Meet Modi’s new best friend

On 12 March, PM Narendra Modi made his fifth official visit to Karnataka to announce schemes, lay foundation stones, and inaugurate various things. And in course of a public meeting, pulled out one of his greatest hits – to wit, that his life was in danger.

The Congress, he said, is dreaming of digging his grave. Little do they realise, he added, that he has a suraksha kavach of 140 crore people. Which 140 crore people would that be? As per the Election Commission, a total of 22.9 crore people voted for the BJP in the 2019 elections. But then again, small mercies that he only invoked 140 crore people – back in the day, at the plenary session of the World Economic Forum in Davos, he had claimed that 600 crore people – almost five times the population of India – had voted for him.

That aside, it is odd that the best protected prime minister in Indian history is forever whining about imminent threats to his life – threats that appear to materialise every time there is a major election at the state or central level. He is guarded by a 3000-strong group of well-trained and heavily armed commandos, at a cost to the national exchequer of Rs 433.5 crore as per the latest budget, and yet…

That Sunday, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men saved Modi from a fate worse than death – to wit, the sight of a black T-shirt. The police stopped a mother and her young son from entering the venue of his public meeting because the boy was wearing a black T-shirt. The mother took off her son’s T-shirt, then put it back on once they were within the grounds – only for the police to come rushing up and insist that she take it off again. The mother complied, the son stayed topless throughout the rally, and the delicate sensibilities of this darling of 140 crore people was not bruised. News reports quote the police as saying they “could not take chances with protocol”.

On that same day, Modi held a “road show”, featuring enthusiastic crowds in serried ranks throwing handfuls of flower petals on the dearly beloved leader. Colour me cynical, but I find it odd that hundreds of people brought the exact same flowers to shower on their idol. And, odder still, that the SPG walked along quite calmly beside Modi’s Mercedes Maybatch, both they and the otherwise paranoid Modi seemingly sanguine about unvetted crowds in such close proximity to the protectee and worse, blithely chucking stuff at him.

Anyway. During this latest trip to Karnataka, Modi “inaugurated” the Mysore-Bangalore highway. Which surprised me somewhat, because back in January I had taken that same highway – which begins immediately after the metro terminal at Peenya (Correction: The wife pointed out that it was at Kengeri, not Peenya, that we took the highway) – while traveling by road to Kozhikode via Mysore.

It wasn’t complete then – and this incompleteness causes problems, because one minute you are blithely driving along at about 100k and the next, you are squeezed off the highway at a point where work is still on, and funnelled into a narrow service road further choked by parked JCBs and other paraphernalia of the work in progress. When complete, it has the potential to cut travel times to Mysore – not from four hours to one hour as Nitin Gadkari, in an excess of enthusiasm, claims but at least by half, because it allows you to avoid the various smaller towns that dot the Mysore-Bangalore stretch. But it wasn’t complete then, so it took me a little over three hours, and it isn’t complete now, when Modi decided to “inaugurate” it and “dedicate it to the nation” (while on which, how many national highways are there that are not for the nation?).

Almost immediately after the “inauguration”, the highway has run into problems. Locals find that they have to pay toll, to the tune of Rs 135, to access the highway to go to their nearby offices – and they need to access the highway because the service road is non-existent in parts, and choked in other parts. The state road transport corporation has hiked passenger fares by Rs 15-17 on that stretch to recover the toll charges. And chunks of the newly built highway have cracked, creating an obstacle course for vehicular traffic.

But Modi got to “inaugurate” it at the country’s expense, and to make a pitch for why the BJP should be voted to power in the upcoming Karnataka elections – which was the objective anyway. And that reminds me of Judge Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court.

On 12 June 1975, Judge Sinha found Indira Gandhi guilty of election malpractice, and set aside her election to the Lok Sabha from the Rae Bareili constituency (Text of the judgment here). The losing candidate Raj Narain, who had petitioned the court, had included a laundry list of complaints, of which the judge found just cause in two line items. The first of these is relevant to Modi’s shenanigans:

The court found that the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Rae Bareili and the Home Secretary of the government of Uttar Pradesh had arranged for a dais, loudspeakers, and barricades to be set up for Indira Gandhi’s public meeting, and also arranged for the police force to be deployed on security duty in connection with her election campaign on February 1, and again on February 25, of 1971. The use of public servants for party propaganda purposes, the court found, amounts to corrupt practice under Section 123(7) of the Representation of the People Act.

The judgment, read today, sounds so quaint – because for the last nine years, Narendra Modi has been perpetuating one blatant, never-ending corrupt practice on the people of India, and on its laws. Wearing his prime minister’s hat, he flies every other day to whichever part of the country where an election is imminent and, in the guise of announcing schemes (Rs 10,863 crore worth on January 21; Rs 16,000 crore worth on March 12) and laying foundation stones for projects that never see the light of day and inaugurating half-complete public works, does party propaganda – in the process deploying all the resources of the respective state administrations and the police force in service of his party. And the national exchequer – which cannot find money to pay teachers, doctors, MNREGA workers, farmers and such their dues — pays for all of this.

This is Modi’s singular achievement: he has so industrialized, so normalized corrupt practices that we can no longer smell it even when he rubs our collective nose in it.

***

IN November last year, a couple wrote to the President of India seeking permission to commit suicide because they were fed up of paying bribes.

On the last day of December 2022, Karnataka contractor TN Prasad killed himself. He had been contracted to complete a smart city project; the government didn’t release his dues; he had to take loans to keep the project going and was being hard-pressed by loan sharks.

His death was in vain — as recently as this week, the contractors’ association was threatening a mass protest, alleging that the government had not yet cleared a sum of around Rs 22,000 crore owed to them as dues.

On January 2, a businessman shot himself dead in his car on the outskirts of Bangalore, leaving behind a suicide note blaming BJP MLA Aravind Limbavali and five others.

On March 12, a farmer who was fed up with the incessant demands for commissions brought his cattle to offer up as bribe in lieu of the money he did not have.

Two days earlier, on March 10, a bank manager in Udipi district of Karnataka hanged himself. In his suicide note, he named BJP leader Yashpal Suvarna and other officials and said they had been pressurizing him to recover a loan given to a certain Riyaz.

Contractors who win public works tenders tend to be affiliated to the ruling party of the day. Karnataka’s contractors’ association is, thus, packed with BJP supporters. And yet, as far back as November 2021, the association wrote an official letter to PM Modi, alleging that various ministers were demanding extortionate bribes. In April 2022, they reiterated these charges and threatened to stop work if their complaints were not addressed.

On April 12, 2022, contractor Santosh K Patil, who had accused Karnataka minister KS Eshwarappa of demanding 40% commission for a contract, was found dead in a hotel room. In his suicide note, Patil named Eashwarappa as being solely responsible for his death.

 In August 2022, they said that the PM had not taken any action and that they would be writing to him again to remind him of his promise to root out corruption. The working president of the association came out in public to say that he had documents and audio tapes as proof that the government was demanding bribes; he even released one such audio tape.

As recently as January 2023, the contractors’ body staged a protest against the “40% commission” they accused the government of taking from them and demanded a judicial probe. Meanwhile, a body representing 13000 schools in the state openly accused the state government of wholesale corruption.

The ‘Karnataka corruption’ folder in my Evernote is crammed with similar clips, but you get the point – there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there is a raging fire under all that smoke. You don’t write to the Prime Minister accusing members of his own party of corruption unless you can back up your words.

The only surprising element in this story is the contractors’ naïve belief that writing to Modi would bring an end to corruption. This is the BJP Mark II – and it is common knowledge that under Modi and Shah, every BJP-led state government has fiscal targets to meet, a fixed percentage of which has to be sent to the party’s main coffers, which Shah manages.

Given the serious nature of the charges, though, and given too that the charges were being brought against the government by people supportive of the party in power, you would expect at least a token inquiry, a mandatory ‘clean chit’. But no – all that happened was that the president of the contractors’ association, and four senior office-bearers, were arrested on the basis of a complaint lodged by Karnataka minister Munirathna Naidu, who filed both civil and criminal defamation cases against the contractors.

Out on bail and nothing fazed, association president Kempanna said he had a letter signed by over 200 contractors from Kolar, containing specifics of bribes sought and received by Munirathna – the district-in-charge of Kolar — and his agents.

Munirathna is an interesting case study of how the BJP operates. In March 2018 – in the run-up to the state assembly elections of that year – the CID named Munirathna, the then-sitting MLA, and others in a chargesheet relating to fake BBMP bills amounting to Rs 1500 crore. As per the chargesheet Munirathna, a civil contractor back in 2008-09, was found to have colluded with BBMP officials to swindle money for non-existent, or sub-standard, road work. (Here, note that the case relates to a period 10 years before the elections – a classic BJP technique).

