Saturday, Mar 25, 2023

Writings On The Wall

  From Soviet Union in Alimuddin Street to a watch repair shop in Singur Bengal stands up to ask for moreRecommended for you1Tension in Indo-Pacific and Russia-Ukraine conflict are symptoms of an emerging global disorder2The road to TB-free India: More funds, better utilised3Rahul Gandhi disqualification: Lok Sabha Secretariat notification may be in conflict with Representation […]


From Soviet Union in Alimuddin Street to a watch repair shop in Singur

Bengal stands up to ask for more

When lonely Lalu misses ‘gentleman’ Sonia,and a Muslim calls Nitish ‘sher ka bachcha’

A mandate for Nitish Hope Kumar

To Wistfully in Shillong

Modi versus Modi

Common Maximum Programme

The You in UP

Up & down in down south

Glimmer in heart of darkness

Stirrings in a hopeless land

Seizure in the heartland

Konark & fibre-glass ducks

Writings on the walls

Some lines in the desert

Guiltless in Guwahati

Emergency’s Reality Czech

Fear and learning in New York

Inside a comic-book coup

Mr Dixit,I presume

Poll notes of a limo liberal

The error in terror

The Kanchi trinity

Last night I went to Pakistan

Friends without life-jackets

Here a General,there a General

Indian graffiti

Chinese food,humble pie

Stars and gripes

The Punjab parable

Watching Generation X in Hindi heartland

The borderline of peace

Soldier of the mind

Anyone but India

From Soviet Union in Alimuddin Street to a watch repair shop in Singur

May 12,2011

Some conclusions look obvious after travelling through West Bengal in the last week of the election campaign. One,that we are guilty of exaggerating the Left’s brutalities and understating its intellectual failure to comprehend a modernising society’s hunger for upward mobility. Two,that by presuming that the people of this state would be grateful for blessing them with filled bellies,the Left Front has also been guilty of greatly undermining the entrepreneurship of Bengali people and thereby strengthening the terrible stereotyping of them as lazy,unambitious,non-entrepreneurial. Nothing could be more unfair to an intelligent,politically aware people who,just like the Malayalis and Punjabis,both considered more entrepreneurial,do very well when they go out to work in other parts of the country,and indeed the world. Just look at how Bengalis dominate the world of media,both news and entertainment,marketing and advertising,IT and banking. The Left’s most fatal blunder lies in underestimating this aspirational yearning,in spite of the fact that the remarkable mandate they got in 2006 (defying 29 years of anti-incumbency) emanated from a new promise of growth and industrialisation.

You would expect leaders of the Left to disagree vehemently with this. But it is surprising when that disagreement comes from Gautam Deb,the Left Front’s minister for housing and its rising star and showman. Surprising also because among all the Left Front leaders you meet,with the exception of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee,he,the builder of Rajarhat township in Kolkata,is the most candid and realistic. Just an hour earlier,we saw him ask a rally of the faithful that filled the main square in Purulia a telling question: in 2009,if five of our seven voters left us,who do we blame except ourselves? He feeds our very hungry group Monaco and Bourbon biscuits with tea at Purulia’s newly built PWD circuit house and elaborates on this soul-searching. “In the 2009 elections,” he says,“there were three slogans: defeat the Congress,keep the BJP out and set up a third front government and some particular leader’s name was also mentioned as its prime minister.” Then,his eyes taking the entire audience in its grave sweep through his MaxMara glasses,he tells you what bombed: “The third slogan failed entirely. We were not able to convince people anywhere that we had an alternative.” That is why,he still thinks,an assembly vote may be different though the Left has to “make very deep introspection. Aberrations have come in. Communists have to again learn to behave like Communists.” But that is where his ideological immune system strikes back. You offer to him your basic hypothesis,the Left’s inability to move on from subsistence to aspiration,and he makes philosophically the most stunning claim you have heard in a political campaign,and ironical that it happens to be spoken in Bengal,supposedly the fount of all intellect in India. The reason his party continued to get re-elected and is now on the ropes,he says,is that “for 34 years,the heightened political consciousness of the Bengali people was not adulterated by materialistic temptations”. Now,has anybody ever heard a more convoluted,cynical and outdated definition of an innocent,virtuous and basic human instinct called aspiration?

Purulia is in fact a fascinating place for us to start a discussion on hope and aspiration. Lack of rain and groundwater (because of laterite bedrock,as Deb explains) renders farming a part-time avocation. The few coal mines are hopelessly rundown. The percentage of BPL population is 55,compared to the state average of 22 and neighbouring Durgapur’s 17. Almost equally poor Bankura,next-door,would still have some recall because of its terracotta art,but Purulia would have remained for ever out of sight,out of mind,but for mercenary thugs like Peter Bleach and Kim Davy choosing its wastelands to make a mysterious arms drop in 1995. The only thing you can say is that they would not have found the district very different from what it is now.


The main square where Deb speaks is ringed by four photo studios. In most cities of this size you’d struggle to find one as that business has more or less gone out of fashion with the advent of phone cameras and film-less,darkroom-less technologies. Not in Purulia. Studio Style does not seem to have had much business but its very verbose signboard is like an abridged CV of its owner Mahadeo Barai,with an award from Rashtrapati and “Diploma de Honour” from “Espain”. Next door,we walk around the district collector’s office searching for a PC,but fail to locate one,underlining the Left’s old suspicion of computers. Finding a toilet wasn’t such a problem. You could smell it from 20 yards. And this,you can see,is a valued possession of this office. Read the foundation stone laid by a senior IAS officer,a poor fellow called Kathiresan. Poor fellow,only because he may not have read the inscription on that stone,or I doubt if he would have put his name,etched in stone,to something that lists,among facilities consecrated by him,a cycle stand,a women’s toilet,five men’s urinals (including one that is “new”) and so on. But not all writings on the wall here are silly,or non-existent,or merely political. In the main market,the Purulia equivalent of a high street,you do see a spanking new signboard of one of India’s largest broking firms,India Infoline.

If Deb is looking for aspiration,however,he has to see his own cadres. On the narrow but decent road running from Bankura through Purulia,we find a long,orderly CPM procession. There are chants with the familiar Bengali intonation of zind’bad zind’bad and vote-din vote-din,but what strikes you is how much better these partymen look compared to the rest. Not rich,but just much less poor. They all sport new,red,nylon T-shirts with CPM symbols,and caps that many wear front-to-back,the usual baseball dude-style. But the more striking thing is their relaxed,un-self-conscious,confident demeanour. Scores pull out their phones and take pictures of our group as we walk around. It is the only time I have seen marchers in a procession taking more pictures of journalists than the other way around: if a gaggle of Japanese tourists had arrived in Purulia,they would have been completely thrown by this reversal. And if a tech upgrade is not aspirational,what is Comrade Gautam Deb up to? Ask him if Communists are capable of changing,modernising,and he asks,why not? “I use iPad,” he says,and explains triumphantly how he heard about the Anandabazar Patrika carrying a story on Mamata’s shadow cabinet while boarding a plane,and immediately downloaded it so he could respond. “I also use GPS in my vehicle,” he says. “Google helps me take shorter routes,and to also avoid Maoist areas.”

But I am not sure somebody has invented a GPS yet to enable you to avoid Maoist areas in the southern Purulia-Bankura-Midnapore triangle,loosely described as Jungle Mahal. And why should you even wish to do that if your idea is to understand the new stirrings of change in Bengal?


You know the political landscape has changed as you drive past newly laid out armed police camps,with their multi-layered barbed wire fences,sentry posts,machine-gun nests. Even the odd,mine-resistant troop carrier with its ugly but life-saving elevated chassis and oversized wheels. Lalgarh was a “revolutionary” battle zone like no other since Naxalbari,because this was “liberated” territory for months,and it caught the nostalgic fancy of Kolkata’s genteel,old,creative classes who set up an overground organisation and imaginatively named it the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities (PCAPA). Initially,they were partners with the Trinamool against the CPM as their common enemy,but now there is a falling out. Particularly as the PCAPA’s local star,Chhatradhar Mahato,is contesting from the local constituency Jhargram from jail. His brother Sashadhar,a prominent Maoist fighter,was killed in an encounter recently. Under the leadership of its district secretary Dipak Sarkar (more about him later),the CPM has wrested Lalgarh back from the Maoists. But the PCAPA’s articulate,angry and determined support base in intellectual Kolkata is intact.

You find some of them sitting in one neat row under a tree in the village of Barapelia,which has seen intense fighting and killings,along with Chhatradhar’s wife and his party spokesman just out on parole. Much of the talking is done by documentary filmmaker Sumit Chowdhury in his smooth,measured baritone to match his platinum locks tied neatly at the back. Chhatradhar,he says,has expressed total faith in the Indian Constitution and has nothing to do with the Maoists. But what about the Maoist cause? He won’t elaborate,other than to say that there is a problem here. India is governed by an upper crust,upper-caste elite which does not care about tribal people. There is some merit in that,though you could argue about how best to redress that — through armed insurgency,or by deepening democracy. But you can’t help noting that even in that small gathering of spokespersons and ideologues,there isn’t a single tribal. Not even Chhatradhar Mahato. Mahatos are OBCs,the local equivalent of the Yadavs. This fits in entirely with the pattern of the larger Maoist leadership in central India. This revolution will be led by non-tribals,and fought,if they had their way,to the last tribal.

The man who won the first round against the Maoists and restored “normalcy” in Lalgarh would hardly fit that description. Dipak Sarkar,73,used to teach political science in a Midnapore college until he joined politics full-time. A man of slight build and gentle speech and demeanour,he hardly looks like the one who is said to have led the partymen who threw the Maoists out of Jungle Mahal. His critics say he has been the inspiration behind many massacres. His supporters see him as a saviour. He is a man of a few,carefully chosen words as he chats with us in his district party office in Midnapore,and softly but contemptuously takes apart the Maoists,all the time under the benign gaze of the portraits of the great stalwarts of the Communist movement in India and elsewhere: Lenin,Stalin,Marx,Engels,Ho Chi Minh and,indeed,Chairman Mao. You try to ambush him by reminding him that he was cursing the Maoists under the portrait of Mao,but he is prepared: “That Mao,we follow. We are his Maoists. These people are not Maoists,they are Left degenerates.” Has he led a counter attack on them by putting local against local,tribal against tribal? “I am a Communist,” he says. “It is my basic duty to organise the people.” Mao,I suppose,would have a tough choice deciding which side he would be on.

A nightly postprandial stroll in Midnapore tells you how the notion of rural decay in West Bengal is a bit inaccurate. The cities,in fact,are in a much more rotten state. Garbage heaps brush your shoulder,desperate insects keep pace even as you break into a panicky trot,and you have no place to hide,from the sights,smells,potholes and puddles of an urban disaster. Then you walk into the railway station,lured by its bright lights. It was declared a model station by Mamata in her earlier NDA innings as rail minister. It is a presentable building,a nice platform with LCD displays and three new ATMs of government banks,underlining the new bonhomie between the railway and finance ministries. But just in front scores of people sleep in the open,sharing the floor with dogs,cockroaches,mosquitoes. Nobody remembered to build a basic shelter for them. And if you turn around,you spot a telling writing on the wall: “Sam Higginbotan institute” that was “formerly Allahabad agriculture institute”. Now,under a faux English-sounding avatar,it offers all kinds of technical degrees and people will beg and borrow to send their children there. Read this wall to understand the desperation of aspiration in a land of no opportunity.

Sadly,you find the emptiest walls not in the faraway fighting zones of Jungle Mahal,but in Singur,just 50 km from Kolkata and along the newly four-laned NH 6. The Nano factory never came,but its shell stands,along with the boundary wall around the land acquired for it. Each villager in the zone has his own story: Manoranjan Mullick,in Singur,whose daughter Taposhi was allegedly gang-raped and killed by CPM goons,has his,and so does Bibeko Santra,a Dalit of nearby Joimollah who has no regret having lost his land,all of 40 square metres,for which he got only Rs 4,000,because the factory had employed him in the housekeeping department. The political divisions in the region are vicious. But there is one thing on which they all agree: that the factory should come back here. “Look at this baby,” says Santra,pointing somewhat dramatically at the six-month-old daughter on the shoulder of his neighbour,with three kohl finger smudges on her forehead to ward off the evil eye and a stone amulet,hanging by a black thread,resting on her bloated,malnourished belly. “If she could speak,she would have said the same thing,I want the factory.” Singur is where Mamata Banerjee began her resurgence. This is where she will face her first test. Because without industry,this is a zone of utter hopelessness. Yes,the land is fertile,and can yield three crops. But how can you romanticise a farming lifestyle where a joint family of 10 might have to survive on a farm the size of a kitchen garden in a Lutyens’ zone bungalow in New Delhi? There are no jobs,no money in the pocket,no economics. You come to Singur to discover a sight you left behind with your small-town childhood: a watch repairer’s shop,and you thought the business had disappeared with the arrival of quartz watches. It really has. This shop survives because its owner has nothing else to do. You see many old clocks adorn his walls. But these are all empty shells,frozen in time,as much of rural Bengal has been under the Left for some time now.


But why talk about just the villages? In Kolkata,Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee speaks to us in his Alimuddin Street party office,his welcome remarks interrupted by the noon-time azaan from the neighbouring mosque. Once again,he sits under the portraits of the great Communist visionaries,but that’s not news. What’s interesting is the big map of the world in Mercator projection that forms the backdrop. It was printed in 1987. Got the point? It still shows the Soviet Union as one,giant,intact nation-state,dwarfing the rest of the world. Do you still need to go to Purulia’s Studio Style or the watch-repair shop in Singur with empty shells of old clocks on its walls to believe that time has stood still here?

Buddha babu smiles philosophically as his attention is drawn to the map. Is this one more evidence that Communists are incapable of accepting change,and reality? Of course,we are capable of changing,and we are changing,he says. “I always say,I am not here to create a socialist state. I function in our constitutional system and,let’s admit,it is capitalism now.” But,of all the political leaders you meet on this trip,Buddha indeed seems and sounds the most serene,the most at peace with himself,some times even,in an unwitting display of realism,slipping into the past tense,and accepting the coming change with the equanimity of the great spiritual master he was named after.

Bengal stands up to ask for more

May 11,2011


Every teacher in a journalism school and,subsequently,every guru in a newsroom tells you one central principle: never approach a story with pre-conceived notions or prejudices. Yet,every journalist,even one with the vintage of this reporter,does precisely that. Particularly if it happens to be a story as old and contentious as West Bengal politics. And the fact that you hold a strong view on it,as I do,as a critic of the Left doesn’t help. So you can begin by believing every negative stereotype about the politics of a remarkable state that has kept in power one party,and one with which I,and this newspaper,have had an intellectual argument. These stereotypes range from de-industrialisation to forced industrialisation at the cost of farming,massive urban decay and rural deprivation,a reign of terror,total under-development and destitution,and so on. And it is precisely because you begin your travels through West Bengal with all this baggage,reading the writings on the walls,hearing the mood on the street and sniffing the political air for a hawa of some sorts,that it is such a remarkable reality check.

Remarkable,because most of what you presumed about West Bengal under the Left,does not fully measure up to facts on the ground,and that is a surprise. Remarkable also because you learn that Bengal politics is more complex than you had imagined and so might be the reasons why its voters have made up their minds to bring about a stunning change in spite of the reality not quite matching up to your notions of the governance disaster here.


Over four days of travels through Bengalï’s southwest,that includes some of its poorest,driest districts (Bankura,Purulia and even Midnapore to some extent),its own Jamshedpur-lite (Durgapur) and an industrial showpiece that could have been,in Singur,one thing you do not see is hunger. Never a beggar,never a human being sitting or lying helpless by the street,even in villages that are nothing but mud-hovels. In the driest zones,deep into the Maoist heartland of Lalgarh,made famous by the siege that rendered it “liberatedï” for months in 2008 and 2009,you find not just borewells,but even fully functional handpumps. Roads are in excellent condition,and a real surprise. Primary school buildings,health centres all look functional,even if not of the showpiece quality you might find in Gujarat or even Tamil Nadu. Everybody is properly clothed,nobody,repeat nobody,is in bare feet. So why are people so angry?

Come with us,the usual motley group of journalists,psephologists,economists and financial whiz-kids,the self-styled Limousine Liberals,cross the barrage on the Damodar on the road running from Durgapur through Bankura district where the land gets drier with each mile,and stop at the village of Makurgram. There is a reasonable road connecting the main population set about a mile back from the highway. There is electricity and,most importantly,a borewell and a water tank. Yet,why does everybody complain of water being the biggest problem? You find out soon enough: as the tank was built,the CPM thugs put a red flag on it and announced that only those approved by them – meaning their party loyalists – would be allowed access to. That story then repeats in many versions at every stop you make. At the college in Barjora,where Mamata holds her election rally in a mud-pile playground,you are told of how almost all the teachers are CPM cadres. Ditto for the schoolteachers in Parbellia Colliery in Purulia,in Dharmapur near Lalgarh,and in Lalgarh itself. And why is that such a problem? Because one,it tells you that unless you are a party faithful,you cannot get any of these government jobs. Two,schools and colleges,even district magistrates’ offices hardly function as so many days each month all these party cadres have to go and participate in ‘michils’ (political rallies). Mamata Banerjee has built her campaign as an “azadi ki ladaiï” on a folklore of Marxist tyranny,of intimidation,torture and reprisals. On the ground,however,it is more a story of politically determined deprivation: an almost George Bush-like if you are not with us,you must be against us,so you will not get water,jobs,hospital admissions,anything. It is not always a narrative of physical thrashing or rape,but over 34 years,the piled-up anger is bad enough,so bad that Mamata can pretty much choose her script,and people will say yes,Didi.

Not that Didi needs much help with her script,or style. Having played the victim for three decades,she now strides on the stage like a giant-killer. You can tell she has this election in the bag even with the enthusiasm with which people,on a burnishing and sultry afternoon in Barjora,receive her helicopter,which lands kicking up a cloud of lung-choking red,haematite dust. Didi has no time to sit,nor the patience. She strides up and down the stage,not looking at anything or anybody in particular,just walking,like a tigress stalking its already-cornered prey,contemplating when to make the killer leap. She absentmindedly gives the odd instruction to a worker or two,totally ignoring the local crowd-warmer singing her praises. Then she takes the microphone.

Now I have made my living as a travelling reporter dealing with many great rhetoricians and polemicists,people who could light a mutiny just with their remarkable skills at talking to large crowds,the kind of rabble-rouser the subcontinent specialises in producing: Bhindranwale,Kanshi Ram,Benazir Bhutto,Altaf Hussain of Pakistan’s MQM,Assams Prafulla Mahanta and Bhrigu Phukan in their better days as student leaders,and far away,even Bill Clinton. Each of them had a distinctive style,but had one thing in common: their ability to keep eye contact with their audience,an elementary skill any school of public-speaking will teach you first. But dont say that to Mamata.

She grabs the wireless microphone and continues to stride across the stage and back,talking,never looking at the audience,and yet getting it to respond as I have seen nobody else do in an election in years. She looks at nobody,in fact,just the floor now,the ceiling then,or just the odd cloud hanging low here and there. She just strides the ten yards to the other end,and does a quick turnaround like a lonely sentry in some commando comics kind of movies,the microphone her rifle,and just recites a script that her audience knows by heart already. And,more importantly,believes in.

To be fair,she has worked on her message. It is not merely an old harangue about Marxist tyranny,though that is not missing either. She has picked up real issues,those that bedevil the people of her state. She attacks the Left for having banished from government primary schools and robbing an entire generation of Bengalis of all competitive opportunity. “All your children were forced to sing…” she says,and,anticipating,the crowd joins her as she chants the popular Bengali popular kindergarten equivalent of A for apple:

Aw-e ajgar aschhe tere

Aa-e aamti khabo pere…

It is tough to translate this,but it would be something like,A for ajgar (python) which is chasing after you,Aa for aamti (that is mango which you pluck from the tree),and so on. And while your children were chanting this,she asks,what were the children of the Marxist leaders singing? Twinkle-twinkle little star,the front rows answer. “Now your children are begging for peons’ jobs,and theirs have gone to England to become barristers.” She rests her case. Or,as a mathematician would have said,QED.

She knows the pulse of her people,and their pain. She promises modern schools,colleges and new specialty hospitals so you won’t have to run to ‘Madras’ anytime somebody in your family falls sick. For the first time,you also hear a mainstream leader make environment an election issue: illegal,unregulated coal mining,totally illegal sponge iron factories have destroyed your air,I will clean it up in six months. And then,her condemnations,indictments and promises delivered,she finally turns to her audience,fist raised,Netaji style,and sets up a chant of “CPM aar na” (CPM no more),and then quickly disappears after making the shortest possible introduction of the candidates you have seen any campaigner make. They are not important in this election,you know,as Didi makes ten stops a day,each time lighting a fire in a region so much the CPM’s it even defied her storm in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

Off the campaign stage,though,Mamata is more cautious than you have ever seen her to be. Election in the bag,she is not willing to take any chances,no false step,no false statement. “Shekhar da,yeh jung hai,ajaadi ka ladayee hai,abhi kuch bolega nahin hum… yeh CPM log mere workers ka murder kar dega,” is all she will say even when you congratulate her on her ‘victory’.

Decent roads,functional schools,electrification,food in the belly,clothing,footwear. So if the Left rule answers your basic needs of roti-kapda-makaan and even bijli-sadak and padhai to a reasonable extent,what are you complaining about? The state has reduced poverty faster than most of the country,has literacy levels above the national average. Search for evidence from the writings on the wall. In vast rural parts of this region,the walls have nothing to sell to you,the clearest indication of this being a zone where people have nothing left in their pockets after filling their bellies. No factories,no offices,no sign at all of that new phenomenon,private engineering,management and medical colleges,springing up elsewhere in the Indian countryside,holding out the comfort of higher education,promise of jobs higher up the value chain than subsistence on your miserable half-acre farm of paddy,okra or sesame,or as a NREGA labourer. There is nothing,nothing at all,to signal hope,opportunity,the promise of a better future. Where the Left has gone wrong is in internalising unquestioningly the idea of a Marxist Utopia,of a non-urbanising rural population where everybody should not only be satisfied but also send you thank you cards for not being made to starve or exploited as share-croppers,unlike their forefathers. They missed the fact meanwhile that this is not North Korea,that people here change,their desperation yielding to aspiration. It is for this reason that the Left now faces the double-blow,the one-two punch,whatever you call it,of politics of grievance (because of its cadres excesses) and politics of aspiration. Its self-serving notion of a perfect,minimalistic,subsistence-farming rural Bengal where everybody has enough for his needs now lies in a shambles. In four days of travels in mostly farming countryside,I searched far and wide for that one symbol of agricultural success and surplus,the tractor. I found one,in desperate Lalgarh of all places,and its owner told me he had been contracted to transport barbed wire for the CRPF. And who can you blame? Most landholdings,post Operation Barga,are just like a kitchen garden in an old Gurgaon house,too small to even justify a pair of bullocks. And people of Bengal will no longer be satisfied living off what it yields,and the humiliating NREGA handouts.

When lonely Lalu misses ‘gentleman’ Sonia,and a Muslim calls Nitish ‘sher ka bachcha’

November 23,2010

Until the very untimely death of her husband (Digvijay Singh of the JD-U,Putul Kumari Singh was just a traditional Thakur wife. But there was also an inevitability to her being pitchforked into politics,as her husband’s successor,and now she is contesting as an independent in the Lok Sabha by-election at Banka which,she tells you,has been ranked the third most backward district in India. And you can see some evidence of that as you drive so gratefully into the abandoned cinema hall,now converted into some kind of election office. Gratefully,because she has offered to feed us all lunch,a luxury in a countryside where dhaba entrepreneurship has not yet caught up with the new highways. She went to Delhi’s Hans Raj College,says she knows nothing about politics,and could she rather answer our questions in Hindi? But as conversation picks up,you figure she has no problem with either the English language or politics.

She is in it,she says,only because of “dada”,as her husband was popularly known. And it is widespread affection for him,despite his feudal origins in parts where zamindari still reigns,that makes her contest a cakewalk. She talks about what her late husband did for the poor,but also graciously acknowledges Nitish’s wisdom. People talk only of the roads,she says,but you have to go deep into the villages to see the value of small bridges and culverts he has built all over a state that becomes an archipelago every monsoon. In the past,people had no way of taking a sick person or a woman in labour to a hospital in the monsoon. Now that is changing,and people are happy. Chatting with her and her supporters,many of them incorrigible Lohiaites and JNU alumni like their “dada”,you think about the irony of Digvijay and now his “Rani sahiba” defying feudalism with their stone-poor voters.

Povertarians and their maths

Digvijay left Banka early to study at JNU where socialism is the default syllabus. He ended up a Lohiaite and a minister. He was chosen to be minister-in-waiting for Musharraf when he came for the Agra summit and would regale you with accounts of their conversations. One that sticks to my memory: driving past central Delhi’s Tees January Marg,Musharraf asked him why did it have such an unusual name.

“Because Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated here on this date,in that building,” Digvijay said,pointing to Birla House.

“Oh,and how was Gandhi killed? Was he stabbed,or shot?” Musharraf asked.

A president of Pakistan,one who rose to be its chief of staff through the finest training colleges,staff college,NDC,etc,etc,does not even know simple facts about the subcontinent’s history? And here a feudal from India’s third most backward district reached JNU to become a socialist and is the democratic link between Bharat and India. That should teach us a little humility and gratitude the next time we begin to badmouth our politics.

His followers,working with Putul,are still wedded to their original ideology. Nitish,they say,has done well so far,but will fail in the long run. Why? Because,his model of fighting poverty is that of Dr Manmohan Singh,with growth and investment,“aur Bihar mein,bade bhai,yeh nahin chalega…”

You soon get a chance to put that to the Writings on the Wall test. At Sangrampur,a picturesque,winding 40-odd km drive from Banka,at a halwai shop called “Gupta Hotel” where flies in millions endorse the quality of mithai,I conduct a quick census of how many of the 29 people hanging around there — rickshaw-pullers and casual labourers lounging on the rickshaws while they wait for work — have cellphones. Can you guess the result? All 29. Now,all of them are very very poor people,all of them could do with better nourishment. But starving they aren’t. And while they will fall below any reasonably defined poverty line,they are not living on less than Rs 20 a day,as many of our Great Establishment Povertarians claim 83.6 crore Indians do. In fact,if you see this purely anecdotal score of 29 out of 29 in such a poor region,the telecom industry’s figure of 75 crore phones looks totally real. So where are the 80 per cent Indians “living on less than Rs 20 a day”?

The wisdom thrown up by the cellphone census is affirmed later as we stop at an IndianOil petrol pump near the Barauni refinery that has a well-stocked grocery store which even sells oodles of branded ice-cream. I stand in the queue to pay,behind four customers who do not look like they would come to buy ice-cream,and they haven’t. Each one,a local labourer or casual worker,has come to buy “recharge” for his mobile phone prepaid card.

Banka is very very poor,for sure. Parts of the district,particularly those bordering Jharkhand,we are told,are Naxal-infested. We drive all the way up to the bazaar of Katoria,the heart of a Scheduled Tribe constituency,and ask if anybody had seen a Maoist. At many villages on the way back,notably Belhar,allegedly deeper in Naxal zone,some of us got desperate enough to conduct almost a straw poll. Maoists,you want to see? We’ve heard there are some in tribal villages.

But just the landscape on the way back compensates you for not seeing any Naxals. As the road winds through dried watercourses and degraded forest,you see the most stunning sunset in a sky that is a million shades of crimson,over a shallow but sprawling reservoir created by a British-built dam. This water gives this district its only privilege: irrigation. Which,in turn,gives it the one thing it is proud of,its wonderfully fragrant “katrani” rice,a small-grain,sweet cousin of the basmati family. I brought home some and it is delicious. Somebody at Katoria says they want to apply for a GI certification. Dreams of GI certification in Banka,one of India’s poorest districts,where,if you follow the NAC-Povertarian definition,100 per cent should be living at less than ten rupees a day? You have to admit even Bharat is changing.

How Rahul’s ‘Congress’s got talent’ has flopped

Most Indian cities are now in a state of deep rot,with garbage spilling into streets,stray cattle,encroachments and killer smoke from gen-sets. But,as you would expect,Bhagalpur could be one of the worst,despite the Ganga in such a vast expanse,with a tourist bounty of dolphins,and the riches traditionally generated by its tassar silk weavers. Two generations of Indians identify this unfortunate town with the blindings of petty but chronic criminals by its police,originally exposed by this newspaper in 1980. But you see change in Bhagalpur too. There are a couple of mini-malls and showrooms,and,right in front of our hotel,in a street packed with pavement shopkeepers by day and herds of amorous cows and the biggest bulls (maybe Mumbai’s brokers should hire them) by night,you see a brand new shop selling “equities,mutual funds,derivatives,fixed deposits,commodities.” You also know you are not far from Jharkhand when you see Dhoni smiling down at you from every other hoarding. Seems he can convince people here to buy anything. I counted at least six: apartments,cement,saria (iron rods),suiting,satellite TV and,inevitably,mobile phones.

Dhoni’s rising stock,meanwhile,is only matched by the fall from grace of the Bihari superstar,Lalu. At his meeting in Munger,his jokes,including the familiar Lalu-aloo ones,draw a groan. He does draw a crowd,but there is no electricity,as in much of the state he ran into the ground for 18 years. As his helicopter departs,Mohammed Anwar Hussain,a young Urdu teacher in a college in nearby Ghazipur,walks along with me and asks if we are from the “media” (amazing how no one says journalist or patrakar any more). “Lalu kehte hain,hum khayenge bhaat-aloo,aapko khayega mota bhaalu,” he,a three-time Lalu voter,says,disdain spilling out from this really awful rhyme scheme. “But aren’t you afraid of the BJP?” I ask. “Why? We have been fine for five years under Nitish. And look at this sher ka bachcha. He has kept Modi out of Bihar. Has anybody ever been able to keep Modi out of an entire election campaign?” Not all Muslims would vote for Nitish,for sure. But he may have done just enough to rock the “M” in Lalu’s winning “M-Y” (Muslim-Yadav) formula.

Lalu,of course,would not agree. But the usual bluster is gone. “Sarkar to jod-tod ke hamaari hi banegi,” he taps me on the arm and whispers,almost apologetically,after he has fed us a sizeable high tea. Indian politicians’ minds,actually,are quite easy to read when they are in trouble. For example,when a leader starts discussing his strategic errors in the middle of a campaign,you know he thinks his time is up. Lalu says his big mistake was insisting on the imposition of president’s rule after Nitish failed to secure a vote of confidence in the first,inconclusive election of 2005. Then,he would imply,Buta Singh as governor messed up everything. “If only I had listened to Soniaji,” he says. “She pleaded so many times with me not to insist on president’s rule,but I did not listen.”

And then he tells you what he is missing,the comforting embrace of the Congress party,a share of power at the Centre. “Soniaji,hum aapse kehte hain,is very good,noble,gentleman lady. Humne unki nahin suni.” Of course,his other regret is alienating the upper castes. “I was never against them. I only talk. Lalu is like the two-headed snake. He only hisses,but cannot bite,” he says,and promises that the next time he comes to power,he will go out of his way to make up to the upper castes. When that will happen,who knows. But one thing you can say for sure,Lalu himself will be the most surprised if it were to happen this time. One look at his face,and you know he has read the writing on the wall.

And while he misses the Congress,you wonder if the feeling will be mutual. Sonia and Rahul both draw much better crowds than you have seen at Congress rallies in the past in Bihar,but it is difficult to see these translating into votes,as their message of Nitish’s ineptitude and corruption,or hypocrisy on communalism,does not yet wash. At Sonia’s really large rally at Begusarai,a group of schoolboys in uniform snigger as they mimic her delivery of the word “chintajanak” with one vowel compressed and the other stretched. But her rapidly-improving Hindi diction is not the problem. The problem could,in fact,be the kind of talent Rahul’s hunt has thrown up,at least in Bihar. His newly-elected Youth Congress chief Lallan Kumar was “caught” that very morning in an EC raid with nearly Rs 6 lakh in cash,and was now a most disastrous crowd-warmer until Sonia arrived. “Look at Nitish’s raj,” he said,“where milk has dried up in all of Bihar’s mothers’ breasts,but ministers are feeding milk to their dogs in Patna.” Now,you may love or hate dogs,but if this is the kind of genius Rahul’s talent-hunt is finding,you might be better off even with the idiots of the past.

The quiet smile on Nitish’s face

The man smiling through all of this is one you rarely ever see smiling. Or frowning,or displaying any emotion at all. But Nitish Kumar thinks he has got it in the bag. We tell him Lalu tells us even JD-U MPs are not campaigning for him. “Our party,” he says,smirking for once,“has the most remarkable MPs.” And goes on to repeat what Lalu had just told us,that one has taken a ticket from Lalu for his wife,the other for his brother. But he is understadedly nonchalant. He gets chirpy only when talking of his bicycle scheme — and underlines the fact that he did not let his government buy these but gave Rs 2,000 to each student to buy one,thereby making it “a direct cash transfer.” His biggest challenge now is electricity.

By the way,do you know how much electricity Bihar consumes? Just 900 megawatts,less than what our suburb of Gurgaon burns. And how much power does Bihar produce? Just about 150 megawatts. On a flight to Mumbai last week,BJP President Nitin Gadkari,on his way back from Bihar,tells me how embarrassed he is to realise that his own company’s power generation is more than that of the entire state of Bihar. Nitish also has complaints about the Centre. He respects the prime minister,he says,and finds,sometimes,a meeting with him is like a UPSC interview. The PM sounds like he means well,but Bihar is squeezed in every way possible,from coal linkages (none in the Eleventh Plan) to disbursals under Central schemes.

But he has the air of somebody who does not worry much about anything for now,or for that matter,about his BJP allies. At a very generous dinner of ghee-soaked Bihari litti at the home of the BJP’s very familiar and friendly spokesman Ravi Shankar Prasad,he arrives and sits quietly,unobtrusively. Almost on cue,BJP’s ever-sulking state president C.P. Thakur tiptoes out,without a hi or bye. The only BJP man Nitish has time for is Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi and,for his national ally,it is good enough that the two get along. It knows the value of this alliance,and that is the reason they have indulged Nitish in a way you would never expect the Congress to indulge a regional ally. They have agreed to keep Narendra Modi out of the campaign. Would the Congress ever agree to keep a Gandhi out of a state campaign just to please a regional ally,howsoever important? Now you know why the Congress’s second hope,that,even if Nitish wins a big one here,he might be a prospective ally for the future,is premature.

