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Does India Need a Strong Leader?

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inside The Untold Story of Cabinet Formation l i f e

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t i m e s .

e v e r y

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Establishment The rise of a power elite in the age of Modi


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Volume 6 Issue 22 For the week 3—9 June 2014 Total No. of pages 64 + Covers

cover design Anirban Ghosh

9 june 2014

Ravinder Kaur

Narendra Modi is a charismatic leader who has been able to sway the electorate in a spectacular way, and that must be duly acknowledged, but to give his victory the character of a ‘revolution’ is something that requires more debate (‘An Indian Revolutionary’, 2 June 2014). If the reference here is to the economic dream world that was conjured for the public, then there is nothing very revolutionary about it. It’s a tried and tested formula that has been in circulation for the past four decades or more in different parts of world. Even if the reference is to The problem is that the the specific Indian writer never addresses context, the reforms the anxieties that many agenda has been around have had over how here for more than two decades. All Modi is inclusive a Narendra promising is to ‘speed up’ Modi government things that had slowed would be down under the Congress regime. In short, Swapan Dasgupta’s piece fails to locate Modi in the larger global history of ongoing economic rearrangements. This begs the question—what then is different about Modi’s win? In what ways is it shifting the old order? The problem is that the writer never addresses the anxieties that many have had over how inclusive (in all respects) a Modi government would be. Would there be space for dissent—a true hallmark of a democracy? What space would people like Togadia, Muthalik, Giriraj Singh occupy in the new order? And what might a ‘new India’ mean in the next decade? We need some cool heads to talk about this, rather than repeatedly invite demagogues from either side who appear unable to go beyond their pet peeves.  letter of the week Dynasty before Party

this refers to ‘Give Up or Gear Up’ (2 June 2014). Though the Congress suffered a historic drubbing, sycophants and spokespersons of the party are unwilling to pin the blame on the Gandhi family. It is rather surprising that at the Congress Working Committee meeting held to review the poll debacle, none of the party members had the guts to raise his/her voice to express the real

reasons behind the party’s rout, and instead endorsed the supremacy of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. And now, one also hears Congressmen call for Priyanka Gandhi to play a larger role to rejuvenate the party. By putting dynasty before party, the Congress will find it very difficult to challenge the BJP’s growing popularity and its strong regional satraps who are firmly established in their

respective states.

 KR Srinivasan

Far-fetched Comparison

the author of the article ‘A Venetian Lesson for the Lion of Hindustan’ (2 June 2014) appears to be a well-read man. We can always learn from others’ mistakes and experiences. But a comparison with medieval Venice is too far-fetched. We are in a modern age with a different idiom and matrix. Further, Venice was a merchant city state. India is a vast country, even by today’s standards. The Venetian example is not appropriate for us to follow. As for tolerance and secularism, Islam and Christianity can learn a few lessons from India. While the former is still violent, the latter was so till 150 years back. Who can forget the Spanish Inquisition? So, let Narendra Modi do his job without unsolicited advice.  Nini Hala

Let’s Talk Policies

it is easy to look back at the results and pinpoint the key factors that swung the election in Modi’s favour (‘An Indian Revolutionary’, 2 June 2014). If Modi had lost or not got the thumping majority that he did, the author might have been talking about the same factors and commenting on how Modi’s wave was just a ‘publicity stunt’. The fact is, Modi won and he won big. The reasons are many, and it’s time we move on from how and why he won, and start talking about how his policies might affect the country.  Sirish Adit ya

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innovators (L-R) Roshni, Rani, Fouziya and Sapna, outside their centre

The Slum App Kids of Dharavi APP-LAUSE

These young girls from Mumbai’s biggest slum have created cellphone apps for day-to-day use

Inventor was launched by Google in 2010, it was meant to give people direct control of their own cellphones. This app, by way of online tutorials, helps programming rookies create apps for the Android platform. Today, using the same application, a group of nine girls—all between 11 and 13 years of age—from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum have produced apps that solve practical problems and enable a safer environment for women.

When the App

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The girls study in state-run schools and most of their parents work as domestic helps. Their apps serve many purposes. One, for example, alerts users, via SMS, when they can access municipality-supplied water (always scarce), saving one hours waiting in a queue. Another provides details of one’s surroundings and offers a ‘distress’ button in case of danger. The third has personal health and hygiene tips. The apps are currently functional but still at a rudimentary stage. Due

to participate in a global competition called Technovation Challenge, the girls will get a sum of $20,000 to develop their apps further if they win. Nawneet Ranjan, a documentary filmmaker who helped source the money needed to develop the apps, says, “When I approached the girls with the idea of creating apps, all of them were eager to do so. After collecting money to rent a small room and purchase a few laptops and set up an internet connection, all the children would turn up every

day, for three months, to go through the tutorial.” Ranjan would translate the tutorials into Hindi for the children. Says 13-year-old Roshni Sheikh, “Initially, we thought it would be difficult. But with the translations, not only did we realise it was not impossible, it was actually a lot of fun. (Smart) phones have become very cheap and almost everyone in Dharavi owns one... If our [apps] are a hit, we can even charge a small fee of those using them.” n Lhendup G Bhutia

open 3

ritesh uttamchandani

small world







Smriti Irani’s education

cover story The new power establishment

34 saarc strategy

Ambush diplomacy

open essay

The sticky parts



Does India need a strong leader?

APPRECIATION maya angelou


The looming water crisis

A Great Tree Falls An American legend passes away, leaving behind a rare melody of freedom Lhendup g Bhutia


aya Angelou, the award-win-

ning author, poet and civil-rights icon, passed away on 28 May at the age of 86. She leaves behind a lasting legacy, one that has made a deep imprint on varied individuals: from writers, feminists and musicians to leaders like Bill Clinton, during whose inauguration in 1993 she famously read her poem On the Pulse of Morning, becoming the first poet since Robert Frost to do so at a presidential inauguration. Highly regarded as an authoritative voice on African-American culture, her most important and well-known book is the first of her seven autobiographical memoirs, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). The book recounts the racial discrimination she and fellow African Americans experienced growing up in Arkansas. One of the most oft-quoted lines from the memoir goes, ‘If growing up is painful for the southern black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.’ In a statement issued after her death, President Barack Obama, who had presented Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, revealed that his sister had been named Maya after the author, also saying, “Today, Michelle and I join millions around the world in remembering one of the brightest lights of our time — a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman.” What was remarkable about Angelou was not just her achievements—she won multiple awards for her books, acted in 4 open

Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post/Getty Images

and directed films and TV programmes, produced plays, apart from winning three Grammys for her spoken word albums – but the challenging and incredible life she lived. Born in St Louis, Missouri, Angelou came from a broken home. Her father worked as a doorman and naval dietician, and her mother, on different occasions, worked as a nurse, a professional gambler, a bar owner and an entertainer. Mostly raised by her grandmother, Angelou had to support herself in her youth by working variously as a night-club dancer, a cook in hamburger joints, and even as a prostitute. She also

worked as a streetcar conductor, becoming the first Black woman in San Francisco to do so. At the age of 17, she gave birth to a son. In her autobiography, she recalls that at the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s then boyfriend. After the incident, and the man’s subsequent murder, for which she felt responsible, it is said she could not speak for at least five years. In her early twenties, she briefly married a Greek sailor. After the marriage dissolved, she became a calypso dancer and singer, and started acting in plays. She then became involved in America’s civil rights movement, writing plays and essays on the American Black experience, and working closely with Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Apart from her writing career and activism, Angelou, because of her deep and expressive voice, also found fame as a performer of her own works. On the event of her passing away, the following lines from her poem When Great Trees Fall seem best to describe her legacy: And when great souls die, after a period peace blooms, slowly and always irregularly. Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration. Our senses, restored, never to be the same, whisper to us. They existed. They existed. We can be. Be and be better. For they existed. n 9 june 2014




A novel use for graphene





Rajinikanth’s cult

m true life



Sexual harassment

dra K Chan


o ra Ra

f o r calling a bandh in a state he is about to take charge of

On 2 June, Telangana will become India’s twenty-ninth state, and K Chandrasekhara Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) will become its first Chief Minister. His call for a bandh—on 29 May, three days before he assumes power—is therefore all the more unusual. The bandh is in response to a clearance

given by the Centre to the Polavaram Project Ordinance that merges seven mandals of Telangana into Seemandhra. Rao’s bandh is in line with the hostility that exists between the two new states over the division of property, government staff and assets. It is believed that TRS is protesting against this ordinance because Rao wants to delay the construction of the dam across the Godavari river, which is expected to benefit coastal Andhra Pradesh. If it continues to remain an inter-state issue, he could also use it for political mileage against the Telugu Desam Party, which rules Seemandhra and is in the opposition in Telangana. While Seemandhra Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has called for a truce over the matter, Rao’s party is threatening to go to court against the Ordinance. Despite being the power centre in the state, he seems to be behaving as though he were in the opposition. n



The politics of popularity

Hours after triggering a political storm by seeking a debate on Article 370, newly-appointed Minister of State Jitendra Singh was claiming that he was ‘misquoted’ Who, Me?

“ [Modi’s] intentions and that of the Government is that we should have a debate so that we can convince the unconvinced about the disadvantages of the Article”

—Singh to the press on his first day in power on 27 May


on able Pers n o s a e r n U ek of the We

Portrait of a fading star

“I seek to clarify that the reports in the media about my statement [on] Article 370 are misquoted. I have never said anything quoting [Modi]. The controversy is totally baseless” —Singh, in a press statement issued on the evening of 27 May


The Thackeray Dilemma with Pakistan, press the nuclear button, don’t take charge of an unimportant ministry— all these statements now stand forgotten. No one seems to take Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray seriously; forget snapping cricketing ties, the Prime Minister of Pakistan himself was invited to congratulate the new Indian establishment. The nuclear button statement does not even merit discussion; and the Sena’s minister Anant Geete, having stayed away for a day, took charge with alacrity after

D o n ’ t p l a y c r i ck e t

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Bashkar Paul/India Today Group/Getty Images

just a phone call from Narendra Modi. It is being said that the BJP is prepared to break off the alliance if it is not its senior partner for the Assembly polls, having an alternative ally-in-waiting in the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. Without the BJP, the Shiv Sena can’t win. Without the Shiv Sena, the BJP can. This, then, is Thackeray’s dilemma—play second fiddle, or break away himself? Ego won’t allow the former, and pragmatism won’t make him go for the alternative. In the interim, there will only be noise. n open 5


A Hurried Man’s Guide

On the Contrary

to the Recurring Top-level Resignations at Infosys

It was recently announced that the Infosys president and board member BG Srinivas had resigned from the company. Just four months ago, Srinivas, who joined the company in 1999, was made president of the firm for global markets, with various key divisions like financial and public services reporting to him. He was widely expected to become CEO in 2015, when the incumbent CEO SD Shibulal retires. It is rumoured that Srinivas was upset over some of his juniors being evaluated for the post of CEO. A former unnamed Infosys employee explained to The Economic Times, “How can you make him president and then let him compete against people who report to him for the top job?” The former Infosys CFO V Balakrishnan told the same newspaper, “He would have got an inkling that he wasn’t becoming “How can you the CEO. The Board should make him now speed up the process, compete against or else it could cause people who management instability.” report to him for the top job?”

Srinivas becomes the 11th top-level executive to resign from the company in recent months. Just last month, its chief compliance officer Nithyanandan Radhakrishnan put in his papers. Others include another Balakrishnan, who was also a top CEO contender, Infosys

operational head Chandrashekar Kakal, Infosys global sales head Basab Pradhan, Infosys’ global manufacturing head Ashok Vemuri, and Infosys Consulting co-founder Stephen R Pratt. All these resignations have come in since founder NR Narayana Murthy returned to the company in June last year. Murthy was called back from retirement in the hope that he could revive the company’s growth at a time when peers like TCS and HCL Tech were out-performing Infosys. Apart from the resignations, media reports also show that Infosys has reported an unusually high attrition rate of 18.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year. n

Paper Truths On the irrelevance of Smriti Irani’s degree M a d h ava n ku t t y P i l l a i


his is probably not a very apt analogy but to illustrate the point that subject expertise is completely irrelevant to results when it comes to a minister’s performance, consider the role of Lavrenti Beria in the making of the atom bomb. He was just Stalin’s policeman, but when the US nuked Japan, he was given charge of making one for the Soviet Union. And Beria, through the mechanism of massive terror and resource mobilisation, delivered for Stalin. A coarse unrefined man who knew nothing of nuclear physics had helmed one of the great technological achievements of the time. His boss, Stalin, was a drop-out from a seminary, but created an industrial empire carved over the blood and slavery of tens of millions. Stalin was self-taught and better read than most people in his country. An exam or a degree would have made no difference to his impact on history. Is it important that Smriti Irani be a graduate to be India’s HRD Minister? Should AK Antony have been a National Defence Academy graduate to be made Defence Minister? Did Murli Manohar Joshi, as HRD Minister, not try to foist Vedic Mathematics—which is nothing more than redundant methods of calculation—on the Indian educational system despite being a PhD holder? His doctorate made no difference to his parochial approach. It wouldn’t matter even if Irani were completely illiterate, so long as she has enough depth of intellect. It is absurd to equate college education with wisdom or morality. Most graduates would have forgotten almost everything in their syllabus a year after they get their degrees. And why would anyone who learnt how to build a bridge at an IIT or manage cash flows at an IIM be more honest because of that? The second charge against Irani— that she filed a false declaration on her educational qualifications—is more serious. In her 2004 affidavit,

she says she has a BA done through correspondence, and for the 2014 election, it has become BCom Part 1, which is short of graduation. This is going to be a hard one to explain, and even harder for people to accept, whatever explanation she offers. If you are a graduate, you don’t hide it ten years later and declare a lower qualification instead. If Irani did indeed make a misrepresentation in 2004, then the irony of it is quite interesting. The only reason to declare herself a graduate would be that she herself places a premium on an unnecessary paper degree. This way, she becomes an illustration of the opposition argument that degrees matter. And it seems like a useless claim to have made—she was not going to get a single vote The only more because reason to she had a BA degree.What declare herself may plausibly a graduate have inspired would be that such an act was Smriti Irani a form of herself places shame in having to say a premium on an unnecessary that she wasn’t a graduate. For paper degree a self-made woman, who achieved so much by the dint of her own toil, a degree should be irrelevant. That she should think it was not is the condition of a society that sees a degree also as a statement of character. Contrast that piece of paper against her success as a politician—she is now a minister after having lost two elections, and in the coterie of India’s most powerful man after having protested against him in her early political career. A successful politician is not necessarily a great HRD minister. But neither is one with a PhD against his or her name. The only reasonable way to assess Irani’s mettle as a minister would be by her tenure in office. n 9 june 2014


au to On 24 May, Hindustan Motors (HM) indefinitely suspended work at its Uttarpara plant in West Bengal, throwing into doubt the future of the venerable Ambassador. In a terse filing with the Bombay Stock Exchange, HM declared itself afflicted by worsening conditions, including ‘very low productivity, growing indiscipline, critical shortage of funds, lack of demand for [its] core product— Ambassador cars—and a large accumulation of liabilities’. Halting the Ambassador’s assembly line was perhaps an inevitable decision with HM in the throes of a crisis that has claimed several senior members of its Board; Managing Director Uttam Bose, CFO Yogesh Goenka and Director Kranti Sinha all resigned on 9 May. Apart from sclerotic sales (perhaps 2,200 Ambassadors were sold in 2013-14), HM is in a legal bind over its 2006 sale of 314 acres of land to the Shriram Group. The government of West Bengal is owed Rs 194 crore in taxes on the sale; both companies are now in a fix, as the state government has refused Shriram permission to start construction on the land until the dues are paid. Strapped for funds, HM even tried to hawk its Tiruvallur plant in Tamil Nadu to raise an estimated Rs 150 crore. This did not work out. What HM has done instead is transfer ownership of that plant to Hindustan Motors Financial Corp Ltd, a group company. This decision was taken late last





Mahindra & Mahindra


Tata Motors 5.9 Honda






General Motors






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Pawel Kopczynski/REUTERS

The Death of an Authority Symbol

END OF THE ROAD The evolution of India’s automobile market has made the Ambassador a thing of the past

year, and HM’s Chairman CK Birla stepped down just days after it. The transfer, executed on 31 March, was followed by this May’s Board exodus. In all this, West Bengal’s government appears keenest to set HM’s assembly lines rolling again. On 27 May, its Labour Department convened a meeting to find a way to keep the Uttarpara plant open. The state’s Labour Commissioner Javed Akhtar has contended that, “Hindustan Motors management [could be persuaded] to lift the lock-out”. Market observers see that as a forlorn

hope, a case of market naivete. Despite its iconic status as a sarkari set of wheels ever since its 1957 launch, the Ambassador no longer sells enough for viable mass production. While it survived the Maruti revolution, the past decade has seen this gas-guzzler’s sales shrink rapidly. In 1991, it still had a fifth of India’s car market— down from over two-thirds at its peak. Now it has less than 1 per cent. Even the Government, of late, has been buying Maruti SX4s for its officers. And India’s new Prime Minister is no fan of old authority symbols either. n ADITYA WIG