On May 11, 2018, just days before the state assembly elections, Karnataka police registered a criminal case against 14 people, including Munirathna, in connection with the recovery of over 10,000 fake voter ID cards. The election in his constituency was postponed; when it was finally held, Munirathna won anyway – as a Congress candidate.

Remember that in 2018, the BJP fell short of a majority by 8 seats; the JDS and Congress came together to form a government and, a little under a year later, the BJP engineered the mass defection of 17 Congress MLAs that resulted in the collapse of the Congress-JDS government and the formation of a BJP government under BS Yediyurappa? Munirathna was one of the 17 Congress MLAs who turned coat and was rewarded with a ministry (of horticulture) – and lo, not only have the pending cases against him vanished, he remains untouched despite repeated, public, accusations of rampant corruption.

It is the standard BJP playbook – use investigating agencies against Opposition MLAs and MPs as the stick, hold out the carrot of ministerial berths if they change sides, and when they do, make the previous criminal activities vanish.

It is not that corruption did not exist prior to Modi taking charge at the Centre — I’ve been a journalist for 33 years now and I can’t recall a single government, at the Centre or in the states, that was totally free from corruption.

The difference, today, is that corruption has not just been industrialized, it has even been normalized.

As recently as 2014, public charges of corruption were enough to turn the electorate away from the Dr Manmohan Singh-led government and vote for Modi on the basis of his promise that he would rid the country of corruption.

And today? The Madal Virupakshappa story is illuminative. The MLA’s son is caught red-handed taking a bribe of Rs 40 lakh; a subsequent raid unearths around Rs 9 crore in cash from the MLA’s home. And what results? First, the MLA goes “missing”. He surfaces after five days with an anticipatory bail order — and BJP workers take him home in celebratory procession, with garlands and fireworks and slogans, as if he were a conquering hero back from the wars. Meanwhile, the concerned investigating officer has been abruptly changed, and a court has handed down a gag order barring the media from publishing “defamatory content”.

The satirical Twitter handle Dr Medusa recently produced this brilliant take on the old Nirma washing powder ad that summarises the BJP modus operandi. The BRS and the Congress latched on and have taken to greeting Amit Shah with Nirma posters.

And that brings us to Amit Shah – who, shortly before Modi’s March 12 visit to Karnataka, was in Bangalore to address a rally (It was his fourth visit to the poll-bound state since December last year).

At the rally, he produced this gem: Put your trust in Modi and Yediyurappa, he said, because only a BJP government can rid the state of corruption. (He also loudly accused Congress and JDS of being responsible for the rampant corruption in the state).

The BJP has been ruling the state since 2019; the serial accusations of corruption against the Basavaraj Bommai government have been constant and deafeningly loud – and Shah in one breath accepts that there is corruption, blames the opposition for it, and promises that his party, which is currently in power, will clean up the state of the corruption of his party.

The breathtaking audacity of the man is matched only by the cupidity of the faithful who, for whatever inducement, flock to these rallies and cheer such idiocies to the echo.

***

AND that brings us to the strange case of Lingayat icon BS Yediyurappa, who after the 2018 elections had served as chief minister for a grand total of two and a half days and, a year later, orchestrated the defections from the Congress that saw the BJP topple the Congress-JDS government and assume power. (In an interview at the time, he said ‘Operation Kamala’, the name given to the toppling project, was not wrong; that it was a part of the democratic process.)

His administration wasn’t bad, as state governments go – though he pandered to the base with the draconian cow-slaughter bill his party pushed through, he was quick off the blocks during the pandemic, setting up a 10,000 bed Covid hospital in Bangalore and smaller such centers elsewhere – the first state to do so. He announced – and delivered – compensation to BPL families that had lost a member to Covid; Karnataka also became the first state in India to reserve positions in government service for transgender communities.

The problem was, he was no fan of the more extreme avatars of Hindutva, and had no patience with Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Ram Sene and other “fringe” outfits that sought to keep the communal pot on a constant boil. Also, while being no saint as far as institutionalized corruption goes, BSY took care to ensure that rent-seeking was neither excessive nor overt.

Predictably, this led to dissension – and also to pronounced irritation in Delhi, particularly felt by the Modi-Shah combine. The playbook kicked in – party members were encouraged to voice their dissent openly; the Income Tax department carried out raids against members of his family and close aides including his personal assistant; as per usual, unnamed sources told the media that Rs 750 crore had been recovered; Modi and Shah kept summoning him to Delhi to “discuss” affairs in the state… until it all got too much for the aging leader who, in a tearful speech, resigned on 26 July 2021.

A year later, he announced that he was retiring from electoral politics and that his son BY Vijayendra would contest the Shikaripura assembly constituency that had been a BSY bastion until then.

The BJP “high command” wasn’t having any of this. The main reason for turning up the heat on BSY, in the first place, was that Modi and Shah are extremely uncomfortable with any regional leader who is popular in his own right – and BSY is an icon for the influential Lingayat community in Karnataka. They prefer non-entities who depend on Modi to win elections and are beholden to him for their positions in power. They calculated that BSY’s successor Basavaraj Bommai, also a Lingayat and far more pliant, would seamlessly assume leadership of the community.

So they kept up the pressure on BSY – as recently as September 2022, the Karnataka High Court restored a complaint of corruption against BSY, his son and other family members – a complaint that had been made earlier, too, only for the governor to refuse sanction to prosecute.

And then, as the election cycle neared, reality bit the reigning duo in Delhi. The thing about Modi and Shah is that they are clueless when it comes to regional politics, and adamant in their belief that the first item in their playbook – communalism – is a ‘one size fits all states’ tactic.

In this connection, recall that Bommai’s tenure has been marked by the furor over schoolgirls wearing hijabs – we recently learned that the Bommai government has spent Rs 88 lakh on two lawyers defending the ban in the courts;  by a BJP MP getting offended by dome-shaped structures on top of a Mysore bus stand which, he said, reminded him of mosques; that right-wing groups protested in Kalaburgi, their sentiments reportedly hurt by the fact that the railway station there had been painted green; by various groups that want the name ‘Salaam Aarti’, which refers to a practise initiated by Tipu Sultan, changed; by MP and terror convict Pragya Singh Thakur, out on bail for reasons of “ill health” being well enough to come down to the state the day after Christmas last year and exhort her audience to keep their knives sharpened so they can chop vegetables and heads with equal felicity…

So yeah, keeping the communal pot boiling is the only ‘strategy’ the BJP leadership knows – and this is just the beginning; the coming weeks and months will see much more of the same, only more vicious.

While they don’t know any other way to do realpolitik, there is however an increasing awareness in the BJP leadership – read Modi/Shah – that their tactic of trying to make the pliant Bommai the new Lingayat icon is not working. The influential Lingayat seers have made no secret of their continued support for BSY and their indifference, even contempt, for Bommai.

And so Modi and Shah did what they always do – a sharp U-turn. At a rally in Lingayat stronghold Bidar earlier this month, Amit Shah said with a total absence of irony that the Congress had disrespected various of their leaders from the state, and that the party should learn from Modi’s treatment of BSY how to treat senior leaders.

This reminds me – a friend on Twitter recently said, in response to a post of mine, that “When the BJP leaders are accusing, they are actually confessing”; he was bang on the money.

The lesson everyone is supposed to learn likely derives from a Modi rally in late February where, in Shivamogga, where he gushed about BSY, asked the crowd to flash their mobile phone lights in honor of the former CM, and actually stood up to applaud when BSY, celebrating his 80th birthday, finished his speech. It was, according to all published reports, quite a love fest – and it was very clear who was doing the wooing, and who was being wooed. And then there is this image, snapped as the two leaders arrived for the inauguration of Shivamogga airport:

This is the same Modi who, during the Independence Day celebrations earlier this year, forgot – or more likely, ignored – protocol and walked down the red carpet ahead of President Draupadi Murmu; he was about to climb the steps to the dais, still leading from the front, when a protocol officer stopped him and gestured to the President to take rightful precedence.

The internet is replete with images and videos of him pushing others — including Bill Gates on one occasion — out of the frame so he can hog the limelight. But now he needs Yediyurappa’s help to try and win Karnataka, where the party is buffeted by multiple issues including — surprisingly for a party that prides itself on discipline — a groundswell of dissent. Earlier this week, thus, the BJP canceled its planned ‘Sankalp Yatra’ and roadshow in the face of protests by its own party workers.

