2014, Essay, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Pracharak To Pradhanmantri: Narendra Modi’s Extraordinary Journey

The last time India elected a single party to rule itself Narendra Modi was an anonymous pracharak of the RSS apprenticing in the debris of devastated barracks. Indira Gandhi’s assassination had handed Rajiv a merciless Lok Sabha majority; his adversaries lay decimated. The BJP had two members of Parliament. There wasn’t much to apprentice with in the Sangh Parivar’s mainstream precincts. It was 1984, a time for solitary reaping in the Opposition’s ransacked ranks.

The next time India elected a single party to rule itself, three decades later, the 16th day of May 2014, Narendra Modi stood adorned with the coronet of unprecedented achievement. In fact, a string of unprecedented achievements. The spearhead of the first non-Congress party to wrest power single-handed in New Delhi. The first from a classified backward community to arrive at the helm of the nation. The first chief minister to become Prime Minister in a single, stunning leap. Pracharak to Pradhan Mantri. When he mounted the Vadodara rostrum on Friday evening astride an electoral avalanche and pronounced himself merely “Mazdoor No 1”, he spurred his delirious votaries to roaring. It’s solitary reaping time no more, it has become a harvest beyond the imaginings of those who sowed the seeds of this saffron tempest.

Risen at twilight was a man a constituency far wider than Vadodara’s millions, far wider than India’s billion-plus, was looking at with a rainbow range of sentiments — hope and expectation, rapture and ravishment, bewilderment and keen curiosity, even fear and apprehension. Narendra Modi is about to be sworn into leadership of the world’s biggest democracy, the globe is tuning in, or will have to. A leading EU ambassador in Delhi told The Telegraph as the EVMs were wheeled in for the cascade count on Thursday night: “For us he has been a man not to ignore for a while now, which is why we made our openings to him more than a year back. Now, we cannot afford not to know who this man really is, what he means, what he intends, how he will conduct what he intends to conduct. At the moment he probably dictates the highest curiosity value the world over.”

Curiosity may not prove enough to fetch answers, though. Narendra Modi remains an enigma even to those who have been closest to him. The mother of the 64-year-old Prime Minister-designate included. In 2002, following his first victory in Gujarat, I travelled to his native Vadnagar to attempt piecing together a face that even then seemed worth a close look at. She lived at the time in a tiny two-storey house abutting a water-tank that’s hub to Vadnagar. The old lady was reticent to begin with and remained so through the half hour of time she granted. All she offered me was: “But what do I really know about my son? He left us as a teenager saying nothing to me other than that he was going. He has rarely come back, he has always had us told he is at work. I know little of my son.”

Ask a top PR executive who has worked closely with Team Modi and he sounds like an echo of the mother. “The one thing I can tell you about Narendra Modi is that anyone who claims to be close to him or to know him is lying. It isn’t possible to become close to Narendra Modi.” There is a territory Modi has practised to shield zealously from any prying — the core of Narendra Modi. At the end of the day — or at the beginning of it — the man who has courted, and won, stirring mass adulation, is a solitary man.

But clues to some of what he wanted to fashion for himself he had begun to drop early. That same year I went to Vadnagar following Modi’s 2002 victory, I wrote a long piece which began thus: “There are many who believe that this man is headed not for Gandhinagar but for New Delhi, that the tide he has unleashed will soon gobble up his mighty mentors — Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and company — and deliver him at the helm of the Party and the Parivar, perhaps even of the country. In a skewed but probably telling sense he has already raised the bar of competition higher than any other Indian chief minister would; he is not in a contest with locals, he has pitted himself against Pervez Musharraf, or at least that’s what the pitch of his campaign is. And when he picks adversaries at home, he picks Sonia Gandhi, hardly ever Shankarsinh Vaghela, his former shakha-mate and chief provincial challenger. The psychological template of his battle is not provincial, it’s national, that’s the stage he is fashioning.”

