The Chanakya Gambit

THIS is by a distance the funniest ‘news’ I have read in a long time.

“He has not appealed to take stay on his conviction. What kind of arrogance is this? You want favour. You want to continue as an MP and will also not go before the court,” he said, adding from where such arrogance comes from.

Amit Shah, speaking at News18’s India Rising program

First: Rahul Gandhi hasn’t said he wants to continue as MP. The BJP colluded with the courts and then used its clout in Parliament to get him (a) sentenced, (b) debarred and (c) kicked out of his allotted MP quarters. At no time during these farcical proceedings did RG say he wanted to continue as an MP.

If Shah, the vaunted BJP strategist, says now that RG should appeal, is he suggesting that the original court decision and the subsequent disqualification were wrong?

From a strategy point of view, if RG doesn’t appeal within the statutory 30 days, the BJP will find itself well and truly behind the eight-ball. Send him to jail, and you make a martyr out of him, plus give the combined opposition a cause to rally behind — a cause sufficiently emotive to draw the aam janta in.

Also, if he doesn’t appeal and the conviction stands, he cannot contest in 2024 — and with that, poof goes the BJP’s main talking point: That RG is an entitled ‘shehzada’ who is desperate to become PM, and that his attacks on Modi are fueled by this ambition.

From a realpolitik point of view, I find myself wishing that RG refrains from appealing, and forces the BJP to either put up — send him to jail — or lose face by not following through on its own strategy.

While on this, much of the commentary around the RG disqualification is that it was done to keep him from raking up the Adani issue in Parliament. An old-school BJP leader from the south, who was part of the Vajpayee-Advani era and who hates what the Modi/Shah combine has done to the party, raised a different point during a chat last evening.

“What is the point in disqualifying Rahul — he will only raise the issue out on the streets,” the leader pointed out. “What the party wanted was ways to stall the Budget Session, ensure that no discussion took place. Have you read the Budget? This is the last one before the elections — and it is so bad that you can’t afford discussion. Have you heard Modi or Shah or any of the others talking up the Budget, like they usually do? No, right? That should tell you what the real goal is — RG just happened to give them an issue; the machinery did the rest, fast-tracking the case through the court, getting the right judgment, and throwing him out of Parliament, knowing that the Opposition would latch on to that, cause a fuss in Parliament, and give the Speaker a chance to stop all proceedings.”

It’s an interesting hypothesis — and the fact that no one in the regime is talking of all the good things in the Budget, even in the midst of a key election campaign, seems to underline the point.

Whatever the reason, the latest masterstroke appears to have boomeranged, big time. And as each day goes by without RG and his lawyers approaching the higher courts, the BJP’s stress levels go up.

Keep an eye on how this plays out — it promises to be illuminating.

PostScript: In the press conference that got this particular ball rolling, RG kept asking the question: Who gave Adani Rs 20,000 crore? I pointed out in an earlier post that all indications are that something big is brewing, and that someone has been whispering in the right ears.

Kejriwal just upped the ante, changing RG’s question into a statement: That Modi is Adani’s financier, and that Adani is merely a front for the prime minister. What is significant is that he didn’t do it during a random media interaction, or on the stump — the Delhi CM’s statement was made in the Assembly, ensuring that it goes straight into the official records.

The silence greeting Kejriwal’s direct accusation speaks volumes. And the recent statements by first RG, then Kejriwal, is the clearest indication yet that someone on the inside is ready to spill the beans.

Interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.

STFU about Savarkar already

On the 4th and 5th of February, I was at the Vidharbha Literary Festival, held at the Chitnavis Centre in Nagpur — on the metaphorical doorstep of the RSS headquarters.

There was, I learned after reaching the city the night before, considerable right-wing angst about some of the invited speakers — people like Aakar Patel, Josy Joseph etc. Indirect pressure was applied on the organizers. Four speakers who were on the RSS shit list dropped out at the request of the organizers (which meant that I had to do a couple of impromptu sessions to fill gaps in the schedule, but that is a different story for another time).

More recently, I learned that the RSS had planted people at the event to monitor the sessions and report on the content. A contact sent me a smuggled copy of the report. It is an interesting document if only because it shows that the right wing does not want any discussion at all about almost anything at all — the report criticizes every single session from a right wing/Hindutva lens.

One line in the report jumped out at me:

Offensive and derogatory statements for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh by Prem Panickar (my surname is spelt with an ‘e’, but never mind that) as he stated the term ‘Sanghi Chaddiwale’ for Swayamsewaks.