Postscript: I must conclude any notes from the road,as usual,with something interesting and colourful I spotted on a wall. This time,it was Kids Conventt at Rupasu on N.H. 31,and you’d hope those kids would learn to spell somehow. And,of course,a liquor shop near Barauni named “Pyaasa Sawan” (the thirsty monsoon). Now doesn’t that sound like fun?

A mandate for Nitish Hope Kumar

November 22,2010

I have learnt over the years that if you really want to know what is going on in our country,what is changing and how,who is in or out,how we are feeling about ourselves at any moment and what ideas are being embraced or junked,then hit the road. And keep your eye on the walls as you drive past the countryside. What you see written on the walls usually gives you a better idea of what is going on than any survey,opinion poll or talking head could.

Because,in our countryside,the walls are the most popular and democratic mass medium,and the best mirror of the current state of economics. And so,given how prosperous or backward a region is,you can find writings on the wall selling just about anything — ranging from the latest cars and immigration to “Kanada” in Punjab,to fertilisers and tractors in coastal Andhra,to little more than snuff or anti-itch creams in the poorest districts of east-central tribal India. In Bihar,you would often have seen nothing,because people either had no surplus to buy anything but basic food,or because there were no pucca walls — though I had reported from my travels in the two elections held in 2005 the sighting of the first such writings,selling what else but private education,mostly English medium schools and coaching centres for engineering and medical college admissions. We had noted then that Nitish Kumar’s message,“it is time to fill your pen with ink” (as against Lalu’s “it’s time again to season your lathis in oil”),seemed to reflect better the changing mood in Bihar,from caste empowerment to aspiration for education and a better life.

With his emphatic victory in 2005,Nitish proved again that writings on the wall do not lie. As results pour in this Wednesday morning,he will prove that fact to us again,by winning a second,probably bigger mandate. Particularly as none of his challengers has been able to either match his promise of development,or challenge his track record. This election,quite frankly,looks like a done deal more than any other in recent memory — except,probably,the Rajiv Gandhi landslide of 1984. But what you now see on the walls of Bihar,meanwhile,tells an intriguing and fascinating new story.

You drive two and a half thousand kilometres through Bihar’s political heartland,generally south-east from Patna,criss-crossing the Ganga,through Begusarai,Bhagalpur,Banka and right up to the border of Jharkhand — and you find colour on the once mostly blank walls of Bihar as you had never imagined. I call the message intriguing because all that the walls of Bihar now seem to be selling to you is branded underwear. Rupa,Lux Cozi,Amul Macho,all the top desi underwear brands are there,selling the comfort,good looks and feel — and of course sex appeal — of their products,from walls,hoardings and signboards,hanging from electricity poles and trees. All the naughty tag-lines that you might remember from TV ads that were banned for being in bad taste are in evidence here,including one,under a brief with a tell-tale bulge,saying “andar fit,bahar hit.” Obviously on the ball,Rupa,probably our number one underwear company,has even produced a new brand: “Jon O-Bama.”

Now,naughtiness apart,do we read a message of socio-economic change on Bihar’s walls? And if so,can politics be immune from it? This was a state with widespread starvation and utter misery,and where a large majority had nothing left to buy anything beyond basic clothing to cover their bodies. Somebody is now trying to sell comfort,good looks,even sex appeal of branded underwear here? Does that mean something has changed? Never underestimate the ability of the Indian FMCG marketeer to sniff out a new emerging market or consumer need. Which is exactly what the underwear boys have done in Bihar. If a state of eight crore people is being lifted from utter poverty to at least a level at which many can aspire to a better quality of life than mere survival,you would expect tens of millions to invest in basic comfort — like decent knit underclothing.

Socio-economic change inevitably finds political expression,and if it reflects in the results this Wednesday you could say that it was the first time in the history of democracy when branded underwear predicted an election better and earlier than any psephologists.

A “kachcha-banian” theory of political change? Can we get more facetious than that? So,if you’d prefer something more staid or old-fashioned,let’s look at plastic chappals and bicycles. One of the things that caught your attention,and made you feel so humble when you travelled in a Bihar election in the past,was the large numbers of people who came to campaign rallies in bare feet. At five election rallies this time,addressed by Sonia,Rahul,Nitish,Advani and Lalu,at Begusarai,Bacharia,Cheria-Bariarpur,Munger and Tarapur,respectively,some of us — the usual motley group of journalists,psephologists,economists and financial whiz-kids (the self-styled limousine liberals) — stooped really low to make a quick count of bare feet. I found only four pairs in Sonia’s rally,which is bigger than any you have seen the Congress hold in Bihar in decades. One old woman said she broke one chappal on the way,two young girls said their mothers told them to leave chappals at home or they might lose them in the crowd,and one said she didn’t have any. In Nitish’s rally,there were a few more,maybe about five per cent,and it was evidently a much poorer crowd from the more deprived and backward sections and castes,and much more involved.

But so few bare feet in the most backward regions of Bihar should convince you of the change,if the underwear on the wall doesn’t. Bihar is in the midst of a virtuous transition,enjoying a sweet turn it had even stopped dreaming of. And it shows on its proudest and even politically the most significant new asset,its beautifully tarred new roads. Not just the highways,but even the rural roads built under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. Like many other chief ministers,Nitish saw road-building as the easiest picking in a state that,to any serious leader,would look like an orchard of low-hanging fruit.

And Lalu has to blame himself if Nitish’s success with road-building devastates him in this election. Lalu it was who made the state of roads into a telling political metaphor in Bihar. He first dismissed them as a luxury for the rich with cars. Then,he promised to build roads as “chikna” (smooth) as “Hema Malini’s cheeks”. But he just wasted his time and his state’s money till his people decided to check out an alternative in Nitish. And now a vast majority of them think they made the right choice in 2005.

There are moments in my life when I so love my job. Usually,these are totally selfish,self-centred moments of very petty journalistic conquest,like a scoop in the paper,an interview with somebody I may have adored or just the hack’s privilege of being in a newsy place: Assam in the year of Nellie and other tragedies,1983; Amritsar,Operation Bluestar,1984 and in New Delhi’s great killings of the Sikhs in the same year; the Tiananmen Square massacre,1989; the former Soviet bloc,as it unravelled in 1990; the Al Rashid Hotel in Baghdad during the bombings of the first Gulf War,1991; Kabul as the Mujahideen won the first — and “good” — jehad against Najibullah in 1993; and so on. But these were all moments of great sadness and tragedy,and only a heartless reporter would look back on them with any feeling of accomplishment,if not joy.

So,come on a drive with me to Bihar and I will show you a sight to cherish,one to light up your eyes,cheer your saddest,darkest hour,put a bounce in your step and,most of all,convince you once again that there is hope even for the worst governed,the most neglected parts of our country. It is the young girls,dozens and dozens and scores and scores of them,often in school uniforms,riding bicycles on the state’s new roads. Don’t miss the link between the roads,bicycles,uniforms,and the result this coming Wednesday. Nitish decided to attack the problem of low enrolment and large dropout rates for his state’s girls by offering a free bicycle to any girl moving to class nine. Twenty-five lakh bicycles have been distributed so far,and you already see a revolution of sorts on the wheels. Meanwhile,his high school enrolment for women has trebled.

If you want convincing beyond the writings on the wall,the underwear ads,then look at people’s feet,look at the roads,look at the bicycles and the proudly smiling faces of some of India’s still poorest young women riding them. You will see change,change for the better,and change brought about entirely through old-fashioned democratic politics that we,the urban well-heeled,so love to denounce as India’s curse.

To Wistfully in Shillong

May 17,2008

Every reporter pays his dues doing one beat,or story,in his lifetime. I paid mine covering the Northeast between 1981-83. Just as you can’t get that out-of-sight,out-of-mind region on our front pages these days,then you couldn’t keep it off. The ’80s were the most perilous of what the American South Asianist,Selig Harrison,described as India’s Dangerous Decades and the “Seven Sisters” of the Northeast had danger signs painted all over them. The Assam movement was at its peak with supplies of crude oil to the mainland blockaded,Naga,Mizo and Manipuri insurgencies were active,there were killings of “outsiders” in Tripura and even serene Meghalaya had had its first brush with riots in what was called the anti-dkhar (outsider) outbreak.

That eruption in Meghalaya was sharp,but short. By the time I pitched tent in Shillong,still the unofficial capital of the Northeast,peace had returned. You could walk on the street safely at night,even drive to the only “authentic” Chinese restaurant near Polo Ground where they served raw onions and green chillies with your greasy chopsuey. In nearly three years of living in Shillong in what’s been the most wonderful period of my life,personally and professionally,I wrote almost no story on Meghalaya. There was no trouble here,no massacres,no ambushes,insurgency,human rights abuses and secessionism. It was impossible to sell a Meghalaya story even to an Indian Express news desk run at night by a most benevolent and uncomplaining chief sub-editor,namely Radhika Roy (yes,now of NDTV). The usual question from the desk was,but what is the story in Meghalaya? It was echoed in the question a Khasi civil servant once asked me: “So Shekhar,how many plains people do we have to kill so you can get a Meghalaya story on your page one?” So the only Meghalaya stories I wrote then were Sunday features,gleefully accepted by Dina Vakil,who then worked at The Indian Express like all great journalists do at some point. One on Dollymoore Wankhar who made mementos from real butterflies,on the local pastime of “tir” or mass archery where you got prizes for guessing a intriguingly calculated number of hits,rather than for backing the winner,on the quaint old winery of Mawphlang that made syrupy cherry brandy,and one even on tribal monoliths — in fact these were the only ones I had seen outside of Asterix comics.

The Khasis,the Jaintias and the Garos,the tribes of Meghalaya,had their complaints too. But a combination of factors had always made them less alienated or angry. One of these was their very cosmopolitan city of Shillong. The other,just better connection with the mainland. The tribes had their political elites too,probably because as the capital of undivided Assam,they had had a closer acquaintance with parliamentary politics. The Garos had their Sangmas (Captain Williamson and then Purno),the Khasis and Jaintias their B.B. Lyngdoh,P. Ripple Kyndiah (now cabinet minister).

The politics of the two regions was divided by geography and ethnicity. The Garos were predominantly pro-Congress and to get to their districts from Shillong,you still have to drive to Guwahati and then down the Brahmaputra valley,and hook back into the Garo Hills a good eight hours later. The Khasi-Jaintias preferred their own regional parties. One of the oldest among these is HSPDP (Hill States People’s Democratic Party) whose founder Hopingstone Lyngdoh is a key member in the present coalition cabinet,and the main opponent of the exploration of sizeable uranium resources in the Meghalaya Hills. And even Khasis and Jaintias,though similar,have many differences. There was a time somebody launched an ethnic unity movement of sorts called the Hynniewtrep (“seven huts”) movement,harking back to the old belief that both these tribes had been created from a common origin,namely the plumes from the tail of a very multi-coloured rooster — which still represents divinity in an intriguing sort of a way among these pre-dominantly Christian tribes. But it did not get very far.

Given the unfortunate criteria the media sets for news value,it was not such a bad idea for Meghalaya to have stayed out of the national headlines. But maybe it was also not so good to have stayed out of national (read New Delhi’s) focus altogether. Or it wouldn’t have been so easy for these half dozen monstrosities to offend your eyes and nostrils as you enter the bend into the green hills from Guwahati,hoping to catch the cool Meghalaya breeze — after nearly 25 years,last week,in my case. Instead of the untouched green hills,the skyline of the foothills town of Byrnihat is now dominated by a half dozen smoking chimneys of factories making,believe it or not,specialty bricks and ferro-alloys. Now,who the hell allowed these to come up in Meghalaya of all places? They contribute nothing to the state by way of revenue,jobs,or even consumer needs. So why base such polluting and CO2-spewing,power-guzzling factories in a hill state when Assam’s plains beckon just five miles downhill?

I am told these were permitted in the past (mostly by Congress governments) on the argument that Meghalaya had surplus power! And how much is the state’s total generation,almost all from its rain-fed lakes? Just 300 megawatts! It looked surplus mainly because of economic backwardness,so its two million plus people could not even use this much power (by comparison,last summer Delhi’s peak demand was 4030 MW). Now these factories vacuum-clean so much of its power that even Shillong has power cuts. New concrete buildings coming up all over Shillong have that shocking appendage to their terraces we have got so used to in Delhi — the diesel gen-sets. So you go out for a nightly stroll and smell diesel in the most brilliant,cool and moist breeze God created,the rustle of pines drowned in the hum of “silent” gen-sets.

It is not,however,that the government is not trying. To feed the monsters the wonderful lake at Barapani is being emptied at express pace,its storage from last year’s terrific monsoon squeezed out into the turbines so feverishly it is nearly empty now. So empty you can even see the remnants of the old highway,which had been submerged when this reservoir was created. You can see that pain in the eyes of Prabhat De Sawian and his Mizo wife Parrtei. Prabhat is the scion one of the most prominent and cosmopolitan Khasi families. His father Lala De was the IG of police,a job his brother now holds in DG’s rank. His sister Bijoya was a top model in Delhi. One of his sons runs a rock band in New York,the other helps manage the chain of hotels he is setting up. The apple of his eye is Ri Kynjai (Khasi for serenity by the lake),a tiny resort he has built by the side of Barapani. Prabhat graduated from the Delhi School of Planning and Architecture,probably the first northeastern tribal to do so,and he has designed the resort himself,building it almost entirely with local pinewood,and his cottages in pure Khasi style. It really is a most wonderful gem,hidden so far away,and yet he is filling it up with guests. He now waits for just two things. The return of water in the lake with the monsoons next month,and the completion of the airport expansion work at nearby Umroi,so direct flights would link Shillong with Kolkata.

Incidentally,don’t be surprised if you find so many places named “Um” (Umroi,Umsning,Umdihar) and “Maw” (Mawphlang,Mawsynram,Mawlai) as you drive around the Khasi Hills. “Um” means water and “Maw” stone or rock. My favourite spot on the drive,and that of anybody who often does the 150 km journey from Guwahati to Shillong,however,is the highway stop of Nongpoh,where earnest young Khasi women still serve round the clock jingbam (snacks) and meals through the day. These shops are still decorated with hanging,locally grown,pineapples,papayas and bananas,and the prices are still from another,innocent era. A meal of rice,pork,fish,chicken and lai-patta,the delectable,local mustard leaf,for four,for a total of 86 rupees,and the offer of a tip is blushingly declined.

Some other things haven’t changed. On the three-hour Kingfisher flight direct from Mumbai to Guwahati,I chat with Sharon Pariat,a brilliant entrepreneur with a criminal psychology degree from NIMHANS in Bangalore,with experience of having worked with the UN in Bosnia and Eritrea and now building on an already flourishing business in Muga silk (unique to Assam,a gloriously golden thread) weaves and Meghalaya turmeric which,she tells me,has three-four times more of the magical medicinal ingredient,curcumin,than turmeric grown elsewhere in the country. And she is all of 33. Born to an Assamese tea planter father and a Jaintia mother,she obviously carries the mother’s second name,as is the local custom. Her business card says her home is called “Trillian House”. What is Trillian,I ask. It’s her grandmother’s name,she tells me,and asks,don’t you remember Shillong names? Million,Billion,Trillion?

Now how could I have forgotten that? When we first came here in 1981,a neighbour told us,if you want to get used to the place listen to the Western music programme every evening on AIR’s Yuvavani. At least you will get used to the local names. So we had the then local star radio jockey June Pariat (an aunt of Sharon’s,incidentally) playing out Boney M,Abba,Beatles and Bob Dylan to requests from Efficiency,Sufficiency,Proficiency,Firstborn or Themiddleone or Forgetfully,Forgetmenot and even a Wistfully. Everybody’s favourites,however,were Gearbox,Bonnet and Screwdriver,aptly named sons of a motor mechanic and there were any numbers of Queen Elizabeths and Queen Victorias. There was even a cabinet minister called Doctor Barristar Parkers. It was therefore that when I first read the Chennai Super Kings team had a Napoleon Einstein in its ranks,my first reaction was that a Shillong boy had finally made it to the big league of cricket. He,however,is from Tamil Nadu.

But things are changing too and not necessarily for the worse. On the thatched wall of my eating stop in Nongpoh is a pamphlet from the Khasi Students Union (KSU) wing from Umdihar,a village of just a few thousand,announcing a Twenty20 cricket tournament with Rs 10,000 for the winners and Rs 100 for the man of the match. Now if KSU,which for so long fought against all outside influences,organises cricket tournaments,it is change. The steep hill lane,on top of which my tiny pinewood-cottage home was built and where any vehicle had to switch into the first gear while beginning the climb,is now named after Lt Clifford Nongrum,a decorated war hero of Kargil,probably,the first from the Khasi Hills.

And yes,Western music is alive,and not just on Akashvani. Shillong now has more bands than most Indian metros,and Bob Dylan’s birthday is celebrated like a national festival. That is why it is so much a pity we in New Delhi or Mumbai or Chennai or Bangalore still know as little,or probably care as little,about this most wonderful place as we did a quarter century ago,when the cashier at The Indian Express asked me in which currency he should send my salary,and when the truck company bringing my household goods said they did not have a service to “Mongolia”. Sure enough,Purno Sangma tells me that after having been five-term MP,a cabinet minister for a decade,and speaker of Lok Sabha,the odd fellow MP still asks him,so,Purno,how is your Mizoram?

But Purno isn’t complaining. In fact,complaining is not a popular pastime in the Meghalaya Hills. From making music,catching butterflies and fish,to archery and now cricket — Sangma’s son heads the Meghalaya Cricket Association and expects an early recognition by the BCCI,thanks obviously to Sharad Pawar — the Meghalayans are a contented lot. But there are some complaints. Like the one of my old neighbours Lorris Myrthong,an economics professor,and his wife Edwina Wallang. Their cottage (named Leleys Cottage,each letter representing a member of his family: Lorris,Edwina and daughters Larina,Elina,Yerlina and Sabrina) is the only survivor in the now gentrified compound where we lived. He has now had to seek his Delhi-based airline stewardess daughter’s good offices to go fishing upstream of Rishikesh. Twenty-five years ago,he taught my brother fishing in streams just a short trek away. Now,he says remorsefully,“We have rivers but no life,with so much blasting and poisioning,mountains but no life.” India,after all,has caught up with Meghalaya. Or is it the other way round?

Modi versus Modi

It is not BJP vs the Congress,or Modi vs Soniaben. Narendra Modi’s own voters will decide whether to re-elect or defeat him

December 15,2007

Narendra Modi’s supporters — and you still find lots and lots of them in Gujarat — would like you to believe that he is more than just invincible. Invincibility,in any case,is something for mere humans to value. It is not that relevant when you talk of their leader. You talk,instead,of his super-human qualities. He has transformed Gujarat,he has restored not just Gujarati,but even Hindu and,finally,Indian pride. He has brought 24-hour,three-phase power and Narmada water to each home. He is an orator par excellence,a worthy successor to Atalji in that department (though nobody ever accused the grand old man of the BJP of being a rabble rouser). He can hold a crowd — albeit of believers — in thrall. A gaggle of women representing three generations of Gujaratis occupying the row behind mine at his rally in Shihore compete,and ultimately translate his lines for me in chorus as I lean back to understand the nuances of his stunning 70-minute sermon. And as applause greets one of his most loaded — and coded — lines insinuating that it was the Muslims who were mostly responsible for lawlessness (“your women no longer have to fear some Aalia,Maalia,Kamaalia”),one of them chirps in,in a sort of fried in the groundnut oil Gujarati inflexion that stresses the consonants and shortens the vowels: “He is a supperman,himman (superman,he-man).” You hear more of the same from his followers,mainly the young and the women,as you go along. Sure enough,one of his campaign’s latest boasts is about his “56-inch chest”.

But howsoever wide his chest,howsoever broad his shoulders and howsoever confident his gait,does he have it in him to perform the miracle that very few Indian politicians can do in these years,namely,to defy anti-incumbency? And in his case,though it is only the second election for him directly,it is double anti-incumbency because he had taken over in the previous incumbent’s term without facing elections. So if he wins,it will be his third term as chief minister. These days that is a near impossibility,unless,of course,you are a Marxist in Bengal.

Not that it fazes him. In so many years of watching Indian politics,of figuring out that most fascinating character called the Indian politician,of dealing with the demagogues,rabble-rousers,caste craftsmen,unifiers,dividers,visionaries and opportunists,I have never seen someone so confident,audacious and arrogant — and that too while seeking his third term. Mostly,Indian politicians only ooze charm and humility at the time of elections. Arrogance and a ruthless exercise of power then follow the victory. But this one does not fit any type. He does not mention Atalji,Advani (and who is Rajnath?) or even the BJP,except in conclusion when introducing his candidate who,not taking any chances,waves a reasonably freshly plucked lotus flower at the audience. You want Modi back as chief minister after all he has done for you,vote for him,he says. Now,when was the last time you heard any incumbent from a national party announce himself as the next chief minister like that? In the Congress,nobody would dare to do that even in his dream or he might have to spend the next five years in the AICC library,sorting out newspaper clippings. Even in the BJP I have never heard such a claim before. National parties still believe in the final prerogative of a high command,and at least in the pretence of their legislature parties electing their leader. But Modi has sorted that issue out. This election is BJP versus Congress. It is Modi versus Soniaben. Or,more likely,as many of his detractors — and you now find lots and lots of them also in Gujarat — it is Modi versus Modi this time.

While they have to ridicule them in public,in private even Congress leaders admit that Modi has run a pretty efficient government,and that his claims on bijli,sadak,paani,the three key elements that weigh on the modern voter’s mind,are largely true. Why has he still got himself into a bit of a mess where what had looked like a done deal a month back has become a contest too close to call? How has he blown so much of an advantage,such a huge head start? That was the question assailing our minds as we,the usual group of Limousine Liberals,a motley assortment of journalists,psephologists,bankers and corporate leaders that trawls voting zones on key elections,spent an extended weekend searching for the answers in Gujarat’s countryside.

His appeal is undiminished — but only to the faithful. At some point,it is obvious,he got so carried way with it,he forgot some basic principles of Indian politics. One,the voters expect their leader to approach them with humility. They do not appreciate someone starting by proclaiming that the election is already in his pocket. No voter likes to be told his vote is a mere formality. What he wants to hear is,please come out on polling day and vote for me,my life depends on that one act of your generosity. What he is hearing from Modi,on the other hand,is something like: if you are grateful for all I have done for you — as you better be — you better come out and vote for me because you need me in the next term too. It works with the absolutely faithful. But often,in a polarised voter population,that is not enough. You still need that few per cent more. You want some of the fence-sitters to swing your way. But that is not Modi’s way. “Are you Hindu? Can Hindus be terrorists as the Congress says?” he asks his cheering audiences. Not for him the pretence,or at least the hypocrisy,of even appealing to the minorities,of even suggesting any non-Hindus could be among his crowds,his likely voters. This kind of exclusivist politics has its limitations,particularly when you seek your third term and more so when you have already encashed the anti-Muslim (anti-Mian Musharraf and all and thereby the insinuation of Indian Muslims being pro-Pakistan) once. One thing you do not expect to hear from Modi on the election trail is that he wants all 5.5 crore Gujaratis (including the minorities) to vote for him. He would also do nothing to reach out to them,to heal,to patch up,to win them back. No such ‘hypocrisy’ for him and,as he would tell you with a candour you wouldn’t get even from any RSS sarsanghchaalak,he will never do anything towards the Muslims even by way of affirmative action that sounds like ‘appeasement’.

But Gujarat’s voters are not about to start getting nostalgic about their secular,tolerant,pre-1990s past and if some of them who voted for Modi the last time now turn on him,it is not because they have suddenly re-discovered any love for their Muslim neighbours. It will be because in his confidence bordering on arrogance,in his pursuit of a testosterone-laden personality cult of the kind never seen in India,not certainly from a regional leader of a national party,he forgot the very essential need to lace tough governance with smart politics. He either forgot he might have to face elections again,or perhaps his judgment got so overwhelmed by his larger-than-life self-image that he didn’t realise there would be another reckoning in ’07. So the truth now is,in spite of his popularity,his many visible successes on governance,he is now struggling. The truth,also,is that he is struggling partly because of his ego and arrogance,and partly for the wrong reasons,like making people pay for the water and power he has brought to their homes and factories.

In the small town of Vallabhipur in Bhavnagar district,where once a traditional diamond-cutting industry thrived and died because of power cuts,you’d have expected only gratitude for Modi for bringing them 24-hour,three-phase power. But crowds we draw on the “high street” are almost evenly divided,or even a little bit weighted against Modi. Why? “Three-phase power is okay,” says one shopkeeper,“but what use is it if he brought you a jail sentence as well?” The reference is to Modi’s brutal assault on power theft. His government filed 2.8 lakh cases for power theft,something he boasts about in his speeches. But do people really appreciate it? In a more perfect world,they might have. But this is the real world,warts and all. The Congress,on the other hand,promises the return of power subsidies,freebies and withdrawal of cases. The local chemist vends to customers from a dark shop. “Don’t you have power,” one of us asks him,presuming we have finally found evidence that Modi’s 24-hour power claim is a mere boast. “Power is there,” says the chemist somewhat disdainfully,and flicks the switch to turn on the tubelight for just a second. But why is he then working in the dark? “Who will pay the bill? You?” he asks. In the old days,he says,power came only for eight hours. But you could steal it,or simply not pay your bills.

Given his headstart,and the strong loyalty of a critical mass of voters,who knows,Modi may yet scrape through with a narrow margin of victory. But if he introspects — if he can do such a thing — he may realise that while his governance was pretty solid,he forgot the political compact that a leader must build and preserve with his voters. The 2002 vote was on an issue,and the issue was fear and loathing. Today,he is seeking votes on his report card and that is a much tougher challenge.

He has also broken the political compact with his own party and ideological support base. You meet dozens of RSS boys,saffron supporters on the way who will tell you they are simply not prepared to accept his kind of personality cult. It has turned two of his predecessors,particularly Keshubhai Patel,into rebels. He hosts us over a generous breakfast,a lonely,sad lion in a very desolate winter. “I am sulking. I am sitting home,” he says with a candour you’d not usually expect from a politician. But behind the scenes,he has sent out word to his clansmen,the powerful Leva Patels of Saurashtra,to punish Modi for his humiliation. It just so happens that a large number of power theft cases have also been registered against the Patels since Modi started his power reform. In a more normal election,a Modi could have re-united through religion and personal appeal a vote bank broken up by caste. But caste,economics and anger at the arrogance of a leader you loved make for a far bigger challenge. It is for that reason that this election is,indeed,not BJP versus Congress,Modi versus Sonia and certainly not communalism versus secularism. It is Modi versus Modi,where Modi’s own voters will decide whether to vote to re-elect,or to defeat him.

Common Maximum Programme

You can see its emerging contours in UP rallies: Leaders moving away from cliche,voters moving to the centre — politics of aspiration slowly edging out politics of grievance

April 28,2007

My probably wishful theorising last week,that Uttar Pradesh,following Bihar and then Punjab,was now underlining a process in which the voter is moving to the centre,and away from the mandal-kamandal divide,may yet stand the test of time and the final election results in the state. But it did not stand the test of an hour spent at a BJP election rally in Dhampur,close to Bijnor in the state’s fertile western grain-bowl. Or at least not the first half of that hour.

While the rather modest crowd — but that is the norm these days for all parties — waits for party president Rajnath Singh,at the microphone is a scrawny rabble-rouser who,we later discover,is one Ashok Katariya,a Yuva Morcha worker who accounts for very little even in the local power structure. But he obviously “knows” exactly what is wrong with the place.

Hindu women are no longer safe here,nor is national interest. Centres of subversion and training run by the ISI are springing up everywhere. And why is that happening? Because the number of Muslims is going up. At last count,they had reached 41 per cent of the local population,and rising. Now we all know in the divided heartland politics everybody does his own census and nobody particularly wants to be confused by facts. So you can even overlook this as some kind of a mid-afternoon ploy on a 43-degree day to keep the crowds entertained. Until he gets to the real issue.

The Muslims,he says,slaughter cows. “Now,they can eat dogs,cats,horses,camels,elephants,snakes,or any living thing God and nature may have created,” he says with an air of superior disdain and disapproval. “But they should refrain from eating beef. Because the cow is our mother,and if somebody slaughters a cow,we will slaughter that b…..d.” Not only is this a bit much for the Limousine Liberals who are now campaign-hardened veterans of 11 elections,you also see some disapproving,embarrassed shakes of the head on the dais. But Rajnath Singh arrives soon enough to restore some degree of sanity.

HIS message is by no means a reflection of his party’s Nehruvian — ok,not even Gandhian — commitment. But you can see the desperation to move to the centre. Most of the abuse is reserved for Mulayam’s misrule,minorities are promised safe conduct even though there is no effort to seek their votes,and then some of his own party’s more divisive,emotional demands are painted in conciliatory colours. The issue of singing Vande Mataram,for example. Why communalise an issue on which Hindus and Muslims were united during the freedom movement,he asks,repeatedly invoking the name of martyr Ashfaqullah Khan,who “told his mother he would prefer to embrace the noose — of course while singing Vande Mataram — rather than submit to her entreaties to bring her the bahu she wanted so desperately.” Of course,the only other freedom fighter he talked about was Chandra Shekhar Azad and no prizes for guessing why. He is a Thakur,so is his candidate at Dhampur,and so was Azad. Trust the politics of Uttar Pradesh now to even divide the mostly leftist revolutionary streak of our movement also along communal and caste lines. But overall,Singh is searching for a justification for the BJP’s Hindu nationalism in the non-Congress part of the freedom movement and thereby a new definition of secularism. All this without once mentioning Savarkar.

The theme of Vande Mataram returns next day at Shahbad,may be a hundred kilometres away,at Mulayam Singh’s even smaller rally. Gone is his earlier pro-Muslim thunder. The message is now more conciliatory,of a move to some space in the centre,even though the lack of conviction echoes in his voice through the half-hour speech. Muslims are every bit as patriotic as the rest,he says,and the BJP casts aspersions on them over issues like Vande Mataram. Then,surprise of surprises (and you’d hope the Congress top brass is hearing this),he says Muslims were always happy to sing Vande Mataram,particularly during the freedom movement. It is only after the Jana Sangh began to politicise it,and made it a litmus tests for Muslims’ national loyalties,that they started to avoid the song. That was out of irritation. The freebies Mulayam now announces — higher education,cancer treatment even in foreign hospitals if necessary,unemployment doles — are now common to all faiths and castes.

And if you thought his rather more nuanced “secular” appeal now is just a cynical counter to the BJP’s effort to package Hindu nationalism as old fashioned patriotism,you see change elsewhere. In every political meeting you need a speaker to keep the crowds engaged till the leader arrives. Usually he is the rhetorician,the rabble-rouser and you can expect to hear from him all the terrible things that his party may believe in or intend to do,but that the senior leaders won’t say,the kind of rubbish that keeps crowds interested,particularly in a summer election at the peak of the harvest season. And what do you hear from the gent in Mulayam’s Shahbad rally? That his leader has governed the state so marvelously,it has notched up its highest FDI score ever. And the best is yet to come,billions and trillions will come from Japan,Europe,America,who all want to invest in Mulayam Singh’s state. Sure enough,Mulayam repeats the same dreaded three-letter word,FDI,in his speech as well. And then,perhaps sighting a few bankers and India’s most hawk-eyed free-market economist in our midst,goes to great lengths to explain how wonderfully he has managed the fisc,and how he could do it all without increasing his deficit.

All this goes on amidst a small sea of red Lohia caps. So here is my proposition. If the president of the BJP extols the virtues of a Muslim martyr,attacks the UPA on housing loan interest rates rise and if Lohiaites are talking FDI and fiscal discipline and Mulayam feels the need to underline Muslims are not opposed to singing Vande Mataram,but just irritated by the BJP’s insistence that they do so to prove their patriotism,where is the state’s politics moving? To the Left,Right,or the centre? Good argument,you might say,but add,even if you are my friend and take me seriously,that it is still a bit thin. Not quite Q.E.D. Not quite yet.

YOU do not look at Rahul Gandhi for any more evidence of that,because the Congress in any case has no option but to stay in the very middle of this political landscape,howsoever marginal its clout and prospects. We catch up with him in the Muslim heart of Muradabad where,until not so long ago,you found more BSF troops per capita than in Srinagar. The crowds,certainly bigger than any we have seen so far,wait for him,even break for the afternoon namaz as he is delayed,and come right back,a gentle flood of white caps as soon as the prayer is over. He talks of development,law and order,how the state has been left behind,how the rest of the country is moving on,how he intends to be here,work in Uttar Pradesh. He is not building on the theme of Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi. His audience is almost a hundred per cent Muslim,but his message has almost nothing that is minority-centric though,to be fair,Salman Khurshid who speaks before him,does bring in the promise of reservations for OBCs among Muslims,marring what is otherwise a wonderfully worded secular,nationalistic speech,peppered with references for the heartland’s syncretic “Ganga-Jamni” tradition. Rahul’s challenge is formidable: re-building a party where nothing of its past has survived — ideas,machinery,leaders,nothing. But he has realised too that the message that can now work is a promise for the future rather than a lament for the past.

You get a better idea why he,as well as his vastly more experienced rivals,are right in moving towards the centre when you check out the change in the countryside. In the oversized slum-village of Afzalgarh which boasts more than 50 tractors,four hours per day of power supply but three schools and a madarsa,we met three very young girls carrying bags of firewood — actually scrapings from the nearby saw-mill — larger than their tiny frames. Don’t ask them exactly how old they are. To me,they looked about the age of the three loveliest little creatures you see in the Hutch ad describing their dog in the classroom briefly,less briefly and even less briefly. Zeba,Aamna and Mantazar (who tells us she prefers to be addressed by her pet name,Chand),are cousins. Their fathers are tailors. They help their mothers in the kitchen,wash clothes and fetch water and firewood. But they all go to school — a private school,such as it may be in Afzalgarh. In the evenings,though,they also go to the madarsa. Your favourite subjects: English,Hindi,Urdu and,surprise of surprises,ganit (maths). A half hour spent with the three cousins of Afzalgarh as they put their loads down and chat away,would cure you of many misconceptions,stereotypes,old notions of Uttar Pradesh,of rural India,of Muslims,or Muslim women.

If you want to see change,come to Uttar Pradesh. Until the other day,if I said so,you’d ask me to go get my head examined. And I would perhaps have done so. But not now. There is change,and while it may take some time reflecting fully in election results,it is acquiring a momentum that will redefine our political landscape in a way that we move away from the politics of grievance to the politics of aspiration.

