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25 September 2010

Commonwealth Shames...

... India and the Games' apologists blame the victim — Indians — for not being nationalistic enough
An international games event is often hosted in a place with the aim to uplift the local economy. The Commonwealth Games has so far served this purpose well in several cities in various countries that hosted them (this event is strictly associated with the hosting city and not the hosting country). Prime among these examples is the 2002 chapter that was held in Manchester that was passing through its worst phase of unemployment, a fallout of the closure of hundreds of textile mills the city has historically been known for.

The city received a considerable facelift as a result, and at least 20,000 jobs were created as a direct result of the infrastructure upgrade. The most prominent of the economic changes observed by the city because of the 2002 Commonwealth Games was Microsoft, the company that took charge of the cyber support for the event, making the city its European headquarters.

With this in view, it was initially proposed that one of the villages on the outskirts of Delhi — either Bawana or Narela — would be made the venue of 2010 Commonwealth Games. But the organisers with questionable intent ensured that was not to be. Delhi, already the most privileged of all Indian cities, was finally decided as the venue to facilitate contractors with, it is now learnt, dubious antecedents. The company blacklisted by the Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System being awarded the contract for the foot overbridge that was to join the Barapulla Nala elevated road and Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, the structure that collapsed last Tuesday, is a sore case in point. That is besides the issue of innumerable structures that have come up all over the city for the ‘convenience’ of the Games’ athletes and officials.

What is the legacy that this case of monumental corruption is supposed to leave after the first fortnight of October 2010? The governments of Delhi and the Centre alike have assured the citizens that every case of alleged fraud will be investigated after the Games. When this assurance was given for the first time two months ago, the news read as if the authority were saying that the organisers could muck around with impunity — and, possibly, even remove evidence of corruption — in the intervening period. As the postscript in the article by Shekhar Gupta in today’s edition of The Indian Express fears, the Union Government’s ‘anger’, presuming it’s really upset, might subside by then! This newspaper is, by the way, of the view that the ineptness of the authority is limited to not being able to be prepared for the Games well in time; otherwise, it’s pretty gung-ho about Delhi’s remarkable “infrastructure development”; it has branded the Indians who are criticising the mess as a “self-flagellation” brigade. But let’s not digress by calling patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels.

A family of daily-wage labourers, photographed outside the
Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium last Friday by a Hindustan Times
journalist, that has been asked to leave Delhi by this Monday
Back to the issue of legacy, three days ago on Times Now, a socialist activist called the filth in the Commonwealth Games Village the “poor man’s revenge”. They sullied the place because, she thinks, they are not paid well! In all the ex post facto justifications and explanations we have heard so far for the Village not being ready in time for athletes to move in, a bare fact about Indian labourers’ behaviour is conspicuous by its absence. While it is not my case, unlike Indian Olympic Committee Secretary-General Lalit Bhanot’s that unflushed toilets and bedsheets with dogs’ pug marks are the ‘Indian standard’ of cleanliness, let’s not forget that this is the state in which every Indian apartment is found before its owner moves in. It’s an unwritten code of conduct for India’s labourers that, before handing the possession of a house over to its owner, the house must be left to their mercy. The fault with the organising committee was limited to letting the foreigners have a glimpse of the flats’ condition a bit too ‘early’ for our comfort. An SOS could have been transmitted to the site’s labourers, asking them to clean up before the delegates were to walk in for inspection.

Otherwise, howsoever politically incorrect it may sound, the labourers are disinclined to making the kind of statement the socialist activist thought they did. Bhanot was wrong in suggesting that filth was the Indian standard of hygiene, but it’s true that is the normal way of living of the lowest economic stratum of Indian society, and the workers had made the construction site their ‘home’, living there the way they live in slums. Hence the question of legacy again. Has this stratum benefited in any way from the Games? Let alone being granted better living conditions as a token of appreciation for the effort they put in, they were not even paid on par with industry’s rate of daily wages. One of the workers labouring at the Shivaji Stadium, a venue the authorities have already admitted will not be fully completed by October, revealed he was getting paid Rs 3,000 a month to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. By law, he should have been getting double that amount.

Defecating and spitting all over the place may not be their idea of vengeance, but that takes nothing away from the fact that they, as much as other poor people of the city, have earned nothing in return from the Games. Rather, the domestic helps across the National Capital region are being thrashed and thrown out of the city by the police so that the ‘ugliness’ of their poverty does not sully the image of Delhi and India.

In what is clearly a demonstration of government’s haughtiness, it disregards the concerns of the educated middle class as well, with the next Parliament and Assembly elections too far away to generate the apprehension of electoral retribution. As if turning the whole city grey with unpainted metro pillars and leaving no room for possible sky rails in future were not enough, the traffic on almost all roads interlinking the different corners of the city have been turned one way, with an obscure turn lurking somewhere in between, missing which would mean a motorist has to drive an extra 5 km or 10 km to reach his destination. If this is tolerable, read on.