From a report submitted to RSS HQ on the Vidharba Lit Fest

As an example of how the right-wing ecosystem will twist anything to its own advantage, I’ve never seen a better. (Actually, I have, but I haven’t experienced it personally). Here’s what actually happened: There was a panel discussion on why the left and right have drifted so far apart, and whether we would ever be able to bridge the gap.

At one point, I said that we had to stop talking past each other and start talking to each other. And that becomes impossible if we stick labels on each other, call each other names.

I asked the audience for a show of hands: How many like jam on their toast? A few hands went up. I picked one and asked him whether he makes jam at home or buys it off the shelf. When he said he usually bought jam from the store and named his favorite flavor, I asked him if he could list all the ingredients. He couldn’t.

That, I argued, was the crux of the problem. Labels obviate the need for you to think for yourself. Thus, if you stick labels like ‘liberandu’ or ‘pseudo-intellectual’ or ‘commie’, whatever, on the left, or ‘sanghi’, ‘chaddiwala’ and such on the right, you don’t see an individual as a human being, but as a type; you put him or her in a box that suits you. And you can’t have a conversation with a ‘type’. So, I argued, the first step towards bridging the gap is to see each human being as an individual in his or her own right. (The audience — in Nagpur — applauded, to my considerable surprise and delight.)

That was what actually happened. In light of that, see how the report — written, my source tells me, by a ‘journalist’ — frames it.

In passing, think for a moment of the RSS plants in the audience, and the journalist who compiled that report. You know what the organization you work for wants and what its mindset is (In this case, lit fest equals right-bashing). So you provide what your org needs — reasons to take offense. And you pocket your two pieces of silver…

And all of that brings me to Savarkar, and to Rahul Gandhi’s recent press conference. “My name is not Savarkar, it is Gandhi — and a Gandhi does not apologize” might get him plaudits from the peanut gallery, but it is just bad strategy.

Firstly, to say you will never apologize smacks of arrogance — we are all human, prone to mistakes. When you make one, you apologize and, if possible, try to put it right.

More importantly from a realpolitik angle, you don’t go out of your way to give your opponent a chance to take back the conversation.

Throughout the 40-odd minutes that interaction lasted, RG kept turning every question back to his main point: Who gave Adani the Rs 20,000 crore. Perfect — that is what you do, stay on message. But he lapsed twice, and lost most of what he had gained.

The first was when he needled a reporter about being a BJP shill. He was right, as far as that goes — “insulted OBCs”, the BJP talking point, kept getting thrown at him. But what his irritated response did was give the media an excuse to take the high ground, such as it is. ‘Reporters will ask questions, you cannot insult them’ became the talking point — not merely for the captive sections of the media, but also for the likes of Rajdeep Sardesai, whose striving for “balance” only ends up with him doing awkward splits while straddling a barbed wire fence topped with broken glass.

The second was the Savarkar reference. What did he accomplish? The BJP latched on to it; sundry trolls with Cabinet posts hammered away at him over it; Eknath Shinde says the party will launch a state-wide yatra to celebrate ‘Maharashtra’s hero’; Savarkar’s grandson threatens to file an FIR… (Um, while on that, someone tell him it is the police that files FIRs.)

The net result is that in the days following the press conference, not a single media report or social media ‘influencer’ needed to mention the Adani question — they had two handy distractions handed to them, gift-wrapped. Pity.

The Opposition needs to keep the conversation in the here and now, stay focussed on the questions of today. Stay on message. And they need to decide what that message is that they all agree on, first.

PS: This Twitter thread is… everything.

A Rahul Gandhi round-up

(The above image courtesy Shashi Tharoor on Twitter)

The ruling dispensation may claim, loudly and often, that it does not care for the world’s opinion; that in all matters it will act as it sees fit.

That stance plays well to the domestic gallery — but is far from the truth. Modi cares; he wants the world to look up to him, to give him the adoration he thinks he is due; he wants to be feted by world leaders. Which is why the media coverage of Rahul Gandhi’s conviction and immediate expulsion from Parliament — both acts done so ham-handedly that even the dimmest of dim bulbs can see it for the vendetta politics it is — is causing some internal heartburn and, the way I hear it, orders sent to the usual loudmouths in the Union Cabinet to go easy with their comments. The reason is obvious — the BJP noise-makers are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier; when they open their mouths, they tend to stick both feet in it. As for example Ramdas Athavale (can you, without googling, tell what ministry he holds?) who said that if Gandhi had apologized for his UK remarks he would not have been disqualified by Parliament. Oh? So it is not about the court judgment, then?

