Friday, January 4, 2013

With you always, but only to suppress you

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 26, 2012)
On Sunday morning, a young protester at India Gate asked me: “Where is the Prime Minister? Do we even have a Prime Minister?” I had no answer. On Monday, Mr Manmohan Singh made a televised address to the nation which proved that we have a Prime Minister, but only in name. In a bland lecture that is eminently forgettable, Mr Singh said the massive protests which have erupted over the gang rape and torture of a young girl in a moving bus in Delhi were justified and understandable. We didn’t need the Prime Minister to tell us that. We needed him to tell us who has been held accountable for the shocking and sad incident and what immediate steps is his Government taking to ensure that rapists are punished severely. Mr Singh’s message to the country was worse than what a dithering bureaucrat would have said.
Incidentally, the Prime Minister did not forget to mention that, as a father of three daughters, he felt the pain of the victim and her family. It has suddenly become fashionable for politicians to remind the people that they have daughters. A few days earlier, the thoroughly inept Union Minister for Home Affairs Sushil Kumar Shinde too mentioned at a Press conference that he had daughters and thus could appreciate the anger among the protesters. Not satisfied with that, he pointed to his deputy, Mr RPN Singh, and disclosed that the latter too had daughters — and we assume that he too, therefore, felt the pain as deeply as the senior Minister did. A few days earlier to Mr Shinde’s media briefing, prominent Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien expressed his own bit of anguish over the Delhi incident and reminded the audience that he too was the father of a daughter. Of course, he had not felt the same pain over the Park Street rape case in West Bengal some months ago in the Trinamool rule, nor did he even squeak when the police officer investigating the case was unceremoniously shunted out and the rape victim made to undergo all sorts of humiliation.
Having daughters, or being a woman, does not seem to have made any difference in the attitude of public figures towards heinous crimes against women, and so they look hypocritical when they shed (crocodile) tears. Not too long ago, Ms Pratibha Patil towards the end of her tenure as President had reduced to life imprisonment the death sentence awarded to a convict who had raped and murdered a six-year old girl in Uttar Pradesh in 2001. She had also extended clemency to two other convicts who had gang raped and then brutally killed the 10-year old daughter of a jailor in the jail premises in Madhya Pradesh in 1996. Being a woman did nothing to stop her from letting off such inhuman criminals. So, why should we believe politicians when they say that they understand the grief and suffering merely because they have daughters or are women? 
Politicians have to be judged by their action. Let’s look at that action. When the street protests assumed a huge dimension in the middle of last week, the Prime Minister issued a statement that he understood the anger of the protesters, adding that the agitation was justified. Later, various other politicians in the UPA, from Ms Sonia Gandhi down, echoed similar sentiments. All of them promised action. And that action came, to be fair to them. On Saturday, more a dozen Metro stations were shut down so that protesters could not reach in large numbers at India Gate and Raisina Hill to conduct their peaceful demonstrations. Despite this, people in thousands found their way to both these locations. As the crowd continued to swell, the police began swinging their canes recklessly and beating up the gathering. Even on that Saturday, senior Congress leaders continued to believe in the agitation!
On Sunday, there was further proof of that solidarity and appreciation of the protesters’ movement. Section 144 was imposed in Delhi to prevent the assembly of people. More Metro stations in the proximity of India Gate and Raisina Hill were closed for ‘security reasons’. (They remained closed on Monday and Tuesday as well.) Despite all these repressive measures, huge numbers arrived at India Gate and began their protest. It was one of this season’s coldest days and the police let loose water cannons and dozens of rounds of teargas shells on the protesters, besides indulging in the usual lathi-charge. Beginning from around three in the afternoon, the security forces went on a rampage, under the pretext that they had to contain an unruly mob which had infiltrated the peaceful gathering and was damaging public property and resorting to violence. It is true that sections of the protesters had turned violent, but they could have been easily isolated and dealt with. Had the security forces done that and identified who these unruly elements were, perhaps the Congress would have had reasons to be embarrassed by the expose.
Despite all the repressive measures which the Government has taken, the regime cannot break the spirit of the protesters. Nor can it get away by sitting on the fence on issues which require a firm stand. In the initial days of the protest, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit maintained a grim silence. But she sought to blame the Union Ministry of Home Affairs for the incident after the agitation gained massive proportions and cries of “Sheila Dikshit hai hai!” grew as loud as “Sonia Gandhi hai hai” and “Delhi Police hai hai”. Miraculously, a letter written by Congress MP and her son Sandeep Dikshit to the Centre appeared in a section of the electronic media. The letter raised questions on certain appointments the Lt Governor had made to the police force. Since the Delhi Police reports to the Centre, it is directly accountable to the Lt Governor. And now, Ms Dikshit has openly questioned the strong-arm tactics which Delhi Police employed with the protesters and their conduct while recording the statement of the rape victim. 
Clearly then, although the political class is rattled, it is still unable to respond in a fitting manner. The demand to have a special session of Parliament, the demand to include the death penalty in laws that deal with rape and amend other related provisions, the demand to initiate firm action against top Delhi Police brass, the demand to sensitise police to help them handle crimes against women effectively — these are not unjustified. Yet the Government has refused to offer any roadmap to walk that path. As always, it believes that the crisis will play out and subside over time, and that everything will be back to normal. But it will not be back to normal for the girl who has been brutalised (we hope she lives), for her family members, and for all those hundreds of victims of rape across the country who still wait for justice while the police, the prosecution and the judiciary take their time to deal with their horror. Token assurances and symbolic gestures are no longer enough.

