Where Justice goes to die

On February 5, a mundan (ritual shaving of hair) ceremony was conducted for the daughter of mid-level bureaucrat Diwakar Nath Mishra, a joint secretary in the Ministry of Commerce. In attendance were President Ram Nath Kovind, PM Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and other high-profile members of the government.

Diwakar Nath Mishra is the son-in-law of Supreme Court Judge Arun Kumar Mishra.

Yesterday, February 14, Justice Mishra heard a petition filed by Sarah Abdullah Pilot, sister of incarcerated Kashmir politician and former chief minister Omar Abdullah.

Abdullah, who was in preventive custody for a period of six months, was recently charged under the stringent provisions of the Public Safety Act. The dossier submitted by the J & K police in support of the detention makes claims that are so bizarre they defy belief.

Reviewing Sarah Pilot’s petition, Justice Arun Kumar Mishra postponed the hearing by three weeks, and then bargained it down to 15 days, setting the next hearing for March 2. He said – a Supreme Court judge actually said – this:

“If the sister could wait so long, then 15 days doesn’t make a difference.”

Read LiveLaw’s real time coverage of the proceedings in the highest court in the land – in tandem with the news report above on the mundan ceremony —  to realize how, and how completely, justice has been subverted.

I need to clarify that none of this constitutes criticism of Justice Mishra – even though he has been in the crosshairs of controversy more times than you can count; in fact, it was Mishra who, on being named to hear the case of the death of Judge Loya, triggered four senior judges to take the unprecedented step of holding a press conference to express their angst.

But yeah, this is not a criticism.  Aap chronology aur facts samjhiye, bas. And this clarification, which I make with all possible emphasis, is necessary because a day earlier, the Chief Justice of India and two of his colleagues were hearing a case relating to the distribution of child porn via online communications tools when, in a surprising non sequitur, the CJI observed:

“There are instances where institutions like Parliament and SC are defamed with derogatory comments. Why should it not be explored how to stop circulation of such comments?”

And this is not the first time, either – shortly before taking over as CJI, SA Bobde had talked about feeling bothered by criticisms of judges.

So there you have it. The CJI’s concern is not with whether the criticisms of the courts and of Parliament are genuine or not; his concern is, how do we silence criticism.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the terrorist attack on a military convoy in the Pulwama district that killed 40 CRPF personnel. As recently as the just-concluded Delhi elections, several BJP campaigners including Ajay Singh Bisht were pointing to Modi’s retaliation for the attack while seeking votes (never mind that the only quantified, verifiable outcome was that India shot down one of its own helicopters, killing seven).

There were several commemorative pieces in the media yesterday, including some that pointed out that 12 months later, there is no official word on the inquiry into the massive intelligence lapses that resulted in the attack. The one that caught my attention was this piece in the Hindustan Times.

The crux: Families of those killed in the attack say that they are still waiting for the promises of compensation to be fulfilled. Which is sad, but hardly surprising – the armed forces are yet another prop for displays of hyper-nationalism, trotted out when convenient for propaganda purposes, ignored/forgotten the rest of the time.

Read, also, this excellent Polis Project report from the time, about the facts, and the obfuscation, surrounding the attack – and particularly on the role of the media in adding to the confusion. And this round up of questions that remain unanswered, twelve months on.

In Kashmir, the economy continues to unravel. The latest manifestation was an unusual advertisement in local papers, inserted by trade bodies, indicating their inability to pay back loans because business had been brought to a total standstill. The ad is worth reading in full; here is the money clip:

In the advertisement, the trade bodies, including Kashmir Chambers of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) and Kashmir Traders and Manufacturers Federation, said that after August 2019, business community was completely devastated and exhausted.

“Our survival is under threat and our humble submissions to the banks is that at once stop calling us defaulters. We believe there may be two types of defaulters; willful defaulters, which we as community strongly protest to be called or named as; circumstantial defaulters, which we have been forced to be,” they said.

And while on that, more economic bad news: exports shrunk for the sixth straight month in January.

In Deoband, in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh, the local administration is asking residents of Muslim-dominated colonies to remove the national flag flying on their terraces. Pause to let that sink in – a community that is constantly asked to prove its patriotism is being asked to remove the national flag they are flying.

In Aurangabad, Bihar, police made several arrests following an anti-CAA protest that turned violent. The FIR and case diary submitted in court are farcical beyond belief – including, but not limited, to the arrest of the same person for violence at two different locations at the exact same time.

Meanwhile in New Delhi, 10 persons arrested by the police in connection with the incident of molestation at Gargi College have been let out on bail. They spent less than 24 hours in custody; the police say they have evidence that these persons broke down the college gate and trespassed, but no evidence that they molested anyone. Meanwhile, as I pointed out in my post yesterday, Dr Kafeel Khan, who after prolonged incarceration was finally given bail last week, was not only kept in jail in violation of the bail order, but now has draconian NSA charges filed against him.

In Karnataka, just the day before yesterday, the high court had ruled that slapping Section 144 to curtail protests in Bangalore was illegal. So the police have taken to giving permission only if those applying sign surety bonds of up to Rs 10 lakh. The police commissioner says it is to ensure that protests don’t turn violent, the same justification that was earlier used to impose 144. This, despite the fact that protests have been on in Bangalore since early December, and there has not been a single incidence of violence reported. Clearly, the BJP government in the state is hell bent on stopping protests by whatever means it can.

That determination extends to BJP’s vassal states, like Tamil Nadu where, last evening, police decided to use force to prevent a Shaheen Bagh-style sit-in from evolving. Several were injured, over 150 people were arrested, one 70-year-old man died in the panicky stampede that ensued.

Embed: https://twitter.com/pinjratod/status/1228405361469771777?s=12

In the age of social media news, even news the authorities would prefer wasn’t widely circulated, gets around at warp speed. And more than the news, it is the visuals – graphic, gory, incendiary – that spread with incredible rapidity, rousing people to anger and provoking a backlash. Before the night was out, the reverberations of Washermanpet began to manifest all across the state. This thread only partially captures the protests that erupted across the state – several in Chennai itself, others in Trichy, Coimbatore, Vellore, Madurai, Tenkasi, Pudukottai, Ooty, Thanjavur… — in the wake of the police action.

This is what the BJP and its allies don’t get – that the more force they use, the more determined people will be to resist. In the coming days, this will only intensify as political parties take up the cudgels – and for the AIADMK/BJP combine, which faces a crucial election next year, this is just another fatal misstep in a series of missteps they have been making in the last few months.

While on the BJP’s almost Pavlovian use of force in the face of resistance, Kanhaiyya Kumar was attacked last evening, on the 15th day of his 30-day yatra across Bihar. A bit from an eyewitness account is worth highlighting:

The air rattled with the incendiary cries of “Desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko”, a chant now associated with supporters of the government who feel opponents of the Citizenship Amendment Act or CAA, cleared by parliament in December, are anti-nationals.

There were seven attacks prior to this one, and the reason is not hard to seek: though the media continues to deny him oxygen, his Twitter stream is sufficient indication that on the ground, the response to his roadshow is nothing short of phenomenal. He belongs to arguably the poorest national party in India today, one without the resources to turn out crowds in large numbers, and yet every meeting of his is standing room only, and the timeline clips of his speeches are an indication of how effortlessly he connects with the crowds, wherever he goes.

The BJP was clearly caught on the wrong foot here – Kumar started his roadshow on January 30, just when the BJP was neck deep in the Delhi election campaign; now he is off and running in front, seeding the ground, and the BJP can’t afford to mount an extensive campaign just yet for – the election in Bihar is in October — fear of audience fatigue.

Staying with violence and the state for a moment longer, the Delhi police has decided not to make any arrests in the February 5 attacks on JNU. Despite the plentiful evidence, the police will merely file a chargesheet and leave it to the courts to decide whether arrests are needed – this, in a case where masked thugs armed with iron rods, hammers and bottles of acid entered a university campus to cause mayhem, and there is plentiful evidence of both the acts and the identity of the perpetrators.

In Uttar Pradesh, there are now 34 lakh unemployed persons according to government figures; this is 12.5 lakh more than there were just two years ago. Ajay Singh Bisht has been promising employment, and the Central government has been trying, through various events, to entice investors to set up operations in the state.

“No new investment has come despite lot of talk from the CM. All investment came under Akhilesh Yadav’s regime. The rising law and order disturbances in UP have now added to the crisis. The economic slowdown reflects in these unemployment figures of UP,” Singh said. The National Statistical Office (NSO) had earlier said UP had the highest unemployment rate in urban areas, at nearly 16 in the quarter ended December 2018, compared to the all-India urban unemployment rate of 9.9%.