Hence Modi’s refurbished affection for the Lingayat leader. Modi will hold his hand, walk with him, applaud him — until the elections are over and the results are in.

That is Modi for you. He will kowtow to anyone, abase himself before anyone if he needs that person to help keep him in power (In course of a trip to Mandya earlier this month Modi greeted, with folded hands, a gent by the name of Mallikarjun who is better known under his professional sobriquet, ‘Fighter Ravi’).

And by the same token, once he has no further use for you, he will dump you – brutally, publicly, without a qualm. (And as is the case with BSY, if he dumps you and then finds a use for you, he will whip out the pom-poms and be your most ardent cheerleader – till his need is fulfilled). Ask LK Advani.

PostScript: My “silence” of the last few days prompted a couple of friends to write in, asking if all was well and why I hadn’t written anything lately.

The ‘blog’, in its original avatar, used to be a place to capture thoughts in the moment; short posts were the way to go. (And I think it still is).

But I restarted this in order to be able to write what I want to; more importantly, to write thoughts that I know will not be published in mainstream media. So for now, most posts will be in essay format — and I can’t be doing an essay a day; not if I have to earn a living.

The idea is to write an essay at roughly about once a week, each dedicated to a particular theme. And once done, to follow up with short posts and the occasional smaller essay on the same theme.

For instance, this one is on the Karnataka elections, and the fun and games have just gotten underway. So from here on, when news items on the impending elections surface, I’ll do shorter round-ups and even the occasional short take. And so on, using the long essay to set a theme up, and then following through with shorter posts.

So that is that. See you in a week or so; take care, stay safe.

The cult of the strongman

RECENT events had me thinking about Giulio Alberoni, who lived in the 18th century and who Wikipedia describes as an Italian cardinal and statesman.

To be honest, I had forgotten his name; I was reading Ramchandra Guha’s take on the Narendra Modi extravaganza at the Motera Stadium (and this conversation with Karan Thapar) when I tripped over a distant memory of some guy who had literally kissed arse to advance his own career. A few moments with a search engine and I found the story, which is originally sourced to the memoirs of Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon, and has since been mined and reproduced in several essays and books. Here it is:

Louis Joseph, the Duke de Vendome, was a highly-rated French general who was one of the top commanders during the War of Spanish Succession. He was also unbelievably arrogant — one of his ‘idiosyncrasies’ being to take his portable toilet into the room where he usually held court, and to park himself bare-arsed on the potty while receiving official visits.

One day, a bishop deputed by Francesco Farnese, then Duke of Parma, came to meet Vendome to discuss some official business. The general was, as usual, on his potty; while the ducal ambassador was speaking he rose, turned his back to the bishop, and wiped his arse.

The disgusted bishop walked out and told the duke that he would never go to meet Vendome again, no matter how urgent the matter. The duke asked him to find a substitute; the bishop nominated Giulio Alberoni, who had through assiduous use of flattery and the other arts of sycophancy risen from the position of bellringer in a local church to a position in the household of the bishop.

Alberoni duly went to meet Vendome, who as per usual was on his potty. During the meeting, Vendome got up, turned his back to Alberoni, and ostentatiously wiped his arse. At which Alberoni exclaimed: ‘O culo d’angelo‘ (Oh, the arse of an angel), ran forward, and reportedly kissed Vendome’s arse.

Unsurprisingly, Vendome gave Alberoni a place on his staff as secretary. Alberoni helped push the claims of Philip V to the French throne; he became a Count and a royal favorite at court (History does not say whether he had to kiss Philip’s arse as well, but it does record that over the years he rose to a greater position of eminence than the bishop who had given him his initial assignment).

How many Alberonis can you count in, say, the Union Cabinet?

CHANGING the subject completely (Not!), the recent events at the Motera Stadium, where the Gujarat Cricket Association organized a cringe-inducing celebration of ’75 years of cricket friendship with Australia’, the climax of which was BCCI secretary Jay Shah presenting Narendra Modi with a picture of Narendra Modi, is the gift that goes on giving. I’d chronicled some of it in an earlier post; since then, Gideon Haigh apparently went on a treasure hunt and unearthed the vehicle in which the two prime ministers had been driven on a “lap of honour”, and the members of the Australian press had a ball. Like, so:

Geoff Lemon, in The Guardian, is the latest to pour vitriol — deservedly — on the bizarre event. Sample passage:

For a leader who refuses to do interviews or press conferences, governing by video broadcast and by public appearance is the alternative. Kirribilli does not offer the star power of the White House, but Albanese’s visit is still an opportunity to show Modi as a statesman, a taster ahead of the G20 summit to be held in New Delhi in September. Indian airports are full of posters advertising this, some of them describing India as “the mother of democracy”. The Ancient Greeks might file a copyright claim.

Geoff Lemon, The Guardian

I get the need for propaganda; I get why a party with nothing substantial to show for nine years in power and counting pulls out all the stops to peg its appeal on one man and why, therefore, that man has to be elevated from the status of soi disant ‘pradhan sewak’ to the latest and greatest entry in the pantheon of deities. (While on which, for someone who apparently has a visceral hatred of Nehru, it’s amazing how much he steals from India’s first prime minister — it was Nehru, during his first I-Day speech, who called himself the ‘pratham sewak’ of the country.)

So yeah, I get propaganda. And I get the regime’s modus operandi, which is straight out of the Joseph Goebbels playbook. The Nazi Minister for Propaganda, in his bullet-pointed masterplan, includes the following: (a) Ensure the constant visibility of the leader; and (b) Use rallies, slogans, symbols and icons (to which, add ‘inaugurations’ — as I write this, Modi is in Karnataka inaugurating a Mysuru-Bangalore highway, a section of which was already in use these last several months and other sections of which are still under construction).

The founding fathers of the RSS made no secret of their admiration for Hitler and the Nazi ideology; however, any reference to Nazis in the current context makes the BJP faithful see red. Why, though, when they so blatantly copy the Nazi propaganda playbook?

For example, take Modi’s deliberate avoidance of all open media interactions, and his refusal to utter a word about any of the real problems that plague the country. China? Not a yip. Adani? Mum’s the word. The economy, rising unemployment, skyrocketing cost of living, the country’s rapid fall in almost every single global index? Zip.

That is straight out of a well-documented Hitler tactic. Having elevated himself to the status of a deity, Hitler identified himself with his “miracles” (which, by the way, was a word regularly employed by the Goebbels propaganda machine to describe his successes). Thus, he strutted on stage during the spectacular reception organized in his honor in Berlin after the fall of France; but in the aftermath of Stalingrad, he kept himself well away from the public eye.

Or consider the ‘One Nation One Whatever’ slogans that have been proliferating of late — remember ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer? (Modi’s media managers have, in one of those rare moments of restraint, refrained from adding ‘One Leader’ to the many slogans beginning with ‘One Nation’, realizing that it goes without saying.)

Consider, also, Modi’s fondness for the cameras, and the innumerable pictures of him that pepper both mainstream and social media. Again, Hitler — who personally approved all paintings and photographs of his which made it to the public domain. In 1936, over 2.5 million copies of an album titled Adolf Hitler: Pictures of the Life of the Fuhrer were published, containing images of Hitler and tributes written by Nazi leaders (There was also The Hitler No One Knows, a collection of photographs of Hitler in his “private moments”, which reminds me of Modi with his mom, Modi meditating in a cave that contained only a palette bed and a photographer, Modi feeding peacocks…).

(In a precursor to the “interactivity” that is the holy grail in today’s social media age, those who bought the Life in Pictures album could add to it by collecting and pasting the Hitler images that were given away on every purchase of a packet of cigarettes — mercifully, Modi’s propaganda team appears to not have read that chapter yet).

Heck, the BJP even borrowed the Nazi idea of deifying the leader through motion pictures. Here, if you can stomach it, watch Leni Riefenstahl’s remarkable film that showcases the 1934 Nuremberg rally and then watch the Omung Kumar-helmed Vivek Oberoi movie titled, with a total absence of subtlety, PM Narendra Modi. (Oh, and the latest addition to a packed Evernote folder titled ‘sycophants’ is this entry from today)

What the Nazi party sold then, what the BJP is selling today, is a cult centered around an individual whose main characteristic is infallibility (Modi ne kiya hai toh sahi hoga). Hermann Goring, in a speech in 1941, said “We National Socialists declare with complete conviction that for us, the Fuhrer is infallible in all political and other matters that affect the people’s national and social interests.”

I used the word “cult” deliberately, because what we are witnessing is the creation of a cult centered around the myth of an infallible leader, a demigod. And that is no accident, but yet another page borrowed from the Nazi playbook. Speaking to party propagandists in 1926, Goebbels drove the message home about the need to create a messiah: “You will never find millions of people who will give their lives for an economic program. But millions of people are willing to die for a gospel – and our movement is increasingly becoming such a gospel.”

