Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

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Binge-reading and -watching

Binge-watchers filling up empty days may ask: Why read a book when there’s the movie? Apart from putting the cart before the horse, it’s a lazy question.

Column in Business Standard, April 21, 2020

Days before the and disruption of book supplies I was fortunate to have a couple of excellent deliveries: The third of Hilary Mantel’s hugely successful award-winning trilogy The Mirror and the Light (Fourth Estate; Rs 799) which is a wrist-wrenching 830-page tome; and Alexander Norman’s splendid new biography The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life (HarperCollins; Rs 799).

From different epochs both are accounts of two larger-than-life leaders navigating the treacherous terrain of religion and politics. Yet what could Henry VIII and His Holiness possibly have in common — the one a willful, machinating, cruel monarch severing ties with the Church of Rome to anoint himself spiritual head, and the other, a religious leader transcending his exile to become an iconic beacon of wisdom and compassion in our time?

The earlier parts of Ms Mantel’s opus Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies derive their resonance and luminosity from her brilliant device of retelling the well-trodden 16th century tale from the viewpoint of a blacksmith’s son, Thomas Cromwell, who rose to become the King’s conscience-keeper and power behind the throne; and her compelling use of modern English to fictionalise medieval history.

To put the interminable hours of incarceration to enjoyable use I have been reading (or re-reading) favoured books made into movies easily available on streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Thus, Ms Mantel’s books can profitably be combined with Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

Ms Mantel’s book begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn; Mr Kapur’s sumptuously costumed saga charts the reign of Boleyn and Henry VIII’s daughter, an era combining beauty with bloodthirstiness, thrillingly essayed by Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen.

In 2016, the journalist John Preston reprised the gay sex-and-politics story of disgraced 1960s Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, brought to trial for the attempted murder of his blackmailing lover, a model named Norman Scott.

A Very English Scandal was a tribute to Mr Preston’s forensic skills as much to his lip-smacking gallows humour. Now see the serial on Amazon Prime, and be prepared for another surprise: What a very good actor that all-time chocolate box beauty Hugh Grant has become!

I have a conflicted weakness for period pieces on the one hand (Thackeray, Austen, Henry James) and gory crime on the other (Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Patricia Highsmith). From the first genre I picked two novels, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, both set in sequestered spaces and exploring the interior landscapes of thwarted emotions.

The lavishness of Ms Wharton’s portrayal of New York’s conformist Gilded Age and Mr Ishiguro’s English aristocratic elite amplify the unvoiced regrets of its protagonists. They are masterpieces of the fictional art of “show, don’t tell”. The reader must flip back the pages to perceive what is implied between the lines. How, then, to bring these alive on film? Martin Scorsese’s version of Wharton and James Ivory’s of Ishiguro (both circa 1993) are burnished by commanding performances by Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson and Michelle Pfeiffer.

To escape the stifling oppression of drawing room dramas, pick up the memoirs of Danish writer Isak Dinesen as a study in filtering events of long ago, from another time and place.

Sydney Pollack conflated her books into a panoramically shot romantic epic, Out of Africa (1985) accompanied by a memorable musical score though not without irretrievably losing the crystalline quality of Ms Dinesen’s prose.

Like some indefinable creed with innumerable sects crime thrillers come in many genres from trashy serials to lofty psychological puzzles. The excitement lies in following singular sociopaths or murderous mobs into the dark subterranean recesses of the human mind. Martin Scorsese and David Fincher are masters, with inventive adaptations of well-known books, most recently The Irishman; Scorsese has often commandeered novelists such as Nicholas Pileggi, for example, in Goodfellas (1990), and transformed actors like Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Leonardo DiCaprio into cult figures in the art of inflicting violent death by a thousand cuts. Not for the faint-hearted, the streaming networks are bristling with spilt blood and hacked limbs.

Binge-watchers filling up empty days may ask: Why read a book when there’s the movie? Apart from putting the cart before the horse, it’s a lazy question. Without the stories there would be few (good) movies. Books remain the richest, paramount resource for films. Cinema is a joyful aide-memoire to the pleasures of the library.



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The spreading panic of incarceration

What the extended lockdown has brought into harsh view are the precarious levels of urban existence.

Column in Business Standard, April 18, 2020

Here’s a small anecdote from this week that sums up the rising panic at two ends of the social spectrum. A friend’s daughter, a banking professional, began to worry a few days into the that her car’s battery may be run down and decided to take it for a short drive in her neighbourhood. Like most parts of metropolitan India, even well-heeled, gated areas (termed “posh localities” by real estate agents) are serviced by slums in the vicinity, teeming with skilled and unskilled labour comprising domestic workers, tradespeople, street vendors, rag pickers, and criminal elements.

No sooner had the young woman hit the main road that runs along a basti on elevated ground than she found a group of people come rushing down to surround her car. Slowing down to a stop, she asked what they wanted. “Food,” they said. “Roti chahiye.” They hammered on her windows and bonnet, some demanding money while others importuning for intervention with the authorities. “Didi, kuch madad karo” (Please help us). As she reached in her wallet to give some money, a young man thrust his hand through the window and tried to snatch her cell phone. At this the woman panicked, hastily reversed her vehicle and raced back home. Later she wondered whether her panic was justified; or whether the sudden ambush (in broad daylight on an empty road) by a group of slum dwellers was driven by the distress of genuine hunger or by thieving vagrants.