The You in UP

Voters in India’s largest state may be coming out of their trenches. Celebrate,unless you are the politician who built those trenches

April 21,2007

There is at least one thing for which a political journalist would love Uttar Pradesh: for nearly two decades now its voters have worked so consistently,and generously,to justify our caste-based punditry. Only acronyms have changed or morphed over these years — from AJGAR to MAJGAR to MY and so on — but essentially these theories have been built around various combinations of middle and backward castes and Muslims. If dalits have not really figured in these,it is because,with the rise of the BSP,they constitute a “combination” entirely their own. They vote as a large block,and whether their leader Mayawati is in power or in the opposition depends primarily on how many Muslim voters she manages to lure out of Mulayam Singh Yadav’s tight embrace.

But this cosy,lazy and disastrous arrangement is now about to change. If Bihar showed us one thing last year,it was that there is a use-by date written on even the most durable electoral equation. That something happens at some of inflexion,when voters leave their caste trenches,climb down the battlements and ramparts of fortresses in which their “leaders” have trapped them for years. Then comes change. Or Nitish Kumar replaces Rabri Devi. But is Uttar Pradesh at that point of inflexion yet? Is its voter now wise — or impatient enough — to see how this ossified voting behaviour has sealed her and her children’s fate for nearly two decades? That it is time now to vote like her compatriots do in most other states,on past performance,on future promise and,most importantly,on present impatience. It all adds up to that lovely — and dreadful if you are the ruler — principle of anti-incumbency.

The last time we Limousine Liberals,a motley collection of journalists,TV anchors,business tycoons,psephologists,economists and bankers that often travels together to watch most major elections visited this state was also at the peak of summer,in the general elections of 2004. And,even though the geography we then covered was at the other end of the state,the landscape was rather similar. Land had just been harvested and bundles of a bountiful wheat crop lay neatly for as far as you could see. But similarities are only physical because there is change in the political landscape.

MY jottings from May 2004,were mostly pessimistic (‘Seizure in the Heartland’,May 1, The fundamental cause of despair was how Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were voting along caste combinations and thereby bucking the spectacular national wave of anti-incumbency. This frozen voting behaviour,I had then bemoaned,was responsible for the frozen nature of the heartland’s politics. This way,people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were allowing their leaders to take them for granted,because they could safely presume they wouldn’t lose if they didn’t perform and they wouldn’t win any bigger if they did. And people voted this way before because they had no real hope from anybody. If nobody is going to improve my bijli,sadak,paani,schools,hospitals and law and order anyway,then why should I bother to change anything? The least I can do is to keep my caste cousin in power. That was the despair of the summer of 2004.

I cannot yet tell you who will rule UP,come mid-May. All I can tell you is what anybody would tell you,quite safely,that the state is heading for a hung assembly. But I will stick my neck out this time and tell you that change is in the air. I also have a vested interest in making that claim — and wishing that it stands the test of these seven rounds of voting — because I need it as evidence for my new political theory. That the vote in India is now moving back towards the “centre” of our politics. That the post-1989 “aberration” — where the state not merely got divided but fractured into so many regional,sub-regional and caste-based parties — is now ending. That the use-by date on the AJGARs,the MAJGARs,the KHAMS,the MYs and so on is now getting over. We saw it in Bihar last year when most smaller parties and independents got wiped out,resulting in a clear NDA/UPA division. You saw it in Punjab this year,when the Congress lost despite improving its vote by five percentage points — because the Akali-BJP combine increased by 9 per cent. And where did these votes come from? They mostly came from “others” which declined from 24 to 11 per cent. These also included some significant others like the BSP and the Left. Independents losing out has been a growing trend for a decade now. The movement away from narrow-focus,caste or sub-regional politics is a new phenomenon altogether. If it grows,it can stitch back together a polity left in tatters by the mandir-masjid or mandal-kamandal politics.

But every political theory in India,particularly one that promises to redefine all our power equations,must survive the test of Uttar Pradesh.

IT is a tough test because nothing has changed with the prejudices,hatred and insecurities which brought about this divided politics in the first place. Most Muslims you meet in the thickly-populated and prosperous western UP grain-bowl between the Jamuna and the Ganga and up to the fringes of Terai still fear the BJP. They will tell you,of course,that Muslims and Hindus are brothers,but if there is one thought they loathe,it is the BJP coming to power. So they will vote for whoever they think can defeat the BJP. That,therefore,is the static part of the state’s politics. But there is a difference now. They no longer see Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP as the only party capable of doing that. In places they think Mayawati’s upper caste candidate is more likely to defeat saffron; in some — though much fewer — places,they think the vote-split between SP,BSP and BJP may be such that the rejuvenating Congress may prevail if only the Muslims swing towards it. This is one of the reasons why,as NDTV’s exit polls predict,you will see the Congress vote share rising this time. It will not get close to the 20 per cent mark where votes start translating into seats rapidly,but it will rise sufficiently to give the party a new heart,to deny Mulayam and his SP a fresh term and to pull the state’s politics back towards the Centre.

My back-to-the-centre theory rests on two main postulates. One,that Congress and the BJP,together,must have at least 350 seats in Lok Sabha. That way,irrespective of which coalition is in power,our national politics would have a stable centre of gravity. Two,irrespective of who is in power in Uttar Pradesh,BJP and the Congress,together,must have at least 50 per cent of the vote. That ensures any coalition in Lucknow will have to include one of the two and that will ensure some degree of focus and stability and strengthen the prospects of anti-incumbency,thereby bringing our largest state firmly within the national political mainstream. This election won’t see the two national parties notch up that 50 per cent aggregate. But they will most likely cross 40,which,if you know Uttar Pradesh,is serious progress. More importantly,this is an idea,a political swing,that is only gathering momentum and looks irreversible in the near-term.

Up & down in down south

May 06,2006

The answer to the question why most politicians in India do not get re-elected,is a no-brainer. It’s because of the strong anti-incumbency sentiment in the Indian voter’s mind. But why do some get re-elected,defying this? There are no simple answers to that one. The current series of state elections is a good opportunity to check out some ideas,because these provide all three variants of probable election outcomes: change (Kerala),re-election (West Bengal) and uncertainty (Tamil Nadu and Assam). Each state has different,distinctive politics. In two (West Bengal and Kerala),the Congress and the Left are direct rivals (each is the incumbent in these states). In another both are in an alliance led by a regional partner. In the fourth (Assam),they face each other again,the left partners somebody (AGP) who may ultimately embrace the BJP.

The closer you look at these elections,the more confusing — and interesting — the picture looks. The Indian Union Muslim League,for example,is a member of the Congress-led alliance in Kerala,and is fighting viciously to save its communal votebanks from a rampaging Left. In Tamil Nadu,the Muslim League is in alliance with the Left,asking its loyalists to transfer their votes to its arch-rival in the bordering state.

You might expect the voter to get confused,but he doesn’t. And that is the other dominant trend to have grown in our politics in the past two decades,along with anti-incumbency. Perhaps because of the decline of the Congress and absence of leaders with pan-national appeal,elections have become almost entirely local. Even parliamentary elections are nothing but a collection of different state elections,resulting in split verdicts. Possibly the only near-exception to this was 1999,when Atal Bihari Vajpayee emerged as the first pan-national leader since Rajiv Gandhi.

But even these trends,and killjoy restrictions of the Election Commission on costs,noise levels,timings (no campaigning after 10 pm),have not made all elections boring. It is the grand characters that make Indian politics,and elections so fascinating. And no place passes that test like the state of Tamil Nadu. Between Jayalalithaa,Karunanidhi,and now even Vaiko,the state’s politics showcases a remarkable set of originals.

This was one,but not the only reason why our group of limousine liberals,a motley collection of journalists,TV anchormen,psephologists,economists and bankers,chose Tamil Nadu for what was to be our 10th election journey,and the first in the south. Of all the states going to the polls now,Tamil Nadu provides the closest contest. In a coalition situation,Tamil Nadu has become the most politically powerful state in the country in the sense that almost no coalition at the Centre can get the numbers unless it has the dominant Dravida party in its fold. The state has 39 seats in Lok Sabha and gives sweeping verdicts one way or the other. Since 1996,therefore,these 39 MPs have determined who will rule from Delhi. And,of course,the less charitable explanation is that after two visits to Bihar in one year,it was tempting to choose the state with roads among the best in the country.

Which brings us to the first key question. If the voter has moved to a bijli-sadak-pani-padhai-naukri (power,roads,water,education,jobs) paradigm,Tamil Nadu should have been as much of a no-contest as West Bengal. The progress in four-laning national highways may have been slow in Tamil Nadu — Union Surface Transport Minister T.R. Baalu would have you believe that is because of a hostile state government’s stalling land acquisition — but roads,even ones connecting villages and small towns,could live up to Laloo Yadav’s immortal description of roads being as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks. And while he may have failed to deliver on that promise in Bihar and paid for it,here Jaya has delivered remarkably well in her tenure — as,it would seem,on many other key parameters. The power situation is healthy and even her detractors acknowledge the great work she has done with water,pumping — through a gleaming pipeline that runs along the highway from Chennai to Trichy — from the aquifers of the Neyveli mines nearly 400 km away. She is obviously proud of this. And though our short meeting with her was meant to be off-the-record,I am sure she won’t mind my mentioning how proudly she talked of this single achievement: “We brought water from so far. Until then there was talk of evacuating Chennai because of water shortage. We saved the city.”

Even on other parameters,she has a formidable report card. In her time,Chennai has emerged as a mini-Detroit,with car manufacture plants coming up around it. Industry and agriculture have grown,a new IT corridor has come up,and lots of new jobs have been created. Social indicators are up,her work in tsunami relief has found international appreciation and,as far as that other new element,padhai,is concerned,Tamil Nadu seems to be having a most visible boom. Wherever you drive in the state,from the rice bowl along the Cauvery to the saline,barren flats of Virudhunagar,what catches your eye is new engineering,management and medical colleges. They have scale and style and look well-endowed.

So why does Jayalalithaa still look under pressure? Why are the pollsters so uncertain?

We owe our short meeting with Jaya to friend and sugar baroness Rajshri Pathy,in whose factory guesthouse at Villupuram,just 100 km outside Chennai,she has chosen to take an afternoon break. She will set out to campaign exactly at 3.30 pm,never getting out of the vehicle once. She lets us follow her convoy,but insists we keep our distance so as not to confuse any Election Commission observer into thinking she has too many vehicles. She is no longer holding public meetings as she believes (one thing on which Karunanidhi agrees with her) that they serve no purpose. She speaks from the front seat of her vehicle,a bright light shining on her face as people lunge and lurch for a glimpse,straining at the ropes held by the police to prevent them from getting in the way of the cars. Her message is short and simple. A little bit about her achievements,and then the promise of 10 kg rice free to any family that buys 10 kg from a ration shop. This makes her net offer Rs 1.75 a kg,compared to DMK’s Rs 2.

But if too many voters still have doubts on re-electing her,in spite of reasonably decent governance,it is to do with her style. Ordinary people tell you how autocratic she is; how many chief secretaries and finance ministers she has changed. The most striking realisation travelling in this campaign is how few people talk of the freebies the two sides are offering. It is as if the voter in this state has now evolved to a degree where he can put these behind,and talk of larger issues. Sure,many still say they will vote on caste or sectarian loyalties. But very few talk of the cheap rice and free colour TVs,not even in Virudhunagar,one of the poorest districts deep south,where vast expanses of acacia on both sides of the highway tell you how just one factor determines which zone is poor and which prospers: the availability of water.

People you meet in village chai shops give you theories on why she may still pull through. The DMK alliance,a junior government employee in Namakkal,tells us,is formidable,and should have won hands down. But she is a film star,her appeal among rural masses is intact. So this election,he says,can go either way. It’s like a ‘cat on the wall’. You don’t know which way it will jump. Well,that is why a pollster as formidable as Yogendra Yadav has refused to make a prediction on the state. Who will take chances with a cat poised on the wall?

If Jaya is the film star puratchi thalaivi (revolutionary leader),M. Karunanidhi is the rather modest kalaignar (writer). We are told he has a cutting turn-of-phrase in Tamil that has no parallel and in a largely literate state that obviously helps. We catch up with him in Salem,an industrial town in the heart of the state,and the rules of engagement are the same as with Jaya. No interview,no attribution,a short meeting and then,yes,you can join the campaign trail,but keep your distance please. This is the patriarch’s last battle. He is 83,has fought serious illnesses and has to be helped to walk. But as Kerala’s former Congress chief minister A.K. Antony tells me on the flight back to Delhi,he still has one of the sharpest minds in our politics. “That is all there. Very sharp,” Antony tells me. So is his repartee. He asks us where we think the election is heading. “We are only learning about Tamil politics,” one of us replies with the fake,obsequious humility you learn to lace your words with while talking with Tamil Nadu’s demi-god politicians. And you know what,somehow,even behind those trademark dark glasses,you can see his eyes light up. “I am also still learning,” he smiles,half in mischief,half also in contemplation. Later a businessman,who still prefers that Jaya should come back,describes how Karunanidhi has this incredible ability to establish eye contact with his audiences from even behind those shades,while Jaya seems so distant.

His supporters,though,seem to settle for much less than eye contact. Just a view of the most famous pair of goggles in India would do. So much so that as the convoy passes the town of Rasipuram,35 km from Salem on the road to Madurai,frenzied DMK supporters beat the sides,bonnet and the rear of our car. The driver figures out the cause of excitement. “Will you please take those off?” he asks Sanjeev Srivastava of the BBC,in the front seat also wearing thick,black dark-glasses! This,in a town where you see evidence of how wide and how far professional colleges and tutorial centres for getting into these colleges have reached. The most striking sight: a four-storey building atop which proudly sits a signboard,with a picture of President Kalam,advertising Shrichennai Computer Maintenance Centre.

This may be Karunanidhi’s last battle but it is also one he cannot be philosophical about. He needs this victory to stabilise the party,to set up his son Stalin as well as nephew Dayanidhi Maran to succeed him. A defeat would almost certainly lead to dissension,even a possible break-up in the DMK.

So he is out in the burning afternoon sun,too. You might think his supporters could show a bit more fervour. But you can also not miss alcohol breath as they get closer to you. A harried policeman explains how it works. Supporters are given an allowance of Rs 50 per day,a free ride and T-shirt with the leader’s picture,and a “quarter” litre of liquor.

It reminds you uncannily of Waterloo victor,the Duke of Wellington’s infamous boast that gin was the spirit of his soldiers’ patriotism. His soldiers,though,delivered against Napoleon. Will Karunanidhi’s do so this time? Wait till May 11 for the results. You do not expect us mere limousine liberals to stake our reputation on predicting a result that even Yogendra Yadav won’t!

Postscript: Every time you hit the road,you find one signboard you want to put away in your collection of highway humour. The one we saw 40 km short of Trivandrum on the way from Kanyakumari will be my favourite for a long time. It read:

Relax water tanks

Relax promises real relief

100 per cent pure virgin

15 years guarantee.

Of course,all that was on offer,at this town of Neyyatinkara,was synthetic overhead water tanks. Just in case you start getting ideas.

Glimmer in heart of darkness

Can’t say who will win this time but you surely can’t miss the first stirrings for a new deal in Bihar

November 19,2005

On the last day of polling in Bihar,the question you are asked,particularly if you are just back from there,is still the same that you would have been asked in the past many elections: is Bihar ready for a change?

Now,you can look at it in two different ways. Does change mean a defeat for Laloo and his RJD and the arrival in power of a new coalition under Nitish Kumar? Or does it mean a change of mindset and aspiration,from mere social justice,a voice for the lower castes to economic upliftment and dignity — or,to put it simply,bijli,sadak,paani and padhai (electricity,roads,water and education). If your spin is the first one,talk to exit pollsters. Howsoever large your sample,you have to be a real braveheart,or thoroughly reckless,to make a prediction in Bihar. The electorate is so split,so much vote is already committed one way or the other,so little can float and there is no knowing how much of this would swing how many seats. But stirrings of aspiration for a better life,better roads,a light bulb in my home,teachers in my village school,a doctor in my primary health centre may be,just may be,you have begun to sense that — this time around. Another thing you have begun to feel even more palpably is the belief that truly fair,fearless elections can actually be held even in Bihar.

We,the usual group of Limousine Liberals,a motley assortment of journalists,psephologists,bankers,executives and sometimes part-time politicians that trawls voting zones in each election,catches up with the real hero of this round in Bihar,the election commission’s observer K.J. Rao,in the circuit house of Bettiah,the district headquarter of West Champaran district. He is kind to us,but would say nothing on record. In fact,we can hardly hold him to a two-sentence conversation before his phone rings again,and while I would never violate my reporter’s ethic in never mentioning a word spoken off the record,I feel less queasy picking up snatches of his phone conversations,at least from one end. “OK,OK. I understand. No,please. I have decided. You will have a new SDPO before this afternoon. This one will be sent out.” I presume this is about some sub-divisional police officer who was not being compliant enough. Next. “Don’t worry. One company of ITBP will reach you this evening,” he says,gesturing to one of his aides to make sure it is done. Next. “No,no. No short cuts. Tell the collector to speak with me.” And so on.

What endure in my head are those three words,“no short cuts.” Once you get committed to that very short mantra you realise the power of one man. Just one man,a retired civil servant now re-employed on contract,not even an IAS officer,who has brought about a paradigm shift you never thought was possible in Indian democracy. A free and fair election in Bihar. You can ask whom you want. A villager from any caste,a local policeman or one among very alien looking patrols of Punjab Police,nine battalions of which have been deployed among a medley of central and other state police forces currently helping the election commission in Bihar. They tell this is the fairest election in Bihar’s history.

None of Laloo’s opponents have any complaints any more. In fact,they try hard not to compliment Rao so much that he begins to look partisan. We were witness to a particularly delicious moment. At his late afternoon rally in Motihari,L.K. Advani hailed the power of one man in ensuring a fair Bihar election and then bent sideways in mock pretence to ask what his name was. But he was far too rushed to wait for somebody to fill in and said something like,“what is his name… yes,K.J. Rao”,in such a hurry that you thought he needed to take some acting lessons from Laloo first. But he could perhaps be excused. It was well past four,all helicopters have to report back in Patna before 5 pm as no night-flying is permitted and,not to take any chances,his pilot had already turned on the rotors while he was half-way through his seven-minute speech.

But whoever wins will have the satisfaction of winning what is possibly the first fair election,or rather the fairest election in Bihar’s history. It is to this that many would ascribe the low turnouts this time. Nitish tells us not to complain about falling turnouts because Bihar no longer has booths that show more than 90 per cent voting,implying that these were captured in the past and ballot boxes stuffed. Laloo says the low turnout is because of the panic spread by Rao. But you ask the common man even in Champaran,bordering Nepal’s Maoist heartland and one of the most lawless zones in Bihar,and he will tell you the region has never been safer. The central forces are wonderful,they say. And you speak to district officials and local journalists and they tell you of the electrifying effect K.J. Rao’s firmness has had on the situation.

In the very colonial circuit house’s drawing room,Rao spends no more than a half hour with us,much of which is consumed by his cellphone,then says a breezy goodbye and bounds down the staircase,like a Montgomery out to take on Rommel in Al Alamein. How does a man of 63 have so much energy,so much dash,asks one of the bankers. He could have also added,and what drives him to do it at a salary of no more than 30,000 rupees or so a month? Of course,like all men who make a difference,Rao has his critics,notably in the IAS. He was around the last time also,so how come you people did not hail him such a hero then,they ask. The implication is,it isn’t just Rao who has made the difference. It is also the absence or Laloo from power in the state for more than six months.

Can a fair election change people’s lives in a place like Bihar? If you drive,particularly at night,you could get very despondent. You might occasionally spot a signboard telling you this is National Highway 28 but it really is a moonscape where you manoeuvre your way from crater to crater. After a while your body even learns to adjust to it. As you get out of a crater your body is instinctively twisting itself to endure the next. This is really far in the east,so the sun sets very early. And then it is total darkness,barring your headlights. You drive past one village after another in complete darkness,not even one bulb anywhere for miles. People are mostly indoors,and by seven or so it is all so quiet you wonder if you are going past ghost habitations with endless elephant grass and sugarcane between them. And yet you see creativity and talent in ornate words of welcome,figures of animals and gods painted outside baked-mud-and-dung walls of people’s homes.

Surprise of surprises,we suddenly find lights. In fact an entirely lit village called Dumaria. We make a stop at the local zamindar’s home,straight out of a 1960s socialist movie,including ten tiger trophies on the walls of its main hall (“all shot before 1960”). Except that the current scion sounds as frustrated as the commoners of his village might. Rananjay Shahi is a graduate of St Stephens and says he came back to Dumaria fired by idealism. But that was in the past. Now,there is very little confidence anybody can change anything. This village is better organised. It got power lines because of political clout and now some of the better off families collectively maintain not just their power supply,but even the branch line from the Gandak canal,which turns Dumaria into an island of relative prosperity.

But you cannot fix everything. This region is infested with cobras and kraits and you hear about the sub-divisional magistrate of nearby Narkatiaganj who was bitten by a snake. The closest place you could find some anti-venom serum was Patna,at least eight hours away on roads which were mostly even worse than NH 28. But the IAS knows how to look after its own. The chief secretary intervened. A doctor started from Patna by road with the serum just as the stricken SDO started from Narkatiaganj. They made a rendezvous midway in exactly six hours and the serum was administered successfully. A life was saved though it must have been a rather gentle krait to have given the man a full four hours.

Drive through Bihar and you will hear tales like these at every mile. But they all add up to one basic fact. The state may have cradled JP’s total revolution in the ’70s and Laloo’s social justice revolution in the ’90s. What it needs now is a spell of half-decent governance. So the most vital question of this election is one that no pollster can answer: will this change this time? Will the idea of social justice evolve into a yearning for better governance? We,the Limousine Liberals,will surely check it out on our next trip to Bihar. Let’s only hope it does not have to come as soon as this one did after the last one.

Emergency’s Reality Czech

June 25,2005

A second trip to Prague provokes a second thought on Emergency: why do we forget the strangling of our economic freedom?

The last time I came to Prague it was easy to lose one’s way. I had driven at sunset from Vienna in a rented Ford Sierra,having been held up through the day by Hertz who wouldn’t rent a car to somebody without a dollar credit card. Remember,this was January 1990,when an Indian reporter on an overseas assignment had to still queue up at the RBI’s exchange control department for the hallowed permit that usually allowed you $165 a day in travellers’ cheques. They didn’t care if you were going to cover a war,or the collapse of the Soviet Bloc,or the Berlin wall,which was my story that winter. I was,therefore,hoping to get by by train,from a very chaotic Bucharest (in the week of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s death) to Budapest and then on the Prague and East Berlin. But the plans needed to be revised drastically as I was robbed of my passport,laptop and travellers’ cheques at the Bucharest railway station which,indeed,is a whole story by itself,but for another day.

The only place close to the region where Amex said they could replace my travellers’ cheques was Vienna — and then after finally managing to rent a car with the help of an Indian diplomat (who stood guarantee with his own credit card) I was hoping to resume the journey into Eastern Europe. Except,(then) Czechoslovakia was also in the throes of a revolution,a velvet revolution compared to Romania’s bloody one. Road signs were not in English,villages on the way were dark,silent and there was nobody you could stop and ask for directions. I lost my way comprehensively and finally gave up,pulling up in a motel of sorts in a very small town. It is only when I woke up the next morning that I realised that if one were to lose one’s way,this was a very interesting place to end up for the night,the village of Budweis,home of the famous beer.

The talk at the modest inn was all about politics. On how Vaclav Havel,the playwright who led the bloodless revolution,was going to change their society. On the quaint town square there were pro-democracy banners and graffiti. And the mood only picked up as you reached Prague. The central Wenceslaus Square was packed with processionists chanting,Ať žije Havel (long live Havel). For a nation going through a revolution,what was most remarkable was the absence of anger.

There were no slogans against anybody,no abuse,no cathartic rage of the kind one had seen the previous week in Bucharest as well as Moscow. The Czechs were at peace with themselves,and the change. Of all the Europeans now breaking out of the Iron Curtain,the Czechs and the Hungarians had accepted the Communist mantra the least of all,which is easy to understand given their history of successful entrepreneurship. Even in that tumultuous January of 1990 my one abiding memory is of 100-ft red banners hanging from the top of old buildings on the central square saying,“Mr Bata welcome back to Prague” (or words to that effect) written in golden paint. Mr Bata,who was then fighting a deadly battle with the unions at his shoe factory in Calcutta,is among the most famous Czech entrepreneurs — of course,he made his fame and money as an immigrant.

I cherish two other memories. One was a visit to the Czech Communist Party office. Once again,what intrigued you was the absence of bitterness or anger. There was acceptance of change. There was also anticipation of democracy,and a belief that once things settle down,there will be room for Communists in electoral politics. These were genuine,true-believer Communists,but they were also Czech nationalists surely had the intellect to distinguish between ideology and sovereignty. The other memory is a conversation with a young (then jobless) engineer in one of the pro-democracy processions.

“Look,Prague,” he said,“it is supposed to be the most beautiful city in Europe and now it looks so dirty and rundown. But please come back in a few years.”

And what will I see in a few years? I asked.

“See these buildings. We will take them,one wall at a time,one window a day,scrub and fix them,and out of this will come a city prettier than Paris,” he said.

How pretty Prague has turned out to be,you have to go and see now. Then you won’t ask why Prague got more tourists than Paris last year.

Much else has changed for the better. Fifteen years of reform have already taken the Czech per capita income to the $7,000 bracket. A nation that ran the dreadful Trabants and Ladas — a much more damning symbol of European Communism than the Ambassador car ever would be of Nehruvian socialism — has now revived its industry so comprehensively,its Skodas are competing with the best around the world. Also in India.

But as my guide and driver now complains,there is a problem. After so many years of banishment,the Communists are again beginning to win some seats in the Czech elections (41 out of 200 in the Chamber of Deputies),he says and wonders,with great dismay,how could people have forgotten or forgiven the days when there were no freedoms,you couldn’t travel,study what you wanted,when one day there were no Pampers for your baby in the market and on the other,no detergent. “May be,” he says,“may be,we did not deserve a velvet revolution,we should have had a bloody one,so people would not forgive so easily.”

I give him the usual Indian spiel: on democracy being the great healer,on how it can embrace the good and the bad,subsuming the bitternesses of history,on how the left and the right can share power in a diverse society. But he is not impressed. “Have you spent a couple of years under Communism? Just a couple of years,my friend,even a month. If you did you would never talk like this. You Indians are very fortunate you always had democracy,even when you had socialism.”

As I walked around my office this morning,wondering what to write for this week’s National Interest,somebody said,write on the Emergency. Today is its 30th anniversary and,remember,the Express was in the thick of it. And that set me thinking,was the Emergency our brief,19-month tryst with Communism of sorts? It was the most authoritarian period of our history,alright,but we often forget it was also the most “Socialist”. The top tax rate was 97 per cent. The most awful amendments in labour and business-related laws were made in this period and have survived to date to haunt us and our children. But also,as commemorative articles on the Emergency appear in our papers next week,you might notice these would all be about the denial of political freedoms,authoritarianism,censorship and so on,and not about economics. It is a most remarkably peculiar Indian phenomenon,where there is almost zero tolerance for political authoritarianism but no questioning of economic expression of the kind we suffered between 1967 and 1977. The Indian Express Economics Editor Ila Patnaik gives me stunning evidence of how this was the darkest decade for our economy as,apart from bank nationalisation,some of the most ghastly economic laws,the MRTP Act,Small Scale Reservation Act,FERA,Amended Industrial Disputes Act (to finally apply it to many more units),Urban Land Ceiling Act,quantitative and tariff curbs on imports,all happened in this period. Not surprisingly,much of the reform since 1991,carried out mostly by Congress-led governments,has involved rolling back or softening these suicidal laws. So how come when so many of us remember the political excesses of the Emergency nobody would talk about any of these?

So here is a theory. Could it be that starting with the euphoric early days of Nehru,we were caught in a neat trap? Nehru built a system where we were offered the political freedoms of a free-market democracy but economic restrictions of a benign socialist system. And because we had a reference point only for political liberty (having been a colony) and none for entrepreneurial freedom,we were so easily taken in. In a way,what Nehru gave us,and Indira built on,was the opposite of what the Communists are doing in China today — offering their people the economic freedoms of free-market democracies and the political restrictions of Communism.

It was a bit complex for me to explain to my Czech fellow traveller but do think about it as we remember that dreadful Emergency. Could it be that our dark memories are mostly about the denial of political freedoms because,once again,we had such low stakes economically that we never realised what we lost out on? All the sections of our power elite that suffered then —politicians,judiciary and the media — rode the post-Emergency anger to build in Constitutional and moral protections in the system so their freedoms and powers would never be denied to them again. But,more than 10 states have still not repealed the urban land ceiling,the UPA cannot even float a trial balloon on amending the Emergency labour laws or the Coal Act,which is now holding our power plants to ransom,and every year the finance minister stealthily takes another few score industries out of the small-scale reservation which has primarily contributed to making India uncompetitive. Maybe there is a lesson here. And hopefully,for the sake of the wonderful people of the Czech Republic,their Communists are not reading this.

Inside a comic-book coup

Why the Maldivian president needs to be eternally grateful to an unsung Indian frigate captain

March 19,2005

Earlier this week some newspapers carried a small obituary notice,announcing the demise of Vice-Admiral Srinivasa Varadachari V. Gopalachari of the Indian Navy. The name,the face under the naval hat,figured in my memory somewhere and,sure enough,a little checking confirmed that he was the master of frigate INS Godavari when it went chasing the Maldives coup leaders in the Indian Ocean in 1988. He died last week,young at 59,due to kidney complications.

I can tell you exactly when we were together in that chase,on the very eve of Diwali. The object of the chase was Abdullah Luthufi,the renegade Maldivian businessman-smuggler who had led a coup that nearly succeeded in dethroning President Gayoom but was thwarted by the arrival of Indian paratroopers — along with some of us parachute journalists though,unlike John Simpson of the BBC in Kabul,we would claim no credit for saving the Maldives. Luthufi and his band of hired guns,mostly Sri Lankan Tamil fighters engaged by him as mercenaries,had escaped on a commandeered ship,

Progress Light — the ship was anchored at Male,with fresh supplies of crates of Johnnie Walker whiskey (is Renuka Chowdhury reading this?) for the Male duty-free shop when it was hijacked. What was worse,he had taken along 27 hostages,including foreign tourists and members of the Maldivian cabinet. Gopalachari,at this point,was nearly a thousand kilometres away,but sailing furiously for home. He had been on the high seas for 82 days and his wife’s birthday,November 8,was approaching. Naval headquarters found him and the Godavari closest to the Maldives and he was to immediately change course and start looking for the rogue ship. How he,with the help of Il-38s and TU-142 aircraft,traced the ship,disabled it and caught the mercenaries who,to deter him,killed two of the hostages and dumped their bodies tied to buoys,is a long story and ideally he should have been around to tell it. I only got to his ship after that operation was concluded and I got a ride on his ship’s own Sea King helicopter which was running ferries from the frigate to the island bringing back the hostages.

By the time I landed on the ship’s helipad most of the hostages had gone home. But the mercenaries were there. Gopalachari offered to take me along for a chat with Luthufi,the man who thought he could be president of the Islamic Republic of Maldives. We went through many narrow corridors and steel spiral staircases and found Luthufi under one,tied up,blind-folded with two marine commandos watching him,fingers on the triggers of their carbines. And you could see they looked really keen he would make a false move — they had seen his thugs kill two hostages and dump their bodies in the sea. I sat down with Luthufi and asked him the question that had been bothering me all along: how could someone,in this time and age,imagine that he could take over a nation with a comic-book coup staged by a hundred soldiers of fortune and a junk ship? But Luthufi had his answer: “Why not? A country like the Maldives,anybody can be president. If only luck had been with us. If only you Indians had come a little later.”

Anyway,I left in a few hours and that is all the time I ever spent with (then) Capt Gopalachari,who told me with surgical cool of the chase,of how they broke the mercenaries’ will,his own ship’s 30-mm anti-aircraft cannon breaking the swinging derrick on Progress Light,prising away its only speedboat,his 57-mm guns firing all around the quarry spreading shrapnel,and his Sea King dropping anti-submarine depth charges around the ship not to damage it but to bounce it violently. Back in Male,the Maldivian capital,an island so small I could then run coast-to-coast in five minutes,India’s newly acquired,long-distance military muscle was on display. The red berets of the para battalion,led by Brigadier Furooq Balsara,were everywhere and such was the gratitude of the government that it not only allowed the duty-free shops to remain open till late night,it even allowed them to sell to Indian troops in rupees,waiving foreign currency and passport requirements. There had really been no combat except the cannon fire from frigate Godavari and training ship INS Betwa which had joined it. The only Indian casualty was a jawan who accidentally shot himself in the foot. There wasn’t such a big story to file — in my case it was no longer a moving,coup-type story. Later in the evening some of us reporters even went jogging around the island hotel of Kurumba Village Resort,with Tavleen Singh,now one of the most popular Indian Express columnists,even running on bare feet (she had had no time to pack her jogging shoes) and shorts that she borrowed from me and this was,obviously,the cause of much banter among a hack-pack that found the excitement of the coup story fading rather fast. We were all searching for and writing the same side-stories: on the fact that the republic’s armed forces had a total strength of 1,400 soldiers who also acted as firefighters,policemen and the official,ceremonial band. That Gayoom had survived because when he fled his palace he had the presence of mind to carry along his phone book with Rajiv Gandhi’s number in it. Remember,these were still pre-mobile phone days in the subcontinent. Or on how the republic had no prisons,so anybody who needed to be punished really severely was banished to one of its many uninhabited islands. One of the British reporters was playing a game of his own to keep himself busy,and the rest of us amused: he would walk up to any strolling band of paras and introduce himself as Mark Tully and then enjoy the warmest of handshakes. He even posed for pictures.

A lot has changed in 17 years,but some hasn’t. Gayoom survived that coup but is once again facing a challenge to his authority. Just this week he abrogated all powers of his cabinet and took total control. Now he is coming to Delhi,obviously looking for support. He does not need the paras any more but if there is one thing Rajiv Gandhi achieved with his prompt intervention then is a long-lasting notion of Indian influence in the Maldives. And while gratitude is not a virtue often found in international diplomacy,the fact that Gayoom then owed his life to Indian intervention,and has enjoyed India’s support and affection ever since will influence the nature of discussions even when he comes calling now,in another moment of crisis.