I’m indebted for some of these anecdotes to the book Bending Spines: The Propagandas of Nazi Germany and The German Democratic Republic, by Randall L Bytwerk. Alongside Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works and Edward Bernays’s Propaganda, Bytwerk’s book is a must-read if you want to understand what is happening in, and to, this country and its people.

And we are all willing (or, at best, unwitting) partners in this exercise. Bytwerk in his book draws on the earlier work of French philosopher, sociologist and professor Jacques Ellul, who made an extensive study of propaganda and who defined it thus:

Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization.

Jacques Ellul in Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

Ellul made the point that propaganda is not only manifest in the obvious devices — rallies, posters, etc — but also in a wider social context that includes education and the arts. And this, he argues, would not be possible without the consent of the consumer, the propagandee.

The propagandee is by no means just an innocent victim. He provides the psychological action of propaganda, and not merely leads himself to it, but even derives satisfaction from it. Without this previous, implicit consent, without this need for propaganda experienced by practically every citizen of the technological age, propaganda could not spread. There is not just a wicket propagandist at work who sets up means to ensnare the innocent citizen. Rather, there is a citizen who craves propaganda from the bottom of his being and a propagandist who responds to this craving. In other words, propaganda fills needs both for the propagandists and the propagandees.

Jacques Ellul, quoted by Randall Bytwerk

Think back to late 2013-early 2014. Remember how we all moaned about how “weak” Dr Manmohan Singh was, how India in its hour of destiny needed a “strong leader” who could lead the country to its rightful place on the world stage? The fault, dear Brutus…

Tailpiece: For the second time in a row, this is not the post I originally intended to write (that one is on the upcoming Karnataka elections, and I’ll get to that sometime this coming week). The prompt for this one came while I was going through my collection of clippings, and saw two clips in fairly close proximity to one another.

The first is an analysis of the suspension of the FCRA license for the think-tank Centre for Policy Research. (By the way, for a party that keeps banging on about the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi, the BJP is no slouch when it comes to using the tools Gandhi had forged — the FCRA came into being in 1976, as the then prime minister’s response to her apprehensions that the “foreign hand” was interfering in India’s internal affairs).

And the second clip is about a new think-tank that has suddenly sprung up from out of the blue. It is called The Centre for Narendra Modi Studies — and its website is well worth spending some time on. Its ‘About’ page begins with this promising gambit:

The sun gives light to the world without soliciting. The moon illuminates the lily without asking. No one asks, still the clouds produce rain. Similarly, a sage-hearted man is always ready to help others without show-off.

From The Centre for Narendra Modi Studies website

You don’t need to be told who the “sage-hearted man” is, right? Read on, if you have a strong stomach. Then go through the publications. Don’t bother with sections such as New India and Nation First — those pages are blank. The database and the Namo Kendra, though — go see for yourself, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.

Also noted — that the Delhi police recently denied permission to hold a seminar on fascism

I’ll leave you with a link, and a chart below (I found this in my Evernote folder, but I seem to have not noted down the attribution, sorry) which you will find useful as a lens to view contemporary headlines thru.

Nothing succeeds like excess

On 1 March 2021, ISRO launched the nanosatellite PSLV-C51 from Sriharikota.

Its payload included 18 Indian satellites and one — Amazonia-1 — from Brazil. Of the 17 Indian satellites, one — Satish Dhawan SAT or SDSAT — was built by Space Kidz India, a Chennai-based startup that aims to promote the study of space science among students. It had some special features.

SDSAT had some unique features. A digital copy of the Bhagawad Gita in an SD card was part of the payload. The names of ISRO chairman Dr K Sivan and scientific secretary Dr R Umamaheshwaran were engraved on the bottom panel.

And — this is where it gets really special — a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was engraved on the top panel, with his name engraved below the image for anyone out there in outer space who may not otherwise recognize the visage of the Vishwaguru.

“This,” an SKI statement at the time read, “is to show solidarity and gratitude for his (Modi’s) Aatmanirbhar initiative and space privatization.”

A few days prior, on February 24, the then President of India Ram Nath Kovind presided over the renaming of the refurbished Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium (more commonly referred to as the Motera Stadium) in Ahmedabad, which would henceforth be known as the Narendra Modi Stadium.

The Modi Stadium today witnessed India’s PM Modi and Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese taking a “lap of honor” — for what accomplishment, we have not been told — in a specially decorated vehicle before the start of the fourth and final Test of the ongoing series. Video embedded below, because why should I be the only one to squirm at the sight of those stumps and cricket bats? (Seriously, though, who designs the backdrops for Modi events — Vivek Agnihotri’s set designer?)

And then came this: A beaming Narendra Modi receiving a picture of Narendra Modi from a beaming BCCI secretary Jay Shah at a function organized in Narendra Modi Stadium. (According to the BCCI, Shah gave Modi the “artwork” to “celebrate 75 years of friendship with Australia through cricket”. I swear you can’t make this shit up!)

When I pointed this out to my camera-shy wife earlier this morning, she tried devil’s advocacy. “Modi wouldn’t have asked for this, no?” she said, arguing the case that this was the over-the-top work of a more than ordinarily zealous sycophant.

Maybe. Then again, maybe not — prime ministerial events are planned down to the last detail and all appropriate approvals are obtained ahead of time, and that is particularly true of this prime minister. And I do mean every last detail. Remember this?:

So, no, I don’t think this was Jay Shah being overly obsequious. But even if that were the case, my wife’s argument misses the point while making the point: sycophants do what they know will please their authoritarian overlord.

So having suggested just the other day that Modi suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, am I now diagnosing him as an authoritarian?

Given the times we live in, there is a book that should be mandatory reading: How Democracies Die, by Harvard professors Steven Levistky and Daniel Ziblatt. Published in 2019, the book argues that democracies don’t always get extinguished by coups; that in modern times, a democracy is more likely to die the death of the thousand cuts, beginning with the election of an authoritarian leader who goes on to abuse governmental power and to use the instruments of the state to totally decimate the opposition.

In the first chapter, the authors refer to German-born political scientist Juan Linz, who as Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale made a name for his seminal work on authoritarian political regimes.

Linz in his book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes proposed a litmus test to identify authoritarians but never got down to actually creating that test. Levitsky and Ziblatt fill that gap and, in their book, provide a chart to help identify authoritarian behavior. Here it is:

Keep the chart handy as you trawl your go-to news sources, and decide for yourself how many of these boxes the Modi-led government ticks, or not.

PostScript: This is not the column I intended to write today, but it will do while I do some digging to unearth the dots I mean to connect. Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with two reads. The first is by Shankarshan Thakur, and fits the ‘nothing succeeds like excess’ theme of this post. Here is a clip:

Modi is the master of populist subterfuge; we often behave like a slavish confederacy of dunces. He has amplified a routine turn at a multilateral table into a thing of rare recognition and reward and we have allowed ourselves to turn even headier in Modi worship. The official theme of India’s presidency year is: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’. The way we are meant to read it is: ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future, One Leader — Vishwaguru Modiji’. Onward to 2024 on a new global high! Who cares that the G20 is a torn and tattered entity in India’s presidency year? What matters is who chairs those tatters. Internationally, G20 lies torpedoed by differences; domestically, it has been turned into a cracker of a campaign slogan for Modi and we are in the throes of celebration.

Shankarshan Thakur in The Telegraph

The other is a piece in The Australian by premier cricket writer Gideon Haigh (unfortunately, behind a paywall) titled Why Are We Tolerating The Intolerant? Clips:

India’s Gujarat being a dry state, you won’t be able to avail yourself of a beer at the fourth Test in Ahmedabad. But if you like your cricket with a side serve of fascistic ostentation, the climax of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy in Ahmedabad will be right up your alley.

Passing through the atrium of Modi Stadium, one gazes up at giant images of Modi and Shah, in their familiar double act as narcissist and enabler. They are quite the partnership, and this Test, and this stadium, play to their strengths in staging spectacles of power.

The pair have also honed the time-honored repertoire of political strongmen everywhere: intimidation of rivals, subversion of institutions, falsifications of history, manufacture of conspiracies, and the pretence that criticism of their rule is a wound to national pride…

Needless to say, Modi takes the same attitude to the media as Tommy Docherty: “There’s a place for the press but they haven’t dug it yet.”