The implications, for a state with a population the size of the United States, is mind-boggling. And this situation has come about almost entirely because Modi and Shah, in yet another of their “masterstrokes”, decided to install Bisht as CM on the theory that he would consolidate the Hindutva vote and convert the state, which sends the largest number of MPs to Parliament, into a Hindutva fortress. To channel Bill Clinton, “It is the economy, stupid”; when people have no jobs, no way to put food on the table, they will turn against you sooner than later.

The BJP hierarchy, meanwhile, is busy walking back the damage it did to itself in Delhi. There was Shah at the TimesNow summit the other day, which I had pointed to in an earlier blogpost; now here is Prakash Javadekar saying he never called Arvind Kejriwal a terrorist. And here is Javadekar saying it:

But then, who are you going to believe — a Union minister, or your own lying eyes and ears?

It is not that they lie – politicians lie, all the time. It is just that they are brazen about it; that they will lie about something even when there is videographic evidence to the contrary – I mean, Shah has repeatedly lied that there was no plan for a nationwide NRC despite the fact that it was he who talked of the plan on the floor of the Rajya Sabha, so I suppose Javadekar’s latest is merely par for the course.

Speaking of walking back, the BJP’s post mortem of its defeat has concluded that hate speech has nothing to do with it – the fault lies with the Congress, which ran a tactically weak campaign, and the fact that too many star campaigners hit the ground, with the result that the candidates were busy making arrangements for them and had no time for their own campaigning.

Well, duh! Ignoring the fact that fielding all members of the Cabinet, over 270 MPs, seven chief ministers etc was a decision of that political Chanakya Amit Shah, there is the inconvenient fact that star campaigners only go where the local candidate requests their presence. But it is not the illogical conclusion that should worry you – it is the swift repudiation of the impact of hate speech on the results, which basically means we are going to get more of the same in the elections to follow.

Meanwhile, at the TimesNow summit I had touched on in yesterday’s post, Amit Shah said:

I have full faith that on basis of 3 million ton, we can achieve an economy of 5 million ton.

Trying googling to see how many media houses covered that gaffe. Then google the word ‘pappu’, and see how many media houses did not gleefully latch on to instances where Rahul Gandhi misspoke, and even how many distorted what he did say to suggest that he misspoke (remember the infamous “potato factory”, for instance?). Rahul Gandhi is also supposed to have said Modi was to blame for unemployment among eagles (He did not).

Shah, however, appears to have learned something from his recent defeat. After a campaign where the BJP mocked those who would sell their nation for Rs 200 worth of free electricity/water, Shah says now that if the BJP comes to power in Bihar his government will provide Rs 200 worth of free electricity to every family.

In Ahmedabad, the local administration is laying in orders for Rs 3.7 crore worth of flowers to beautify the road Modi and Trump will drive along – just one more line item in a massive beautification drive being undertaken so two narcissists who don’t like each other very much (see yesterday’s post) can indulge in an extended photo-op.

India hopes to get some sort of trade deal out of this, but for reasons I’d mentioned in my previous post, that is unlikely. Not that the GoI is not pulling out all stops to try and get something, anything out of this to wave around in triumph – in fact, the government is so desperate for a deal, it has reportedly told the US this:

India has offered to allow imports of U.S. chicken legs, turkey and produce such as blueberries and cherries, Indian government sources said, and has offered to cut tariffs on chicken legs from 100% to 25%. U.S. negotiators want that tariff cut to 10%.

The Modi government is also offering to allow some access to India’s dairy market, but with a 5% tariff and quotas, the sources said. But dairy imports would need a certificate they are not derived from animals that have consumed feeds that include internal organs, blood meal or tissues of ruminants.

There is more. And all of this will hurt India’s agrarian industries at a time when it is already under enormous distress, besides hurting both the poultry and dairy industries. But hey, anything for the sake of a “win” to boast of, even if that win is Pyrrhic. Here is the story, in a nutshell, via cartoonist Satish Acharya (who you should follow):

Elsewhere in Gujarat, in a college in Bhuj, 68 college girls were forced to remove their underwear to prove that they were not menstruating. Just another waypoint in the ongoing Talibanisation of the country and its education systems. It all happened, says the school principal, a woman herself, with the permission of the girls.

In the midst of all this gloom and doom (and there is lots more, but I’ll spare you), the Maharashtra government has decided to build homes for Mumbai’s famed dabbawallahs, the efficiency of whose meal delivery system has been studied by Harvard Business School, eulogized by the BBC, been held up as a model of Six Sigma, and formed the subject of an extended presentation at the Indian Summer Festival in Vancouver, among other honors.

A photographer bought barren farmland near Ranthambore and let it grow back into a forest. Now it is home to tigers and other wild fauna.

PS: There will be no post tomorrow. Have a nice weekend all.

“Twas a famous victory”. Wasn’t it?

‘Burn out’ is an actual thing. I learned this the hard way, after writing well over 20,000 words on this blog in the space of a week – and, in between the writing, reading books on authoritarianism/fascism, the media and propaganda, protest movements around the world, and related subjects.

I spent the last four days or so in a sort of daze, unable to really process anything I was seeing and hearing into cohesive thoughts. I know I need to rejig how I do this – not documenting, not writing, is not an option in these times but equally, writing every single day is not viable either.

So: I’ll do daily round-ups of the news that I think it is necessary to highlight, to document, to collate so individual items are not lost in the surround sound; about once in four or five days, I’ll write essay-length pieces on issues I think need exploration.

I’m not the only one suffering from burn-out, by the way. Union Home Minister Amit Shah has not been seen or heard from since the morning of February 11. His Twitter stream is dormant (except for a retweet of a plug for a public engagement today where he will apparently talk of drug trafficking); while his titular boss Modi and other BJP worthies were quick to “welcome the verdict” and promise Arvind Kejriwal “full support”, Shah has been conspicuously silent; he has also been conspicuously absent from his office.

Burn-out. Besides masterminding the vicious, dangerously toxic, no-holds-barred Delhi campaign (which has repercussions that will ramify well beyond this election cycle; remember for instance that around midnight on February 11, an AAP MLA’s convoy was fired upon, killing one) which involved all Union ministers, and almost all BJP chief ministers and MPs, he personally led 44 rallies and roadshows and also went door to door in a 13-day span.

For all the post-facto sound bites about this being a “local election” and the BJP having accomplished its objective by increasing its existing tally and improving its vote share, Shah was clearly in it to win it.

From the bits and pieces I’ve been able to pick up behind the scenes, Shah’s motivation was not to gain control of the glorified municipality that is Delhi, per se. He saw this – particularly in light of the party having swept Delhi in the 2019 national election – as his opportunity to shed the tag of Modi’s consigliere, to emerge out of Modi’s shadow, to be recognized as a leader in his own right, one capable of winning elections on his own (Note that Modi was used for just two rallies – one at the start, and one towards the end, of the campaign).

The resounding thumbs-down by Delhi voters has put paid to that ambition — and that is a good thing, since the last thing this country needs is a Shah turbo-charged by the confidence of victory. The elections to follow, in Bihar later this year and in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal in 2021, are too complex for him to even attempt to put himself front and centre without a confidence-boosting win under his belt.

For me, that is the single biggest takeaway from the Delhi results – that it stopped Shah in his tracks. That the criminal campaigns of Pervesh Verma, Anurag Thakur and their ilk met with a resounding rebuff is just a corollary; this was about Shah, and Shah alone, and he needed to be stopped, and Delhi did the deed with spin-proof emphasis.

That said, I am conflicted about the Delhi outcome. The defeat of the BJP is of paramount importance, simply because the next general election is a long way off and this fight to reclaim the moral core of this country cannot wait for four years – it has to be fought in the here and the now, and the answer to that is the brewing Centre versus State battle across multiple fronts, most urgently the resistance to the nationwide implementation of the NPR.

At the time of writing this Kerala, Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and West Bengal have officially passed resolutions against the CAA (and emphasized their resolve that the NPR process will not be permitted in these states). Yesterday, in direct defiance of Governor Kiran Bedi’s strong messaging, Puducherry became the first Union Territory to pass an anti-CAA resolution).

In order to fight and win the battle of our times, it is necessary to shrink the BJP footprint in the states, to reduce its sphere of influence, to destroy the nation-wide hegemony it enjoyed even as recently as this time last year. The non-BJP states will take strength and support from each other; the more such states there are, the stronger the resistance and the harder it is for the BJP to fight on multiple fronts. (This is also the reason Bihar, which goes to polls in October 2020, is critically important – with Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Chattisgarh out of the BJP net, Bihar is the one big state other than Uttar Pradesh that remains in the Hindi heartland).