Continue reading “Pracharak To Pradhanmantri: Narendra Modi’s Extraordinary Journey”

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2014, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Gen Next Boys Break Alliance Over Frozen Fence

New Delhi: Good fences do not always good neighbours make. It’s moot if Chirag Paswan ever read Robert Frost, but there’s no debating the newest son to mount the succession block, has convinced father Ram Vilas politics and poetry turn on different metres. Forget the romance, Papa, confront reality, move on.

With a common backyard on the prime peninsula of Janpath’s VVIP bungalows, the Paswans couldn’t get closer to the Gandhis. The latter occupy the famed Number 10, the Paswans have lived in 12 for decades, separated by no more than a convivial wicket gate.

Interviewing Chirag Paswan at home on 12 Janpath
Interviewing Chirag Paswan at home on 12 Janpath

For a while now, though, that gate hasn’t given. Last week, the Paswans tired of knocking at it; Chirag called time and turned to walk his father and their boutique Bihar concern, the Lok Janshakti Party (LJP), a fair distance away.

For the mere lack of a crack in that wicket gate, the two households now lie separated by the widest chasm in Indian politics, between the Gandhis of the Congress and the man who has undertaken to rid the country of the Congress — Narendra Modi. Continue reading “Gen Next Boys Break Alliance Over Frozen Fence”

2013, New Delhi, Telegraph Calcutta

Inside the Democracy of a Dynast

New Delhi, Jan 17: As crowning dramas go, it came close to approaching the Shakespearean. Thrice did the cry ripple for the coronet to descend on Rahul Gandhi’s head. Thrice was that cry motioned to silence. Twice by queen of the court, Sonia Gandhi, the last time by the preferred recipient of the crown himself.

The laurel he was not ducking — “I am a soldier of the party and I shall take any responsibility the party asks me to take” — but wait yet. Let it be time, let it be right, let the opportunity arrive. Here was the dynast as democrat, I’ll take the throne, but upon constitutional election. “That’s what we do,” Rahul proclaimed to an intended audience many millions times the faithful gathered in the Talkatora cupola, “We are democrats, we believe in election, we believe in what our constitution prescribes.” The cry for clan has long ceased to be a thing of orchestration in the Congress; it comes from default spontaneity. That cry did not stop to ripple — “Rahul! Rahul! Rahul!” Most resoundingly from a set of young men and ladies lined along the upper tier ringside. “Rahul! Rahul! Rahul!”

The decision not to name Rahul prime ministerial candidate has been taken and it is final, Sonia Gandhi said. “Rahul!Rahul!Rahul!”

I will come and explain this thing about the prime ministerial candidate a little later in the day, please be patient, please be silent, Rahul Gandhi intervened to say. “Rahul!Rahul!Rahul!”

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The anointment of Rahul Gandhi had leapt out of the hesitations of Congress Working Committee resolutions and acquired a fullblown life of its own. And by the end of the day it had seduced no less a spokesman than Salman Khurshid: “The sense of the house clearly is that there is a whole new India out that there is looking for change and Rajiv Gandhi is the messiah of that change.” About the first messianic change he achieved: having the government raise the LPG cylinder cap from 9 to 12 within minutes of making that demand from the Talkatora lectern.

Something seemed to have kicked and altered between the change of Nehru jackets — fawn, pre-lunch, when he sat cross-legged on stage taking notes like the best boy in class and noir, post-lunch, when he came to reveal a cannon tongue and a flashing sword arm. This wasn’t a Rahul many had seen, or even expected. No family-table sentimentality, no revelation of private mummy-lessons, no ahem! ambiguity on where he wanted to head: to power, of course. Or how: by articulating an inclusive growth narrative, of course.

Corporate houses did find mention in his discourse, but once, and after a long priority list that included the underprivileged and marginalised, tribals and Dalits, the minorities and women. “I wish to congratulate Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for an unbroken decade of stability that has brought about massive socio-economic change,” he said, “And I want to tell you that what we will do henceforth is to walk with everyone, empower everyone, we have done more than any government on transparency and empowerment, we promise more. You are our strength, that is what the Congress promises.”