Congress sees victory in defeat!

(First published in The Pioneer on December 21, 2012)


As it became clear in the course of Thursday that the BJP was going to win Gujarat hands down, I decided to walk down to 10, Janpath, to gauge the mood of the people gathered outside the most important address for Congress workers. Naturally, I had expected a sombre gathering shell-shocked by the —even if expected — drubbing. But I discovered a raucous crowd waving Congress flags, bursting crackers and crying out, “Sonia Gandhi zindabad!” and “Rahul Gandhi zindabad!” For a moment I thought the supporters had got it all wrong. To understand this strange phenomenon I decided to approach 10, Janpath, straight. I located Ram Lal among the people excitedly waving one of the huge flags.
Ram Lal is the nephew of one of the drivers of the car that the Congress president travels in. The driver is a cousin of the gardener who tends to the lawns of the residence. The gardener owes his position to his uncle who had recently retired from service as a bearer who served tea and snacks to members of the dynasty in the Sanctum Sanctorum of the house for twenty long years. The bearer’s place had been taken by his son who only months ago returned from the US where he studied catering and who is a bit hit with Rahul Gandhi because he can quote all the important websites on tea preparation and surf the net and send short messages at super-fast speed while pretending to listen to others talk to him. Ram Lal likes to call his lineage the ‘second dynasty’ at 10, Janpath. Like all efficient bearers, he is good at eavesdropping on conversations that happen between the most important people that gather in the inner recesses of the residence.
So it was Ram Lal who explained the reasons for the untimely celebration. “Narendra Modi has swept Gujarat”, he exulted as he pumped my hands vigorously.
“But why are you people so happy?” I wondered.
“Now Modi will become an important national leader and will be seen as a candidate for the country’s prime ministership.”
“That’s not good news for you.”
“Believe me, it is. It’s what we had all along wanted.”
The after-effects of a humiliating public defeat can render people senseless and drive them mentally unsound. I looked at Ram Lal with concern. But he didn’t appear insane. “This is what our party High Command had
worked for.”
But why would the Congress plot its own debacle? “This is a good instance of stooping to conquer”, he exclaimed with pride. The phrase had been used with greater clarity before. He added, “With Modi as a likely candidate to become the Prime Minister, divisions in the BJP will grow wider. That’s good for us, no?”
I tentatively accepted that Modi’s arrival on the national stage will cause some upheaval in the BJP. But the internal matter can be effectively settled within the party. “What about outside the party, within the NDA?” he countered. “Partners like the JD(U) will break away from the NDA. Potential partners like Naveen Patnaik will keep away from re-joining the Opposition combine. Both the NDA and the BJP will get weak, and we will win the next Lok Sabha election.”
“So you people had actually thought the matter over to this deep extent?” I was struck by awe.
“Yes,” Ram Lal answered, and yelled out, “Sonia Gandhi zindabad!” as he saw the main gate of the residence sliding open. A car drove out, bearing huge garlands of crumpled flowers. They were on the way to be immersed in the gutter-like waters of the Yamuna River. He then let out the secret. “My relative the bearer happened to hear a conversation between Madam and Rahul baba. Ahmed Patelji and Diggy Raja saheb too were present. Mind you, he had no intention of doing so; it’s just that, as he was entering the room with tea and biscuits, he caught snatches of the talk towards the end.”
I was by now very curious to know what exactly he had heard, and even joined him in his next cry, “Rahul Gandhi aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain!” when another car emerged from behind the gates with an athletically built man with a trim moustache seated grimly in the passenger’s seat. I recognised him instantly as the man who had developed close and friendly ties with one of the country’s biggest builders.
“This is in strict confidence,” he whispered and looked over his shoulders. “Madam said that the Congress must not attack Modi during the election campaign. It must not talk of the 2002 riots, the plight of Muslims in the State and the various projects that are languishing for want of the State regime’s attention. In fact, she said that Modi should not even be named during the campaign. Even the criticism that we make for the sake of show must be such that Modi can instantly rebut it.”
“So that he could eventually trounce you and trample all over you?”
“Yes, yes, precisely. And see how that plan has worked out to perfection”, Ram Lal rubbed his hands in glee. I complimented his party’s leadership for the success. But was there no opposition to that plan? Did Rahul Gandhi and others accept it without a murmur? After all, defeat is defeat, even when it is supposed to be victory. What was the tea bearer’s take on that? Ram Lal was aghast at even the suggestion of dissent. “My rishtedaar told me that the other three in the room began to clap and cheer. They even sang, ‘Modi tum jiyo hazaron saal’. Even Madam joined in the chorus. It was a master-stroke to finish off the BJP’s challenge in the Lok Sabha election. We were of course told about the plan later and we played to the script.”
By now, the crowd had done one hour of cheering and was clearly exhausted. Moreover, neither Sonia nor Rahul had appeared outside to boost the gathering’s energy. With one final, “Zindabad, zindabad!” they began to disperse. Ram Lal curled up the worn-out flag around the pole and kept it aside. It had seen better days. “I have a confession to make.”
“Yes?” I prompted him.
“We may have succeeded remarkably in our plan for self-defeat, as you can see from the results. But if we had worked to defeat Modi, we might have failed. That would have been disastrous — for Madam and Rahul baba.”