And look at what else has changed meanwhile. The tiny island-airport of Hulule where we landed in the paratroopers’ IL-76 in 1988 has now given way to a marvellously efficient,modern and busy new airport while our counterpart,Thiruvananthapuram,remains what it was,a CPWD monster. The Maldivian per capita income growth has beaten ours by a neat two percentage points each year since 1988 and an average Maldivian is now nearly five times richer than an average Indian. Maldives tourist arrivals have nearly quadrupled — nearly seven lakhs estimated (on a total population of two lakhs!) in 2004 while ours have just about doubled. On all social and economic indicators the Maldives has beaten us,following liberal and open trading policies and keeping a relaxed Islamic outlook that tolerates tourists,bikinis,bars,and so on. And while I am not sure if the size of its armed forces has increased meanwhile,the fact is,should things go wrong at some point again,India will always be round the corner. As will be some other captain of the Indian Navy with some other frigate or destroyer,happy to miss his wife’s birthday in the line of duty.

Stirrings in a hopeless land

Finally,there’s a new idea in Bihar: ink-in-the-pen vs oil-in-the-lathi

February 26,2005

Nobody goes to Bihar too often. Actually,nobody goes there unless he or she has to. No surprise then that for all but one member of our group of Limousine Liberals — an assortment of journalists,TV anchors,pollsters and investment bankers — it was their first look at Bihar. The exception,journo-turned-anchor-turned-politician-turned-cricket diplomat (guess who?),was the one person whose sasural happens to be in Patna.

A tradition with the group is that on the last meal of every election tour there is a poll on who will get how many seats,and a tiny wager. This time there was an added question,on who thought Bihar had turned out to be better than they had imagined. Most of the hands went up. Then,a follow-up,obviously in deference to the presence of so many investment bankers: would you ‘buy’ Bihar today if it was a bond or a share? Once again,a surprisingly large number of hands went up.

Now that’s a surprise,isn’t it? Bihar,the basket case,where nothing works,where the only growing business is kidnapping,where roads exist on paper and potholes in reality,where industry is mere brick kilns,where the per capital income is a fourth of the national average and to which all that is lousy or rotting anywhere in the country is benchmarked: UP’s roads are getting as bad as Bihar’s,Haryana’s political goondaism is reaching Bihar’s levels,eastern Madhya Pradesh looks like a mini-Bihar and so on. So what is it that still works in Bihar?

There isn’t much,actually. It is just that Bihar has got such bad press and for so long that you expect to be kidnapped within hours of landing here,and when that doesn’t happen you begin to feel smug. Yes,Patna sucks. But so do most of our cities. Open drains,garbage heaps,pigs,dogs,three-wheelers assaulting your lungs with kerosene fumes from their reconditioned “diesel” engines,backlit-plastic signboards that are the scourge of gentrifying India,are all there. But you can see these in any other city,even much richer ones. I can take you to parts of Ahmedabad — one of our most prosperous cities — that can beat Patna any time,particularly if you were to devise an index of urban rottenness based on the stink of human excreta. Also,on reputation alone,you do not expect to see any roads at all. But as you step out of the airport,the look-feel is that of any other cantonment town. What a sizeable zoo is doing cheek-by-jowl with the airport,however,is difficult to understand. You wonder if any animals still live there. And if they do,they must need therapy,given the aircraft noise they have to endure. For the capital of India’s most backward state,Patna’s is a very busy airport,made busier by politicians who arrive by small charters and then fly round the state in helicopters,to avoid the potholes more than kidnappers,I suspect.

Surely,you can also find cleaner,swankier streets in other cities,particularly Ahmedabad. But where else can you have a string of Muharram processions,with the devout cutting and slashing themselves,assaulting each other with hockey sticks,chains and hooks in mourning for Husain,splashing blood all over the chock-a-block street that they share with Hindu wedding processions in perfect peace and harmony? A big wedding muhurat has coincided with Muharram this year,and the two hug different flanks of the street. Their respective bands sometimes play the same numbers (I picked some ETC-Punjabi channel favourites) but the crowds never mix,or mess with each other,even though one set dances in celebration and the other flails,flagellates and beats their chests in lament.

Traffic is almost at a standstill. But there is no frustrated honking,no curses,no road rage. Because nobody is in a rush,nobody has anything to do you might say. But the fact is,there is a certain decency,patience,cultured-ness,a tolerance of the other in Bihar,that you won’t see anywhere — at least in the north. Women feel quite safe. They don’t get pinched,pushed,or pawed in crowded election meetings and one of our women staffers who have just returned from reporting assignments in Bihar proudly acknowledges the total absence of what she describes as “the male gaze”.

Sure,Patna or Bihar’s other cities have none of the other symbols of modern growth,hotels,restaurants,multiplexes. But there are consumer goods and half the hoardings belong to cellphone companies,the other half to soft drinks. The arrival of the equity cult is underlined by a banner on a Bank of India branch,offering easy loans for the Jet Airways’ IPO. It is a different matter though that Jet only recently started a flight to Patna,after it was arm-twisted by Praful Patel. Patna is also one of the very few Jet centres where check-in is not computerised and its staffers write your boarding cards with felt pens. Overlooking Gandhi Maidan,where Vajpayee and Sonia address rallies on successive evenings,is a commercial tower of sorts,with a glazed,open-skies lift.

Across the long flyover-cum-bridge that straddles the Ganga and its floodplains is the district of Hajipur,Ram Vilas Paswan’s pocket-borough from which he routinely hits the Guinness Book for his humongous victory margins. And you can see why. The roads are as good as any in most states,certainly better than in most of Uttar Pradesh. Houses are pucca,there are schools,colleges,some small factories,you see the odd tractor,lush fields of wheat,vegetables,ripening mustard and blooming lentil. Farmers are busy,and so are their families. Then,as you drive into the district of Vaishali,dotted with Buddhist and other Gupta-Mauryan period sites,you wonder for a while if you are in a green-revolution territory. Those most telling indicators of farming progress,advertisements of fertilisers,tractors,cement and pesticides on the village walls,appear every now and then. My favourite is the one for Lafarge ‘Concreto’,on a wall ten km from Vaishali. Imagine,the French multinational selling cement to the poorest of the poor,in revolutionary badlands where Maoist gangs strike at will.

These are areas still within 150 km from Patna,so please do not get misled,you are told. Go further north and the landscapes becomes real,nightmare Bihar. We don’t go too far,but a little bit,to the buzzing little town of Sarayya,another 35 km from Vaishali,where things do not look so much worse. There are hundreds of bicycles,a large BSNL office — and full signal in your BSNL mobile — tractor workshops,even a polyclinic of sorts which boasts a cosmetic dentist promising you “film star smiles”. But even in this relatively better-off region,one thing that is non-existent is the state. No state transport buses (one spotted in two days on the road),no primary health centres,no agricultural extension offices,veterinary centres,BDO offices,things that you would expect to see in typical Indian countryside. No family planing slogans (no wonder Bihar has such a high birth rate),no pulse polio messages.

The scene isn’t that different as you travel in another direction,towards another ancient Buddhist landmark,Nalanda. This is Nitish Kumar’s kurmi heartland and it shows in his rally in the town of Hilsa (no relation of the fish that is the favourite of all Bengalis). Nitish is no Laloo. But what he lacks in style and charm is made up for by the enthusiasm of his crowds. He brings a message you wouldn’t normally expect to hear in Bihar. Your boys (unfortunately boys,not boys and girls) do not need mere slogans,he says,they need knowledge and education. Then he mocks Laloo’s favourite exhortation to his own to season their sticks with oil (laathi ko tel pilao) by telling his crowds that what Biharis need instead is ink in their their pens. Will such an appeal work? “Frankly,I don’t know,” Nitish tells us. He says after the Lok Sabha debacle he would never make a claim because who knows what works in an election.

Good point. But one change is evident. If there is one thing the Biharis yearn for,it is education. Wherever you go,the only industry that is mushrooming is private education. Private coaching centres merely complement government-run schools which are the only ones authorised to hold annual exams. So you enroll in a government school where teachers never come,classes are never held,but go and study in a private school where often the same government teachers moonlight. You see these “schools” wherever you look,including in the outhouses of temples. Hans Gyan Niketan is one such. The temple premises are mostly used for coaching classes while it provides “video satsangs” (congregations) on Saturdays. In fact you see so many young children in diverse school uniforms in Bihar that you wonder where those terrifying school absenteeism figures are coming from. Or could it be that that particular set of horror figures is misleading,that all these boys and girls are simply fleeing the non-functional government schools to study in coaching centres?

On the outskirts of Hilsa we stop at what is called Sarvodaya School,run by Satyendra Narain Singh who left college at the age of 18 to set this up. He has a waiting list now. His school has a power generator,a hand-pump,and classes are never disrupted. At just 65 rupees a month for a child,a fully functional school is a block-buster product in rural Bihar. Forget minimum wages,at a thousand rupees a month he does not pay his teachers even what they would get if they enrolled in the Jean Dreze’s new employment guarantee scheme. But they always come to work on time and work a long,honest day. Teachers in government schools,on the other hand,are paid upwards of 10,000 but are rarely seen. He is now planning to expand — open an English-medium branch which is “much in demand now”. His students have already cracked the IIT/JEE and CAT,and so on,so he is riding a reputation. All this when his competition is a state that does not exist. Bihar’s schools have vacancies for 40,000 primary teachers and 15,000 at the secondary level. And if you think money is a problem remember that last year,of the Rs 780 crore allocated to Bihar under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan,only 150 crore was utilised.

A little factoid I deliberately held back so far is the name of Ram Vilas Paswan’s candidate here. It’s Ranjit Singh. You know him as Ranjit Don. Rings a bell? Yes,the man is in jail for allegedly leaking CAT tests and giving fake medical degrees,apparently also to his driver and cook. He is now contesting from jail. His wife,in full suhagan livery,campaigns from a Qualis decked with posters of the don in handcuffs,behind bars,flanked by portraits,among others,of Sonia,Rahul and Priyanka. His supporters chant “Jail ka taala tootega,Ranjit bhaiyya chootega”. How disgusting. How Bihar-like,you might say. Now pause,and think again. What was Ranjit Don selling? He was selling an ambition,the only hope a young Bihari has today. Education,a degree that will get him of Bihar,to some place where jobs are. If you wanted to be facetious,you could see an echo of Netaji Subhas Bose’s old promise of freedom if you gave him blood. Ranjit Don could then be saying,tum mujhe vote do,main tumhein degree doonga. But,seriously,even in its criminal manifestation,what the don represents is the yearning of a new Bihar,where a good degree is synonymous with azadi. Even in its deep hopelessness,what Biharis yearn for is education. So to the old Bijli-Sadak-Pani metaphor,Bihar is adding one more now,Padhai. Could it be,then,that the investment banker who is willing to “buy” Bihar at today’s rock-bottom prices is not exactly out of his mind?

Mr Dixit,I presume

A personal tribute: from a lock-up in Trincomalee 19 years ago to dinner the night before he passed away

January 08,2005

The first time I met J.N. ‘Mani’ Dixit,in September 1985,I had not particularly given him a reason for me to be in his good books. I had just been arrested by the Sri Lankan military for nosing around “sensitive installations” near Trincomalee. This was actually a Tamil temple that had been burnt down in ethnic fighting very close to the lagoon resort of Nilaveli — which just got swept away in the December 26 tsunami. Trincomalee was then a combat zone and I had jumped the unwritten conditions of my visa to take the train there from Colombo. I had spun a completely ridiculous web of lies in the process,all involving friends. I had told Sunil Gavaskar,who was then participating in the Test match in Colombo that I was merely taking a day off to visit Kandy because I couldn’t bear to see India lose to Lanka. I had told Lalith Athulathmuthali (then Sri Lankan internal security minister) I was going to be at the cricket match. And I had told Dixit’s key lieutenant Hardip Puri and his wife Lakshmi,the high commission’s press officer,(now both ambassadors in Geneva) that I was doing some interviews and was not to be missed for a day or so.

But then once the Sri Lankan military locked me up,I had no choice but to try and reach the very same people for help. Lalith gave me a mouthful for lying to him and also misusing the hospitality but helped if I promised to be at his house the next evening for cognac. Hardip pulled a few strings too and I was on the next train back to Colombo — as it turned out,it was also the last train out of Trinco for a long,long time. That very night a bridge along the track was blown up by the Tigers. It was on my safe return that I was presented before the high commissioner who should have been furious for the trouble I had caused as also for the IOU his mission had had to concede to the Sri Lankans to get me out.

He had other reasons to be cross with me too. Just the previous year,I had written an extremely contentious investigative story out of Tamil Nadu for India Today revealing,for the first time,that Indian intelligence agencies were running covert training camps for Sri Lankan Tamil insurgents. The story had provoked Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to dismiss India Today as an “anti-national magazine” at a press conference. R.K. Karanjia echoed the sentiment in a front-page story in The Daily,headlined “It’s Lanka Today,not India Today” (let’s avoid the name of the reporter for now),and went on to suggest that I had been bought over by the Sri Lankan deputy high commissioner in Madras for a bottle of Scotch. But as Mani never let me forget when we got to know each other better in later years,that particular story was the albatross around his neck when he walked into Colombo as our high commissioner. The Sri Lankans quoted it as conclusive evidence of Indian complicity in their Tamil insurgency,their government reprinted copies of it,their media kept on quoting from it.

So here I was,brought to his office like a prodigal schoolchild,expecting to be screamed at again. But Mani,as so many obituaries have now told us,was not one to get ruffled,blow his top. “Young fellow,” he said,his eyes expressing amusement more than anger,“were you born with this gift of getting yourself into trouble? At least you should have told us you were going there.” I was still not senior enough for high commissioners to call me home for a drink. But he gave me tea,and a little lecture on how damaging my earlier story had been and how,having written that,it was in any case so perfectly reckless of me to have gone into Tiger territory. All Sri Lankans had to do,he said,was shoot you and tell the world the Tigers did it because you had exposed their camps in India. This was old-fashioned avuncular concern and it stopped at that. Then he gave me a long lecture on how I did not understand the history of ethnic unrest in the island,the complexities of India-Sri Lanka relations,the gravest provocation Jayewardene had caused Indira Gandhi by getting carried away in his own electoral rhetoric after she lost her election after the Emergency and asking his voters to vote out the cow and the calf (Sirimavo and Anura Bandarnaike) as Indians had done with theirs (cow and calf was then the symbol of the Congress and the metaphor was also used by Indira Gandhi’s nastier opponents for her and son Sanjay). A big power and its leadership,he said,could never allow such arrogance to fester in its neighbourhood and,in any case,Jayewardene had been so cruel to his Tamils and so what if they were given a little wherewithal to fight back. Outranked by such distance,I only mumbled my disagreement and left.

Our next encounter was a full two years later. In the latter half of 1987 I was on a sabbatical in Washington and missed most of the initial phase of Op Pawan (the IPKF operation against LTTE). I returned to see the India Today issue with bodies of Indian troops in Jaffna on the cover,an image that still gives me nightmares. The operation had been a military disaster of sorts and I returned to Sri Lanka to reconstruct it,and to figure out what may have gone wrong. I now called on Mani on my return.

The mood was now very different. Dixit was already mocked as the “viceroy” by the Sri Lankan media for how he had rail-roaded the accord between Rajiv Gandhi and Jayewardene and the tight control he kept over things since Indian troops landed on the island. He was protected by Indian paracommandos. From his window you could see two Indian navy frigates anchored in coastal waters.

“Nice to see you again,” I said. “We have both moved on since we met last,I am now a special correspondent,and you the viceroy.”

“I knew you had cheek,young man,” he said. “But now I figure you also have a sense of humour.” Then he paused for a long drag from his pipe,and said,“Actually I now admit you also have wisdom.”

He then went on to admit how “I and the rest of us who played with these fellows (LTTE)” were so much in the wrong. “You were right,” he said,“in sticking your neck out and saying two years back that we were creating a Frankenstein. It has already swallowed so many of our lives,and who knows where this will stop.”

Now when was the last time you had an Indian foreign policy maker say something so honest to a mere special correspondent. Subsequently,he acknowledged this at seminars,in public speeches and indeed in so many social conversations. There was another thing he said that evening,in that reflective mood. “I must make another confession,” he said. “I now realise this country has a long way before it can think of becoming a big power.”

“What made you think that way,Mr Viceroy? When?” I asked.

“The moment the first shot was fired in Jaffna. Our responses. Our self doubt. We are a long way yet from acquiring the big-power temperament,” he said.

From then on we met more frequently as I travelled often to Sri Lanka and then to Pakistan. One column is too little to tell a dozen more such exchanges as our professional relationship evolved — where the gain,obviously,was mostly mine. But from then,on to the foreign secretary’s office in a most difficult phase where he joined hands with Narasimha Rao to fob off the Americans on the nuclear issue and destroyed Benazir Bhutto’s credibility as she visited 28 foreign capitals in one half-tenure as prime minister plugging her cause on Kashmir,to a star Indian Express columnist,to the NSA’s post,the topmost concern on his mind was the same as in his office in Colombo in the winter of 1987 — how to build a big-power temperament in India,and how to propel it in that direction. It is particularly cruel therefore that his innings were to be cut short just when India had begun to show both the mind and the muscle for that.

Mani was a philosophical man and would perhaps have no regrets. I,however,have a couple. One,that I was counting on him to some day help solve the mystery of what exactly happened in December 1995 when India came close to testing the nukes but Rao somehow pulled back. Strobe Talbott claims it was under US pressure. But others (including me) believe it was part of a more complex,very Rao-Dixitesque policy formulation. Each time I asked Rao what happened,he patted his belly,indicating the secret would remain there and go with him into his funeral pyre. He kept that promise last month. I had hoped some day Mani might resolve that for me. Now he has taken that secret to his pyre as well.

The second regret is personal. Mani was at our home for a dinner we hosted for Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria on Sunday night,his usual self,telling Fareed how much he liked his writing though he disagreed with him often,telling my children he had known me since I was a cub reporter. The regret is,he did not eat his dinner before leaving. He said there was a call from the PM and left at ten. “I am not just the NSA in this job,I am also a general purpose factotum,” he said,in his usual self-deprecatory manner. He also said he would call me home soon one evening when there would be no calls because there was so much to talk about,for hours.

But that was not to be. The very next morning,he was gone for ever,also taking to his pyre the secret of what happened in December 1995,leaving in grief so many more friends,admirers,colleagues than almost anybody before him who served this ungrateful city in bureaucratic straight-jacket.

Seizure in the heartland

If you thought our politics was now driven by bijli sadak pani,hop into a car,switch gears,adjust your rear-view mirror — and hit a road in UP

May 01,2004

Here’s a question for both,the pandit and the pollster. Or maybe it is just a truism suffixed with a convenient question mark: Could it be that election after election,the essential balance of power in our Parliament remains the same because in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,things also remain just the same?

Let’s simplify that. Why should people vote for somebody else,defying the pull and loyalties of caste and religion,when they don’t expect anybody to improve their lives? If my roads are going to remain the same,my power cuts forever 16 hours a day,no teachers in my schools or doctors in my primary health centres,and so on,why should I even bother to change anything? The least I can do — probably all I can do,the voter would say — is to keep my caste cousin in power. So the deadlock in Uttar Pradesh continues,an electorate split between Mulayam,Mayawati,BJP and Congress,almost in a constant pattern for nearly a decade. If electoral politics could be compared with wars,this is the very equivalent of the static trench-warfare of World War I,when for years nobody lost or gained any ground,but both sides lost life and limb by the millions. What a waste,military historians always say of that pointless war. Chances are,our political historians will say the same about our heartland politics in decades to come.

At one level,this deadlock is responsible for the frozen nature of our politics,hung Parliaments and frozen votebanks. These two states constitute nearly one-fourth of Lok Sabha. They defy the winds of change blowing elsewhere in India. Then,by the sheer force of their numbers,they also undo the welcome impact of that change. In most states — even in the neighbouring Hindi states like Rajasthan,Madhya Pradesh and Haryana — it is nearly impossible for an incumbent to get re-elected because nobody can come up to the expectations of a very demanding electorate. Not in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and as a consequence the people of these states have lost their national clout. Their politicians can afford to take their vote for granted. It won’t go down if they don’t perform,it won’t go up if they do. So give the people what they deserve: Sheer contempt,which is so evident in the manner the campaign is being run in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP has just one agenda,split the Muslim vote between the SP,BSP and the Congress so it can get at least 30 seats. Mulayam just wants 25,Mayawati even less,maybe 20,so each can emerge as a kingmaker in mid-May,and the Congress has no idea other than driving poor Sonia and her children from one place to another hoping that some sparks of nostalgia would emerge,some Muslim vote will shift. Nobody has an idea for Uttar Pradesh. Nobody even has a promise.

If you want to see how it works in real life,come to this countryside. If you too were spoilt by Rajasthan,Madhya Pradesh and Delhi last winter into believing that our politics

was moving into a bijli-sadak-paani-performance-accountability mode,be prepared to shift gears,readjust the rear-view mirror,change perspective,and certainly not for the better.

If you lived anywhere along the 65-km road (or what passes for it) linking the towns of Bewar and Etawah,linking Mulayam Singh Yadav’s constituency (Mainpuri) with his son Akhilesh’s (Kannauj),you couldn’t care less about any claims or promises. I am sure there are several other parts of the country where you could go for a similar reality check,but this one is perhaps the most rattlingly apt. It is so close to Delhi (just around 300 km),runs across Uttar Pradesh’s political heartland — Mayawati has sometimes contested from Akbarpur,not far from here,and the “road” in question links two major national highways,1 and 2.

God knows I have travelled rough roads in my reporting years but it is difficult to recall one that was so consistently bad for such a long distance. Maybe a dirt track I once travelled linking Mizoram’s capital Aizawl with the then chief minister’s constituency of Saitual. But this was in the mountains,the year was 1981 and there was an insurgency on,so you couldn’t build many roads anyway. Or,more likely,the road from the airbase to the city of Herat in Najibullah’s Afghanistan,cratered by mines and the rest of the asphalt ripped out by the tracks of tanks and armoured personnel carriers,the only mode of transport available — and considered prudent. But there was a war on,and the road was just about 20 km. This is a 65-km minefield.

The land is fertile,as it should be in the 100-km expanse between the Ganga and the Jamuna. The crop has been plentiful,going by the neatly laid out bundles of recently harvested wheat. Even in the villages,ironically,you do not see any stark poverty. Most houses are pucca,there are motorcycles,the odd tractor,some hand-pumps,a flock of the most serene sarus cranes by the side of a pond. People are reasonably well clothed,though not always busy. What is non-existent is infrastructure and basic amenities. Schools look more decrepit than houses,government offices,strung along the road,so run down you wonder if anybody ever visits them. Just a mile short of the midway point,the over-grown village of Kishni — where traffic is blocked because the local thug wouldn’t let a truck pass without paying him his tribute — you see the animal husbandry department’s artificial insemination centre,filled with cobwebs and rubbish.You wonder if any buffalo ever got impregnated there and if one did,it must be a great,great,great,great,great grandmother,by now.

If the people still do not look so poor it is probably because so many of the men have joined the armed forces,or left for Delhi and elsewhere,driving our cars as chauffeurs,carrying our mail or fetching our tea as peons and desultorily patrolling our streets,sitting listlessly on stools and chairs at our gates forced into those silly uniforms of private security agencies. They have left their families to the care of the state which is non-existent. In one of those great ironies truly in the “this happens only in India” genre,in the rotting little town of Basrehar,just 20 km or so short of Etawah,you find,crying out for attention out of a mandi of jaggery which is more like a free,open-air feast for the flies,a textile shop. Take a peep and you see the signboard: Reid and Taylor suitings. Now you know what I am talking about.

If this patch of land has been the fount of political power in a state as powerful as Uttar Pradesh for so long,how come nobody has ever done anything for its inhabitants? And how come nobody ever seems to get punished for this by the voters? The answer lies in how successfully these caste-based leaders have been able to run such devilishly distorted politics. You impoverish your voters,increase their misery but then somehow convince them that someone else is to blame for this,probably from a rival caste. So each time,you ask for votes not for what you have done by way of benefiting your people but for what your enemies are perceived to have done to harm them.

We get an idea of how such negative politics is run in Bharat Hotel — my co-traveller and Businessweek’s India correspondent Manjit Kripalani notes with great delight that you can rent dorms here for 50 cents a night — in Kannauj. Obviously this is the kind of hotel the Samajwadi Party can afford to run its local office from and if there are bats hanging from the ceilings of the toilets,when did such things scare the Lohiaites? But what is truly scary is the mythology they are peddling. Among several pamphlets handed out to us is one,written in pretty good English,by Kalyan Jain,a former MP.

It is not just an indictment of “feel-good” but of the very idea of economic reform. The most telling is the section on the national highway programme. It is good to build roads,it says,thank you. But roads should be built to link villages with cities. Not these great highways that run across the country. Because they do not benefit people. They only make it easier for foreigners to take away our businesses and wealth. Alright,Mr Jain,let’s concede your point for a moment,for Lohiaites are to be allowed some intellectual leeway. But then why don’t you,for starters,at least get your leader and his son to build a real road linking their own constituencies? Another hour up the same road,at what looks like a neo-green revolution town with the unlikely name of Chabrimau,you find another Mulayam/ Akhilesh meeting inside an empty cold-storage so big it reminds you of the humongous puja pandals in the string of temples at Chhatarpur in Delhi’s outskirts. The leaders are late,as usual,and the crowd (strikingly unusual in not having a single woman,now you know why Mulayam so opposes the women’s reservation bill) is being entertained by the local bard. His singing is disastrous,tabla so out of tune and sync it would give Ustad Zakir Hussain a heart attack if he was within a hundred miles,but the message is clear. Mulayam stands by you Muslims (against the BJP) and the poor (against the privileged elites). The only encouraging note is the repeated exhortation to send your children to school. So maybe all is not lost yet. But by now you may be cynical enough to ask,but where are the schools?

Static politics affords its practitioners the luxury of not even having to invent fresh lies. You can repeat the same ones election after election and leave the rest to your own voters’ lack of options. If Mulayam,Mayawati and Laloo have been able to run this politics so successfully for more than a decade while their voters have fallen further behind the rest of their countrymen,they also have to thank our national parties’ lack of imagination.

You feel the Gandhi effect the moment you enter the family enclave of Amethi-Sultanpur-Rai Bareli. The roads are better (relatively speaking),there are health centres and schools seem functional even if Priyanka Gandhi tells you depressing stories of dropout rates and abysmal teaching standards,you even see a homoeopathic veterinary clinic run by the government (I certainly didn’t see any Jersey cows there). Priyanka would also tell you with great candour of the struggles she and the family have waged to raise funds for this region,of how much haemorrhages between the treasury and the people. But some of it has gone into the land and its people and they pay back by voting for the family,again and again. But the Congress is guilty of being satisfied with just that,and showing a complete inability or inclination to take the battle to the rest of the state. It has no message,no leader and no idea with the spark,appeal or charm,to cut across the caste-religion deadlock in this static battleground.

And where did the BJP lose its plot? You stop some place on the alleged road between Bewar and Etawah and ask a villager if he is feeling good and he will tell you to get lost,or worse,and in more colourful language. Under a 45-degree sun,with no water,electricity,money in the pocket,a job to keep him busy,nothing irritates him more than the idea of “feel good”. His fate is not worse than before,but it is not great. His India is not shining. That is why the loudest cheers at election rallies come when speakers mock the feel-good slogan: deal-good,steal-good,kneel-good (before Americans) and so on. Not all claims the BJP makes are wrong but they don’t work here. You can build the multiplexes,the malls,give cheaper housing loans,easy gas connections but in the great unwashed hinterland where real political power lies,nobody has seen these things yet.

But surely,you may ask,politicians have won elections on false slogans. So why can’t the BJP do it this time? Perhaps they made the one fatal error all vote-seeking political parties must avoid,of pegging an election campaign on the present. The problem with the present is,it is here and tangible,you say,I have made India shine and people say,show me how. My roads are rotten,my schools are deserted,I have no water,power,money,jobs,my life sucks. But if you had told him I will make your India shine it may have worked differently. In electoral politics you either sell a promise for the future,or nostalgia for the past. Offering the present for the voters’ scrutiny is dangerous business. Particularly so when they may still be living along roads like the one linking Bewar and Etawah.

Poll notes of a limo liberal

View from Rajasthan’s ground zero: How Congress snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

December 06,2003

If you laugh at parachute reporters,what would you call a genuinely motley gang of psephologists,investment bankers,editors,columnists and television anchors—even an editor-turned-anchor-turned MP — in three stretch Volvos traversing Rajasthan in the last leg of the election campaign? We obviously had the wisdom of so many pre-election surveys at the back of our minds. All the major ones gave the state to the Congress and,sure enough,the Congressmen we met en route were sure they were right. This state,they said,was already in the bag. Then we found Sudhanshu Mittal,the biggest of Pramod Mahajan’s backroom boys—or the chief of his so-called laptop gang—over an elegant dinner at The Oberoi’s seven-star Raj Vilas.

“You’ve got it all wrong. All the surveys are wrong. Rajasthan is with the BJP,we will get 110 seats,” he said,looking us pundits and grandmasters of psephology in the eye.

Now,if there is one thing Mittal and his boys lack,it is not confidence. But by the next day the picture had begun to look a bit confusing. In a state that the Congress was supposed to sweep,the voices in the countryside said something else. At every roadside huddle—which was quickly achieved at the sight of us Limo Liberals — there were more voices speaking of the BJP than the Congress. At the village of Soyila (in the Niwai constituency on National Highway 12 connecting Jaipur with Kota) a quick headcount at the chai-shop produced a result of 8-5,in favour of the BJP. Of course the BJP-wallas were also much more vocal. One told us,quite confidently,that he had read (in the RSS paper,Panchjanya,he claimed) that Indian journalists had visited Sonia’s village in Italy and were told that she used to be a cabaret dancer there. But obviously you can’t take the Panchjanya seriously,even if it wrote such a thing,we said. But his mind was made up. Oddly,there wasn’t too much outrage at that even from those who said they were voting for the Congress. The result now: the Congress Deputy Chief Minister Banwarilal Berwa was trounced here.

Pushing further north,deeper into the ravines before gliding into the green flat-lands of Kota,awash in Chambal waters and the fertile riches they bring,the picture never really conformed to the pre-poll surveys. Except in the really poor,mostly Dalit village of Pradeepnagar 15 km from Tonk (named after the princeling),you would never get a higher count for the Congress. But there was one running thread: things were different until a few days back. The winds were blowing for the Congress. But something has changed in the last couple of days. You heard this from the BJP candidate,Mahabir Jain,at Tonk,a veteran of five elections with a 3-2 record (six now,score is 4-2) who gave us native political wisdom with generous dollops of the famous local milk-cake,sitting on top of a shop in the heart of what must be the princely town’s Fashion Street. The tailoring shops in front have names like Beyond Compare,Bondstreet,and As You Like It. And in an election Jain obviously believes that arithmetic is the thing. He thinks he has it all sewn up and is even not regretful that Modi has not come campaigning here. “I know why you are asking that question. Because there are 40,000 Muslim votes here. But we do not need a Hindu-Muslim division here. I am winning nevertheless.”

He was winning,actually,because the Muslim vote was badly divided. If Modi came here,it would probably consolidate again in fright,entirely to the benefit of his arch rival,Zaqia of the Congress,the sitting MLA and minister. Now she had to handle three more Muslim candidates,one each from NCP and the SP,and another Congress dissident Nazimuddin,reputedly the richest man in Tonk,the bidi king (his secularism underlined by the brand-name for his bidis,Ganesh) with sons who went to St Stephens and frothing at the corners of his mouth at having been ignored by his party. “I am not here as a spoiler. I will win,” he says more in anger than with conviction and invites us to his “rally” alongside a tiny mosque,attended by no more than a hundred,probably all Muslims — two-thirds of them children who clap furiously each time his cheerleader recites another rousing Urdu sher,exhorting Nazimuddin to be like the bird who dared to fly,and leave the rest to Allah,in spite of having rain-drenched wings. In this case,however,all his “bird” had on his mind was throwing a bucket of cold water on his Congress rival’s wings,which he did quite effectively. The result now: Mahabir Jain won.

The Congress had obviously got a couple of things wrong in Rajasthan. And the BJP a few right. Independents and rebels were placed strategically and helped,with the simple,straight-forward purpose of dividing the committed Congress vote. I bet Sudhanshu Mittal and his (and Mahajan’s) other boys would not have required some supercomputer to work these equations out and take the election away from the Congress. All this while,as a story by this newspaper’s correspondent Kota Neelima later showed,the Congress stalwarts were focusing on what obviously matters most — their offspring’s constituencies,unmindful of the spectacular trap being laid for them. With the picture so confusing,it was the Original Psephologist Prannoy Roy who came up with the idea of a direct “haath-ya-phool” (the hand or the flower) poll. You stopped any bystander and asked that simple question. The count was decisively against what the opinion polls were telling us. Evidence that winds had shifted?

In Ajmer,Sonia Gandhi addressed a modest rally. I did a spot poll of my own,asking as many as 12 Congress participants — and presumably Congress voters — if they knew who the lady (Ambika Soni) accompanying Sonia was. Not one had an answer and the one uncharitable guess somebody made I’d rather not mention. You cannot win an election against a party as organised as the BJP,which can throw a dozen leaders in the campaign whom every voter would know from television if nothing else,if your general secretary is such a lightweight. Ambika versus Mahajan,Kapil Sibal versus Jaitley,Pranab Mukherji (where is he?) versus Venkaiah,you can go on,but the fact is,Sonia and the Congress simply did not have the team to counter the BJP. They cannot complain of lacking resources. They had an incumbent government,tipped by the polls to win,so resources could not have been such a problem. What they lacked was focus,discipline,intellect,commitment and probably a laptop for which somebody would have found 60,000 rupees.

In her speech,spoken in very good Hindustani (her diction is getting better),Sonia accused the BJP of producing so many scams as to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records. I am not sure anybody understood that in Ajmer,but crowd clapped on cue. But if Sonia now sits back and introspects,she might look seriously at her party’s chances of making the Guinness Book as the political party for having wallowed in denial for the longest period in its history.

Her generals are not willing to match their skills with the BJP’s,her colonels are not willing to leave the comfort of their homes and business to join battle,and the troops are in disarray. Amazing,how a party that brought in the computers into elections (1984),then Sam Pitroda with his promise of high-tech revolution and Rajiv Gandhi with his promise of 21st century India,now speaks a language frozen in the seventies. Its thinking on economics has regressed,it sees privatisation as the loot of public wealth,banking reform an insult to the memory of the senior Mrs G,clings to the least creative of its old guard (one of them told me the other day the way for the Congress to revive itself was to re-establish contact with the generation of freedom fighters!),is afraid of throwing a Manmohan Singh even into the Delhi campaign,and refuses to create a new B-team. It fails to project its chief ministers as stars. Why was S.M. Krishna not paraded in Jaipur and Bhopal? “I will do for tourism in Rajasthan what my colleague did for IT in Bangalore.” That is one line we never heard from a Gehlot.

