Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Winner takes it all..and...'Ekla Chalo Re'

So, Modi is all set to be "crowned" tomorrow - after what may be called a watershed - election. It turned out to be a real "The Winner Takes It All" victory - stunning the whole nation.

In a first of sorts, Heads of Government from all SAARC countries, Maldives and Mauritius will attend the ceremony along with over 2500 Indian dignitaries. Conspicuous by her absence will be the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee.  Earlier it was reported, she had advised all newly elected MPs of her party to stay away from the function. But, on second thoughts - perhaps, she is deputing two trusted emissaries - Amit Mitra, Finance Minister of West Bengal, and Mukul Roy, General Secretary of Trinamool Congress, to represent her at the event.

Most people argue, Mamata Banerjee could have shown more grace on an occasion - which is as much about Modi as it is a celebration of Indian Democracy. But, then - those who know Mamata intimately would say - she's not given to hypocrisy. After the out-pour of bad-blood and vitriol during the election campaign it might have appeared duplicitous to her core-constituents - if she were to give an impression of "all is fair in love and war".

If Modi and BJP's victory at the centre was cataclysmic - Trinamool's performance in West Bengal was no less phenomenal. Insiders reveal, the party's own estimates were nowhere close to 34 seats. In the best case scenario, they hoped to get 26-28 seats. That the Left would be decimated to such an extent was even beyond their expectation. A young Rajya Sabha MP of Trinamool told me, even if allegations of rigging and intimidation are true - it could have given them an additional 4 or 5 seats at best but not such a sweeping mandate. While just like Modi nationally - in West Bengal people voted for Mamata, much of the credit behind the voter mobilisation goes to the organisation man - Mukul Roy whom, some are calling the Amit Shah of Bengal, he shared as an aside. (That begs the question, couldn't the same 'victory' have been achieved without violence and bloodshed that sullied the name of the state - a hark back to the dark days of 'cadre-raj')

The Left in India has lost in relevance - but in West Bengal they've also lost the will to win. The ground has shifted from beneath their feet - TMC has pulled the rug as it were. It was sad to see giants like Basudeb Acharya - with tremendous people connect reduced to dust by a once glamourous diva, now well past her "use by" date (if I'm permitted a sexist dig).  The proverbial grass-root organisation of the CPIM has simply evaporated into thin air and they are left making the same accusations against the ruling party as one used to hear about them till a decade ago.

But, the real story of these elections - even in West Bengal - is the BJP. Many have been intrigued by the disproportionate amount of time Modi devoted to West Bengal during the campaign. Modi held some 7 - 8 rallies in the state. Since, a Gujarati views everything in terms of ROI (Return on Investment) -  the dividend was certainly poor if measured in terms of seats alone. However, if one delves a little deeper another sub-plot emerges. The BJP's vote-share in these elections increased from 6.15 % to 16.8 % precariously close to the Left's 22.7 % and far ahead of the Congress' 9.6 %. In 30 of the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies BJP emerged as the No 2 party. In 20 assembly constituencies, including some very high-profile ones, BJP were ahead (Read article).

What does this mean ? If the Modi Government at the centre stays on course and keeps alive the promise of development BJP may well consolidate its strength and emerge as the main Opposition party in the next Assembly Elections (Read earlier post). In his speeches, Modi's main target was the young audience of 18-28. There is no reason to believe - Bengali youth will think very differently from the rest of the country and not opt for development and promise of a brighter future.

It is here that one regrets the "hostility" trap Bengal falls into with successive government over the last 50 years, for which the state (and, more importantly, the younger generation) had to pay dearly. This was one chance for us to get back to the mainstream of national politics - but we once again seem to have missed the boat. There were subtle overtures made by Modi in the beginning which were rudely rebuffed due to local political compulsions (Read Vote Bank Politics is here to stay) .

