Sunday, May 29, 2016

Not Rahul's Fault

The easiest way of making sense of the results of the Assembly elections in five states is to pass (another) final judgement on Rahul/Sonia Gandhi's leadership. Lay people and eminent op-ed writers in the country are unanimous on this. The sooner Congress ditches the family, the better. Mukul Kesavan last week gave a clarion call for a rebellion in Congress in his column.

My take is this: Gandhis lack the talent and don't deserve to lead a national party, but they are not the root-cause of its decline.

It is not the Gandhis who made Congress what it is, it's the nature of our `polity' which did. (I admit it's a hard word. I have to look it up in the dictionary every time I use it.)

Was there never any rebellion in Congress against the dynasty? In the late 1960s, when Indira Gandhi was new in her job as PM, powerful leaders like Kamraj and Morarji Desai challenged her. They failed spectacularly. Few years later, she took a calamitous decision of imposing the Emergency, was ousted in the election, and yet came back to power. Only the assassins' bullets could terminate her rule.

Sharad Pawar, one of our most talented politicians, rebelled against Congress twice. The first time was in 1978 when he became the Chief Minister of Maharashtra by leading a breakaway group at the age of 37. But finally he had to eat a humble pie and return to Congress because he realized it was impossible to win elections against Congress in Maharashtra.
Next time was in 1999, when Congress was very weak under Sonia Gandhi. And yet his party, NCP, could not even take power in Maharashtra on its own. It had to form alliance with the Gandhi empire. Outside Maharashtra, NCP has virtually no presence after 16 years.

Mamata Banerjee split away and conquered the Communist bastion of West Bengal, but she hasn't spread wings outside; probably because it is not feasible. Nitish Kumar, much admired by those who are looking for a decent, palatable alternative to both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, hasn't been able to expand JD(U)'s base outside Bihar. In Bihar too he is struggling.

On the other hand, BJP/RSS finally succeeded in vanquishing the Congress empire in 2014. But it wasn't possible with the liberal, middle-of-the-road credo of Vajpayee, it became possible through consolidation of Hindu nationalism. Those who wanted Mr Modi to peruse free-market policies have been disappointed; blogger Amit Verma goes to the extent of calling Modi `Nehru plus cow' (improving on Arun Shourie's wisecrack).

So what can one deduce? The two national parties have thrived either with the charisma and cachet of a political dynasty, or consolidation of religious nationalism. Congress leaders -- from Digvijay to P Chidambaram or Prithviraj Chavan -- are not fools or genetically-hardwired family loyalists; they know this reality.

This leads to a theory: perhaps a party like Congress, a pan-India party with centre-of-the-road attitude, existed in the Independent India only because of its dynasty, else it would have disintegrated quickly. And when, after Indira Gandhi, the political talent of the dynasty dried up, and people got fed up with the family, it began to decline.

Blame this on India's diversity. United States, another big democracy, can have two poles -- Democrats and Republics -- because that country doesn't have even one-hundredth of India's diversity. The most common factor that binds India is Hinduism, however loose and disorganized it may be. Therefore BJP could use it to become a national party. But otherwise, if someone wants to build a party based on a socio-economic ideology, it doesn't seem feasible. Communism could not win power outside three states, and if you are enamored of free-market liberalism, as many rational people are, please remember that the Swatantra party of C Rajagopalchari has been forgotten.

Congress's decline, it seems, was inevitable but for the accident of Indira Gandhi producing a line of talented heirs, and this accident didn't happen. (But, also, this diversity saved India from becoming a dictatorship, because after Nehru and his daugther nobody could command pan-India loyalty or admiration, and Nehru himself was a great democrat, a "most civilized" politician, in Rajagopachari's words. His daughter too was good enough not to extend the Emergency rule beyond two years.)

Can anti-corruption agenda be a platform to build a pan-India party? AAP gave this hope. But I feel despondent, looking at Kerjiwal's style. Time will tell.

Monday, May 9, 2016


I am a Satyajit Ray fan. I have watched every film of his that is available on the YouTube with subtitles.

After watching Chaitanya Tamhane's `Court' last year, I felt that here was a film-maker who may do the work comparable to Ray's. Or who at least shows that promise. I wrote about the film effusively on Facebook, but didn't dare voice this thought. Ray is God, so the statement would have sounded like exaggeration, a "bit-too-much" kind of assessment.

After watching Nagraj Manjule's `Sairat', a story of doomed inter-caste, inter-class love affair which takes off in today's smallltown Maharashtra , let me stick out my neck and say: Here is a film-maker whose eye for the drama of reality and whose command of the tools of realistic cinema should put him in the same league as Ray.

Sairat has managed to become a commercial film at the same time. Thanks, in part, to the rousing music score by Ajay-Atul. People are flocking to theaters to watch it. It's a sign that audiences have evolved, or it's some kind of miracle. Because everything is so real, so de-glam. This is not a Mani Ratnam or a Spielberg film where reality is used as a spice, to infuse a story of heroic proportions with credibility and to manipulate the intelligent viewer's emotions. No; there is beauty and drama here, but it is not stylized, not glamourised; there are no heroes. There are criminals, it is essentially a story of a crime, the kind of which happens in various corners of our country these days and makes newspaper headlines. But those criminals are not villains. Social situation, which is specific to India, is the villain, coupled with the hormones of 17-year-olds.

