Modi’s narrative of India enslaved begins with the defeat of the last Hindu king of Delhi before him.

Back, briefly, to Durgesh, for he must be allowed an explanation to why he believes he requires Modi. And we may want to listen, if only because that may allow us to better understand why what happened this week happened more emphatically than it happened in 2014.

“Hum log apne hi desh mein ghir gaye hain, saans nahin le sakte. Isse bachne ke liye Modiji kaa hona bahut zaroori hai, aur woh kuchh karen, nahin karen, isse koi matlab nahin. (We have been encircled in our own country, we can’t breathe. For this reason it is essential that Modiji remains there, whether he does anything else or not, I am not bothered).”

Durgesh and Modi have never met, but they have a conversation. This verdict, in preponderant part, was a consequence of that conversation. It was an act, too, of furthering that conversation.

When I met Durgesh, he was engrossed with his smartphone, listening in to Modi’s conversation with Akshay Kumar. It cannot be mere coincidence that across three weeks on the campaign trail in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, I came across at least a dozen people similarly engrossed in that conversation between Modi and Akshay Kumar. It cannot be mere coincidence that all of those people felt they were watching something endearing and intimate; they hadn’t seen a Pradhan Mantri open up — to Akshay Kumar and, through him, to the people — so casually, so next door-neighbourly. “Kamaal hai, dekhiye toh, Modiji khud bol rahe hain, hum log jaise…” (What a wonder, just watch. This is Modiji himself talking, just like us.”

There you are, that is why Modi cares a lemon for being lampooned.

Monogrammed suit? “Why, you think Modiji, our Prime Minister, cannot afford an expensive suit?” Kedarnath showman? “Why, do you want to come between the leader and his followers, does he have no right to convey what he is doing? And he is doing what few leaders do, he is meditating.” Modi behaving like an autocrat, not willing to take questions? “But why must he give you the rank of middle-man, Modi is in direct conversation with us, you think you are more important than us?”

Modi delivered the whimsical shock of demonetisation. Modi hectored a complicated GST. Modi presided over rural distress. Modi produced no jobs. Modi took away jobs. What did Modi do? “Modi kept us safe. He said dushman ke ghar mein ghus kar maarenge and he did that. Desh ko bachana hai, Modi ko jitana hai. Modi hai to desh surakshit hai. Aur koi hai kya, is there anyone else?”

Do not for a moment be persuaded that those questions are all unattributed, words put into anonymous mouths. They are all questions being asked by Modi. Well, perhaps by his huge league of proxies that have handed him 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, but those amount to Modi interrogating India through the India that he has chosen to converse with.

His most insistent question may be this: So what do you make of Pragya Thakur in the Lok Sabha on a four-lakh-plus victory margin? Pragya Thakur, accused of terror, in the crosshairs for premeditated and sectarian murder, espouser of the man who assassinated the Father of our nation. Pragya Thakur, honourable member of Parliament on a Modi ticket and a double-decker ride of a mandate. Pragya is a deeper Modi probe into India — where are you really located, how far might I go, how far might you yield?

Modi’s conversation with India isn’t over yet, in fact it has just begun. Stay tuned. Isn’t Mann ki Baat scheduled to resume sometime soon?