Chickens are counted before they hatch

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 14, 2012)


In less than a week from now, the winner of the election to the Gujarat Assembly will be known. Many people — and they include members of the media who are vehemently opposed to Chief Minister Narendra Modi — believe that the result is a formality and that the Modi-led BJP will surely register a win. That may be so, but there is no point in counting the chickens before they hatch. Actually, there is a point, which is why the un-hatched chickens have been counted by commentators ever since the election campaign kicked off formally a month ago. Not a day has gone by when the experts did not dwell on the various titillating scenarios that are on offer once Mr Modi wins Gujarat for the BJP. What will be the margin of victory? Will it be strong enough for the Chief Minister to claim a place on the national stage? Will he emerge as the BJP’s candidate for prime ministership in the next Lok Sabha election? If he does arrive as a national leader, will the established guard of the party accept him or sabotage him? Will some NDA partners walk out of the coalition if Mr Modi is projected as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate?
The informed discourse that we have heard over the weeks in the run-up to this election has, thus, dealt very little with issues that concern the people of Gujarat and more with the impact that the result of the election will have on national politics. In that sense, therefore, Mr Modi has already been placed on the country’s centre-stage. The ‘Modi versus Rahul Gandhi’ and the ‘Modi versus the rest’ (including sections of the BJP) refrain that we have been subjected to through various print and electronic media coverage confirms the obsession of the Press and the people with the Gujarat Chief Minister’s future outside his State. It would seem that he is pitted against many dangerous rivals within and outside his party who are just waiting to finish him off as soon as he sets foot in New Delhi.
These various possibilities have provided fodder to 24x7 news channels and the print media to sustain their ‘special coverage’ of the election. And, because Mr Modi is not going to take over the prime ministership tomorrow, the media will have many more days and months to continue analysing the prospect and attracting television rating points in the process. Interestingly, all these initiatives are only serving to add to the larger-than-life image of the Chief Minister. Mr Modi has had few reasons to object, therefore, although in the process he has also ended up getting stinging comments from participants in television debates and analysts in the print media. It’s a small price, veteran observers will say, to pay for securing a place under the sun.
So, it’s not as if Mr Modi’s detractors have been mute spectators to the foretelling of his victory. They began by first rubbishing the impression that the Chief Minister is on the course to lead his party to a third straight Assembly win. Not managing to go far with that assertion, they took to wondering whether the claims of development which Mr Modi had been making across the State were not canards at worst and selectively true at best. Again, failing to strike a chord with that argument, his critics in the media and outside then presented a different perspective: Is the development plank alone sufficient to propel Mr Modi to victory? Now, that is a strange train of thought indeed, because one would have believed that the politics of development is the best recourse to take. Have these experts then been suggesting that Mr Modi should have exploited communal or casteist issues to polarise votes in
his favour?
The fact is that his detractors were desperately eager that he bring up those matters so that they could rip him apart. It would have also given the Congress a platform to raise the issue of 2002 violence and the ‘plight’ of the minorities in the State under Mr Modi’s rule. But, while the Chief Minister had enough material to draw the attention of listeners — witness how he panned the Prime Minister, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi in his inimitable style —the Congress was left without anything substantial to say. The party’s leaders were terrified to directly mention either 2002 or the ‘terrorisation’ of the Muslim community in the State, for fear that they would play into the Chief Minister’s hands. They had to then fall back on the issue of development — much to Mr Modi’s delight.
In the eventuality, the Congress settled down to an insipid campaign with no catchy issues to exploit. Worse, the party’s rising star, Rahul Gandhi, made a mere guest appearance on the last day of campaigning for the first phase of polling. And he said nothing that set the Sabarmati on fire. Nor did Ms Sonia Gandhi and Mr Manmohan Singh, who had campaigned earlier.
Those who claim to have seen what they believe is the writing on the wall (that Mr Modi is going to win, regardless of everything bad he may have done) — and they also include the Chief Minister’s diehard critics (regardless of everything good he may have done) — have begun to prepare the ground to explain away the presumed victory. One theory is that the voters of Gujarat have become so polarised over the years since 2002 that there is little hope for a ‘secular’ victory, at least as of now. If that is the case, these people must explain what the ‘secular’ parties have done this past decade to ‘de-polarise’ the voters and ‘secularise’ them. Besides, it is an insult to the voters of the State to condemn them as being communally driven.
It’s true that polarisation took place in the aftermath of the 2002 violence, but the effects have since worn off. In 2007, Mr Modi fought on the development plank. The fact that the Congress had done fairly well in the State in the 2009 Lok Sabha election goes to show that voters are willing to look beyond the BJP if only they are offered a credible alternative. Polarisation of voters cannot be used in perpetuity as an excuse to explain the rise of the Modi-led BJP in Gujarat.