(One of the loudest mouths, Himanta Biswa Sharma of Assam, did open his mouth and stick his foot right in it when he told the media today that Gandhi was convicted by the court for using unparliamentary language against an OBC community. In Mumbai, BJP leaders and workers took out a procession asking Gandhi to apologize to the OBCs. While that is not what the court adjudged, the broad framing tells you this: The BJP is not sure the “entire community defamed” charge that was upheld by the Surat court will hold up on appeal, so they are floating various trial balloons to see which will work.)

More than media coverage, though, it is this kind of reaction that is going to raise internal alarms:

Ro Khanna is co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on India, the most influential group in Congress when it comes to India affairs. It is the Caucus that MEA S Jaishankar goes to when he wants to pull strings in Congress and the White House; for its co-chair to put Modi in the spot like this is an indication that the regime’s latest actions have not gone down well with India’s well-wishers in Congress.

Given the delicate — admittedly a euphemism for dangerous — situation along the border with China, India needs the US like never before; the stakes have been raised even higher in recent times thanks to Xi traveling to Russia to cozy up with Putin.

That is why the recent report released by the US State Department on human rights, which excoriates India in no uncertain terms, has been met with studied silence. The usual practice, when negative reports surface, is to diss them on the grounds of erroneous data, or label them as part of a global conspiracy to undermine the India growth story, such as it is. And it is MEA S Jaishankar who leads the charge.

Not this time, though. Jaishankar is silent; the only reaction from the MEA is spokesperson Arindam Bagchi’s totally risible comment that “We have not yet received the report”.

The silence is understandable — what, they are going to accuse the US State Department of being part of a global conspiracy to undermine India? For once, the strategy seems to be to stay silent and hope no one notices (which is not a bad strategy, really — how many voters are likely to read it, let alone be influenced by it?)

All told the regime has, with its precipitate action against Rahul Gandhi, bitten off more than it can chew. And I suspect this will ramify over the coming weeks and months, to the detriment of the BJP’s prospects in some key state elections. Worse, it will cast a shadow on Modi’s pet project — to use the G20 Summit to showcase his ‘vishwaguru’ credentials.

Much depends on how the Congress party plays the next few moves. Any halfway decent strategist with a grasp of realpolitik will advise Gandhi to immediately do two things: (1) Hold a public meeting in Wayanad where he apologizes to the people for no longer being able to represent their interests in Parliament — and segues into an attack on Adani, with the problem-riddled Vizhinjam port project as his peg, linking it to Adani’s indiscriminate rock mining in the Wayanad region that has been triggering serial landslides these past few years and (2) Move out of the bungalow allotted to him, taking the high moral ground that as Parliament has seen fit to throw him out, he is no longer entitled to live on those premises. (This, because you can be sure the regime will, when it wants to claim the headlines, serve notice asking Gandhi to vacate — the smart play is to pre-empt.)

Those are merely preliminary steps — the BJP has handed the Congress an opportunity to invert the narrative and to put the ruling duo on the defensive; the coming days and weeks will show whether the party leadership has the wit, and the will, to seize the opportunity.

One way or another, this is a story that will continue to develop over time. So, for convenience, find below a round-up of the most interesting commentary on the issue that I have found thus far:

A starting point is this round-up, by Splainer, that recaps the issue.

For Scroll, Samar Halarnkar’s furious piece connecting up various dots to cast light on the vertiginous decline of democratic norms in recent times. Scroll also talks to various experts about the legalities involved (In sum, how does Gandhi’s statement defame the complainant, Purnesh Modi?)

Gilles Vernier, in The Wire, provides context and nuance.

Harish Khare on how the action against Rahul Gandhi is likely to realign the political landscape. While on which, worth noting that all major opposition parties have rallied behind Rahul Gandhi — and that the first one off the blocks was Mamta Bannerjee of the TMC, the same leader who a year ago was openly saying that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress had become irrelevant.

Suhas Palsikar on why Rahul Gandhi acts as a red rag to the BJP brass.

If you come across informative, well-written pieces on the issue, do point me to them in the comments.