The present condition of a section of Connaught Place Inner Circle
As a resident of east Delhi with all its roadways at my fingertips, I have reasons to smell a rat seeing three unnecessary flyovers coming up in the region. On two of them where work has just concluded — the one in front of the Village and another in front of the Mayur Vihar Phase I metro station — buses, trucks and cars are seen moving in the same direction both over and beneath the flyovers! This shows that the intersections on the way were hardly an obstacle to smooth traffic movement. Indeed, while going to NOIDA and coming back, this writer never had to halt for more than 30 seconds at the Mayur Vihar intersection. The residents of the neighbourhood, in fact, have the option of two other routes to emerge from their colony and go anywhere they want. When the Games would be on, couldn’t the traffic on these roads be stopped for a while to facilitate the movement of athletes? Sandeep Dikshit, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit’s son and also the MP from the region — as also the Urban Development Ministry — must explain which friendly contractors were awarded the deal of constructing these luxury flyovers. The residents of other parts of Delhi have similar tales of woe to tell. No wonder, the overall expense incurred due to the Commonwealth Games overshot the original budgeted amount and it now stands at 114 times the initial allocation.

This cannot be a concern for the people of Delhi alone. With the corporate sector disinterested in the Games, PSUs have been forced to sponsor the event. This means that the money that the people of India pay to keep the fortunes of many of these government undertakings afloat is now going to the Games. Among the PSUs that are better off, the country’s biggest power producer NTPC Ltd has decided to scrap its Rs 50 crore sponsorship deal while the Power Grid Corporation of India has decided to back out of its commitment of around Rs 9 crore. In Delhi, local taxes have been increased, money originally set aside to help the development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has been diverted and unsightly slums have been bulldozed out of the way, all in the name of the Games.

Specific to the event, the Central Vigilance Commission has identified 16 Games’ projects where there appeared to be financial irregularities. One after another scandal has unravelled kickbacks, shady off-shore firms, forged e-mails, inexplicable payments to bogus companies and inflated bills — for every purchase from toilet paper worth Rs 3,757 to treadmills Rs 9 lakh apiece to umbrellas costing Rs 6,000 each...

The media, however, chose to highlight the incompetence of Suresh Kalmadi and his cohorts alone, who were in charge of no more than 10% of the total funds for the city’s uplift, giving the complicity of the local administration just a passing, customary mention. An impression was created as if everything else in the city was hunky dory, based on which the newspaper named in the beginning of this article questioned why Indians couldn’t be happy about the remaining 90%. Who will judge the judges is therefore the question here. It is not difficult to trace journalists in their late 40s and 50s in all media houses who refused promotion to the bureau and stuck to their first beat of city reporting so that they could sing paeans to Sheila Dikshit and remain in the good books of the city's government. No wonder, even trenchant critics of the UPA Government at the Centre are silent on the issue of obvious misappropriations by the Delhi dispensation.

Make no mistake about it. We, the people of Delhi/NCR, have to fight our own battle. The media might raise a few issues on our behalf but, before its shriek reaches a crescendo, we fear their gaping mouths would be stashed with a share of the loot, and all cases of corruption will gradually be wiped off public memory. Unfortunately, the people do not have incriminating evidence in support of this allegation. Mercifully, public anger is not dependent on incriminating evidence; portents suffice.

Last night, the three most prominent English news channels CNN-IBN, NDTV and Times Now stopped pursuing the mess makers of the Commonwealth Games, and BBC, possibly out of bounds of the Games cartel’s influence, interviewed three pedestrians on the roads of Delhi, two of whom projected a grim scenario. Tonight if the Hindi news channels shut up, viewers should not be surprised. The newspapers this morning ran up the story of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh drubbing Sports Minister MS Gill on their front pages even as quotes of anonymous athletes and officials, saying they were still not satisfied with the conditions, were relegated to the pages inside.

Can blogs like this one come to our rescue? Fat chance! India was recently reported to be among the most censored countries out of Internet users worldwide. But we are not giving up.

02 August 2010

Sa Re Ga Ma Pa…

Surajit Dasgupta
Can Challenge 2009 find the missing notes?

Na jAnE koI kaisI hai yeh zindagAnI,’ sang Debojit Dutta from Kolkata so marvellously — albeit he was out of breath once, a point conveniently ignored by the judges — last night that the audience, going a step ahead of whistling hysterically, gave him a standing ovation to mark the end of the first episode of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Challenge 2009”. The rendition of the rock song from the film, Gangster, was so enthralling that, much as I conceived this article last night when the programme was being aired, I can’t recall the names of other singers now. That does not mean, however, that the other contestants did not sing well. They did. And the judges — Himesh Reshammiya, Aadesh Srivastava, Shankar Mahadevan and Preetam — boasted ad nauseam, though not unjustifiably, how the contest was many notches above the competing, me-too programmes on other channels. That was the happy part. The causes for concern follow.