Watch Sairat, it comes with subtitles. I guarantee that most of you wouldn't have watched anything as heart-breaking, searing and real as this on the silver screen.

There has been a flood of reviews on Facebook after the film released. I perfectly understand why, now. Those who are addicted to expressing themselves on Facebook can not NOT write about it, such is the experience.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Suicide in Hyderabad

 Why the PM is yet to say anything about the Rohith Vemula's suicide? It can always be debated whether a Prime Minister is expected to give reaction on everything, but Modi's style, often described as `presidential', like that of the President of USA, leads one to ask this question. He is an able and enthusiastic communicator. He is hundred times more vocal than his predecessor. So why silence now? A statement, through the PM's twitter handle, will come eventually, but it will be pooh-poohed by the Modi- and BJP-baiters. Which is what happened in Dadri lynching case.

One of the reasons for this awkwardness could be that Modi, being an able communicator himself, knows when he would sound less credible/sincere. Imagine Modi swiftly condemning Mohd Akhlaq's lynching over beef allegation. The opposition would have immediately damned him for forgetting his own tainted record of 2002, Gujarat. It may be that his reaction could have never seemed to be spontaneous, for many of us believe that in his heart he is indifferent about the rights of Muslims. It would have also hurt that constituency of BJP which believes that cow is holy and killing in the name of cow isn't unholy. In Vemula's case, the Union HRD ministry's action have come under scanner. Modi's choice of the person to head this ministry always seemed ridiculous and whimsical; he would now find it all the more difficult to come to the aid of his colleague.

I would go hyperbole and make the point which I have made in the past too: BJP grievously injured itself when it decided to make Modi its supreme leader. In the long term, it was a suicidal decision. Conduct a thought experiment. Wouldn't Sushma Swaraj, Rajanth Singh or even Manohar Parrikar and the fellow Marathi Nithin Gadkari (both ever-ready to put the foot in the mouth) sound more credible while making pro-forma comments on a communal issue? Vemula's suicide has become a communal issue in one sense, whatever the facts may be.

Also, there is a trap when you choose a messiah or build up a messiah to be your top leader. Messiahs can't seek forgiveness and accommodation that easily. BJP would be bleeding in this trap at the end of Modi's five years in office, I am afraid.

Monday, December 21, 2015


I have everything that a boy doesn't want in a girl, she says to me.

She is good-looking. A software professional, working with a top-notch firm. Has stayed in a western country for a year or two for what is called `on-site' assignment in the IT parlance.

`Even today I have offers to go and work abroad. And I might choose to go. But some boys won't have it. They say they won't like me to go abroad for work after the marriage. They, on the other hand, would readily go abroad for on-site assignment if the opportunity comes. But I (on my own) can't. So this issue becomes a

`Then the caste factor. (She isn't Brahmin or Maratha. She belongs to one of the `intermediate' castes.) Most boys (read: the boys who may match her qualification), especially Brahmin, aren't ready to marry a girl from a different caste.

`And I am mangalik. So you see, I have every eligibility for rejection.'

I say something to her, but essentially I am speechless.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tree of Pain

`Baluata', the autobiography of Marathi Dalit poet, writer Daya Pawar should be a mandatory reading for every upper-caste 15-year-old before he or she leaves the school and loses/fails to acquire empathy for Dalits because the reservations have made the things tough for him or her.

Daya Pawar was born in 1935 and died in 1996. His autobiography came out in 1980 and became an instant hit. 

I, though a voracious reader of Marathi books as a school-boy, read Baluta only last week, that too in English translation. I now realize that I hadn't read what is perhaps the greatest work in my language all these years. I of course had read about the book -- P L Deshpande famously called it `a tree bursting with pain' -- but didn't dare to read it because I was afraid it would be too painful a read. So the irony: I had read Marathi translation of The Roots in std 9th, but not the Baluta.

Reading Baluta isn't a painful experience. It is an enriching experience. I always have this opinion that honest and articulate non-fiction often surpasses the fiction when it comes to shining light on the real world. (This year's Noble prize for literature, incidentally, has gone to a journalist, not a fiction writer.) In Daya Pawar we have a Dalit man who is essentially a writer: sensitive, introspective, emotional, articulate. He dabbled in Dalit activism and politics, but wasn't really cut out for anything other than writing. (Same could be said of Namdeo Dhasal.) Pawar faced a lot of humiliation during his school years because of his caste. But his book is not a rant. While chronicling his life and times he spares no one: the upper caste people of his village, his own community -- the Mahars, his parents, and himself. 

Two passages in the book show his genius as a chronicler: The first is about an incident which happened after Pawar's father died. Somebody asks the little Dagdu (the name given to him in the cradle), `Boy, tell me, how come your mother is pregnant though your father is dead?' (How can somebody be so cruel, Pawar asks us.)  The boy was devastated. The question haunted him day and night. One day he mustered up courage and asked his mother. "My mother didn't know whether to laugh or cry." Finally she told him: I was already pregnant when your father died.