Delhi doesn’t change the map of influence since it was not controlled by the BJP earlier, but by retaining Delhi, AAP has ensured that the sequence of the BJP’s state-level losses is maintained and has prevented the BJP from finding a makeweight for its loss of Maharashtra and Chattisgarh.

It’s not the win itself that makes me queasy, therefore; it is the manner of it. At no point did Arvind Kejriwal and AAP stand up in support of Shaheen Bagh, of JNU and Jamia and other centers of protest. At no point did AAP take the BJP’s polarizing rhetoric head-on; at no point did it directly contest the message the BJP was fighting on. With this result: the BJP believes that it was its stand on the CAA, its demonizing of the opposition as “gaddaars” deserving of “golis”, that enabled it to increase its vote share by a tick over 6%, and therefore it will now double down rather than back off.

A toxic idea that is uncontested will, like all cancers, metastasize. This was the thought uppermost in mind as I watched the last leg of the campaign, and monitored the results, but then Mihir Sharma argued the point brilliantly, so I’ll avoid repetition and link to his piece instead (One crucial clip below, but read the entire article – you must):

It might feel wonderful to declare that this was the voter in Delhi rejecting divisiveness and declaring her disagreement with what the BJP had to say, but that would be a brazen misinterpretation of what has actually happened. In fact, the BJP won the argument. It simply did not win the election. The AAP has not disagreed with the BJP on the themes or substance of its critique of Shaheen Bagh, of the anti-CAA protests, and so on. Arvind Kejriwal himself complained the problem with the CAA was that Indians themselves were not getting jobs. He also declared that if given a free hand, he would clear Shaheen Bagh in a couple of hours, and that nobody had the right to block traffic indefinitely. Quite amazing hypocrisy from a man who rose to power on a record consisting solely of pointless, fruitless, and interminable protest. If the BJP’s campaign has been one of open malice, the AAP’s campaign has been no less damaging to India’s soul. This is a victory of not just cowardice, but of submission to the BJP’s core values. 

As the results came in, Omair T Ahmed on Twitter came up with a thread on similar lines, which was then expanded into another must-read article on the subject. The crux:

That is also the failure of AAP, or the limit of its reach. It can’t, and won’t, challenge higher politics. Bijli, sadak, pani are all well and good, but not if the bijli is provided in detention centres, where the sadak leads, where pani is served to those stripped of citizenship at the whim of a bigoted and incompetent government, as has happened in Assam….

That politics of deflection and cowardice reached its inevitable nadir when AAP suggested that the ladies of Shaheen Bagh abandon their protests for the sake of Delhi’s elections—without once even being able to summon up the courage to speak on the issues. When people are protesting about their very citizenship, to suggest that this can be abandoned for the sake of a politics of mere service delivery was both outrageous and presumptuous. 

And in its post-election editorial, the Hindu makes a similar point. Between them, these three pieces sum up the reasons (at least, most of them) for my discomfort: that THE most emergent battle of our times, the one that has brought millions out onto the streets and kept thousands permanently camped at 24/7 protest sites across the country, was not won because it was simply not fought.

The consequence? In Delhi, the BJP secured 3.6-plus million votes, and these votes give it sufficient validation to double down on the toxicity. We, all of us, will pay the price for Kejriwal choosing to whiff rather than swing for the fences.

In passing, the utter decimation of the Congress has come in for much derision, but it is worth noting that while the Congress – from what I gather, tactically – opted to run a lukewarm campaign in Delhi in order not to split votes, the party has shown the moral courage to stand with the protestors and against hate.

Delhi PCC chief Subhash Chopra resigned owning responsibility for the party debacle (despite the obvious fact that the debacle was not his fault, but that of a leadership that opted to bail). It is worth noting though that when the full might of Shah’s police was unleashed against protestors in Delhi, he was constantly at the forefront, fighting for the release of those who had been illegally detained. It is equally worth pointing out that in both Delhi and UP, whenever the state-sponsored violence against protestors peaked, it was the Congress that the protestors and activists reached out to – and the party’s local activists always responded.

I hold no brief for the Congress and I am thoroughly vexed at a party that, even in these parlous times, is still busy fighting internal battles over the question of leadership – but equally, I admire the fact that Priyanka Gandhi at great personal (and, as Kejriwal demonstrated, political) risk was present at India Gate, at AIIMS to inquire into the welfare of protestors who bore the brunt of official and unofficial thugs; at Daryaganj when state violence peaked; and just yesterday, at Azamgarh in UP to stand with the protestors – UP, a state where the leaders of the two big local parties, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, have been conspicuously silent on the reign of terror unleashed by Ajay Singh Bisht.

The Congress, unlike AAP, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bahujan Samaj Party, has shown the willingness to take the hard knocks and keep right on fighting — and this, to my mind, outweighs its decimation in Delhi. Can it do more? Yes. Should it? Yes. But to its credit, it is at the least not running away from the larger battle for the sake of smaller wins.

The Battle of Blenheim (1704) prompted British poet laureate Robert Southey to write ‘After Blenheim’, a poem on the senseless cruelties and sheer pointlessness of war. Here it is in full, and here below are two clips relevant to our times:

“With fire and sword the country round
Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
And new-born baby, died;
But things like that, you know, must be
At every famous victory.

“They say it was a shocking sight
After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
After a famous victory.

…..

“And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win.”
“But what good came of it at last?”
Quoth little Peterkin.
“Why, that I cannot tell,” said he;
“But ‘twas a famous victory.”

Kejriwal adroitly side-stepped a battle that needed to be fought; the result was “a famous victory”, but as Mihir and others argue persuasively, the long-term outcome, sadly, has been to affirm the BJP’s conviction that polarisation is the best – the only – weapon left to it. And this is going to cost all of us.

I started this piece talking of burn-out; I’ll end it with a reiteration of how this blog will work going forward. There will be a once-daily round-up of the stories I think it is important for you to take note of; every once in a while, at the rate of around once a week, I’ll step away from the quotidian and write at length about larger issues.

PS: I’m not going to spam your timelines with the daily round-ups – you know how to find your way here if you feel the need.

Cover image courtesy Yahoo India

Update, 4.40 PM: Every point needs a good counterpoint, and there is none better on the net today than this one by Pragya Tiwari, who you should follow because she is an excellent writer. Here’s the money clip:

Refusing to let the BJP dictate the agenda is less indicative of ideological compromise than of a tactical move. Focusing on denouncing polarising propaganda is noble but it can also have the opposite effect of entrenching it and forcing even fence sitters to take defensive positions.

This is an Emergency

Courtesy Nikhil Taneja on Twitter.

We live at a time when the government, the ruling party, and its adherents have institutionalised, and weaponised, intolerance. We live, therefore, in an age where every citizen who believes in the Constitution and the fundamental values it enshrines must resist, by any and all means; an age where zero tolerance of intolerance should be the norm.

I agree. The tricky part is not in accepting that resistance is vital, it is necessary, even mandatory; the tricky part is when we begin considering what means we will adopt, and what we will not. “By any and all means” seems fair enough, until we consider the implications of those words. And the episode involving comedian Kunal Kamra and that alleged journalist, Arnab Goswami, is a good lens for such consideration.

Briefly, for the record, on January 25 Kamra found himself on the same flight as Goswami, and did this. As Kamra says in a statement — which no member of the airline staff has denied — he questioned a TV anchor who has, repeatedly, demonized him in absentia as part of some mythical ‘tukde tukde gang’; he obeyed existing rules; he returned to his seat when he was asked to do so.

What Kamra did is a mild version of a tactic Goswami and his channel’s reporters have repeatedly done to others — invading their privacy, ignoring repeated requests that they be left alone, using their victims’ unwillingness to talk to further vilify them. As for example, this clip, which is absolutely on point with what Kamra did (except that here, the reporter ignores not only her victim’s request to be left alone, but also repeatedly ignores the airline staff telling her to go back to her seat, and even ignores an announcement made on the PA system):

Before going further, pause a moment to consider the language used by the anchor — who, incidentally, is not merely the head of his channel, but the elected president of the governing board of the News Broadcasters Federation, the body that sets and enforces standards for television. Note that he is talking about a politician, a former deputy chief minister of a state, and the son of a very senior politician who has been both chief minister and union minister.

“Lalu’s brat”.

That is how a journalist, an editor, the head of the broadcaster’s association, refers to Tejaswi Yadav. “Lalu’s brat”.

Anyway. Kamra’s post went viral. At the time, I said on Twitter that I disagreed with the tactic — my reasoning being that if you descend to the levels of Goswami and his ilk, you legitimise behaviour that you consider obnoxious in others.