I’m not sure I should have quoted from a just-published piece at such length, but this is a piece I wish everyone could read. In it, Haigh asks a simple question: Why is Australia pandering to the ego of a narcisstic authoritarian? (The simple answer is, of course, trade — where the balance is heavily weighted in favour of Australia. But then, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the champions of freedom and democracy in the West turn a blind eye to Modi’s more reprehensible actions because it suits their self-interest — Haigh, I suspect, was asking the question rhetorically.

Gideon Haigh, in The Australian

Right, see you back here in a couple of days.

PPS: Shortly after I posted this, I noticed that several folks have shared screenshots of Haigh’s full article on Twitter. So, here:

Pawan Khera and the politics of narcissism

When Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera in a press conference referred to Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi as ‘Gautamdas’ before ostentatiously correcting himself, it was not a “slip of the tongue” as his lawyer claimed during a Supreme Court hearing, nor was Khera’s apology an expression of genuine regret.

It was a piece of political theatre, what the US press during fevered presidential election campaigns refers to as a ‘zinger’ – a moment that induces nervous laughter in the audience and provides a ‘byte’ for television channels and social media outlets; it was an opportunistic arrow aimed at the vertiginous, hubristic descent of Modi’s favorite businessman from recent stratospheric heights.

Pawan Khera’s essay in ‘mis-speak’ was an attempt to bring back into the public discourse recent disclosures about the opaque nature of Gautam Adani’s business ventures and the questions arising therefrom – questions that had been raised, and immediately redacted, from the proceedings of the recent session of Parliament, conveniently saving Modi from having to respond to specifics.

Khera’s comment was many things. What it was not, was a crime. Which is why the spectacle of paramilitary forces, armed to the teeth and standing in serried ranks on the tarmac of Delhi’s airport to arrest him, smacked of over-reach even for a regime and a leader that has industrialized over-reach.

Multiple FIRs have charged Khera under Section 153A (promoting enmity between various groups), Section 505 (making statements conducive to public mischief), 153B(1) (making assertions prejudicial to national integration), 295A (deliberate acts meant to outrage religious feelings), 500 (defamation) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace).

The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and comprising Justices PS Narasimha and MR Shah, while providing Khera with interim relief from arrest, said inter alia, “We also accept that, taken on their face value, the spoken words do not lead to the sections invoked in the FIR” (emphasis mine).

It didn’t need the Supreme Court to state the bleeding obvious. Commonsense should tell you that Khera’s words don’t provoke enmity between various groups (unless ‘Modi sycophants’ is a recognized group), that linking Modi to Adani does not prejudice national integration (Modi is not a nation), that the comment does not outrage religious feelings (Modi is not a religion), and so on.

As for ‘defamation’ and ‘intentional insult’, that is a bit rich coming from, or on behalf of, a man who has made the intentional insult his political stock-in-trade. Modi has famously referred to the then leader of the Opposition as ‘Congress ka vidhwa’ and as a ‘Jersey cow’; slightingly referred to the then partner of an Opposition MP as a ’50 crore girlfriend’; publicly accused his predecessor of colluding with agents of a foreign power in a plot to assassinate him, before running away from the inevitable uproar in Parliament and fielding (the late) Arun Jaitley to tender an apology of sorts; and during an election campaign in the relatively recent past repeatedly used the ‘Didiiii…. O Didiii’ catcall commonly employed by Kolkata’s roadside thugs to harass passing women.

The above examples are merely a playlist of his greatest hits, not the entire catalogue.

The adjective ‘fascist’ has been thrown around in the wake of the Khera kerfuffle. The dictionary defines ‘fascist’ as someone who supports or promotes a system of governance led by a dictator who rules by forcefully, and often violently, suppressing criticism and opposition, controlling all industry and commerce, and promoting nationalism and often racism. Prima facie, the cap seems to fit the incumbent prime minister as neatly as the many silly hats he wears during his various election campaigns.

But chasing a thought, I went to the site of the Mayo Clinic to read up on a psychological problem commonly diagnosed as ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’. The textbook definition: NPD is a mental health condition in which people have an unreasonably high sense of their own importance. They need and seek attention and want people to admire them… But behind this mask of extreme confidence, they are not sure of their self-worth and are easily upset by the slightest criticism.

The Mayo clinic provides a laundry list of symptoms of varying degrees of severity. As below:

  • Have an unreasonably high sense of self-importance and require constant, excessive admiration.
  • Feel that they deserve privileges and special treatment.
  • Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements.
  • Make achievements and talents seem bigger than they are.
  • Be preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate.
  • Have an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others.
  • Be envious of others and believe others envy them.
  • Behave in an arrogant way, brag a lot and come across as conceited.
  • Insist on having the best of everything — for instance, the best car or office.

At the same time, the clinic’s crib sheet says, people with narcissistic personality disorder have trouble handling anything they view as criticism. They can:

  • Become impatient or angry when they don’t receive special recognition or treatment.
  • React with rage or contempt and try to belittle other people to make themselves appear superior.
  • Withdraw from or avoid situations in which they might fail. (As, for instance, open press conferences – this bit in parenthesis mine)
  • Have secret feelings of insecurity, shame, humiliation and fear of being exposed as a failure.

The cap, I thought, has a bespoke fit to it. But recent experience with a bad viral infection, exacerbated by diagnosis-by-internet, has made me a bit wary. My GP, exasperated when I finally went to him about a week after I first evidenced the symptoms, was scathing: “Google did not clear the MBBS exam!”

So I chatted up a psychiatrist I know. His response to my query was: “Want to see a narcissistic personality? Go look in the mirror.”

His point is that there is a narcissist in each one of us, that we will show signs of some or all of the symptoms listed above, and that this is not a problem per se. Personality disorders of some kind or other are common. Most times, we don’t even realise we have issues; in some relatively virulent cases, the problem becomes apparent to those in our immediate circle, with whom we interact on a regular basis. A belief that we know best, that those giving us advice or suggestions are not as well-informed as we are, coupled with a corresponding intolerance of criticism could for instance manifest in the workplace, and our colleagues will likely brush off all but the most extreme cases with “He is difficult to work with” (In extreme cases, it becomes an HR problem).

The real problem is when narcissism, in its malignant form, is allied to unbridled authority. An unreasonable sense of your own superiority and a corresponding intolerance of any form of criticism is not dangerous in and of itself, but when it is allied to the ability to harness the entire powers of the State – its investigative agencies, its police and paramilitary, its judiciary, its diplomatic missions, even its exchequer (after all, those cardboard cut-outs, choreographed photo-ops and full-page advertisements touting illusory accomplishments have to be paid for) – in the service of one person’s ego that you have a problem that can – and will – metastasize and threaten the fabric of a flawed but still functioning secular democracy itself.

The Pawan Khera fracas is not the first, or only, symptom of this danger; it is merely one more line item in a growing list. We live in a time when the economy is in the doldrums; when flashpoints serially ignite in various states and among various constituencies; when the honeymoon is officially over and the international community has begun to take an increasingly critical view of events on the ground; when scams and scandals of various stripes proliferate and skeletons believed to be buried deep have begun tumbling out of sundry closets – all this, in a year pockmarked with elections to nine state assemblies as runway to the general elections of 2024.

The air of inevitability, that automatic assumption of TINA – there is no alternative – has begun to erode around the edges. William Shakespeare was the first to articulate what happens when this happens — when an outward expression of overweening superiority goes hand in hand with a deep-seated internal sense of insecurity. Remember?:

Those he commands move only in command,

Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title

Hang Loose about him, like a giant’s robe

Upon a dwarfish thief.

When Modi, having adroitly gotten all awkward questions about his relationship with a beleaguered billionaire redacted from the parliamentary records, thumped his chest and, to the accompaniment of fevered desk-thumping by his sycophantic partymen, said “Desh dekh raha hai, ek akela kitno par baari pad raha hai”, he spoke truer than he perhaps intended to.

PostScript: Of all the bizarre sights I’ve seen in recent times, none more jaw-dropping than this: As Modi’s speech in Parliament reached its chest-thumping peroration and his voice rose by several dozen decibels as he rounded into the ‘ek akela’ bit, all elected MPs of his party – filling out the treasury benches in response to a party whip mandating their presence – rose en masse and enthusiastically thumped their desks in appreciation.

Appreciation of what, though? Of being told, to their face, that they are all irrelevant and that there is only one man who matters – Modi himself?

(The writer is not a qualified medical practitioner or even Aayush-certified, and the column above does not purport to be a clinical diagnosis)

NB: This column was written for a website — which, after an initial expression of enthusiastic acceptance, had second thoughts and decided that it could not publish the column as written. So I decided to post it in my own space — and I also realized that it is time I got back to writing in my space. So, stand by.