The second comes when he writes about the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in 1950s. White colour then become  fashionable among the Dalit youth. Mahar girls in the cities who had now started working in offices started wearing white saris. And, Pawar tells us, when the  upper caste office-going girls realized that white was now a `neo-Buddhist' colour, they stopped wearing white.


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Portrait Of A Court

Statutory warning: Court, India's entry for Oscars, is not for everybody. You may absolutely not like it and feel like demanding your ticket money back.

In the first half-an-hour of this Chaitanya Tamhane-directed film, I, having been a court reporter in Mumbai for five years, kept saying to myself: My God, how right he got every detail of an Indian lower court! The lay-out of the court room which makes zero concession for aesthetics, social profile of the judge and the lady prosecutor (the housewife inside her barely hidden), the human rights lawyer (played by Vivek Gombar, the producer), the other crowd! The film won me over quickly. I felt like advising everybody who is yet to watch it, and also everybody who has watched it: `Please go and sit in a sessions court for a couple of hours at least once. Then you would appreciate the director's achievement in recreating it all so perfectly.'  It's a triumph of realism. Hence the warning at the beginning: if you don't like realism, if you don't appreciate the fact that reality itself is often banal but its recreation, on canvas, in literature, theater or cinema, can be magical, then this film is not for you. I would pity you if that is the case, and I hope that the Oscar jury is not like you.

I would argue that this film is not about the trial of a folk singer who sings revolutionary songs and who is accused of abetting the `suicide' of a sanitation worker who dies inside a manhole. It is obviously absurd that a radical song can be held to have inspired a suicide. In real life nobody would face trial in such circumstances. (Though less amusing and absurd things can happen in our legal system: remember the south Indian actress who was dragged from court to court on the charge of spreading "obscenity" because she said extra-marital relations were alright?) But ignore this implausibility and keep watching the film. You would realize it is simply a peg, on which director-writer Tamhane hangs various portraits, snapshots. Most of them are portraits of our courts. Come to think of if, isn't court an extraordinary place where characters from impossibly varied backgrounds come together and create an understated drama on a daily basis? Consider the cast of characters in this film: the judge and the lady prosecutor who are quintessentially Marathi
 middle-class, Vivek Gombar's lawyer who handles human rights cases and who himself comes from an affluent Gujarati family, the accused singer who represents a section of Marathi underclass which fell in love with the Marxist ideologies decades ago, and which is or was, it can be said, a bit naive about efficacy of Marxism, and finally the dead sanitation worker who comes from a lowest of the castes. The director does a great job of stringing together snapshots of their lives outside the courtroom and brings home to you a cliched fact: what an amazing, confounding, scary the Indian diversity is. 

The Indian legal system isn't evil. It's not like those south African dictatorships where a dissident could be "disappeared" by dumping in the sea from a plane. The system is overburdened, it lacks quality personnel (the best and the brightest in our society rarely opt to become judges, prosecutors or the police inspectors), but it has something called "due process" enshrined in its DNA, which in fact makes it so infuriatingly slow. Tamhane's film doesn't indict the system, to do that would have lowered its brilliance. It just paints a portrait. 

Flaws? The acting is sub-par at times. Especially the actors who play the judge and the police inspector disappoint with their dialogue delivery. It's easy to deliver a theatrical line, it's extremely hard to speak the way people speak in real life. But one piece of acting in this film is so brilliant that I would give the Oscar for best supporting actor for that performance (not possible, of course, in foreign film category). It's by the lady who plays the dead sanitation worker's wife who takes the witness stand. She is nervous, she only half-understand what's going on, she is dis-interested, and answers in mono-syllables, which frustrates the prosecutor. Her entire face and posture speaks. She seems so real; take a bow, whoever cast her. It can be compared to that very, very old lady's performance in Satyajit  Ray's Pather Panchali. 

She opens up a bit when the defense lawyer asks if her late husband took any precaution before climbing down into manholes. No, she says. Then how did he know if it is safe to go in? Cockroaches, she says. Cockroaches? Yes, if there are cockroaches inside, it means it would be safe. It cockroaches can survive the toxic fumes inside the manhole, humans can, too.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Appointment of a Worker

Gajendra Chouhan's appointment as FTII chairman is indefensible because he lacks the stature. Not because he's a BJP member. If the government were to appoint Paresh Rawal or the late Satyadev Dubey instead, nobody could have protested. Rawal is a newly minted BJP MP from Gujarat. Dubey wrote films like Bhoomika, Nishant and Junoon. He also wrote the play 'Sambhog Se Sanyas Tak'. And, hold your breath, he was once an RSS member. For the uninitiated,  he is the dock worker in 'Deewar' who says 'I won't pay hafta' before Amitabh does. But I digress. 

The question is, why no newspaper has targeted the I&B minister over the issue the way Smriti Irani was targeted over certain appointments by her ministry? Is it because of Mr Jaitley's famously cozy relationship with the Delhi media?

I partially agree with the libertarian argument that government has no business to run an FTII or an NSD. But that's a debate for another day.