Others — including many who I respect — however argued that Goswami only got what was coming to him; that it was absolutely fair to use his own tactics against him. Anivar Aravind even mapped it to the use of the technique known in protest circles as counter-speech, which the Dangerous Speech Project defines as “any direct response to hateful or harmful speech which seeks to undermine it”.

But then, where does that stop? The BJP employs thugs armed with iron rods and bottles of acid to assault students who are peacefully protesting — do we get to do the same? I am no “eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” Gandhian — far from it. Nor am I staking out a “holier than thou” moral high ground — in fact, several of the people who have held that Goswami got what was coming to him are people I look up to, admire, and try to emulate.

Yet, something within me rebels at the thought of descending to the depths the likes of Goswami have plumbed. I guess this is one of those situations where we each of us do what we can, how we must — and if we don’t agree with each other’s tactics, we at the least refrain from taking each other on and in the process, losing sight of the common enemy.

Kamra subsequently put out an extended video explaining his stand, and providing context. It is worth watching for the way it calls out Goswami’s many acts of omission and commission:

The ban is illegal, said Arun Kumar, director General of the DGCA in an interview to Huffington Post. Shortly thereafter, the DGCA via its official social media handle issued a “clarification” stating that the ban was kosher. What is worth noting about this clarification is that it is not on the letterhead of the governing body, nor is it signed by any identified official — in other words, it is not worth the paper it is printed on.

In any case, this is not a ‘he said/the other guy said’ situation. The DGCA’s rules relating to the process to be followed in cases of misbehaviour by passengers is clear; Indian Express has an explainer; it was posted on social media by several people, including Gul Panag, herself a certified pilot. Even a cursory reading shows that due process has been ignored right down the line, that the action taken against Kamra is in complete violation of the norms.

Breaking, at 5:50 PM: The IndiGo pilot in charge of the plane where the incident took place says he did not find the incident reportable in any way. Remember, action against a passenger has to be taken on the basis of a complaint by the staff.

And yet, IndiGo suspended Kamra from flying for six months. And, more bizarrely, GoAir, SpiceJet and Air India followed suit — though there is no provision in the DGCA rules permitting an airline to ban a passenger for a misdemeanor, assuming it was one, committed on another airline.

Which brings up the biggest issue with this incident. This:

That is the minister for civil aviation “advising” other airlines to enforce a ban for an incident that happened on an IndiGo flight. It is worth noting that GoAir, SpiceJet (which took absolutely no action when Pragya Thakur, MP and an undertrial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings where 10 people were killed and 82 injured, did this) and Air India, while announcing their own bans, dutifully tagged the minister on their announcements.

In how many ways is this ridiculous? Firstly, a Union minister actively, publicly involving himself in a disciplinary matter that is merely the concern of the airline in question. Secondly, the minister “advising” other airlines to enforce a ban — which is clearly illegal. Most importantly, the alacrity with which a central minister jumps to the defence of a television anchor — proof, if proof were in fact needed, that Goswami is not a journalist, but an important cog in the government’s propaganda machine.

The story, which began as a question of whether it is legitimate to use on Goswami the same weapons he has used on so many others, has now morphed into a much larger issue: It is not about the incident so much as it is about the patently illegal, clearly dictatorial abuse of state power.

And it will likely blow up. Activist Saket Gokhale has already — smartly — filed an RTI petition demanding that Air India show the documentation based on which it imposed a ban on Kamra. This will put the airline in a legal bind; I will be surprised if it does not end up as a court case, where Kamra is in a position to claim damages.

Ironically, this morning I woke up to the news that IndiGo, the airline where all this started, suffered its 22nd mid-air snag in two years. The story, which details the mechanics behind why such incidents have been occurring with increasing frequency, also says this: The DGCA, which had earlier given a January 2020 deadline for making the necessary technical corrections, has extended the deadline to end-May.

In other words the DGCA knows of the issue, it has prescribed the corrective, it has given the airline time for remedial action, and it has with no reason ascribed further extended that deadline, in the process risking the lives of passengers. While the same DGCA is scrambling to justify the same airline taking punitive action against a comedian on the grounds of putting passengers’ lives at risk.

In passing, the tactics used repeatedly by Goswami, and other propaganda channels, merits a closer look. And that will be my post for tomorrow. For now, a quick round up of some other issues that are worth recording, if only to maintain this chronicle of our daily descent into a state of undeclared, but very real, Emergency.

The Election Commission, which is mandated among other things to monitor and enforce the Model Code of Conduct governing election campaigns, has examined the case of Union Minister Anurag Thakur and BJP Member of Parliament Parvesh Verma, both of whom indulged in documented hate speech and calls for violence, and decided that they can continue to campaign.

That is not how the EC puts it. Per its statement, Thakur and Verma have been “removed from the list of star campaigners” — which on the face of it seems to indicate action has been taken, but in fact means nothing. A designated “star campaigner” has his expenses borne by the party; if you are not on the list, you can still campaign, provided the expense is borne by the candidate himself.

Hate speech has consequences. Here is one such: A young man from Gujarat says that if he is asked to shoot the anti-nationals at JNU, he will not hesitate. Goli maro saalon ko, goes the chant led by a Union minister, with absolutely no consequences. Happy to oblige, says a bigoted young man who, in a better-ordered world, would have been a well-educated, productive member of society.

On the subject of candidates having to pay for Thakur to campaign, remember, this is the BJP — by a distance the richest party in the country, with more than enough funds to underwrite each of its candidates in an election it is desperately trying to win. Sure, there are caps on the expense an individual candidate can incur, but how hard is it to work around that? Not very.

And that brings us to how the BJP got rich in the first place. Nitin Sethi, one of the pitifully few remaining journalists with a spine, a conscience, and the skill to dig deep and hard, is in the middle of a brilliant series of articles examining the colossal scam that is the government’s electoral bonds scheme (which, in passing, the SC has been consistently delaying petitions challenging it). The series in its entirety is here; below is a shortened list of the stories that are central to the scam. They are not just worth reading, they are stories you must read, because these are the stories the noise surrounding us is meant to distract from:

  • The Finance Ministry allowed anonymous donors to donate expired political bonds to an unnamed party in May 2018, against the background of the Karnataka elections, and in the process violated rules relating to money laundering. Remember this is a government that made its anti-corruption crusade a central plank of its electoral strategy, and continues to rail against money-laundering while promising to bring back funds stashed abroad.
  • An extensively documented, and well explained, story centering on various documents obtained by transparency activist Lokesh Batra, that chronicles the lies and deceit practised at the very highest levels of this government.
  • A story that details how the Law Ministry, no less, told the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s office that the electoral bonds scheme was illegal, and how that advice was ignored while the FM and PM went ahead with the scheme anyway.
  • The electoral bonds scheme is supposed to allow individuals and institutions to contribute funds to political parties under conditions of strict anonymity. This story details how the State Bank of India, through which electoral bonds are sold, violated the anonymity clause, routinely funneled information to the government about who was purchasing bonds, and repeatedly obfuscated or downright lied about it in response to RTI inquiries.
  • Corruption on a colossal scale is bad enough; this story takes it one notch higher to show you that you — the taxpayer — is the one paying for all this. That is, a government we elected almost entirely based on its promise to end the “endemic corruption of the Congress” (none of those charges have been proved, by the way) has not only institutionalized corruption, it has done so in such a way that it enjoys the loot, and you pay to facilitate the government’s corruption. (This tweet shows you what it means)
  • I’ll end this round up with an old Nitin Sethi thread that explains how dangerous this scheme is, over and above the obvious corruption it facilitates.

I’ve said this before; I’ll say it again: Journalists like Nitin Sethi, who have both the ability and the courage to report and write, in such detail, stories that expose corruption leading all the way up the ladder to Narendra Modi himself — and to write such stories at a time when any questioning of this government is met with retributive action — are national treasures we should value and cherish. And if and when it becomes necessary, protect.

It should be painfully obvious by now that the government is unraveling. It has ruined the economy. It has weaponised corruption on a scale previously unimaginable. It has vitiated the social/cultural fabric of the country. It has corrupted beyond redemption our main sources of information. It has waged and continues to wage war on various blocks of citizens: Muslims, yes, but also tribals, Dalits, the student community, women… on virtually every single group other than its core base of bloodthirsty bigots.

Meanwhile, in Bidar, eastern Karnataka, a charge of sedition has been filed against a school that attempted to teach young children the law, and related issues, about the CAA. Read that again — a school attempted to educate young children on the issue roiling the country today, and is therefore facing punitive action.

Look at the image fronting this story: Minors, being interrogated by the police, without their parents being present. That is a Muslim school. In Karnataka. Where, elsewhere, a Karnataka BJP MLA – a man elected, and sworn, to represent all his constituents – says he will cut off all facilities for Muslims.