It instinctively denies the arrival of a new India,awash with a feel-good mood not seen since Rajiv’s first year in power,and powered by a new voter who asks real questions on his quality of life,rather than succumb to old slogans,mantras and the pull of any dynasty. You send tacky,free school-bags to children who have seen better bags on their TV screens. You insult them. What this voter is telling you is,don’t throw me a freebie. Promise me a much better tomorrow — it’s my right. The party fails to understand that the Gandhi-Nehru nostalgia may not have ended but is waning,that nearly five crore voters in the 2004 elections would have actually been born after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and that they will vote on a promise of a better future than on the prejudices or loyalties of the past. How come the same voter that throws you in the gutter in three states,votes you back so thumpingly in the fourth? A party that does not ask itself these questions and wrestles with their answers lives in the past and the only message it gives its constituency is that it cannot guarantee a future. And if there is one thing the New Indian Voter is not ready to compromise with,it is the future. Irrespective of what your ancestors did for his in the past.

Konark & fibre-glass ducks

My Orissa diary: why the state needs to get out of the margins and come on to the national page

November 15,2003

You have to give them full marks for punctuality and feather-touch landings. Yet,it is difficult to cast away your prejudices against very old aircraft,particularly when flown by very young pilots. But that is how it is with Alliance Air,and when the plane to Bhubaneswar begins to shake and rattle a bit in a cloud you can’t hide a tinge of panic. At least not from a face-reader as good as Laloo Yadav.

Seated next to me,he puts a reassuring hand on mine: “Dariye mat (don’t be scared),bhery (very) safe plane,” he says. Then moving both hands in a motion you could,at a pinch,confuse for milking a cow,or manoeuvring a gear shift or a joystick,he explains why the old plane is so very safe. ‘‘Fully manual hai na…’’ So no fears of some wretched fuse blowing and short-circuiting the engines,or whatever such perils the more modern fly-by-wire airplanes may bring.

My purpose of flying to Bhubaneswar is as mundane as lecturing. For Laloo,it is business as usual,true to his most repeated line in a television promo,“bahut politics hai”. Orissa,he says,has a huge population of backward and poor (read Yadavs,called Gouds in Orissa) who need an awakening. Which is his responsibility. So there will be a backward connection in Puri,some grandstanding before the press here and there. Laloo’s politics is also practical and pragmatic. Of all the third front leaders of the socialist gene pool,he is the only one with no doubts on Sonia’s credentials to be prime minister. “In the past I was kingmaker. Now I will be queen-maker.” As always,his lines come pre-rehearsed. And you will hear these ones a lot in the run-up to the 2004 national elections.

Orissa,he thinks,is ripe for change — like Bihar. He is a good boy,he says of Naveen Patnaik,a fine,ineffective,powerless,clueless babalog. “You have to be kind to him,after all he is Biju Babu’s son. He was a good man. Almost a socialist,” he says and goes on to explain how he wants to yank the state away from him.

My father,a socialist? What else could offend Naveen Patnaik more. Father Biju,after all,was one of India’s first capitalists. He built our first private airline,steel factory,and so on. But Naveen (Pappu to friends in Delhi’s sizeable upper crust circuit) is far too genteel to ever raise his voice or show much indignation.

Nor is the setting particularly conducive to talking about dirty,underbelly politics. The hors d’oeuvres are anchovies on toast and blue cheese on baby potatoes and the chef,cordon bleu. This is at the very elegant residence of his party MP,Jay Panda,and his wife Jagi,who must be among the most elegant and charming young couples to hit the Delhi social scene in many years. What makes Naveen angry,instead,is the rapaciousness with which the Congress is supposed to have governed the state,even making money on cyclone and drought relief operations.

Even his enemies wouldn’t fault him on two things: personal integrity and a feeling for his people. He has fired his own ministers for corruption and has apparently refused to visit so far the five-star monstrosity built by his estranged partyman,Dilip Ray. The Mayfair Lagoon is Bhubaneswar’s foremost hotel and its builder has literally hammered money and marble into its floor and walls. It boasts an artificial lagoon,fully loaded with fibre glass ducks,a crocodile with its mouth open,and a tiger (obviously fibre glass) drinking water under a plastic tree. Then there is the fancy swimming pool and its crown jewel is obviously an array of bronze mermaids,all topless,all size 36 and above. Other fibre glass delights include birds in the aviary (there are also some real ones hiding in the branches of the fibre glass tree). Outside the Indian restaurant,there is even a fibre glass dog with its leg raised,doing you know what. How that speaks for somebody’s taste or how appetising you may find this while entering a restaurant,even if it is called ‘The Dhaba’,is better not discussed.

There are lots of stories in Bhubaneswar’s political circles on this fancy landmark. But what gets Naveen’s goat is something more real than the fibreglass or porcelain absurdities. It is a twin-engine D-18 Beechcraft of 1950s vintage parked by the lagoon. A real trophy,children love it,so they have put a sizeable padlock on its only door. “You know what?” Naveen speaks in rare indignation,“they even claim this is the plane my father flew to Indonesia to rescue Sukarno. That wretched thing won’t reach even Chilka Lake.”

Naveen speaks with some emotion about his state,his exploited,emaciated,skeletal people,but has no real formula for a quick turnaround. He has given up the luxury and comforts of Delhi to move into the fairly simple,but sprawling,house his parents built in the ’50s and named after him. For someone brought up in the rarefied upper crust environs of New Delhi and France,he visits the capital less often than almost any other chief minister,spending all his time on files,with his civil servants and travelling to the districts. But his politics is mixed up. He is not focussed on industry or tourism,joined the opposition to the NALCO sale,has not displayed even a flash of a modern,reformist instinct,and his people do not seem much better than they were when he took over nearly four years ago. He says it will take time. He has endured two droughts,one super cyclone and one awful flood. Orissa is still the second poorest state in India despite having so much natural wealth,a talented people and India’s most globalised politician as chief minister.

To see just how messed up the state is,you only have to hit the tourist trail to Konark. The 13th century Sun Temple must be one of the finest specimens of Indian heritage but the 60 km road from Bhubaneswar is an orthopaedist’s delight. At Konark,there isn’t any modern facility where a tourist could rest,have a meal,buy a decent T-shirt. The most modern facility — actually the only one — is a sulabh sauchalaya,and it functions. Otherwise the same old story of touts,thugs,cheap souvenirs,heat and dust.

The 35 km road from Konark to Puri runs along the eastern coast and is named grandly,the Marine Drive. It is smoother,has spectacular views,both good and scary. The latter is an endless row of dead trees,neatly decapitated by the super cyclone. The dried,blackened trunks are still there,giving the place a war-zone look. But Naveen’s government has done a decent job of planting new ones which are growing nicely.

If you think Konark is a mess,come to the holy city of Puri. The Jagannath temple,one of the four holiest dhams of Hinduism,is also the least reformed in terms of its management. The temple is dirty,the panda menace is all there,and while the ASI is doing a great job of cleaning up the massive temple dome,the exteriors are a shame on Orissa,and Hinduism. The walls and parapets of the temple complex are printed over with advertisements — mostly for underwear. And so strong is the control of the hereditary pandas that nobody dares to even speak of reform.

Puri is a holy city frozen in time. All along the western coast,for example,the new environmental regulations have ensured some discipline in the way new beach resorts are constructed. Here you see a monstrous row of new glass-and-concrete,Mehrauli mall-like “resorts” coming up within less than a couple of hundred yards of the shoreline; and if this violates the coastal regulation zone (CRZ) restrictions,who is to notice? Then you look closely,and find sewage manholes right on the beach. If anybody has complained,or taken notice of any of this,it has made no difference to those building this infrastructure for the tourists who mostly come from Kolkata.

But it is not as if the whole state is frozen in this non-changing past or chaotic present. Just 15 km on National Highway 203 from Puri to Bhubaneswar,you take a short detour on a kutcha road towards the village of Raghurajpur,the birthplace of Odissi maestro Kelucharan Mahapatra. What is recommended,though,is a car with ground clearance higher than a Lancer. You cross the very lyrical Bhargabi river,hop over the railway crossing at the Jagatdeipur “station” — which is no more than a thatched roof (no walls) and a ticket office — and reach the village which the state and a whole bunch of NGOs (including Intach) and the Union culture ministry are developing into a heritage village. A genuine article,where real craftsman—mostly making the Oriya pata-chitra on tussar-line in real homes. All craftsmen have calculators,television sets,have tiny plates on their workshops saying “hypothecated to” one bank or the other,and they can drive a mean bargain. Jagmohan has been here recently and committed Rs 3 crore to build a new post office. Hopefully some of that money would go into that one-km steeplechase of a road-link from the highway and,thus,the rest of the country would discover this real marvel.

But before that,the rest of the country will have to discover Orissa,the out-of-sight-out-of-mind state that only figures on our front pages when a cyclone strikes and which hides some of our richest heritage,wildlife,holy places and quite a few of our hockey stars,men and women. And,indeed,the village of Raghurajpur,which must pack more creativity in a three-square kilometre patch of land than probably any in the world.

The error in terror

Why 2 years after 9/11,this seems to be the New York state of mind: ‘It was just a day like this…and today’s just another day’

September 13,2003

Speak with any New Yorker this week and his favourite line seems to be,“it was a day just like this”. We sit looking out of the 18th floor at the World Financial Centre and my host,a Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal honcho,looking at the silver silhouette of an approaching plane in glorious sunshine,recalls how “it was a day just like this”,exactly two years ago when the two towers across the street were brought down by planes just like this and rewrote the course of history. For a year,the Journal scattered its staffers all around the city and the suburbs until their building was fit and functional again.

A new feature on the landscape is now the ferry-boats on Hudson river,the commuters’ mainstay since the underground rail-link,crushed under the impact of the collapsing towers,is still not operational. Step out of the building and you see the giant scar where the towers one stood,now ringed and patrolled by armed police cars. You would think that this is only because of the 9/11 anniversary. But ask people around and they tell you the police are always there now,much in the fashion of the police back home who take such good care of a house after it’s been burgled. Many other predicaments seem commonly shared by democracies as far apart as India and the US. Two years on,there is still controversy and confusion on what to build in place of the towers. Friends and families of the victims even launched a billion-dollar competition for an architectural design for a memorial that would also back ten million square feet of office space. But they apparently forgot to ask the guy who owned the towers to begin with and he now asks who gave the others the right to decide what to do with his property.

Negotiations are now on and chances are — even in a society run so cold-bloodedly by the law of torts — he will have to submit,at least to some extent,to public opinion. It’s cruel that fate decrees that your property is the recipient of the most spectacular terrorist strike ever and then that you cannot even call it entirely your own. Morally and emotionally it belongs to all of New York,and since it is in so many ways a multinational microcosm of mankind,if not the world’s capital,all the rest of us think we should have a little bit of a say there as well.

At 4.30 in the afternoon,Central Park is awash with sunshine,a crisp breeze and full of joggers,walkers,readers,do-nothingers and the world’s most well-behaved dogs who stroll around making acquaintances and exchanging Chinese whispers of sorts in what looks like a well spread out canine kitty party. At the edge of the 59th street promenade we finally find a kiosk for some coffee. As we settle down to chat,Philip Oldenburg of Columbia University and one of the most seriously knowledgeable students of Indian politics and society also notices the plane over-flying us and says,guess what: “It was a day just like that.” I tell him how quickly,and fully,I think the city has recovered from the trauma and then ask him how do people respond when they see walking reminders of the tragedy: People who’ve lost limbs,or carry visible scars of burning. “There aren’t many of those,” he says,“you either died,or escaped.” It wasn’t possible for anybody trapped inside to survive.

As the city took the first shock,he remembers,its response was to line up for relief and rescue. There were lines outside blood banks,for examples. But nobody needed it. If you were caught inside,you were dead,and reduced to ashes. If you jumped out,like so many did,some even holding hands in that last,brave gesture of love or friendship,you were a mangled mass on the street. But the city also recovered faster than you would imagine. Now,even on the anniversary,there is no tension,there are just memories and pain. The one reminder,perhaps,is the helicopter Philip says he saw circling The Reservoir in the Park,the main source of the city’s water supply. Who knows,they were fearing somebody might attempt to poison it. New York can carry on with life,but won’t take chances.

Osama and his thugs were obviously so blinded by hatred,and so turned on by the idea of killing such a large number of rich,young Americans and causing such a sensation,they did not realise what a blunder it was for them to choose New York. Even my Sikh taxi driver interrupted a long and very serious conversation on the accident involving hockey star Jugraj Singh to make this point. “If he had only killed Americans,only America would have gone after them,” he says. But by choosing New York,and that too the World Trade Centre,he killed people from all over the world. So they are all after him now,he says. He is also kicked by how this has turned the fortunes in the taxi business which,in New York,can be more cut-throat and competitive than investment banking and is now dominated by immigrants,many with dodgy documents,from the subcontinent. The Pakistanis no longer get visas. Those who are here without them are being picked out and sent back in chartered flights,he says with so much delight. “And you know what we do if we want to scare a Pakistani even inside a grocery shop? We just start talking loudly of Osama and Al-Qaeda and the Pakistanis get scared,as if there were cameras in the ceiling,” he says. It is a different matter that the sardarji,with a copious,black and flowing beard,has not gone home to Jalandhar even once since he left in 1990,“harassed” by the police at the peak of Khalistani terrorism. “There’s been no better time than this to be an Indian here,” he says,and then gives his insight as to why: “They know we have been the victims of the Muslims for much longer than them,they know nobody hates the Muslims as much as us,not even the Jews.” But he is more amused by this than kicked in a particularly malevolent sense. The prime space on his mind is occupied by hockey. Why do they have that K.P.S. Gill there? What does he know about hockey? Why can’t they get a former hockey player,somebody like Surjit Singh (also from Jalandhar) but he died in a road accident. “Those guys” drive so badly in India,without seat belts and now I am told highways are better (good ho gaye ne)…” and he was such a tough full-back,the Pakistanis didn’t dare to even come close to him for he would break their shins and ankles. That was done with the delighted anticipation of an out-of-work orthopaedician.

It’s a matter of time before airlines either start declaring special discounted fares for the 9/11 anniversary or declare it a kind of international day-off from flying. Two years on,the British Airways flight has an empty front section,such a rarity in these boom times for aviation. The airline has just upped its fares 30 per cent on its India flights,among its most profitable with Air-India ceding all of the high-value traffic to it. Members of the cabin crew debate whether the empty seats are because of the reopening of schools or the fear of a 9/11 anniversary strike and then conversation shifts to who was where when the attack happened and what does the senior stewardess say but,“It was a day just like this…”

And how things have changed. In the old days they used to tell you to securely lock your baggage,now they tell you to check it unlocked at American airports. They routinely open and rummage through your checked-in baggage,not relying merely on the x-ray machine. Worse,they do it when you are not looking. Then they pack your bags back and leave a nice,printed note inside,apologising if they have disturbed the contents of your bag and thereby inconvenienced you. But the other change is that nobody is complaining. The world is learning to live with terrorism,putting up with its occasional shocks,minor inconveniences. You may call it wishful but here’s a thought on the second anniversary of 9/11 from ground zero: Is terrorism losing its shock value? Does this devil defang itself with each bite it takes?

The Kanchi trinity

Next to mutt is masjid,frowning at both is Periyar saying there’s no god,you fool. Recall this shining symbol when you talk Ayodhya

July 05,2003

By the standards of the temples and religious establishments in the south,the Kanchi Kamakodi Peeth,better known as the Kanchi Mutt,is much too modest and understated. The entrance,flanked by the extension counters of two banks,ATMs and all,could be confused with that of an old haveli or dharamshala in the heart of the town. Since this is a mutt,the seat and abode of the presiding Shankaracharya,it does not even have the trappings of a temple. The Kamakshi Temple,or the temple of the love-eyed goddess,is the Kanchi Peeth’s spiritual home and is a five-minute walk away.

The same simplicity and restraint pervades the interiors of what has been one of the most important seats of Hindu spiritual authority and has only acquired greater importance in recent weeks. Members of the Central cabinet,leaders of the RSS and VHP,and dozens of mediamen have been visiting the mutt ever since its presiding seer,Pujyashri Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal,the 69th Shankaracharya in an order that began in 477 BC,launched his third effort at finding a mutually agreed solution on Ayodhya. And while,unlike the prime minister after the Srinagar initiative,he hasn’t yet declared that this will be the last time he would engage in this peacemaking,the odds are that if he fails this time the issue will be back in cold storage again,waiting for the court verdict.

Nobody who visits the mutt can miss the sizeable and ornately decorated mosque situated next door to it. The Jumma Masjid was built by the Nawab of Arcot more than 300 years ago. In three centuries,nobody has any recollection of any unpleasantness of any sort,leave alone riots or property — or propriety — disputes of any kind between the mutt and the mosque. The story goes that the 68th Shankaracharya,a very illustrious soul with formidable moral authority in the south,even started the tradition of the mutt observing silence during the namaz at the mosque. Not only is this tradition followed even now,this Shankaracharya is also known to encourage his Muslim visitors to interrupt conversation with him if the call of namaz beckons and make a quick visit to the mosque. It is also well-recorded history that many Muslim rulers in the south have been devotees of the mutt and have even made grants of land to it. In 1710,the Qutabshahi sultan of Golconda,Abul Hasan Tana Shah,granted land revenues to the mutt towards the worship of Shiva as Sri Chanramauliswara. He also issued tamara patras extolling its virtues and powers. These are now among the most widely displayed pieces of history in the mutt’s archives.

Hinduism and Islam co-existing in such close proximity may not be an ordinary occurrence. But in a country with such a complex history of over nearly 800 years of Muslim rule on an overwhelming Hindu majority,this situation is found in several places — though nowhere else does that allow for such harmonious co-existence as here. But if you want to see how this small piece of real estate is so special,besides packing more spirituality than almost any five acres of land anywhere,look across the road from the Kanchi Mutt main gate.

A bust of Periyar looks grimly and disapprovingly at both the mutt and the mosque. An elaborate Tamil inscription tells you it was installed in 1980 to honour the memory of the man who inspired the anti-religion (some would call it god-less) Dravida Movement. The operative part of the inscription has been translated into English,not once,but twice. It reads:

There is no God

There is no God

There is no God at all

The inventor of God is a fool

The propagator of God is a scoundrel

The worshipper of God is a barbarian.

This happens only in India,you might say. You can go around the world. You will find places where shrines belonging to warring faiths existing together. But where else would you find them sharing their sacred space with a high priest of godlessness? You can find synagogues,churches and mosques existing cheek-by-jowl in the old city of Jerusalem,on and around the temple Mount. But you won’t find a bust of Karl Marx anywhere there.

This is the way one great nation has evolved and matured. This uniqueness is so much part of the DNA that defines a nation state that it is like no other. It is secular and yet so deeply religious. But even more than the Constitution that is after all only 53 years old,it is our tradition and ethos,the history of our socio-cultural evolution,that enables not just politically and spiritually conflicting faiths to exist together but also allows atheism to have its say on the same stage. You can laugh or cry,but my suggestion is,celebrate this tolerance and diversity. Even the official literature of the mutt,its slickly produced brochures,extol the philosophy of the “secular Hindu ideal”. The Shankaracharya routinely blesses Muslim devotees and accepts tributes from them. He does not even complain that Periyar’s granite visage spoils his mood or day when he steps out.

Chances are this peculiar interplay of such diverse and conflicting spiritual thought would make no impact on the hearts and minds of the luminaries who have been walking in and out of the mutt seeking the simple seer’s good offices in resolving an issue as complex as Ayodhya. It’s a bit unfair to pitchfork the Shankaracharya into a mess that politics has only complicated and courts and judicial inquiries have shown no resolve to take head on. The seer wouldn’t tell you yet what his formula — to be unveiled on July 6 — contains. But most speculation has it that it would entail the construction of a temple near the old spot and a new mosque some distance away,a formula sweetened with explicitly Hindu guarantees for the future. If these speculations are correct,however,it would be a bit disappointing. Besides the fact that you do not really see the Muslims ceding the right to rebuild the mosque even within a 14-km radius,when more than a hundred other mosques,dargahs and graveyards already exist there. It would be disappointing also if the entire political system,now helped along by the personal,moral weight of the Shankaracharya and his blessings,is not able to replicate the beautiful picture of tolerance that you see in his very own neighbourhood.

Writings on the walls

Travels in Haryana’s Ahirland: Stirrings in out-of-sight,out-of-mind country

June 07,2003

You cannot fault the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) for not putting more prominent signs to announce the exit ramp for Rewari on its showpiece toll highway from Delhi to Jaipur. Rewari,in southern,dry Haryana,too far from Chandigarh,not close enough to Delhi,not quite Rajasthan though contiguous to it and not quite the cradle of any Jatland politics,is unlikely to be high on anybody’s priorities.

It is still supposedly an out-of-sight-out-of-mind territory that defies familiar description: It isn’t part of a Rajput,Jat or Dalit “belt”,nor really some paddy,cotton or sugarcane “belt”. Maybe,the Americans would describe it as a sun-baked panhandle of sorts,jutting out from Haryana into Rajasthan,all within a hundred kilometres from Delhi,with its very own politics and economics,with a centre of gravity entirely its own. For decades,the zone has been known to be most backward. My own school textbooks,three decades ago,said so in what was then combined Punjab. So,I believe,they do even now. It is good enough therefore that the NHAI has built a spotless,sharp ramp off the highway,at nearly the 80-km point from Delhi,leading you to a 12-km connecting road to Rewari. This is the heartland of the Ahirs,or the Raos who sometimes answer to the last name Yadav,direct descendants of Lord Krishna and too proud to be confused with the Yadavs of the cowbelt. They may count for little in national politics. In their own domain,you had better take them seriously.

You would enter Rewari hoping to see the bleak face of backwardness,even more so if you spent your childhood in old Haryana hearing tales of poverty and desolation,lack of schooling,hospitals,water,producing little else than desi ghee and,indeed,farmers who were forever unwilling to repay their debts. One of my abiding childhood memories is of my father returning from week-long tours of the district after disbursing and recovering (truth to tell,he rarely managed to recover anything) cooperative loans in the region,with stories of hopelessness,crime,anarchy,lathi-raj. Now eight hours is too little time for me to confirm to you that any of that has changed and it is likely that a lathi-raj of some sort persists. But this countryside does not look,feel,smell,or even “read” like the old stereotype. It is not rotting or sliding backwards into desolation.

Any itinerant journalist learns over time the cultural nuances of direction-giving as they vary from one region to another. In the north,for example,when somebody tells you to turn right,he usually raises his left arm and vice versa. Then you figure out what is material,the speech,or the gesture. If you have doubts,check out any of the security guards in South Delhi’s colonies at night,particularly if you are lost and most of the gates are already locked. In Assam,you ask somebody how far a place is and usually the distance is determined by the length of his drawl. But we stop outside the village of Berli and a man in his seventies,bearded,with sunken cheeks,dirty dhoti and soiled vest,tells us to go straight,drive on the kutcha road along the canal,due “north”,then skirt the village and turn “west”. Then you reach the village of Naher and ask for further directions. An even older,bent,poorer man tells you to go left (raising his left arm) and veer around the village near the water tank as the road “bifurcates” and then join the main road for our destination,in this case the twin village of Bahu-Jholri. East,West,bifurcate? Where is this precision English coming from? I wouldn’t stop to ask,but it is a reasonable guess that both the veterans were ex-armymen. The army is still the preferred destination for the men here. But we will return to that later.

Through years of travelling through the countryside,particularly during elections,I have confected what I might call the Graffiti Theory of Rural Development. The more bare the walls,the less developed a region is. But if its walls are full of sales talk,for oil,shampoo,soap and toothpaste,cigarettes,tractors,motorcycles,branded cement,steel rods (saria),fertilisers,pesticides,seeds and banks,it is booming. You can’t find a bare wall in Punjab,western Uttar Pradesh,the rain-drenched Terai,Gujarat,coastal Andhra Pradesh and I believe even large parts of interior Maharashtra,though I haven’t been there yet. Most villages have a shop selling sprinklers and drip irrigation systems,shuttering material for RCC construction and a fast growing profession is “tubeler”. Strain your mind a bit and you can translate it into simpler English as “tubeweller” or the tubewell repair man.

The Wall Street Journal last week carried a very detailed front-page special ( on MNCs competing in India’s booming rural markets. It is a pity the venerable Journal confined itself mostly to the acknowledged green revolution zone of central Punjab for,if they had come here,into the boondocks,they would have noticed what else is selling and driving rural economies. The fastest growing businesses here are schools (English medium,preferably affiliated to CBSE,facts all graffiti flaunts with pride),nursing homes manned by doctors with MD and MS degrees,banquet halls and,even if the jholawalas wince,mobile “disco dance floors” and somebody called “DJ Manoj” who seems to have the monopoly over the fun business. But this is no green revolution zone unable to digest the new riches and slipping into effete decadence.

My family was here,actually,on a sad and solemn journey,to join the family of Ram Kumar,my driver for 15 years who died,apparently of a heart attack at the age of 41,and I’d rather record,exactly five hours after he had been examined by a senior physician at Delhi’s most glamorous multispeciality corporate hospital and prescribed a whole bunch of tests but was somehow not given an ECG. At his small — but fully pucca — home,on the men’s side of the mourning congregation the talk soon shifts to,what else,but schooling. A man so old you would expect him to tell you stories of how he killed the Germans in World War I,with thick,boxy,dark glasses like a welder’s goggles but still with a polythene Carrerra sticker slanting across one lens,tells us of what has changed. “It is great for Chautala,at least he has now made English medium compulsory from Class 1,” he says and he himself doesn’t know a word of any language.

Others talk of how the state education board is feeling the heat of competition from CBSE,and reforming. Or,of how too many people are setting up schools as shops and rooking people so the state board has set up minimum requirements for recognition. Apparently a primary school has to have a three acre plot of land,a middle school five and a plus-two school eight acres of which a certain minimum has to be left vacant as the playground. Each class room has to be at least 24×16 with an 8-foot verandah. It is still not quite like the schools your children or mine would go to. But it is a huge improvement from my years in similar countryside with classes held under peepul trees,where you took your own gunny-bag from home to squat on and where you kept one eye on the teacher and the other out for the big,black ants,loaded with formic acid,on the ground. Some government schools here now even boast of having “ecology” clubs,the private ones have special coaching for “sainik schools,Navodaya schools,National Defence Academy”,even combined medical and engineering entrance exams. The flavour of the times is English medium even if it creates such quaint Indianisms as the Yaduvanshi Convent School (Yaduvanshi,the descendant of Lord Krishna).

Two things,however,haven’t changed. One is the obsession with caste identity. Old election graffiti demands a state for the Ahirs,a university,an Ahir regiment in the army. The other is the fascination for soldiery. The most prolific political slogan is “vote wohi payega jo bharti daftar khulwayega” (he will get the vote who gets a recruitment centre opened). Most of the region’s heroes are soldiers. Near the village of Gudiani there is a Martyr Sandip Memorial,the exit ramp on the highway faces a petrol pump in the name of martyred Sepoy Bajinder Singh and on the outskirts of Rewari you see a memorial that more of India should have known about. It is called the Rezang La Memorial and if that doesn’t ring a bell let me tell you a small story.

The battle of Rezang La,a redoubt overlooking the strategic Chushul plains in Ladakh,is one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the Indian army and has been compared by some military historians with the famed battle of Thermopylae. In the unequal war of 1962 against the Chinese where the Indian army rarely stood to fight,the Charlie company from 13 Kumaon,led by Major Shaitan Singh,decided that until they were alive the Chinese weren’t going to have a look-in on Chushul,at 17,000 ft. Of the 120 defenders,only three survived,seriously wounded. The rest,including Shaitan Singh,were discovered after the winter,frozen,mostly holding their weapons but with no ammunition. A dozen were outside the trenches,and it was evident that once out of ammunition they had charged the enemy with bayonets. This was a genuine last man-last round defence and many times more Chinese were killed,the evidence again being frozen bodies on the slopes. This battle inspired M. S. Sathyu’s gut-wrenching classic,Haqeeqat. Let me quote from Maj Gen Ian Cardozo’s Param Vir,Our Heroes In Battle: “When Rezang La was later revisited dead jawans were found in the trenches still holding on to their weapons… every single man of this company was found dead in his trench with several bullet or splinter wounds. The 2-inch mortar man died with a bomb still in his hand. The medical orderly had a syringe and bandage in his hands when the Chinese bullet hit him… Of the thousand mortar bombs with the defenders all but seven had been fired and rest were ready to be fired when the (mortar) section was overrun.” Not much of a citation needed to be written for Shaitan Singh’s Param Vir Chakra. The frozen bodies,including his own,reclining against a rock where he bled and froze top death after ordering the three wounded survivors to leave him there,told the whole story.

The lesser known fact is that Shaitan Singh was evidently an Ahir and so were 70 of the 117 men of the 13 Kumaon’s Charlie company. Rewari has raised a memorial for them,a granite slab with the 70 names inscribed,and the slogan “veero mein shoorveer,veer Ahir (the bravest of the brave,brave Ahir).” Not to miss the Lord Krishna lineage the granite is topped with the mural of the sudarshan chakra on the Lord’s finger. But you can’t walk in for a closer look. The padlock on the memorial has not been opened for years,weeds have eaten up the grounds,a stinky,open drain flows next to it and pigs wallow in it. Not the way any nation would honour some of its most glorious soldiers ever.

But in spite of that there is no taking away the enthusiasm for the army. If George Fernandes is worrying where to get officers from for his army,he should come here because today’s Ahirs will not merely be other ranks. So many of them will now graduate from English medium schools,even Yaduvanshi Convent,and will probably still not have accent and diction “fixable” for call centres. The army — but the officer corps now — would do just fine.

Some lines in the desert

At Riyadh reunion,air’s thick with perfume and nostalgia; outside,the sand brings back smell of war

October 26,2002

Riyadh,Saudi Arabia,is the last place you would expect to be in to speak at a college reunion. It’s also an unlikely place for you to expect to speak to a hall overflowing with not just nostalgic old boys,but also so many women.

In Saudi Arabia,you need special permission to have women attend a public function with men,even if they sit separately. But the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) alumni here are influential enough to swing it at least for the Sir Syed Memorial Day.

It’s a happy,family occasion. Children play in the hall,spray oodles of cola,even sprint up and down the dais—you have to understand,expats in Saudi Arabia are usually not allowed domestic help,so the women must carry their children should they choose to go out.

But there were so many of them here,even singing along as a chorus of younger ‘‘old boys’’ sang their college’s official song,yeh mera chaman,yeh mera chaman,main apne chaman ka bulbul hoon.

The air is thick with perfume,and nostalgia. One instant source whispers that there are as many factions here as there are letters in Aligarh. But Aligarhians are an attentive,sentimental audience. They miss home,that’s obvious. They take pride in their Indianness,that is worn on their sherwani and achkan sleeves.

The loudest cheers come not when I tell some silly joke but when another speaker mentions the casualties suffered by (Indian) Muslim troops at Kargil,of how they surprised the enemy as they assaulted the hills to the war cry of Allah-o-Akbar.

‘‘The Pakistanis thought their reinforcements had come,they realised too late it was the Indians,they just happened to be Muslim,’’ he said. The fellow Aligarhians applauded. But why the talk of war at a happy college reunion?

Saudi Arabia does not give tourist visas. You have to have a pretty serious reason to get here. The last time I was here,in 1991,was to cover a war. Now,my reason may be to speak at a college (not my college) reunion but somehow it’s timed with at least the whiff of a war.

There is something about sand that smells of war. It may be because many decisive battles of our history have taken place in deserts,from the crusades to Al Alamein to Sinai,and so on. Cavalry needs the desert to flow in its full majesty. It used to be horses and camels then,tanks and APCs now.

The last time I was hereabouts,the smell of cordite was for real. The 600-km drive from Dhahran to Kuwait,liberated just the day before (February 26),took you across a junkyard of Iraqi tanks and trucks as far as the horizon stretched,carbonised black by smoke rising from oil wells Saddam’s fleeing troops had set on fire.

The battlefield — if you could call it that — was so fresh,you could pick up an Iraqi rifle,helmet,even a workable tank,as a souvenir. The Americans had barely finished their pursuit of the routed Iraqis,they hadn’t yet had the time to clean up.

There were warnings of live shells and mines that nobody took seriously,at least not the journalists. Less than 50 yards from the road,lay bodies of a half dozen Iraqis,with three rifles half-buried in an overnight sandstorm and reporters routinely stopped for that picture to go with the letter from the editor/publisher to say his correspondent had been to the battlefield.

It was an odd battlefield though. There was no sign that anybody had even fired back at the Americans or,if he did,had hit anything. Sure enough,it later turned out that most American casualties came from friendly fire. The tank treads pointed only one way because one army was in retreat and the other in pusuit.

Another 50 kilometres up the road from Kuwait City was the great graveyard of Iraqi tanks where the Huey Cobra gunships had trapped a large,retreating cavalry division in a textbook killing ground,a depression between steep dunes on the sides making escape impossible.

An American pilot later told the CNN it was a ‘duck-shoot’. How the Iraqi commander got his tanks there,is a question he probably did not live to answer. But if you weren’t on that highway on that day,you would never know what a massacre of tanks is all about.

The final battle of Operation Desert Storm,or Saddam’s Umm Al Maariq (the mother of all battles) was not a battle at all. It was a rout,more in the nature of a colonial,punitive expedition. Nobody got the time to fight back. Nobody would have even had a chance.

YET another famous battle in yet another expanse of desert not so far away had not been so uneven. The challenge of covering that war in the strength of two (with a photographer),was in how to be on both sides of the battlelines and yet meet the same deadline.

Here,actually,there were more than two sides. There were Iraq and Saudi Arabia (where most of the US-led forces were stationed),and also slightly distant Israel where Saddam was raining his Scuds. It was,in fact,the only thing he did in that war that gave his supporters cause for cheer.

In the Arab/Palestinian street,particularly in neighbouring Jordan,each missile attack conjured up images of the end of Israel. Mobs danced in the streets of Amman,chanting Ya Saddam,ya habib,udrub,udrub Tel Aviv (O Saddam,my dear,wreck and destroy Tel Aviv). We were sure we were dying of poison gas when first Scuds fell in Tel Aviv,in the fairly fashionable neighourhood of Ramat Gan. An apartment building took a direct hit and was pummelled to the ground. But there were no dead.