What the extended has brought into harsh view are the precarious levels of urban existence. Most welfare schemes over the years (from cash transfers in banks to mandatory employment) have focused on the rural poor, tragically ignoring huge pockets of urban poverty. Suddenly evicted from jobs and homes, they now constitute an unmitigated “migrants crisis” — the thousands breaking cordons of quarantine shelters in Delhi, Agra, or Bareilly, spilling out in mass protest on the streets of Surat, waiting for phantom trains at Bandra, and risking life and limb on highway treks to remote villages.

The further tragedy is that policymakers, statisticians, and social scientists are at sixes and sevens as to the numbers, geographical distribution, place of origin, and profile of this vast workforce. According to one estimate, there may be a shifting mass of 4 million unskilled casual labour in Delhi alone. We know, for instance, that many powerloom workers in Gujarat’s textile industry are migrants from Odisha, but so are most plumbers in my neck of the woods in south Delhi.

Where varied social and economic groups from diverse regions generally lived in acceptable levels of adjustment in cities, a major fallout of the is that they are now increasingly at each other’s throats. The daily instances of confrontation with police, violence against health workers, and fights over food and water suggest a deeper malaise, an alienation of Brechtian proportions.

Among others, Rajendran Narayanan of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) says distress calls from half a dozen states indicate “huge levels of deprivation” and endemic food shortages four weeks into the lockdown. However, there are also reports of migrants rejecting food in detention because it was not home-cooked or not to their taste.

With the Food Corporation’s depots brimming with surplus grain, and chief ministers such as denying any food shortage, the roadblocks, quite literally, are due to dismal coordination between the Centre and states to speedily transport food to those in dire need. If these distribution failures are unresolved, food riots will become a reality.

The enforced incarceration has intensified levels of anxiety, frustration, and aggression all round. Infected patients attacking hospital staff in many places are as much a panic response as the police showing the stick to rule-breakers. This week doctors and nurses of Delhi’s Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital, a dedicated Covid-19 facility, protested en masse at a patient’s persistent abusive behaviour.

The media too has succumbed to the pressure of job losses, wage cuts, hampered mobility, and dependence on rumour and hearsay to churn out unverified stories. The most grievous instance was the 2,000 migrants who gathered at Mumbai’s Bandra station on hearing the baseless news that trains would ferry them back to their states. And a piquant instance of personal injury was a false TV report announcing the death of an army officer from Covid-19. “Idiotic people I am very much alive. I am Major Ranjit Singh (Veteran), President Defence Colony Welfare Association. Apologise or be prepared to be sued,” tweeted the officer, aghast. Later, he graciously forgave the reporter “working under stress during these trying days”.

As large swathes of the country are discovering, is no great leveller, impervious to privilege or deprivation. What the scourge of Covid-19 has exposed are the deep ruts and fissures in the rotting fabric of our cities and the incompetence of elected leaders and administrators.

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Halted lives, postponed futures

Covid-19 hotspots like Nizamuddin and Dharavi are textbook examples of abject failure in disaster management.

Column in Business Standard, April 4 2020

For all the continuous bombardment of daunting reports, images, medical hair-splitting, spiralling statistics and — whether well- or ill-informed — the only certainty about the spread of Covid-19 is the uncertainties that surround it.

Months after its emergence no one can conclusively say whether it is transmitted through air or by contact with humans or surfaces. Why do the virus and death toll spike sharply in some places and less so in others? Could it have to do with equatorial distance, heat, or humidity? In Nigeria, for example, where the incidence of infection and fatalities is low, many in cities are wandering without masks, convinced that hot damp weather will save them. “It is cold comfort,” reports a correspondent, “that this time around wealthy [Nigerians] cannot flee to London and Delhi for medical treatment, as they did during the 2014 Ebola outbreak.”

Specialists in communicable diseases such as Dr N Devadasan have argued, backed by comparative country-wise data, that one reason India has not seen a dramatic surge in cases is because Indians “have an innate immunity to the virus, thanks to unhygienic conditions”. Another is that India has a relatively young population as compared to, say, Italy, where most of the deaths have occurred in the 70-plus age group.

Even so, the good doctor is cautious to add that his simulations are speculative. The situation is liable to sudden change as in the unforeseen explosion of cases in the Tablighi Jamaat cluster. And we have scant idea of what is happening in remote towns and villages of the hinterland.

A striking example of unpredictability is the shifting use of terminology in official reporting on Covid-19. Till a couple of weeks ago, Union health ministry spokesperson Lav Agarwal was saying that the infection was “local” (therefore containable) rather than community-based. But what is Delhi’s or Mumbai’s Dharavi except densely packed communities? So the word “community” has been dropped. We are now told the problem is “national”.

Both hotspots are textbook examples of abject failure in disaster management. The six-storeyed Tablighi building stands cheek-by-jowl with police station so its 2,500 occupants since early March should have been evacuated long ago — by diktat, if not by persuasion. The horrible postscript (with communal overtones) to this horrible story is an ugly confrontation between Delhi police and government, and Tablighi leaders.

Similarly, Dharavi, with its 1 million population (70 per cent of whom use community toilets), may be parodied as a tourist attraction as the largest slum in Asia, but like thousands of its lesser counterparts in the country, it is a potentially volcanic super-spreader.

Many heads of government are prone to bouts of myopia and grave miscalculation at moments of national crisis. Beating Donald Trump, and Imran Khan in the race, a cringeworthy standout example is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. He initially described as just “a little flu”. After repeated tests, he refuses to make the results public, claiming they are a state secret. His country is home to 13.5 million urban settlers living in favelas, the equivalent of our slums. Despite being politically isolated, he is hanging on. “God is Brazilian,” he says. “The cure is right there.”