STATE OF PLAY Car sales in 2013-14 have slumped for the second year running, with market share gains made only by car-makers that have launched snazzy new vehicles

Source: compiled by Aditya wig infographics by tarun sehgal

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lo co m ot i f



What Kind of Strongman Does India Need?

he strongman concentrates the political mind today, not to speak of his domination of the headline. It’s as if the limits of democracy have become so detrimental to the ascent of man that a few of the boldest among leaders have taken upon themselves the job of rescuing us from the pit. In Ankara, Recep Tayyip Erdogan thinks he, not the restless and the romantic at Taksim Square, knows better. There is stability by the Bosphorus; the economy is no longer in a rut; the military, once the proud, secular legacy of Kemal Ataturk, has been put in its place by elected civilians; and secular fundamentalism has to a great extent been replaced by religious inclusiveness (read Islamic supremacy). National commitment of such a proportion is not without its side-effects: instincts of democracy may have to be curtailed for the sake of happiness, which, as so many of his types have told us before, is incompatible with questions; certain ethnic minorities and nosy journalists may find the place a bit dangerous; and an Orhan Pamuk may spend more time elsewhere than in Istanbul. Erdogan has company. In Moscow, czarist nationalism is in vogue, and Vladimar Putin is unstoppable in his mission to restore Russian glory. His extra-territorial domination (Ukraine being the latest example) is matched by domestic autocracy. In Putin Country, the constitution is subordinated to the will of the leader; and elected regional governments are as disposable as the inconvenient oligarch. But for many Russians, Putin the Terrible is a necessary manifestation of the strong leader their history is so familiar with, stretching from the czar to the commissar. There are more, and the cult of the strongman thrives in dictatorships as well as democracies. Egypt is on the verge of getting one after the fiasco of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi. Is it now India’s turn to be swayed by the strong leader? The rise of Candidate Modi was generally attributed to India’s yearning for focused leadership after the anodyne decade of Dr Manmohan Singh. Modi, in his self-portraits and in the words of many who admired him, was the leader born out of the

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despair of a nation unled. He could get things done, and his back story as Chief Minister of Gujarat was an exceptional piece of yes-we-can-do-it in the political lore of India. Good governance rhymed with strong leadership, and comparisons were easily drawn between his style and Indira Gandhi’s. The argument for a strong leader was inevitable for two reasons. One: the crisis in democracies was ever more pronounced, re-igniting the debate about the limits and flaws of the system itself. It was never the best, even if it was better than any other system of governance. Second: the crisis went even deeper in the world’s largest democracy, accentuated by a regime that undercut India for its own survival. An undergoverned India suddenly became the worst case of a democracy undone by its own freedoms, its own waywardness. The strong leader was a beguiling idea, and Modi was hovering over India, reminding us of the price we had paid for tolerating a weakling for ten years. Candidate Modi was a three-dimensional projection of the leader as redeemer, deliverer and protector, with iron in his soul and in his fist. It worked. Is Prime Minister as Strongman of India what the nation needs now? If you have read the new book by the venerable Oxford don Archie Brown, the answer will be ‘no’. As the title itself suggests, The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age (The Bodley Head) is a forceful argument against the strongman-who-knows-better, whether he is a democrat or revolutionary, autocrat or tyrant. Brown bases his argument on an unshakable presumption: ‘It is, nevertheless, an illusion—and one as dangerous as it is widespread—that in contemporary democracies the more a leader dominates his or her political party and the Cabinet, the greater the leader. A more collegial style of leadership is too often characterized as a weakness, the advantages of a more collective political leadership too commonly overlooked.’ So it is not the imperious or overpowering variety of strong leader, or those larger-than-their-historical size carnivores from the back pages of communism and fascism, that impresses Brown. Modi too is unlikely to fit his prescription for ideal leadership. There is something 9 june 2014

more than strength and weakness to the making of effective leadership. Qualities such as ‘integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgement, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy’. Brown’s argument makes immense sense in the age of Putins and Erdogans, and apocalypse junkies in Delhi have already started crying ‘totalitarianism’. But strong leaders, even Brown would admit, can be popular leaders too. Invariably, they are born out of the desperation of an impatient country. And they are charismatic. Brown leans on the Weberian concept of charisma—which is valueneutral—to tell us that the charismatic is not necessarily the ideal. Hitler was charismatic, so was Martin Luther King, and they were, well, different. ‘To a large extent,’ writes Brown, ‘it is followers who bestow charisma on leaders, when that person seems to embody the qualities they are looking for.’ The career of Winston Churchill was a cautionary tale: the legendary war hero embodied the aspirations and anxieties of a people, and the historical context contributed to the making of his cult. Yet, charisma did not win the post-War election for him. A similar trajectory can be found in the rise and fall of that most charismatic of Indian leaders, Indira Gandhi. ‘Charismatic leadership can be won and lost, and is not generally a lifetime endowment. It is often dangerous, and frequently overrated,’ writes Brown. The more useful categories of leadership, argues Brown, are the ‘redefining’ and the ‘transformational’. The first is about ‘stretching the limits of the possible in politics and radically altering political agenda’. Redefining leaders ‘aim to alter people’s thinking on what is feasible and desirable. They redefine what is the political center, rather than simply accept the conventional view of the middle ground at any particular time, then placing themselves squarely within it’. Transformational leaders, in Brown’s definition, are those who bring out systemic changes at home and abroad. They change the world, but, Brown clarifies, they are different from revolutionary leaders, who too could be transformational but the change is accompanied by blood. Sounding more realistic than idealistic, Brown argues that democracies are not conducive to the growth of transformational leaders. Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Lady Thatcher were redefining leaders; De Gaulle, Gorbachev, Deng and Mandela were transformational. He could have added Gandhi too. So who’s the leader the world, particularly the democratic world, illustration Anirban Ghosh

needs today? Brown quotes the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu: ‘A leader is best when men barely know he is there, not so good when men obey and acclaim him.’ This kind of perfection is hard to find, and it may not be the kind of perfection a modern-day leader can try to achieve. Still, Brown says a collective style of decision-making is better than the follow-me diktat of a supreme leader. Most of Brown’s examples in this context are from America: The big decision of the Harry Truman presidency was taken by his Secretary of State George Marshall. But the Marshall Plan—the post-War European recovery programme—had the president’s full backing. That said, ‘there has not been a transformational American president since Abraham Lincoln.’ In that vein, shall we ask: has there been a transformational Indian leader since Gandhi? Maybe we are asking the wrong question. Of the leaders in power, Nehru and Indira could still be counted as redefining leaders, and the latter had all the attributes of a strong leader that Brown doesn’t approve of— especially the Napoleonic impulse. ‘Given that it is reasonable to expect leaders of political parties in a free and pluralistic political system to have a prior commitment to democracy as such, and granted their need to connect with the wider electorate, it is dangerous if they regard the rank and file membership of their party as little more than a necessary evil,’ writes Brown. And his closing words are a warning: ‘Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making in many different areas of policy, and who attempt to exercise such a prerogative, do a disservice both to good governance and to democracy. They deserve not followers, but critics.’ Modi has got both— followers as well as critics. The strongman from Gujarat stood apart in a polity of ditherers and delinquents, and got things done. India doesn’t need a Putin, and it is not easy to be one in a democracy like India. But it certainly needs what Brown calls a redefining leader. Modi has already stretched the possible in politics, but to shift further the calcified pillars of Delhi, India may still prefer a strong leader who is not a ‘mealone’ leader. n

open essay


Maybe Some Paraffin For A Nation Stuck A letter to the Strongman of India

illustration anirban ghosh

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9 June 2014

Dear Mr Modi, Eight or nine years ago, while on a tour of the Cango Caves in South Africa, a woman in our party began shimmying through a tight tunnel between one chamber and another, but got stuck. Various people in the group tried to pull her out, but the more she tried to get out, the more wedged-in she became, a human cork. I tried too, but couldn’t budge her at all. After a few tugs, she shook me off. “I need a strong man!” she wailed in disgust. “Get me a strong man!” I thought of that poor lady just now as I reflected on your election. True, her problem was unlike India’s—obesity is certainly not your country’s biggest challenge—but her sentiment echoed what the Indian electorate said in no uncertain terms last week: ‘Somebody, get me out of here!’ Your supporters aren’t alone in this feeling. Voters in many recent elections have tried to send similar calls for help. I think voters of the populist parties in the European elections on Sunday, for example, were trying to send the same message. But will all these frustrated voters get their wish? It depends. I suspect this new class of European MPs is much less well positioned than you are to deliver anything positive, focused as they are less on solving the real problem—weak economic growth—than on finding ways to make life a little harder for immigrants. Your government, however, is another matter, given your clear focus on economic development, your solid majority in Parliament, and firm mandate from the people. With all that behind you, what could go wrong? Plenty, unfortunately. But the challenge won’t be fractious neighbours or communal strife or a Congress Party bent on disruption. If history is any guide, the person you really have to watch out for is a certain energetic public servant from Gujarat. Not because of your character in particular, but because leaders’ biggest troubles are almost always self-inflicted wounds. Fortunately, if you keep seven factors in mind, you should be able to avoid the most common disasters: One: The air is thin at 7 Race Course Road. It’s not only lonely at the top, there’s usually not a lot of oxygen. Even the savviest political alpinists, once they reach the summit, may be subject to symptoms that are surprisingly like altitude sickness—disorientation, hallucinations, and psychotic behaviour. It also has nothing to do with cleverness: even a character as wily as Richard Nixon was not immune. One case in point: by 1973, five years into his presidency, people thought he was losing it. Congressional leaders of both parties started to worry about his mental stability. The US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger felt his boss had become so deranged that he quietly made a rule that the military should not respond to any orders from the President unless he or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had also approved them. Two: Your friends always keep their best interests in mind. On the whole, friends in politics tend to be more dangerous than enemies. Politics is always a business of trading favours, but give too many favours and it’s easy to turn your government into a kind of private equity fund focused on delivering a steady stream of dividends to your pals. If the gang is just putting a ‘straw in the milkshake’, to use Professor Bhagwati’s simile for 9 June 2014

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The person you really have to watch out for is a certain energetic public servant from Gujarat, because leaders’ biggest troubles are almost always self-inflicted wounds open 15

corruption in China, that may not matter much in the scheme of things. But don’t let them take the blender. Three: Scandals are inevitable. You’re lucky in that you don’t seem prone to the usual vices that afflict public figures. As lust, avarice, and addictions don’t seem to be your cups of tea, you’re already ahead of the game. Even the disclosure of your marriage seemed more quaint than shocking. In the West, you would probably have to go back to Victorian times to find a plot line in a political story that included revelations of a secret marriage. But you’re unique. Outside Singapore and certain parts of Scandinavia, public servants succumb to temptation with dreary regularity, as if government were a factory designed to induce corruption. Scandals also strike both the Left and Right alike, although I think pro-business-administrations tend to have a particular propensity for money-related peccadilloes. This seems to me more a sign of affection than greater venality—I suspect pro-business politicos end up with more loot for the same reason cat owners are presented with more dead mice. Careful vetting of candidates will help reduce the risk, but they won’t get you out of trouble entirely. There’s just no end to the kinds of trouble people can invent for themselves—education ministers who plagiarise their dissertations (Germany); attorney general nominees who cheat on their taxes (US); a leader who cheats on his wife (practically everywhere at some time or other). Human nature being what it is, you might almost call a scandal a ‘normal accident’, to use the phrase of disaster sociologist Charles Perrow. The real question is how you handle it. The conventional procedure is to cover up the dirt and hope it never sees the light of day, despite the fact that this almost never works and tends to derail the remaining years before the next election. A somewhat rarer approach is to pretend to not be shocked. This usually works with the French, who have a high tolerance for various kinds of scandal (some presidents have even had extra-curricular First Families without causing much fuss), but this might be hard to pull off in a more conservative society. If all else fails, you might try an experiment that is seldom attempted but at least theoretically possible: tell the truth. Four: Vengeance is only sweet at first. I don’t know how many political disasters have begun out of a desire of the victor not simply to win but to out-and-out clobber the enemy, even after victory has clearly been won. Unfortunately, as Nelson Mandela noted, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Five: War is not a board game. Military adventures are always satisfying to start, but they often don’t end well, even for brilliant strategists. Think of Napoleon, one of the greatest generals in history: if he hadn’t gone to Russia, French gossip magazines today might well be filled with the antics of Napoleon VIII and various Bonaparte princelings. The twentieth century also

offers some instruction in this regard: things went badly for Mussolini and Hitler, but Franco, the stay-at-home fascist, ruled Spain for nearly 40 years and died in bed. Six: Fixers should be fixed. Often, there’s a choice between getting something done right away and getting something done right. Unfortunately, the changes that matter most in a democracy are the kind that don’t just accomplish a short-term end but change a process for good. Reform candidates tend to complain about the system until they’re elected by it, and promptly forget those suddenly inconvenient promises. Just ask Silvio Berlusconi. (You can write the former Italian premier, appropriately enough, c/o the Sacred Family Foundation, a hospice for Alzheimer’s patients outside Milan, where he is doing community service on a tax fraud conviction.) Seven:Watch out for falling hopes. Remember when the whole world was excited about Barack Obama? The Nobel committee even gave him the Peace Prize a few months after his inauguration, mostly because they were under the somewhat mistaken impression that he wasn’t George W Bush. But disillusionment can set in very quickly. There’s a reason they call those first months a honeymoon. Be prepared for voters’ ardour to cool, sooner or later. As the film actress Rita Hayworth, the star of Gilda, once said, “Every man I ever knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.” This may be an even greater risk for a candidate who is not only positioned as a break with the past, but who has campaigned on the idea of being a hard-charging, no-nonsense CEO. Politicians in a democracy often have an idealised vision of the CEO’s absolute authority, but the truth is that there’s as much politicking within companies as on the floor of any legislature. Maybe more, given the lack of party discipline. Jack Welch said that “public hangings are teaching moments”, but more of his success as chairman of GE actually had to do with something called the Workout that sounds suspiciously like democratic talkathons in which workers told their bosses in detail all the things the organisation was doing wrong, and the bosses agreed to fix those things. In the end, a strong man never did come to the rescue of my fellow tourist at Cango, but she was rescued by several ambulance teams who eased her out with the help of some rock climbing equipment and a barrel of paraffin. I mention this because a similar recipe may be useful at the Lok Sabha. You may, however, want to order extra paraffin. n

Fixers should be fixed. Often, there’s a choice between getting something done right away and getting something done right

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Yours, for a successful term, Bennett Voyles A US citizen, Bennett Voyles is a Paris-based observer of global trends. He was formerly with the Economist Intelligence Unit 9 June 2014

establishment 2014

illustration anirban ghosh

The rise of a power elite in the age of Modi



hen Dharmendra Pradhan walked up the red carpet covering the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhawan to take his oath as India’s new Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas on 26 May, he raised quite a few eyebrows among corporate czars in the audience. Given independent charge as a Minister of State, the diminutive BJP General Secretary, in charge of Bihar affairs, was an unknown quantity to many of them. In handing a high-profile portfolio to such a low-profile greenhorn, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sending out a clear message: the new regime would run this portfolio with an even hand, and there would be no bending over backwards to please any interest group. There was more to the message. Pradhan is now an enrolled member of the brand new New Delhi Club of 2014. The 44-year-old leader from Odisha was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2004, but lost in the subsequent election. Having joined the BJP through the RSS-affiliated student organisations Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), Pradhan is now a Rajya Sabha MP from Bihar. He is credited with the party’s stunning victory in that state. Today, he is one of the new power elite that has replaced the old Left-liberal establishment. In another age, Pradhan would have looked out of place. Modi’s storming of Lutyens’ Delhi made a Pradhan possible; and Modi himself was the ultimate outsider. His arrival in Delhi marks the definitive beginning of a new establishment, born of the wreckage of socialist ideals that dominated much of Independent India’s intellectual life. For almost six decades, Left-liberals dominated the country’s discourse. They have lost the argument this time—and with it, their apparent hold over India. The genealogy of the new establishment is already known. Its members are not your average power dealers usually seen at the Taj Chambers or Gymkhana Club, dropping names and nursing pegs of Blue Label. They are not the Keynesciting gurus of economics, updating their Marx in the age of globalisation. They are not the historians debunking the mythology of the aggrieved Hindu. The new order, though drawn largely from familiar circles of politics, bureaucracy, industry, academia and media, marks a cultural shift from the Nehruvian New Man, Indira’s Left liberal, Rajiv’s anglicised Camelot and even the right-winger of Vajpayee vintage. The new establishment is different in style and substance.