Valiantly holding the flag high

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 11)


A visitor to Gujarat will feel instantly at home in Vadodara. The city has a cosmopolitan air that comes perhaps from a large number of higher education institutions which are located in and around the town. The fabled Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III dominates the third largest city in the State. To him goes the credit of laying the foundations for a robust education system, including a university and a library culture. The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda is named after him, as is a park in the heart of the city, and various other institutions and commercial complexes. Because the educational network, which also includes a fashion designing institute, attracts students from across the country, the cosmopolitan touch has pervaded through society. And, while not all of these youngsters are eligible to vote in the city, their outlook is in general reflective of the political mood in Vadodara. The city is for the BJP led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi, though some experts believe that the situation in the rural areas which fall in the district may not be emphatically in favour of the party.
From Alkapuri to Kothi Chaar Rasta to the MS University and beyond as one moves to the edge of the city towards the airport (dilapidated and badly maintained, leading the auto-rickshaw driver who drove me there to suggest that Mr Modi must take it over to improve its fate), people do not see an alternative to Mr Modi. In fact, it is in Vadodara (nobody in the city calls it by that name, preferring instead the more compact Baroda) that one hears the term ‘development politics’ the most often. Bharatbhai Solanki has a readymade garments’ store right opposite the university, an area teeming with mouth-watering streetside fastfood joints. He is 60 years old and claims to have voted in every election over the last three decades. Once a committed Congress supporter, he has switched sides. “2002 is past. Why are people still talking about it when we are trying to move ahead and leave the unpleasantness behind?” he demands to know rather abruptly. I had merely asked him for his opinion on the general political climate in the city and around. “Look at the development all around. The political climate you are talking of has to do with the conducive business environment. Why even discuss divisions in society when financial empowerment is
bridging divides?”
I gently remind him that economic prosperity is not everything; all sections of society must feel safe and have a sense of ownership in the prosperity which he talks of. I was playing the devil’s advocate, and he shrewdly realises it. Mr Solanki has experienced many elections and many more political leaders. “Everyone is safe. If someone feels unsafe, it is due to his mindset, and not because of ground reality. Nothing can be done about that”, he brushes aside my misgivings as he dispenses with a customer who had purchased a couple of vests and towels. My final query: Why did he dump the Congress? “Narendrabhai is better. He has performed, and the State has benefitted from the BJP rule under his leadership. The Congress does not even have a State-level leader to match his stature, let alone performance.”
An apparently well-to-do gentleman in Alkapuri is struggling to silence the alarm that had gone off in his car because someone had brushed against the vehicle’s door a little too hard. For officialdom, Alkapuri is important. The Collector’s official residence is located on the main road, and so are the Circuit House and the residence of a Principal Magistrate — all in the same row. On the other side are small but swanky commercial complexes. This is where the gentleman in question is engaged in the small technical act. After furtively pressing buttons on the key of his remote lock, he manages to silence the siren. He looks as relieved as, well, a person who has just relieved himself. “Of course I will vote for the BJP, and so will many others, only and only because of Narendra Modi. Look at the development he has done. The Congress could not do in 40 years what he has done in 10.” But Gujarat has always been a developed State. What is Mr Modi’s contribution? He looks at me like I had arrived from another planet. “Are you a Congressman?” he demands to know in a suspicious manner. “This is just what the Congress workers have been telling people in the city. If he has done nothing, why have the people voted for him in the last two elections? Why have they voted for his party in every other kind of election in the last 10 years? Are the people of the State fools to be misled by propaganda every now and then?”
But Vadodara-based journalist Hemant Vyas believes that people are also not fools to be taken in completely by Mr Modi’s claim of development. “If you go into the rural areas, you will get a different perspective”, he says. Vyas has been closely tracking politics of the State for years now, and says that the BJP and the Congress will be engaged in stiff combat in rural Gujarat. “Take Waghodia, which is some 30 kilometres from Vadodara. The BJP is facing rebellion there, with the disgruntled workers backing Keshubhai Patel’s Gujarat Parivartan Party and an independent who has quit the BJP. The Congress too is strong here because it commands the loyalty of the Patel community”, he states, adding that the contest there is between two Patels. Vyas thinks a similar game could be played out in the rest of rural Gujarat as well. The adivasi (or tribal) factor is also an important element here. “When we talk of rural constituencies around Vadodara, we cannot ignore the fact that the Congress does have a strong sway among the tribals. It’s true that the BJP has made inroads over the years, but the Congress still has an edge”, he emphasises. His analysis is that the BJP will win in the five odd seats in Vadodara and adjacent constituencies, but in the eights seats flung far away from the city, the Congress could well bag six. He again underlines that a similar game could be played out in the rest of the State, though to what extent that is going to really affect the BJP overall, remains to be seen.
Vyas, however, does not accept the general impression that the Muslims will en bloc vote against the BJP in the State. “Over the years, sections of the Muslim community — for instance the Bohras — have moved towards Mr Modi. The process began in 2007 and seems to have gained strength over time”, he claims. The Vadodara-based journalist also does not accept the argument that Mr Modi’s Sadbhavna Yatra has been a waste. “You watch, it’ll yield results”, he confidently adds. Well, December 20 is not too far away. Vyas is quick to offer his assessment of the seats that the parties will get. “The BJP will get around the same number that it won in 2007, and the Congress can win 65 plus. I do not believe that the GPP will manage more than three seats across the State.” Mr Modi is not going to be content with that tally. He is hoping to breach the so-far unbroken record that Congress’s Madhavsinh Solanki had set with 149 seats in 1985. But with the GPP breathing down his neck, the Congress refusing to yield its traditional votes in rural Gujarat and a level of anti-incumbency, he may have to wait another day.