But, it may not be too late yet to work out a tacit 'understanding' - without adopting a posture of aggressive opposition. Modi is a pragmatic politician, who looks at the longer term. Except for some unforeseen catastrophe, he is here to stay and he knows - that if not today - he might need the Trinamool's support in future and, therefore, be willing to play along. While we may have the example of the much vaunted "Gujarat Model where growth and development was allegedly achieved without support from the centre , we have also seen, in these elections, the case of Bihar, where Nitish spent 10 years fighting in vain for Bihar's "special status". Finally, when he failed to deliver on the promise of development - the voters shifted en-masse away from his party. 

Therefore, "Ekla Chalo Re" may not be the best anthem for all times.....

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The final countdown..

So the campaigning has finally come to an end. Less than 24 hours for the Exit Polls to come out and 4 days for the results. What a journey it has been - not just for those in the fray, the organizers, workers, 'war-room' managers and those who covered it on the ground - but even the likes of me who followed it from the side lines and participated in the dialogue on social media.

Of course, Narendra Modi ran the "mother of all campaigns" in the history of Indian Elections - termed as the 'Maximum Campaign' and beautifully depicted in this graphic 

For the last leg the entire world descended on Varanasi - journalists national and foreign, political commentators and even academics from across the world. Sadanand Dhume, the WSJ journalist, quipped in a tweet to me:  

The credit for permanently changing the rules of the game has to go to one person - whether you like him or not - Narendra Modi. It was truly a 'watershed election' as everyone seemed to agree on Barkha Dutt's 'wrap-up show from Varanasi (watch video here)

The final outcome is not known yet and as some die-hard detractors of Narendra Modi are still hoping against hope that he'll falter at the finishing line (Read this post). Undoubtedly, it is yet a possibility - especially with practically all major political forces of the country lined up against him and even stalwarts of his own party being less than supportive (to put it mildly). Other than Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and a few other second rung leaders - most other big names have been conspicuous by their silence and missing in action (from the campaign trail). But, the fact that he has come thus far is a "phenomenon". Today - it's virtually 'Modi Vs the Rest'. The single point agenda of all parties and leaders of any national standing is how to "STOP" Modi.

Less than a year ago I recall a popular political commentator) pooh-poohing the idea of BJP coming to power. This was in Bangalore and he supported his theory pointing out BJP is likely to draw a blank in Karnataka - the state that had sent the maximum number of BJP MPs in the last elections. Next, everyone came up with dooms-day predictions when Nitish broke-off with BJP over Modi. People said - BJP had axed their chances by giving up old allies. Then came the Advani, Sushma sulking episodes over Modi being appointed in-charge of the campaign Committee in Goa. Everyone went to town talking about the split wide-open within the party almost writing-off its chances. The rest is history now and can't bear repetition. Now, we can only wait for the results and watch how the drama unfolds over the next 4 days.

I for one was one of the early converts on Modi - though I wouldn't like to be counted (and, hope others don't) among the "Bhakts". I'm not blind to his faults and aware of the risks of someone so domineering coming to power. But, I do think - to use a cliche - India needs a strong leader to salvage it out of the mess that the Gandhi family's remote control government - guided only by the interest of ensuring the survival of the dynasty - has landed the country.

The way Modi has run this campaign shows he knows a thing or 2 about organisation and management. In creating a campaign on such a grand-scale he has displayed a vision that is beyond the imagination of any politician in this country - the troika of Mother, Son and Daughter included. He has been accused of being bank-rolled by corporates and engaging the best international PR agency. Even if the same resources were made available to any other party - be it AAP or Congress - none could created something this scale and impact.

Ridiculous arguments have been used as to why Modi is not fit to be PM - from his lack of 'social skills' to his poor facility in English. A case has been made out that - he takes false credit for the success of the "Gujarat Model" tho much of it was either legacy or is owed to the entrepreneurial traits of the Gujarati businessman. Even a first grade student of Management knows that it isn't easy to preserve what you inherit let alone grow it further unless you are particularly gifted. Further, I contest the theory - Modi isn't a team player. The greatness of a leader lies in gathering the talent around him and having the ability to sift their advise and come to the right decisions. If Modi didn't have the ability to do so - he wouldn't have been able to run Gujarat with such aplomb for 12 years or conceive and execute a campaign of this order.