Meanwhile the Supreme Court, no less, has granted bail to 17 persons convicted in the burning alive of 33 Muslims in Sardarpura, as part of the post-Godhra riots. The SC has asked moved them from Gujarat to neighbouring Madhya Pradesh. The SC has asked local authorities to ensure that the convicts now out on bail engage in “spiritual works”. The SC has asked Madhya Pradesh authorities to finding them jobs! Even Kafka’s imagination never stretched this far.

The vice president of the Hindu Mahasabha has called for the forced sterilisation of Christians and Muslims. The lunatic fringe? Think again. Remember that the RSS has called for a law on population control. Remember too that Narendra Modi, soon after taking office for a second term, called for population control as an “act of patriotism”. And captive media channels and their propagandist anchors helped maintain the drumbeat. What Bhagwat and Modi did was float early trial balloons. Then the stormtroopers take over and up the ante — that is how fascism always works.

Meanwhile, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has this for his “Muslim brothers”:

Bloody hypocrite.

In my previous post, I had detailed my belief that we have officially become a fascist state, and listed the symptoms. Revisit it now, and see how many boxes we have ticked in just the last 48 hours or so.

The one silver lining in all of this is the resistance. People’s protests, yes, but also official resistance. As for example: In Kerala, Chief Minister Pinnarayi Vijayan provided a lesson in the value of knowing your Constitution, and the obligations it imposes on various branches of the government, when he made Governor Arif Mohammed Khan read out, in course of his pre-Budget exercise, a segment that expressed the government’s opposition to the CAA. I noticed that when the news broke, the usual suspects condemned it as yet another example of Kerala’s lawlessness.

Try harder. A governor’s pre-budget speech is a Constitutional obligation wherein he announces the policies, and intent, of the government. He is, in other words, speaking on behalf of the state government. If the state government is opposed to a particular policy — in this case, the CAA — and has decided to resist it as part of its official policy, then the Governor in his address is duty-bound to say so.

It’s an object lesson in the value of knowing the Constitution, of being aware of the rules, and of using these to resist egregiously iniquitous policies the Centre seeks to impose.

Another state government, another act of resistance: The Pune police has refused to hand over to the NIA papers relating to the Bhima-Koregaon violence of January 2, 2018. Remember that no sooner had NCP chief Sharad Pawar written to Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackery asking that the case be reopened, Minister for Home Affairs Amit Shah passed orders transferring the case to the NIA. This, then, is the state’s pushback.

I had intended, today, to do a post on Goswami, and by extension on the techniques of propaganda being used at industrial strength by this government. But this post has already become too long; I’ll leave that theme for tomorrow.

Update, 3:10 PM: About an hour earlier, a man who is yet to be identified fired on Jamia Milia Islamia students, shouting ‘Yeh lo azaadi’ and other slogans. One student was injured. The injured student had to jump over the barricade on his way to get treated, because the Delhi police would not open it to let him pass.

It is worth mentioning, in this context, that today the JMI students had gathered outside Gate No: 7 to remember Gandhi, and to mourn his martyrdom.

The man, who says his name is ‘Rambakht Gopal’ — he has since been identified, and is believed to be a member of the Bajrang Dal — held the gun, he held the trigger — but Modi, Shah, Thakur, Verma and the rest of the hate-filled lot that seek to ruin this country put that gun there, and should be called out for it. Below, a longer video of the arrest:

Watch how unruffled he is, how brazenly he fires with police barely 20 meters away (one of his slogans is ‘Delhi Police Zindabad’) and how calmly he gives himself up to the police finally. The body language spells out one thing, and one thing only: a sense of impunity, a knowledge that he will be taken care of.

He was apparently live-streaming the whole thing, and had announced his intent. (The comments below his stream are vomit-inducing. A fuller thread). Makes sense, with this kind of advertising he is a shoo-in for a BJP ticket to contest the next election. The picture of the day, though, is this:

Update 5:30 PM: The terrorist’s Facebook page has been abruptly deleted (Archive here). Begs the question — how? He is currently in police custody. So either the police are allowing him internet access to erase his tracks, or he has someone on the outside prepped to cover his tracks for him.

Here is a Scroll report digging into his identity.

People versus the State

Earlier today there was a hearing at the Tis Hazari court in Delhi, where Judge Kamini Lau sat on a petition reviewing the conditions under which Bhim Army chief Chandrasekhar Azad had been given bail on January 15. Below, a clip from the proceedings:

The above is a sample; the hearing itself, as reflected in live updates by the LiveLaw Twitter account (here is the full thread), is surreal. Basically, the police had no grounds to arrest him; the state has no case to make against him; but despite that, the police, the state, want him kept in jail (the PP was making a plea for revoking the bail, remember) or at the least, kept out of Delhi and not allowed to engage in any political activity there for the duration of the polls.

Think about that for a moment. About a state that incarcerates a citizen without due cause, simply because it does not suit the ruling dispensation to have a hugely followed leader taking part in an election campaign. As Judge Law points out during the hearing, the only thing Azad did that the police can prove is that he arrived at a public meeting and held up a copy of the Constitution.

Judge Lau has relaxed the original bail conditions, and permitted Azad to visit, to stay in, Delhi whenever he wants and for whatever purpose; the only proviso being that the DCP is kept informed. And sadly, that is the one silver lining in the dark clouds overhead — it is all downhill from here.

Another day, another BJP bigot. “You are deshdrohis,” says BJP’s Karnataka MLA Renukacharya. “You sit in mosques and issue fatwas. You don’t pray but collect weapons inside mosques. Is this why you need mosques?”

Read that in tandem with the news that mosques in the Hassan area of Karnataka have been receiving threatening letters questioning their loyalty and asking them to convert to Hinduism.

Idiots being idiots, right? No point getting fussed? A few days earlier, Karnataka BJP MLA Arvind Limbavalli tweeted a video of shantytowns in North Bengaluru that, he claimed, harboured thousands of illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

Just another example of the nonsense that, thanks to social media, BJP lawmakers and their amplifiers spread in order to keep the base happy. Only, there are consequences. On January 20, the BBMP razed the settlements to the ground, leaving thousands homeless.

“Bangladeshis have set up sheds next to Mantri Espa Apartment in Kariyammana Agrahara and other places in Bellandur ward. They have converted these areas into slums. This office received oral complaints that this has vitiated the environment. There is a need to evacuate the residents of the sheds. To ensure no untoward incident takes place, we are requesting police protection,” the assistant executive engineer of Marathahalli Subdivision wrote to the police inspector of Marathahalli station.”

Read that carefully. An assistant executive engineer — which is about as low as you can get on the hierarchical chart — writes to the police. He asserts that Bangladeshis have set up sheds. He asserts that the residents need to be evacuated. And all this is on the basis of oral complaints — of which, of course, there is no record.

The BBMP Commissioner B H Anil Kumar had no clue; on being made aware of the damage — after the demolition was complete — he says the demolition was unauthorised, and action will be taken against the engineer responsible.

What action? Suspension? Dismissal? How does any of that make up for the sufferings of the people who, already eking out a living on the extreme edge of poverty, have had their shelters, their belongings, destroyed? And while on that, who will question the role of the police? What action will anyone take against the MLA whose allegation started all this?

Because, see, it appears that I can give an “oral complaint” to a junior engineer in a municipal corporation that residents, say you for example, adjoining my land are illegal, and you will find your dwelling razed while you watch. Can’t happen to us, right? Because we are privileged; we live in housing societies…? Says who? What guarantee does anyone have any more?

And to add a sorry coda to a sordid story: Those evicted are Indian citizens with proper identification, and have nothing to do with Bangladesh.

Which brings us to Uttar Pradesh and its police force. Which, having arrested over 1000 protestors in the wake of the ongoing anti-CAA protests, is now struggling to make those arrests stand up in court. Across UP, while granting bail to some of those arrested, judges have said the photos the police submitted in evidence show no evidence of culpability, that the police have not been able to produce the videos they claimed they had.

And now the same police, which is unable to justify charges filed against protestors earlier, have charged the women, who have mounted a Shaheen Bagh-style protest at Lucknow’s Ghanta Ghar, with – wait for it – rioting. (A story on the protest itself, here)

I don’t get why it is not possible to file cases against the police on the grounds of wrongful arrest (and defamation of character, come to think of it. You call me a rioter, then go into court and say oops, and that is it — there are no consequences? No recompense for those people who were put in jail on false charges — and even now, are merely out on bail, with their cases yet to be finally decided?

Still sticking with UP, Scroll’s ace reporter Supriya Sharma (who you really should be following) has a story on the ‘friends of UP Police’ – which is the Ajay Singh Bisht-ruled state’s backdoor entry for thugs into the police ranks.