Anatomy of a pogrom

They say the toll thus far is 13 24, as of 6.30 PM this evening. They whisper that the actual toll is much higher. Maybe we will know in time what the actual human cost is or, as has happened many times before in the course of state-sponsored pogroms, maybe we never will.

Never mind parsing the numbers, though — even one life sacrificed at the altar of the cold-blooded political calculations of those who rule us (rule, not govern, because there is zero sign of governance) and of the unthinking, unfettered hate of their bigoted base would have been one too many.

That hate manifested in scenes such as this, playing out on the streets of the national capital:

Or this incident, one among the many dozens over the past three days that we will never be able to live down:

Call it by its right name — this is a pogrom, not a “riot”. Ashutosh Varshney, who has written the book on the subject, lays it out in a thread in which the money quote is this:

The cap is made to measure. It fits, perfectly. The events in Delhi over the past three days is no “riot” but a systematic campaign of elimination targeting the Muslim community. That it was planned to this end is painfully evident from the reports flooding in — including, but not limited to, this video of stones being brought in by the truckload the night before the violence began:

The Indian Express has a chilling timeline-driven narrative of thugs preparing for the attacks under the unseeing eye of the police. It goes on to document the deliberate targeting of Muslim homes and shops for violence, for arson.

As late as 9.30 last night, with Section 144 and shoot at sight orders in force, a Muslim settlement was torched by a mob acting with impunity. Police were present; they said they were “unable to interfere“.

An 85-year-old woman was burnt to death in her home. A mosque in Ashok Nagar was vandalised and torched, as were homes in the vicinity (See embedded clip earlier in this post), and a Hanuman flag planted atop its dome. 24 hours after the incident, the flag still remains in place. And a clip that has since been verified damns the police as active, willing participants in the mayhem:

The police even colluded with rioters to ensure that ambulances bearing victims were not allowed to enter the Al Hind hospital, as testified to by many including Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti. A 14-year-old boy with a gunshot wound was among those who were denied timely treatment. A doctor’s brother was among those who died while awaiting the treatment that the rioters and police refused them.

It took lawyer Suroor Mander’s midnight knock on the door of the Delhi High Court to produce a court order (the full text) asking that police provide protection to the ambulances. This clip is worth highlighting:

“Highest constitutional functionary move in Z+ security. This is the time to reach out and show that this security is for everyone,” Justice D S Muralidhar said in the matter on Al Hind hospital moved by Suroor Mander. “We can’t let another 1984 scenario happen in this city; not under the watch of this court.”

Serving and retired IPS officers pointed to the Delhi police force’s inexperience in dealing with riots — an experience that starts right at the top.

Inexperience might — might — explain why the police did not take preventive measures in time despite the signs of impending riots being painfully evident (Remember how stones were trucked in on the night before the rioting began). But it does not explain why the police participated in the stone-throwing, why it joined rioters in ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants, why it shielded the rioters, why it indulged in actions such as in the clips above. Or the one below:

Inexperience certainly does not explain the visual below of a policeman in full gear directing rioters who are gathering stones:

Members of a Hindu mob, armed with crude weapons, begged the police to let them attack Muslims. “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do,’’ one mob leader said. “You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.’’ Then he used a slur to refer to Muslims.

That reported quote from a New York Times story is telling. Which protestor, if he did not know for sure that the police was on his side, would actually go up to a cop — while armed — and ask for permission to attack Muslims, or anyone for that matter? Any cop worth his uniform and pay check would have immediately arrested the whole sorry lot and thrown them behind bars.

In the heart of Delhi, late night on February 25 while the Home Minister and the state chief minister and the Commissioner of Police were “appealing for peace” and “monitoring the situation”, and while Section 144 was in force, newly-elected BJP MLA Abhay Varma marched through the violence-addled Mangal Bazaar area of Lakshmi Vihar at the head of a band of supporters who chanted ‘goli maro saalon ko‘ (Shoot the bastards, in case it needs translation). Shoot at sight orders were in force at the time, for what that is worth.

The coordinated assaults across multiple locations had one significant feature in common — they were at their most virulent in the areas where the BJP had won seats in the recent assembly elections. Which is to say, where the party had numerical strength — which, in practical terms, means they were reasonably sure, particularly given the backing of the police, that there would be no real organised resistance. See the map below:

Also clear is that the first part of their mission is in a good way to being accomplished, as this video of the Muslims of Mustafabad leaving the area with their belongings shows. The second mission — clearing Jafrabad of the Shaheen Bagh-style protest that had taken root there, which was the thrust of Kapil Mishra’s infamous speech — was also accomplished, with not a little help from the police.

It is equally clear that the BJP-led thugs were aware of the illegality, the criminality, of their actions. Thus the systematic assaults on journalists who, at considerable risk to life and limb, covered the riots. One was shot; four others were brutally assaulted; rioters checked the religion of journalists they caught before assaulting them.

Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry posted a contemporaneous account on Twitter. TOI photojournalist Anindya Chattopadhyay has a chilling first-person account, which starts with the rioter who offered to put a tilak on his forehead to ensure his safety as he headed into the midst of the riots.

“We were not allowed to shoot or record any of what was happening,” writes Runjhun Sharma of CNN-News18, adding that she and other journalists were told “Don’t take your phones out of your pockets, just enjoy the view.”

And here, with horrifying detail, is Ismat Ara, of FirstPost:

‘I was scared they would catch me for being a journalist, molest me for being a girl, lynch me for being a Muslim’

Rioters — and the brain-dead apologists that infest social media — argued that Hindus were retaliating for the killing of their own. “What about Rahul Solanki?”, several asked on my timeline. It is an age-old tactic of the Hindutva terrorists — instigate violence, then claim that it was a spontaneous reaction to the other side’s violence.

Well, what about Rahul Solanki? His father Hari Singh Solanki, sitting in the hospital beside the body of the son who died when he stepped out of his home to buy groceries, blamed Kapil Mishra — not the Muslims — and demanded that action be taken against the BJP “leader”.

“Kapil Mishra set Delhi on fire and then hid in his home. Our children paying the price, getting killed” — Hari Singh Solanki, father of the murdered Rahul.

A mob burned down a shop belonging to a Hindu that was being run by a Muslim. Here is what a trader, also a Hindu, from the area had to say about the incident, about who was responsible, about the role of the police. Also read what the Hindus of Ashok Nagar had to say about the mosque that was destroyed in their area. Elsewhere, a Sikh — a Supreme Court lawyer, no less — asks members of his faith to form peace committees, to set up langars for the victims. Hindus sheltered 25 Muslim families all through yesterday and today, until the police could rescue them and take them to a nearby hospital. And then there was this:

There is humanity still in our minds and our hearts, despite the BJP’s best efforts to stamp out all vestiges.

At the end of the Delhi election campaign, Amit Shah said hate speech maybe — maybe — cost his party. And yet, just yesterday, BJP Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jairam Thakur says only those who chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ have the right to remain in India.

While BJP leaders continued to pour fuel onto the raging flames, while the PM after three days of rioting contented himself with a word salad about the “immense warmth” — presumably emanating from a burning city — with which India had greeted Trump, and an anodyne appeal for peace; while politicians either went missing in action or busied themselves with photo-ops (like Arvind Kejriwal’s dharna at Raj Ghat, or his visit to victims in various hospitals, or his statement of a “positive meeting” with Amit Shah), or actively turned against those seeking help (as Kejriwal himself did when, late night last night, he had water cannons sweep his street clear of protestors even as thugs owing allegiance to his own party unleashed violence on the protestors at Jafrabad), it was left to the people to step up, to speak out.

There was a joint Hindu-Muslim peace march in the Brij Puri area; elsewhere people formed a human chain to ensure that schoolchildren could return home in safety. Hindus went around reassuring their Muslim neighbours that they were not alone; gurudwaras opened their doors to Muslims who were fleeing from their torched homes and the Jathedar of the Akhal Takht has asked all gurudwaras in the capital to offer all possible help to victims..

On the fringes of the cataclysm the BJP has visited on the national capital, this also happened: In Bihar the government voted unanimously in favour of an anti-NRC resolution. 70 MLAs belong to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U); the next largest group in the ruling coalition is the BJP with 54 MLAs. All of whom voted in favour of the anti-NRC resolution.

The next major election is in Bihar, in October this year, and this vote is a clear indication that even the local BJP leaders are aware of — wary of — the public sentiment, which has been gathering a head of steam thanks largely to the efforts of Kanhaiya Kumar who, as I write this, is into the 26th day of his 30-day road trip across the state and drawing enormous crowds.