Update, 6.30 PM: Rahul Gandhi held a press conference earlier today. The first question this begs is, why does he even bother? The media gathers such strength that it is standing room only, as seen here. Do they broadcast live? No. (If this were Modi, we would have had a pre-show, then the interaction, then post-show ‘analysis’, then shabashis masquerading as debates — come to think of it, good thing Modi hasn’t held a press conference in his entire tenure as PM).

So, no, none of this is given significant airtime or major coverage in print and mainstream digital. So why bother to turn up? Simple — in the hope that Rahul Gandhi will trip up, say something that can be twisted around and used as yet another stick to beat him with. Yes?

Update, 9.30 AM, March 25: I spent some time this morning checking to see how the Gandhi press conference was covered, and what the talking points were. Turns out I was right — it is not the question of where Adani got Rs 20,000 crore that is the subject of hot debate; what a sizeable chunk of the media is talking about is how Gandhi “insulted” a journalist by saying if you want to do the BJP’s work, at least do it openly. QED.

Here is the PC. Watch:

Interestingly, twice in the course of one media interaction, shills masquerading as reporters asked Rahul Gandhi about his “insulting OBCs”. At one point, Gandhi hits back, telling the reporter that if he is a BJP worker, he should at the least wear a badge as a token of his affiliation.

But the most on-point response to this latest BJP allegation distraction came from the Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav. Asked about Gandhi’s supposed insult to the OBC community, Yadav came up with this:

The SP leader’s reference is to an incident dating back to 2017, when the BJP defeated the Samajwadi Party in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and the Modi/Shah duo plucked Adityanath out of nowhere and made him the chief minister.

Before Adityanath moved into 5 Kalidas Marg in Lucknow, the official residence of the UP CM, a bevy of seers and priests were pressed into service to undertake rituals — shudhikaran — to remove any impurities attaching to the premises because it was occupied by a person of a lower caste. The climax of the ritual was the sprinkling of Gangajal all over the house and grounds. And this is the party that accuses others of insulting those of “lesser” caste?

BTW, an amusing sidelight of the Rahul Gandhi presser came when Rajdeep Sardesai, as is his wont, both asked and answered his own question. “Let me speak, Rajdeep,” Gandhi said. “Sometimes you answer for me.”

I will only cavil at the use of the qualifying “sometimes”.

A short post on journalism circa 2017

Below, a clip from a Hartosh Singh Bal piece from the Caravan’s annual media issue:

In March this year, Modi pulled out of the Economic Times Global Business Summit at the very last minute, citing “security concerns.” Along with him, several ministers and senior bureaucrats also withdrew from the event. The decision caused a huge loss of face for the Times Group. Given the largely favourable coverage of the government in the group’s publications, it was difficult to fathom the reasons for the government’s step. Subsequent events seemed to carry their own message. A journalist critical of the government, Rohini Singh, left the Economic Times, and a spoof on Modi, which ran on one of the group’s radio stations, was soon taken off the air. (Singh went on to author a story for The Wire on the finances of Jay Shah, the son of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah.)

In a recent podcast on the state of the media, Amit Varma and I had discussed this incident and its implications. Bal spells it out, on similar lines, in his piece:

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Apres Gujarat

A small news item from the day before yesterday — the day before the counting of votes in Gujarat and Himachal, the day before Parliament belatedly went into its much-delayed winter session — deserves your attention. The Prime Minister, it said, was in Mizoram to kick off the election campaign in that state. Today, he is in Karnataka and then on to Kerala and Tamil Nadu to “extensively review” the damage caused by Cyclone Ockhi, never mind that the storm hit the Indian coast over two weeks ago. (Nothing — not Parliament, not the responsibilities of government, not even natural disasters — ever come between Modi and an election campaign.)

A constant trope during the Gujarat election cycle is the political rejuvenation of Rahul Gandhi. The celebration of his political comeback was at times almost Shakespearian, echoing the transformation of ‘Prince Hal’, the intimate of Falstaff and his set of scoundrels, into the King Henry V who would lead England to glory at Agincourt when the time was right. Remember?:

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WTF Just Happened: The news in briefs


#1. Unlike Gajendra Chauhan, you cannot question Anupam Kher’s curriculum vitae and fitness to chair the FTII — which, you will remember, is where the sequence of universities in turmoil began. Whether Kher’s overt support for the ruling dispensation, as was the case with the likes of Sambit Patra, Shazia Ilmi and others, played a hand in his landing the role is a matter of conjecture. Related, a student looks back at Chauhan’s reign of error.

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