Basically, you join the Hindu Yuva Vahini, the thuggish private army founded by Bisht back in 2002 and which, since then, has earned itself an unsavoury reputation even by UP standards for general mayhem. This in turn gets you accreditation as a ‘police mitr’. And this allows you to beat up peaceful protestors under the guise of helping the police.

Thuggery is, today, the shortest and most direct route to political prominence. Bisht rode the muscle of the HYV to power; now we hear that Tejinder Bagga, who once openly admitted to assaulting a senior Supreme Court lawyer in his chambers, has been given a ticket to contest the Delhi elections. Modi likes him – but then he would, wouldn’t he?

To round off this look at false cases, remember JNU? Where, in response to state-backed violence by ABVP thugs and outsiders on January 5, the police filed cases against JNUSU president Aishe Ghosh and others for vandalism on January 1?

What vandalism? An RTI inquiry reveals there was none. It also shows that the Vice Chancellor, and the police, have lied about a whole lot of things.

Enough bad news, now for some worse news: The International Monetary Fund, which had earlier revised India’s growth rate to 4.8%, has revised downwards its estimate of global growth, and said “the growth markdown largely reflects a downward revision to India’s projection, where domestic demand has slowed more sharply than expected amid stress in the nonbank financial sector and a decline in credit growth.”

Which is to say, the IMF has said India’s economic slowdown is so bad, it is dragging the rest of the world down with it. (In a face, meet palm outcome, Modi cheerleaders on social media are arguing that this shows India’s importance in the world.)

It’s worth noting – and mentioning, since “What does IMF know?” is the tenor of the pushback – that the IMF makes its projections based on data it receives from the governments themselves. In other words, it is GoI data that is showing the Indian economy in such a parlous state as to drag down the world economy with it.

Apropos, there’s a budget coming up. And India’s best option, given the intensifying economic slowdown, is to quit worrying about the fiscal deficit and focus on pushing growth. Only, it can’t – because the GoI has been cooking the books; its real fiscal deficit is much higher than its projections, and it really has little or no room to push the envelope on stimulus at the expense of deficit. Nikita Kwatra of Livemint lays out the problem:.

As India’s economic slowdown has intensified, so has the debate on whether the government should stick to fiscal consolidation or run a higher deficit to push growth in the upcoming budget, due on 1 February.

However, data on revenue available so far suggests that the government has very little fiscal space for any significant growth stimulus. If the government’s off-budget liabilities (or withheld payments) are taken into account, the central government’s real fiscal deficit could end up being as high as 5.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the current fiscal year, a Mint analysis of public accounts suggests.

Elsewhere, the World Economic Forum has placed India at a low 76th, out of 82 countries, on its Social Mobility Index.

Measuring countries across five key dimensions distributed over 10 pillars health; education (access, quality and equity); technology; work (opportunities, wages, conditions); and protections and institutions (social protection and inclusive institutions) shows that fair wages, social protection and lifelong learning are the biggest drags on social mobility globally.

Basically, you need upward social mobility to ensure continuing economic growth. And judged by that yardstick, India ranks, you know…

The Indian Railways announced that various items of Keralite cuisine would be taken off the menu on long-distance trains running through the state, and would be replaced with various north Indian foods. None of the replacement food items are popular with Malayalis; the only foreseeable outcome of the move would have been that travellers would buy their preferred food outside and carry it onto the train with them — thus depriving the Railways in that sector of revenues it would otherwise earn. And then, last evening, the IRCTC announced that the food items would be restored.

In context of all that is going on, this might seem like a little enough thing; just a Mallu fussing because he can’t have his pazham pori and porotta. But think about it for a moment: there is a whole bloated bureaucracy out there making up these stupid rules, and printing them up and distributing them, and then in the face of the inevitable outcry walking the original decision back, reverting to the status quo ante, printing that up, distributing…

What was that Modi promise of 2014 again? “Less government, more governance”? Here it is, in action.

Now for some odds and ends:

  • In response to an RTI request, the Ministry of Home Affairs says it has no information about any “tukde tukde gang”. And yet the Home Minister of the country alleges that aforesaid “gang” is responsible for violence in Delhi and should be “punished”; that the Congress is leading this gang; that Arvind Kejriwal is shielding this “gang”; that somehow Akhilesh Yadav is responsible… The Home Minister of the country. Who swore an oath on the Constitution to protect the Constitution and to abide by the rule of law. Who is directly responsible for internal peace and security. Gaslighting in the name of a fictitious “gang” and calling for “punishment” — in other words, both justifying and enabling the violence unleashed by police in various parts of the country. How do you sink lower than this?
  • The Director General of Police, Jammu and Kashmir, has come out in support of the ‘deradicalisation camps’ mooted earlier by Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in course of his Raisina Dialogues speech. The trial balloon Rawat floated is now starting to really soar.
  • Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar points out that India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy – a pillar of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy – is crumbling, in context of recent anti-CAA statements by both Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh.
  • Jakob Lidenthal, the German exchange student who was expelled from the country for taking part in one of the early anti-CAA protests, talks at length on his interactions with Indian authorities, and his view on the injustice of it all.
  • In Bangalore, the Azadi slogan has been transcreated in Kannada, and sounds just as compelling as the Hindi version. Listen.
  • Farah Farooqi, writing for Caravan magazine, places the Shaheen Bagh protests in context of the locality. Worth reading to get a sense of the place, and the people, and to understand the source of the power that has enabled them, in defiance of the state, to keep this protest going for well over a month now.

On the last day of February 1976 P Rajan, a student of what was then Regional Engineering College, Calicut, was participating in an inter-collegiate cultural festival. That year, REC won second prize in the drama competition, which traditionally brings the three-day event to a close; we — the Malabar Christian College group of which I was a part — won the first prize.

We celebrated hard, that night. And in the early hours of March 1, we hitched a ride on the REC college bus, which dropped us off in front of our college. Rajan and the rest of the REC boys continued on to their college — and he had barely entered his hostel room when police picked him up, on the suspicion that he was complicit in a Naxal attack on a police station.

He was tortured by the police; he died under the prolonged torture; his body has never been recovered. His father, Eechara Warrier, went from pillar to post to receive news of his son; the story of that search was turned into a national award-winning movie by cinematographer/director Shaji Karun. (You can see the movie in full here).

The news that Rajan had been killed was what turned me — and hundreds of young students like me — into hardcore, driven political activists who worked unremittingly towards the single goal of ending Congress rule. In North India, the anti-Congress movement had big-name leaders: Jayaprakash Narayan was the totem; the likes of AB Vajpayee, LK Advani, George Fernandes etc were the stars who drew crowds in their thousands and around whom the anti-Congress sentiment coalesced.

Kerala did not have any such big names, we did not have star politicians to pull the resistance together. But we had the students — the story of Rajan, which spread out from Calicut to the rest of the state, was the fuel that kept the fires of resistance burning white-hot; students who went door to door campaigning, and turned the crowds out when the political stars from up North came visiting…

Ningal enne Communist aaki — You Made me a Communist — is a movie written and directed by Thoppil Bhasi, based on his play of the same name, and it shows how the quotidian injustices of agrarian life turns a regular guy into a violent, hardcore communist. Ningal enne political aaki, you made me political, would be the name for a story on a generation, my generation, of young Keralite students who walked out of their classrooms and out onto the streets.

I was reminded of all this while reading Annie Zaidi’s lovely, topical essay on how she first developed political inclinations. You should read it.

And, if you feel up to it, head to the comments section and tell me this: What, if any, was the trigger that first turned you political?

News, views: April 8 edition

Kalpana Sharma, readers’ editor of Scroll.in, asks the media to go beyond the usual ‘Who will you vote for?’ type questions when out in the field. A clip from Sharma’s piece:

Elections give journalists a great chance to step outside their usual beats and get a sense of what is going on in the country. In the days before the internet, 24-hour television news and polls, print journalists were sent out to cover key constituencies as also the poorer regions of India, where politicians only appear before elections.


The exchanges with ordinary people recharged our batteries, gave us precious insights into and understanding about how people live and survive, and provided us the tools to separate the reality from the political bombast. Not all that we gathered featured in our stories. But we came back from our election journeys wiser and better informed about the state of the nation.

These epiphanies are becoming more frequent — and I suspect that one reason is the growing realisation that the view from the media bubbles of Delhi and Mumbai are not indicative of the thinking of the vast majority of the population. Here is Shekhar Gupta striking a similar note:

You have to get out of Delhi often if you want to understand that there are two ways of looking at India: Inside-out, that is, from Delhi and the heartland at the rest of the country; or outside-in, which is, looking at the heartland from beyond.


Essentially, when you look inside-out, it brainwashes you into seeing the picture purely in national party-national leader terms. If you give yourselves the gift of distance and an open mind, you might see the change in this new India. 

Well, duh!

To this, I’d add a couple of suggestions: One, don’t wait for elections to go out in the field — a periodic trip outside the confines of the newsroom will alter the way you see the events unfolding around you. And two, don’t go flashing the paraphernalia of the journalist: the car and driver, the fixer, the translator, the recording equipment, the notebook… If you go festooned with those appurtenances, you get canned answers; you never get to have free-wheeling conversations with the people you meet.

Around this time last year, I happened to spend some time in Punjab, then Rajasthan, as part of two-time Pulitzer-winner Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk. Early days, I did exactly what I just cautioned against: The moment I met someone I took out my notebook and pen, opened up a fresh page… I was the stereotypical journalist. It took a while before I caught on; once I did, I learned to put the notebook away, to relax, to chat, to let the people I was meeting guide the conversation, and suddenly a whole new way of seeing opened up.

Kalpana’s piece came apropos: During my time on the road I was reading as much of election coverage as I could find, and was appalled by how much of it was framed from a Delhi-centric point of view. It is all about alliances, and caste equations, and whose zinger/slogan/poll promise is better… I am not saying these and similar factors won’t make any difference: Of course they will, they always have. But there is a whole lot more to how India votes than just these transactional elements, and barring a few honourable exceptions (Scroll is one such), there is lamentably little effort to get beneath the skin of the electorate.

If the results of elections both at the national and state level constantly surprise us, this is a large part of the reason why: Every result tells us that what we thought were the issues that would determine the outcome has no co-relation with what the actual voters are thinking about when they step into that booth and hit that button.

I’VE been collating and posting water-related links fairly frequently, because to my mind this is going to be the critical issue, affecting all segments of the population, in the years to come. On that note, a story in ToI says that water in the seven lakes supplying to the city is down to just 26% of capacity.

In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP promised to provide safe drinking water for all rural households. However, says this story in LiveMint, the BJP government has not only slashed funding for the scheme, it has also reduced the amounts actually released.

Now, in its 2019 manifesto, Modi has provided for a Jal Shakti Ministry to deal with the problem. That seems to be the go-to solution for any issue the BJP faces and doesn’t know how to deal with: create a ministry. (While on which, I heard Rahul Gandhi the other day say that he would create a ministry just for fishermen — and that is equally pointless). And while on this, we do have a ministry for water resources. It is currently headed by Nitin Gadkari. What exactly is another ministry going to accomplish, that this one couldn’t? (It creates a few more posts that can be given as reward to those outfits that cross the floor, certainly). Modi also had some boilerplate about ‘Jal se nal’ – but bottomline, the manifesto is as vague on the subject this time as it was last time.

Water, like employment, is a political tripwire lying in wait for the government during this election cycle. While pundits endlessly handicap elections in terms of personalities, alliances, slogans and such, people outside of the metros and cities vote on gut issues – and lack of water hits as close to the gut as it is possible to get.

Here is an incident that should serve as a warning: In Maharashtra’s gathering when a boy yelled out that water had come – and the crowd emptied at once leaving the party, which has been trying to downplay the severe drought conditions in the state, red-faced. Elsewhere, in Marathwada, the situation is equally dire.

Related, in 2014 the BJP had promised 99 new irrigation projects.

Keep an eye on this: The extended election season takes us into peak summer, and things are only going to get worse. Five years later, “74 are still waiting for the construction of field canals and command area development. Other targets are also unachieved; the budget allocations, too, are less than originally planned.”

I’VE only glanced through the BJP manifesto (I need to find the time to read it in detail, and to compare it with its 2014 antecedent), released this morning in typical BJP fashion: Lots of breathless television coverage, lots of speeches by the top leadership, but not a single leader willing to take questions. Later this evening and in the days to come, various BJP worthies will appear on the usual channels to talk up the manifesto and respond to prefabricated questions — but the party leadership consistently ducks anything in the nature of unscripted interactions, and today was no exception.

But – admittedly based on that cursory speed-read — the impression I got was that the BJP doesn’t really take the exercise seriously. There is a palpable lack of thought; the document feels like the work of a kid rushing through his homework so he can go out and play. Not kidding — back in the day, one of the things we quickly figured out was that the more pages we filled in our ‘essays’ notebook for each assignment, the happier our teachers were. So we took to writing something on page one that we would repeat verbatim on page three and five and… Here is the BJP’s version of padding:

In its manifesto, the BJP says the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (PM-KISAN), initially supposed to benefit 12 crore farming families, has been extended to all farmers. Clearly, the Congress party’s NYAY scheme is resonating, forcing the BJP to up the ante.

Here’s the thing, though: when Congress announced its scheme for the poorest of farmers the BJP, led by Arun Jaitley, and the friendly channels became economists overnight, angrily asking where the money would come from. The original PM-KISAN was budgeted at Rs 75,000 crore. To cover all farmers – almost half the population – will take at least four times that amount. Where is the money going to come from?

And while speaking of friendly channels and comments about the Congress manifesto, I happened to come across this earlier today:

This is a classic example of what is happening to those tasked with toeing the BJP line: You merely repeat anything that emanates from Modi, without pause for thought. Seriously, what does this even mean? How is the “common Indian”, whose plight occupied Modi’s sleepless nights these past five years, different from the “average Indian”, whose aspirations Modi hopes to fulfil in the next five? File this under #kuchbhi

IF you haven’t heard of the Kuki National Army, it is time you did. The armed insurgent group has threatened wholesale violence if 90% of the votes in the state don’t go to the BJP. Also:

Previously, two Manipur insurgent groups— Zomi Re-unification Organisation (ZRO) and Kuki National Organisation (KNO) (KNA is the armed wing of KNO) — in separate letters had requested the BJP party president Amit Shah to give its tickets to the insurgents’ favoured candidate HS Benjamin Mate for the outer Manipur parliamentary seat. The BJP had obliged the request, News18 reported.

Begs the question: Is the BJP ok with working hand in glove with insurgents, even as it accuses everyone else of tukde tukde intentions? Speaking of which (there is more on the tukde tukde gang in my previous post), even when participating in the release of the party manifesto Arun Jaitley — who, frankly, is becoming a total bore — couldn’t resist invoking that strawman:

I’ll likely have more thoughts on the BJP manifesto in the coming days (Mandir kab banaoge? Oh, and whatever happened to the 100 smart cities idea so grandly touted in 2014?) Meanwhile, some reading material, in no particular order:

THE Election Commission Sunday “strongly advised” the Finance Ministry that any action by its enforcement agencies during election time should be “neutral” and “non-discriminatory” and officials of the poll panel should be kept in loop about such actions. The EC’s advice came against the backdrop of Income Tax Department’s raids in Madhya Pradesh Sunday and in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the recent past on politicians and people connected to them. That would be this EC, right? That shining model of impartiality? I mean, how bad does something — in this case, the government’s use of enforcement agencies to bully its political opponents — have to be for even the EC to express concern?

WHILE the EC is issue its “strong” advisory, the Supreme Court has asked it to take strict action against political party representatives and spokespersons who make speeches or remarks on religious or caste lines. Good luck with that — what is the EC supposed to do to, say, the poisonous Adityanath? Or Modi, for that matter?

IN the ongoing series of links to schemes that Modi and his minions talk up on the stump, but which when examined appear to have no substance, here is one more:

A new study from the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (r.i.c.e) shows that 85% of Ujjwala beneficiaries in rural Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still use solid fuels for cooking, due to financial reasons as well as gender inequalities. The resultant indoor air pollution can lead to infant deaths and harm child development, as well as contribute to heart and lung disease among adults, especially the women, cooking on these chulhas.

MUKUL Kesavan is one of our sharpest, most eloquent columnists — a delight to read, on any subject he choses to write about. Here he is, on Advani’s recent epiphany:

No, the real lesson of Advani’s post and his political career isn’t his hypocrisy about civility and diversity, the real lesson is twofold. First, that there is no floor to the pit of majoritarian politics: there are lower depths to its lower depths.

CARAVAN does a deep dive into the violence that has roiled Kerala politics. It resonates — and goes deep into — a problem I had pointed to in this post. And this follow up.

SCHEMES“, redux: Remember One District One Product? Chittoor, in AP, was one of the districts picked for this project. The situation on the ground is not good.

IF you are looking for a metaphor for government (actually, any government), here it is: The PM Matru Vandana Yojana spent about five times more money distributing largesse to the beneficiaries, than the actual beneficiaries got.

I happened to read this piece in LiveMint, and now I wish I hadn’t. It’s on Modi’s poetry.