Prime Minister is not quite so far gone. Thali-banging and diya-lighting on Sunday evenings may be his idea of rallying the nation but it is likely to be construed by some as a spiritual numen for deliverance. (And perhaps as a boredom-alleviating exercise for kiddies.) In his TV addresses and radio chats, Mr Modi doesn’t miss a beat at projecting himself as an amalgam of Supreme Leader and saviour.

But when posterity records Mr Modi’s biggest failures, the most glaring lack of preparedness after demonetisation, would be to discount the tragedy of the country’s millions of informal workers, left homeless and hungry after the kneejerk on March 24. According to the government’s own figures, some 600,000 lives (and livelihoods) were abruptly halted as those with neither security of income nor tenure fled the cities. Their futures now stand indefinitely postponed. How far government bailouts will save them will depend how intense or long-drawn out the health emergency is.

The bleak choice the poor face at a time of life-threatening illness is whether they will perish from disease or hunger. In a New York Times dispatch from the Afghanistan-Iran border this week is a poignant quote from a 19-year-old Afghan woman health worker, Roya Mohammadi, helping to screen thousands of Afghan migrant labour fleeing coronavirus-convulsed Iran. Some already had Covid-19 but she needed the income to support her family in Herat. “I’m afraid of getting sick, of course,” Ms Mohammadi is reported as saying. “But I prefer to die with a full stomach rather than die of hunger.”

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Quarantined lives

The Prime Minister’s “Janata curfew” on Sunday with handclaps and bell-ringing is a shallow show of solidarity.

Column in Business Standard, March 21, 2020

The country has gone into quasi-lockdown, and not a moment too soon. The prime minister’s Thursday night speech, replete with hyperbolic comparisons to World Wars, homilies on how to stay healthy, and observing a voluntary curfew on Sabbath with solidarity exhibitions of hand clapping and ringing bells, was high on rhetoric and low on solutions. There might be some moral purchase in making noise from balconies, but not much. It is akin to the good people of a high rise in Gurugram who have been yodelling “Hum hongay kaamyaab” (We Shall Overcome) as a booster shot against the contagion.

It is wise to temporarily shut airports to international traffic and bar foreign arrivals from a host of countries as the main carriers of Covid-19 are travellers from abroad. But valiant rescue flights to Iran and Italy do not solve the problem of thousands of overseas students and transient professionals, evicted from campus and offices due to closures, marooned with little money and stuck for passages back home. The army has set up nearly a dozen quarantine centres at cantonments throughout the country but is now reporting transport and logistical difficulties in shipping and housing high-risk returnees. Around 30 million Indians are said to be on the move in normal times, but now, even with reduction in train and bus services, social distancing has its limitations. A garments factory owner I know in Noida who downed shutters this week says that many of his Purvanchali workers have decamped to their villages. At the upper end of the scale the HR department of an international corporation with 65,000 employees is grappling with how to implement advisories issued from its US headquarters. “It is all very well to ask the staff to work from homes but about 40 per cent do not have laptops. You can’t expect them to perform routine administrative functions on smart phones. Effectively they are on indefinite, paid leave,” says a manager. The same applies to the Indian bureaucracy’s bloated workforce of babus dutifully following the prime minister’s suggestion that officials should 

In countries with a wider coverage of digital communication, overuse of the internet is causing the opposite problem. Media reports say that Vodafone’s internet usage has surged by up to 50 per cent in some European countries as consumers shift to working at home and turn to services such as Netflix because is keeping families indoors. In the UK, for instance, the telecom giant has 18 million subscribers, and shows a 30 per cent spike in data usage, because of the shift in working from homes. In a telling analysis of the addictive habit of idling the hours away, the Los Angeles Times reports a surge in viewing pandemic-themed dystopian movies such as Contagion and The Andromeda Strain.

In a dilatory work culture where delays, deferments, and chronic absenteeism are a way of life, the word “coronavirus” is now a plea to obstruct the legal process. Bizarrely, one of Nirbhaya’s murderers, who were finally hanged this week, used it; big-ticket offenders in the YES Bank scandal have cited social distancing in their failure to appear before investigators. Some MPs even brought it up as an excuse to avoid attending parliament mid-session.

The prime minister requests the public to be “sensitive” to those who cannot report for work. But reduced services across the country — of government departments, the courts, and police — can only bring unforeseen hardships.

Platitudes are an inadequate substitute for policy pronouncements that have not been thought through. Imploring retailers not to hoard and the public not to panic buy may be a stretch, given the ground realities. In metropolitan middle class neighbourhoods such as mine, grocery retailers have stopped home deliveries and there are queues at their door. A small Rs 50 bottle of hand sanitizer is selling at the local chemist for Rs 125. Shortages and rising prices of essentials are a looming threat.

India is at Stage 2 of the Covid-19 spread. The transmission of the virus is still local, therefore containable; the number of deaths and the afflicted is relatively small. Bar some stirring words and ringing endorsements from balconies on Sunday, there was no clear step-by-step forward plan in the prime minister’s speech. He did not dwell on how to protect the lives of the poor at a time when the economy is in dire straits, agricultural distress is growing, and unemployment rising. There was no reference to the insanitary conditions of urban slums and plight of wage earners fleeing to villages. For all the government’s social subsidies and direct cash transfers, the stark tragedy, stated by the last National Sample Survey Orgnisation, is this: Existing social security legislation covers only 8 per cent of the workforce of 459 million in India.