Old warhorse fights lonely battle

(First published in The Pioneer dated December 3, 2012)


 From measured Ahmedabad to chaotic Rajkot, the contrast could not have been starker. Motorists drive like they are determined to cause an accident, and only at the last moment do they seem to get second thoughts and screech to a halt. It’s a wonder that the town does not register a road accident every minute. This aggression spills over to the political expressions of the residents as well. Unlike in Ahmedabad, where the people are open yet refined in presenting their opinions, the voters of Rajkot do not believe in needless sophistication. It’s the home town of Mr Keshubhai Patel, once among the BJP’s tallest leaders in Gujarat and now the party’s bitter rival who has floated his own outfit, the Gujarat Parivartan Party, to take on his former colleagues (and the Congress more by way of coincidence than design). It is here, in the town and the constituencies that fall within the district — and elsewhere in the Saurashtra region — that Mr Patel hopes to perform well. That’s the hope, but do the people see it that way?
It’s barely six in the morning, but there’s already a decent crowd outside a tea stall near the town’s bus terminus. Many of those who have gathered there are travellers, but there are also those that are residents of the town and are out on their morning walk. Some of them are armed with sticks to ward off stray dogs. As I broach the topic of the State Assembly election and suggest that Mr Patel could give the BJP a run for its money, an elderly gentleman picks the cue. “You think so?” he demands to know aggressively. When I hastily clarify that that was what the general impression appears to be, he calms down. “It’s true that Rajkot has been the centre of Keshubhai’s politics. But he is no longer relevant, at least in the town and nearby constituencies. The BJP is comfortably placed.” His companion chips in, but with a more tempered view. “Keshubhai got the Patel votes into the BJP kitty in the late 90s. That cannot be denied. But for the last decade or so beginning with Narendra Modi’s rise, he has remained a marginal player. Sections of the Patel community are still loyal to him. But by and large the Patels have come to identify with the BJP. Narendrabhai has taken care of them.”
It is precisely this analysis that Ahmedabad-based senior journalist Manas Dasgupta had offered to me a couple of days before I landed in Rajkot. Mr Dasgupta, who has reported on Gujarat’s politics for close to four decades now, believes that the Patel community “is no longer aligned with Mr Keshubhai Patel. The Patels are with Mr Modi because they feel secure in his regime. They think that, if the Congress or the GPP gains leverage in the State, they will lose influence to the other communities, particularly the Muslims.”
He does accept that, if not in Rajkot proper and contiguous constituencies, Mr Patel’s party will makes inroads in the rural constituencies of Saurashtra, but that will not amount to any serious dent in the BJP’s Patel vote-bank. “You have to remember that only a few sub-sects of the Patel community could vote for Mr Keshubhai Patel. Some months, a Patel conference which he had organised had turned out to be a tame affair with most of the influential Patel community leaders keeping away. Also, the Patels do not want to waste their vote on a party (the GPP) which has no chance of gaining power, I will be surprised if Mr Patel’s party wins more than 10 seats in all”, he says.
A non-resident Indian (or more appropriately, a non-resident Gujarati) paces furiously in the lobby of a hotel located on Jawahar Road in the town. Puffing at a cigarette and upset at having misplaced his lighter, he tells me that people realise the true worth of something after they have lost it and not when they have it. “Mil jaye to mitti hai, kho jaye to sona hai” — he hums the lines sung by Jagjit Singh. “Take the case of my lighter. Now that it’s gone, I miss it desperately when I have the urge to smoke.” Manish Bhatt (not his real name) is based in London and is in the insurance business. He is planning a return to India — and home State Gujarat — to promote the insurance sector. “With Narendra Modi as Chief Minister, the business community is confident of getting the right environment. I would not have considered relocating to Gujarat (Rajkot is his home town) if people like Keshubhai were in charge. I remember Keshubhai’s regime; the governance was in a complete mess, and decisions were being delayed.”
But not everyone in Rajkot agrees with that indictment. The owner of an electronic goods store believes that Mr Patel’s Government had performed well in the short duration that it had lasted. “He had to face great opposition from within the party. There was Shankarsinh Vaghela and his band of loyalists within the BJP constantly sniping at Keshubhai’s heels. Yet, he did provide a decent administration. No one can possibly forget that he had laid the foundations for the BJP’s rise in Gujarat.” But even the electronic goods vendor accepts that Mr Patel stands little chance of making a really big mark in the coming  |Assembly election.
The other setback that Mr Patel appears to face not just in Rajkot but apparently across Saurashtra too is that the Muslim voters are unlikely to back him (just as the majority of them are yet not ready to support Mr Modi), despite all the overtures which he has been making towards the community since his rebellion against the BJP. And, it’s not just Mr Dasgupta who holds that view. Voters in Junagadh believe similarly. A two-hour drive from Rajkot, Junagadh is a crumbling town, which clings to history in a desperate bid to maintain its dignity. Mr Modi’s development wave appears to have bypassed this little town. The spirit of happiness that one comes across in Ahmedabad and the element of happening that is evident in Rajkot, are replaced by a sense of resignation in Junagadh.
Outside the Family and Civil Court within the dilapidated gates (there are many in this historic town) that once formed part of an imposing fort, a paan vendor sells his wares in his tiny stall. Miniature images of Mecca and Medina adorn the walls of his stall. “Muslims here won’t back Keshubhai. They will go with the Congress. I am a Muslim and I will not vote for Keshubhai. And I will also not vote for the BJP. Narendrabhai’s Sadbhavna fast was a sham. Muslims of the State, and certainly of Junagadh, have not been impressed by that”, he claims emphatically. Mr Keshubhai Patel, he says, will do fairly well in the interiors of Junagadh. “But do not expect miracles from him. The Patels are no longer solidly behind him. The dominant Patels in rural Gujarat are firmly with the BJP”, he says, adding, “They are not concerned with issues of development. They’ll back any party that can contain the Muslim influence in the State.”
This opinion is seconded by a lawyer hanging around the court premises. That is why, he contends, BJP legislator Mahendra Mashroo will most likely win again. “Don’t ever forget; it’s not because he has done development work here. He will win because of the fear of Muslims. Of course, Mahendrabhai is also personally likeable”, the robed man says. As for the Gujarat Parivartan Party’s performance in its stronghold, he has this to say: “Keshubhai has influence in Saurashtra. You know he is himself contesting from nearby Visavadar constituency. But I doubt if that influence will convert into more than half a dozen seats for his party in the region. After all, even the BJP has a strong line-up of Patel candidates.”