The rally will culminate in Patna in five days with a public meeting demanding that the state government block the NPR/NRC; this resolution is likely an attempt to take the wind out of Kumar’s sails. From what I’ve been seeing, and from the clips of his speeches I’ve been following on his timeline, I suspect though that it is not going to be that easy — the Patna rally, unless I’ve totally misread the signs, is going to be a clear indication to the ruling dispensation that there is a right side and a wrong side to this argument, and that the people will be unforgiving of those who pick the wrong side. But we’ll see…

Elsewhere, the Supreme Court — which a wag on Twitter renamed the Supine Court recently — has yet again postponed a hearing it had scheduled in the issue of the Shaheen Bagh protests, saying “Let everything cool down first”.

Remember that when the SC was approached to intervene following the December 15 violence at JMI, its response was that it would listen to such pleas after the violence had stopped — analogous to a fire brigade responding to a four-alarm fire by saying it would wait for the flames to die down before responding.

And it is worth saying, in so many words, that the SC’s serial abdications of responsibility in cases ranging from the lockdown of Kashmir to the state-sponsored violence in JMI is a major contributing factor to why we are where we are today.

It is left, then, to the lower courts to stand up for what is right. A Division Bench comprising Justice Muralidhar and Justice Talwant Singh of the Delhi High Court heard a Harsh Mander plea into the ongoing violence in the national capital, and it was quite something (Read the blow by blow account by LiveLaw via the link).

In a cringe-worthy performance, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said he had not seen the video of the Kapil Mishra hate speech that was the proximate cause of the hearing (Begs the question: If the SG hadn’t seen the video that was central to the case before he appeared in court to respond to the petition, how incompetent is he?). He asked what the urgency was, and suggested that the hearing be postponed.

Judge Muralidhar wasn’t having any of it — after first castigating the SG, the judge ordered the video to be played in court, then asked the SG and the officer representing the police, Deputy Commissioner Rajesh Deo, to watch it, read the transcript, and respond after a break. Read the proceedings — here is a minute by minute account on Scroll, as does Live Law; it is a handy reminder of how judges function when they remember that they are there to protect the Constitution, the rule of law.

In late-breaking news just as I was writing this:

And in response to that, the Solicitor General of India, no less, argues that this might not be the best time to be filing FIRs against those BJP leaders. Painful as it is, try and wrap your head around that argument from the lawyer representing the government of India.

“They beat me till they broke me. I begged them and they beat me some more, viciously. They made communally charged slurs and took (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra’s name. I don’t remember much. I just hoped my children were safe. I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.”

They took Kapil Mishra’s name, says the victim of the gruesome assault that is captured in the lead photo of this post. Kapil Mishra, banned twice for hate speech during the Delhi campaign. Kapil Mishra, who made the hate speech the SG and DCP haven’t had time to listen to yet. Kapil Mishra, against whom the SG is in no hurry to instruct that an FIR be filed. And again, the SG got spanked by the judge:

“You showed alacrity in registering FIRs for damages to property and arson. Why aren’t you registering it for these speeches? Don’t you even want to acknowledge the presence of a crime? Just register FIRs!”

Worth pointing out here that despite a full-scale pogrom in the national capital for three days and counting, the police has not seen fit to take one single individual into preventive custody. Unlike, say, in Kashmir where hundreds remain in custody, some under the draconian PSA, despite there having been no trouble of any kind in the lead-up to the abrogation of Article 370.

Also, in context, work mentioning that the Supreme Court collegium has recommended the transfer of the widely respected Justice Muralidhar, provoking a protest by lawyers.

It is ironic, meanwhile, that the rioting, the mayhem and all these stories on the fringes happened precisely when dozens of crores of rupees were pumped into a spectacle that was supposed to showcase the bonhomie between the world’s largest and oldest democracies.

It is typical of Modi that he skipped the press conference at the end of Donald Trump’s tour, leaving it to the US president to take questions on the CAA.

It is symptomatic of the ineptitude of this government’s foreign outreach that all that effort and money went into an event that produced nothing in the way of a substantive trade deal, or in fact a deal of any kind whatsoever.

And while on irony, the expensive spectacle staged by Modi and his minions not only failed to attract positive notice within the country and around the world, global media — both print and television — focussed on the riots that were tearing the capital apart (and more than one commentator pointed to the tone deaf nature of Trump’s statement that the US and India were committed to fight global Islamic terror, at the precise moment, and in the precise place, where Muslims were being targeted for annihilation).

Sections of the Indian media desperately kept the focus on Trump at the Taj, and Melania attending “happiness school”, and what the menu was at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan reception (more irony: the star was biriyani, the very dish the Shaheen Bagh protestors have been demonised for eating), global media was unsparing. Chris Hayles of MSNBC in fact pointed to the fact that Trump was silent about the riots:

And that comment was a gentle prelude to Hayes’ show last night, where he tore into the two leaders. Watch:

The POTUS press conference didn’t go that well, and an incident also served up a reminder of why Modi refuses to meet the press (and also makes you wish that India had the kind of media the US still has, despite Trump’s best efforts). Here:

It is easy enough for the likes of Piyush Goyal, on behalf of the government, to call publishers and editors and browbeat them into tamping down on negative comment about Modi and his minions. It is not for want of trying, though — yesterday, the government pressured Hotstar and Disney India into deleting a John Oliver segment on Modi, that had aired on the eve of Trump’s visit. The outcome? On YouTube, the video has over 5.3 million views at the time of writing this.

I’ll leave you with Oliver’s famous last words here:

It is incredibly depressing to see India heading in this direction…. Because India, the home of this enduring symbol of love (the Taj Mahal) frankly deserves more than this temporary symbol of hate (Modi).

PostScript: Events are happening at too great a pace just now to make sense of; I’ll leave this round-up here, as a document of the major events of the past 48 hours, and write around it later, once things have simmered down somewhat and there is room for meditation, for thinking it all through.

Credit: The lead image, emblematic of everything that is wrong with India today, was shot by Praveen Khan of Indian Express. And below, a little reminder of our times, for our times.

Cry me a river

In a previous post I wrote of Hitler, of fascism, of the means to the murderous end that was euphemized as “the final solution”. I expected there would be pushback, and I got what I expected. The politest feedback – I had to sift through a lot to find It – suggested that I was using words I had read somewhere without any understanding of their true meaning; that I was egregiously misapplying those pejorative terms to the India of today; that my “screed” was driven by blind hatred of Modi.

The thing is, I am by no stretch the first to use those words for the RSS/BJP machinery – others, with far better knowledge and qualifications, have used these words before. And these terms were used well before Modi even became Chief Minister of Gujarat, let alone Prime Minister of the country.

One such leading light – a Harvard scholar, an educator, a politician, a former Union Law Minister no less, named Subramanian Swamy – wrote this way back in 2000 to warn us of what was coming, and he was prescient. He was also meticulous in outlining the various steps in the RSS process:

(1) Discredit your opponents and protect your friends: (2) “Shake public confidence in every institution that can circumscribe or act as a speed-breaker for the RSS juggernaut; (3) Script new history; ready the blueprint for the coming agenda; (4) Bridle the electoral system.

The RSS game-plan is ready, Swamy wrote then, only the date for the final blitzkrieg remains to be picked.

Think back to those four steps Swamy outlined. I could have linked a few dozen current examples to illustrate each of them, but I’m going to leave it up to you: As you think back over the past six months, as you read the headlines today, how many of those boxes do you think you can tick?

“Of course,” concluded Swamy, “the good news is that the game plan can fail. I live on the hope that in India, no well-laid plan ever works. India, after all, is a functioning anarchy. That has been the undoing of every attempt to straitjacket its society. That is why we are still the longest continuing unbroken civilization of over 10,000 years. The RSS is, luckily, our counter-culture. The vibrations of Mother India will, I hope, be its undoing.”

I share in that pious hope. I cling to it when, after a day spent shuddering at the incessant stream of bad news, I go to bed at night and try to get some sleep. But then I wake up next morning, and this is the world I wake up to:

In Bidar, northern Karnataka, a 11-year-old breaks down in tears over the plight of her mother, who is in police custody, along with the principal of her school, Shaheen Primary and High School, on charges of sedition. For the crime of staging a play that sought to educate the students on the inequities of the CAA. A court decided to defer hearing their bail application by a week.

Meanwhile, also in Karnataka, a court ordered the police to serve notice on Nityananda, who on securing bail in a case of rape had fled the country. The police told the court that Nityananda is on a “spiritual tour”, and hence there was no need to serve notice on him.