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One man’s meat is another’s poison

The coronavirus outbreak that has left thousands dead and shell-shocked the world economy hinges on the consumption of bats, snakes and other wildlife in China. It has its echoes in India too.

Column in Business Standard, February 22, 2020 

Fancy a fruit bat for breakfast? How about a few sea slugs in your soup? Or some scales from the ant-eating pangolin for starters? If none of the above is to your taste, some succulent morsels of dog meat might pass as a health-giving and warming repast to fend off the icy winds that sweep through the bitter winters of northern 

Many of these tastes are considered treats in countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Rim, and especially  In the Seychelles and Guam Mariana, fruit bats are considered a delicacy. The current outbreak of with its apocalyptic spectre of more than 2,000 dead and thousands afflicted in a wide swathe of countries has sent tremors through the world economy. It is said to have emerged in the wet markets of Wuhan in Hubei province, which had “a thousand stalls selling fish, chickens, pheasants, bats, marmots, venomous snakes, spotted deer, and other wild animals”, confirming that the virus had an animal source.

The plague-like spread of respiratory disorders and pneumonia, resulting in a trail of deaths, is far greater than the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003, which caused around 800 deaths. Both epidemics are caused by genetically similar strains of the virus.

A Bloomberg report in Business Standard last week, quoting a 2014 survey of five Chinese cities, found that 83 per cent of respondents in Guangzhou had eaten wildlife in the past year; in Shanghai it was 14 per cent. The consumption of a baffling variety of wildlife isn’t merely a weakness for exotic bites. Traditional Chinese medicine using wild and domesticated animal products, the report adds, is a $60-billion global industry.

Chronicles of life in devote chapter and verse to the ongoing battle between government authorities and consumers over what the public can or cannot eat. Journalist Pallavi Aiyar’s award-winning reportage-cum-memoir Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China (Fourth Estate; Rs 395) goes one step further than graphic man-eats-dog accounts. At the onset of the SARS crisis she comes upon a poster showing a man, with fork and knife, with a fluffy, smiling cat on his plate, carrying a prohibitory warning: “I was aware that some Chinese ate dogs, but I hadn’t been aware that cats were considered chow too…” Banning dog-eating had been subject to extermination campaigns since Maoist times but, following rabies scares in 2006, 54,429 dogs were killed in Yunnan province. “All dogs were ordered killed regardless of whether they were strays or pets and without mind to whether or not they had been vaccinated.”

A key issue was the suppression of SARS fatalities due to stringent censorship: Most students in the institute where Ms Aiyar taught English were blissfully unaware of the galloping SARS crisis; such a situation may be amplified in the current spread of  More piquant is her account of the horrors that ensued when she chaperoned Indian business delegations to Chinese banquets. Meatier and weirder dishes indicated high status and respect but provoked protestations of outrage among Indian guests, when, for example, confronted with “chicken feet a la mode”.

More recently, the human rights lawyer and activist Nandita Haksar, in her entertaining culinary history The Flavours of Nationalism: Recipes for Love, Hate and Friendship (Speaking Tiger; Rs 350), gives a telling account of deep-seated cultural and caste prejudices that prevail among Indians over diets. When she married a fellow Naga student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a question she was inevitably asked was: “Does he eat dogs?” What people from the Northeast eat may be repugnant to some but even among her own meat-eating community of “downstairs Kashmiris” (that is Kashmiris settled in the plains), certain dishes, such as a dessert called “khubani”, cooked with goat’s meat, may seem unconventional to many.

Ms Haksar delves into the politics of food, in particular a spirited debate between Gandhi and Ambedkar on the prohibitions on inter-dining among castes and communities. Gandhi revised his conservative that restraint on inter-dining was essential for the “rapid development of the soul” when Ambedkar, in his attacking 1937 essay titled “Annihilation of Caste”, exhorted, “You seem to be erring in the same way as the reformers working in the cause of removing untouchability … Every man and woman [must be freed] from the thralldom of Shastras … [so that] he or she will inter-dine and inter-marry, without your telling him to do so.”

The debate’s violent spillover poisons the present with lynching of Muslims and Dalits trading in cattle and cow hides. Enforced bans on eating beef, and even eggs, are today the hallmark of vegetarian Hindu nationalism.

The proliferation of dietary bans now invades the lofty corridors of high culture. This week the National Museum in Delhi barred non-veg dishes being served during an exhibition on the culinary history of the archaeological kitchens of Harappan sites. When it became clear that the ban was due to objections by some MPs, a museum official explained: “This museum has so many idols of gods and goddesses, and a relic of Lord Buddha. International dignitaries visit this museum. We have to consider these sensitivities here.”

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Delhi’s debate: Development vs acrimony

The decision by Delhi voters on who will run the city government is a litmus test on a paradigm shift in national politics.

Column in Business Standard, February 8, 2020

Whichever way Delhi votes today — and there’s a fair consensus on who the chief minister next week will be — the contest to rule the city-state is distinct from others in recent memory. First, the action has shifted from the streets to daily non-stop barracking in the media and social media. No vigorous door-to-door campaigning, as in 2015, when Aam Aadmi Party volunteers collected modest contributions to cleanse a corrupt body politic with its jhadoo symbol. “Na khaunga, na khane dunga” (I won’t be bribed, nor let anyone else pay bribes) Narendra Modi famously said when he led the to power in 2014 but corruption no longer features as an issue for either party.

Second, the head-on confrontation was between two dominant figures, Arvind Kejriwal, the city’s popular chief minister, and Union Home Minister Amit Shah — a Sancho Panza fronting for Mr Modi’s Don Quixote — leading a divisive, communally charged campaign.