The geography of the new order is already visible in New Delhi; 10 Janpath and 23 Wellington Crescent (where Sonia Gandhi’s powerful political secretary Ahmed Patel resides) are no longer the preferred ports of call for the influential. A message or an idea to be passed on to the PM goes through a two-storeyed house in East of Kailash that is the private residence of the new Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley. Any new political strategy is first sounded out at a modest three-room apartment in Jangpura Extension that has become BJP General Secretary Amit Shah’s Delhi address. Unlike in previous regimes that thrived on gifts and presents, strict orders firmly discouraging both are already in place at both addresses. Also unwelcome are hangers-on, favour seekers and lobbyists. The making of the new establishment has an unmistakable Modi stamp on it. When he picked up Nripendra Misra for the job of his Principal Secretary, Modi signalled that bureaucrats in key posts will not be selected because of their political affiliations or other extra-professional credentials (such as ‘family service’). In the past, Indira Gandhi leaned on PN Haksar because of his Leftist credentials; PV Narasimha Rao allowed a larger field of play to AN Verma as he could anticipate trouble from rivals; Atal Behari Vajpayee had Brajesh Mishra as a close associate for years; and Manmohan Singh had Pulok Chatterjee by

his side at the PMO, a bureaucrat appointed by his party High Command largely as its minder-in-chief. Modi broke the mould by picking Misra. After the election results were announced on 16 May, Modi met and interviewed a host of retired bureaucrats for the role, Anil Baijal, PK Mishra and Ashok Chawla among them. The PM-to-be found he had a high comfort level with Misra, and had an ordinance issued—overturning his non-eligibility, his having been chief of India’s telecom regulator—to clear the way for his appointment to the PMO only after associating with him on work-related issues for six days. Misra, a UP cadre IAS officer of the 1967 batch, had headed the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) before he retired in 2009, and it was his wide experience as a bureaucrat at the senior level in crucial ministries—including Commerce, Fertilisers and Telecom—apart from his work ethic and reputation of integrity that are understood to have got him India’s top bureaucratic job. Choosing Ajit Kumar Doval, former chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), for the post of National Security Advisor was a no-brainer for the PM. Currently heading a Right-leaning think-tank (see accompanying story), the well-decorated Kerala cadre official has been a hands-on intelligence man, with ample experience in all the Red areas, as well as Kashmir and the Northeast. He was also

Tashi Tobgyal/express archive

BREAKING NEWS Media vans parked in front of Gujarat Bhavan, the new power hub

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9 June 2014

Any message or idea to be passed on to the Prime Minister must go through a two-storey house in East of Kailash that is the private residence of Arun Jaitley

credited with the 1988 success of Operation Black Thunder in Punjab, in addition to spending six years under cover in Pakistan. In December 1999, it was Doval and diplomat Vivek Katju who had negotiated the release of hostages from the hijacked aircraft of Indian Airlines’ Flight IC 814. Doval has also spoken his mind on regional parties, whose pressure on the Centre tends to result in security risks for the country. That Modi has handled the Rajapaksa issue well, despite sabre-rattling by political parties in Tamil Nadu, would draw applause from Doval, who believes political leadership is ultimately tested by national security. Make no mistake. Doval, like Misra, is a powerful member of the new establishment.


odi’s selection of his Cabinet members points to a radical shift in the power matrix of New Delhi. Pradhan’s appointment was not the only sign that Modi meant business. The BJP’s national spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman, who joined the party in 2006, was anointed MoS (independent charge) of another meaty portfolio, Commerce and Industry. BJP National Treasurer Piyush Goyal was chosen for the Union portfolio of Power, which observers see as yet another sign that the Modi regime would work even-handedly and not distribute favours to select and influential interests. The 49-year-old chartered accountant has been put in

9 June 2014

charge of the omnibus Ministry for Energy (encompassing power, coal and new and renewable energy).


hirty years of coalition governments at the Centre had forced the hand of Prime Ministers and their political parties to nurture an appeasement regime. Desperate for survival, the Rao regime rang in a climate where large sums of money were transferred to Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs during his tenure to ensure his government’s survival. Again, Delhi political lore has had it that the Manmohan Singh regime bought similar support in Parliament for its Nuclear Liability Bill. Prime ministerial aspirants, too, have made the best use of a bad system in the past. VP Singh, who rode to power on the Bofors scam, was known to have pinned his poll campaign on the basis of a little piece of paper that he claimed had the names of kickback recipients. During the NDA’s stint at the Centre, LK Advani’s ambitions were contained by the ruling regime that held the Ayodhya cases against him as a Damocles sword over him. In more recent times, the Taj Corridor and undue-assets cases were commonly known to have kept two of the UPA’s ‘friends’, Mayawati’s BSP and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s SP, reined in by the Congress at the Centre. It was such a political climate that made Delhi a playground for wicked legal minds. They worked the system open 21

Amit Shah, Modi’s most trusted aide, has been playing a key role in identifying politicians and bureaucrats to man important positions from his modest Jangpura Extension residence in South Delhi through the interstices, in a highly non-transparent manner, and were valued for that particular quality. The capital’s political ethos had changed, a far cry from the earlier years of probity and decorum. Backroom boys and ‘fixers’ thrived and created conditions for the existence of a parallel culture of shadowy ‘fix it’ men getting to influence and even fashion public policy. “In the process, legitimate business shrank. In many cases, business leaders took to working the grey areas of policy implementation against an administrative backdrop that encouraged this to its advantage; rather than make legal space for lobbying, as is the case in other countries such as the US,” says an observer of that ethos, one that was perfect for crony capitalism. Modi’s view on the role of big businesses vis-à-vis the Government’s policy priorities has been evident in his administrative agenda. His Gujarat Model of development is an example of this. “There is a legitimate and valued space for industry and big business in the nation’s economic growth goals,” says a senior minister. The Modi regime, he avers, is only directing businessmen and entrepreneurs to that valued place. The core of his message is this: let them flourish and create wealth and employment, but they should not dictate terms to the 22 open

Government or work the system to their sole advantage. By constituting his Cabinet with deliberate care, with a clear strategy, even going to the extent of bringing in administrative newbies to take charge of powerful ministries, Modi indicated to opportunists of all sorts that the PMO planned to keep close tabs on critical policy issues across portfolios, allowing little leeway for independent and unaccountable decisions by individual ministers. Effectively, ‘all important policy issues’ would be under his direct charge, and he, along with Finance Minister Jaitley, would vet all core decisions made by the Government. The buck would stop with the PM. The PMO is all set to become a government within a government. The power it wields and the fear it evokes make this part of South Block the vital centre of the new establishment.


hen the full extent of the Naval War Room Leak

case burst into the public domain some months ago, the media—fed by investigative agencies—went to town with astounding details of first strike meetings at coffee shops, poolside parties, clubs and dimly-lit bars 9 June 2014

Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Arvind Yadav/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

By appointing Nirmala Sitharaman (top) and Smriti Irani (above), Modi has shown that it is his writ that runs 24 open

in top hotels where serving officers and their retired defence counterparts (who doubled up as freelance middlemen for arms manufacturers) met and sealed the deal for the Scorpene sale to the Indian Navy, clinching for themselves commissions of $165 million for their troubles. The modus operandi of the fixers, middlemen and wheeler-dealers, complete with a honeytrap to lure defence personnel, exposed the murky underbelly of New Delhi. In the hub of the nation’s capital, a charmed circle of powerful and influential men from industry and the corporate world—politicians, middlemen, journalists and others—functioned as part of a synchronised and tight-knit network, influencing policy and striking commercial deals with elan. Their tentacles reached deep into Raisina Hill, the policy core of the country, and both fashioned and directed policy in various sectors. An entire network of ‘facilitators’ was entrenched in Lutyens’ city, and deals worth thousands of crore would change hands with every deal signed, sealed and delivered. Investigations have shown that the terms of reference for these covert deal-makers, who moved in the gaps and shadows of the capital’s power matrix, had changed drastically from the days of Bofors in the early 90s. The priciest commodity being sold for a commission was not merely a meeting with decision-makers, it was classified information on a particularly relevant deal: how far the file had moved, where the competition stood, what offer to which officer could nip it in the bud, and so on. The end may have been the same as in earlier decades, but the means included a widely and intricately networked ecosystem of wheeler-dealers and info-mercenaries who lived on easy cash and Scotch-on-the-rocks, their shady deals negotiated over power dinners and cocktail swills choreographed to perfection for the purpose of pelf. All the world’s A-list metros have their favourite dining and watering holes for the influential to meet, size each other up and clinch deals—in fields ranging from politics and art to publishing, banking and fashion to trade. Manhattan has its Four Seasons Grill Room, where captains of industry flock and where the phrase ‘power lunch’ was coined; Washington DC has The Oval Room; Paris has its Maison Blanche; and Beijing has its Imperial Club. Many of these are business-preferred hangouts, where legitimate takeovers, mergers, manoeuvres, sales and buy-outs have been executed over dinner, drinks and the clink of colourless cubes.


utyens’ Delhi was a late starter in the game of pow-

er wining and dining. But over the decades, from the era of Nehruvian innocence and austerity through the age of economic liberalisation (the pixelisation of the licence/quota raj) and at last into the current world of globalisation and celebration of conspicuous consumption, cosy power dining places only proliferated in palate and 9 June 2014

multiplied in number for the rich and influential. At once sufficiently intimate to cut to the chase and discreet enough to be impersonal, these luxurious meeting places lulled the senses and serviced all the tiers of high-stakes power brokering in the Capital. An intricately knit network feeding and dining off the Beltway politics of New Delhi had entrenched itself, and many thought this could go on forever. (The people and institutions located in the area bounded by the Washington Beltway are seen as politically and socially out of touch with the rest of America and highly given to political intrigue.) Just like DC’s Oval Room, the watering hole for the power brokers and corporate honchos of New Delhi had two prerequisites: one, it lay within shouting distance of the corridors of power on Raisina Hill, and two, it was conducive to multimedia communication, an imperative for the go-to boys of industrial giants.


hese tony spots for the powerful, ensconced in

New Delhi’s emerging power corridors, had their institutional beginning with Nehru. Ashish Bose, who was once India’s Chief Statistician, writes in his book Head Count: Memoirs of a Demographer: ‘Apart from being the prime minister, Nehru was also the foreign minister, and enjoyed his international image. There were about 100 embassies in Delhi in those days, and every other day there would be a diplomatic dinner in honour of somebody or in celebration of a national day. Nehru invariably attended these parties in the initial years after independence, till somebody advised him to appoint a deputy foreign minister.’ Bose’s uncle, Anil Kumar Chanda, was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister after he won Birbhum seat on a Congress ticket in 1952. ‘I knew my uncle enjoyed working with Nehru and I used to tease him: ‘Your job seems [to be] to attend diplomatic parties every night.’ Sometimes, I accompanied him to the diplomatic parties. The novelty of these parties was fun for me, but I found my uncle and aunt getting rather bored with the banal parties,’ Bose writes. Those were initial days, and

The PMO is all set to become a government within a government. The power it wields and the fear it evokes make this part of South Block the vital centre of the new establishment 26 open

THINKING RIGHT Vivekananda International Foundation has become a talent supplier to the Modi regime SUNAINA KUMAR


tanding at a discreet distance from the

thoroughfare in the diplomatic district of Chanakyapuri, is a building with a stone façade and a bland exterior, looking as dormant as the building for Kathak Kendra that shares its boundary. Outside is a blue board that says ‘Vivekananda International Foundation’ (VIF) and inside its forecourt is a life-size statue of Swami Vivekananda. According to the Foundation’s website, the building houses a stateof-the-art library, an auditorium, a conference room and cabins for scholars. When Open visited the headquarters of this New Delhi think-tank, we were informed by a woman at the front desk that all its members were tied up in meetings. The only sign of life, however, were the cars parked in front, some with red beacons. In the two weeks since the new Union Government has come to power, the Vivekananda International Foundation has become more than just another think-tank based in the capital. Two of the biggest appointees of the Modi Government are closely associated with it. Nripendra Misra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, is on the executive council of the Foundation, and Ajit Doval, Narendra Modi’s National Security Advisor-designate, is its founder and director. In the power circles of Delhi, the Vivekananda International Foundation is being viewed as a kind of policy talent pool, perhaps even a quasi-official arm of the Government that will help shape public policy. The Foundation is the brainchild of former Intelligence Bureau chief Ajit Doval, a man who has the reputation of being one of Independent India’s best ever spies, having undertaken daring undercover work in Pakistan and even infiltrating the Mizo National Army, among other achievements that highlight his long career as an

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ashish sharma

intelligence officer. After his retirement in 2005, he set up the Foundation in 2009; but it was in 2011, when it organised a seminar on corruption and black money, that the Foundation first drew public attention. As Modi’s campaign began with Swami Vivekananda as a central figure, the Foundation achieved even greater prominence. Rumours in Delhi suggest that it was at the forefront of the exercise to drum up international support for Modi in the run-up to the General Election. The Foundation is also widely believed to be at the centre of the movement against corruption led by Baba Ramdev. The Foundation’s list of members includes former bureaucrats and intelligence officials, and even retired army chiefs. Unofficially, it is dubbed a conglomerate of ‘spooks and spies’. Says a political watcher, “All its members have two things in common: they wield a lot of clout, and are right-of-centre.” On its advisory board are the former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing AK Verma, former-foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, former Army chief VN Sharma, former Air chief S Krishnaswamy, former Border Security Force chief Prakash Singh, and RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy. On the executive council is formerhome secretary Anil Baijal; and its research team includes economist Bibek Debroy as well. Requests for interviews with members were stonewalled and we were directed repeatedly to its website; but eventually we were able to speak with Lieutenant General (Retd) RK Sawhney, former Director General Military Intelligence and Distinguished Fellow at the Foundation. “We are like any other think-tank,” he says over the phone, “and everything we have done is on our website. Why this sudden interest in us? Although we are flattered by it.” The Foundation’s website lists in detail its research and activities. Its mission statement: ‘VIF is an independent, non-partisan institution that promotes quality research and in-depth studies and is a platform for dialogue and conflict resolution.’ It invites scholars and subject specialists for conferences and lectures, while its areas of research include national security, international relations and diplomacy, technological and scientific studies as well as neighbourhood studies. Some experts who have delivered talks in recent months: Vice Admiral (Retd) Anup Singh, SY Quraishi, former chief election commissioner and VK Saraswat, former scientific advisor to India’s Ministry of Defence. In the month of May, it hosted a book release; the book was titled Bangladesh Migrants: A Threat to India, written by PK Mishra, Senior Fellow at the Foundation, and also released a paper by Major General (Retd) PK

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BUILDING IDEAS The facade of the Vivekananda International Foundation, a think-tank in New Delhi

Chakravorty on the need for India-Japan-Vietnam strategic partnerships to counter the hegemony of China. A paper by Visiting Fellow Radhakrishna Rao urges the new Government to fix the defence production scenario of the country and reduce imports of arms and ammunition. Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University says that all governments rely on thinktanks for track III diplomacy and the new dispensation will turn to the Foundation for these services. He adds, “Even if not Hindutva-oriented, VIF is a proponent of the strong state and that agenda will be pushed.” As Chenoy says, think-tanks around the world and in India are increasingly eschewing research for political advocacy. Chatham House, the most influential think-tank in the United Kingdom, commissioned a study earlier this year on the growing role of thinktanks in shaping the policy-making process in the Western world. As institutions like these veer away from policy research and towards high-level decision making, this change is sure to be reflected in India, which, after the US, China and United Kingdom, has the fourth largest number of think-tanks in the world. n

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social meetings were relatively simple affairs, by and large, only aimed at getting to know each other and staying up-to-date on developments around the world. Things have changed drastically in other fields as well. Consider the role of media ‘professionals’ in the deals that are brokered in Delhi. If an expose not too long ago—that of the so-called ‘Radia Tapes’—was all about how media members jostled to play kingmakers in key appointments, helping slot the ‘right’ man in the ‘right’ ministry on behalf of corporate interests, it was perhaps the outcome of a cronyist culture that Delhi’s power brokers have spawned. It has long been suspected that various special interests have journalists who bat overtly or covertly for them on issues of public debate, but revelations that so many media people are intricately wound up with much that happens behind the scenes came as a rude shock to observers. Gone are the days that journalists put in legwork in the corridors of power, downing unpalatable tea in sundry government officers as they hunted for that big news

break. News breaks—including minutes of classified meetings—would now be leaked selectively to those who had been recruited to a special cause.


he vice-like grip of Delhi’s entrenched elite and

ideological cliques extended to institutions—educational, and those dedicated to historical research. The Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), set up in 1966 after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death in his converted official residence, spreads across 30 acres of land next to Rashtrapati Bhavan. It has a library added to it, containing the private papers of the nation’s first Prime Minister and of luminaries of India’s freedom struggle. The objective was to promote ‘original research’ in modern Indian history, with ‘special reference’ to the Nehruvian era. Under the Ministry of Culture, the library had for decades been controlled by the Nehru-Gandhi family. Congress President Sonia Gandhi was its chairperson until 16 May. Many of its council’s members were either Congressmen

Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

In his top bureaucratic appointments, Modi has placed a premium on merit rather than loyalty or party diktat