But, the real success of #Modi lies elsewhere. This evening I was surprised to hear the buzz about him and BJP in the Bar of the Coonoor Club among the elite Tamil gentry spending their summer recess in the hills. More than the number of seats he brings to the BJP in the Hindi-heartland, what he'd have done for good is spreading the roots of BJP in areas where they were hitherto non-existent - eg West Bengal, South India and the North East. BJP may not Lok Sabha win many seats in Bengal but they would have sufficiently increased their vote share to be a force to reckon with in the coming Assembly Elections (read this piece by Abhijit Majumder of HT). And, if indeed, BJP forms the government at the centre with Modi at its helm - the equations could change drastically across the country.

But let's wait for a few days more.... till then : Aab Ki Bar Modi Sarkar

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Pit stop Uttar Pradesh

Just back from a short trip of Kanpur-Lucknow-Delhi-Mumbai. Normally, I'd be reluctant to draw inferences from fleeting interactions and the odd encounters. But, I find, even journalists tend to to do that and pass it off as ground reports. Therefore, thought of jotting down my quick impressions on - what else but the coming elections.

In Central UP (tho Kanapur-Lucknow is regarded more East than Centre) the pro-BJP mood is palpable in the air. The Samajwadi Party rule of Akhilesh Yadav has been an unmitigated disaster - people regret pinning their hopes on the young politician, who they thought will bring a new vision to a state that has languished for such a long time due to poor governance. Even if these are not state elections - people see a new hope in Modi, not just at the Centre but one that will have a positive rub-off on UP's fortunes as well.

I for one was always skeptical - even till a couple of years ago - about Modi's acceptability in the "Hindi Heartland" ( or the "Cow-belt as one would call it colloquially). But, its amazing how he has captured the imagination of the whole nation. One can argue if that's due entirely to his magnetic charisma or the pits of despair the UPA and Congress have thrown the country in its 10 years of misrule. I had traveled through UP on a road trip - in January 1977 immediately after my school Class 10 (ICSE ) exams. I would compare the "anti-Congress" mood then in many ways to what I saw now. So, if you don't call this a wave - what else is ? 

Still questions remain on how much of this enthusiasm will translate into seats. Local BJP politicians, of course, see this as an opportunity of a life-time. They know if BJP doesn't make it this time - then regaining the same momentum would be near impossible in the foreseeable future. By, then the party itself may well disintegrate without the glue of power to hold it together. So, everyone wants to jump into the band-wagon - leaders both young and old, locals and paratroopers who wish to cash-in by exercising their seniority in the party (the likes of Murli Manohar Joshi). Therefore, there are bound to be disaffection on ticket distribution. But, how much of this will lead to under-cutting of votes due to internal factionalism or the overwhelming swing will sail the candidates through is a matter of conjecture.

Modi, of course, is carrying the battle almost singly on his shoulders. Everyone else seems to be riding under his shadow - knowing the limits of their influence. Therefore, much would depend on what the grass-root organisation of BJP and RSS are able to deliver. Realizing that - Modi has placed his trusted aide Amit Shah in-charge of UP. So, if BJP makes a turn-around in UP - as many expect them to - much of the credit shoul go to Amit-bhai.

In one of his rallies in Maharashtra today, Modi remarked - usually in an election one sees political forces realigning against the incumbent government. This time, it seems everyone is rallying together with the sole objective of keeping Modi out (and, tho he didn't say it, that would include some of his own party-men). I would suspect that it's not just politicians and other parties - even other forces inimical to India would be nervous about the ascent of Modi. It is incredible - how this man has been battling against such tremendous opposition to carry forward his mission practically on his own. It is this that makes me say - India hasn't seen another "political phenomenon" like Modi, perhaps, since independence. 