If there is one thing the Israelis know,it is to save lives—at least their own. Since Saddam had threatened poison gas attacks,every individual had already been issued not only gas masks but even pre-loaded syringes of antidote and instruction booklets.

The visiting foreign press too were handed their masks and the rest along with their credentials at the office run by a very chirpy Linda Rivkind,who greeted us both,in Hindi and Bengali. She was a Jewish immigrant from Kolkata,married to one of Israel’s foremost trauma surgeons. We had never been to Israel before; she had never seen an Indian journalist there.

We had also never spent a night in a basement muffled by gas-masks. We Jews know how to handle poison gas,Israelis would say only half-jokingly,Hitler trained us a half century ago. They had set up special hospitals,with conveyor belts of stretchers,rows of showers and schoolkids dressed in PVC — so victims of any chemical attack could be scrubbed,washed and shoved into the wards without delay.

Saddam stuck to conventional warheads. Probably he was scared of using the more lethal ones for fear of retaliation. More likely he didn’t have any,that his weapons of mass destruction existed only in his lieutenants’ tall talk and the western media folklore.

THE ‘fighting’ was ending sooner than anybody had imagined. But getting from Tel Aviv to Kuwait in times of war wasn’t such an uncomplicated challenge. The journey necessitated a 475-km drive to Cairo past the Sinai desert and onwards by air to Dubai and Dhahran,Saudi Arabia,then the staging post for Kuwait.

The highway across the Sinai stretched some 200 kilometres and you could speed as much as you wished. But there were many distractions on the way.

It was here that the most bitter tank battles of the Yom Kippur war were fought in 1973. Its reminders were all there: wrecks of tanks and guns,the odd rusty helmet,rocket casings,shell casings. You got closer to a dune you discovered the silhouette on the top was actually a tank that got stopped by a rocket just as it was climbing on for a perfect vantage position.

There were wrecks,stretching almost up to the Suez,that bore both markings,Egyptian and Israeli. This was no one-sided rout. This was the most keenly contested battle in modern West Asian history.

The Egyptians,to date,claim they won it and with some justification. The Israelis say their recovery from early setbacks is more evidence of their invincibility. This war made Ariel Sharon into a hero and his mad (but spectacular) dash at the head of Israel’s last tank reserves across the Suez is the latest chapter added to the textbooks of tank warfare.

Why either side,even after the peace accord (the Sinai was with the Israelis till the accord and then returned to Egypt),had not cared to clear out the junk is difficult to say. It could be that the junk trade or the kabaadi bazaar in those parts is not as well-developed as here. Or it could be that somebody thought of leaving some of the wreckage there to remind future generations of what war could mean,without solving anything.

INTERESTING,isn’t it,that while the war with no clear decision (Sinai) led to the Camp David accords and solved a problem,or at least a large part of it forever; the other,with a knockout decision (Desert Storm,Kuwait) is now setting the stage for a repeat in just over a decade?

The war was an idea that the Saudis not only willingly accepted in 1991,they bankrolled it,not complaining even when the Americans billed them for replacement prices even for decades-old equipment and munitions. Today,the equation has is more complex.

The last war was about liberating Kuwait and preventing further Iraqi expansion in the Gulf. Tomorrow’s war (if it happens) will be about ridding the world of Saddam,and why? Because he is such a tyrant,a despot,is producing weapons of mass destruction,has crushed all democratic forces,massacred his minorities and is harbouring fundamentalist forces that threaten the entire world with terrorism.

The reason this is being greeted in the Gulf now with apprehension rather than enthusiasm is simply that while nobody doubts Saddam is guilty of much of this,it is also well known that he is not the only one. It was far simpler to support a war for territory and liberation,it is tricky backing one for ideas,ideology and a political philosophy.

Too many rulers and regimes in the Islamic and Arab world routinely trample democracy,curb minority rights,are despotic and corrupt. Some even have or are working on weapons of mass destruction. If the UN and the world at large were to today endorse a US invasion of Iraq on these charges,who knows whose turn it will be next?

Further,the last war ended with Kuwait’s liberation. This one won’t end with Saddam’s departure. Who knows,I might just be back soon enough,as the desert air hangs heavy with the talk of yet another war.

Last night I went to Pakistan

Notes on an airport lounge,a hotel lobby and a wary General

August 24,2002

The UN would probably never accept it as a yardstick for its human development ratings. But put this away under mpey name in the appendices of some new book on theories that determine the state of a nation. The strength of a nation should now also be measured by the way its immigration police deal with incoming and outgoing travellers. At the top of the scale are countries where they put you through the scanner on your way in,but mostly wave you off cheerily when you are leaving. Good riddance,old fellow,one likely illegal less to bother about. In the US,you usually do not even see the immigration fellow on the way out. The airline official is authorised to let you go. At the other end of the spectrum would be the old socialist and authoritarian states where you require an exit visa to leave.

How does Musharraf’s Pakistan measure on this scale? At the international arrival hall in Islamabad,you walk in with the man taking one look at your passport,one at your face. He does not even have a computer to punch your name into. Not necessary for those coming in,you’d presume. But,on the way out at Karachi,it’s a scene out of the Hollywood film,Minority Report. It is so high tech,it dazzles your eyes. Literally. You are told to step back and look dead on at a tiny camera that takes in the biometric scan of your eyes and transmits it to the computer which matches it with those of the wanted men wishing to escape Pakistan. You move on when the computer says ‘‘no matchings.’’ But there is still another line of defence,manned by none else than the army. Bemused and very young NCOs of the AJK (Azad Kashmir) Regiment,look at your passports and boarding passes and wave you on. There was none of this on any of my dozen or so visits to Pakistan in the past. Nor even on the last one,in the winter of 1999,a couple of months after the Musharraf takeover.

Ladies pack more wealth in diamonds than in Burkina Faso’s GDP

Not everything has nose-dived like this. Certainly not the Karachi stock exchange — month on month,it has done far better than our own BSE over the past three years and this isn’t only because they harbour Dawood Ibrahim in this city and not the Harshad Mehtas and the like. The Pakistani rupee has recovered dramatically since 9/11,from 63 (to a dollar) and sliding,to 58 and rising. In spite of the drought in the rest of the subcontinent,it has poured in upper Punjab,filling Pakistan’s formidable reservoirs. Infrastructure,certainly the airports,look better than India’s — new four-laned highways are coming up fast,you even have free internet at the Karachi airport lounge. An inexplicable notion of stability has persuaded the very rich to bring some of their money back to their country and,certainly,at a lunch hosted by my publisher friend Hameed Haroon (chief executive of the venerable Dawn group),the ladies pack more wealth in diamonds than the GDP of Burkina Faso. War,they say,is not going to happen. Never. Musharraf has moderated his behaviour. You Indians are not so stupid. And,of course,the Americans are there.

They are not there in Karachi any longer,though. The consulate has been closed on security fears,though my grapevine tells me that good old ego hassles had something to do with this as well. The Americans wanted the road in front of the consulate,linking the city to Karachi’s showpiece Clifton,to be closed to all traffic other than theirs. The local corps commander said,go take a walk. So the consul-general and whatever remained of his staff walked out. The roads are not closed yet,simply restricted,and from the window of your penthouse suite in the Avari Towers hotel when you see children playing cricket on the one behind the Scinde Club,you can sometimes get confused into thinking it’s a holiday,or more like the day of a Left Front bandh in Kolkata.

Post 9/11,only the Marriot at Islamabad is celebrating

The owner of the hotel,Byram Avari,though,is an unhappy man,I am told,as any hotelier should be post 9/11,particularly in Pakistan. But he’s been particularly unlucky in that he does not own a hotel in Islamabad,whereas his arch rival,Sadruddin Hashwani (Marriott),does. The Marriott at Islamabad must be the only hotel in the world where business boomed after 9/11. Hordes of journalists descended on Islamabad and Hashwani doubled his room tariffs overnight. There as stories of how much the networks paid for a full floor,for Christiane Amanpour’s suite,and even for slices of the terrace where they set up their dish antennae. That hotel is still choc-a-bloc. But you can’t say the management has not upgraded the services a bit.

At the coffee shop,gone is the old three-man synthesizer band (I always found the three of them there between 1985 and 1999) who used to play boring,sad,old Hindi film tunes (suhani raat dhal chuki,na jaane tum kab aaoge… was a favourite). Now you have real singers,including a woman,and her rendering of Madonna’s Last Night I went to La Isla Bonita is quite acceptable. There is more to the change. A Thai restaurant with genuine Thai hostesses in off-shoulder wraps and tight sarongs that are such a distraction for the army of spooks that always hang around the lobby of the only five-star hotel in the capital. Tough to keep your eye on your ward,the visiting diplomat,journalist,politician,in such a cluttered environment. You almost feel like going up and tapping the guy on the shoulder and tell him,hey,you are supposed to be keeping an eye on me,my friend.

There are happier distractions for the guests as well. On the desk in your room sits a flier from the health club,inviting you to a ‘dry’ massage by a ‘‘qualified and experienced Thai masseuse.’’ There is a footnote though that says ‘‘in-room massage is available for ladies only.’’ You want to get your back kneaded by the Thai lady,you take the trouble of going to the health club. But it is a serious improvement in a city usually described by the expat community as being half the size of the Arlington cemetery and twice as dead. And where the salesgirl at the upmarket Generation boutique had turned from pink to red to crimson in the Zia era when I took (my then editor) India Today’s Aroon Purie there and he wanted for his wife only the salwar-kameez displayed on the body of one of the mannequins. ‘‘We can’t take it off,sir,it will be indecent,’’ she had said,scandalised. ‘‘Come back tomorrow morning. We can only do this after the shop closes at night.’’

Why Musharraf’s Indepedence Day Ceremony went indoors

This is change Musharraf would welcome. He has been — actually,quite seriously — working to rid Pakistan of its fundamentalist,mullah influence. You never saw too many burkhas or maulvis on the street in Pakistan but now old friends tell me the chill winds of conservatism are dissipating. The jehadi donation boxes have disappeared from shops. So have the bearded ones who used to stop people on the street,hand them jehadi pamphlets and taunt them for living in homely comfort while ‘your Muslim bretheren were fighting in Kashmir’. Jehadi posters have disappeared from the walls. There are fewer Kalashnikovs at weddings. The press is looking as free as it did in Benazir’s times. Surprise of surprises,three private television news channels have come up and so many of my old print journalist friends are walking around with cameramen in tow. The fashion pages in Pakistan’s best newsmagazines,Herald and Newsline,now even display a hitherto unseen depth in cleavage.

What hasn’t lessened,at the same time,is the Kashmir campaign. One evening,I heard five times that the massacre of the Amarnath pilgrims was carried out not by a terrorist but by a ‘dejected’ Indian soldier. While the hotel may offer Thai massage inside,on the outside it is ringed by massive Kashmir banners. Therein lies a simple dilemma Musharraf is not willing to take head on.

People no longer dispute his intention to make Pakistan a modern,liberal,growing nation,shedding its jehadi image. His crackdown on the mullahs,at least internally,has been real. So is their hatred for him. Not many in India noticed last week that on Pakistan’s independence day,he spoke at a ceremony held indoors,in a hall. Unprecedented,but necessary,given the fundamentalist threat to his life. Even in Srinagar we insist on holding the Republic Day and Independence Day functions in a stadium. Not so in Islamabad. Musharraf’s dilemma lies in his wish to curb fundamentalism at home while keeping at least some kind of jehad alive in Kashmir. He wants a liberal,modern Pakistan but knows that he cannot achieve that if hostility continues with India. To preserve Pakistan,he needs to de-Islamise his polity. To fight India,he must keep religious fervour alive. At some point,sooner than later,he will have to make a choice.

Guiltless in Guwahati

Looking at a new Assam,from a terrace with some old friends

April 13,2002

What do you say when people ask you what difference do you see when you visit Guwahati after five years? Let’s first look at what hasn’t changed. The filth,the mosquitoes,the magnificent river-front that could rival Shanghai’s Bund but is an endless dhobighat,the creaking airport taxis haven’t changed one bit.

Nor have the city’s roads. It is as if every old pothole has grown deeper,ruder. If you walk on Chandmari Road,along which much of the city’s upper crust lives,you may twist your ankle. If you drive on it spondylitis is guaranteed. It still looks like it’s been funded by the tyre and shock absorber industry.

At Dispur,the alleged state capital,the old tea warehouse that passes off for the civil secretariat is still there,even if access is a bit tougher with another layer of check-gates and barricades. But the sentries are as sleepy as they were in the past.

Another ten kilometres to the north,the Assam Agriculture University Campus still has only weeds and wild grass in its lawns and gardens. So much for leading the state’s farmers by example. Even at Hotel Bellevue,second home to so many of us during “newsier” times,not a tablecloth has changed in the dining hall,nor the pedestal fans,the menu or the wood-cut mural of the Mizo girls in an intense hop-skip motion in bamboo dance,a contribution,we always suspected,of owner Opu Chowdhury’s lovely Mizo wife Audrey.

When everything else shut down in Assam,when the agitators of AASU (All Assam Students Union) blockaded oil supplies to the rest of India,when not a soul stirred out because of a curfew imposed not by the government but by the “people” and when even the deputy commissioner’s wife came out at the head of the picketers the moment her husband had imposed the official curfew,the Bellevue was there,with its endless supply of chicken steak sizzler (still a favourite on the menu),Old Monk rum and Honeybee brandy and,above all,a phone that worked.

Scores of flowery intros were written looking out the windows of its circuit-house sized rooms. The shimmering Brahmaputra on one side,the verdant hills on the other,a sparkling purple jacaranda across one window and a flaming crimson flame of the forest outside the other,and you couldn’t go wrong with at least your first story.

The rivers,the mountains,even the trees are still there,and in full,glorious bloom only possible in a climate so generously laden with moisture. It is only the story that has disappeared.

THIS is what has changed most of all when Assam no longer holds the country to ransom by choking the oil supplies or by chanting the mantra of anger and alienation,when its young people fill every corner in the Nehru Stadium to cheer every boundary hit against hapless Zimbabwe instead of asking at rallies why they should continue to call themselves Indians.Assam has gone off the front-pages,or the front-burner of national consciousness.

A case of no news being good news,you might say. But there is,in fact,a bit of good news and it is not merely that the state which was sometimes considered a basket case now even produced more rice than it needs.

Ask Tarun Gogoi about the change. At 63 now,the Congress chief minister enjoys the fruit of perseverance and laughs at his own expense. “You know,” he says,pausing to manoeuvre the overly hot samosa in his mouth,“there was a time nobody would rent me a house to set up the PCC office.” In the heady agitational days Congressmen were treated as total vermin. The AASU had decreed a social boycott (samajik barjan) of the Congressmen who were declared enemies of the Assamese people.

“You must remember how unwanted we were. Even my brother did not want to meet me,” Gogoi recalls,savouring the irony as he rolls out the red carpet for his party’s top brass at the Congress chief ministers’ conclave this week.

Now not only has the Congress won a two-thirds majority in the Assembly,more recently it swept nearly 80 per cent of the seats in the panchayat polls.

If 72 per cent of voters turned out for the assembly election last year,in the panchayat polls the mark was bettered (to 76 per cent). ‘‘What does this tell you?’’ asks a civil servant (who must remain anonymous) with whom I spent many traumatised hours in the past exchanging notes on the day’s death and destruction.

‘‘What the Assamese are telling you by voting in such large numbers is that they are fed up of agitations. They are fed up of terrorism.”

Voting percentages in Assam (as in Kashmir) are a good barometer of popular mood.

In 1983 when Indira Gandhi rammed an election in the face of a popular boycott (resulting in 7,000 dead) a certain gentleman called Bhumidhar Burman got elected from Dharampur (near Nalbari) in lower Assam by polling a hundred per cent of the votes cast.

That is,all seven of the votes cast in his constituency. His rival did not manage to cast even his own vote. Burman was appointed health minister in Hiteshwar Saikia’s kangaroo cabinet. But that did not deter the agitators from putting up a sign outside his native house that said: “This spot reserved for burying Bhumidhar Burman.” Burman is back in the cabinet,as health minister.

Except this time he polled about 65,000 votes out of the 96,000 or so cast. In so many ways Assam’s emotional self-healing has been more comprehensive than that of post-terrorism Punjab. Ideological enemies of the agitational days,the most hated “traitors” to the Assamese cause are back in the mainstream.

Writer-journalist Homen Borgohain,who was one of the most strident critics of the agitation,is now the chairman of Asom Sahitya Sabha which gave the agitation its intellectual edge. No wonder Sonia has chosen Guwahati for the conclave of her 14 chief ministers.

I walk the familiar old streets of Uzan Bazaar to meet old friend Vasant Deka,professor of physics at Handique Girls College,once a key advisor to the AASU,but always so earnest,so honest,salt of the earth.

Spanking new concrete monsters have come up around him but he is exactly where he was,in a house that is more like an oversized hut. If any benefit has accrued to him from having his “boys” in power for two full terms,it is merely the benefit of hindsight.

But he is not the one to let the disappointment of his boys’ failure disillusion him. “So many positive things are happening. Young graduates are returning to farming,small industry is coming up. Arun Shourie is taking so much interest.” And Shourie also has the key to the treasury,as far as funds for the Northeast are concerned.

THERE is more to the change than merely the proliferation of ugly apartment complexes where quaint ‘‘Assam-type’’ houses once stood,or the boom in STD PCOs and liquor shops. To see how the mood has changed you only have to go to the Cotton College campus.

It was once the nerve-centre of the agitation and even paramilitary forces were shy of messing with it. The Golden Temple in Amritsar,the Cotton College in Guwahati,they would say. You couldn’t say very much against the AASU anywhere in the Brahmaputra Valley.

But in Cotton College you could not commit that sacrilege even in your mind. But this week,as we sat facing a packed Sudmersen Hall at a debate on media and terrorism organised by talented film-maker Jahnu Barua’s Regional Institute of Journalism and Media (RIJAM),the mood was very different. The media was as usual the villain. But our crimes were more in the nature of: Why do you give so much publicity to terrorists? Why do you exaggerate militant acts? Why is the media only painting a picture of Assam as a land of agitation and violence?

It was in the same hall that many of us had once heard Prafulla Mahanta ask why Assamese people should not feel alienated when “India’s” national anthem (written by a Bengali hegemonist) did not even mention the hills and the valleys of Assam. That night some of us — all non-Assamese,spooks,hacks and other such low-life — sat down to find a solution and came up with a minor amendment: What if we dropped Sindh and reworked the two crucial lines as “Assam,Bang,Gujarat Maratha,Dravid,Utkal,Punjab”… Fortunately that very inebriated stroke of creativity was never put to test.

IF there was anything common between that evening and one this Tuesday on the terrace of the Bellevue,it was the “spiritual” level. The hosts and the guests were mostly Assamese,students and faculty of Jahnu Barua’s institute,some others from the creative community.

Soon enough someone pulled out a guitar and there was singing. This is the week of Rongali Bihu so that was obviously the flavour of the music. Until somebody switched to familiar strains of Saare jahan se achcha… And as the chorus built up to Hindi hain hum,hindi hain hum… everybody,students,teachers,guests,joined in. Even Sir Mark Tully,who was the only other “outsider” besides me.

Nobody was complaining of alienation,nobody asking for any amendments in Iqbal’s lyrics. The old story of Assam,the guaranteed front page,had obviously disappeared.

Yet,even Sir Mark would concede,it was the most fun that people like us could have when not chasing a story.

Friends without life-jackets

On board Ariana: your life in their hands,your country in their heart

January 26,2002

IT was easy to call it Scariana Airways. Ariana,the Afghan national carrier which resumed operations with a flight to New Delhi this week,had a style entirely its own. So almost everybody who has flown with it in the past has a scare story or two of his own to tell. I am inflicting on you some of mine.

On which other airline would you have seen a flight steward struggling with a kerosene cooking stove — the kind that sometimes sorts out young brides who brought inadequate dowry. It was on a flight from Delhi to Kabul when Najibullah was under siege and rockets sometimes landed on the airfield just when a plane was landing or taking off.

‘‘Now what the hell are you trying to do?’’ I asked.

‘‘The captain wants tea. The hotpoint kaput. No work. Russian plane,you see,’’ said the steward and continued pumping.

‘‘But you will kill us,’’ screamed a German photographer.

‘‘No worry. Inshallah,’’ said the steward.

There were other close things for which you couldn’t even blame an over-enthusiastic flight steward. Another Ariana TV-154 was just approaching the runway when the pilot pulled up abruptly,nose in the air,the three already overworked engines straining to keep the belly from kissing the Paghman ranges. The plane made an emergency climbout to evade the Mujahideen rockets. You held on to the backs of your seats,your feet jammed under the one in front so you wouldn’t topple over backwards. The pilot flew straight back to Delhi.

But nobody let you take your bags and go home to safety. An hour in the transit lounge and you were back on way to Kabul again. The rockets,we were told,had stopped falling. And Ariana wasn’t going to lose revenue just like that.

We took off packed like,well,Afghans on an internal flight. Goats,chickens,two Afghan generals,three Russian advisors,too many journalists. As the wheels left the ground,one general took out the Koran and started to pray,the Russians brought out the vodka

AVIATION in Afghanistan in the throes of the so-called jehad was more than just the usual Afghan recklessness or Inshallah fatalism. It also underlined the Afghan spirit of adaptation and survival. The roads had already been bombed out. In any case each 10 miles was controlled by a different commander (read thug) and you could spend a lot of time merely paying tolls or organising a ransom. It only made internal flights within Afghanistan even more interesting and adventurous.

On a visit to Herat on a beat-up AN-26 you would have the distinction of using the most unusual mode of transport even for your airport pick-up and drop,a Soviet BMP-I Infantry Fighting Vehicle. Anything lesser would not have been able to negotiate the drive that was no more than mine and grenade holes.

Even the tracked BMP bounced and you held on to the next protrusion or even the next guy’s belt with dear life. And then you flew back after dusk,the horror show of a lifetime.

First of all,the AN-26 was overloaded at least twice over and there was good reason for it. All of Herat had seen a passenger aircraft land so a lot of Herat had lined up at the airbase in the evening hoping to cadge a ride to Kabul. The pilots were first class free-marketeers.

They stood next to the aircraft,collecting their tribute and letting passengers in. No tickets,no boarding pass,no baggage check,no claim checks and,finally,no frisking or security checks. It was a cash-and-carry flight. The cash was being stuffed into two gunny sacks — it was already several hundred Afghanis to a dollar and,with a black market on larger notes,a passenger sometimes paid several kilos of currency to get his family on board. It’s also not as if all their baggage required a security check. Many carried just blankets,some had goats,one had chickens clutched under his armpits.

Because the pilots were loathe to say no to anybody and because the stream of passengers was never-ending,we were not able to take off before sunset. And the airstrip had no lights. ‘‘Don’t worry. We’ve been doing this for years,’’ said the pilot,who couldn’t be more than 20-22. Maybe the Afghans let them fly before they were old enough to get driving licences. We took off packed like,well,Afghans on an internal flight. Goats,chickens,two Afghan generals,three Russian advisors,too many journalists,and all. As the wheels left the ground,one general took out the Koran and started to pray. The Russians pulled out a bottle of vodka and ‘‘killed’’ it amongst the three of them before we were even 10,000 feet in the air.

India has a strong emotional side. But there’s more to it than mere emotion. It may be a distant neighbour but it’s the only one with no territorial or political designs over Afghanistan. It also has the strength to balance out the others,particularly Pakistan

If there were no lights on the runway for the take-off,there were none allowed inside the plane either. You don’t want to tell some Mr Fast Fingers with a Stinger missile where to fire. In any case,there was no place for anybody to move a muscle. Until an Afghan decided to have a smoke and struck a match. An air force corporal jumped over several passengers,baggage,sent the chickens flying,and grabbed the delinquent passenger kicking and screaming. He sure had public opinion on his side. We turned instantly into a mob and blows rained on the poor smoker from all over though who was to know who actually received them.

The pilots actually had a sense of (very dark) humour. After what looked like the longest hour of your lives,the plane landed at an airfield where lights came on only for a moment for the touchdown and proceeded to a deserted corner of what was a graveyard of aviation — the place where they stored wreckages of planes shot down by the Mujahideen Stingers. The rear hatch opened,most of the Afghan passengers descended and proceeded straight to the corner where the steel frame had been cut. We waited our turn but the hatch closed,the plane began to taxi again and the captain,the same self-styled veteran,announced that this was Jalalabad and we were taking off for Kabul again.

But he obviously wasn’t so sure of our nerve so he didn’t push that cruel joke further. We just taxied to the other end of what was indeed Kabul airport to the real arrival lounge. It is just that he had to first offload his private passengers and the gunny-sacks full of cash in a safer place.

THERE are other stories,some dangerous,some quaint. Landing at Mazar-e-Sharif once with a Newstrack crew that then carried a hundred kilograms of equipment,we found no porters,no transport. I grabbed the first Afghan I found,dishevelled in crumpled khakis,and asked if he would give a hand for 10 dollars. ‘‘Me,peelaut (pilot),’’ he said,‘‘me no carry baggage.’’ Ajmal Jami and Bharat Raj,famous NDTV cameramen in their own right now,would testify to that story and might even send me ten dollars for carrying their baggage,for I was no ‘‘peelaut’’.

The real surprise,however,was how could a place so backward,so primitive have so much aviation? But that was so true of Afghanistan in so many ways. How could a place as poor,rundown and traditional as Kabul,for example,have so many short-skirted women? Or,how could a society so Islamised,so caught up in a jehad and owing so much to the Pakistanis have so much affection for India?

Don’t buy the usual Kiplingisms on Afghan disloyalty and deceit. If you live on a land which produces so little,is surrounded by giant hostile neighbours,is hundreds of miles from the nearest port,has no oil,no industry,is an unwitting pawn in a centuries-old Great Game and boasts of nothing else than warfare as its main source of employment,you learn to adjust and adapt,take risks,believe in God. They can do nothing about neighbours. But they have learnt,over the decades,to let their imagination leapfrog a bit and look at a more distant neighbour,India,for political and cultural linkages and succour. The Afghan affection for India has a strong emotional side.

But there is more to it than mere emotion. India may be a slightly distant neighbour but it is the only one with no territorial,cultural or political designs over Afghanistan. It also has the strength to balance out the others,particularly Pakistan which has always held Kabul in contempt. Is it any surprise then that when the Afghan national carrier resumes flying after such a long gap,it chooses New Delhi as its first destination. So what if it is still the Scariana Airways and,I,older and wiser,may not be Afghan enough to buy a ticket on it in such a hurry.

Fear and learning in New York

November 17,2001

Some quiet in J&K,few red faces in Pak: shouldn’t we get more out of Sept 11?

If you lived in Delhi in November 1984 you’d remember the smell. Particularly if you were a reporter then,driving around a devastated city,counting the dead. Or sometimes the burning dead. Large parts of Delhi were then on fire,after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This wasn’t the smell of an ordinary fire. There was a bit of the cremation ground in that smell. But just a bit. There they burn you on clean,dry wood. Not with your entire house,furniture,papers,all your worldly belongings.

That’s the smoke and the smell that assails your nostrils and then cuts straight into your heart and soul as you walk around the block where stood the twin towers of the World Trade Centre until September 11. Two months after the event,the debris is still smouldering. You also don’t have to get that close to feel it. I drive home late one evening with Marianne Weaver,who lived in India for many years as the Christian Science Monitor correspondent and the wife of the then Time magazine bureau chief (at the peak of the Bhindranwale days),and she looks up at the skyline as we do the bend on the Harlem River Drive. ‘‘Each time you look at that skyline,your heart sinks. This city has come to be defined so much by its physical symbols,’’ she says. But it is tougher,she says,sometimes in the mornings,when you open your window and get that smell. ‘‘And then you realise it isn’t just any fire. That human flesh is still burning there.’’ Marianne,now at The New Yorker,has taken time off to do a book on (who else?) Osama bin Laden.

On the flight from Washington to New York,I have to unscrew my Mont Blanc,write with it,squeeze out two drops of ink to prove it doesn’t hide something more lethal. I have to explain the Isabgol. I get by,offering to swallow the spores

America will now see many books written on Osama,on Islam,on why the Muslims hate them so much,on hegemonism of the successful and the frustration of those they leave behind. But the trauma won’t go so easily in a society where even dogs and cats are subjected to psychiatric counselling and aromatherapy. The police barricades to block entry into ground zero in front of J&R world,New York’s most popular discount computer store at Park Place,have become a makeshift memorial. Thousands of cards,paintings by children,wreaths,posters,even ‘‘we shall overcome’’ banners line the fence. And dozens of Americans stand silently in front,heads bowed in pain and prayer,sometimes crying bitterly.

NEARLY 3,000 people were killed in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in November 1984. Only around 500 bodies were not found — they were probably burnt by the mobs and never identified or traced. At the World Trade Centre,more than 4,000 died. Not even 400 bodies have been found,now two months after the event. This is already causing situations modern America is not as accustomed to as you and I. The New York firemen have almost come to blows with the police department on the issue of how fast the debris should be cleared. The police would rather do it faster,with bulldozers. The firemen want to proceed slowly. They believe they might find the bodies of more of their colleagues.

The Americans are learning to live with fear in many of the ways we have got used to over the years. But it is tougher when you are used to a feeling of total security and so much comfort. On the Delta shuttle flight from Wa-shington to New York,I am among the eight passengers taken aside for a special security check. Not because of the colour of my skin,the officer tells me,but because I bought my ticket over the counter at the last moment. The frisking is like a free massage and it even gets somewhat uncomfortably intimate sometimes. You unscrew your Mont Blanc,write with it and then squeeze out two drops of ink to prove that it doesn’t hide something more lethal inside.

The handbags are turned upside down. I have some explaining to do for the small box of Isabgol in my medicine kit. A kind of Indian dietary fibre,try telling that to a US security agent. White,powdery,unmarked and in the baggage of a brown-skin flaunting an overused Indian passport. Simply doesn’t work in times of anthrax. I get by finally by offering to swallow the ‘‘spores’’ and do so in an extravagant gesture to finally extract a smile from a very unhappy officer. But even on the flight nobody takes any chances. This is just an hour’s flight,announces the stewardess,‘‘so we request you not to get up from your seats until doors open after landing.’’ She says those who want to use the toilets should do so now,‘‘we have two lavatories in front and two behind.’’ Then you are told not to even get up to pick a book or something out of your handbags. ‘‘If you need something from your bags stowed in overhead containers,please do so now. We would appreciate it if you don’t get up at all once the doors are closed…’’

When an entire society gets so jumpy it tends to forget the rules,drills,instincts. Who knows exactly what happened on American Airlines flight 587,which crashed minutes after take-off? Could it be that some passenger with prostrate trouble absent-mindedly got up and walked towards the front toilets setting off panic,over-reaction,confusion at the crucial take-off time?

Even if the Taliban’s gone,Osama entombed,the Americans know there will be no retun to the old days. So they would rather stick around the Islamic hotspots,including our region. That’s why it’s time we began figuring out our own end game

DISMISS this by all means as uninformed speculation. But no event has changed America as much,made it as fearful of what lies ahead,than September 11. This will not change too much after the Taliban are gone and Osama is entombed. The Americans understand there will be no return to old days as long as radical Islam continues to treat them as enemies and until there are conditions that persuade Muslims around the world to join its ranks. They are therefore unlikely to stop after the completion of their own version of Operation Bluestar. They would wish to stick around this region as well as the other Islamic hot-spots and work to stabilise them for the future so they do not end up fighting another Osama,even if he is known by another name. They are now here to stay. At least on that one Musharraf is not wrong.

That is why it is time for us to start figuring out what is our own end game in the post-September 11 world. Certainly it cannot be merely a few weeks of respite in Kashmir,some embarrassment for the Pakistanis and greater international awareness of how India is a victim of cross-border terror. Nations that are directly affected by such defining moments would blunder in not seizing them to redefine their own power equations and to rewrite the future of their coming generations. Israelis kept quiet — in spite of the rain of scuds — during the Gulf War but gained finally because it kickstarted the Middle East peace process with a Western commitment that would have been unthinkable if Saddam had not invaded Kuwait. There is no complete peace in the Middle East yet.

But if you see Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon on television every third day reaffirming Palestinian statehood and Arafat and Hannan Ashrawi promising Israel the right to exist,it is because they were all able to seize upon the post Gulf War opportunity and take this giant step forward.

Closer home,we have sniffed a final settlement on Kashmir twice in the past. The first time was when India was in trouble (1962-3,Swaran Singh-Zulfikar Bhutto talks when in return for military help against China the US told us to settle with Pakistan) but Pakistani military arrogance lost that opportunity. The second time was when Pakistan was in trouble,having lost the 1971 war and Mrs Gandhi failed to seal the deal at Shimla. Now is the third time,when the US is in trouble. As it works its way out of that,it would see the Islamic crescent west of us,in South and Central Asia as the mother of all hot-spots. It is a very fearful,desperate and yet determined America. For any permanent peace in its own backyard it must first stabilise this region. It will test India’s strategic intellect but it also brings a real opportunity to secure the future of our own coming generations.

Here a General,there a General

November 10,2001

Everywhere,it’s Musharraf but Vajpayee doesn’t have to feel left out

Atal Bihari Vajpayee arrived in Washington on Thursday evening. There wasn’t a line acknowledging it in The Washington Post. Pervez Musharraf is landing a day later. But the papers are already loaded with stories about his travels. Today he hogged prime time on television networks. He even held forth at the House of Commons. Nobody needed to be reminded that it was just the other day that Britain wanted Pakistan thrown out of the Commonwealth because Musharraf had usurped power through a coup. Vajpayee,however,need not feel so victimised. In the West,Pakistan is the flavour of the fortnight. In Washington,particularly in the foreign policy and defence establishments,as in the think tanks,there is a sense of excitement,even nervous tension about Musharraf’s arrival.

He is the new kid on the block. He holds the key to Osama’s hideout. Only he can find George Bush a safe passage out of the Afghan blind alley. The US forces cannot operate from Iran. The Central Asian Republics are too far,and ethnically even more distant from the southern Pushtun areas where the Taliban are concentrated. India’s disadvantages as an ally are geographical,political,even religious. A predominantly Hindu India cannot be an active accomplice in a war against radical Islam.

Musharraf’s type impresses the US establishment. They like his soldier’s walk,his straight-talking manner and extroverted style. They may laugh in private about the way he puffs up his chest when he talks to a foreigner. Or about his cliched English,which reminds you of an instructor in a subcontinental military academy. ‘‘Take the bull by the horn (note the singular,as if he confuses the bull for a rhino or vice versa) and put the horse before the cart,’’ is by now a familiar Musharrafism. When the last US President (Clinton) met him,he wagged his finger at him in public. This one will fete him as probably no Pakistani leader has been,ever. He is like the favourite approver of the sheriff.