MODI’S MEN Nripendra Misra (left) and Ajit Doval (right) 28 open

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ANOTHER SIGNAL OF INTENT Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s new Oil minister

and women, or those considered close to her. In the dying days of the UPA regime, however, the three-year term for NMML Director Mahesh Rangarajan was quietly extended to a longer term—until he turns 60 years of age, ten years from now. But after the death blow that the 2014 polls dealt the Congress, Sonia Gandhi had no option but to cede power at the institution. Prime Minister Modi is now set to function as its head; under the previous NDA regime, it was Vajpayee who headed it. Another institution over which an entrenched clique held sway for decades is the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), created on 23 acres of prime land in 1987 by Rajiv Gandhi in memory of his mother. Pupul Jayakar, who oversaw its establishment and had reigned as a cultural czarina for years, was especially close to the Congress’ First Family. Over Rs 134 crore of the taxpayer’s money has thus far been allocated to the IGNCA, but its decision-making bodies are chock-a-block with Congress-leaning members. Its Board of Trustees is led by former diplomat and IGNCA President Chinmaya Gharekhan and includes Kapila Vatsyayan. Yet another fiefdom for those of Congress persuasion or close to the Family is the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation 9 June 2014

(RGF), set up in 1991 by Sonia Gandhi, also its chairperson. This, again, occupies prime real estate that was once planned for the Congress headquarters, currently at 24 Akbar Road. The RGF was converted to a private trust by Sonia Gandhi. In 2012, its audited accounts were sought by the Delhi High Court, but in 2009, the RGF refused to reveal its accounts in response to an application filed under the RTI Act. It stated that ‘only 4 per cent of our overall funding is from the government’, dubbing this an ‘insignificant’ amount.


here are several other set-ups in New Delhi that

have for decades been governed in a manner seen as servile to interests on only one side of the political spectrum: the Left-liberal one. For an outsider to Delhi like Modi, breaking an old power matrix of more than six decades may seem like a difficult task. But as Richard Nixon—the man credited with coining the idea of ‘Beltway politics’—found out to his utter dismay and downfall, the Beltway was breakable. The new New Delhi order under Narendra Modi may be a work-in-progress, but it has already breached the capital’s Beltway. n open 29

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A Matter-of-Modi Mi How the Prime Minister chose his ministers. The inside story




n the morning of 26 May, when priests from the Lord Venkateshwara temple of Tirupati visited Narendra Modi at Delhi’s Gujarat Bhavan to offer him blessings, the BJP heavyweight who was to swear in as Prime Minister that day insisted that they stay on until his council of ministers joined him. Their names had not yet been made public; and so Modi called up all ministers-to-be and asked them to report immediately to Gujarat Bhavan to accept blessings from the priests of the famous Vedic temple in the hill town of Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. Modi’s logic was that his performance as Prime Minister depended on that of each person in his council. “Blessing me alone isn’t enough. All ministers need your blessings,” Modi told the priests of the temple he had visited a month earlier at the height of the poll campaign, his first visit to the temple in the foothills of the Eastern Ghats. Arun Jaitley had not as yet arrived for the function; and as soon as Modi appeared at the venue, the former Gujarat Chief Minister asked, “Where is Arunji?” The former Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha joined the group a little later. Soon after, Modi suggested that the members of the group introduce themselves, since there were many first-time MPs. The new Prime Minister is known to have spoken to his team of the need for hard work and diligence to meet people’s expectations. Later in the day, Modi was piqued that details of the composition of his council of ministers had been leaked. The 63-year-old fourteenth Prime Minister of India showed his displeasure by forcing a delay in the announcement of the name of the speaker—that of Sumitra Mahajan, a veteran MP from Madhya Pradesh. Though such leaking of information to the media is par for the course in Delhi, the NDA chairman has found it a betrayal of the trust he reposed in the key members of his team. And his veiled message, presumably, was not lost on anyone. “The no-nonsense attitude of Modi is very clear. He doesn’t want any of his team members to shoot their mouth off or engage the media in a quid pro quo manner. This is a strong warning for any such people. Sometimes Modi’s silence is very loud,” says a senior BJP leader.

In allocating portfolios, Modi has performed quite the balancing act by offering the plum Ministry of External Affairs to Sushma Swaraj, until recently a diehard critic. Swaraj had insisted that she wanted a key post—something that Modi could have turned down, according to people close to the matter. But he didn’t, because, after all, most of the other ministers are his own men and women, and Swaraj’s wings have been clipped whether or not she joins the Government. With an emphatic win at the polls securing enough numbers for the BJP to run a government on its own, Modi is now simply the most powerful Indian political leader of his generation. While making such concessions to those who waged a prolonged war against him—Swaraj had opposed Modi’s nomination as the BJP campaign spearhead, and later his being pitched as the PM candidate as well; not to mention opposing the nomination of Amit Shah as pradhan (party in-charge) of Uttar Pradesh—Modi also flexed his muscles to get people he trusts top-notch positions in the Cabinet. Arun Jaitley, who had zealously campaigned to make Modi the PM candidate, was rewarded with the coveted Ministries of Finance, Corporate Affairs and Defence, contrary to expectations in a section of the media that losing the Lok Sabha election from Amritsar meant he would lose his political clout within the BJP. A newspaper went to the extent of speculating that he was in competition with his junior colleague Ravi Shankar Prasad for the Law and Justice portfolio. Though Jaitley is expected to hand over Defence in July following an expected reshuffle, he will remain one of the most powerful ministers in Modi’s Cabinet and many party insiders believe that the master strategist has been duly recognised for his efforts. By naming 38-year-old former soap opera queen Smriti Irani to a Cabinet post— she will hold the Human Resources portfolio, which is typically the preserve of senior Cabinet colleagues—Modi has sent out a bold message that a BJP leader describes as “a power statement that his writ alone would run in the new dispensation”. “Giving a ministerial berth to Nirmala Sitharaman was another such statement, open 31

Qamar Sibtain/India Today Group/Getty Images

The Cabinet formation exercise saw Modi neutralising all opposition to his leadership especially for the consumption of his detractors within,” he adds. Sitharaman, an articulate spokesperson of the BJP, has been made Minister of State with independent charge of the Ministry of Commerce, besides being junior minister to Jaitley in Finance and Corporate Affairs. She has not shared the best of ties with Swaraj. In fact, the two had slugged it out on social networking site Twitter over the Telangana issue. The senior BJP leadership had to intervene to bring an end to the public spat. Incidentally, politicians alleged to be beneficiaries of corporate largesse have been excluded by Modi, who has vowed to run a cohesive and high-powered Prime Minister’s Office. In response to sharp accusations by Left liberals of having corporatised the polls, a BJP leader says that the new dispensation would not embrace the corporate classes in private, as the Congress and previous governments have done. “No such interaction with [the corporate world] would be secretive,” he adds. Historically, the Congress has been the biggest beneficiary of poll funds from India’s corporate houses that have meticulously financed elections in return for anointing favourites in crucial ministries, making it possible for policies to be tweaked in their favour. “Though our leadership will be friendly with [the corporate world], such manipulations to make huge profits out of funding won’t happen anymore,” the BJP leader avers. Modi, according to party insiders, has kept at arm’s length leaders of his coalition with a known propensity for striking gold while in power. The omission of former Union Minister Rajiv Pratap Rudy, who defeated RJD chief Lalu Prasad’s wife and former Chief Minister Rabri Devi for the Saran Lok Sabha seat, 32 open

also-ran veterans LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi; Sushma Swaraj takes her oath as Cabinet Minister (right)

means that leaders who have come “under the needle of suspicion for corruption” have been kept out, says a BJP leader. Rudy, the flamboyant BJP politician who was Minister for Civil Aviation in the AB Vajpayee Government, had come under media scrutiny years ago in a case involving non-payment of hotel bills. Modi also wanted to make sure that nobody who could be easily influenced by corporate houses made it to his team. By choosing younger leaders such as Piyush Goyal, 49, as Minister of State with independent charge of Coal and Power, Modi also wanted control of such portfolios that could be ‘misused’ in exchange for bribes. A dynamic treasurer for the BJP, Goyal has been Modi’s pointperson in managing BJP poll advertisements. A chartered accountant by profession, Goyal has over the past year increasingly emerged as a voice of the BJP on economic affairs. Similar was the logic in bestowing the crucial Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas on Dharmendra Pradhan, a 44-year-old leader known for his integrity. “Modi wants to be very sure that shadows of corruption of the previous regime over gas pricing in favour of certain companies, etcetera, [do] not hurt his government,” says another BJP functionary without naming companies that typically attempt to influence policy decisions through ministers they are close to.


odi has managed to keep businessmen at bay while deciding on his ministers—a major departure from previous regimes that have reportedly seen much lobbying by corporate houses to install their men in key posts. Such pliable yes-men were the bane of the UPA regime, which witnessed senior ministers doling out concessions on everything from air waves to coal and gas to powerful domestic companies. “Modi wants this foolery to end,” says a BJP leader who dismisses Modi’s own links to certain business houses such as Adani as “merely professional relationships which he has with all top Indian companies besides entrepreneurs”. With former IB chief Ajit Doval as National Security Advisor and Nripendra Mishra as Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister—both highly experienced hands—Modi is looking at having in place a highly functional PMO that will oversee all aspects of governance, both locally and overseas, BJP leaders say. “I am glad that this whole media kiteflying has now become a joke,” says a BJP leader, referring to the various political names that appeared in the media as probables on the list of Team Modi, including those of former ministers such as Arun Shourie and Delhi Metro chief E Sreedharan, among various others. Much to the anguish of many such lead9 JUNE 2014

Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Swaraj had insisted she wanted a key post, something that Modi could have turned down, according to people close to him. But he didn’t

ers, the BJP can immediately fill only two Rajya Sabha posts , which will go to Sitharaman and Prakash Javadekar, who has been made Minister of State with independent charge of Information and Broadcasting. Allegedly, Mumbaibased corporate honchos have either been behind churning out such rumours or been approaching politicians based on media reports for positions, says a person close to Modi. He doesn’t specify names, but alleges that they were the same ones feeding the media with ‘breaking news’, all of which proved to be untrue. Some “gossip-mongers”, he says, “were busy gambling over names for positions from Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission to the next economic advisor to the Prime Minister. All of it was humbug.” For the moment, the new Government isn’t just playing its cards close to its chest, it is also discouraging lobbying by so-called experts who have an opinion or two on anything on the planet, says a BJP leader. Modi has also ticked off a senior Mumbai banking executive, saying he was committed to running his government with elected representatives and not ‘experts’. The Cabinet formation exercise also saw Modi neutralising any opposition to his leadership. Thanks to the RSS’s recommendation that leaders who are 75 years of age or older should become ‘men9 JUNE 2014

tors’ instead of jostling for power, Modi could lasso senior leaders such as LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. Both Advani and Joshi had insisted on contesting the Lok Sabha polls instead of opting for a Rajya Sabha route to Parliament. Advani had waged a war—both overtly and covertly—against Modi over the latter being named the prime ministerial candidate, and prior to that, the party’s campaign chief. Joshi too had sulked and cried foul when he was shifted out of Varanasi to Kanpur to make way for Modi to contest that city’s seat—a BJP gameplan to help the party gain seats across Poorvanchal, which encompasses eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.


nterestingly, the cabinet forma-

tion exercise was handled by Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah and party president Rajnath Singh, keeping RSS leader Suresh Soni in the loop—with the final call on the choice of each minister taken by Modi himself. Sanjeev Balian was named Minister of State in consideration of the contribution of the Jat community in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP won an overwhelming majority. Several Cabinet berths went to Brahmins because most of them were senior leaders such as Jaitley, Swaraj and Nitin Gadkari. OBCs have 13 representatives in the Council of Ministers, Tribals six and Dalits three—

of a total of 46. Poll-bound states such as Maharashtra were given due representation along with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the states that ensured a resounding victory for Modi. On 26 May, Modi also proved to naysayers that he is in no mood to bow to what some political analysts call ‘frivolous and petty demands’ from allies—a constant headache for the previous government, dependent as it was on recalcitrant allies such as the DMK—by inviting Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa to India despite opposition from an ally in Tamil Nadu. Earlier, India’s foreign policy over Sri Lanka had invariably fallen prey to local pressures, giving China room to further its designs on the island-nation. In a diplomatic coup, Modi even invited SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, to attend his swearing-in ceremony. Some foreign policy experts suggest that none of these leaders wanted to miss an opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the most powerful prime ministers India has elected in recent decades; and their attendance was proof enough of this, argues American military expert Edward Luttwak. A BJP leader close to Modi sums up the message: “With the rank and file of the party behind him, he is more powerful than any other Indian leader in several decades. Now he wants all his ministers to work overtime to finish their tasks. [They] have been asked to burn the midnight oil and produce results.” Several of his ministers may take a while to get used to such tough discipline—such as 18-hour workdays. But as a workaholic who sleeps barely a few hours, wakes up at the crack of dawn and keeps fit doing yoga, it is business as usual for Modi. n open 33

i n f lu e n c e

Uses of Ambush Diplomacy Modi understands the importance of a friendly near abroad to realise India’s great power aspirations


he meetings with invited heads

of government of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) states, following the grand spectacle of Narendra Modi’s investiture, reveal the Indian Prime Minister’s conviction that a friendly and pacified neighbourhood is an essential element to realise India’s great Bharat Karnad power aspirations, and that ambush diis Professor of plomacy is a good way to secure a ‘first National Security mover’ advantage—and, eventually, the Studies at the desired outcomes. Centre for Policy Modi’s invitation was less a calculatResearch, New ed move than an inspired initiative that Delhi, and blogs at surprised the Ministry of External Affairs. The alacritous acceptance by most of the countries was anticipated, but not the invitation being turned into a matter of high strategy in Pakistan, which suggests that overcoming Islamabad’s historical suspicion of India will take more than imaginative moves, an open mind and a show of good faith. The drama that attended the reactions and responses to this Modi move at home and in the neighbouring countries was nevertheless instructive from the point of view of the challenges he faces. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, mindful of the 34 open

army’s antipathy, teetered between giving in to the traditional wariness of India, reflected in its former Foreign Secretary Shamshad Ahmad’s dismissal of the invitation as a ‘patronising gesture’, and letting the more venturesome section spearheaded by the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi hold sway with its view that for the Pakistani PM to miss such a chance of interacting with his Indian counterpart so early in the latter’s tenure would be a ‘visceral squandering’ of a rare opportunity. In more hardline quarters, the Modi gambit was denounced on the one hand by Shireen Mazari, a one-time director-general of the military-supported Pakistan Institute for Strategic Studies and member of Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, as an Indian ploy of ‘power and dominance’, and, on the other hand, seen by Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Shahzad Chaudhry as testing ‘the mettle of Pakistani leadership’ that required Nawaz Sharif to display what he called ‘the acumen to dominate’ the meeting with his Indian counterpart. The one-time pilot and former deputy chief of Pakistan’s air staff did not, however, explain just how Sharif was supposed to do this. But Mazari and Chaudhry reflected the confusion within Pakistan’s armed forces; especially since its new army chief, General Raheel Sharif, had, soon after his appointment, identified Islamist militancy as the country’s principal threat—a view recently seconded by the head of its air force Air Chief Marshal Tahir Rafique Butt at Sargodha whilst speaking to pilots of a newly inducted squadron of reconditioned F-16 fighter aircraft acquired from Jordan 9 June 2014


mutually assured destiny Narendra Modi, newly sworn in as Prime Minister, poses with SAARC heads of state after his oath-of-office ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on 26 May

for the purpose of counter-insurgency operations. The Pakistan military’s hesitation, however, is understandable. With heavy investment over the years by the InterServices Intelligence (ISI) in such tools of asymmetric warfare as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad, any abrupt policy turnaround by a rapprochement-inclined Nawaz Sharif would put the country’s policy edifice, designed to counter India, out of joint. However, a desperate LeT attack on the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, failed to thwart the Pakistani leader’s journey to Delhi. It did not deter Modi or Sharif from talking to each other. Predictably, in their extended session the two leaders had the obligatory riffs on terror and Kashmir respectively to satisfy domestic constituencies before talking shop and the prospects of opening up trade.


he point of ‘ambush’ diplomacy is that

it is unsettling, compelling foreign leaders and governments to respond in an appropriately heightened way in line with the tenor of the initial gesture. Thus, Nawaz Sharif acted on his gut feelings, reflected in his daughter Maryam’s tweets, rather than on reservations voiced by sceptics. Likewise, India’s invitation to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa upset the political applecart on both sides of

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the Palk Strait. Rajapaksa, in turn, did the unexpected by inviting the Tamil chief minister of the country’s Northern Province, CV Wigneswaran, to join him on his Delhi trip. The latter declined in fear of upsetting well-wishers in Tamil Nadu, even as most of the parties, including Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s, reacted along cynical lines of fighting for the Tamil cause in Sri Lanka to the last Sri Lankan Tamil. In similar vein, Mamata Banerjee kept away from the Delhi event while pleading for ‘special status’ and enhanced financial subventions for West Bengal, conceding, in effect, the futility of opposing Modi when he seals and delivers the deals on the Teesta River waters and a minorly redrawn border to Dhaka in return for Bangladesh tightening up on illegal migration into Assam—an exchange that Sheikh Hasina’s representative and Speaker of Bangladesh parliament, Sharmin Chaudhury, will have been asked to convey to her boss. It will pave the way for the economic integration of India’s Northeast and Bangladesh with the Indian mainland economy —with transit rights and interlinked electricity and gas grids. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, in asking for Indian development help for the landlocked country, will be tempted by the Bhutan model—of India building a string of hydroelectric projects on Nepal’s Himalayan

Ambush diplomacy is unsettling. It compels foreign leaders and governments to respond in line with the tenor of the initial gesture

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watershed to light up that country, power its industries, and earn revenue by selling excess electricity to India.


he creation of a unitary economic and trade bloc of South

tivity with—Central Asian countries through the Iranian port of Chabahar and the north-south rail and road corridors, parts of which are already functional, such as the Delaram-Zaranj Highway built by India. Islamabad cannot easily be convinced that India’s expanding role in Afghanistan is benign and not a crafty design to get Pakistan in a pincer. There is one thing India can do to allay such Pakistani fears, but it is going to be resisted heavily by a vast majority of Indians and sections of the Indian Army fixated without rhyme or credible reason on Pakistan as a threat. New Delhi should reconstitute India’s war capability to obtain a single armoured-mechanised corps and several independent armoured brigades out of the present three strike corps, and transfer the excess manpower and fighting assets to form two offensive mountain corps, in addition to the one being raised, for a total of three such corps on the China front. Thus, diluting the Indian

Asian nations and proximal Indian Ocean island-states is an obvious priority for the business-minded Narendra Modi, but security concerns that undergird any such arrangement will need special attention. Economic ties are fine, but there’s nothing like extensive military cooperation and tie-ins to forge strong bonds. In this respect, Maldives’ request—made by the government of President Abdulla Yameen Gayoom— for Indian help in constructing a naval base off its main island of Male has to be met, and all resources deployed to get this project underway in double-quick time. New Delhi cannot afford another Hambantota, when Colombo approached India to upgrade this port only to be told by Manmohan Singh that Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times/Getty Images THE NEW STATESMEN Narendra it couldn’t be done. It allowed Modi with Nawaz Sharif before China to step in and consolitheir bilateral meeting at date its presence in Sri Lanka. Hyderabad House on 27 May Even less can India afford to in New Delhi continue ignoring Mauritius’ offer—made by the government of premier Navinchandra Ramgoolam—of its North and South Agalega Islands as naval and air bases on long-term lease, as the Defence Ministry under the unforgivably obdurate AK Antony did for the last eight years. Indian foreign policy has traditionally had neither reach nor bite. A forward military presence in the Indian Ocean could give it both. A similar presence in the Seychelles and Mozambique would draw the western and southern Indian Ocean areas up to the East African littoral into an Indian security grid. At a time when the Chinese South Sea Fleet is feeling its way around the Indian Ocean, New Delhi cannot restrict itself to its peninsular territory and remain armoured threat that Rawalpindi is mortally afraid of will unambitious seaward, or even landward for that matter. The Afghan President Hamid Karzai has emphasised a need achieve three kills with the proverbial single stone: win for India to stay engaged with the successor regime headed by Pakistan’s confidence enough to facilitate a genuine normalieither Dr Abdullah Abdullah orAfzal Ghani in Kabul. This is a sation of relations, build up potent Indian offensive forces for tricky bit of policy space to negotiate with Nawaz Sharif be- operations on the Tibetan plateau as a deterrent to the Chinese cause Pakistan’s army remains distinctly uneasy about India’s army along the disputed mountain border, and strategically help establish India as a player in Central Asia. presence in—and friendly relations with—Afghanistan. Modi’s ‘ambush diplomacy’ has succeeded in breaking the Indian investment in the extraction of minerals, especially in the coal-rich Hajigak region and elsewhere in Afghanistan, ice and introducing him to his opposite numbers in other and in other industries will only grow. So will its importance in SAARC countries. The follow-on diplomacy will be a much India’s geo-strategic scheme of assured access to—and connec- harder slog. n

By reworking India’s defence arrangements, Modi can win Pakistan’s confidence and help normalise Indo-Pak relations

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An Elemental Tragedy India’s water woes demand immediate attention of the new Government. MIKE PANDEY suggests answers


oday, 1.1 billion people in the world don’t have access to clean drinking water. By the year 2050, more than 3 billion people will face water shortages. Water, the most powerful element on the planet is an essential and major component of all life on Earth—including man. Water is critical for future growth and sustenance of life but is in short supply. Yet how many of us really understand and respect this vital resource? India, with its rapidly growing economy, large agricultural sector and large scale industrial growth—besides having the second largest population in the world—is under pressure. Demand for water has more than doubled, and millions of people are without access to fresh potable water. Over-extraction of groundwater for agriculture, poor management of water resources and pollution are the primary contributors. Agriculture is the backbone of our economy and to meet the needs of a growing population grain production will need to increase. Food security is a top priority but our grain production is falling. Lack of irrigation water and erratic weather patterns are cited as the main reasons. My first encounter with the ground realities and realisation of the serious water shortage that we have landed ourselves in was during a visit to Punjab a few years ago. I was shocked to see hundreds of acres of what were once the most fertile and productive fields in the country lying

barren and lifeless. Standing crops in some fields were stunted and scanty—in Punjab, once known as the grain basket of India. A fine white sheet of salt now covered some of the fields, almost like a shroud. Hundreds of tube wells lay dry. We stopped at the first village, and were informed that the wells were dry since the water tables had fallen, and farming had become difficult because saline water from the deeper wells had turned the fields infertile, making wheat farming almost impossible. The lakes and wells were dry too. Unable to drill any deeper for fresh water, many poor farmers had moved to cities and neighbouring areas in search of casual work. Of all the water on Earth, 97 per cent is saline and unusable. Of the remaining three per cent, two per cent is locked in the polar caps and unavailable to us. Only one per cent of all the water on the planet is available to us for use and this one per cent has kept the planet alive and vibrant for millions of years via a balanced and sustainable hydrological cycle. But why are we suddenly running out of fresh water? In fact, this question—‘Water is limitless,

charge. The message is clear—water is running out. The urgent need of the time is conservation and prudent use.


vailability of fresh potable water is one of the

greatest challenges that mankind faces today. Almost 2.6 billion freshwater resources and water bodies around the world are dwindling, many of which are completely drying up. With a population of over 1.25 billion, the situation in India is just as grim. The Himalayan glaciers—often called the third pole—are also receding. Glacial rivers are shrinking and many natural springs have dried up. Water shortage is also emerging as a major constraint on food productivity in India and across the world. There is an urgent need to conserve and manage our water supply. There is no legal restriction on groundwater extraction, and the resource is available free of cost to anyone who can pump it out. Unsustainable use of water—such as outdated agricultural practices like traditional flooding of fields or furrow farming where more than 50 per cent of water is lost to evaporation—need to be replaced


of all the water on Earth is directly usable, while the rest is either too saline or else locked in the polar ice caps

how can it run out?’—is one posed by many farmers. We need water to grow crops, fruits and for our daily requirements. Agricultural activities use up almost 80 per cent of fresh water available to us. Intensive farming to provide the needs of a rapidly growing population aided by subsidised power and a free water supply led to millions of farmers drilling deep wells to expand their harvest capacity. Over-exploitation and pumping of water outstripped the recharge rate of groundwater, leading to an alarming rate of depletion. As ground water levels fell, deeper wells were dug. Many wells ran dry; others started pumping salts and residue from the bottom, turning the land saline and unproductive. Decades of over extraction has led to depletion of groundwater all across India. More water was being pumped out than nature could re40 open

by modern technologies for efficient use of water. Overhead sprinkler systems or drip-irrigation systems need to be adopted. Many farmers in Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states have already adopted these new irrigation techniques but this needs to happen at a national level. In Rajasthan and even in parts of Gujarat and southern India, women walk miles to fetch potable water every day. Water scarcity is a reality and already affecting food security in several Middle Eastern countries. With groundwater aquifers depleted, these countries have stopped farming wheat and are importing most of their grains from other countries. Export of grains and ‘water dependent’ produce is another dangerous trend. It takes almost 1,000 tonnes of water to produce one tonne of wheat; and 9 June 2014

so for every tonne of wheat that is exported, a country is actually exporting a thousand tonnes of water too. Apart from scarcity, pollution is another serious issue that affects our water system and therefore our health. Nearly 76 per cent of the human body is water and the quality of water we drink determines our health and well being. Quality of drinking water has deteriorated as even the groundwater in India is contaminated in many places. The presence of heavy metals in our drinking water is way above the permissible levels, and is taking a toll on public health. Pollutants have entered our food chain and traces of these have been found even in mother’s milk. Mental diseases, skin diseases, allergies, liver and gastric tract ailments and even birth defects have been attributed to the presence of heavy metals polluting in our drinking water. Most of the heavy metals enter our water from untreated effluents dumped directly into the rivers by industries and factories along their banks. Added to this are hundreds of tonnes of religious paraphernalia that are dumped into the river every day by devotees. Once declared a lifeline to millions, the Yamuna river passing through Delhi has become one of the most polluted rivers in the country. More than 22 drains carrying more than 3,500 million litres of waste water and untreated raw waste enter the Yamuna every day. There are legislations in place, but poorly enforced; and in many industrial areas the crime goes on in connivance with the authorities. The result is visible: a severely polluted Yamuna. Almost 80 per cent of the foam covered water you see in the river Yamuna comes from our homes. Every summer as the rivers dry up, their sand banks are exposed; and farmers are quick to grow their summer crops of melons, unaware that the fertilisers and pesticides they use are entering the water system. Downstream, at Okhla, the water is processed, purified, and piped to our homes as drinking water. Note that our infrastructure does not have the capacity to remove heavy metals from the water. This is the water we drink. The Prime Minister’s promise to clean the Ganga is a welcome sign of hope. It is still possible to reverse the river to its pristine blue, to restore it to a living river capable of sustaining a vibrant ecosystem. Almost all our rivers are polluted and dying. I remember a boat ride on the river Danube in Europe. I was overwhelmed; the Danube, 2,850 km long, had been transformed from a black, stinking, lifeless river back into the ‘Blue Danube‘ through the united efforts of nine countries that it passes through; possible only through a united effort and cooperation between the governments and their citizens. My thoughts drifted to India and the state of our own rivers. Could we replicate this in our country? We can, and a reversal is possible. We will need the collaborative efforts of citizens, the political will and accountability at all levels. Nature is resilient and the rivers will bounce back to their natural state—all they need is a chance. A united effort can restore the health of rivers. We all need the environment for our survival. 9 June 2014

DESPOILED OFFERINGS A channel carrying sewage and other pollutants drains into the Ganga at Varanasi

Development and progress are important, but cannot be at the cost of the environment. The flood plains of our rivers are also crucial to groundwater recharge, and must be maintained. They help in water filtration, apart for being a habitat for many aquatic species. Unfortunately, illegal construction and sand mining on the flood plains are fracturing the rivers’ ecosystems and ecology.


more serious and dangerous activity is the unthinking construction of housing colonies on these flood plains. These are not only injurious to the river; they fracture nature’s hydrological cycle and our ground water regime. These constructions put human life at great risk. The city of Delhi falls in the sensitive seismic zone IV. Colonies and structures built on flood plains and flood open 41

WATER EVERYWHERE WITH NOT A DROP TO DRINK Outdated agricultural practices like field flooding waste a great deal of potable water (above); foam covered river water polluted by the runoff from urban drainage systems (facing page)

zones, especially in seismic zone IV or above regions are exposing themselves to a great risk. In the event of an earthquake, liquefaction can take place and structures could sink into the liquefied soil. There is no reason why we should have shortage of water in India. We receive among the highest amounts of rain fall in the world, yet are unable to harness the volume of water and manage to use only a small percentage. The rest washes away into gutters and through rivers to the sea, lost forever. Most of our problems are manmade. Pollution due to poor waste management regulations and a lack of enforcement on industries that pump untreated chemical effluents directly into rivers need to be dealt with. Fertilisers and chemical pesticides are large contributors to the pollution of our fresh water. Strict legislation, management and conservation of water should become a top national priority. The attitude and lifestyles of India’s citizens need to change because their contribution towards wa-

ter conservation could be a crucial game changer. Ignorance, lack of information and poverty in rural areas is one of the prime reasons for this crisis, while callous arrogance and disregard take front seats in most of our urban areas. There is urgent need for awareness and education. We have to understand that we are not the supreme commanders of the planet. We share the earth with millions of other species. We depend on them for our survival. The challenges we face today are formidable: alarming depletion of groundwater, polluted rivers, a growing population, environmental issues and lack of effective waste management and a total disregard of nature and the environment. Apart from affecting grain production, agriculture and public health, the water crisis will have a direct affect on industrial growth and the country’s economy. Every year the monsoons pour in over 4000 billion cubic metres of water onto India; more than 50 per cent of this is lost and drains away into rivers and the sea. We need to harness


of the fresh water available for human use is consumed by agricultural activities

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9 June 2014

raul irani

this resource. Groundwater recharge on a national level is crucial. Water bodies need to be revitalised, rivers lakes and ponds need to be dredged and de-silted to increase their holding capacities. This will help replenish and sustain the groundwater aquifers. Dams are not a viable solution. They take decades to build at a huge cost and are not a viable long-term solution. Catching rain where it falls is the most effective solution. Pollution also needs to be checked on a war footing as polluted water is a direct threat to public health and welfare. Agricultural runoff, pesticides, detergents and chemicals from our homes, and industrial effluents need to be addressed, and their use minimised. In cities which have a river running through them, interceptor drains need to be built along the river banks to stop sewage drains from flowing directly into the rivers. Large interceptor drains would carry the city’s sewage to treatment plants and stilling ponds miles away from the city. Harmful chemicals and effluents could be removed before discharging the water into stilling ponds and finally the river. Forests also need to be protected. Apart from acting as carbon sinks, forests produce water. Over 360 small and large rivers flow out of the Western Ghats, including the longest waterfall in India—all born of the forest. 9 June 2014

Mindless plundering and mining activities of these biodiversity hotspots will directly affect the water cycle and lives of nearly 400 million people. Individual efforts are crucial to water conservation. You could recycle bathing water, and install effective, ecofriendly toilet flushes which dispense minimal water for flushing. The Government has initiated water harvesting across the country and many colonies and have installed them as part of RWA initiatives. I carried out a survey recently and found most of them clogged up and ineffective. To be effective, these units need care and regular servicing, especially before the monsoons. Comprehensive management of the water regime and water harvesting is crucial. This will help replenish our depleted aquifers and pave the way towards conservation of this vital resource. This will ensure a sustainable future for us all—and for the planet we call home. n Mike Pandey is a three-time Green

Oscar Award winner and environmentalist. He is also the host of Earth Matters, India’s most popular and powerful wildlife conservation programme on Doordarshan open 43


In Search of the Perfect Condom Scientists in Kerala are trying to produce a condom made of graphene that will increase the pleasure and protection quotient manifold

Photos vivek r nair

Lhendup G Bhutia


n the history of sex, men have

fashioned condoms out of oiled silk paper, leather, used horns and tortoise-shells. They have found use for animal bladders and intestines. They’ve designed condoms that sheath the entire male member and some that cover just the head. They’ve improved upon material and design at each stage, despite the ire of the Church and conservatives, to find that delicate balance between pleasure and protection. Today there might appear to be a plethora of textures, but the truth is that the condom has seen little improvement in the last century. Since the mid-nineteenth century, when man learnt to process natural rubber and make it elastic, condoms have more or less always been rubber-based. It is not just the lack of better options; the condom, even with the help of modern branding and its various ribbed and flavoured avatars, is still beleaguered by that timeless conception that prophylactics make sex less pleasurable. And many times, couples are therefore known to forgo them, despite condoms being the best known agent against STDs or pregnancy. “But science,” says Dr Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy, a polymer scientist working with HLL Lifecare Ltd, the largest producer of condoms in India, “is not about best-known agents. It is about finding the best. If people don’t use condoms, either because they are inconvenient or no fun, it is probably because we are yet to design the best condom.” Ragupathy, under the aegis of HLL Lifecare Ltd, assisted by two other scientists in a Thiruvanthanapuram laboratory, is trying to build what he calls the second-generation condom—one made of graphene. “If we achieve this,” Ragupathy says, “it will either change the world of contraceptives, and thus safe sex as we know it today, completely, or fail miserably. It is just one of those ideas.”


raphene was first produced in a laboratory in 2004. Long theorised but only produced a decade ago, graphene is a form of pure carbon so thin, that it is just one atom thick and two-dimensional in nature. Heralded as a wonder material that can change the world, graphene conducts heat 10 times better

9 June 2014


The success rate for prevention of pregnancy if condoms and spermicides are used together

57.6% of the 10.4 billion condoms sold in 2005 were used for HIV prevention while 4.4 billion were used in family planning