India will win in Modi's Gujarat

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated November 22, 2102)


Who do you think is going to win?” I asked the auto-rickshaw driver who took me on November 19 from the airport in Ahmedabad to the hotel. “India jeetega”, he responded with a confident grin. I wondered if he was right. Of course he could be right, except that England had put up a strong show in its second innings (eventually India did win). But cricket was not on my mind then. My question related to December’s Assembly election in Gujarat. I corrected him gently. He replied, “I am referring to the election. Narendra Modi will win. And, that will be a victory for India, because he stands for a proud, progressive and self-reliant India.”
It is difficult to find a contrary opinion in Ahmedabad, at least. The owner of a general provision store, who for reasons he did not elaborate, believed that Gujarat will witness a close fight. “Fifty-fifty hoga”, he claimed. And yet, even he agreed that that the BJP would win hands down in Ahmedabad and near about. “The combination of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah is unbeatable in these constituencies”, he added.
At a corner stall in Goyal Intercity, a sharp, young man in his mid-twenties, who managed an assortment of tobacco and related products, was even more dismissive of the prospects of the Congress. “What do the Congress leaders have to say? Nothing. Sonia Gandhi spoke in Rajkot recently, but had nothing to promise really to the voters. She spoke of bringing development, but development is already there under Chief Minister Modi. Even the remotest village in the State gets at least 10 hours of quality power supply. Industrial activity is booming. Agriculture is doing well too”, he stated.
The young man was equally contemptuous of the impression that the conviction of a former Minister in the Modi regime in connection with the 2002 violence, or Amit Shah’s ongoing trial in the same incident. “Those are non-issues that do not affect the livelihood of the people. Let the law take its course. Such issues are discussed by intellectuals in television studios, not on the streets by voters”, he said.
There is some truth in the assertion that the Congress has nothing to tell the voters, now that even its party leaders are keeping away from raking the 2002 incidents. They did that in 2007 and the strategy had backfired. “So, now you have Congress leaders calling Modi a monkey. Do you think that the Congress can win over the loyalty of the voters by calling the Chief Minister a monkey? This only goes to show that they do not know what those issues are that can attract the people of the State”, remarked the proprietor of a cosmetics shop located close to a Shani Dev temple near the Drive-in Cinema. “Why must I vote for the Congress? Give me one good reason”, a flower vendor selling her wares outside a Vaibhav Lakshmi Temple challenged me to respond. Does anybody offer stale flowers to the deity!” According to her, the Congress had withered under the “fruitful” leadership of Mr Modi and the BJP Government which he leads. “The Congress must sound and look fresh for the voters to consider it as an alternative.”
Clearly, the Congress has a problem in the State. If it talks of development — and it has been making half-hearted attempts — the issue does not click with the people, who point that the State is progressing fine under Mr Modi. In fact, the people add that never before as in the last decade has development been so rapid and focussed. If the party personalises the campaign, it only further raises the stature of the Chief Minister. So, what should it do? The flower vendor may have put it rather simplistically, and she may be reflecting the frustrations of people like her residing in Ahmedabad. But much the same terms of an informed analysis, is offered by a war-weary journalist. Ahmedabad-based Manas Dasgupta has covered the politics and more of Gujarat for close to four decades now. People, he says, are willing to listen to any meaningful argument on why they must exercise their option to change the BJP Government led by Mr Modi. “People are asking: ‘Give us one reason — just one reason — why we must vote for the Congress,’” Mr Dasgupta says. He points out that while Congress leaders are going about the State talking of why the people should vote out the Congress, they are unable to tell the voters what the Congress has on offer for their development. “The Congress at the Centre is steeped in corruption; the party has completely failed to check inflation and price rise across the country; and the Congress does not have a single State-level leader to take on Mr Modi. Are these the reasons that will make the people vote for the Congress!” he exclaims.
Mr Dasgupta is quick to point out that the Chief Minister has flourished as much from the good governance which he has given the State as he has through an elaborate image-building exercise. “Not everything which he claims as his Government’s achievements are true”, he says, adding, “Consider how he takes the credit for the implementation of the various Central Government schemes. But then it is also a fact that his rivals simply do not have the credentials to challenge him on the few occasions that they can do so with some level of success.” That may be so, but there is another fact that people in Ahmedabad do not fail to mention: Mr Modi has ensured that the benefits of most of the schemes, State-level or Central, have reached the people. “He has succeeded in the last mile, and that matters the most as far the voters are concerned”, Mr Dasgupta remarks.
He agrees that issues like the 2002 violence have become non-issues today, as also the allegation of arrogance that Mr Modi’s detractors have been leveling against the Chief Minister. “Of course he is arrogant and brusque with many of his Ministers and the bureaucrats. That’s why he is so unpopular in Gandhinagar, the seat of power. But he is not arrogant with the people. Moreover, the people believe that his arrogance is really his determination to get things done for the good of the people. They love him for that. They may be wrong in their analysis, but that is that”, he states.
From the vantage point of Ahmedabad then, the BJP led by Mr Modi seems to be sitting pretty. But Ahmedabad alone is not Gujarat. And, miracles do happe