This brings me to Delhi and, where else, than the holy dipping point of political pundits - the IIC Bar. While I can understand - the antagonism of politicians towards Modi and BJP, also the near pathological dislike of the fashionable left-liberal intellectual set - I still fail to entirely fathom the hostility of the main-stream media for Modi. The argument that they are under the "pay" of the ruling party is too glib. If they were, indeed, so easily "purchasable" - the Modi's alleged 'big business' backers could have easily 'bought' their support. Yet, their objections doesn't seem to be so much ideological as political - sometimes even personal. 

Therefore, sipping my 100 Pipers perched on the bar-stool, it's intriguing to hear senior journalists trying to build up arguments against Modi and BJP. At the risk of sounding specious, sometimes I think these people find it difficult to accept Modi after having vilified him for so many years. Therefore, they curiously sound as if they're arguing against themselves.

Another point probably deserves mention. Swapan Dasgupta had written in an article how Modi is an outsider to Lutyen's Delhi (unlike a Vajpayee - who had even co-opted himself into the Club by choosing someone like Brajesh Mishra as his aide). But - equally Modi is alien to the Chanakyapuri circuit. It's well-known the BJP of yore had its benefactors in the foreign diplomatic club - who have their own formidable sphere of influence. "Well-wishers of India" like Strobe Talbott had no hesitation in acknowledging Minister Jaswant Singh as a "friend" at whose invitation he spent a weekend in Jodhpur. Despite the recent thawing of relationship with the US and EU Missions - Modi is still viewed with suspicion by the West - not to mention our immediate neighbours who have greater reasons to be wary of him. And, this is not something that can be wished away.

Despite all these  odds- if Modi still makes it as the next Prime Minister of India - as many of us wish - it will be nothing short of a miracle.

But, borrowing from Paul Coelho.."when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it".

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Vote Bank Politics' has come here to stay in West Bengal

A news item in 'Ei Samay' the Bengali paper of the TOI Group (Read here) says, the assessment of the West Bengal State Intelligence Bureau indicates, the #BJP will pay a decisive role in 9 out of 42 constituencies of West Bengal in the Lok-Sabha Elections 2014. This is a significant development for Bengal - where BJP has been an almost non-existent party.

According to another report, Mamata Banerjee herself has cautioned her party-workers about the rise of BJP in the state (click here to read). She, of course, refers to BJP as "communal forces" - which is the fashionable political euphemism for the Saffron party.

Historically, West Bengal has, arguably, voted largely on 'secular' lines. Cast also had little role to play in Bengal politics. (Perhaps, an influence of Communism and literacy - also a reflection of society). Equally the Bengali Muslim has, traditionally, been influenced more by political - rather than religious - considerations. All this seemed to change perceptively in the last Lok Sabha elections - when a sizeable chunk of the "Muslim Vote" moved en-masse to the Trinamool Congress. Since then, political parties - have started looking at them as a distinct "vote-bank" - quite similar to what happens in other parts of the country. So, what has changed ?

First, it is the influx of across the border in districts adjacent to Bangladesh. They have brought with them a culture and mind-set, which is very different from the traditional Bengali Muslim community who have been well integrated into the society over nearly 2 centuries. Political parties have indulged them as low hanging electoral fruit - legitimizing their illegal migration and allowed them to spread their tentacles across the community, often by exercising both money and muscle power. 

While the eastern districts of the state have seen infiltration from Bangladesh, the western borders have seen influx from other neighbouring states of Bihar and Jharkhand - who have themselves been afflicted by economic plight.

Simultaneously, as industry has shrunk in the state - trading has been the life-line. The business averse mentality of Bengalis is well known. Therefore, it's no surprise that the dominant trading community are "Non-Bengali", to use a pet term. In a surprising statistics, published a few years back showed nearly 60% of the population of the greater Calcutta and Howrah areas in of "non-Bengali" origin.

In this backdrop - dismissing BJP as a "communal party" - will only contribute towards greater polarisation of the people - which will over a longer term upset the electoral and social dynamics of the state. After that, the answer to that eternal question - which / who came first - the chicken or the egg - will only be of academic interest.

