Telegraph Calcutta

The Hug That Hurt

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This one had all the elements of a surgical strike and more. It had surprise. It had stealth. It had precision. It had transparency too – a strike carried out in full view of whoever cared to watch, a strike mentally pre-meditated, a strike dealt with easy deliberation. A smiling assassin’s strike.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got himself marked the world over as the man who hugs; whether it is a welcome hug or warmly received or not, Modi hugs. And it is he who springs the hug. On Friday, he got sprung upon.

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi closed what must rank as his finest hour in Parliament on Friday afternoon, it had struck few he wasn’t done yet, that he planned to put a seal on his performance with an act that would become the indelible emboss and image of the day.

He had just closed his blistering attack on Narendra Modi raj with a disarming hail on the Treasury.

“No matter how much you hate me, no matter how much anger you spew at me, no matter that you call me Pappu, you and your followers… you can call me all kinds of names. But no matter that you call me Pappu. I am Congress, and all these people are Congress, the sensibility of the Congress has made this country, do not forget. That sensibility is inside of all of you and I will extract it from inside each of you. I will draw the love out of you, I will convert all of you to the Congress….”

The House was still abuzz, when Rahul left his second row on the Opposition benches and began to manoeuvre his way round the arched note-takers’ row in the well towards the Prime Minister. In no time, he stood across Modi, hand extended. Modi took it. Some in the benches behind him stood up to applaud. From the Speaker’s chair, Sumitra Mahajan smiled indulgently.

Just then, the strike.

Rahul fell upon Modi, chest full on upon chest, cheeks, one clean, the other famously stubbly, in historic proximity. They could have whispered sweet nothings and nobody would have known, the Lok Sabha’s sensitive microphonics notwithstanding.

“This is not done, this is no way…” Mahajan began to protectively protest on behalf of the Prime Minister, but the deed was done by then.

Modi had been taken by the Rahul strike. Smothered. Defenceless. Aghast too a bit on who had come to drop on him. Stills from the moment would reveal to you a man rendered helpless and stricken, for once not a man who commanded the cameras but had been shown up by them.

He recovered only to gesture an offended surprise with his palm. Then he recovered a little more and took Rahul’s hand. Then, as if suddenly conscious of the cameras and keen that they remain kind on him, he recovered even more. He motioned Rahul back, took his hand again and said something and guffawed. It’s moot whether he was indeed amused.

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2018, Bihar, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished

The thing about Lalu Prasad is that he is a man of more parts than most others on display possess. One of those parts has been convicted and may well be ordered to prison, the part that got greedy and fell to fodder felony. Some of the other parts remain more happily located – as preponderant colour on the floor of the Bihar assembly; as irreplaceable boss of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the state’s largest single banker of votes; as essential exhibit in the gallery of the most compelling and durable of our public entities. Nobody is taking Lalu out of there in a long time; popular imagination is a sovereignty membered by the unlikeliest heroes.

Bihar has never been at a loss for those who set out to make something of it. In the narrow firmament of Bihar’s consciousness, they make a clotted constellation of visionaries and builders, reformists and revolutionaries, samaritans and messiahs. Sri Krishna Sinha, Anugrah Narain Singh, Krishna Ballabh Sahay. Jayaprakash Narayan and Karpoori Thakur. Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and Jagannath Mishra. They have either been forgotten, some mercifully, or live on in dust-ridden memorial halls and annually enacted rent-a-crowd commemorations. Or survive as disregarded busts routinely s**t upon by birds in chaotic town squares. For all the retrospective repute they have come to acquire, the gifts of Bihar’s league of legends don’t add up to much.

Eighty per cent of Biharis still have no access to toilets, partly also because those meant to be making those toilets have been busier making money over them. What passes in the name of education is nothing short of scandalous; Bihar’s premier university cannot fill out basic criteria for an upgrade. Its most reputed medical facilities often lack for rudiments – a saline drip, a sterilized bandage, a functional X-ray device, an urgently required LSD. No more than 20 and few decimal per cent receive regular electricity at home. A mere seven per cent live in concrete homes. Sixty five per cent possess mobile phones. That is how lopsided Bihar’s lurch towards development has been. You could be talking about Haiti where, in 2012, only ten per cent had bank accounts and 80 per cent used hand-held telephones.

For the last quarter of a century, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar have presided over those spoils, briefly in league but for the better part at loggerheads. Bihar is still out adorned in its badge of deficits, brandishing that begging bowl for special category status. Nobody has bothered looking in the direction of that bowl. Meantime, careers have flourished and reputations built, foundation stone by derelict foundation stone. Some years ago, the state government sponsored a listing of Bihar’s leading lights and luminaries, such as they are. Bihar Vibhuti, the compendium was christened, and last heard, it had run into two volumes, each thick as a brick. There is fair evidence to suggest that the collective achievement of Bihar’s countless vibhutis has been that they came to drop; Bihar is a bonfire of those vanities.

Continue reading “Laloo Yadav, Burnished and Tarnished”

2013, Calcutta, Reportage, Telegraph Calcutta

Calcutta And The Art Of Political Seduction

Calcutta, March 23: Three noble notions jousted on the lawns of the Calcutta Club this evening. A fourth won.

The Telegraph National Debate 2013 was, in a sense, about none of the three ideas flung into the crucible of competition — democracy, freedom, equality. It was about a calling that serves or subverts them: Politics.

In the end all it took to conquer the House was a dose of well-meditated flattery. And who’s to be better at that than a politician, a dyed-in-the-khadi Congressman to boot? Arriving last at the lectern, external affairs minister Salman Khurshid just how — and why — politics, for all the ignominy it earns and exudes, remains the arbiter of superior things. Democracy, Freedom and Equality may be higher virtues; the art of charming goes the longer distance.

“This is the brightest, the most intelligent audience you can hope to find,” he proclaimed of his audience, “Don’t try to confuse it because it won’t be confused. This is Calcutta, ladies and gentlemen, and if equality doesn’t get support in Calcutta, it hasn’t a chance anywhere else.”

The House had been smartly stood up by Khurshid, its conscience tickled by entreaty to endorse equality, its cockles warmed by glowing praise. It’s weight fell on his side of the stage. A day after he tethered the runaway Italian marines back to face trial, the external affairs minister had lassoed a domestic constituency of eminences. Continue reading “Calcutta And The Art Of Political Seduction”