Congress tries to douse fire, but slips on fire

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated October 31)


On October 23, The Pioneer published an editorial titled, “Kejriwal playing god?” The editorial cautioned India Against Corruption chief Arvind Kejriwal against going overboard without plausible evidence in his campaigns that targeted public figures for their alleged corrupt activities. At the same time, the editorial also commended him for the good work that he has been doing in raising the level of awareness and highlighting dubious deals of some public figures with believable material to justify the allegations.
The editorial drew a flurry of response from indignant readers who took exception to the criticism of the anti-corruption activist. Even readers who did not completely endorse the ‘hit and run’ methods that Mr Kejriwal has adopted, and also did not believe that the IAC leader is himself above board, jumped to his defence. The bottom line was: ‘We have had enough of nonsense from our politicians. Here is a man who has taken on the corrupt in high places, and he has our support.’ There was also a letter writer who said that, if Mr Kejriwal is indeed playing god, the country needs more gods like him. The Pioneer published many of those letters.
What does such support indicate? It would be wrong to personalise the confrontation as being one between Mr Kejriwal and the political establishment — more specifically the Congress-led UPA Government. Just as it would be misplaced enthusiasm to see into this a battle between David and Goliath. The support for Mr Kejriwal is in reality a manifestation of the anger that the common man feels over the manner in which the political rulers in the country, now led by the Congress, have been taking the people for granted. It is also a manifestation of the aam aadmi’s frustration at being so helpless as to do nothing while he is trampled all over.
Mr Kejriwal’s detractors within the UPA will of course claim that all this talk of anger and frustration is hyped-up nonsense, and that the Congress-led regime is completely tuned in to the aspirations of the people. Well, the sweeping changes that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made to his Council of Ministers on Sunday do not in any way indicate that the Congress has much regard for public opinion. On the contrary, the reshuffle appeared deliberately designed to cock a snook at such public opinion. It has provided more ammunition to the likes of Mr Kejriwal, besides the Opposition. But then, it seems that the Government is beyond caring anymore; it just wants to hang on to the rest of the tenure, even if it gets mired in further ignominy as the days go by. 
The Congress would like us to believe that the reshuffle will provide the much needed momentum to governance and that the new team will lead the party to success in the next Lok Sabha election. We don’t know about that. What we do know is that the Sunday exercise has exposed the party and the Prime Minister to serious charges of buckling under pressure from various lobbies. We know too that being tainted is not an obstacle for a Minister in getting promotions. And, we also know that honest Ministers can expect rewards by way of being shunted out. These are indeed strange ways for a party that swears in the name of the common man and  propriety to demonstrate its commitment to the two. 
The dirt over Mr Jaipal Reddy’s shift out of the Petroleum and Natural Gas Ministry has already hit the fan, and Congress leaders have been tying themselves up in knots since Sunday trying to play down the Minister’s transfer. Yet, there are certain facts, and when they are seen in the context of the reshuffle, they do give rise to doubts that Mr Reddy, who by all accounts has been an upright Minister, was removed from the Ministry because he shared an uneasy relationship with an influential corporate house which is engaged in what the UPA regime may believe is crucial to accelerating economic growth. Mr Reddy had held up some key proposals of the corporate house which, among other things, is engaged in oil and gas exploration. He had also turned down the industrial house’s plea to hike rates in its favour. Congress apologists have rubbished the allegation that corporate lobbying led to Mr Reddy’s removal from the Petroleum Ministry. 
Fine, but what then explains his transfer? There can be three reasons for a Minister to be shifted out of his Ministry. Because he is incompetent. Or, because he is inconvenient. Or, because he is rewarded with something bigger. The Congress has been claiming ad nauseam since Sunday that Mr Reddy is honest and efficient and that he had done a wonderful job in the Union Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Therefore, we can rule out the first reason. 
The third reason too is invalid here, because Mr Reddy did not get a promotion. As we now know, the Congress did not just decide to punish Mr Reddy by ousting him from the Petroleum Ministry but also to further humiliate him. That is how the affable but knowledgeable Minister ended up with the low-profile Science and Technology Ministry. Had the intention not been to rub in the insult, the Prime Minister could have easily given Mr Reddy a Ministry that befitted the 
latter’s stature. 
The only plausible explanation lies in the second reason: That, as Petroleum Minister, he was proving to be an inconvenience to some elements within the Government and outside of it. He had to be removed from the way so that these elements had their way.
If the Jaipal Reddy episode has exposed the Government led by the Congress for what it really is, then the elevation of Mr Salman Khurshid has left a bad taste in the mouth. It’s not that Mr Khurshid will make a poor Union Minister for External Affairs. On the contrary, he may well prove to be a most capable one. But Mr Khurshid faces serious allegations of irregularities involving a non-Government organisation which he runs, and those charges have yet to be laid to rest. 
His defence so far has raised more questions than it has answered. Critics of the Congress justifiably see in Mr Khurshid’s promotion a deliberate snub to the Opposition and the anti-graft activists who have been demanding a probe against the Minister in the wake of revelations in sections of the media about the NGO’s 
dubious conduct.
Given such questionable decisions of the Congress and the Prime Minister, can we then blame the Opposition and Mr Kejriwal for raising the pitch? Should we treat with contempt the voice of the masses that is getting increasingly strident against such skullduggery? Must we ignore the call for a new, hopefully better, order?