But much of rest was a pledge that awaits redemption: I want to empower you, the grassroots Congress man, I want half the Congressmen to be women, I want gram pradhans to become members of parliament, I want India to be corruption free, I want India to be rid of poverty, I want India to be run not by the power of one man but by the power of common Indians.

A lot of the rest was also what the billion jury will pronounce on sometime this coming May: the Congress is not a gimmick, unlike other parties, indeed not even a political party, the Congress is a movement with a glorious past, the Congress is a way of thinking. We are not divisive people intent on lighting fires, we combine the philosophies of the Geeta and Mahabharat, Ashoka and Akbar. We will fight those that seek to divide us. I will lead you into battle as a warrior with his head held high and I promise I will win, we will win, I tell you we will win. We will not retreat from this battle until we have won.

How Rahul Gandhi would hope the billion jury of May will be of a sentiment with the Talkatora platoon he charged into battle-mode today. How he’d hope he could bring the electorate down as he did his AICC delegates with fire and brimstone this winter’s day of misted chill. Shakespeare, alas, did not script how this will unfold hereon.

 

 

 

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Mummy, Sorry For My Behaviour, But I Am The Appointed Prince, Ain’t I?

New Delhi, Oct 3: His father lowered the legitimate Indian voting age to 18, but fairly more than twice the older, Congress vice president and prospective arbiter of national destiny, Rahul Gandhi, claimed the right today to be “young” and, therefore, naturally subject to parental reprimand and correction. “My mother told me the words I used were wrong,” Rahul told journalists at the start of a two-day tour of the hot adversary territory of Gujarat today,”In hindsight, maybe the words I used were strong but the sentiment was not wrong. I am young…”

“Mummy!” is probably the sense that should ring out loudest from the Congress inheritor’s frank, tough callow, cry. Here is the gen-next of the first family of Indian politics, of self-appointed entitlement and priority, assuming that a private cry is kosher for public consumption: Mummy, if not for your rap on my knuckles I would have railroaded into Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his elected cabinet sans apology, I am appointed pretender to this unappointed kingdom, aint I ?

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Rahul Gandhi is beginning to achieve probably the converse of what he intends in his heartrending innocence: he is appearing every inch a brattish dictator of Congress and UPA affairs in his effort to send out word he is responding to democratic sentiment.

It is a little ironical he seemed to plead his case when he had just used the the ovarian lottery of his famous name to hector the government into submitting to his sudden rash of realisation that the ordinance on tainted politicians stood on the wrong side of extant public opinion. “I have a right to voice my opinion,” he humbly submitted, “A large part of the Congress party wanted it, why am I being penalised for raising my voice on something that was wrong? Was I wrong?”

It must be lost on very few that the luxury to raise their voice in the Congress belongs to so few they make a minority of fingers on a palm.

What Rahul has achieved with one fleeting fit of impetuosity at Delhi’s Press Club of India the other afternoon is this: trigger hyperactive action in a government that had so far taken the charge of paralysis in its stride. It is unlikely anybody else in the UPA, other than “Mummy”, who was clearly disapproving of Rahul’s chosen style, could have carried off such a feat.

“Mummy”, for the record, has had her share of differences with the government she has played regent to for the last decade. But never once has she found occasion fit enough to throw a public fit as her son chose to, or could afford to get away with. Sonia Gandhi did have her reservations about the slow pace of acceptance a slew of NAC-advised social welfare measures — the MGNREGA and the food security bill included — found with the Manmohan Singh dispensation, but she chose a more muted and patient tack to push her case

But the grand old lady of the ruling coalition may well have expected such an outburst from her appointed heir. The Nehru-Gandhis, after all, have not made a name for themselves as deferential democrats; they have, on the contrary, often conducted their affairs as possessed of divine right.