And, third, Delhi’s debate of versus Hindu-Muslim polarisation mirrors a paradigm shift in national politics. The BJP’s main agenda since last year’s general election, from the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir to the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposed National Population Register and National Register of Citizens, is now topped by speeding up (in Mr Modi’s words) “of a grand Ram Temple” in Ayodhya. The announcement in Parliament this week was accompanied by a chorus of “Jai Shri Ram” chants orchestrated by Mr Shah.

In Delhi Mr Shah’s hard-driven campaign and vituperative attacks have centred on a small stretch of public thoroughfare linking the city to the Noida expressway. Till a couple of months ago, when a group of Muslim women and their families started a peaceful 24×7 dharna to protest the anti-citizenship law, few had heard of Shaheen Bagh.

It must be a sign of the Hindutva campaign’s diminishing returns that the ruling party’s acrimony narrowed on the Shaheen Bagh sit-in (and student protestors on the Jamia Milia campus in the vicinity) as its major, if not sole, election plank. Both sites were viciously portrayed as hotbeds of traitors, Pakistani infiltrators, and potential jihadis. Some protest leaders were jailed on sedition charges and random firings erupted to provoke violence.

Many loyal supporters have been put off by the party’s belligerence and derailing of overriding issues such as the pollution crisis, which turns Delhi into a gas chamber for several months each year. One such example is our neighbourhood newspaper vendor, an educated, voluble young man who has steadily built on a successful family business, and usually votes for the BJP, including in last year’s national election. This time he was doubtful: “Angrezon ki policy thi ‘divide and rule’. Ab ki policy hai ‘divert and rule’.” (The British’s policy was divide and rule, the BJP’s is divert and rule.)

At a more mundane level, the AAP-BJP face-off focused on the public inconvenience caused by Shaheen Bagh’s prolonged blockage of a major artery to south Delhi and the Noida suburb. In an election fuelled by Whatsapp wars, a facetious visual meme asked “Faisla Aapka” (Your Decision) with as the obstructionist party of “Har Jagah Chakka Jam” (Roadblocks Everywhere) versus BJP that would ensure “Traffic Se Aaram” (relief from traffic).

Mr Kejriwal, who deliberately stayed away from the trouble spots, somewhat disingenuously citing law and order disruption, was pilloried for reading the Hanuman Chalisa but did not take the bait, carefully drawing the line between religion and politics. In a confident image projection of a leader in the CEO mould, of someone capable of managing the city-state’s problems, he stuck to his track record in infrastructure and promises of enhanced civic services. The BJP’s and Congress’ biggest failure was to find a candidate to compete for Mr Kejriwal’s job.

More than any metropolitan agglomeration in the country, Delhi’s populace has highly attuned political antennae. It has witnessed the coming and going of major national leaders, from Indira Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh — and is not easily swayed. Its politicised inhabitants are keenly conscious they live in a privileged and prosperous place, the established habitat of the mightiest in the land. For years the city-state has topped rankings with the highest per capita GDP, leaving Mumbai behind as the financial centre. Delhi’s airport is the busiest, its Metro the largest, its government-run schools better, and its fiscal deficit modest for a small but densely packed National Capital Territory.

The result of who gets to run Delhi will also, in its way, be a referendum on the deepening fissures caused by the BJP’s nationalist politics versus the pursuit of Mr Modi’s goals and promise of India becoming a $5-trillion economy in five years. Does his slogan of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” when he came to power today seem to be lost in the mists of time?

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A capital walkover?

Arvind Kejriwal’s housekeeping record as Delhi’s chief minister has worked. Will this enable him to cock a snook at Prime Minister Narendra Modi to win a second term? 

Column in Business Standard, January 25, 2020

Wherever you go in two weeks before voting day, one figure looms above all — that of the familiar topi-clad Chief Minister in his comfy jersey and muffler seeking a second term. It’s an image of accessible middle-class cosiness in contrast to the air-brushed spiffiness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is, as always, the BJP’s lead campaigner.

This David versus Goliath battle, of a little, local leader cocking a snook at a larger-than-life national heavyweight, is crucial for several reasons: Other than a fight for the same geographical turf its importance is magnified by a series of regional reverses for the ruling party, most recently in Jharkhand. It is also perceived by some as a referendum on the anti-citizenship law protests, longer and more vociferous in than anywhere else. (The extended Shaheen Bagh sit-in by women and children with their candles and talismans is virtually a tourist attraction, with the city’s hoi polloi braving the traffic jams to check it out.)

Curiously, many of the campaign tropes and totems employed by the two leaders are similar. On bus stops, auto rickshaws, and municipal school walls, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP’s) slogan “Acche Beete Paanch Saal — Lage Raho Kejriwal” echoes Mr Modi’s Acche Din promise of 2014, followed by “Fir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar” in 2019. Mr Modi trumped all political predictions in last year’s general election, detonating conventional notions of anti-incumbency. Might the same be possible for Mr Kejriwal’s second coming?

A repeat of 67 out of the 70 seats in 2015 may be hard for AAP to achieve today. But the race to take power in the city-state is also an endorsement of deliverables in Mr Kejriwal’s clearly defined development agenda. His housekeeping record in five years has worked, not just in slashing electricity rates and free water but in the vital business of ramping up basic education and health care. Radical improvement in Delhi’s municipal schools has shown successively better exam results (90.64 pass percentage) than private establishments (88.35 per cent). Our electrician, who lives in a rented tenement with his family of two children in a basti adjoining a government school, now regularly attends PTA meetings. He is so pleased by his interaction with teachers that he supplies his services free to the school.

Mr Kejriwal is busy gilding the lily with “guarantee cards” of more election goodies — cutting pollution by one-third, clearing overhead electricity cables, free bus rides for students in addition to women, clean drinking water in all households, and so on. If this is said to be party-hopping marketing strategist Prashant Kishor’s gift to hard sell Brand Kejriwal, then the message is not lost on Mr Modi. Hoardings with the prime minister’s image have sprouted carrying the lure of “Har Ghar Mein Nal” (A tap in every household).

In what seems a straight out AAP-BJP contest, the Congress is missing in action. Since burning their bridges with AAP over seat sharing before the general election, the Gandhis have frittered their political capital in the city they inhabit; post Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year raj the second line of Congress leaders — Ajay Maken, Sandeep Dikshit, and Krishna Tirath — are invisible. The BJP, on the other hand, has issued a yard-long list of campaigners that include nearly all the cabinet, chief ministers such Yogi Adityanath and Manoharlal Khattar, Bhojpuri singer-turned-MP Manoj Tiwari, and actors Hema Malini and Sunny Deol. It has given the ticket to notorious troll-turned-spokesperson Tajinder Singh Bagga, formerly of the Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, who once assaulted lawyer Prashant Bhushan in his chambers and tweeted, “He try to break my nation, I try to break his head (sic).”

AAP’s candidates, on the other hand, are names the public recognises for introducing professionalism in improving services: Deputy Chief Minister and Education Minister Manish Sisodia and Atishi Marlena in schooling; Satyendra Jain for spearheading mohalla clinics; and chartered accountant Raghav Chaddha, archetype of the boy next door, who lost in the general election to the BJP but points out: “I didn’t lose the election to [BJP’s] Ramesh Bidhuri. Modi won against me. In the assembly election’s narrative, the question is ‘Kejriwal vs Who?’”

Mr Kejriwal has also played it cool in distancing himself from Delhi’s hotspots, adroitly pandering to the BJP’s Hindu vote. He neither visited the scene of JNU violence nor has he dropped by at Shaheen Bagh. On the contrary he has busied himself with subsidising tirath yatras for senior citizens to pilgrimage centres around the country. And last week it took the chief minister two days to file his nomination — he was delayed not only by a rousing roadshow but by stopovers at some of the city’s more popular temples.

The election is exciting for AAP’s effort at turning the BJP’s nationalist, disruptive policies — abrogation of Article 370, implementing the CAA/NPR, attacks on the “Tukde Tukde Gang” — on its head. If Mr Kejriwal stages a comeback as chief minister on February 11, he will reaffirm his position as a disruptive political force in his own right.

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Lighting the campus tinderbox

Narendra Modi’s authoritarian streak is sometimes compared to Indira Gandhi’s rise to absolute power. If so, the triggering of a students’ agitation carries a fateful echo from the non-so-distant past

Column in Business Standard, January 11, 2020

The ill wind of rampant violence against students and faculty of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) by masked hoodlums on January 5 took place in some of the most miserable weather the capital has known, with temperatures plummeting to the coldest in decades.

If that was a barometer of national politics, then a bitter winter of discontent augurs a dangerous spring for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah ruling establishment and their Hindutva-fuelled followers.

From the blur of images of Bloody Sunday — students’ union President Aishe Ghosh’s bandaged head from wounds inflicted, Deepika Padukone’s flying visit, hundreds of protesting students gathered at the gates — some stark facts stand out. They suggest the complicity of forces on high behind the orchestrated attacks. A large police force turned a blind eye to several hours of mayhem in the students’ hostels, the street lights conveniently went off, and the vice-chancellor — a government appointee — fiddled, like Nero, as his realm burned.

To this day he has not been held accountable for his failure to restore order. Moreover, the assailants have not been tracked. And, bizarrely, FIRs were filed against Ms Ghosh as the agent provocateur rather than the sinister untraceable attackers. As a Centrally-funded institution, JNU has been very much in the government’s line of fire for some time, from February 2016 in fact, when Kanhaiya Kumar, its former students’ president, was arrested for sedition and criminal conspiracy for allegedly voicing anti-national slogans, a charge he denied.

Like his successor, Ms Ghosh, Mr Kumar belongs to the Leftist union and has long been denounced by the prime minister, home minister and the BJP’s students’ union as the “Tukde Tukde Gang” — by now a rather jaded phrase that started out to describe a bunch of “anti-national” students hell-bent on shredding the country but is now applied to anyone politically opposing government policy or ruling party ideology.

Like that other shop-soiled appellation “Khan Market Gang”, the label can be embarrassingly ironic. Two pillars of the Modi government, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Foreign Minister S Jaishanker, are former JNU students, and have had to issue cringe-worthy assurances that in their student days there was no “Tukde Tukde Gang” and they were engaged in blameless intellectual capacity-building rather than involvement in the university’s established Left-liberal leanings. (The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, indeed they often go together in places of higher learning.)

Judging by the spillover of students’ protests nationwide in expressions of solidarity for the JNU violence, infiltrating campuses and tampering with the aspirations of a restive youth population desperate for degrees and hungry for jobs can have unforeseen consequences. It is not the same kind of control enforced by military might in the lockdown in Kashmir or the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act through parliamentary legislation. Opposition to both has been swiftly and peremptorily dealt with.

Mr Modi’s authoritarian streak is sometimes compared to Indira Gandhi’s rise to absolute power. If so, the triggering of a students’ agitation carries a fateful echo from the non-so-distant past.

In 1971, fresh from victory in the Bangladesh war and a triumphant election, Mrs Gandhi was at the very zenith of her power. Her international prestige was high and her command of the party and state governments untrammelled. Yet it was precisely her tightening grip on controlling levers that made things go wrong — the lightning rod being the students’ unrest in Bihar and Gujarat.

In her incisive political biography Indira Gandhi: Tryst with Power (Penguin; Rs 399), the writer Nayantara Sahgal gives a detailed account. It was small things (such as recently protesting a hike in hostel fees) that set off the conflagration. In January 1974 a student revolt against food prices in engineering college hostels in Ahmedabad and Morvi erupted into a citizens’ movement against scarcity and misrule. That same year students of Patna colleges held protests demanding educational reform. In both cities there were police beatings at barricades, arrests, and bloodletting. Thence forward the story of Jayaprakash Narayan’s emergence as a galvanising force, Emergency rule and Mrs Gandhi’s fall in 1975 is well-known. “In her grasp of the nuts and bolts of the machinery of power,” observes Ms Sahgal, “Indira Gandhi installed a strategy of command that depended entirely on personal loyalty”.

The student uprisings of 1974 were not abetted by WhatsApp wars, Twittermania, or a body of outspoken supporters from the film world. The smashings and thrashings at JNU are right in our face; they force the most passive observer to take sides. As a pan-Indian (to use that overused but indefinable phrase) community, university students everywhere are the same. Everyone either knows a college-goer, or was one, or, in the basic human desire for self-improvement, hopes to become one. An ill-educated driver I once had, a runaway from rural Bihar, used to regretfully intone: “Sir, vidya se badi koi sampati nahin hai” (Sir, there is no greater wealth than education).

New Delhi’s rulers should be alert to lighting a dangerous tinderbox. Besides, the city-state will elect a new government on February 11. The voters will factor in JNU’s Bloody Sunday.

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A rapid reader for 2019

Strong fiction, unusual memoirs, musical odysseys and new historical research marked the best books of the year.

Column in Business Standard, December 28, 2019

In his coruscating slim volume The Uncommon Reader the British playwright and screenwriter Alan Bennett describes what happens when the Queen of England suddenly, and unaccountably, becomes a voracious reader. This habit is met with alarm by her staff and consternation by loyal subjects on her walkabouts. Instead of exchanging polite nothings Her Majesty starts quizzing the public on what they read and discussing the merits of Trollope, Dickens, and Virginia Woolf. A few misguided folk mention Harry Potter — “but to this the Queen (who had no time for fantasy) invariably said briskly, ‘Yes. One is saving that for a rainy day,’ and passed swiftly on.”

Whether you love or love to hate Harry Potter, Keshava Guha’s debut novel Accidental Magic (HarperCollins; Rs 599) is not just for rainy days. It’s the pick of the crop in a strong year for fiction — a hugely inventive and entertaining foray into the intricate, interlinked virtual world of Potter fandom. Kannan, the Bangalore boy’s initiation into American college life and the Yahoo! group HP4BK (Harry Potter for Big Kids), is an escape, an intellectual quiz, and an emotional link to diverse milieus and relationships. Vividly observed and articulated, it is a classic bildungsroman of our time.

Madhuri Vijay’s prize-winning The Far Field (Fourth Estate; Rs 599), deservedly praised novel, is a young daughter’s unsettling requiem for a lost mother, a brittle, high-strung woman who forged a relationship with a Kashmiri salesman. Her search takes her to the Valley, with the torments of an unresolved past intensifying turbulent lives stained by violence and fear. Fiction can plunge us into those dark recesses that no amount of reportage can; and Ms Vijay’s dense narrative is remarkable for its evocation of a fractured land. The City and the Sea (Penguin; Rs 499) by Raj Kamal Jha is also about a disappearing mother who fails to return home from work. Partly inspired by the Delhi gang rape of 2012, the book’s episodic, intercut structure weaves imagined, often dream-like realities in experimental form.

Several of the year’s best non-fiction titles such as Early Indians by Tony Joseph were reviewed here (“A bibliophile’s summer reading”, June 15, 2019) but here are some notable recent arrivals.

Shanta Gokhale, the novelist, prolific translator from Marathi, theatre archivist, and critic has written a memoir, One Foot on the Ground: A Life Told through the Body (Speaking Tiger; Rs 399) that can hardly be bettered. As a femme de lettres her British counterpart would perhaps be the celebrated Diana Athill, who died this year at the age of 101. Ms Gokhale’s unusual education in middle-class Mumbai and London neighbourhoods, her two broken marriages, earning a living, and bringing up a family are sustained by passionate intellectual rigour. It is the rewinding of life illuminated by candour, insight, humour, and brevity. On the perils of being a bilingual writer, she quotes Arun Kolatkar, “the quintessential Bombay poet” who said, “Well you see, I have a pencil with two points.”

Indeed, if life is being dealt an unpredictable hand of cards, then the most engaging memoirs are those able to shape it into a series of surprising sequences. Fiji-born Bhaichand Patel had many avatars — as journalist, barrister, and UN diplomat — and habitats — Delhi, London, Bombay, New York, and Manila — before coming to roost in the capital as bon vivant and raconteur par excellence. He has the talent of treating the weightiest of subjects weightlessly and making you laugh out loud. I Am a Stranger Here Myself: An Unreliable Memoir (HarperCollins; Rs 699) is a pleasure.