In one of his poems, Narendra Modi is a kite, who is soaring with “the grace of the sky”, towards the sun, held back “only by the string”. In another poem, he is a honeybee who is very busy, joyful, free, and his life a burst of colours. In his poems, he is often happy and in good places. Also, he is an energetic lover, “an ocean that leaps with energy”, a man who is as “upright as a mountain” and as “pure as the river”.

It set my mind wandering through promising fields of speculation, until I got to the point where I wondered how Modi, who according to all accounts abandoned his wife without ever consummating their marriage, and has spent his lifetime in a kind of sanyas, discovered his energetic properties as a lover. ‘Upright as a mountain…’ — at that point, I had to disengage my mind from its wanderings, and call it back to order.

Update, 10.00 PM: That point I was making earlier, about there being a kid-rushing-homework feel to this BJP manifesto? Here you go (emphasis mine):

“We have constituted the Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and have made strict provisions for transferring the laws in order to commit crimes against women.”

On the surface, one of those ha-ha moments, and social media is having the predictable ball at the BJP’s expense. But what bugs me is how very lackadaisical the BJP is about its manifestos, both for state and national level elections. Like it is just one of those formalities to be completed, not the one single document that allows the voter to know what they are getting in terms of governance.

Fixed ideas

IN 2003 Joan Didion – who I have quoted before, and will likely quote many more times during this election cycle because there are few more insightful essayists on politics and propaganda – wrote an essay titled ‘Fixed Ideas’. It dealt with how the national narrative was shaped after the fall of 9/11, how the administration sold an entire nation the Kool Aid of a “patriotism” that equated the administration with the country and created a mindset where to question the former was to betray the latter.

That essay is now available in book form, with a preface (available here for NYRB subscribers) by New York Magazine’s writer-at-large Frank Rich, and it should be mandatory reading for anyone looking to navigate the smoke and mirrors world of contemporary politics. I wish I could just cut-paste the whole thing; since I can’t, here are a couple of clips I keep revisiting when the noise threatens to overwhelm me (The ellipses indicate where I have skipped paras to compress the point):

The movement to marginalize or mock any quibbles, however slight, with administration wisdom, to minimize unwanted news that might reflect ill on the competence or motives of its leaders, was the nearly spontaneous reaction of the press and television, needing only a nudge from the White House.

Meanwhile, the administration’s law enforcement excesses and failures – the roundup of thousands of immigrants who had nothing to do with al Qaeda, the inability to discover the source of the anthrax attacks – disappeared into the journalistic memory hole even faster than the White House’s bogus assertion that a credible threat against Air Force One had precipitated George W Bush’s disappearing act on September 11.
….
It (the administration) knows the power of narrative, especially a single narrative with clear-cut heroes and evildoers, and it knows how to drown out any distracting subplots before they undermine the main story.

The above are excerpts from Rich’s extensive preface. Read it slowly and think: What does it remind you of?

Think of Pathankot. Uri. Pulwama. Then read this clip from Didion’s essay:

As if overnight, the irreconcilable event had been made manageable, reduced to the sentimental, to protective talismans, totems, garlands of garlic, repeated pieties that would come to seem in some ways as destructive as the vent itself. We now had “the loved ones”, we had “the families”, we had the “heroes”.
 
In fact it was in the reflexive repetition of the word “hero” that we began to hear what would become in the year that followed an entrenched preference for ignoring the meaning of the event in favor of an impenetrably flattening celebration of its victims, and a troublingly belligerent idealization of historical ignorance. “Taste” and “sensitivity”, it was repeatedly suggested, demanded that we not examine what happened.

There are few differences – aside from increased decibel levels – between post-9/11 United States and the India we live in today. The one significant change is that there, the government actively stage-managed the narrative and the media went along – sections of it willingly, the others willy-nilly because it was deemed “unpatriotic” to ask questions. In India today, the media – or sections thereof – have taken on themselves the onus of framing and amplifying the narrative; the establishment mouthpieces allow, even actively encourage, the media’s activities, and play the role of amplifiers, appearing constantly on friendly channels for stage-managed interactions and avoiding any forum where awkward, unscripted questions are likely to be raised.

You have to admit, a friend said to me, that it is “brilliant political strategy”. I have to admit nothing of the kind, because governance is not about winning elections; national security is not a mise en scene to frame a leader’s aura, to add layers to his mythos. National security is measured not in votes gained and lost, but in coffins. And from that point of view:

We don’t know what led to the repeated intelligence failures that form the unexplored backstory to these repeated terrorist strikes (and by the way, this collective ignorance dates back even prior to NDA-II). We don’t know because we cannot ask; we cannot ask because no one in government allows such questioning.

Absent such knowledge, we can only speculate: That there are broken links in the chain between the formulation of hard intelligence and the acting on it. That Pathankot’s lessons were not learned, because the same storyline played out in Uri. That Uri’s lessons weren’t learned, because Pulwama. Logically, therefore, an establishment busy selling a flattened narrative of the all-powerful hero versus the perfidious villains both without and within is an establishment with neither the inclination, nor the ability, to set things right.

What does that lead to? Or to borrow from Bob Dylan, “How many deaths will it take…?”

THIS Twitter thread by Nikhil Mehra, a Supreme Court advocate and by no stretch a “left liberal” with an anti-Modi bias — is worth a read.

Here is the full thread. And the reason it caught my eye is that it is a far more nuanced take on possibilities than either the manufactured Modi-wave propagated by the likes of TimesNow and Republic, or the breast-beating “What is the Congress doing, oh my god our feature” chorus of the soi disant ‘balanced analyst’, a tribe whose increased querulousness stems from a discomfort that the Congress is not following the script the analyst community had written for them.

I agree with Nikhil’s take to a very large extent. I also, like him, am very wary of forecasts — lessons learnt from covering five major national elections and a few assembly polls. That said, I like political strategy, I’ve been carefully monitoring the game board and everything else being equal between now and the last date of polling, I think this election will play out almost exactly as Nikhil said, ending with (remember the “all else being equal” caveat) the NDA (not the BJP, the entire 39-member alliance) will end up around the 210 (+- 10) mark and therefore unable to buy up enough elected MPs to make up the deficit. Equally, I think the Congress gameplan is to end up as the party with the most seats from among the opposition. The key part of Nikhil’s analysis (which happens to resonate somewhat with the way I see it too) is laid out in these three tweets in the middle of his thread:

Whether by accident or design, the opposition (I use the term loosely, because for all the artificial attempts to create a “Mahagatbandhan” strongman, the only maha alliance this time round is the NDA) has figured out that the BJP’s only game is to create the atmosphere of a presidential-style contest that pits Modi against a singular figure from the other side.

Such a contest makes it possible for the NDA to sideslip issues, to harp on the ‘TINA factor’, and to make it about personalities — a strategy that is right in their wheelhouse. By sidestepping such a gladiatorial contest and setting up 2019 as a series of battles against different individuals and/or partnerships on different fronts, and also by shifting the conversation from the emotive, but largely meaningless, tropes of “patriotism” and “international stature” and suchlike shibboleths, to actual bread and butter issues pertaining to each region, the opposition is seeking to shift the focus from the Modi mythos to the NDA’s fairly pathetic track record.

Net net, Nikhil nails it — for all the best efforts of the naysayers, I think the Congress knows what it is doing. I also think, FWIW, that there are the odd glitches and missteps — but that has been true for every party and grouping thus far.

SPEAKING of manufactured narratives, a particularly egregious example caught my eye recently. Here is how this story opens:

Chaos in Malda ahead of Rahul Gandhi’s rally, Republic headlined. So did the rally actually take place? How did it go? If you followed that channel, or TimesNow, you would never know. In contrast, there is this:

Priyanka is a Congress spokesperson, and the image could be massaged, who knows? But there is also this, via one of the BJP’s most important allies:

Who knew? Elsewhere, I saw this — one of many such; I picked this example because the poster is not known for any anti-Congress bias, and hence for me is an exemplar of how even the bystander is seduced by the massaged narrative doing the rounds:

Good point. So: Rahul Gandhi and demonetisation. On GST, in West Bengal, in the very same rally on the sidelines of which the interview Chowdhury cites took place; and elsewhere. (And this on Angel Tax).

I could go on, but the point should be self-evident: There is what is actually happening, and then there is what we are led to believe is happening, by a noisy section of the media that blanks out every speech, every press conference, not merely of Rahul Gandhi but of every single opposition leader, even as the same channels cover live, then discuss at length, every rally and speech of Modi, Shah, Adityanath et al, while various members of the Cabinet such as Irani, Jaitley and Rajnath Singh spend more time in these studios than in their respective ministries. The fault, dear Brutus…