In Allahabad, a court has granted bail to rape accused BJP leader Chinmayanand; the court order is, put mildly, problematic. Remember that bit about protecting your friends and discrediting your opponents? While on that, the Income Tax department withdrew tax evasion cases against Tamil superstar Rajnikanth – who, yesterday, came out with a statement supporting the CAA.

But to revert to Bidar, yesterday was the 5th successive day police entered the school and subjected the students – of classes 4, 5 and 6 — to intense interrogation over the play. The police action is based on a complaint lodged by one Nilesh Rakshala, an “activist” of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the RSS.

The “activist” alleged that there was a line in the play about whacking the Prime Minister with a chappal. The police, which has copies of the play, and video, have found no such line. But a mother and a school principal are in custody, the police enter the school every day for extensive interrogations, a chappal is among the “evidence” they have collected, and a 11-year-old wends her way to a neighbor’s home, weeping quietly over the fate of her mother.

In Bangalore, Karnataka’s capital city, BJP workers attempted to put up a pro-CAA banner outside a school, and hassled students who tried to stop them. A BJP MLA led a mob into another school objecting to anti-Modi graffiti on a wall. Also in Bangalore, where a junior BBMP official acting on an unverified complaint by a BJP leader had demolished 200-plus homes and rendered 5000 or more homeless, another shantytown is now being threatened with demolition because, “Bangladeshis”. “Do you decide nationality by looking at a person’s face?”, the court asked the police while hearing petitions relating to that earlier demolition — well, apparently they do, and will continue to do so.

Meanwhile in Punjab, school children were made to sign a pro-CAA banner. A similar attempt to force students to write postcards congratulating the PM was made in Gujarat – it failed only because outraged parents protested. In Ahmedabad, BJP workers are going around collecting postcards in praise of the PM. Praise, even by force, is good; a poster calling for national unity, though, not so much:

In Bombay, 50 people have been charged with sedition over a slogan at a Pride rally, on the basis of a complaint by a BJP leader. Also in Bombay, a cab driver overheard an innocent conversation, drew the wrong conclusions, and all hell broke loose. (Here is an unrolled thread on the incident)

In Delhi, where the campaign is into its final day, the Election Commission has found DCP Rajesh Deo in gross violation of rules by attempting to “adversely affecting the elections” through his press conference where he alleged that Kapil Gujjar, the gunman who fired at Shaheen Bagh the other day, was a member of the Aam Aadmi Party. The allegation is, according to the man’s own father, untrue:

No surprise here, either in the false allegation or in the EC taking note of it (In my post yesterday, I’d made this exact same point); what is surprising though is the punishment handed out, which amounts to a day’s paid leave.

Also in Delhi, also during the campaign, BJP national spokesperson Sambit Patra put out a tweet suggesting that an AAP leader had called for the establishment of the Shariya nationwide. It is, of course, a lie – the word used was “zariya”, not “shariya”. It is also, of course, extremely inflammatory. And it will, of course, go unpunished. (That Patra lied is not surprising – this is your periodic reminder that it was Patra, aided by Arnab Goswami, who first aired the faked “tukde tukde” video.)

In Bihar, where student leader turned politician Kanhaiyya Kumar has been leading a ‘Jan Gan Man’ rally across the state, his car was attacked and damaged; the driver and Kumar have reportedly been injured, the former badly.

Kumar launched his month-long rally on January 30 at Champaran; it moved to Gopalganj and Siwan on day two; to Chapra and Muzzafarpur on day 3; to Sitamandi on day four; to Madhubani on day 5; and to Dharbanga yesterday, day six. The crowds have been phenomenal, and they have been growing; the pressure is correspondingly greater on the BJP which shares the government in Bihar.

In the dead of night in Azamgarh, UP, police threw stones, fired teargas shells, and flooded a site where women have been holding a Shaheen Bagh-style sit-in protest. Several women are reportedly injured, some seriously.

Also in UP, police uprooted a wedding pandal because they thought it was erected for an anti-CAA protest. Elsewhere, India Today pointed to a series of discrepancies in data in the Budget presented by Nirmala Sitharaman (who apparently had time to decipher the Harappan script but not to run the numbers); the ministry without acknowledging the error quietly corrects it. In Goa, an NCP MLA demanded on the floor of the assembly that tigers who eat cows should be punished, just like humans. Air India cancelled the ticket of a man who was flying to the US because his name happened to be Kunal Kamra. Not THE Kunal Kamra, just A Kunal Kamra. Do you laugh? Do you weep? Do you “laugh, that you may not weep”? Do you, even as you weep, cling on to the few remaining shards of hope, if you can find them?

I wrote about that hope in a recent piece for The Wire. As the headlines pile one on the other in an endless cascade of misery, the combined weight pushing me into a dark, dank, dismal place, I think of Vaclav Havel’s question:

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope…”

Perhaps.

I hope the “vibrations of Mother India” – vibrations you can feel as you approach any protest site, anywhere in the country, and there are plenty for you to choose from – will save us. But I also hope she’d buck up about it, because time is running out. And time is running out not because Modi and Shah are rushing to implement the CAA/NPR-NRC, but because the RSS has been prepping the soil for a very long time now, and they are nearly done.

It is not what you see – the shakas, the drills, the flag marches, the occasional shows of strength. It is what you don’t see: that for decades now, the RSS has been quietly insinuating itself into the institutions that prop up India’s democracy.

It has pushed its brightest minds into academics, had them write the prescribed exams and enter the civil services – the IFS, the IAS, the IPS; it has pushed some of its best and brightest into the armed forces and into the media. And over the years, over the decades, these seeds planted have taken root, and grown; these recruits have steadily climbed the promotion ladders and are now increasingly in places of influence.

Swamy’s piece dates back to 2000; the process was in place well before that. With apologies for the length, here is an extended quote from an interview I did with NCP chief Sharad Pawar back in 1998:

Talking of mistakes, a very senior BJP leader said that the Congress made a big one when it didn’t allow the Vajpayee government to survive the vote of confidence… Why?

The argument I heard was that if the Congress had abstained, the Vajpayee government would have survived the vote of confidence. But being in a minority, it would not have been able to achieve anything at all, and in time it would have fallen. And with its fall, the stability plank would have been lost to the party for ever…. The BJP should never be allowed to rule, it is too dangerous. For instance, Advani was a minister during the Janata government — and in his short tenure, he managed to fill his ministry with RSS people, and that gave us a headache when we came back to power.

The BJP and the RSS practise the politics of infiltration. I’ll give you an example. Before the fall of the Babri Masjid, Bhairon Singh Shekawat and I were negotiating with the Babri Masjid Action Committee and the Ram Janambhoomi people, for three days we had intense negotiations. We reached a stage where, in one more day or maybe two, we could have come to an agreement. But at that time, the senior RSS person involved in the discussions said he had to leave for three days.

I asked him why, I argued with him, told him nothing could be more important, but he was adamant. So finally I asked him where he was going, and he said Hyderabad, to attend the seminar of the Indian History Congress. I was quite shocked that he thought a seminar was more important that this.

That is when he explained. The IHC controls the way Indian history is written and studied, it approves syllabus and textbooks, it has total control. And the key weapon of the RSS is education, its goal is to rewrite Indian history to suit its agenda. In fact, the RSS is already doing it — the portrayal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj as anti-Muslim is only one example, they talk of how Afzal Khan tried to trick him and how Shivaji killed Afzal Khan, that is the story the kids read about, but conveniently, no one menions that Shivaji’s chief army commander was a Muslim, that he personally constructed three mosques for Muslims… one of my candidates in the state is a direct descendant of Shivaji Maharaj, and his family still pays money for the upkeep of these mosques, but this is never mentioned. Shivaji maintained that all communities and religions should live in harmony, but look how that is being distorted today!

Sorry, but how does all this tie up with the IHC?

To be a member, you have to do post graduation, and masters, in Indian history. So over the years, the RSS has been systematically selecting students, instructing them to study history, and getting them into the IHC, at last count the RSS-oriented students are 46 per cent of the society. Another five per cent, and the RSS will control it, and then it will write Indian history to suit its own ends. That body is like that, it plans ahead, and works systematically to achieve its goals. In fact, I must say that though the RSS and the BJP are my political enemies, I admire this quality in them, they plan for the future and they work steadily towards a goal.

Think of all that as you go through the stories linked above; think of it when you next read of an inexplicably wrong court judgment or hear of an unjustifiable police action. It is not that they are following the orders from Modi and Shah – their mission predates those two, and will continue after those two.

I’m not sure what the solution is, or even if there is a solution at all. Maybe these nationwide protests are the first faint signs of those vibrations Swamy talked about. You can only hope — so I’ll leave you with an image gallery of what hope looks like: