Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

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Tamil Nadu’s game of thrones

Karunanidhi was a ruthless political opponent, steadfast in eliminating rivals in the DMK hierarchy, fighting MGR’s AIADMK tooth and nail and playing ducks and drakes with Gandhi family-led Congress

Column in Business Standard, August 11, 2018

Two themes have predominated Tamil Nadu’s Game of Thrones for over half a century: Films and battles of political succession. Without cinema there would be no M Karunanidhi, the state’s longest-serving, nonagenarian chief minister and patriarch, laid to rest amidst a swollen tide of grieving humanity on Chennai’s Marina Beach; nor would there be cult stars and mass leaders like M G Ramachandran and his successor J Jayalalithaa, who died in December 2016.

In a dramatic twist, typical of the scores of blockbusters he scripted, there was even a last-minute courtroom drama whether “Kalaignar” could be buried alongside them. Once longstanding cohorts of Tamil film studios, and later political enemies after the DMK’s split in 1972, their careers were inextricably intertwined.

Karunanidhi’s very first film Rajakumari (1947) starred MGR; later he wrote several of MGR’s hits including Marudhanaattu Ilavarasi, which featured MGR with his wife V N Janaki, whom Jayalalithaa successfully ousted to take over the mantle in 1989. It was who fashioned MGR’s swashbuckling Robin Hood image in Malaikallan, a film so successful that not only was it the first Tamil movie to win a President’s medal but was remade as the Hindi hit Azad (1955), starring Dilip Kumar and Meena Kumari. Yet no three larger-than-life figures could be more different in background and outlook. alone was the son-of-the-soil who came from a backward community, born to a family of temple attendants — MGR in contrast was an upper caste Nair of Malayali provenance while Jayalalithaa, a Kannada-speaking Brahmin from Mysore, alone was fluent in English.

It is often speculated how achieved his phenomenal literary output and coruscating script-writing skills. He had little formal education yet produced volume after volume of fiction, drama, memoir and journalism throughout his life. He learnt the classical Ramayana backwards at his father’s knee, but developed an autodidact’s prodigious memory that enabled him to recite Kalidasa’s verses by the yard.

Avowedly atheist and anti-caste, his film plots were message-laden with reformist zeal but the memorable dialogue came laced with witty sarcasms and stinging double entendres. His acid punning quips could alleviate the tedium of administrative meetings. A senior civil servant recounted an incident where police reports of an officer conducting an illicit dalliance at Kovalam’s beach resort were brought to the chief minister’s notice. Karunanidhi merely cocked an eyebrow over his wraparound dark glasses (the result of a botched eye surgery) and muttered, “Ah, kevalam Kovalam!”, the word kevalam translating from Tamil as “disgusting” or “sleazy”.

For all his anti-Brahmin, anti-Hindi political crusade and drive to establish Tamil Nadu’s industrial base he could be a traditionalist of the old school, faithfully dividing his time between his two wives, Rajathi Ammal and Dayalu Ammal. Visitors to his modest two-storey bungalow in Gopalapuram realised that the reason the house never expanded upwards was because, in Tamil custom, no house can be higher than a nearby temple gopuram(pinnacle) — and such a temple stood right across the street.

He was a ruthless political opponent, steadfast in eliminating rivals in the hierarchy, fighting MGR’s tooth and nail and playing ducks and drakes with the Gandhi family-led Congress Party. He opposed the Emergency, and was paid back by Mrs Gandhi appointing the Sarkaria Commission to investigate “wide ranging charges…[with] themes for a series of cine thrillers on hush-hush deals, murder cover ups, big scale bribery and the like”.

It came to naught — just as the acquittal last year of his daughter, Rajya Sabha MP Kanimozhi, and former telecom minister A Raja in controversial TV channel ownership and 2G scams. But Kanimozhi’s incarceration in Tihar was perhaps no greater humiliation than violent images of Jayalalithaa’s sari being torn in the assembly by members, which gripped the nation in 1989. She had risen to make a protest as Karunanidhi presented the budget.

Tamil Nadu’s political landscape looks decidedly anodyne with the passing of such celluloid-inflated figures and their high-octane dramas. How will the Game of Thrones now play out?

Both MGR and Jayalalithaa were childless and her succession was, if anything, Apostolic. Her aide Sasikala, also childless and in jail, must rely on nephews like T T V Dhinakaran who hold the purse strings. The ruling may have the numbers but it is a party fractured and orphaned.

Not so the DMK. Karunanidhi shrewdly anointed his younger son, M K Stalin, over M K Alagiri, rating his party management and inter-personal skills above Alagiri’s strong-arm tactics, which alienated cadres. Given a simmering family brew in the wake of the departed patriarch, the DMK may also lose steam by the next election in 2021.

To recapture public appeal, fading film stars like Kamal Haasan and Vijayakanth have floated parties; Rajinikanth is likely to enter the fray. But Kamal Haasan hasn’t given a hit in years, and Rajinikanth has health problems. Something more radical has changed — Tamil Nadu’s youth bulge will soon be 70 per cent of the population, many of them smartphone-toting millennials looking for gains more tangible than what evanescent screen gods can give.


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India’s faltering tourism industry

Why can’t a country that builds and manages airports of acknowledged excellence at home and abroad produce passports of durable quality for its citizens?

Column in Business Standard, July 28, 2018

Indian travellers to Bali are suitably proud to learn that its sophisticated new airport, with its seamless organisation, rated as one of the best in the world for handling 15-25 million passengers annually, is built and managed by the GVK-led consortium, which redeveloped and runs Mumbai’s international airport. is also upgrading or establishing several airports throughout Indonesia, especially at key tourism hubs.