85% The success rate for prevention of pregnancy if only a condom is used

than copper, and conduct electricity 100 times better than silicon. It is transparent, extremely lightweight (a million times thinner than a strand of human hair) and very strong (200 times stronger than steel), yet flexible and elastic. Most scientists are exploring the possibility of using graphene in the electronics industry to make thinner, cheaper and more energy-efficient gadgets. Currently there are more than 7,500 graphene-based patents worldwide, for everything from smartphones to computer chips. In 2010, when Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov—the two scientists from the University of Manchester in Britain who first produced graphene—were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, Ragupathy was a research student at the same institution. “All around me,” Ragupathy recalls, “there was talk of this fascinating material called graphene. And I too became completely immersed in it, until I returned to India to take up the job of a scientist at HLL.” Last year, when the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF)—one of the largest private foundations for global healthcare—announced a challenge for scientists to come up with a ‘next-generation condom’, in a bid to improve condoms so that more people would use them, Ragupathy came up with the idea of creating a condom that would be a mixture of graphene and latex. “The idea was to take all the properties that make graphene such a hot material—its thinness, its strength and its ability to conduct heat so well—and to use that to make a supercondom of sorts.” Latex condoms in comparison are thicker and poorer conductors of heat. Dr G Rajmohan, one of the co-investigators in this project, explains, “Imagine a condom so thin that you wouldn’t feel like you are wearing one. Imagine a condom so good [because of graphene’s ability to conduct heat] that you can feel the warmth of the [body].” The BMGF selected the idea, along with ten others, and provided Ragupathy and his team with $100,000 to develop the condom. A further $1 million for clinical trials and development will be offered next year to those that BMGF considers most market-promising. Apart from Ragupathy’s idea, other selected ones include a condom that is made of beef tendons, one that allows the user to open 45

TESTING new LIMITS Lakshminarayanan Ragupathy at the HLL Lifecare Ltd laboratory

put it on in one smooth motion, a condom that gently tightens during intercourse, and another graphene condom being built by a scientist, Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan, of the University of Manchester. Claiming that the concept of his graphene condom is similar to the one being worked upon by Ragupathy and his team, Vijayaraghavan says via email, ‘There is a lot of work on graphene polymer composites for various applications such as structural materials and electrically-conducting materials. Graphene is known to add strength to polymer materials. The idea of mixing graphene with elastomers such as latex was therefore a natural extension of this, and the specific application of graphene-reinforced latex for condoms was developed by me based on these previous works.’


ast month, Ragupathy and his

team were able to produce prototypes of their graphene-based condom. “Graphene is highly unstable in nature. But we were successful in mixing it with latex [for] prototypes,” says Dr A Kumaran, another co-investigator in the study. They were able to reduce the thickness from 0.07 mm, as is the case 46 open

with most latex condoms, to 0.04 mm. Apart from making the condom thinner and more effective at transferring warmth—because graphene has a larger surface area in comparison with latex— the scientists also hope to load flavourings, anti-viral agents and spermicides onto the material of the condom directly. “Currently,” Kumaran explains, “if at all these agents are there in latex condoms, it is usually in [small] quantities and located in the lubricants of the condom, not onto the material itself. But with graphene condoms, we can add all these masalas onto the material, making it safer and more effective.” He says, “It is going

With graphene condoms, antiviral agents, spermicides and flavourings can be loaded directly onto the material

to replace latex, like how the flat screen is replacing the [cathode ray] TV.” Dr Ayyappan, chairman and managing director of HLL Lifecare Ltd, claims that irrespective of whether their idea gets the second grant from the BMGF, the company will pursue the idea to its logical conclusion. “Condoms, especially in India, have always been marketed as a family planning method. But with this, because its premise is to make sex more pleasurable—and safe—we will push it as something that improves sex.” Claiming that it is still early days for the project, Dr Ayyappan expects the condom to take at least another two years to hit shop shelves. “The great thing about this condom,” he says, “is that if it works, and so far it has met every expectation, it will revolutionise the global contraceptive industry.” According to Vijayaraghavan—who has been working on multiple graphenerelated projects ever since the material was first produced—people have been wondering how it will be used in their daily lives. “Currently, people imagine using graphene in mobile phones, electronics, food packaging and chemical sensors,” he says. But if this works, graphene will literally touch our everyday life in the most intimate way.” n 9 June 2014

true life

mindspace Our Own Ronald McDonald


O p e n s pa c e

Jaya Bachchan Deepika Padukone


n p lu

Kochadaiiyaan X-Men: Days of Future Past

61 Cinema reviews

Samsung HU9000 Tissot T-Touch Expert Solar Sony Xperia Z2


Tech & style

How the Brain Makes Us Forget A Peptide to Fight Bacteria Groupthink Lasts Three Days



Zarina Begum



The Legend of ‘Superstar Rajni’



Angarey : 9 Stories and a Play Translated from Urdu by Vibha S Chauhan and Khalid Alvi The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage By Veena Venugopal


Sexual Harassment

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times content

cult phenomenon Kochadaiiyaan may have disappointed some moviegoers, but Rajinikanth is forever 54

true life

Sexual Harassment Gee Imaan Semmalar underwent female-tomale sex re-assignment surgery, but has been unable to switch his passport gender. The story of his struggle in his own words


could see a visibly upset passport officer dialling somebody, wiping the sweat on his forehead and gulping water. He had the bundle of documents I had submitted for a new passport as I sat in a waiting room that was separated from his cabin by a glass door. It was an application to re-issue my passport with both my name and gender changed. I was ‘F’ in the old one, but had now become ‘M’ legally and socially after a sex re-assignment surgery. He might have seen many applications for name and address changes, but this was probably the first one for him in which someone was asking for a switch of gender. The officer did not ask too many questions and just told me that he would process the application. A few days later, a policeman came home on a verification call. His confusion was palpable. He wanted to ask me about the gender change but could not. He had no vocabulary to express his transphobia (a fear-driven prejudice against transgenders and transsexuals). Later, I got a call from the policeman. “In the previous passport, the gender is female. In this application for a new one, it is changed. Is it a mistake or are you an impotent man?” he asked. I could not resist laughing. “I am perfectly fine; I have submitted all the 48 open

supporting medical records.” He was not satisfied. “Okay, so can you have children?” It was an entirely irrevelant question. India is not a country that issues passports only to people who can have children. No one else would have had to answer a question on impotence for a travel document. Later, I found out that he had sent an adverse report and now my application is stuck. Even in my childhood, I knew that I was a transperson. For a long time, I used to wear my brother’s clothes and express myself as a boy. Scientific studies show that children become aware of their gender by the time they are three years old. Whenever I was given clothes that were too girly, I would refuse to wear them. I used to play only with my brother’s friends. At the age of 15, my body started changing. I could not deal with the onset of puberty. I had intense dysphoria. I would feel attracted to women, so for a long time I thought I was a lesbian. Transphobia is strong even in lesbian circles, so I was unable to express myself as a transman (female to male transsexual) for a long time. Gender is not private, it is a public thing. I don’t subscribe to the narrative of ‘coming out’ that has been articulated by gay and lesbian activists. When has this ‘coming out’ happened for me?

I have always been ‘out’. The moment you saw me, you’d know that this person asserts a different gender. However, in the case of a cisgender (the opposite of transgender, literally, with one’s gender identity remaining the same as one’s biological sex by birth) lesbian woman or a gay man, more often than not, you will not know her or his sexual identity unless told. There are 9 june 2014

UNDOCUMENTED CITIZEN Gee Imaan Semmalar (right) with a friend in Bangalore

multiple problems and a diverse range of issues faced by those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transmen, transwomen and so on. The media clubs them together as ‘the LGBT family’ although their experiences of social oppression differ. Lesbian and gay activists have welcomed the recent Supreme Court ruling that granted transgender people 9 june 2014

official recognition as a third gender. However, I think there are many questions to be raised along with it. One issue is that this third gender category practically keeps hijras or transwomen outside the purview of India’s existing laws, which are highly gender specific. To take an example, how does a third gender person file charges of rape? According to current rape laws, only

women can be raped. The Supreme Court should have issued some directives on this matter, taking into account the high rate of crimes against transgenders. Many transgenders would not like to go through the legal process of a gender change. In any case, India’s hijra community suffers such social exclusion that its members have almost open 49

no access to state-run medical facilities. Sex-altering surgeries within this community of transwomen are usually conducted by a person in the family, a so-called ‘thaayamma’ who depends on traditional knowledge systems. In such cases, there are no medical records of gender change. Transwomen, however, are far more visible than transmen, and so they find it easier to get voter identity cards issued with their chosen gender. Of transmen, awareness levels are so low that even our existence is doubted by many.


went to Lady Shri Ram College in

New Delhi. It was an all-women’s college and I don’t regret going there because it gave me the space and freedom to explore my sexuality. I am probably the only man in the history of LSR to have stayed in the hostel and enjoyed several relationships. When I later joined Jawaharlal Nehru University, I stayed in Godavari Hostel, which was meant only for women. The guard would stop me every night at the gate and say, “Sir, this is a ladies hostel.” And every night I would reply, “Yes, I know. I live here.” But never once could I bring myself to say, “Yes, I know. I am a woman.” Once I had a bitter experience on a train trip from Bangalore to Kerala. The TTR checked my identity card, an old one. He looked at the photograph and then at me. His expression changed from suspicious to mocking as the interrogation proceeded. He called all the passengers in the compartment, showed them the identity card and said, “Look, this is not his card. This is the identity card of some woman. He is a man. How can he travel on another person’s ID?” Passengers came one by one and looked at me and the photograph. They added their own two bits to his mockery. You might never have gone through such an indignity in your life. This is what people like us go through every day— a constant policing of our gender expression, mocking disbelief, and dehumanising attitudes that strip us of our dignity in public.

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Right now, I am an undocumented citizen of this country. This is a struggle, a very lonely journey. You ask me what I feel when I meet another transman? Imagine meeting another woman only after you’ve turned 24; can you imagine the isolation of that experience? It takes years, sometimes even a lifetime, for some transmen to find another like them. My mother has been my greatest support through all

I don’t regret going to Lady Shri Ram College in New Delhi because it gave me the

space and freedom to explore my

sexuality. I am probably the only man in the history of this

all-women’s college to have stayed in the hostel and enjoyed

several relationships these years. It might be because she walked out of an abusive marriage with her young kids and struggled to raise us that she understands the struggle against heteropatriarchy. Or maybe it is the unconditional love of a mother. After the surgery, I find a lot more male-dominated spaces opening up for me. I find it safer to travel at night, but, as someone who looks like an un-

derage boy, I also feel some vulnerability. I am often grappling with questions of patriarchy. Boys my age crack sexist jokes and expect me to laugh. If I object, then I am a bore who doesn’t know how to have fun. I have in many ways learnt how not to be a man through my father, who was a negative role model for me. Everything he was, I try not to be. I also feel my exclusion from certain spaces more starkly. For instance, a few years ago, a close friend of mine, another transman, was not allowed to be part of an e-group called Feminist India. This is an email list dominated by cisgender suvarna feminists. The reason they cited was that the group was exclusively meant for women, but they don’t have any transwomen on the list either. I don’t want to associate with such reductionist and biologically determinist feminism. I have also faced exclusion from civil society groups. I was kept out of a fact-finding body set up to look at displacement caused by a road project in Bangalore; one activist said others would be confused by my presence. I didn’t feel so bad because I think such groups are the least civil and do nothing but find facts anyway. There is no natural solidarity between oppressed groups. On one hand, NGOs use our identities to get more funds, making hijras dependent on them for jobs that give them some sense of dignity. But at the same time, they work to control, police and discipline us through their projects and programmes. NGOs are, in that sense, government organisations. They display a benevolent face and deceive us. In the absence of any other job opportunities, we find more and more transpeople working for NGOs. In my view, transpeople should not look for solidarity or support elsewhere. Instead, we must work tirelessly ourselves to make our political point, forge bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood, offer one another care and support, and fight systems of oppression together. n As told to Shahina KK 9 june 2014

books Monsters-in-Law A hilarious yet serious look at the indefatigable Indian mother-in-law tells us why she is a national problem RAJNI GEORGE

The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage

Veena Venugopal Penguin Books India | 264 pages | Rs 299


t was love at first sight. Rachna Sethi’s mother-

in-law wanted her the minute she clapped eyes on her. It’s a fact that only a few people find strange, but Sethi met her mother-in-law even before she met her husband.’ Thus begins one of the funniest and most unlikely love stories. Of course it has a tragicomic ending; this is a book about mothers-in-law. Long documented through saas-bahu TV dramas, the mother-in-law versus daughter-inlaw conundrum is a dependable source of humour—as well as a source of devastating news items. Fortunately, these 11 tales battle the banal and the dire evenly and provide consistent entertainment. Some of these case studies are startling; Deepa has a cool, bikini-wearing, former air-hostess mother-in-law who encourages her to go out and have fun—until the honeymoon ends and poor Deepa is banned from all kinds of freedoms including jeans, even. Some tales are wearying, and slightly unbelievable; Carla, the young Austrian whose marriage to an Indian you bet will end, given the culturally alien restrictions placed on her. Or Keisha, who puts up with physical abuse and rape to stay with an ugly man—inside out—purely due to childhood trauma and insecurity. Some make you giggle—Seema’s mother-in-law is a proper Tam-Brahm patti, whose demands turn intransigent when it comes to that Tam-Brahm staple, the nine-yard sari. And some accounts make you cry; Arti has survived the ravages of Kashmir-in-crisis only to be treated like a servant, her children appropriated by her in-laws. ‘I have to confess I wasn’t prepared for the dark turn these stories would take,’ says author and journalist Veena Venugopal. ‘After all, the idea was to meet other women like me, I thought—educated, urban and empowered. In many ways, the Indian family is a pressure cooker—one that is likely to explode before it releases steam. The number of things the Indian mother-in-law tries to control is both baffling and comical at the same time.’

Stalking would-be brides and weary wives online; charming her way into homes on intros from aunts, colleagues and friends of friends; keeping early morning filter coffee assignations in Chennai and taking clandestine interviews on Mumbai train rides—Venugopal infiltrates the lives of these women with great empathy. Her yields are not particularly surprising; these women are territorial and seek supremacy; neither can trust the other. But the book is a sociological treatise that looks into the reasons one person desires control over another—not always as obvious as you would think. In this slim book, Venugopal, who can write about anything with wit and a Hadley Freeman-like candour—she is also the author of another funny, slim volume about bibliophilia, Would You Like Some Bread With That Book? —tells us why the mother-in-law issue is not just a woman’s problem. It is also the man’s. ‘An often overlooked aspect of the conflict between the saas and the bahu is that of the man in the middle,’ the author says. ‘If the son/husband were to step in and make clear where his mother’s influence ends and where his wife’s begins, a lot of fights can inevitably be avoided. Alas, the Indian man would much rather pretend there is nothing wrong than proactively play a role in diffusing possible tension.’ He is, she tells us, the forever absent Godot. And conflict is only mounting with the increased pressures of modernisation. ‘The All India Mother-in-law Protection Forum offers legal help to those it feels are falsely implicated under Section 498, dealing with demands for dowry and harassment of the daughter-in-law,’ Venugopal continues. ‘While it is true there is some misuse of the law, the fact that it exists endorses the truth that Indian daughters-in-law are often harassed, even killed. According to data computed from the High Courts, in 2012 over 340,500 cases were pending trial; the number of accused implicated in these cases is close to a million!’ While some of the misery in these stories might seem repetitive, statistics only bear out their relevance. This is not a book for that much maligned group, ‘bored housewives’. It is for anyone who reads about the issues that matter. Though there is hope yet—in the daughter-in-law who is also a mother-inlaw, the gentle, devout Tam-Brahm Lalitha (a great potential combo together with sweet Tam-Brahm husband Srini!). Even for those of us who don’t dream, with silly optimism and understandable trepidation, of big, bad Mummyji. n

‘The Indian man would much rather pretend there is nothing wrong than proactively play a role in diffusing possible tension’

9 June 2014

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books Return of the Rebels An incendiary Urdu classic, banned in 1932, makes its way back to us in English Gillian Wright