Rahul’s iconic great grand father was known to publicly admonish unpalatable entreaty. He once banished a delegation from Phulpur, his Lok Sabha constituency near Allahabad, telling them he was the Prime Minister of India, not just another one of 500-odd Lok Sabha members mandated to nurse and sweep about a woebegotten east UP constituency. Grandmother Indira’s carriage was altogether more imperious, such that wreaked upon India the singular memory of the Emergency, such that her minions came to publicly equate India with Indira. Father Rajiv, for all his cherubic charm, sacked a foreign secretary in a press conference broadcast live. And, when he reluctantly joined politics, justified it saying “Mummy needs me!” Not the nation, not its people, not the Congress party, but Mummy. Uncle Sanjay’s untimely and tragic departure from the scene (which occasioned Rajiv’s entry into public life) is considered by many an act of divine favor to Indian democracy; he did worse than impose the five-point programme, medical proscription of the right to parenthood was part of which. He is known to have, in one fit of rage, slapped his high-nosed mother across the dinner table over an argument. Rahul is infinitely better brought up; he has pleaded guilt to Mummy’s morality, though wielded his ovarian advantage nonetheless.

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

Manmohan Stares Down Rahul’s Torpedo

New Delhi, Oct 1: Rahul Gandhi’s torpedo strike at the ordinance on tainted politicians has left the Prime Minister he deeply respects fuming.

Clearly peeved by the Congress vice president’s abrupt offensive, Manmohan Singh has set up a hard-talk date with top Congress and cabinet colleagues tomorrow to pick a credible way out of the raging public embarrassment the UPA has inflicted on itself. As he flew home tonight after key bilateral and multilateral engagements in the United States, a key prime ministerial aide told The Telegraph that Singh had been “taken aback” by Rahul’s intervention and “left upset”, but also that he was “firmly of the view a final decision had to be thought through in consultation with the party and government allies”.

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Quitting the job is far from the Prime Minister’s mind; questioning the causes of his current discomfiture is a closer description of his mood. “…When I go back I will try to find out the reasons why it had to be done that way and how do we handle it,” Singh told journalists on the special back from the United States, making it plain that Rahul’s positioning had both stumped and mortified him. When asked if he had been hurt that Rahul had torn into the ordinance while he was abroad, Singh said, “Well. I am not the master of what people say…I have been used to ups and downs and don’t get easily upset.”

Continue reading “Manmohan Stares Down Rahul’s Torpedo”

2013, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only

New Delhi, Aug 24: The attendance was A-list, the atmospherics protocol-perfect, the adjectives superlative, the applause generous and obliging.

It was an occasion deserving of nothing less. The government had just hatched a glittering Jurassic egg Rs 60 crore worth on prime acreage in the capital. It would have to count as a rare moment in this age to watch six tiers of mortar, grit, granite and glass pressed into the service of information when all of it can be devised, disseminated and received on baubles that fit the crook of a palm.

Information Inflation
Information Inflation: Delhi’s New National Media Centre

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paced the motions of opening and commending the marvel called National Media Centre (NMC) this morning, his communications adviser unwittingly laid bare the irony mocking the enterprise — Pankaj Pachauri broadcast his boss’ speech live to the world pushing Twitter tabs on his hand held from the front rows of the inaugural hall. Continue reading “New Delhi’s Jurassic Egg, For Your Information Only”

2012, New Delhi, News, Telegraph Calcutta

The Violence of the Lambs

Sankarshan Thakur

New Delhi, Dec. 29: Well before the candles were lit this evening, the one at the centre of it all had been blown. Jantar Mantar was aglow with the light of the extinguished one — a suffering life that had stopped to struggle in the dead of night and given on to a morning of outcry and crying, condoling and condemnation.

Well before the Singapore hospital gurney was cleared of the remains of a feast of cannibal lust, well before she returned home for her final journey, her tragedy had been robbed the courtesies of silence, her wake abducted to a raucous stage of bickering over who’s to pay. Continue reading “The Violence of the Lambs”