But pride, as they say, comes before a fall. Two Indian passengers (one known well to me), just ahead in the immigration departure queue at Bali some days ago, were pulled out by officials for special scrutiny. Sheepishly they reappeared some minutes later with coincidentally the same problem. Their passports, both of relatively recent issue, were found to be falling apart at the seams. “It’s a common problem with Indian visitors,” the immigration officer explained politely. “Please go back and report to your government about the poor quality of ” In addition, he pointed out that the ink on identity markers smudged so easily it failed to register on computer terminals. “In many places these would count as damaged or suspicious travel documents,” he said. Some days later, after a replacement passport was issued at home, the local constable confirming an address check, endorsed Indonesian immigration’s “Just see for yourself how badly bound and printed are.” He regularly encountered similar complaints on his beat.

It’s just one of many contradictions that retards Indian tourism, both outgoing and inbound: Why can’t a country that builds and manages airports of acknowledged excellence at home and abroad produce of durable quality for its citizens?

is one of 50-odd countries that issues tourist visas on arrival for $20 to Indians but lately even that fee has been abolished. India, meanwhile, has just jacked up its visa-on-arrival fees from $50 to $80 (and from $75 to $100 for US and British citizens) to universal condemnation by the who were not consulted. “How will we double tourist arrivals if we hike visa rates? We are killing the goose that lays golden eggs,” Subhash Goyal, chairman of & Hospitality Council, told Business Standard last week.

Like many Southeast Asian countries freeing up financial controls to bolster tourism, visitors to can freely bring in up to $75,000. In India the limit is $5,000, beyond which, be prepared for declaration forms and paperwork.

Bali is just one of a long string of 13,500 islands that make up the longest archipelago in the world. Predominantly Hindu, traditionally hospitable, and about less than double the size of Goa, the occasional volcanic eruptions of Mt Agung have not diluted its galloping growth as the reigning star of — last year it was named by TripAdvisor as the world’s top destination in its Traveller’s Choice award. This little dot on the map drew nearly 6 million tourists in 2017 as compared to 10.18 million for all of India.

How did it happen? As a periodic visitor over the last decade I have seen the change: Bali is cleaner, with superior roads and services, and far better value for money — across a spectrum of budgets — than any leading in India. Goa’s recently-refurbished airport is shambolic compared to the smooth well-oiled machine of Denpasar. For many Australians (but also well-heeled Japanese) Bali is the perfect escape from arctic Antipodean summers. Some of the world’s leading architects and designers work or live here so the innumerable villa rentals are of pared-down minimalism in contrast to the profuse decoration of flower-decked votive Balinese shrines and temple architecture.

It is true that the commercial neon strips of Kuta and Ubud can get as raucous and fumed-choked as Calangute-Candolim in Goa; but in seven days we were only bothered once by an unsolicited guide. No provincial museum in India compares with the display and organisation of the one at Nusa Dua. In comparison a two-day road trip from Goa to Hampi not long ago was a hallucination of potholed roads, crummy overnight stay at the magnificent site of Badami, encroached temples at Aihole, and the filthiest public toilets at Hampi. As for the Taj Mahal’s precipitous decline, the Supreme Court’s ongoing harangue is a shout in the dark.

Because there is no competitive edge among states to attract foreign tourists — even though tourism overall contributes 6.23 per cent of GDP — travellers to India are broadly slotted either as luxury high net worth individuals or moth-eaten hippies. Despite India’s embarrassment of riches there is abject lack infrastructure and basic amenities to satisfy a vast middle segment of tourists.

Modesty is not a virtue prized by Indian policymakers.

Unlike our unaccountable, inefficient (but often-self-aggrandising) politicians and officials, Indonesia’s Tourism Minister Arief Yahya sounded half-apologetic in the Jakarta Post the other day, saying that Bali was a long way from realising its potential, when Bangkok alone welcomes 18 million tourists a year. He hoped Bali would soon beat Malaysia and Thailand.

India, on the other hand, analysts say, will count its blessings if it touches the 15-million figure in 2025.

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Corruption in the land of the pure

The story of Nawaz Sharif is one of his wildly fluctuating relations with Pakistan’s generals.

Column in Business Standard, July 14, 2018

Past edicts by founding fathers of nations have a way of hovering sepulchre-like over the present. Here is Muhammad Ali Jinnah writing to his friend, M A H Ispahani, the Pakistani diplomat and legislator, in 1945: “Corruption is a curse… amongst Muslims, especially the so-called educated and intelligentsia. Unfortunately, it is this class that is selfish and morally and intellectually corrupt. No doubt this disease is common, but amongst this particular class of Muslims it is rampant.”

Mr Jinnah, a self-made and wealthy barrister, with a client list that was the envy of his peers, knew a thing or two about jiggery-pokery in high places. As a shrewd investor, he possessed a portfolio of valuable properties, and even shares in Air India, but was never touched by the taint of corruption. When he left India in 1947 he sold his impressive mansion in Lutyens’s Delhi for exactly what he had paid for it (Rs 300,000) nine years earlier. He had no wish to profit personally from a country he was leaving behind.

The Quaid-e-Azam’s probity was not inherited by his political descendants in the Land of the Pure. Most leaders in Pakistan, civilian or military, have enriched themselves and their families beyond measure though the affliction is hardly unique in the subcontinent. The arrest of former prime minister and his daughter Maryam Sharif by an anti-corruption court (after they had already been barred from holding office) is utterly specious on election-eve, like cornering a big fish with a leaky net.