Translated from Urdu by Vibha S Chauhan and Khalid Alvi Rupa | 105 pages | Rs 195


ngarey , a collection of nine short stories and a one-

act play, was published in Urdu in December 1932 by Nizami Press, Lucknow. Four months later, copies were set on fire. The authorities had ruled that the content attracted a provision of Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code; that there had been deliberate and malicious intent to outrage the religious feelings of a class of His Majesty’s subjects. As far as we know, only five copies survived the conflagration. But no amount of burning could prevent Angarey from being recognised as a milestone in Indian literature. Faced with a flood of anti-colonial, nationalist literature in the first half of the 20th century, the British responded with controls and coercion. In 1908, the great Premchand himself narrowly escaped sedition charges for his book Soz-e-Vatan. The young authors Sajjad Zahir, Dr Rashid Jahan, Ahmed Ali and Mahmud-uz-Zafar had not called their book ‘angarey’, meaning red hot coals, for nothing. They wanted to shake up society, and in particular Muslim society, to make it face up to the oppression and injustices it condoned. Idealistic and highly educated—Sajjad Zahir and Mahmud-uz-Zafar studied at Oxford, Ahmed Ali lectured in English and History, and Rashid Jahan was a qualified doctor—the authors were familiar with modern Western literature and heavily influenced by Marxism. They published this work in Urdu because it represented the ‘Ganga-Jamuni’ culture of India and because Urdu had a far greater reach than English. Even the words they used shocked many. They jettisoned the ornate formality of Urdu prose in favour of a language that was direct, colloquial, idiomatic, unadorned and often stark. They adopted a bold, new style that is now known as ‘stream of consciousness’. They spoke of matters that were generally pushed out of sight. Lust and sexuality were written of frankly. For example, in the one-act play ‘Behind the Veil’ that concludes the collection, Jahan drew on her experience as a doctor to portray the physical and mental anguish of women in an oppressive patriarchal society. One character’s husband

longs for another wife, and visits sex workers. Another woman is forced to undergo operations because, in her words, ‘My uterus and lower parts had begun to slip down. I needed to be corrected so that my Miyan could get the pleasure of a new wife from my body.’ The poor and the underprivileged are championed in this collection, and portrayed with devastating realism. Zahir, in the beautiful story ‘Dulari’, deals with the exploitation of a girl from the ‘lowest level’ of society and the selfishness and smug superiority of the elite. Superstition and religious hypocrisy are also mercilessly ridiculed through the book. Didactic literature in Urdu, condemning such things as multiple marriages, was not new. In poetry, the mullah, that religious moralist, has been made fun of for centuries. But Angarey went several steps further. As Ahmed Ali later wrote, ‘People read the book behind closed doors and in bathrooms with relish but denounced us in the open. We were lampooned and satirised, condemned editorially and in pamphlets. Our lives were threatened; people even lay in wait with daggers to kill us.’ However, it’s also true that many leading literary and academic figures supported Angarey, including the eminent historian Mohammad Mujeeb. The authors themselves stood their ground. Again, it was Ali who wrote the riposte to the ban published in The Leader, Allahabad, on 5 April 1933: ‘The authors of this book do not wish to make any apology for it. They leave it to float or sink of itself… They stand for the right of free criticism and free expression in all matters of highest importance to the human race in general and the Indian people in particular. They have chosen the particular field of Islam not because they bear it any “special” malice but because, being born into that particular society, they felt themselves better qualified to speak for that alone.’ This article went on to call for the establishment of a movement of Progressive Writers, dedicated to a genre of writing that highlights the need for social and political reform. The movement changed the way literature was written in India; in her valuable preface to this translation, Nadira Babbar, playwright and daughter of Sajjad Zahir, tells us just how much. The stories themselves are still stunning, fresh, engrossing and relevant. In places it seems the translation could be improved, but it would be wrong to quibble when the translators have laboured so long, and with such dedication, to bring Angarey to the English-reading world. n

The young authors wanted to shake up Muslim society, to make it face up to the oppression and injustices it condoned

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9 June 2014

CInema The Cult and the Kitsch Kochadaiiyaan may have disappointed his fans. But the legend of Rajinikanth’s stardom will endure NANDINI KRISHNAN


magine a hundred porn stars reaching simultaneous orgasm. Imagine a crash of rhinoceroses tearing through a forest. Imagine a herd of elephants trumpeting at a temple festival. Add to this the drug-addled screams of teenagers when the name of their city is yelled out at a rock concert by the lead singer. You’ll have something close to the hysteria that accompanies the appearance of ‘SUPERSTAR RAJNI’, letter by letter, at the start of the titles of a Rajinikanth film. The numerologically empowered Kochadaiiyaan is his first film in three years. The initial teaser trailer for the film, then titled Sultan, was screened in 2008. For nearly a year, his fans have faced a series of dhokaas, with the film’s release repeatedly getting postponed. Finally, after several name changes and a health scare for its star, the film is out, even as a new Rajini joke is doing the rounds—‘Rajinikanth hugged a chaiwalah, and he became Prime Minister of the country.’ Every time a Rajinikanth film comes around, people across India try to decipher the cult of Rajinikanth. This man was once a bus conductor, a carpenter, a coolie. How did he come to achieve such heights of fame and success? How did a dark, moustached man who built his career around flicking his hair back, flipping cigarettes into his mouth, twirling his sunglasses, and delivering ‘punchlines’ with a signature smirk become ‘Superstar Rajni’? How did a man who in his early days played a drunk, pornographer, rapist, murderer, and cheat, become a mass hero? There is no point trying to figure this out. There is simply no explanation. I grew up at a time when Rajinikanth was making his transformation from villain to hero, from actor to star. He was instrumental in fostering the image of the ‘Madrasi’ as dark, moustached, and unattractive. He paved the way for heroes who were darker and more unattractive, and sported moustaches of varying girth, in the Tamil film industry. But his newfound cult in North India bewilders me. It may have been around the time his Enthiran/ Robot released, co-starring Aishwarya Rai, that Hindi-speakers began to engage in the Superstar discourse. Already, there had been a paradigm shift in his Southern fan club. In the late 1980s and 90s, there was a distinct Kamal-Rajini divide among fans, despite the two actors branding themselves as bosom buddies. Kamal’s camp comprised avid cinephiles and smitten women; Rajini’s fans were crazed masses who would rather see a man defy gravity and split one bullet with another than convincingly play a cancer patient or underworld don. But at some point, it became a style statement for the elite, even those who spoke pidgin Tamil, to say they were fans of ‘Thalaiva’—Rajini’s long-time epithet. I go to Rajini films to point and laugh. I assumed most people did. Apparently, this isn’t the case. “I mean, how can you actually like his movies? Or his punchlines? Or the ‘style’?” I asked someone who calls himself a ‘Thalaiva fan’. “This is a guy who goes ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you’ when his sworn enemy compliments his ‘style’, right after insulting him. Come on.”

“The genius of the man is not in saying ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you’,” my friend theorised, “But in selling the ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you’. Throw anything at them, and his fans will go berserk.” That is an interesting insight. Somehow, Rajinikanth, the man who could have become a ‘character actor’ in the 70s and early 80s—he played a man who killed his best friend in order to marry the latter’s girlfriend, only to end up becoming her stepson in Moondru Mudichu; he played a man who is undermined by poverty in Aarilirunthu Arubathu Varai; he was not afraid to play an abusive husband, or bully, or rapist. The complex characters he had successfully portrayed did not sell; the things that cost him the least effort moulded themselves into a composite that would be heralded as ‘Rajini style’. These could sell asinine storylines. The watershed moment may have been the song Superstaaru yaarunu keytta, Chinna kuzhandhaiyum solum from the 1989 film Raja Chinna Roja. Literally translated, it means, ‘If you ask who the Superstar is, even a child will tell you.’ To my knowledge, this is the first time Rajinikanth was described as ‘Superstar’. After this, he veered towards comedy and potboilers, though he would occasionally use his acting abilities in films such as Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi. The transformation of his screen persona was mirrored by a change in the public perception of Rajinikanth, the man. In the 80s, he was the actor with a temper, who beat up a reporter, broke a cameraman’s lens and screamed at fans at his wedding, who guzzled alcohol and chain-smoked. Since the late 90s, though, he has become the modest man who dyes his hair only for his daughters’ weddings, appears in public without a wig, and goes on carefully-chronicled pilgrimages to Himalayan caves. While journalists and fans alike wax poetic on Rajinikanth’s spirituality, few people make ironic remarks about the ostentatious showcasing of his simplicity. It appears there are certain unwritten rules where Rajinikanth is concerned.


ften, Tamil film critics write carefully-worded reviews, because one ‘cannot bash a Thailava movie’. A few years ago, a hilarious spoof called Thamizh Padam got into trouble in the film industry because it ‘dared’ to mock a scene from Rajinikanth’s Sivaji. One may occasionally hear of Rajinikanth’s business sense in choosing his films and roles. But his active participation in reinforcing his ‘Superstar’ epithet is rarely discussed. This man starred in a film with a song extolling his label. His own family organised a festival celebrating his 25th year in cinema. The producers of his film Chandramukhi (2005) ensured that it broke a 50-year-old record set by the Tamil film Haridas (1944) by keeping it running for 890 days in a theatre they own. And yet, Rajinikanth is considered a paragon of humility. It also seems the relative performances of his co-stars will impact their career graphs, and not necessarily in the way they should. Rajinikanth’s favour56 open

ite co-stars over the years include Khushboo, Soundarya, Meena and Gouthami, pretty women who were happy to let Rajinikanth dominate scenes. On the other hand, Ramya Krishnan, who stole the limelight in Padayappa (1999), hasn’t worked with him—or in any significant role in the industry—since. In Kochadaiiyaan, the animation ensures that everyone except the Superstar looks like he or she belongs in a creature movie. I wonder, though, whether these rules have changed; whether the cult of Rajinikanth is beginning to weaken.


hen Chandramukhi was released, in 2005, I was a rookie journalist. On the day of the film’s release, I had to put together a radio package on its reception among fans. I wandered the city’s theatres in the lead-up to the first show. People who had camped out all night, in the hope of buying first-day-first-show tickets, clamoured towards me and grappled for the microphone. For Kochadaiiyaan, though, I had no problems finding multiple seats for a Saturday matinee when I checked online on Friday evening. The quality of the graphics has been universally trashed. A friend described it as inferior to Age of Empires III. I wasn’t attacked when I commented that the animation allows Rajinikanth to dance with girls younger than his daughters without being impeded by arthritis. The makers of the film have pulled out all stops. Before the main feature begins, there is a short video on the making of Kochadaiiyaan, which ends with Rajinikanth’s BFF, Amitabh Bachchan, mispronouncing the film’s name and saying that Indian film history will now be classified as “Before Kochadaiiyaan” and “After Kochadaiiyaan”. The Rajini film formula stipulates that the star has a ‘punchline’, which is repeated at key junctures throughout the film. This is usually an inane pop philosophy pronouncement which will be duly revered by fans. However, the punchlines here are a dime a dozen, so many that the audience is not quite sure which ones to cheer for. In one song, he reels them off in the manner of a stand-up comedian in denial, trying desperately for laughs in a comedy club where everyone has been there, seen that. The problem of plenty extends to the songs—there is one every few minutes, and though a couple are truly stirring, even AR Rahman can do only so much—as well as to the star himself. There are three Rajinikanths, at last count, and we are not sure who the hero is—the father or his twin sons. Kochadaiiyaan has been branded as ‘India’s first motion capture photo-realistic 3D animated film’—there are enough adjectives in there to ensure that the combination merits the qualifier ‘first’. But Rajinikanth’s participation in Kochadaiiyaan is largely seen as an indulgence of his daughter Soundarya’s directorial ambitions. Does this mean Rajinikanth is no longer invincible? Or does this simply mean that an animated Rajinikanth film will not sway the audience like a live-action Rajinikanth film? It is early days, and one can’t predict how the film will perform at the box office. But assuming it is not as successful as the average Rajini film, one wonders whether Rajinikanth 9 June 2014


Daddy’s girl Soundarya Rajinikanth with her superstar father in London in March 2012

Will the invincible Rajinikanth be forgiven by his fans for

giving in to his paternal instincts? will be forgiven by filmgoers for giving in to his paternal instincts. In fact, his encouragement of his daughter could endear him to his fans, who delight in the human aspects of their celluloid hero. But, is this simply about his daughter? The film ends with the promise of a sequel, and it is an interesting time to speculate over Rajinikanth’s future in cinema. The 63-year-old actor is no spring chicken. Since he collapsed while shooting in 2011, he has been hospitalised often—for a gastro-intestinal infection, recurrent respiratory problems, kidney disorder, pneumonia, and pleural effusion. He has, perhaps, one last in-the-flesh film left in him, to let himself out with a bang. Perhaps this is an experiment, to see whether an animated Rajinikanth is acceptable to his fans, because this could be his future. If that is the case, the film’s middling reviews cannot simply be pinned on the movie’s failure to project Rajinikanth; it would be Rajinikanth’s failure to project the film, and that is a telling difference in this context. Rajinikanth’s hold over people at large has often been compared to that of actor-turned-politician MG Ramachandran, popularly known as ‘MGR’. But there is a key difference. People related to MGR’s roles. He became Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu by consistently playing the poor man with a golden heart—the rickshaw-puller, driver, fisherman, desperado—who would tame and win over the 9 June 2014

fair, beautiful, rich, spoilt, spirited girl, usually played by Jayalalithaa. However, MGR was from a middle-class family, well-built, fair—almost pink, in fact, and made pinker by 1960s Technicolor. Rajinikanth, on the other hand, has lived the rags-to-riches story. Too impoverished to continue his education after school, he worked menial jobs. He went on to achieve incredible cinematic success, and married a young, fair, beautiful girl. His legacy in Tamil cinema will be that heroes are relatable to the common man, in terms of appearance, profession, background and language, while villains are fair, good-looking, educated, rich, English-speaking men who will eventually get beaten up. Perhaps the secret of Rajinikanth’s success is that, unlike most of his contemporaries—including Amitabh Bachchan—he has never allowed himself to be ridiculed for romancing girls half his age on screen. And he has done this by ensuring that he allows himself to age off-screen, creating a Dorian Gray-like effect. His films are escapist. To criticise them, or him, is to destroy the fantasy his fans want to believe is within reach. And so, one may wonder what may have become of him if he had remained an actor, and not turned into a star; one may vocalise the snide remarks that his films beg, but the cult of Rajinikanth will endure—because it symbolises hope, and hope will endure. n open 57

music PARADISE REGAINED Zarina Begum (in the background) at the IGNCA concert on 23 May

raul irani

were instrumental in shaping the contours of Hindustani classical music— comprising such forms as the dadra, thumri, ghazal and tappa. Begum Akhtar was one of the leading exponents of this musical tradition in the 20th century and Zarina Begum is the only surviving artiste who performs in Akhtar’s distinctive style. Though hemmed in by age and ill-health, 82-year-old Zarina Begum still retains a voice powerful enough to bring back the splendour of an era long past. Zarina Begum was born in 1942 to an acclaimed musician’s family in the Nanpara district of Uttar Pradesh. Saba Dewan, a noted documentary filmmaker based in Delhi who made a movie in 2009 on the craft and lifestyle of courtesans titled The Other Song, says, “Since her father Shahenshah Husain was a well-known musician attached to the Nanpara taluqdaari estate, Zarinaji as a child had the opportunity of hearing great women artistes like Begum Akhtar and Rasoolan Bai perform in the mehfils held there. Born in a family of hereditary male musicians, Zarinaji’s struggles to find her musical destiny had begun in early childhood itself.” When she was about ten years old, Zarina Begum chanced upon a destitute bajawalla (musician) in need of Sneha bhura money. She sensed an opportunity to practise music on her own and readily purchased his harmonium for a sum of Rs 10, using up all her savings. She was very weak, I didn’t want to come … but they inwould then regularly impersonate mehfil singers under her sisted so much,” Zarina Begum told me when I asked lihaaf, unseen by anyone in the house. Shehanshah Husain her how it felt to be in New Delhi to perform at the soon learnt of his daughter’s ardent desire to sing. Convinced Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) last of his daughter’s talent and potential, he decided to train week. Zarina Begum, once a famous singer in the her himself and did his utmost to assure her the best possible resplendent mehfils of 1970s Lucknow, is considered the last exposure, letting her perform at the mehfils of Nanpara, surviving apostle of Begum Akhtar, the inimitable Mallikabesides arranging formal training for her under the e-Ghazal of India. She was in Delhi last week to recreate famous Qawwal Ghulam Hazrat of Firangi Mahal. The King the music of the illustrious court of Awadh with a recital of of Nanpara was so impressed by Zarina Begum’s voice that he ghazals and thumri. She performed to a dewy-eyed audience gave her family 700 bighas (around 140 acres) of land as a visibly speechless and star-struck, unaware that she was token of appreciation. Around the time that she was discovstruggling with a fever that refused to recede. ering her identity as a singer, she was married off to a rich Zarina Begum is the last practitioner of a genre of music contractor from Nanpara. In a tragic twist, her husband, who drawn from the traditional soirees or mehfils hosted by the was not supportive of her aspirations, asked her to make a culturally innovative Nawabs of Awadh in the late 19th choice: a life dedicated to domestic duties or that of a singer. century. The elegant courtesans in the lavish court of Awadh Zarina Begum did not hesitate to choose what she was born

The Other Song of Dusk Zarina Begum, the last pupil of Begum Akhtar, is testimony to the highs and lows of a life dedicated to gayaki


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to do, and was deserted later by her husband—with whom she had two children. Unperturbed, Zarina Begum continued her singing performances, always accompanied by her father. It was at one such performance in the Bahraich district, at the age of 25 or 26, that Zarina Begum drew the attention of Begum Akhtar, who was so fascinated by the potency of her voice that she knew she had to adopt Zarina as her pupil and train her in the finer aspects of ghazal gaayaki and thumri. Destiny had other surprises in store. Zarina Begum met her second husband Qurban Husain, who worked with Begum Akhtar as a tabla player, at the same concert. Thus began a long and rewarding career of singing in countless soirees hosted by the crumbling nobility of Nanpara, Mehmoodabad, Rampur, and later Lucknow. Suddenly, she was everywhere: at weddings and private ceremonies, at royal feasts and dinners, at conferences and concerts, and on All India Radio Lucknow. Her voice even featured in a couple of Hindi movies, like Gaman (1978) and Let’s Talk (2002). She would stay away from home and family for months and perform for an audience that, by her own admission, “was very knowledgeable in terms of poetry and gaayaki. They appreciated [the singing] at all the right places and gave us the freedom to explore musical [possibilities] without time constraints.” The audience, back in those days of the 70s, was both sophisticated and enamoured of her voice. Her haunting rendition of Aye Mohabat Tere Anjam Pe Rona Aaya would evoke raptures of applause and requests for encores. In one particular mehfil she fondly remembers, Kaifi Azmi, bedazzled by her performance, told her, “Dus saal hamari zindagi ke, Zarina aap ke naam likh dengey.”

tered away by her brother, and soon there was nothing left. She currently lives with her son who is a tabla player with a disabled leg. Qurban Husain died some eight years ago. Her sunken face and small sparkling eyes lined with kohl betray a trace of sadness, dejection even, as she remarks, “Koi sunne wala hi nahi hai, kiske liye gayengey. Aajkal toh sab filmi sunte hain.” I ask her if she ever taught singing or aspired to open a school for this elegant style of gayaki, and a wry smile crosses her face before she replies: “Of course I did. But who has the discipline and the patience these days, most of them learn for a month or two and are never seen again....” In the documentary The Other Song, there is a short clip featuring the petite frame of Zarina Begum on her harmonium, singing with all the delicate gesticulations of a mehfil singer. To the camera she narrates an incredibly amusing incident about a soiree held in the house of a Nawab. The gathering was suddenly disrupted by the appearance of a bandit who pointed his rifle at everyone present and asked a frightened Zarina to sing something he might understand. After repeated attempts to entertain him with all kinds of ghazals and dadra, she finally sung Nazar Laagi Raja tore Bangle Par, hearing which “Daku Saheb Pyarelal took out his bag and started showering over me all his money, repeating after me, ‘Nazar laagi raja tore bangle par’ (I’ve got my gaze on your bungalow, my king!).” Full of beguiling simplicity, Zarina Begum has many such tales to share. Last week, Manjari Chaturvedi, president of the Sufi Kathak Foundation, organised what might be the last public performance of Zarina Begum at the IGNCA. She recounts a meeting she had with the singer last year: “When I met her in September, she expressed a desire to wear a Banarasi sari and sing one last time on stage, and I was moved to tears... I promised myself to make that happen for Zarina and this is how this whole concert came about.” Decked in a dark pink Banarasi with a rich golden border for the concert, Zarina Begum’s was a portrait of sublime grace. Observed Kumud Diwan, a thumri practitioner who performed alongside Zarina Begum at the IGNCA concert, “The striking thing about her is her spirit as an artiste, that she is paralysed waist down but has the courage to sing in spite of her advancing age and frailty.” Just the day before her performance at the IGNCA, Zarina Begum’s daughter Rubina Khatoum was happy to see her mother gear up. “When she did her riyaaz yesterday, her demeanour suddenly transformed,” says Rubina, “She did not look ill at all. She was very excited that she was going to sing.” Zarina Begum received a standing ovation for her performance that night. Before her departure via the night train, sitting in a wheelchair, she struggled hard to control her tears. “I could never imagine people still love me so much,” said Zarina Begum, “I will come back to sing again.” n

For all the trappings of an unforgettable legend, Zarina Begum now spends her days in penury in a rented oneroom house. The invitations dried up long ago. There are no mehfils left


hose days are just a faint memory. Zarina Begum now

spends her days in penury in a rented one-room house in Aminabad. Her story is as much the story of a dying art as one of personal travesties and professional setbacks. In spite of being extensively recorded in her heyday, she never quite got the credit or acknowledgement she deserved from companies that used her voice for commercial purposes. Being largely illiterate and devoted to her craft, Zarina Begum and her husband would meekly accept whatever payment they received from their admiring patrons. Yet, her achievements were extraordinary. Though she was brought up in a North Indian Muslim family of strict purdah observers, Zarina Begum chose to master a genre of Indian music that was associated with ‘tawaif’ culture, an institution defamed as morally bankrupt in her day and age. She had to fight intense social stigmatisation to continue her métier. “I have not taught my daughter to sing as this was not a respectable profession.” The money she despatched back home while travelling for performances was reportedly frit-

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biofilm Many bacteria that grow on skin, lung, heart and other human tissue surfaces form biofilms, highly structured communities of bacteria that are responsible for two-thirds of all human infections

How the Brain Makes Us Forget New neurons don’t just help us form new memories, but also lose some

A Peptide to Fight Bacteria


hy is it so difficult to retain memories from early childhood? Many scientists had so far believed that this tendency to forget early childhood memories, termed as ‘infantile amnesia’ by Sigmund Freud, was somehow connected with language. Scientists had found that children started developing long term memories only around the time they started learning to speak. However, a new study, published in the journal Science, finds that infants’ memories being wiped clean are not connected with their ability to grasp language but with the creation of new brain cells. New neurons being formed in the brain’s hippocampus region, the part responsible for memory formation, were replacing old ones and also causing people to forget early childhood memories. This production of new brain cells was found to taper off during childhood. Researchers believed that the language connection was improbable because they found that animals also exhibited infantile amnesia. 60 open

For the study, a group of Canadian researchers turned to mice, which like humans also cannot hold on to early memories. Adult mice were made to fear a chamber room by giving them light foot shocks there. Every time they were then placed in the chamber, they started freezing up in fear. The fear remained even 28 days after they were first given shocks. Infant mice, however, were more forgetful. Even a day after being buzzed with shocks, they showed no fear, hinting that new brain cells might be holding up memory retention. However, when the researchers boosted neuron production in adult mice, they began to forget their fear of the chamber. When neuron production was slowed down in infant mice, they began to be more fearful of the chamber. The researchers write in the journal, ‘... the continuous addition of new neurons both degrades existing information stored in hippocampal circuits and simultaneously provides substrates for new learning.’ n

Researchers at University of British Columbia have identified a peptide that prevents bacteria from forming biofilms, a frequent cause of infections. The peptide works on a range of bacteria including many that cannot be treated by antibiotics. The researchers found that the peptide known as 1018—consisting of just 12 amino acids, the building blocks of protein— destroyed biofilms and prevented them from forming. 1018 also worked on several major antibiotic-resistant pathogens, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa and E. coli. There are currently no approved treatments for biofilm infections. n

Groupthink Lasts Three Days

A new study published in Psychological Science, suggests that people do change their own personal judgments so that they fall in line with group norms, but the change only seems to last about three days. According to the researchers of South China Normal University who conducted the study, the one question that they still don’t know the answer to is why the effect lasts for three days. They plan on investigating whether there might be a neurological reason for the duration of the effect, and whether the effect can be manipulated to last for shorter or longer durations. n

9 june 2014


Curved TV HU9000 Samsung’s latest TV set offers viewers an immersive experience gagandeep Singh Sapra

higher resolution Ultra High Definition, or UHD for short, is the next step up from Full HD— the official name for a display resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels. UHD doubles that resolution to 3,840 x 2,160 pixels. Almost every TV or monitor advertised as ‘4K’ is actually UHD

Tissot T-Touch Expert w Solar

Price on request

Rs 449,900

Tissot presents a touch-screen watch powered by solar energy. It is a powerful watch with features that include a perpetual calendar with indications of day and week, two alarms—one for the week, the other for the weekend— two time zones, weather forecast with relative pressure display, an altimeter and chronograph, apart from a logbook, compass, timer, azimuth, regatta function and backlight. n



ight after LG’s launch,

Samsung has its own set of curved LED TVs that create a panoramic effect for a great viewing experience. Samsung’s HU900 curved TV’s 65inch screen can render 4K resolution images and videos with breathtaking picture quality and incredible detail, but chances are you may not have 4K movies available; and this is where you see the technology inside the television set do its magic. An ultra high definition (UHD) upscaler makes sure you have the best possible picture irrespective of the source material. Video CDs from days gone by may not render that well, but play a DVD movie, or your regular standard definition TV channel off a set top box, and you see the magic of the upscaler in action. The HU900 also support all modern day connection standards, including HEVC, HDM 2.0 and MHL 3.0 for display mirroring from your phone, 9 june 2014

and even HDCP 2.2. Samsung uses some cutting-edge technology, from Precision Dimming LEDs—that increase contrast where there are dark areas in a scene—to a Wide Colour Enhancer that puts out colours as accurately and close to the shades they should be. Unlike other TV sets that just use red, green and blue to control images, the HU900 uses magenta, cyan and yellow in addition to offer greater colour depth, and its ultra clear panel absorbs ambient light so that pictures come to life. The HU900 supports multi link capability for up to four screens; one can mount two TVs side by side or a grid of 2 x 2 to make four TV sets and make the picture larger without compromising picture quality. Sadly, its sound quality lacks punch. The HU9000 will need a speaker bar or a home theatre system to get better sound and an overall topnotch experience. n

Rs 49,990

Six months after the Z1, the Z2 is here, and it is impressive. Sony has heard what users had to say and fixed a lot of things; the Z2 now has a 5.2-inch screen with 424 pixels per inch, 3 Gigabytes of RAM and the Latest Snapdragon 801 Quad Core processor. It is waterproof and shock proof like the Z1, but now has a front facing speaker, taking movie watching and its speakerphone experience to a higher level. The phone features a 20.7 megapixel camera that can shoot 4K videos, as well as a 2.2 megapixel front camera for those selfies and video calls. Though the Z2 lacks curves like most of its competitors, its design coupled with beautiful colour options of white, black and purple is really attractive. n Gagandeep Singh Sapra is The Big Geek at System3. He can be reached at

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of technology and kolly wood Kochadaiiyaan is the second Indian film to use performance capturing technology, after another Tamil feature film Maattraan (2012). This technology has been used in Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin

Kochadaiiyaan For all its animation gimmicks, this film feels like a cut-and-paste job ajit duara

o n scr een


X-Men: Days of Future Past Director Bryan Singer cast Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan,

Hugh Jackman Score ★★★★★

dukone th, deepika pa Cast rajinikan hwin as R a ry da Director Soun


t is difficult to understand why

Kochadaiiyaan needed any actors at all. The animation, in terms of movement, colour and action, is pretty well done. But it falls short when the physiognomy of an individual is etched. All the actors, including Rajinikanth and Deepika Padukone, look like they have stiff masks on, and when they conduct extended conversations with each other, the scenario reminds you of a puppet show. There is not a trace of the persona and character of these actors. The film, therefore, fails to engage us in human terms. Add to this a convoluted tale— of a great general betrayed by the king he fights for —spanning two generations, and the movie misses its mark entirely. Kochadaiiyaan (Rajinikanth), the noble warrior, lives in Kottaipattinam and during one of his military expeditions, his army is poisoned by the enemy. To find an antidote to save

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the army, he travels to the rival kingdom for help. The shrewd ruler there (Jackie Shroff) promises medical assistance, on the condition that all the ammunition and horses are left behind. Kochadaiiyaan agrees reluctantly to these terms, but when he returns home empty-handed, his jealous king, the Maharajah of Kottaipattinam (Nassar) finds in this failure a perfect pretext to have his general executed. Many years later, the great warrior’s son, Rana Ranvijay (Rajinikanth again) continues the story.... The movie has a narrative that goes back and forth in time. In live action this could work— with definitive characters played by actors we could identify as human. But with a set of actors who have their portraits animated on masks, the whole thing looks like an advanced cut-and-paste job. Rajinikanth does not come to life and the interweaving narrative is difficult to peg, leaving one in limbo. n

The X-Men series keeps itself alive by desperately striving for historical relevance. In X-Men: First Class, we were given the context of the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis, in The Wolverine, the primary setting is 1945 Nagasaki, Japan, when the atomic bomb was dropped. And in this latest edition, we go back in time to 1973, to the Paris Peace Accord, the agreement that officially ended the Vietnam war. Of course there is always a narrative hook that connects us to these historical events. In this film, we are in the present, which is 2023, and faced with an existential problem. Horrific robots called ‘Sentinels’ are oppressing mutants and humans, and if something is not done quickly, both species will be exterminated. So the X-Men select Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to travel back 50 years in timeto 1973, and assign him the task of making a few alterations in history so that the scientific project that led to the creation of these ‘Sentinels’ during the administration of Richard Nixon is halted. But the heavy-handed storytelling and terrible use of 3D lets the film down. John Milton, in Paradise Lost, used the memorable phrase ‘darkness visible’, to describe what hell looks like. That’s exactly how the 3D images appear. n AD

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Not People Like Us

R aj e e v M asa n d

Hedging Her Bets

Likely inspired by Amitabh Bachchan’s unprecedented success on television with Kaun Banega Crorepati, and possibly encouraged by merely the anticipation for his soonto-air fiction show directed by Anurag Kashyap, another Bachchan may be testing TV waters. No, it’s not Abhishek or Aishwarya, but the senior Mrs B, Jaya Bachchan herself! The Guddi star was reportedly in talks with a production company that offered her a starring role in a bold political drama. Centered on a single mother abandoned by her husband when she was young, the script charted the woman’s growth into a powerful political player. Excited by the concept, Mrs Bachchan apparently committed to the project and agreed to meet the channel for further discussions. But, a reliable source reveals, in her meeting with the channel, Mrs Bachchan decided she felt more comfortable sticking to a safer, tried-and-tested plotline, rather than experimenting with a full-blown political drama. The show’s producers in turn were surprised and a little disheartened by her change of heart. The show is still very much on, but it will now be a family saga featuring a single mother raising three children after being abandoned by her husband. There will still be a political subplot, but considerably watered down.

Deepika Dearest

Loyalty pays off, and Deepika Padukone is a living, breathing example of that. When Sanjay Leela Bhansali discussed Bajirao Mastani with her right after they’d finished making Ram-Leela, the actress committed to the project straight away, promising to adjust her other commitments to accommodate his film, whenever he decided he was ready to shoot. Although Bhansali had a roller-coaster journey when it came to casting his male lead, he has remained firm in his resolve that Deepika and only Deepika would be his Mastani. He reportedly resisted overtures from Kareena Kapoor and at least two other actresses who were keen to nab the part. Now that casting is locked—Ranveer Singh will play Bajirao, Deepika his younger second wife Mastani, while Priyanka Chopra might play his older wife—it is learnt that Deepika will be rewarded 9 june 2014

handsomely for sticking to Bhansali’s project. Notorious for demanding that his stars take a pay cut in exchange for the opportunity to work with him, the filmmaker, in an unusually generous mood, has reportedly signed the actress at a whopping fee of Rs 8 crore. This possibly makes DP the highest paid female star right now, and one who can boast all the major projects currently in production—she toplines everything from Farah Khan’s SRK-starrer Happy New Year and Imtiaz Ali’s Ranbir Kapoor vehicle to Bhansali’s passion project. The true test of her box-office clout, however, will come with September’s Finding Fanny Fernandes, an English-language drama she filmed with Arjun Kapoor for her Cocktail director Homi Adajania. If Deepika can turn that niche film into a moneyspinner, they’ll probably just have to concede that she’s got the Midas touch.

No Pyar without Car

Who says ego issues and one-upmanship exist between superstars only? A talented young actor, recently in the spotlight for having won a major award, dropped in at the home of another powerhouse performer recently for a casual meeting. Both actors—very popular among filmmakers who make realistic, meaningful, modest-budget movies—even had small roles in the same star-driven thriller two years ago. If a list of the best actors currently working in the movies were to be drawn up, both gentlemen are likely to feature on it, the senior one occupying a higher place perhaps. But both men get along perfectly, insiders reveal, possibly because they aren’t exactly positioned as rivals just yet. As the younger actor was leaving his host’s home after a friendly chat, the older actor took a quick glimpse at his ride, and was surprised to discover that his guest had an Audi Q7. Revealing a hint of envy, he reportedly said to his brother who was at his home at the time: “Main bhi leta hoon. Tu mera [Ford] Endeavor rakh le.” No confirmation yet on whetherhe did end up buying a new car, but enquiries were apparently being made immediately after. n Rajeev Masand is entertainment editor and film critic at CNN-IBN open 63

open space

Our Own Ronald McDonald

by as h i s h s h a r m a

Anil Sharma, 42, dressed as ‘Chotiwala’, the popular mascot of Chotiwala Restaurant in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. Established in 1958, Chotiwala gained much popularity after a well-fed person was engaged to dress up as Chotiwala and sit at the entrance of the restaurant every day from 11 am to 7 pm to attract customers. This strategy of having a live mascot welcoming customers has continued uninterrupted for over five decades

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9 june 2014

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OPEN Magazine 9 June 2014  

OPEN Magazine 9 June 2014