The wisdom of the Washington veteran,however,is that this shouldn’t worry India too much. Washington has a history of toasting despots and dictators. Except some of them then come to grief simply because their own countrymen begin to see them too much as American bunnies than their own leaders. It doesn’t work forever even in a poor country,particularly one like Pakistan where the population has already experienced active politics. There are now those in Washington who now believe that the short-cut of patronising dictators,particularly in Islamic countries,has been self-defeating for the US. ‘‘Why is it that most Muslims around the world resent our bombing of Afghanistan? Why are they not convinced by our evidence against Osama?’’ asks one expert taken particularly seriously by the establishment. Is it because Muslims around the world see us as the backers and patrons of despotic and corrupt regimes that oppress and brutalise them while enjoying the most decadently lavish lifestyles?

Happy routine,sombre punchline

If Vajpayee has any quibbles over the kind of play Musharraf is getting,he is not showing it. Vajpayee is a happy traveller. He seems happier still in America and particularly so in front of an audience of doting NRIs. At a reception in Washington on Friday evening,he had them in splits,with the nonchalance of a stand-up comedian. But he concluded on a sombre note,a sadder variation on his familiar main geet naya gaata hoon (I sing a new song). He wrote this,he said,for times when he gets disillusioned and fed up of the venality and cynicism of our system,when he feels like throwing it all and walking away. The refrain then is,main geet nahin gaata hoon (I refuse to sing a song).

Those who saw his sullen,angry mood just two months ago when he,unable to withstand his own people’s barbs,had threatened to quit,knew exactly what he was talking about. A pity the performance came so far away from the eyes of those it must have really been directed at. This particular bit was lost on the NRIs,who had come to be entertained,and took some time even realising the mood had turned so serious.

Until a few months ago,the Americans used to ask,what is wrong with your prime minister? He is such a terrific public orator and yet so uncommunicative in person. Now they have a theory. Vajpayee,they say,is the master of the set-piece. Give him an audience of admirers and he would charm them as nobody else could. Put him in Parliament and he might floor even the opposition. But put him across the table,one-on-one and his immune system is in overdrive. Musharraf,on the other hand,loves to talk,theorise,pontificate even if he has the intellectual depth of a battalion commander.

Vajpayee is the master of the broad brush. Musharraf is simplistic and linear in his step-by-step thinking. Odds are the Americans would love him for a little while and then get so exasperated as to suggest putting some De Bono on the list of his bed-time reading.

Steve South Asia Cohen

Funnily,just as Musharraf is the toast of the town,the part of the world Washington is most obsessed about is,for once,our very own South Asia. There is more interest in South Asia now than even in the Middle-east and one collateral transformation it has brought about is in the fortunes of academics and experts. This is personified (!) stunningly by three professors named Stephen Cohen. My favourite — and the only one of the three I know actually — is now the top of the pops. In the past,the ‘‘Soviet’’ Cohen (a friend of Gorbachev’s) and the ‘‘Middle-east’’ Cohen got much of the attention in the US while the ‘‘South Asia’’ Cohen (formerly of University of Illinois and now at Brookings) continued to accumulate scholarship,known better in the subcontinent than in the US. Now the tables have turned.

Having been one of his disciples I may be accused of bias. But nobody knows more about South Asian security,particularly the militaries,than he. And he is now in demand,hopping from one television channel to another,fitting radio interviews in between. ‘‘Maybe now,we should hold a conference comparing the Middle-east and South Asian peace processes and we can have all three Steve Cohens attending it,’’ he suggests.

There also isn’t another foreigner who knows the Pakistani generals as well as Cohen does. How would he compare Musharraf with Zia? There is no comparison he says. Zia was clever,cunning,a man who trusted no one but himself. ‘‘How would you describe him? May be,as they say in Yiddish,a mench (approximately translated as a savvy gentleman).’’ Musharraf,on the other hand,needs people around him he can trust. But he thinks Musharraf has a great opportunity not only to turn the fortunes of his own country but to also help bring peace in the region. His situation,he says,could be a bit like Harry Truman’s,a man of average abilities but placed in opportune circumstances. But it won’t be easy,he says,for the picture in the region is so incredibly complicated. That is the problem with Pakistan,he says,cursed by history,but blessed by geography. Always in the right place at the wrong time.

As with so many others who specialise on the subcontinent,Steve is often a victim of competitive affections or resentments. Many Indians see him as being overly friendly to the Pakistanis. Many Pakistanis similarly say he has flipped to India’s side. Cohen,however,has written landmark books on both armies and loves them. Can you imagine,he asks,if India had not been partitioned and this was one army? He recalls Field Marshall Auchinleck telling him in an interview more than three decades ago that his greatest regret was that Mountbatten had partitioned such a fine army. ‘‘If India had not been partitioned,’’ Cohen says to me,‘‘I would have been sitting here not with you but with a Chinese and we would be talking about how to contain this mighty India that straddles all the oil routes,dominates central Asia and so on.’’

We chat while dining in a small,cheap,but exquisite Vietnamese restaurant in suburban Virginia. Cohen says the Vietnamese are the brightest students in US schools today,like the Indians,even if they have the initial drawback in English. But his wife,Bobby,who teaches English as a second language predominantly to immigrants,settles the issue. ‘‘At a dinner a Chinese and a Japanese guest asked me who were the brightest Asian students in English classes. They were shocked when I told them it was not the Chinese or the Japanese but the Vietnamese.’’

The mall,dotted with Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants and shops,is a tribute to immigrant enterprise. But so is the rest of America. In the hotel,the waitress is Hungarian,the bellboy Slovak,the lobby manager Lebanese and the bar-tender Czech. This diversity,the multi-culturalism,is the very antithesis of Talibanism. It will be such a pity,therefore,if the post-Sept 11 trauma persuades Americans to tighten their immigration laws further.

The vast UN-employed

Later on Saturday,the bandwagon moves to New York as so many heads of states gather for that annual performance in competitive boredom,the speech at the UN General Assembly. Musharraf speaks a day after Vajpayee and will be dined by Bush. I suspect he will choose a sherwani over the khakis. I suspect also that this time there will be no breakfast invitations for us although the schedule for all of Sunday is blank for us. But probably that is because of the kind of place the UN is. There is the favourite old joke about the child who is being shown around the UN building by his father who is employed in a high position there. ‘‘How many people work in the UN building,dad,’’ he asked.

‘‘In the UN,actually,no one really works,’’ said the very honest father. The joke may be too anodyne to make the SMS grade but it is so true. For evidence,see how irrelevant,inactive and indifferent the UN has been to the war against Osama and the Taliban.

Indian graffiti

June 23,2001

The vanishing act in Shimla

The lingering image of the week is not Pervez Musharraf in his black sherwani reciting the oath as president. It is,on the contrary,Tourism and Culture Minister Ananth Kumar and Ratan Tata posing in front of a Taj Mahal portrait at the ceremony to hand over the monument to the widely respected corporate group for maintenance. There will,of course,be the usual sniggers.

That the Taj Mahal would do more for the sagging brand equity of the group (two of its major brands,tea and hotels,are called Taj) than any inspiring speeches its chairman may have been delivering to its shareholders lately. Or that it is a reward for proximity to this government. The sniggers will get surer as in weeks to come the group is handed over Air-India,the prize it has been seeking for years now.

But having seen some evidence first-hand of the way our heritage is being raped,pillaged and incinerated,we had better distance ourselves from this corporate rivalry business a bit and,for once,applaud a minister’s foresight in taking so radical a measure. Surely,the Oberois have done no harm to Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi,nor has the Apeejay group been using Jantar Mantar to dump garbage from its Park Hotel across the road. Anybody who’s seen Archaeological Survey of India drive piles through monuments like the Sun Temple at Konark,or countless monuments become public lavatories (including Hampi),would welcome this realism. At least someone in government is willing to admit that it doesn’t always know best and to seek out the corporates,or others outside the sarkari circles,for help.

When the Viceregal Lodge gets carbonised in yet another Shimla fire,even I’d be entitled to an I-told-you-so

But,while we still care a bit about the big monuments,this country has heritage scattered all over its plains,deserts and,notably,hills. As in the small retreat of Mashobra,just 13 km north of Shimla,which,in the colonial days,was the hangout of so many princely families who moved here to their summer palaces just as the Raj shifted to its summer capital.

Inside the maharaja’s lair

No one had an abode as lavish as the then Maharaja of Faridkot did,though he was known mainly for his curiously penny-pinching ways — he would give nothing to his children but spent crores buying fancy cars,aircraft,horses,jewellery. If his motive was to build,through these acquisitions,a heritage and a legacy,he obviously wasn’t well advised because you now see it — or what remains of it — rotting,up for grabs in a string of palaces and garages around the village of Tallai,2 km down the road from Mashobra. The palace sits atop the most magnificent spot in the entire hill range,in a place so quiet you can hear individual leaves on the apple trees rustle in the gentlest breeze. Ordinary folk can’t even get close to it — the chowkidar and mongrels both look forbidding. But I was in good company.

The Badal family comes from Faridkot and I could hide behind Sukhbir Singh Badal who obviously rues so badly the fact that the beauties that belonged to his district now lie rotting in Mashobra. In padlocked garages,you can count six Rolls Royce,two Bentleys,four Jaguars,each with no more than a few hundred miles on the odometer. There are brand new Indian Chiefs and Harley Davidsons in crates and,you have to see them to believe me,in one narrow,endless garage four factory-painted Scout armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of the US army (WWII vintage). Behind the car garage is the grave of the maharaja’s favourite horse.

He died committing all his properties and possessions to a trust rather than to his daughters — one of whom lives in desolation in the rotting palace. For years the ‘‘knowledgeable’’ folk fr- om Chandigarh,Shimla and Delhi made quiet visits to the property,ripping it of antique furniture,carpets and jewellery.

As you peep through the dust-caked windows of the maharaja’s library,you can well imagine the treasure the place would have contained. I spotted an original edition of Moby Dick,a silver lamp-stand half-covered in the rubble,an exquisite Persian carpet eaten by moths and fungus. There is even an underground strongroom,now protected by padlocks bandaged in court seals,that is reputed to contain piles of jewellery and seven quintals of gold.

What is it about us Indians that makes us such great defilers of monuments,nature and sites?

Then come to his second palace,or whatever is left of it,on the next hill. It was consumed by a fire three months back. All that is left is the silica fire-place. You can cry walking over the still fresh rubble,twisted stained glass crunching under your soles,and then find evidence of the maharaja’s miserliness — letters exchanged with the phone department in 1952 resulting in a Rs 30 refund! The wise men of Mashobra would tell you there is a pattern to the pillage and the burning. First the properties are gutted of all their furniture and artefacts,probably under collusion,and then a mysterious fire destroys everything. So no questions would be asked later.

Two palaces,the cars,the motorcycles and the APCs still survive but obviously not for long,unless some Ananth Kumar grabs what is left,declares it national heritage and then hands it over to someone who would scrub it and then protect it. I promise you it will be a real sight even if the maharaja never actually moved his most remarkable possessions,crated WWII airplanes,and another 20-odd antique cars,from Faridkot to the hills.

Remember,you first read it here PYROMANIA is a popular sport in Shimla. Checking back on the Faridkot palace fire I asked Ashwini Sharma,The Indian Express correspondent in Shimla,for details on some of the other famous fires. He e-mailed a list that makes an 8-kilobyte file. The Wildflower Hall at Mashobra (now rebuilt and developed into a remarkable five-star resort by the Oberois) was fully burnt in 1993. A magisterial inquiry indicted the Himachal Tourism Corporation for negligence that led to the destruction of the masterpiece Ripon built and Kitchener used as his residence. But nobody was punished. Then the list goes on: Peterhoff complex (Raj Bhawan,where Godse’s trial was held),Snowdon Hospital,Walker’s (army) Hospital,Western Command Building (from where the British controlled the War in most of Asia),Kennedy House,Kennedy Cottage,General Post Office,Central School,Jesus & Mary Convent,Himachal Dham,DC’s Office,Davicos,Grand Hotel. In all,62 colonial heritage buildings have been burnt to ashes in Shimla in three decades. If anybody’s been held accountable for any of these,I do not know.

I do know,however,that the most magnificent of these still somehow survives. The former Viceregal Lodge in Shimla was built by Lord Dufferin in 1884 over 110 acres in the English Renaissance (Elizabethan) style and was the venue of many momentous decisions from the transfer of power to the Shimla Accord. The table on which Bhutto and Mrs Gandhi signed the accord still sits in a hall,mostly unknown to lakhs of visitors who come to Shimla every year. There are separate bedrooms for the Viceroy and the Vicereine,with the usual moulded upholstery and rotting furniture. After Independence,it became the Rashtrapati Niwas but Dr Radhakrishnan,in his wisdom,turned it over to the education ministry to house the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies.

Two decades back,working for the same newspaper,I had done a series of stories on scandals in the institute which involved,among other things,some scholars and officials ripping the giant curtains to make cushions in their homes besides,in one rather harmless case,making out on the Viceroy’s king-sized bed. But you can see worse happening now. Electric room heaters stick out of temporary sockets in corridors and rooms. The British thought they had built a fire-proof building. Shimla will soon prove them wrong. We columnists love to use the expression ‘‘when this happens remember where you read it first’’. When the Viceregal Lodge gets carbonised in yet another inevitable Shimla fire,even I’d be perfectly entitled to an I-told-you-so.

The Gandhis missed this one

If you want to cure yourself of this depression,or any other,come to a place named so unimaginatively it sounds deliberate,the Catchment Area. The 1015-acre patch of the greenest forest ever lies just off the Hindustan-Tibet Road,10 km from Shimla. You need a permit from the District Forest Officer to get there which is a good thing as very few people actually manage to get in.

It belonged,originally,to the Raja of Koti but the government acquired it in 1952 and declared it a protected forest. The forest department claims that for 150 years not a tree has been felled here and once you are deep inside you can see why it is not a tall claim. This is the richest,deepest,thickest,purest pine forest you have seen — it is reputed to be the thickest in Asia — full of ancient deodars,white oaks,chir and blue pines.

An utterly unforgiving,kutcha,narrow,8 km road takes you to a quaint rest house in the heart of the forest where endless walking trails begin. It is supposed to be home to a lot of wildlife. We only saw some hawks and the happiest langurs ever. Himachal Pradesh has actually done something to save its forests. In 1990,for example,it banned the felling of trees to make boxes for packing its apples. But since the farmers need the boxes,it gave them cash subsidy for importing wood from neighbouring states. Is the chief minister of Uttaranchal reading?

One walk takes you to an old 13-lakh gallon British-made reservoir fed by numerous rainwater streams that meander in from the forest. The water is then decanted into Shimla under the force of nothing else than gravity. A simple,old engineering marvel and the reason why this most magnificent of forests is called Catchment Area. But maybe it’s just as well that nobody’s noticed this or this would have also been named after some Nehru or Gandhi,as most of the real estate has been on top of Kufri up the same highway,and then serial-raped by gangs of ‘Puppies’ who come driving,honking,playing dhik-chak music at full volume,spilling beer and worse,riding ponies,yaks,feeding leftovers to stray dogs and some truly miserable animals — including two snow leopards — still said to be surviving in the Kufri zoo.

Good old sarkari restrictions have saved this forest,yet the desi traveller has left his fingerprints. On a tree-trunk deep inside even this forest you can read an ‘‘I love so-and-so’’ message. What is it about us Indians that makes us such great defilers of monuments,nature and sites? Surely,this is not a trait you can blame on the Puppy culture. For decades we’ve been defiling monuments with our names and those of our loved ones. Even in the ancient Persepolis near Shiraz in Iran,you find countless inscriptions – all by Indians – informing posterity that they’d been there. Alexander the Great sacked the city first and lately we Indians have been working hard at it. The graffiti goes back to World War I when some Indian regiments travelled through the region. On a recent visit to Persepolis (during the prime minister’s Iran visit),I took down some names of such worthies. But I am not listing them here out of respect for men who are probably dead by now. But there must be some reason why we Indians want so desperately to make a mark at the very sight of a wall. Sometimes we do it by peeing,sometimes with graffiti. Maybe Dr Murli Manohar Joshi could add this also to his new school curricula on Indian culture.

Chinese food,humble pie

June 9,2001

Postcard from the edge—of irrelevance

Is this China? Can this be Chinese territory? Is this one more example of the intriguing,inscrutable Chinese? You could have asked yourselves all these questions and more at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park last Monday,the 12th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. More than 40,000 people,all Chinese,collected as night fell,with candles,flowers,banners and prayer flags,to remember the victims of the massacre and with a not exactly silent curse for its perpetrators. There were some policemen present,but only to keep good order as the crowds gathered and dispersed. Twelve years ago,too,I was in Hong Kong in the same week of the year,en route to Beijing a day after the massacre. There were similar,solemnly mourning crowds. But if you spoke to anyone,he had only one question: it’s fine now. But who can even think of protesting like this once the territory is handed over to the Chinese?

You have to give it to the pragmatic Chinese. They know what is good for them,their national interest,and then go ahead and do it. Which other nation could have employed the ‘one country,two systems’ approach so clinically for its own benefit? More than three years after the handover,Hong Kong not only remains the way it was but has actually become more liberal,vibrant,cosmopolitan,more buzzing,more happening. The Chinese are not interfering with anything,giving the word colonialism a whole new definition.

How come the Chinese establishment and elites do not have insecurities similar to ours? We are still working at Indianising Goa so the state sheds its Portugese character,we want to rename the Pondicherry streets with old French names in an Indianised way,perhaps as Rue d’Some Political Crook or d’other. We haven’t created a single export processing township because we can never get our legal,moral and political dilemmas sorted out. Meanwhile,the Chinese are on a roll,Hong Kong in tow. One hour from Hong Kong,just the small export processing zone of Shenzhen (in mainland China) exports more than all of India does in a whole year.

No aunts,no uncles,no nephews,no nieces

One more question. Which is the one international airport (besides Kathmandu) where you and I can land with an Indian passport without needing a visa? It is Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a miracle built on free trade,free access,free movement and millions of travellers. The Chinese haven’t changed any of that. But it is also one of the great Chinese ironies that the only part of the world where an Indian can reach more freely than even the Chinese is Hong Kong,which is Chinese territory. The only people whose travel to Hong Kong is strictly controlled is the native,mainland Chinese,and it is getting some people in Hong Kong very upset.

At the annual Congress of the World Association of Newspapers last week,David Tang,a top Hong Kong businessman,spoke in the most perfect British accent and made a forceful plea for free immigration. Hong Kong’s success,he said,was built on competition and survival of the fittest. In the absence of competition now,the Hong Kong residents were becoming lazy. They needed to be challenged by immigrants. Great trading cities of the world declined after they closed their gates to immigrants or became unwelcome for them for other reasons,he said,underlining the demise of ancient Venice and Constantinople and the more contemporary Shanghai and Beirut. Hong Kong needs more Chinese,he said. Let the Chinese get out of a regimented world where (because of the one-child norm) there are now no brothers or sisters,uncles or aunties,nephews or nieces,and come to Hong Kong where they can grow in any conceivable way,without restrictions. Tang’s point was a simple one. Rather than call itself Asia’s World City,Hong Kong should be the world’s Chinese city because,after all,all culture and civilisation began in China. Except he had one doubt. Adam and Eve,he said,couldn’t have been Chinese. If they were,they would have eaten the snake.

Biodiversity the gourmet way

I guess even an omnivore like me would have trouble handling snake. But almost everything else is fine,particularly if it comes from the woks of some of the finest Chinese cooks at the fabled sea-front restaurants at Lamma Island,a 45-minute ferry ride away. At the ceremonial dinner served by the Hong Kong administration for nearly a thousand publishers and editors from all over the world (three ferryloads) the meal began with prawns and then the rest of the marine and mammal life followed,as a matter of course: oyster,lobster,squid,jellyfish,garoupa,beef and then pork. The lone Pakistani on our table was a bit suspicious. Is it pork,he asked. The waiter thought for a while,and then called an older colleague,obviously with better skills at speaking English.

‘‘Yes sir,’’ he said most helpfully. ‘‘It is pig.’’

The Pakistani wasn’t amused,but not entirely witless. ‘‘And what you had just before this,gentlemen,was cow,’’ he said,turning to us Indians.

World city in the Andamans

With 9000 restaurants Hong Kong is the gourmet capital of the world. But that figure vastly understates the number of really terrific eating places in the city because,given its stringent hygiene and fire safety laws,far too many do not qualify to be called restaurants and get by as messes. My favourite of 15 years is the Nanak Mess in Chung King Mansions,Kowloon’s notorious desi ghetto that once used to be crawling with assorted lowlife,illegal immigrants,pickpockets,drug pushers,hookers. Nanak Mess hasn’t changed,for better or worse,but Chung King Mansions has. For starters,it is cleaner. It is also no longer a desi hangout as much as an African one. Its very suspicious ‘‘hotels’’ that could cost as little as five US dollars a night,bargain shops and money changing establishments are still run predominantly by Indians but the clientele has changed. Much fewer Indians now live in Hong Kong. A lot fewer come visiting. There are hardly any Indian shoppers and the showrooms of electronic goods have disappeared. Gone out of business,you are told,because everything is now available anyway in India.

That speaks well for India’s reform. But the decline of the Indian community here doesn’t. Far too many Indian residents,even the richer ones,suffered after the handover as the British did not negotiate a good enough citizenship status for them. So they robbed their banks and bought passports in Australia,Canada and New Zealand. They even had a pipedream once. That India would develop the Andamans into a free port,an Indian Hong Kong,and they would move in there to create an archipelago of prosperity for their motherland to rival Hong Kong. Those left behind now talk bitterly of that dream,of the short shrift it got and how they are convinced that India is so burdened with sanctimonious hypocrisy it could never rival China’s energy or enterprise,prosperity or pragmatism.

On the flight back,I run into dear friend Nikhil Gandhi,dressed impeccably and full of beans as ever. Against enormous odds he built a private port (Pipavav) in Gujarat and is now sealing the financial closure for the dream of his life,the free trade zone of Positra,the first of its kind in India. Nikhil is not 40 yet,has outfought cancer,works a long day,neither says no to anything nor takes no for an answer and is in so many ways an entrepreneur in the classical mould of the Hong Kong Chinese. Except,today he is upset. Have you seen how the Chinese are moving ahead? Why don’t you start a series in your paper on how India is being left behind? Somebody needs to tell our government that. Why don’t we send our politicians to China to see how that country is moving?

Should we send them to China?

I am not sure this is such a good idea for four reasons. First,our politicians would never understand,anyway. Second,all our politicians and bureaucrats and other elites are sending their children abroad anyway,so why should they care for what happens to India? Third,they may just get so scared at the pace with which China is leaving us behind,they may give up competing even before the competition has begun. And fourth,they only need to look at some basic figures to know how much we lag behind.

We all know the Chinese exports are much larger than ours but dismiss them as the success of sweat shops producing cheap toys. Then,we believe our IT growing exports will bridge the gap. But today China’s IT exports are two and a half times India’s and the gap is widening. China has six crore mobile phone subscribers against India’s 36 lakh. It has 125 million fixed phone lines,more than four times India’s and growing much faster,while we have a maze of committees and courts still debating our telecom policy. The country is being wired with broadband at a breakneck speed and no surprise therefore that its population of Internet users is 2.2 crore,compared to our 56 lakh. By 2007 Chinese is supposed to become the most dominant language of the Internet,and who knows we might still be dialling a public sector VSNL for access? The one headstart we had over the Chinese was our knowledge of the English language. But they are catching up. Hordes of Chinese are being given crash courses in English,even in small towns and villages,even under streetlights. Meanwhile Dr Murli Manohar Joshi is making the learning of Sanskrit compulsory for your children in his schools.

One of my closest friends and teachers in the strategic community,the late Gerald Segal of the International Institute of Strategic Studies,London,was an incorrigible Sinosceptic. You Indians worry too much about China,he would say,because the Chinese haven’t sorted out their basic problems first. You are cleaning up those,so wait till your economy also begins to move.

Then,stricken by cancer at a very young age,he wrote a real masterpiece for the New York-based Foreign Affairs magazine,headlined,Does China Matter? He said he wrote it between bouts of chemotherapy so intense he described it as pushing at the outer frontiers of the chemical weapons convention,because he knew he could fight cancer only if he had the self esteem that he was doing something useful and because he owed it to his friends,particularly Indian ones. His rubbishing of China was well argued,solidly substantiated and will remain a classic for a long time. But we have proved to be such poor rivals so far that you and I had better be asking ourselves a more relevant question: Does India Matter any more?

Stars and gripes

May 19,2001

Harvard diary: flavours of the exam season

Anybody who said the Indian examination system is oppressive had better come to Harvard now — it looks as if everybody has rushed indoors after a bomb alert. This is exam season,or as a professor puts it,the annual mass torture ritual. The cafes in Harvard Square are empty. Its buskers and street musicians have little custom even on a Friday night. The same emptiness clouds the Coop,which sells books and merchandise bearing the Harvard insignia,that visitors love to buy to back up their familiar ‘‘when I was at Harvard’’ line. Don’t forget the maverick politician with a talent for bringing down governments who merely taught a course here and has got away with the claim of being a Harvard don. What we don’t know,however,is at which faculty here he learnt the art of writing creative chargesheets.

Nobody doubts this will be an unapologetic me-first administration. The rest of us should brace ourselves for some old fashioned all-American arrogance even as we are spared Gore’s boring hypocrisy

But there is also a bright side to this exam time desertion. A visitor can now walk the footpath without fear of getting his toes crushed by a wayward skateboard. My toes,however,were stomped upon a bit elsewhere. Liberal campuses haven’t yet recovered from the elections having been stolen by the Bush camp. Now he is following it up with his ‘phantasmagoric’ Star Wars plan. So why has India jumped to his support with such alacrity? My defence was the MEA’s written statement,on closer reading,seems to support everything that Bush said at his famous speech at the National Defense University,except National Missile Defence (NMD). Yet,the most significant thing about this delightfully vague piece of MEA syntax is the total absence of protest so routine in Indian response to any nuclear policy statement in the past. We in the Indian media have got so used to this that we misread the latest statement to be support for NMD. How amazing that the enormously wiser US academia also seemed to have made the same mistake.

Conference building measures

Examinations time for students is usually conference time for teachers. Until last year,the theme that launched most conferences was nuclear proliferation and in the strategic community the acronym CBM was sometimes called Conference Building Measures. The flavour of this season is the likely policy changes the Bush administration may bring about. There is not much appreciation for the man hereabout. But his administration is already seen with a degree of awe for the speed with which it has moved on its ideological agenda without even waiting for Congress ratification for his appointments. It has already gone back on the Kyoto Protocol and is likely to move on a Bush energy task force report that will get some American jholawallas to commit self-immolation even before Medha’s girls try to drown themselves in the Narmada this monsoon. Besides,he has already made the first moves on NMD.

Bookshelves already have new releases on Bush jokes. But there is consensus his tenure will see more substance than style. Many key men are cold warriors who are not willing to concede that war is over yet,even if their side won. They will run a very shoot-from-the-hip policy. How else do you explain formal statements that the US ICBMs will now be re-targeted in view of the receding Russian threat and the increasing one from China? Similarly,Bush is supposed to have trashed the policy of punishing India and Pakistan over their nuclear tests as self-defeating. ‘‘Those weapons are so crude and old-fashioned,what else will they do if not test them?’’ he is supposed to have asked at a meeting and then gone on to give his own colourful (and unprintable) suggestion as to where we could store them instead.

The story may be exaggerated but is not entirely apocryphal. Nobody doubts that this will be an unapologetic me-first administration that will operate on the principle that if it is good for America it must be better for the world. What this means is that the rest of us should brace for some old fashioned all-American arrogance even as we are spared Gore’s frightfully boring hypocrisy.

Hindu index of hypocrisy

Any self-respecting nation deserves an airline that won’t insult old people. But we will take so long privatising ours that by then the market would have been cornered by truly lousy airlines like United Just as there is a Hindu rate of growth for India’s economy,is there also a Hindu index of hypocrisy? The question came up,surprisingly,not in the context of India’s nuclear weapons but on China’s entry into WTO. The Chinese want it desperately. This USA is run by Sinophobes who will block it for leverage till the last moment,on the argument that China hasn’t complied with all the preconditions for joining up. Someone asked how was it that India managed to get in so easily. Surely its own compliance record couldn’t be so excellent. The speaker (who shall go unnamed) pointed out with some anguish that India had been shoehorned into GATT in 1948 itself as part of its colonial inheritance. So it never had to qualify to enter WTO,which is after all an offspring of GATT. Then he said,sanctimoniously,that India,actually,should have withdrawn from GATT and IMF in 1950,the moment it became a Republic. How could India continue being a member of an organisation whose basic philosophy it rejected.

It was left to me to concede that just as there is a Hindu rate of growth,there must be a Hindu index of hypocrisy. That we Indians believe we invented hypocrisy though it is such a pity that we did not patent it or we would have made so much money charging US royalty. If you were to accept the moral logic that countries should withdraw from multilateral organisations whose policy they do not believe in,then the US should make a beginning by leaving the United Nations. The timing was perfect. This discussion took place the day the Congress had withheld the payment of an overdue amount to the UN after the US was voted out of the Human Rights Commission.

Nevertheless,it’s remarkable how the face of the academia changes the moment a presidential shift takes place. So many players from the old Democratic administration have now found positions in universities and think tanks. Similarly,old Republicans have emptied out of academia and joined the new administration. It is this kind of to-ing and fro-ing,this cross-fertilisation and also intellectual oversight that gives democracy real strength. It is such a far cry from India where the same people from bureaucracy run our policy,irrespective of who has been elected to power. To make sure no dissenting voice comes up from academia they also keep under tight control the handful of institutions we have. Knowing Jaswant Singh,I can’t believe he isn’t already impatient about it.

Harvardisation of Sanskrit

The teaching of Sanskrit is such a newsy issue back home that I could not help sauntering into the Department of Sanskrit at Harvard. The head,Van der Kijp,is away on a study mission in Tibet. But the rest of his faculty is there and quite enjoying the increasing popularity of Sanskrit. The numbers of those studying Sanskrit have risen three-fold in the past year. While some of this is driven by an increased interest in Indian spirituality,some of it,I’m told,is also because of Stephanie Jamieson. A plate at her door decrees one shloka at a time,and she makes teaching Sanskrit such fun.

If she can attract students just because she makes the learning of Sanskrit so enjoyable,maybe Murli Manohar Joshi could consider importing her to India. There is also Michael Witzel,the Wales professor of Sanskrit,but my favourite interlocutor is Arvind Sharma,on loan for a year from McGill University in Canada. ‘‘Nobody likes what you make compulsory. But in India who cares for anything that is not compulsory?’’ he says. If you want to be a world power you have to take your heritage and your ancient languages along or you can settle for being like Finland or Norway,he argued. But don’t confuse him with the typical Brahminical Hindutva type now stalking the corridors of the HRD ministry. Sharma,who has a PhD from Divinity College,is as modern as they come with a progressive interpretation of our scriptures. But I leave wondering where I have seen the man before. It nags me until someone in New York lets out a secret: he is a brother of Kamlesh Sharma,our ambassador to the UN. If you saw them together,they’d look like a double role in a Bollywood film.

United colours of bad behaviour

Here is an important tip for rich NRIs. If you want to get your parents insulted,send them tickets to travel by United Airlines. Not only do its cabin crew patronise its first class passengers,they have a special talent for putting the economy classwallas in their place. And the older the passenger,the ruder they seem to get. On a flight between Delhi and London last week,an old couple,obviously visiting their well-to-do NRI son in the US,were not sure what the small plastic bottle the stewardess handed out to them contained. ‘‘Tell him it’s waa-ter,waa-ter,’’ she told the old lady. The accent beat the old woman,leading to much sniggering until the lone Hindi-speaking stewardess was summoned and asked to help out amid generous giggles. Then came the turn of another old uncleji who was struggling a bit with his pouch of sugar. This upset yet another stewardess. ‘‘Now will someone tell him it is tea and he better not spill it on himself or others?’’ she asked no one in particular.

If the United crew find Indian passengers such a pain,why do they bother to fly to India? The truth is that they now bring 14 flights to New Delhi every week,one leaving every night for each coast of the US. If the planes are full,it is not because of some special magic worked by Rono Dutta,United’s famed Indian CEO,but because — along with British Airways and Lufthansa — United is now fighting for the status of India’s flag carrier. Who else can you blame if your own,alleged,national carrier is in such a mess,down to just about 20 aircraft and reaching you almost nowhere except the Gulf and a handful of western destinations? Any self-respecting nation deserves an airline that at least won’t insult old people. We have run ours into the ground and will now take so long privatising it that by then the entire market would have been cornered by truly lousy airlines like United. And yet we will be squabbling about the value of this piece of family silver,there will be cries of it being sold for a song,PILs,strikes and so on.

By the way,I had better be careful just in case somebody at United is reading this. I have taken three flights with them over the week and they have already lost my baggage twice. I have two more before I reach home and I am counting my beads,a bit like the hapless old parents in the back rows. American humorist P.J. O’Rourke once wrote Germans are so rude that it is not surprising that that is the country where Israelis learnt their manners. Now,I bet,Lufthansa would gain from getting United to train their crew.

The Punjab parable

August 19,2000

In so many years of making a living covering troubled zones there were at least two occasions I was convinced things would never return to normal. On both,I’ve been proven so wrong.

The first was early one morning in the bloody fortnight of February in 1983 Assam. More than 3,000 bodies lay around a village called Nellie. Freshly slaughtered,bleeding,many walking wounded with blank faces,dry,blank eyes,some even holding the entrails spilling out of stab wounds. How could Assam ever come back to normal?

Or Punjab,1984. On the night the army swamped it and imposed martial law of sorts for a week,tanks boomed at the Akal Takht and then the assassination of Mrs Gandhi and the massacres of Sikhs. The Rajiv-Longowal accord was a short-lived hope that died with the assassination of the ever-so-reluctant Sikh moderate. Then the return of terrorism,the killings,kidnappings,the kangaroo courts. Tax collections by the terrorists,the humiliation of having to show your press credentials to militants manning ”checkpoints” in some parts of the border districts that some in the media had begun to call ”liberated” territories. How could anyone ever turn the clock back in Punjab? How could Hindus and Sikhs ever go back to being nails and flesh — of the same finger?