Shoot the messenger, trample its rectitude

(First appeared in The Pioneer dated October 17, 2012)


Union Minister for Law and Justice Salman Khurshid must have deliberated long and hard with his associates over the strategy to adopt during the Press conference that he addressed on Sunday. As he saw it, his personal honour was at stake. We do not know what was agreed upon in those deliberations, but the country saw on that drab holiday afternoon a person shockingly different from that of his public image of a suave, sophisticated and urbane politician. Mr Khurshid was offensive, abrasive, insulting and often not in control of himself. Perhaps he had not meant the Press event to go the way it did; perhaps he was provoked by the doggedly aggressive questioning by reporters of an influential media group; or perhaps it was just that he had decided that the best form of defence is acerbic offence.
The deviation from his established image could have been justified in hindsight had it at least resulted in tangible benefits for the Minister. Sadly, for him, the Sunday episode ended in denting a persona which he had carefully cultivated over the years, and left him further exposed to charges of various wrongdoing.
It is undisputed that Mr Khurshid faced the media on that day with the express intention to dominate and control the proceedings. This is why he began the Press conference by laying down ‘rules’ of the ‘game’ and identifying the ‘core issues’ that deserved his attention. There is nothing wrong in his having done that — which politician does not want the wind to blow his way? Yet, he should have known that he would have to face hostile questions, especially from reporters of the media group which has run a robust campaign against the alleged irregularities in the functioning of a non-Government organisation that he and his wife manage.
The Minister blundered right at the start when he said that he had not wanted to invite the representatives of the ‘errant’ media group for the Press conference but agreed to do so after other media persons advised him against blocking a section of the Press out. He gave away not just his bias against but also dislike for sections of the media that dare to challenge him. He became an even more marked man for reporters of the media house concerned, who were present in full strength at the Press conference, waiting for their chance to pounce.
And Mr Khurshid continued to blunder after that. When the first question was shot at him by a representative of that very media house which he has come to despise, he offered an unconvincing reply. When the reporter persisted, the Minister lost his cool and shouted down the reporter. When asked whether he should quit to ensure a fair probe, he said he would gladly do so if the owner of the media house too resigned!
This may sound rhetorical, but it could well become the tag line of the other Ministers in the UPA Government and Congress leaders who face charges of impropriety. For them, the charges become unimportant; what is crucial is to destroy the credibility of those impertinent individuals and institutions who dare to make the accusations. The Congress has been trying its utmost to do that to the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India since the 2G Spectrum scam broke out. But, the more it has persisted in the futile task, the more shine the CAG has acquired. Another example is the manner in which the Congress members have made a mockery of the Public Accounts Committee that recently went into the report on the 2G Spectrum scam. But the PAC headed by a BJP Member of Parliament remains unsullied while the credibility of the Congress is in tatters.
Clearly rattled by the volley of questions and counter-responses by the media on that Sunday, Mr Khurshid turned not just nasty but also abusive. Displaying his elitist upbringing and the class discrimination that he appears to have nursed in his mind for years — it could not have suddenly exploded out of nowhere — the Minister mocked the persistent reporter and offered to repeat his response in Hindi in case the original English version had been lost on the latter. This was at best a cheap retort that did no good to the Minister’s image. Nor did the fact that he appealed (to no one in particular) to “shut” the reporter up, after the media hound failed to get the message. The Minister’s performance was a perfect example of how to bludgeon your own image.
Mr Khurshid’s arrogance can  be seen from the manner in which he has gone about addressing people who have questioned him and his dealings. In a recent interview, apparently referring to the likes of anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal, he said he would not bow down to “hoodlums in the streets”. Even at the Sunday Press conference, he said that he would not answer questions that had been raised by “people on the streets”. But he has to face the fact: While Mr Kejriwal may not necessarily be seen by many as a paragon of virtue, he now commands more credibility in the public eye than Mr Khurshid does — or for that matter many UPA Ministers do in the wake of the various massive scams that have taken a toll on the Manmohan Singh Government’s image. Moreover, Mr Khurshid forgets that it is the people on the streets who determine the political fortunes of this country.
The Minister himself is what he is because of the people on the streets. The questions that are being asked of Mr Khurshid are not being directed by Mr Kejriwal and company alone — nor just by a particular media group — but by voters across the nation as well. Then, why should he not answer them? Perhaps that’s because the ‘mango people’ living in this ‘banana republic’ cannot demand answers from those who have degrees from institutions like Oxford and are engaged in the ‘service of the nation’. Mr Khurshid can argue that he did offer a credible response at his Press conference to the issues which have been raised regarding the functioning of his NGO, Dr Zakir Hussain Memorial Trust. But that is far from the case. The Minister simply could not provide convincing replies on at least two — and the most contentious — matters: One, the Trust used a forged affidavit to receive clearances and thus more funds from the Government; and two, it made use of a letter supposedly written by a ‘Government official’ much after he had retired.
In a tacit admission that the letters the trust benefitted from may have been forgeries, Mr Khurshid has claimed that the matter must be probed by the Government. In other words, he appears to be saying: ‘My NGO may have used forged letters to its benefit, but since we haven’t forged them, why blame us!’ Coming as it does from a Law Minister, this is amusing stuff.