Moreover, catching him on his family’s holding of some posh flats in London is small change. As a billionaire-politician and brains behind the rise of Ittefaq Industries steel conglomerate, Nawaz Sharif’s net assets grew from Rs 166 million in 2011 to over Rs 1 billion in 2017. The novelist Mohammed Hanif put it like this: “If Sharif wasn’t from the dominant province Punjab, where most of the army elite comes from, if he didn’t represent the trading and business classes of Punjab, he would still be begging forgiveness for his sins in Saudi.”

The three-time prime minister’s suzerainty of Punjab (where his younger brother Shehbaz was chief minister from 2013 till two months ago) and spread of money power are part of the bone that sticks in the gullet of Pakistan’s military establishment. The big bit is the challenge he poses to the supremacy of the generals. Deconstructed, the history of is his fluctuating relations with the overlords of the Rawalpindi cantonment.

If one general, Zia ul-Haq, made Mr Sharif’s fortune, his successors — mainly Pervez Musharraf — hated him. If Gen. Musharraf had his way after taking over in the coup d’etat of 1999, he would have sent him to the gallows like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. King Fahd saved by negotiating his exile to Jeddah. But the army neither forgot nor forgave.

His stay in Saudi was roughly co-terminus with that of Benazir Bhutto’s exile in Dubai on corruption charges including a vast overseas estate amassed by her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who, in his get-rich-quick days, was nicknamed “Mr Cent Per Cent”. If Benazir hadn’t been assassinated in late 2007 Mr Sharif’s PML (N) party would have been in the doldrums.

But such are the quirks of politics that, from being relegated to the doghouse, he became top dog again.

And now? Can Nawaz Sharif return and whip up a sympathy vote to wrest proxy power again in the election on July 25?

In October 2016 Cyril Almeida, the Dawn columnist, broke the story of a showdown between Mr Sharif’s government and the generals (over anti-terrorist operations) that proved a flashpoint in the escalating confrontation. Both sides denounced the scoop as fabricated though Dawn stoutly defended his account as “verified, cross-checked and fact-checked”. For a time Mr Almeida was gated from leaving the country.

Mr Almeida is a soft-spoken Rhodes scholar and lawyer-turned-journalist. When I met him on his first visit to Goa in 2012 (from where his family had migrated to Karachi many decades earlier) he remarked how much he enjoyed listening to Konkani and regretted his inability to speak it.

Cyril Almeida’s writing is notable for its prescient, trenchantly expressed analysis and ironic style. This week in Dawn he argues how, should he return, Nawaz Sharif will find the odds stacked against him: “The Supreme Court [is] packed with future chief justices as far as the eye can see who have already declared Nawaz disqualified for life; a military high command that is virtually hardwired to regard him with suspicion or loathing; and a parliament and federal government stuffed with his political enemies.”

Pakistan’s democracy is about to be put to the test. The generals couldn’t care less about political corruption, being complicit themselves. Coup d’etats are out of fashion — not only problematic to execute with the unstoppable use of social media but infected with the nasty odour of international opprobrium. Their only desire is backroom control. Imran Khan, anyone?


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An old twisted tale of press freedom

Students of 18th century history may know the contours of the turmoil that gripped India leading to Governor General Warren Hastings’s impeachment but James Hicky’s crusade for a free press has never been investigated before 

Column in Business Standard, June 30, 2018

From the killing of journalists and to numerous recent attempts by governments to harass, intimidate and restrain media organisations, India’s record on is slipping ignominiously. Last month’s Index Report by placed India 138th out of 180 countries: It downgraded India’s position from 136, just one spot above Pakistan and one below

The struggle by embattled journalists to fight suppression by government, commercial and religious interests is an old, bitter story; it’s never been better told than in compelling new research by a young American historian and Fulbright scholar. The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper by Andrew Otis (Tranquebar; Rs 899) is the first fully fleshed-out account of the crusading life and miserable end of James Augustus Hicky (d. 1799), publisher of the weekly Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, which ran for two years (1780-82), before being thrown into jail and run out of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Desperate and destitute, his corpse was thrown off a ship sailing for China.

Wild fortune-seeking Irishman or scurrilous scandal-monger, the bare bones of Hicky’s story are widely-known — of how he relentlessly exposed the web of corruption surrounding the ruthless, free-booting Governor-General Warren Hastings, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Elijah Impey, and the German priest Johann Kiernander (whose dreams of establishing a grand church and schools for the poor were a self-enriching rip-off).

One reason why Hicky’s story has never been pieced together in detail is because some of the material is lost, inaccessible, or widely dispersed. There is, for example, no visual image of the man himself though archives bristle with portraits of the grandees of the time. Mr Otis describes what he was up against during his five-year odyssey among India’s history-keepers. At the Victoria Memorial they said 18th century records were being digitised. At the Calcutta High Court, the archives were all over the place and barred; he had to get legal help to access “bundles … wrapped in twine between wooden slats, looking like accordions overstuffed with crinkling paper”. This venerable court is key to Hicky’s tale for the libel suits brought against him by Hastings and the priest Kiernander, leading to his imprisonment. At the Supreme Court in Delhi contemporary records hadn’t been looked at since 1911.

The journalist Hicky’s story is recorded in the voluminous memoirs of the lawyer William Hickey (no relation), who interviewed him in jail. Intrepid Mr Otis then discovered that part of these were written in code and had to enlist a code specialist to crack it for further details.

What were the allegations of corruption and other misdeeds that the publisher of the Gazette brought against Hastings and the most powerful in the land? He showed that not only was Hastings’s wife susceptible to bribes but that the governor-general himself — in his quest for annexing Bengal and Awadh and during the famine that left 10 million dead — took money from prominent Indians to usurp the Nawab of Bengal’s power and enrich himself in other ways. He accused Hastings of forgery and even erectile dysfunction!

Students of history may know the intricate contours of this period that eventually led to Hastings’s and Impey’s impeachment but Hicky’s life has never been thoroughly investigated.

Was he “a rogue or scoundrel…who undermined the British empire…[or] was his newspaper ‘a gem of journalism’ unmatched and unparalleled?” High courtroom drama is an essential part of Hicky’s life. He chose to defend himself, arguing that “the mere writing, printing and publishing is no proof of guilt. The malicious or seditious tendency must be proved. Otherwise they ought to acquit the defendant”. He did not succeed. Originally trained as a printer he continued his campaign in jail, painstakingly hand-setting type to disseminate news — in itself a revolution that replaced hand-written bulletins. In the end his type was confiscated by a court order.

A considerable achievement of Mr Otis’s narrative is its structural form; he places Hicky and his newspaper at the centre of a much bigger canvas of India in turmoil. He also challenges the notion of subaltern studies to include not only voiceless Indians and their unrecorded histories but of a seething mass of European low-lifers who flocked to Calcutta — a “city of palaces” that contrasted harshly with its filthy, diseased-ridden jails and dens of drunkenness and debauchery.

However, given that he supports his wide research with 60 pages of source notes, his efforts at inventing dialogue to add colour are a mistake — a case of gilding the lily.

The chief merit of Mr Otis’s book lies in the mirror it holds up to our times — of deep-seated political corruption, and a conspiracy of control by the political, religious and judicial establishment to smother information and free expression of all shades of

The jury may be out on whether Hicky and his Bengal Gazette were the first champions of a free press but Mr Otis’s biography is worthy of top honours.

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A season of India-Pak spy thrillers

At a time of icy India-Pakistan relations the hottest tickets are for a film and book of espionage and spymasters.

Column in Business Standard, June 2, 2018

It’s a curiosity that during a prolonged phase of perilous the most talked about movie and book should be India-Pak  The film first: Raazi, directed by the capable Meghana Gulzar and starring the radiant Alia Bhatt in the central role, is the surprise hit of the season. Despite mixed reviews for its occasionally implausible plot Raazi is being hailed for breaking the glass ceiling for Daughters of Bollywood Inc.

It has grossed well over a smooth Rs 1.50 billion in the first few weeks — a first for a female director dominated by a young actress. (Both 44-year-old Ms Gulzar and 25-year-old Ms Bhatt are legatees of established film-makers of distinction.) That it is co-produced by Karan Johan and Times of India owner Vineet Jain also tells you how unusual partnerships can work in the Hindi film industry.

The story, set in the run-up to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971, is about a Kashmiri girl, knowingly called Sehmat Khan, who is pulled out of college by her nationalist father and trained as a operative to infiltrate the Rawalpindi cantonment by being married into a leading Pakistani military family. Her job is to pass on defence secrets from her married family home, including blueprints of naval subs, to her handlers back in Delhi. Sehmat soon turns killer as the plot lurches from one credulity-stretching situation to another: Do Pakistani brass hats carelessly leave classified documents at home? Are bugs with hanging wire taps in domestic kitchens and bathrooms undetectable? And are Rawalpindi bazaars, from flower sellers to grocers, really paid-up agents?

But who said fiction has to be credible — film-goers wouldn’t turn the novels of Ian Fleming or John le Carre into global money spinners if it were. The oddity about Raazi is that it is apparently based on a true story by Harinder Sikka, a former naval officer, who in numerous interviews claims that it is the real life of a Kashmiri Muslim woman he tracked down, post-Kargil, in the Punjab town of Malerkotla. He is hazy on further details about his novel, Calling Sehmat. “It was important to fictionalise it as it would have been dangerous for her family. Her son [from her Pakistani husband] is out of the army now, and Sehmat is no more.”

Mr Sikka is surely treading thin ice when he adds that his book is meant “to highlight one of the finest examples of extreme loyalty of the Kashmiri people towards India”.

Never mind. Mr Sikka’s pop patriotism is effectively exploited by Ms Gulzar, who also scores in her choice of a fine ensemble cast that includes Vicky Kaushal and Jaideep Ahlawat; and for her slog in scouring Punjab’s towns like Patiala, Malerkotla and Nabha to replicate a degree of verisimilitude of Rawalpindi locations where most of Raazi is set. In certain sequences her debt to Katherine Bigelow (Hollywood’s finest woman film-maker of compellingly gritty and war films such as the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, or the capture of Osama bin Laden in the recent Zero Dark Thirty) is evident.

What Pakistani audiences, with their unquenched thirst for Hindi cinema, will make of this Indian best-seller is uncertain. On both sides of the border, however, is being bitingly vented on The Spy Chronicles: RAW, and the Illusion of Peace (HarperCollins; Rs 799) by A S Dulat and Asad Durrani, former chiefs of intelligence. The idea to get two spymasters to collaborate was original but like many accounts by retired officials the result, assisted here by a journalist, is often tedious, disjointed and infected by a glutinous bon homie. Its notable consequence has been that Lt Gen Durrani has been summoned by military HQ in Islamabad and given a sharp dressing down. He now faces a formal inquiry and has been barred from leaving the country (much of memoir was recorded in cities like Bangkok, Kathmandu and Istanbul.)

In a scathing review titled “Chattering Mynahs”, Pakistani columnist F S Aijazuddin (Dawn, May 31, 2018) says the book should “be ingested with a pillar of salt which would dwarf Lot’s wife”. Among the gems that the two spymasters trade is Mr Dulat’s confession that “he would have loved being DG ISI”.

Part of the problem, Mr Aijazuddin suggests, may be the quantities of Black Label the two authors appeared to have consumed during its writing. “This book reeks of alcohol. There are at least five references to the beneficial effect whisky had on ‘lubricating’ discussions between the unabashed Indians and the bashful Pakistanis. To repeat E M Forster’s devastating review of the bibulous poet Dom Moraes’ book Gone Away, ‘one longs for a non-alcoholic edition’.”


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Modi in sinking sands

The Kathua and Unnao rapes and killing have badly hit Narendra Modi’s strenuous effort at global image-building. But the problem of rising crimes against women is India’s skewed demographics.

Column in Business Standard, April 21, 2018

Outside the Palace of Westminster there was a storm of protestors. Inside Prime Minister was in full cry in one of his well-orchestrated chat shows. The irony of this performance in this week — titled Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath — seems to have escaped him and his interlocutor, the party’s favoured adman-turned-censor board chief Prasoon Joshi. Some unintentional gems were thrown up. Answering a question on how he stayed fit, Mr Modi said, “For the last 20 years, I’ve been on a special diet. I take 20 kg or 30 kg of criticism daily. That’s the secret of my fitness.”

Unable to resist the spiel of his impoverished beginnings as a tea-seller, he said it was his habit to give up expensive gifts such as “silver swords” and “beautiful paintings”. “Wouldn’t anyone want to keep these in their homes? Not me. I auctioned them away and soon enough we had ~100 crore, with which we created a fund for the education of the girl child. That is my life, I have been so poor that these riches don’t affect me.”

Many political leaders are capable of cracking bad jokes and taking cheap shots but even by those slippery standards — from sheer brazenness to outright mendacity — some of Mr Modi’s flip remarks have all the subtlety of a slap in the face. The best offence being a good defence, it could only be extreme defensiveness, after the brutal reality of the Kathua and Unnao episodes, to talk of trading his pricey presents to raise funds for improving the lot of little girls. As for criticism, he must need a special protection of armour to face the outrage at home and universal condemnation abroad that the incidents have provoked, including from the IMF chief, who said she is “revolted” by the incidents.

After four years of relentless globe-trotting to build up his image as a world leader, Mr Modi’s reputation overseas has taken a severe beating. Gone are the days of his rock star appearances and rousing receptions at Madison Square Garden and Central Park in (“May the force be with you!”), wowing audiences at Wembley Stadium in London, bursting into a virtuoso display of drumming in Japan, and playing bhai bhai with the Australian prime minister Down Under. The days of tarting up the Sabarmati river front to host the Chinese premier, of organising whirlwind tours for the Israeli and Japanese PMs, dining with Ivanka Trump at Falaknuma Palace (the guests included a friendly robot called “Mitra”) and extending all-embracing welcomes that Rahul Gandhi calls “hugplomacy”, must seem a distant mirage.

There isn’t a media outlet or respected newspaper around the world that hasn’t expressed shock, horror and loathing at the blighted condition of women, especially young women, in India. The most-quoted statistic is that 40 per cent of rising crimes (rape, assault, kidnapping) against women involve underage girls. More disturbingly, a detailed fact-based report in The Washington Post this week gets to the demographic root of the growing attacks: There is an excess of 37 million males over females in India, a gap that is projected to become a chasm in the 17-29 male age-group in coming years. “The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice…With the increase in men has come a surge in sexual crime in India.”

It is not only that Mr Modi’s vaunted “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign now lies in a shambles before the world; much of the anger exploding on Indian streets is directed against Mr Modi’s party members, affiliates and sympathisers for shielding the rapists and killers in Kathua and Unnao. These are the people who form the core of his support base, showing, as the novelist Anuradha Roy points out in The Guardian, “that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity”. She quotes Tagore as foreseeing the rise malignant, home-grown nationalism. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.”

Mr Modi’s responses in this week are that of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand at the thought of an approaching maelstrom. On his government’s criticism by opposition parties, he said his problem was not with criticism. “To criticise, one has to research and find proper facts. Sadly, it does not happen now. What happens instead is allegations.”

To add to his troubles at home Mr Modi is in double trouble as he faces unprecedented flak abroad. He can’t seem to take it. Clearly, he is in the sinking sands.


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Life and death of a utopia

“Wild Wild Country” is a brilliant new six-hour Netflix documentary series that records the descent of Bhagwan Rajneesh and his cult into armed conflict and crime in Oregon between 1981 to 1985.

Column in Business Standard, April 7, 2018

Wild Wild Country is the title of a monumental six-part documentary series that has just opened on Netflix. In painstaking detail over six one-hour episodes it reconstructs the life and death of Rajneeshpuram, the 64,000-acre utopian commune Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh aka and his orange-clad band of international sannyasins, created in the boondocks of Oregon between 1981 and 1985.

I am neither an indiscriminate Netflix binge-viewer nor much of a Rajneesh-watcher, ever since I spent time reporting on this bearded, bulbous-eyed sermonising guru at his Pune ashram (“The Spiritual Supermarket”, India Today, July 31, 1979). So how watchable is this marathon epic that Vanity Fairdescribes as “something of a pop culture phenomenon, the latest opportunity for voyeurs to absorb an improbable, shocking, and sprawling true crime tale”.

It is utterly compelling — as much for the assurance of the two young sibling directors, Maclain and Chapman Way, in culling hundreds of hours of archive footage and contemporary interviews (without a single line of voice-over narrative) as for the galloping growth of the media giant Netflix. The online streaming service-turned-content producer of blockbuster series such as The Crown is today worth $130 billion (slightly behind Disney and Comcast) with more than 100 million subscribers. For a modest monthly subscription, viewers can watch a vast array of old and new films and serials (including a growing selection of Hindi cinema). Its big push as producer in India this year is fictional drama, a serial adaptation by Anurag Kashyap of Vikram Chandra’s 2006 crime novel Sacred Games, starring Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. But a host of Bollywood’s best talent is angling or negotiating film deals.

Wild Wild Country, which could well be subtitled “Sacred Games”, is stranger than fiction. In Pune Rajneesh earned notoriety for his advocacy of free love and rumours of orgies among his foreign followers; puritanical politicians like Morarji Desai were having none of it despite adherents including actors Vinod Khanna and Terence Stamp; in the small rural community of Oregon disquiet turns into hostility as the “Rajneeshees” stage a political takeover of the local council, electing their mayor, renaming streets and cafes, and swamping the town in saffron. While the Bhagwan himself — gliding in Rolls Royces and swathed in outlandish robes and diamonds — makes occasional appearances, the charge is led by his ambitious, loose-talking, publicity-seeking private secretary, the Indian-born, American-educated Ma Anand Sheela. Media frenzy builds up as she attempts to take over the district legislature. Denouncing opponents as “bigots”, her inflammatory utterances, TV appearances and press conferences are marked by an array of flashy designer outfits. She is both media trophy and media victim.

Dark underhand activity at descends into crime. Hundreds of potential voters are afflicted by salmonella poisoning in salad bars; bombs go off; the commune turns into a fortress as armed sannyasins patrol the streets and practise at a shooting range in self-defence.

State and federal investigators get into the act to unmask a secret surveillance network, mysterious medical lab and attempted murders (including a Sheela confidante piercing the Bhagwan’s personal physician with a poisoned syringe).

Inevitably the collapse of this is triggered by internal dissensions and factional feuds. Sheela is banished — Bhagwan abuses her in public — and is replaced by a rich Hollywood producer’s wife.

As the noose closes round him Rajneesh tries to escape in two private Lear jets with a few disciples and his hoard of jewellery. He is intercepted, jailed and eventually deported to Pune, where he dies in 1990.

Sheela serves a two-year prison sentence, retires to run a home for the mentally-disabled in Switzerland, and appears only too happy to give her account in an extended interview.

The questions Wild Wild Country poses are as layered as its dense plotlines. Is it a classic decline-and-fall saga of a religious cult’s deterioration into dystopian nightmare? Or a morality fable of epic egos clashing over naked greed and power? A disquisition on the roots of xenophobia or the limits of democratic freedom? It is all of these but, shrewdly, the filmmakers take no particular position, allowing viewers to make up their minds.

The story is told entirely through the voices of the participants — a large and gripping cast of real-life characters from besotted acolytes to terrified locals, criminal attorneys and investigative journalists. Although the docuseries broadly follows a chronological structure of what happened in those four fateful years, it traverses a complex terrain of weaving the past and present, and the shifting standpoints of the main players as they come to terms with their post-Oregon lives. Some appear broken with contrition; others are unrepentant or continue to believe in Rajneesh’s sanctity and spirituality. Meanwhile the desolate, rotting shell of has been turned into a children’s resort by a new buyer.

A formidable exercise in film-making, Wild Wild Country puts Netflix in a commanding position creatively in its conquest of new markets.


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Why PM Narendra Modi’s sheen is wearing thin

Hubris and arrogance are taking their toll on the BJP’s image. 

Business Standard, March 24, 2018

The word “hubris” in Oxford English Dictionary is summed up simply as “excessive pride”. It is the single-biggest reason for leaders who exercise unrestrained power to rapidly start losing their shine. In the controlling, vainglorious style of managing government and party that he displays, is sometimes compared to 

In a notorious exhortation in 1976, party president D K Barooah declared, “India is Indira and Indira is India.” Perhaps Mrs Gandhi took his grovelling utterance literally. It was a calamitous period when she had seized absolute power during the Emergency, leading to a humiliating defeat in the election of 1977. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, a milder species, also displayed moments of unalloyed hubris. In 1982, as party general secretary, he shouted at Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister T Anjaiah at Hyderabad airport, calling him a “buffoon”; Anjaiah was sacked forthwith. More alarmingly, as prime minister in 1987, Rajiv dismissed then foreign secretary at a press conference with the curt announcement, “You will be meeting a new foreign secretary soon.”

leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are known to quote these instances as prime examples of sycophancy that afflicts the country’s grand old party and its catholic adherence to dynastic succession. Instead, they might ponder the all-consuming arrogance that grips the “Modi-Shah” combine a year ahead of the next general election. In the wake of the abject reversals in Gorakhpur and Phulpur — and a series of defeats in other by-elections — the most commonly posed question today is: Will 2019 be the BJP’s 1977 moment?

In the copious analysis of the shifting caste alliances and SP-gatbandhan that led to the losses in Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and his deputy’s pocket boroughs in Uttar Pradesh, one MP from western UP was quoted as pinning the blame on the sense of “Ahankar and aham” (arrogance and ego) that prevails in the party cadres. “Our party rules in 21 states, or in alliances, that govern 70 per cent of the electorate,” he continued, “but avenues to respond to 1,300 MLAs are blocked. The fact is that most legislators feel ignored and unappreciated.”

There is a telling video clip — it went viral after the BJP’s recent election triumph in Tripura — that demonstrates how party veterans are publicly brushed off. It shows the Prime Minister greeting a lineup of dignitaries assembled on stage at the chief minister’s swearing-in in Agartala. Among them is the 91-year-old  He is bowing, hands folded, in a decorous namaskar but Mr Modi coolly walks past without acknowledging his greeting.

Among Mr Modi’s first actions on taking charge in 2014 was to mothball the likes of Mr Advani as margdarshaks, stopping leaders above the age of 75 from playing active political roles. But Mr Modi is both the rule-maker and the rule-breaker. Then what about the 75-plus B S Yeddyurappa, currently projected as the BJP’s candidate for chief minister in the upcoming state election in Karnataka?

Mr Modi’s disdain for public in media interactions is well established; even more so is the case of Amit Shah. Except for a bunch of oily cupbearers in the capital who perform at the duo’s bidding, access to the PMO is tightly monitored, trips abroad abolished, open press conferences unknown. The tone of sneering contempt — “You are just securalists who don’t count” — in which Mr Shah insulted the press at a media encounter in the Ashok Hotel not long ago went down badly. Journalists from Gandhinagar well-acquainted with Mr Modi during his long reign in Gujarat who seek interviews have been told, “doesn’t belong to Gujarat alone, he now belongs to India.”

Yet in Mr Modi’s “House of Cards” a favoured few can do as they please. Among them is Smriti Irani, who took charge of the information and broadcasting ministry last year. Ms Irani, in a hit-and-miss political career, has learnt the art of cultivating the media; less civil is her record with civil servants. Last year in an unaccountable action she transferred several dozen information officers of the Press Information Bureau, the official interface between the media and ministries. The move caused consternation as some were due for retirement. No amount of chocolate cake she sent PIB officers after the Budget has had the effect to mollify a resentful staff.

One of the BJP’s core traditional constituencies in Delhi has been of middle-class shopkeepers and traders. Bridling at 15 years of rule and the BJP’s national landslide in 2014-15 it put the Aam Aadmi Party, led by “Jhadoo King” Arvind Kejriwal, in power. Hubris is Mr Kejriwal’s middle name; Delhi’s citizens are ruing the day he became chief minister.

For some months many of the city’s markets have been part-paralysed by a “sealing drive” to collect fines for using residential floors for commercial use. The rules the city’s municipalities and is the small opposition in the legislature. Here is the party’s chance to alleviate shopkeepers’ distress and win back old supporters. But it is deluded in the belief “Modi raj” that will deliver them. Ahankar and aham have been many a great leader’s undoing.


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Celebrating India’s built heritage

An Indian wins the Nobel Prize of world architecture and a 90-acre garden with Mughal monuments becomes the new pride of Delhi—it’s a proud moment for India’s built heritage.

Business Standard, March 10, 2018

Were an Indian to have won the Nobel Prize this week media coverage would have gone into meltdown mode. In fact something nearly as momentous happened without the news headlines going into much of a spin. The 90-year-old, Pune-born, Ahmedabad-based Indian architect, town planner and educator B V (“Balkrishna”) Doshi became the first Indian to win the — widely regarded as the Nobel of world architecture — in the award’s 49-year history.


In May the venerable Mr Doshi will fly to Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum to receive the $100,000 prize and a medallion, inscribed in Latin and English, that sums up the greatest building practice as humankind’s finest achievement in three words: “Firmness” (longevity and sustainability), “Commodity” (functional usefulness) and “Delight” (aesthetic pleasure). In its citation the 10-member international jury, including Britain’s Richard Rogers and India’s trained architect-turned-industrialist Ratan Tata, said “has always created an architecture that is serious, never flashy or a follower of trends. With a deep sense of responsibility and a desire to contribute to his country and its people through high quality… he has created projects for public administrations and utilities, educational and cultural institutions… His solutions take into account the social, environmental and economic dimensions, and therefore his architecture is totally engaged with sustainability”.


Trained in Mumbai and in Paris under — with whom he later collaborated in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad — Mr Doshi said, “I owe this prestigious prize to my guru, ” His own trajectory and vast oeuvre of more than a hundred iconic buildings (from low-cost housing projects in Indore and Ahmedabad to townships in Hyderabad and Kalol to cultural centres in Varanasi and Pune) demonstrate two elemental truths that inform India’s magnificent built heritage over many millennia.


One is India’s ability to imbibe the best of foreign influences; the other to fuse the traditional with the contemporary in a holistic and uniquely Indian expression. What, for instance, would the Taj Mahal be without the contribution of Persian master builders and Italian pietra dura inlay? More recently, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s (AKTC) mammoth restoration of Humayun’s Tomb and its environs, spearheaded by the 44-year-old conservation architect Ratish Nanda, invited master artisans from Uzbekistan to train Indians in the art of ceramic glazed tiles that originally adorned many of the monuments in this World Heritage Site. In their time the creation of soaring Mughal domes, of the scale and perfection of Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj, were considered unparalleled engineering and artistic marvels.


On February 21 the Aga Khan himself came to Delhi to inaugurate the latest phase of the ongoing Humayun’s Tomb and Nizamuddin area’s revitalisation project. This was the clearing, redesign and restoration of the 90-acre Sunder Nursery garden site that has been carried out over the last 10 years, with 20,000 new saplings planted and 15 monuments restored.


The entire Humayun’s Tomb precinct is of course much larger and now covers some 300 acres and 50 monuments, including the urban renewal of the dense Nizamuddin basti centred on the shrine of the revered Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya and the austere but jewel-like grave of the poet Mirza Ghalib. It is now considered one of the most ambitious public-private initiatives of its kind, with restoration work seamlessly allied to social sector interventions in health, education, sanitation and income generation. (Visitors to Humayun’s Tomb alone have leapt from 150,000 a year 20 twenty years ago to 2 million at present.)


Coincidentally, over Holi weekend I spent three days visiting the caves at after a hiatus of many years, and came away pleasantly surprised. What used to be a chaotic, even arduous, excursion to one of the greatest sites of Indian antiquity is now an extremely organised, orderly and well-managed enterprise, with pleasant gardens, easy transportation and reasonable amenities. The hotels of Aurangabad were full to capacity, including hordes of Japanese for whom the Buddhist viharas, rock-cut sculpture and glowing frescoes are an important spiritual journey. Limited groups were allowed inside in rotation; neat barriers were in place before the dim but beautifully-lit paintings; there was no pushing, jostling or loutish behaviour. Our bilingual guide, recommended in advance by the hotel, was one of the best-informed, eloquent and well-mannered I have encountered in my travels.


is but one of the nearly 4,000 sites managed by the centrally-funded Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), an organisation often reviled for being overly bureaucratic and burdened. Its remit is spread over 27 geographic circles and costs the taxpayer Rs 9.4 billion. But judging by the experience alone some of this money is well spent.


In its eulogy to Mr Doshi’s architecture the Pritzer jury referred to his “childhood recollections, from the rhythms of the weather to the ringing of temple bells [that] inform his designs… through a response to Modernism.” And the Aga Khan, in his New Delhi speech last month, emphasised that without honouring the past the future cannot be served.


For all that is grossly misguided and mismanaged in Indian habitats, it is a good moment to applaud the continuum of its built heritage.

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India’s lost generation

Amid conflicting statistics of India’s unemployed millions a remarkable new book tracks some of their stories in the small towns and villages of the Hindi heartland.

Business Standard, January 27, 2018

It was British Prime Minister who said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”Before departing for the snowy slopes of Davos, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s faced serious flak for the government’s failure in tackling the mammoth unemployment crisis, dismissed it as “lies”. He said that seven million jobs were created in the formal sector in the past year. His claim, based on the data from the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation, was immediately contested by analysts as selective cherry-picking. And some days later an report announced that “the number of jobless in India will increase to 18.6 million in 2018 and 18.9 million in 2019, against 18.3 million in 2017”; it also added that 0.5 million more were unemployed in 2017 than what earlier estimates showed.

The number-crunchers can fight it out. But those looking for a qualitative account of these job-seeking, desperate millennials — uneducated, unemployed, or unemployable — that form India’s vast “youth bulge”, many of the answers are in a remarkable piece of work of reportage out next month.Dreamers: How Are Changing Their World(Penguin; Rs 599) by New Delhi-based journalist Snigdha Poonam is not, as the title may imply, about the “creamy layer” of the youth who populate English-speaking elite colleges, engineering institutes, and business schools, but about the rest, the chancers who don’t stand much of a chance.

For nearly four years, Ms Poonam trekked to the villages and small towns of the Hindi heartland to track some of their stories. Occasionally exhilarating but often disturbing, it is a deeply unsettling account of “a generation … of wealth-chasers, attention-seekers, power-trappers and fame-hunters”.

Mostly male, aggressive, with inchoate notions of nation and nationalism, they are the likely bedrock of Mr Modi’s majoritarian politics. Their chief form of communication is Facebook and WhatsApp; and the main desire to reinvent their self-image to somehow escape the perilous provincialism that imprisons their lives. Take the Singhal brothers from a village in Haryana, who set up WittyFeed, a click-bait website in Indore that uploads anything that will go “viral” — with 82 million monthly visits, 1.5 billion page views, and 4.2 million likes of FB, it is set to rival BuzzFeed, the world leader in viral content. The Singhals’ tightly-controlled Internet cocoon is a heady mix of moralising and Steve Jobs spiel. (“Bhaiyya becomes very angry if anyone criticises India,” says a Singhal employee while Mr Singhal himself issues a barrage of homilies such as “Live your life as if you were to die tomorrow”.)

The world of WittyFeed is a far cry from the life of Moin Khan, an impoverished balloon seller in Ranchi, who saved money by milking cows to enrol in English-speaking classes in one of the thousands of coaching centres in small-town India, and in 10 years was heading the American Academy of Spoken English. “There is a craze for me everywhere … People in [my village] … come home to hear me say something in English.”

Ms Poonam’s narrative bristles with small-time fixers like Pankaj Prasad, who finds power and wealth by filling Aadhaar forms for poor villagers, or big time scammers who lure gullible job-seekers with offers from call centres; it chronicles stories of abject failure, such as “Mr Jharkhand’s” search for stardom; and seething frustration, among rod-wielding misogynists fighting “love jihad”, and maddened upper-caste gau rakshaks.

Not many women feature in this “theatre of toxic masculinity”. One exception is Richa Singh’s bitter struggle to become the first students’ union president of Allahabad University.

I asked Ms Poonam (who is 34, the daughter of a retired IAS officer in Jharkhand, and followed her father’s advice to exchange their upper-caste family name for her mother’s given name) what it was like to follow the lives of so many strange, shady, often deeply unpleasant males. “A revelation,” she said. “Many of them had never had an interaction with a female outside their homes. They were often more nervous than me.”

When she finally married her long-standing boyfriend, Business Standard columnist Mihir S Sharma, last year, she confesses he was “horrified”. “Who are these people?” he would ask her. “All these losers you keep chasing.”

Winners or losers, what is the single-biggest transition she noted among India’s lost generation? “The Smartphone,” she said. “It has given them a new identity, often transcending markers of caste, class, religion, and place.” And what was the one thing that was unchanged? “Corruption in all forms, fraud, cheating, forgery. These are not considered crimes, rather they are par for the course, one way of getting ahead.”

Unsurprisingly, her book has been showered with plaudits by leading critics and opinion-makers. It’s been quickly snapped up by a British publisher and the well-known agent David Godwin is sold on it. It was recently launched in London and gets star billing at the Jaipur Literature Festival. What did she feel at the end of her journey among the Indian unemployed? “Very worried and anxious,” she said.