But, it seems "vote bank" politics has finally arrived and come to stay in Bengal. Sad - but true and, probably also, unavoidable.

(Also read: Is Eastern India an important developing Hindu Vote-Bank ?)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Lunch, Tea and Dinner

Went for the much hyped – “The Lunchbox” last Sunday morning. Charming film. It’s beauty lies in understatement. Understated script, understated dialogue, understated acting. Everything minimalistic. One doesn’t expect anything less than competent from Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddique. But, Nirmat Kaur is the real find. Hope she doesn’t get type-cast to do de-glam roles. Yet, I think the movie been  trifle over-rated.   The Karan Johar and Anurag Kashyap connection does help in getting PR – as indeed does the Sony Picture Classics banner. Still, it didn’t manage to become India’s official entry for the Oscars as widely expected in the social media. The Gujarati – The Good Road was the unanimous choice of the selection committee. Nandini Ramnath has a good explanation why the critics voted for The Good Road over The Lunchbox in Mint  (click here to read)

Goutam Ghose – the Chairman of the Jury spoke in 2 voices.  First, while announcing the choice of the ‘The Good Road’ he said it was a unanimous decision of the jury. Later, he told the media, ‘The Lunchbox’ was his personal favourite (click here to read) thus fanning an unwarranted controversy.


Haven’t been exercising much in the past one year. Never a morning person – don’t find the time for walks even in the evening. Didn’t swim this entire season. The punishing travel routine becomes a convenient excuse for not doing anything. Foreigners always manage to pack in a gym schedule or a jog even when they are on the road. My yoga teacher has given up on me. I keep two Books on Yoga next to my bed – perhaps, in the hope they’d be working on the subconscious mind – a new form of Transcendental Yoga one might say J. But, in reality – I know this is unpardonable at my age. It goes much beyond simple laziness – perhaps, bordering on incipient depression.

The only form of physical activity – I enjoy these days are my Sunday evening walks through the alleys and by-lanes of South Calcutta, the locality where I grew up. It’s amazing how little has changed in this area over the years – barring many of the old bungalows turned into small apartment blocks, the new saree boutiques and cafes. But, beyond that it remains just the same – a grim reminder of the economic stagnation of the city. The tea stalls on the pavement, phuchka-wallahs at street junctions – dimly lit and with pathetic hygiene and road-side snack take-aways selling the most unhealthy  Fish fry, cutlets, chops and rolls.

But, there is a charm in travelling back in time. So, I make each of these walks a destination outing. My favourite being a tea-stop at Radu-Babu’s Hotel next to Lake Market. I’m amazed at the incredible prices – he still keeps. It requires a lot of will-power to resist the special Chicken Kobiraji. But, his speciality is the Bong-style ‘Roasted Chicken’ available only on Thursdays for a limited period. A whole-spring chicken at a princely Rs 96 is hard to digest. But, don’t know how he manages it even in this day and age. I suspect it’s a ‘loss-leader’ – a reward of sorts for his loyal customers.

Burnt-garlic Squid

When I started going to the Mangalorean restaurants in the Fort area in the early 80s – you could still have a meal at Mahesh Lunch Home for Rs 25, the lunch allowance for many offices on PM Road (those were days before Sodexo and Ticket Restaurants) – Citibank, HTA (Hindustan Thompson) and Liptons. Since, they were discovered by Imran Khan and Lonely Planet – Trishna, Mahesh, Bharat (Excellensea) and even Apoorva, have turned high-end specialty sea-food restaurant . But, there’s one treasure – yet to be discovered by Mumbai’s Page 3 crowd – Pratap lunch Home, tucked away in the lane next to the Fort Parsi Agiari. Had an outstanding Burnt Garlic Squid and authentic Mangalorean Crab Sukka with Neer Dosa – the other day. A watering-hole in the evenings for the “janata”  of nearby office goers it still remains affordable and unpretentious. Strongly recommended for the mildly adventurous and the less snooty.