Two musical journeys added immeasurably to my year’s reading list. Those who admire Shubha Mudgal as a diva of commanding power and range may be unaware that both her parents taught English Literature at Allahabad University and she has a natural gift for storytelling and comic timing. Looking for Miss Sargam (Speaking Tiger; Rs 499) is her fictionalised encounters with characters and situations in the madcap musical whirl: Cut-throat producers, ambitious ustads, conniving accompanists et al. It’s a delicious concoction. Despite its genealogical sprawl, documentary filmmaker Saba Dewan’s Tawaifnama (Context; Rs 899), a fly-on-the-wall account of the kinship of courtesans and dancing girls in the geographically small Purvanchal region of Banaras and Bhabua is unique for its historical and social investigation. Among many things, it details, how male progeny are sidelined as second-class offspring in a matriarchal community that prizes girl children as bread-winners and keepers of musical tradition.

It’s been a fruitful year for scholars. A couple of works of history stand out: Kim A Wagner’s Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre (Penguin; Rs 599) unveils new research on the city as religious centre and commercial trading post. In sinewy prose it traces the roots of the 1919 tragedy from 1857 and the unravelling of the Raj. And for a history buff’s bedtime reading, Manu S Pillai’s The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin (Context; Rs 599) is the ideal companion — more than 50 tales familiar and unfamiliar.

Happy New Year!


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Dousing the infernos of urban chaos

Recent outbreaks of fire and deaths in Delhi signal unregulated urban chaos, the result of corrupt municipalities and polluting industries.

Column in Business Standard, December 14, 2019

A recent text message received from Defence Minister Rajnath Singh exhorts “Hon Raksha Mantri to flag off ‘Plastic Se Raksha’. Nationwide event from Delhi Cantt Board”. This was on December 7.

A day later, in the early hours of Sunday, December 8, an appalling fire broke out in a deeply congested area of Old Delhi, killing 43, mostly poor migrants from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand, several of them children, engaged in producing plastic toys, plastic photo frames, rexine bags, and suchlike. The sweat shops were packed with inflammable materials such as glue and plastic granules. The workers lived and worked in airless tenements, two and three storeys high; fire tenders lost much time in reaching the spot because the narrow lane was dense with vending carts. “There was no ventilation and the staircase was blocked with highly combustible material,” said an investigator.

With rampant illegal construction and no safety or fire regulation, disasters such as this occur with growing frequency across urban India. Earlier in the year 17 died from asphyxiation and burns in a Karol Bagh high-rise hotel. The police report noted “that extensive use of plastic, other inflammable material on the walls and partitions and a temporary structure erected on the roof” led to the rapid spread of smoke and fire.

The defence minister is only parroting the prime minister’s pledges and appeals to make India a plastic-free nation by 2022. But the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) begs to differ. Delhi, where the leading worthies of government reside, according to the CPCB’s figures, is the single-biggest contributor of (of the 26,000 tonnes annually generated nationwide), followed by Kolkata and Ahmedabad.

Despite window dressing such as banning single-use plastic in Parliament and railways, the chasm between policy pronouncements and ground-level action is ever-widening. For instance, the Waste Management Rules of 2016 have consistently been diluted due to pressure from plastic manufacturers, labour contractors, and the thousands of migrants employed in the sweatshops crammed into ghettoes such as the one where the blaze this month took a deadly toll.

Among other clauses, mandatory fines on shopkeepers using plastic bags have been dropped. On the contrary, the Centre for Science and Environment reports a 136 per cent increase in the number of grossly polluting industries between 2011 and 2018. Despite crores spent on cleaning the Ganga and Yamuna, carriers of plastic waste, the river in Delhi is officially dead — the CPCB claims its waters for 20 km through Delhi are actually “sewage from the Najafgarh drain”. As for Mother Ganga, it has acquired the unflattering reputation of a curiosity and charity pit stop for visiting royalty. The King and Queen of Sweden on their recent visit attended the inauguration of a sewage treatment plant at Haridwar even as the Jal Shakti minister delivered a sermon on the river as saviour of millions.

The aftermath of the rising casualties in the charred building witnessed ugly scenes of quarrelling among authorities — the fire service, the municipality, and police, all blaming one another. The bickering became political, with the ruling Aam Aadmi Party and the BJP-controlled municipal corporation at each other’s throats.

Hundreds of thousands of buildings are declared dangerous and unsafe after such disasters throughout the country, and the tinderbox of Delhi is no different. The capital’s municipalities announced the immediate sealing of 4,272 out of 5,236 units, with one political boss piously announcing that he “sought answers” as to how such illegal construction was allowed.

He should know. Corrupt officials and the police, together with local political henchmen, are complicit in the creation of potential infernos — one estimate reckons that 70 per cent of the city’s population live in unauthorised colonies, in unregulated buildings so congested that access by fire engines is difficult. The city’s fire chief went on record to say: “We have witnessed over 20,000 fire incidents in Delhi since January this year and 194 people lost their lives. We have no hesitation in admitting that there is a 50 per cent shortage of firefighters, keeping in view the area and population of the city.” Yet it is also a matter of record that in all the major fires since 2011, not a single government official or policeman has been indicted in any inquiry for negligence in building or fire safety lapses.

Leaders have come to treat the fires of urban chaos as par for the course. With customary hand-wringing condolence messages and cash compensations, the chief minister and prime minister proffered cheques of Rs 10 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, respectively, to each of the families of the bereaved.

As for the terrified survivors of the burnt-out building, who ate, slept, and worked in sub-human conditions, they hurriedly packed up the remains of their plastic-producing raw materials and moved on — to set up shop in new deathtraps elsewhere in the city.