Drive through Punjab now and see how. That dark phase is not even a blip on anybody’s mind. The highways are better than before,with water parks and more,the traffic faster,the paddies are lush and the mood robust and virile. At the installation ceremony of Amritsar’s Rotary Club,the city’s most successful and prosperous Sikhs and Hindus give each other plaques and trophies in a manner so Rotarian and talk of donating money to ”beautify” the cremation grounds both communities obviously share. Just a decade ago,even in the district courts of the supposedly more cosmopolitan Chandigarh,you found Hindu and Sikh lawyers sitting at different tables,looking at each other with sullen suspicion. The divide had seemed so total. So irreversible.

The late Mehra saab,or ”Tiny” Mehra as he was nicknamed with typically misplaced Amritsari understatement since he packed at least 130 kilos in his six-foot-plus frame,owned The Ritz. The hotel was the favourite of the media’s soldiers of fortune,and often after counting the day’s dead we sat with him for òf40ógup-shup and òf40óchai sessions. One evening,he startled me,the only guest in his hotel during the week of Operation Bluestar,by announcing that he was borrowing money from Grindlays and adding another wing to his hotel.

”But you must be out of your mind,uncle,” I said. ”Which tourist will ever come back to Amritsar now?”

”You will never understand,” he said,”People are very tough. They will learn to live with terrorism as you learn to live with diabetes. A little medication,exercise,a few restrictions and you could go on for ever.”

Then,it sounded like madness. Today,even though he is not around to enjoy his own vindication,even that so-called ”diabetes” has vanished without a trace. It feels,instead,like a terminal disease after cure and remission. Both wings of The Ritz,now part of a Mumbai hotel chain,are booming. So are many other hotels,including brand new ones with specialty restaurants,where you have to book a table in advance. The Domino’s and ‘Burger King’ outlets are packed,brushing aside the swadeshi challenge of some old òf40óchana-bhatura wallas that now hawk ”newdels and bargars” or ”South Indian and Chinese snakes”.

The sunrise businesses are computer training centres,slimming clinics and beauty parlours. At Rayya,just short of Amritsar on the Grand Trunk Road,the police station does not even have a sentry at its open gates. In the past it was a fortress with machine gun nests and bunkers. Even the old humour is back. Look for the tractors with Mercedes 560 SEL or BMW plates,besides,indeed,any number sporting the Maruti 800 logo. The fields have even fewer Sikh workers than before — they now make more money in jobs,trucking or other businesses with many more migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar,the òf40óbhaiyyas,doing the job at the best agricultural wages anywhere in the third world. Again,in so many years of covering insurgencies,I have seen only two that disappeared so suddenly. With such finality. The other one was led by Sri Lanka’s ultra-Sinhala Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna that died with its leadership,put away in cold blood by Jayawardene’s vigilantes. Can there be a common reason why these twoinsurgencies have ended with such finality?

In the Amritsar of Bhindranwale,the killer squads,Punjab Police’s ”cats”,Bluestar and worse,there was one man with a big heart,a voice of sanity and with doors always open to harried,hungry and thirsty hacks. Dilbir Singh ran a flourishing woollens business,managed the affairs of scores of Khalsa schools and colleges and found time for his favourite Rotary Club. Since he lived just across the street from The Ritz,you could reach his house even during Bluestar’s shoot-at-sight curfew. He was an optimist too,but in a manner less blase than Tiny Mehra’s. ”This is bound to end one day,” he would say. ”The Sikhs themselves will realise an eight-district Khalistan will be too small for them to even park all their trucks. We want all of India,Bombay,Calcutta,Delhi.” Dilbir Singh and his family took their chances. He never accepted police protection,never flinched from speaking his mind though in a voice so sober you sometimes wondered if he belonged to that city in those shrill times. But he had abelief. People,like the Punjabis,and the Sikhs in particular,who have a stake in their future,do not put up with nonsense for ever.

That is possibly the common reason why the JVP and the Punjab insurgencies ended with such finality. Peoples,ethnic and linguistic groups that have tasted prosperity and thereby a stake in their future,have a strong immune system of sorts that fights back from within. The Sinhalas and the Sikhs are the two richest communities anywhere in the subcontinent and have the highest social indicators. Contrarily,some trouble in Assam still festers. There are still too many people far too poor to have a stake in stability. But this is also exactly why all of Mumbai turned up for work the morning after the serial blasts. Upward mobility brings its own unstoppable momentum. Punjab’s return to normalcy is pretty good evidence of that.

But there is also a serious difference. Mumbai runs on business and enterprise. Punjab survives on agriculture which is no longer quite the same driving force as modern enterprise. Punjab’s is the story of a state that rode the crest of the green revolution but missed the industrial revolution altogether. The greatest tragedy of the post-insurgency years is that nobody has addressed that issue and the result is stagnation,joblessness,and bankruptcy of a government that still runs in the old,agricultural paradigm,giving out doles,even mortgaging its state roadways,bus stations and buildings to pay its employees’ salaries.

In the past eight years,Punjab’s GDP growth rate has been lower than the all-India average. According to data compiled by the Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE),Punjab grew between 1991 and 1996 at 4.6 per cent against the national average of 5.6. Today the gap is even larger. In terms of infrastructure growth,Punjab’s story has been disastrous. It’s been growing at 2.1 per cent,against the national average of 2.6 and,believe it or not,Bihar’s 4.8. It may sound outrageous to compare Punjab unfavourably with Bihar on any developmental parameter but you can’t fight with the facts.

If there is one thing that hasn’t revived in post-insurgency Punjab it is industry and enterprise. The shells of dead,defunct factories and foundries along the highway are like the wrecks of Basu’s Bengal but growing inside them are the seeds of the revival of trouble. Agriculture does not produce enough to satiate the Punjabi,nor does it keep him occupied around the year. The government has no jobs and industry is decaying. We may not see the return of old terrorism,but how long will it be before the old anger and frustration return,maybe as some kind of a viral variant of the old disease?

Postscript: Some things have changed for the worse. The òf40ódhabas,for example. My old favourite,the Zimindara Dhaba,10 km short of Ludhiana,has lost all character to gentrification. Instead of what used to be a limited menu of the world’s finest black òf40ódaal,saag and fresh òf40órotis,it now sells òf40óshahi paneer and òf40ómalai kofta,much like the slobbery rubbish you eat at Delhi’s wedding hall buffets. Gone are most of the charpoys,fresh butter and the very subtle aroma of freshly churned buttermilk. Mercifully,it serves no Chinese and South Indian snakes,newdels or bargars. At least not yet.

Watching Generation X in Hindi heartland

October 3,1999

The obvious question as you see Priyanka Gandhi rousing the family’s old electoral heirloom in Amethi is,why did she confine herself to just one constituency in Uttar Pradesh. Or maybe one and a half,given her brief,but withering ambush of uncle Arun Nehru in the neighbouring Rae Bareli last Wednesday. If all this support is as genuine and spontaneous as the Congress people claim,why this self denial?

”No,this isn’t self-denial. I had told my mother I will only campaign for her,” she says.

”But why confine yourself to two constituencies if you could have won your party a few more seats in Uttar Pradesh?”

”Why for a few more seats? The Congress is reviving in UP now. In the next election,we will get a lot of seats,” she says.

”But next election? That is five years away,” I prod.

”Five years? No,I don’t think so. It won’t be five years. It will be a lot sooner,” she said and thereby we have the first,perhaps too innocent,admission from one who matters in the Congress that the partyis not really hoping to best the BJP at least this time around.

But it is also evident that when the next round comes,whether in Uttar Pradesh assembly,or after another coalition falters and loses its way,she will be ready,a formidable,charismatic,young player on the political stage.

At 27,you could think of Priyanka Gandhi as one more in a long succession of young women in the subcontinent,wives and daughters,driven by vengeance more than ambition. Benazir Bhutto,Chandrika Kumaratunge,Sheikh Hasina Wajed and Khaleda Zia have built a formidable tradition. In fact if Bollywood suddenly discovered one day that political themes do well at the box office,the mother-daughter team out to take revenge could become a formula that lasts longer than the old lost-and-found variety.

Except that in the subcontinent’s history this has an interesting twist. The daughter,it seems,always emerges as the leader,holding the mother’s hand and then handing her out a sinecure. Prime Minister Benazir foundmother Nusrat an innovative title in her cabinet: ”Senior Minister.” President Chandrika Kumaratunge appointed mother Sirimavo Bandarnaike prime minister,a titular position in Sri Lanka. This election will not bring the new Gandhis within reach of power and it is too early to say what happens in the future. But there is no denying that the emotion that drives this young Gandhi is no different from what fired her political cousins in the neigbourhood.

She talks glowingly of the response she got in Rae Bareli,her only foray outside her mother’s constituencies.

”If you think you can make such a difference,why didn’t you go there earlier?” I ask.

”Actually my mother had told me not to go there. Then I thought let me go and do something about my uncle,I wanted to …” she paused,searching for words.

”Cook his goose?” I prompt.

”Yes,absolutely. Cook his goose.” She was already rubbing her palms in glee.

”Cooked how? Rare,medium,well done?”

”Well done,I’d rather hope.” There wasnothing childlike about that. It was pure vengeance.

”But all this business of my uncle,my mother,how does it feel to be caught up in a family blood feud,taking revenge on your uncles,father’s friends?” I try to bring some seriousness back into our short roadside conversation.

”What family? In no other family would people claim to be cousins just because my great grandfather was related to your great grandfather through some cousin or something. Here,just because we are a political family so many people discovered they were cousins or uncles…” The bitterness now shows.

Sanjay Singh,she doesn’t have such a problem with. He is a political rival. But Arun Nehru is special. ”He was so close to my father. His advisor. And then he was so vicious to him. He withdrew his SPG.” So special that she did not mind defying her mother to spend just one day in his constituency. It may not defeat him. But it has ruined his blood pressure.

It’s funny how the BJP people fail to understand why the Priyankacharm works. As is their wont,they tend to blame it on the media which is now allegedly building her into yet another dynastic monster. The real answer lies closer home,and in the success of their own young,relatively fresher and more modern woman campaigner,Sushma Swaraj.

Hours after Vajpayee addressed a sizeable rally in Rae Bareli,I ask several people how impressive it had been. The answer was unanimous: ”It was very impressive,but unnees (lesser) compared to Sushma’s.” Even in Amethi,the one person the Gandhi family and its supporters dread is Sushma.

Ameeta,Sanjay Singh’s wife who has been nursing the constituency for two years and now slogging through 20-hour days,also acknowledges who is the one campaigner that matters. ”You think Sonia’s rally was big? It wasn’t half as big as Sushma’s,” she says. Mind you,this is a constituency that has already been visited by the greatest of the NDA’s orators and rhetoricians. Why is it that Sushma’s appeal works more than that of a Pramod Mahajanor George Fernandes?

The answer quite simply is that she tries to make sense with dignity. As Indira’s bahu,Sonia deserves our affection; as Rajiv’s widow,she must get protection; as Congress President,we owe her respect. But as an Italian-born,she had better not ask for the prime ministership of a country of a hundred crores. Contrast this,quite rational argument,with the muck that flies from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch loudspeakers.

Sonia converted Rajiv to Christianity. Her daughter has now married a Christian. Her son is now engaged to a Christian studying B.Com in Sri Lanka. And so on.

What’s the problem with people marrying Christians if they happen to be Indian,I ask Ved Ratna Srivastav,a Lucknow University student in the Videshi bhagao,swadeshi apnao vest.

”Christians are all foreigners,” he says and then grabs the microphone.

”Bhaio,for a fair-skinned Indian Brahmin boy,Sonia left Italy and came to India. Tomorrow,if Bill Clinton’s son propositions her,she will probably leaveIndia,” he screams,red in the face. No point telling him that the Clintons have only produced a daughter yet.

But look at some other straws in the sullied winds of this boring election,rather like a five-day cricket test match that goes into 15 while the result is known on day one. Who are the crowd-catchers of Election ’99? Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi from the Congress,Sushma and Pramod Mahajan from the BJP,Chandrababu Naidu and Jayalalitha in the south,Mamata,Laloo,Nitish and Paswan in the east. All of a sudden,do we see the old order changing in our politics?

Why do the long marchers no longer draw crowds? Why are the voters so bored with almost anybody–except Vajpayee–born before 1947? This generational shift is the real lesson–and gain–of this election campaign. It is a lesson for all,but particularly for the BJP which may in the long run find that while it is consumed by its obsession with the Gandhi family,its Thakres,Keshubhai Patels and Bhairon Singh Shekhawats may not be such amatch for the Digvijay Singhs,Ashok Gehlots,Kamal Naths and Rajesh Pilots.

Even before the last vote is cast and the first is counted,here is the only prediction you can safely make. The era of the 75-year-old grandfatherly politician is now over and the party that understands this better will win the final when it is played,whether it comes after five years,as Vajpayee hopes.

Or sooner,as Priyanka predicts.

The borderline of peace

August 12,1999

The latest buzz in the international strategic community at this moment is the idea,put forward by renowned US expert Edward Luttwak,that small wars should be allowed to burn and run their course. In a remarkably well argued essay titled ‘Give War a Chance’ in the latest issue of the respected Foreign Affairs published from New York,Luttwak argues that short wars do usually lead to more durable peace as they either result in a clear victory for one side or extreme fatigue for both.

Consequently,the post-war combatants are more likely to be reasonable. He says that the Western inclination to prevent wars in faraway parts of the world,to roll back warlike situation through diplomatic,economic or military intervention,is counterproductive. Hostile powers only use their fragile ceasefires to prepare for another round of war — so perhaps it is better to let them slug it out until they are more willing to compromise with each other. In any case,he argues,the human cost of an artificially imposed peaceis much greater than that of a short war.

These are radical ideas,and rooted,quite predictably,in the West’s recent Balkan experience. But post-Kargil and post-Atlantique,these become quite relevant to the situation in the subcontinent. Irrespective of whether the two countries are now able to contain the post-Atlantique fallout or let things drift into greater escalation,questions will inevitably be asked if the fire that began at Kargil was put out too prematurely. Did it leave the basic conflict and warlike mood simmering dangerously,and,therefore,only delayed the inevitable? Implicit in these doubts is the view that the West,particularly the US,played a vital role in de-escalating Kargil. But it underestimated the fires that burn within the region.

It is an interesting thought,also a little bit belittling for both India and Pakistan. The leaderships of the two countries have to weigh the current situation against this argument. Both will come under extreme pressure over the next 48 hours orso. Pakistan,from the radicals clamouring for retribution,from religiously-driven generals,current and former,who believe this time is as good as any for a final war against India,and of course the fundamentalist rabble. In India,the schools that argue that the Pakistanis haven’t learnt their lessons yet and it is better to have one real dust-up rather than bleed slowly in Kashmir and elsewhere will once again come out of the woodwork where the swift,almost anticlimactic resolution of Kargil had consigned them.

This will become difficult to control if the Pakistanis retaliate directly for the loss of the Atlantique. Either way,the supposedly more sophisticated and experienced South Asians could provide Luttwak double quick vindication. This is why it is vital to see what is different in the subcontinent that,hopefully,would help us defy the Luttwakian paradigm.

The key may be the way we look at the Kargil disengagement. Was it primarily,if not only,because of US intervention? Or was it becauseIndia and Pakistan had made up their minds anyway and were desperately searching for a diplomatic framework for mutually acceptable disengagement? The Americans provided that,mainly in the form of Clinton’s “personal interest” face-saver from Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistanis,for their own domestic reasons,would prefer to give Clinton the entire credit.

Foreign intervention for them means internationalisation and they needed at least that much to write home about after the Kargil failure. But Nawaz Sharif has claimed repeatedly that he brought the region back from the brink of nuclear war. He has said that right through the conflict he kept in direct,personal touch with Vajpayee.

Both sides acknowledge the decisive role played by active,even productive,back-channel diplomacy. These are not elements that point to the inevitability of war. In fact,when the dust settles and more accurate accounts of the Kargil diplomacy are put together,it may appear that through direct and backchannel contacts the twocountries had already worked out a framework of disengagement. Washington’s help,by way of offering Nawaz a face-saver and perhaps some persuasion with his generals,made a difference. But the fundamental impulse for the Kargil disengagement came from within. That is a lot different from the idea of the West intervening and forcing a premature end to a war.

War or a warlike situation is nothing new for India and Pakistan. We also have the experience of dealing with varying outcomes of our wars. The first one led to a UN Security Council ceasefire and settlement that still blights us. The second,in 1965,was a stalemate that left both of us very very fatigued,short on ammunition as well as the will to carry on fighting without a clear purpose,and solved nothing. The captured territories and prisoners were exchanged and both countries resumed preparing for a more decisive war. Which is what 1971 was. It brought a decisive victory for India,broke up Pakistan and has not yet bought durable peace for us.For nearly a decade now we have lived in a warlike situation.

In a nuclearised environment it is difficult to see anybody winning a decisive victory in a large war. Fatigue,attrition,truce and talks are the most likely outcome of even another all-out war. Through their surprisingly mature handling of the Kargil crisis,the leaderships of both countries have demonstrated in the past few months that they understand this. Would they now let things slip out of their hands,allow escalation against their better judgment? Or will they come to the conclusion that their countries are fatigued of fighting anyway,that they do not need another war in the search for the post-war reasonableness that Luttwak talks about?

The Atlantique incident will test the good sense and statesmanship of both leaders more severely than Kargil. It is the first such incident outside of Kashmir in nearly 28 years. The loss of an aircraft,particularly one as large and valuable as this,always attracts much more publicity than a fewdeaths in crossfire. It will particularly bring pressure on Nawaz Sharif who is already being pilloried for having allegedly capitulated in Kargil. In India,as elections get closer and Kargil emerges as the central issue,it will become increasingly difficult for the government to ignore any further provocations.

Both leaderships also know that since the post-Kargil de-escalation was still far from complete such incidents were waiting to happen. With security forces on both sides eyeball-to-eyeball in a hair-trigger situation,an incident such as this has to be seen in correct perspective. If the two leaderships really want to avoid war,once this round of rhetoric passes,they should get down to this task of larger de-escalation along the entire border. This is the real lesson to learn from the latest crisis unless,indeed,we wish to prove Luttwak right and diminish the entire subcontinent and trash our claims to being responsible nuclear weapons powers.

Soldier of the mind

February 10,1999

Not long after retiring as India’s most talked about soldier since Manekshaw,General Krishnaswamy Sundarji had decided to become a columnist. His first few attempts were quite disastrous and we,then at India Today,had a problem. How do you tell the great general,with the ego larger than an armoured division,that he probably could not write to save his life? I was assigned to carry the bad news to him.

He was then recuperating from open heart surgery at Delhi’s military hospital. “So,doc,” he asked,”is there still some hope,or is the patient a write-off?” Before I could figure out a diplomatic answer he asked more directly,”I believe you think my writing is all bulls..t. So where does that leave us?”

“I think,General,” I said,”you need to be a bit more direct in your writing — just as you are when you speak.” I then added as a smug afterthought,”Just come to the brasstacks quickly.”

His eyes lit up. “That’s it,my friend,that is the name for my column.” His next piece was a greatimprovement. The column ran for a long time under the title ‘Brasstacks’.

Retiring in the controversial aftermath of Bluestar,Brasstacks,IPKF and Bofors,this general tried his best not to just fade away like some others. He wrote columns,straddled the security seminar circuit,was painted larger than life on the chatterati radar screen and generally emerged as the most articulate military spokesman for India’s nuclear programme.

We sparred a great deal on the circuit. He never could resist the temptation of pulling my leg over some military detail I got so horribly wrong in my coverage of Operation Bluestar even though another scribe on the beat,who happens to be a friend,had got it just right. In my book,confusing line-of-sight 25-pounders with larger artillery was not such a big deal. For Sundar,it was an outrage,”that’s why you hacks are such big bores with low caliber”,he would say to rub it in. But he himself had plenty to be defensive about. Both Bluestar and Operation Pawan (Sri Lanka)were tactical disasters. It may be unfair to suggest that you could spin a sequel to Norman Dixon’s Psychology of Military Incompetence around these two operations,but you could possibly pen a Psychology of Military Arrogance. Sundar was a grand strategist,a visionary,who was better off moving mechanised divisions and field armies in wide open deserts,or,better still,on Ops Room maps and sand models. He did himself injustice by getting directly involved in these operations. That is why it is so tragic that the legacy of India’s most brilliant military commander will forever be marred by his record in what were at best battalion-sized operations.

Students of Indian military history will quibble endlessly over whether Sundar was ahead of his times,or behind them. The truth,perhaps,is both. In terms of his approach to technology,mechanisation,mobile warfare,he was way ahead of his times. He did sometimes admit he had over-reached himself with Brasstacks. But,he argued,that was the only way hecould get his field commanders to think big. Most of them had no experience of seeing a formation larger than a division move. Brasstacks had entire field in manoeuvre–with live ammunition to boot,and so what if it brought India to the brink of an unwanted,unplanned war with Pakistan?

“You have this typical @*X@* cowardly Indian thinking,’’ he would say. But was he so impatient because politically he was a couple of decades behind times. This was the post-conventional warfare world where nations preserved or enhanced their national interest by waging or resisting low intensity conflict rather than Pattonesque set pieces. Where diplomacy,politics and then,increasingly,economics became the crucial prongs in strategic thinking. For Sundar,Low Intensity Conflict was such a bore — he dreamed of a heliborne assault division and even designated one to be trained for the role. Almost immediately he had to endure the embarrassment of seeing its crack fighting units come unstuck under the LTTE’s deadly sniperfire and improvised explosive devices in the jungles of Jaffna.

He had his critics within and outside the army. The friendlier ones dismissed him as a well-meaning romantic with little relevance to his time. For them,Brasstacks was his nostalgia for great old days of set piece battles,probably even an effort to create one to test his pet theories on the battlefield,in the Clause-witzian fog of war. For the more vicious,he nurtured a grand-political-ambition and Brasstacks,with a resultant war and victory against Pakistan,was his shortcut to political power. They do the general great disservice. One with such dispositions and careeristic outlook does not question the prime minister of the day on the acquisition of his favourite toys — Bofors in this case — nor does he follow it up with a kiss ’n’tell not long after.

Sundar hated the “dirty little wars”,the Golden Temple,Jaffna,Brahmaputra Valley and so on. But that is all he was fated to fight and not very successfully. It was probably acombination of this bitter failure and the belated realisation that the days of Conventional Warfare were over that brought him in close touch with the nuclear lobby. Soon enough he had become its leading light.

We spent a week togeth-er at Salzburg,the usual suspects from India and Pakistan,on the conflict resolution circuit and in the summer of 1994 I got a chance to get back at Sundar. Why,I asked,was it so that the most prominent nuclear hawks in India were from the South? Didn’t it sound uncannily like a diabolical Tam Brahm conspiracy to get Punjabis on both sides of the border to incinerate each other so the kings of Kumbakonam could rule the subcontinent forever? But to be fair to him,even on the nuclear issue,Sundar was by now evolving a doctrine of his own — “more is not needed when less is enough”. He wanted India to develop a limited nuclear deterrent,without entering into any nuclear race. It does not matter if the Pakistanis have a hundred weapons and we have ten. This is more thanenough to finish Pakistan,or deter China,so why waste mo-ney on building a Stalinist arsenal was his argument. Today,he would have been happy to sign the CTBT,engage in FMCT and a regime of Confidence Building Measures and mutual restraint with Pakistan. He would have also wanted a nuclear India to cut force levels,lower defence spending,mechanise,computerise more and plunge headlong into the Revolution in Military Affairs. Who knows he may have been writing the obituary of the tank,or the mechanised division,his most visible contribution to his army.

Sundar had a cutting tongue and very little discretion when provoked. At another India-Pakistan seminar he fidgeted uneasily,visibly irritated as Pakistani participants took turns at giving vastly exaggerated numbers for Indian troops in Kashmir. Then a former Pakistani army chief put the number at seven lakhs and Sunder intervened. “The only way you get to that number,general,is if you count the limbs,multiply by four and divide by two,” he said,deadpan. We took some time decoding this,but his Pakistani counterpart looked a bit sheepish through the rest of the session.

Much has been said of his peculiar equation with Rajiv Gandhi and Arun Singh,his de facto defence minister. It is possible that one day Arun Singh would throw more light on this,give it a perspective that he owes to the memory and legacy of his favourite general. In one way,however,the general had his timing right. He took over the reins of the army under the political leadership of two,young,techno-savvy political leaders. He did the rest — his domineering personality kept the babus at bay. He certainly would not have survived a Mulayam Singh Yadav,a George Fernandes or Ajit Kumar. Or vice versa.

Sundar died at just 69,at an age when great marshalls were leading great armies into battle in the Great Wars. His death did not merit more than a single column mention — below the fold on many front pages — yesterday morning. But,surely,there will be many obituarieswritten. And one question all these facile military analysts and historians will ask — or answer — is,what do we remember General Krishnaswamy Sundarji for? Hopefully,the answer would be Brasstacks rather than Blue Star or Jaffna.

This takes me to August 14,1990,Pakistan’s Independence Day in Islamabad and just a week after the encounter with Sundar at Delhi’s military hospital. At the official reception I buttonholed General Mirza Aslam Beg,the controversial Pakistan army chief who had just held Exercise Zarb-e-Momin (the strike of the faithful). Or,more accurately,his counterstrike. The basic premise of the exercise was,that in the next war Foxland (as India is referred to in Pakistani wargames) breaks through in the initial phase and the Pakistanis then counterattack and envelope the invader. It was the first major Pakistani exercise that was so defensive in nature,where survival,rather than an all-out victory,or the ‘‘liberation’’ of Kashmir,was the main objective. Surely,Brasstacks andthe scary vision of 3,000 Indian tanks rolling down the desert,threatening to bisect Pakistan had changed a military mindset rooted in medieval history and thrust-and-parry purposelessness of India’s armoured strike forces in 1965 and 1971.

‘‘So does your publication write a lot about defence and security?’’ Beg asked,making polite conversation.

‘‘Yes,’’ I said,‘‘and soon we will begin to run Sundarji’s column.’’

‘‘What is it called?’’ Beg asked.

‘‘Brasstacks,’’ I said.

The temperature dropped a few notches. This general’s eyes did not exactly light up in delight.

Would you still have any doubt as to Sundarji’s real legacy?

Anyone but India

December 31,1998

It is a sad confession to make,but it is God’s own truth that the only reason I delayed writing this Wednesday’s column by a day was that India looked so well placed to beat New Zealand at Wellington. At 72 for four overnight,with Nathan Astle retired hurt,a last day’s pitch — we seemed all set to end a 12-year drought of Test match victories overseas. Since 1986,we have gone around the world,in search of an overseas Test Match victory,only to be beaten in the West Indies,Australia,South Africa and England. Desperate,we sneaked in two short tours to Zimbabwe as well,only to survive by the skin of our teeth against a 46-year-old off spinner called John Traicos the first time and to be beaten the next. We didn’t quite get beaten in Sri Lanka but ended up being on the wrong side of the highest aggregate in the history of Test cricket.

This long-winded preamble is necessitated by the compulsion of having to justify two things. First,how does something like cricket qualify to be written about in this column? And second,why would I set the alarm clock at 3 a.m. to watch such poor quality cricket — even delay my column by a day? This was the year-end column. Everything that needed to be said about whatever is wrong with the country had already been said. So now that the cricket team,following Dingko,Jyotirmoyee and the hockey team,was promising to end on a high note a year so hopeless in terms of politics and economy,I could be pardoned for nursing notions of talking about how sport can revive the spirit of a nation even in such troubled times and other such blah. Except that this cricket team had other ideas.

If you wake up for the fifth successive night at 3 a.m.,hoping to cheer an Indian victory,and then see attitude and body language from at least six of your eleven stars as if winning or losing does not matter,as if no larger issues — national prestige,spirit,the flag — are at stake,you wonder what the hell is going on. Then you think of the smiling,jovial faces of many of the same stars at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur (Sachin Tendulkar obviously excepted) as they got out for not-so-sweet nothings,unwilling to strain themselves for the flag when the rest of your “A” teammates were flaunting the logo in Toronto,then you figure out what is wrong with our cricket.

Of course,it’s been fashionable lately to blame commercialism,sponsors and logos,big money and ultimately the free market for all that is wrong with our cricket. In the field of sport,how there be any contradiction between the market and national interest? The problem is,we now have a cricket team and a cricketing set-up in the country that give the free market a bad name and we,the fans,are as much to blame as the players and the organisers,if not more. Live television may have made us a nation of a hundred crore cricket coaches,but it has not somehow persuaded us to seek that one thing that underlines the essence of a free market economy — value for money. Our cricketers are not rewarded for winning,nor punished for losing. So why blame them if they don’t try too hard to win? We look at them as entertainers,heroes,stars,good-lookers and very little else. We judge even our film stars by more exacting standards — Govinda,Shahrukh Khan,Madhuri Dixit,all have to keep producing the odd hit tostay in the news. But cricketers we judge by the same yardsticks as our supermodels. They must look good,glamorous,entertain us a bit sashaying here and veejaying there,and that is about all. When was the last time a bunch of Indian cricket stars paid for consistently poor performances by the team? What happens when the team gets thrashed on foreign tours? How does the Board react? Does it fire somebody? Do the sponsors drop their stars? Do new faces move in their stead?

So heady is the lure of big money,so strong the vested interests all around that each overseas disaster is immediately followed by the Board organising a string of home-and-around series and one-day tournaments. The pitches are doctored — why be shy of giving yourselves the home advantage? Look at how consistent this record has been over the past decade. Doesn’t matter if you get your backsides whipped abroad — you come home and there will be friendly pitches and umpires and,at the end of the day,your career average would look pretty good. The whistle on this scandal was blown,perhaps inadvertently,by none else than Azharuddin at the beginning of the current tour. When asked why India don’t win very much abroad,how much did we get to travel in the first place,he asked in reply. Since India’s last visit to Australia,he noted,the Australians had already visited the subcontinent a dozen times. We were taking no reciprocal risks.

The first major sport in India to be struck by this non-competitive virus was football,beginning with the league in Calcutta. It did not matter what the standard was of football played,and it mattered even less where you belonged internationally,but I got my money’s worth as long as my club beat yours. Meanwhile if India struggled to even qualify for most Asian championships and if its rank in international football at 120 was just a notch better than the country’s standing in terms of the Human Development Index (132),it was of no consequence to me. In some ways this applies to cricket as well. Sachin and Azhar got centuries this time,so great. Ganguly too spent some time on the crease. So your stars did fine. And the sponsors got their money’s worth. Who would you punish now if India lost? And why?

You cannot run competitive sport today without big money and if you have any doubts ask your hockey players how badly cash is needed to take a nation to international levels in any game. But,as in any free market,the inflow of cash should be directly determined by the quality of goods and services provided. This isn’t quite so in Indian cricket because the Board,the sponsors,the sports management fixers and other lowlier forms of life such as bookies have now completely overwhelmed this market. Ever wonder how the most unlikely names keep on making it to the final elevens and how when they do make it there,advertisements featuring them begin to appear on your TV screens. That a flat-batted batsman cannot open for India is a facile argument considering that another one who batted quite the same unusual — crude if you may so put it — way formed with Sunil Gavaskar our most successful opening pair ever. But when Chetan Chauhan stepped out to open for India,flat-bat and all,he wrapped himself in thetricolour,not Siyaram Suiting. It was a different time,a different age,when you faced Dennis Lillee without a helmet,and answered him glare for glare,a bouncer for a slog — flatbatted — over the infield. It was a different age when a Kapil Dev hit Eddie Hemmings for four successive sixes to save India the follow-on,or defied an injured hand,a rampant Allan Donald and a petrified Indian batting line-up at 31 for 6 at Port Elizabeth to score 129 that put Stan McCabe’s historic defiance,decades ago,in the shade. Or when Rahul Dravid celebrated his first Test hundred at the Wanderers by kissing the Indian crest on his helmet. The fundamental question is,why expect a cricketer to exert too much trying to make India win when his larger purpose is served with a reasonably good personal performance — even a 30 or 40 in these times? So why should he throw himself at the ball or go sliding to reduce fours into threes at the boundary and risk injury and thus loss to himself and the sponsors? Who plays forthe country any more? Of course,there will always be an exception like Sachin Tendulkar but he is by no means typical of your present-day cricket stars. Whether turning out for Shardashram,Bombay or India,he will give his hundred per cent. But if he wasn’t so exceptional,why would he be called God?

Which brings me to a cold and windy morning at Port Elizabeth in the December of 1992. India,on the so-called Friendship Series in South Africa,were already in the dumps and now it was the turn of us hacks to turn out for a one-day match against South African cricket journalists. We stretched the rules a bit and included,in our team,Sunil Gavaskar who happened to be on the bandwagon as a TV commentator. Soon enough our captain,R. Mohan of The Hindu was back in the pavilion,run out by his understudy Vijay Lokapally on the very first ball of the innings. Lokapally was out the next ball,attempting to pull but actually slashing to third man. In came a familiar figure at the familiar scoreline — 0-2 at an unfamiliar number four position. Sunil Gavaskar walked up the pitch to Calcutta cricket writer,Gautam Bhattacharya,and said,”Look,this may be a Press team,but it is an Indian team. So let’s put our heads down or we will be 40 for 7″. The attack boasted a couple of Currie Cup medium-pacers andGavaskar’s first 50 were scored in the ‘V’ as if the world cup was at stake. Then started a flurry of strokes and soon enough he ended the innings at 130 not out. There was no money at stake,no records. Gavaskar had no point to prove to us hacks years after his retirement. But once you turn out for India,it was serious business for him. Yet no could say he didn’t understand the market.

Later in the afternoon,as the South Africans batted,and the match drifted,Sunil excused himself from mid-on and we sat chatting inside a car parked by the boundary. He complained about the intelligence of Indian cricketers,about the lack of thinking in our cricket but,most of all,about the lack of pride.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “How will you restore it?”

“You know how I will begin?” He grinned mischievously. “I will ban these white floppy hats and make it mandatory for them to turn out in blue India caps.”

Years earlier,Imran Khan had actually done something of the sort. He describes in his biography how he found his Pakistani cricketers so short on pride,so short on national spirit and confidence on foreign tours that he made it compulsory for them to go out on formal social occasions in their national dress,the salwar kameez. That started a process of team-building and culminated in the World Cup victory. It is with basics such as this that the process of restoring national pride in our cricket has to begin now. This is why even something like cricket needs to be written about in this column.

First published on: 20-11-2010 at 19:07 IST
Next Story

SP leader threatens to take BSP MLAs ‘hostage’

Latest Comment
Post Comment
Read Comments