Ever since “Sa Re Ga Ma” (the ‘Pa’ wasn’t yet added back then) was hosted more than a decade ago by Sonu Nigam and adjudged by maestros of Hindustani classical music and some master musicians of yesteryears, the standard of the programme has seen a constant decline, thanks to the contest turning into a reality show (which the first version was not). Teachers of music say that out of every 100 people, only 1 has an ear for music. Of 100 such people who are not tone-deaf, only 1 can distinguish between a well-sung and a badly sung song. Out of 100 people blessed with such discretion, only 1 can sing. And out of 100 people who can sing, only 1 can sing well (exactly the way a certain song should be sung). Given this 0.00000001% of people who are eligible for judging music, how dare an entertainment channel confer on 100% people, who choose to vote through telephone calls and mobile SMSs, the right to qualify or disqualify a singer!

The injustice meted out to several good singers in the programmes of the type aired so far is still fresh in the memory. Even the first version of the programme, which was anchored by Sonu Nigam, was not free of prejudice. While towards the end the judges came in the form of maestros and masters in dozens, many initial episodes had a single judge — sometimes a playback singer, at times only one All India Radio singer, at times only one music director. Could the judgement by one judge — say, a Kumar Sanu or a Penaz Masani — be comparable to the aggregate result reached by a dozen judges, including a Pandit Jasraj, an Ustaad Amjad Ali Khan, an Anil Biswas, a Naushad Ali et al? Certainly not. So, in the preliminary stages, we saw the elimination of several better singers and promotion of the less talented ones. Clearly, the dozen judges who got to judge the contestants in the final round did not get to hear the best of the lot. And in these 13 odd years ever since, Mohammed Wakil, the winner of “Sa Re Ga Ma”, is nowhere to be found except in some forgettable qawwaali or ghazal programmes on ETv Urdu. A music album was released right after the finals, none of whose songs anybody remembers today. The present scenario is worse.

Debojit Saha, the winner of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa”, is no Kishore Kumar, though his style of singing is similar. So what? Most Bengali singers have a fascination for Kishore’s style. That does not mean all of them have the same baritone. In fact, since 13 October 1987, the Indian playback singing industry has not heard any singer who can deliver a deep throated sound in the upper octave. The industry may have broken free of me-too Rafis, Mukeshes and Kishores, thanks to the era of uninfluenced voices ushered in by Udit Narayan, beginning with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, but howsoever good Sonu Nigam, Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan might be, no voice has been as manly as Kishore’s in these 21 years after his death. For evidence, listen to Hariharan’s rendition of “Tum bin jaUn’ kahAn” — originally sung by Kishore Kumar in Pyar Ka Mausam — in the film, Dil Vil Pyar Vyar. Spare us your thin voices, folks!

The aspect of 'thin' voices brings us to Abhijit Sawant. This average singer was, in all probability, chosen as the "Indian Idol" for his ability to prance about the stage. "Indian Idol 2" Sandeep Acharya and "Indian Idol 3" Prashant Tamang, especially the latter, came across as much better choices by the audience. However, one drawback in all of them was evident: None could do justice to all the songs they sang in the course of the programme. Asha Bhosle is slated to appear as the special guest and judge in "Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Challenge 2009" next week. One hopes she were the judge throughout such programmes, or at least for a longer duration, to teach a thing or two about versatility to the contestants.

That may be because they don’t make men anymore. From Shahrukh Khan to Aamir Khan to Salman Khan to Hrithik Roshan, they all sound and behave like boys. Whom will a deep throat suit? As for Amitabh Bachchan, it would have been good for both Sudesh Bhonsle and the industry if his mimicry was never discovered. He may be acceptable for ‘Jumma chumma dE dE’ or equivalents of Kishore’s light-hearted songs like ‘Tane dhin tandAnA’ (Desh Premi), but can he equal an ‘O sAthi rE’ (Muqaddar Ka Sikander) for Bachchan?

Back from the distant to the recent past, it really hurt when those who dared to sing songs rendered by Sukhwinder Singh, arguably the most difficult singer of this generation to emulate, were beaten by a rank mediocre Debojit, thanks to the frenzy with which viewers from eastern and north-eastern India voted him the winner. To add insult to injury, they have eliminated Vineet once again, this time from the programme, “Jo Jeeta Wohi Superstar”. This boy, who used to sport a cap during “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa”, won all the accolades from the then judges — Himesh used to be there, too — but couldn’t win the hearts of television viewers, tone-deaf most of them.

By the way, is the music director duo, Vishal Shekhar, left with no work in recording studios? They seem to be available for all reality shows! And what is a choreographer, Farah Khan, doing as a judge in JJWS, a music programme? Her misplaced enthusiasm becomes clear when she insists that today a singer should “perform” as much as he/she should sing. I dare any singer living anywhere in the world to dance while singing, not letting his voice waver even a little while thumping on the ground. If he can, I’ll serve as his slave all my life.

Well done! Kunal Ganjawala, Shreya Ghoshal & Preetam Chakraborty in VOI – CU did a much better job than Alka Yagnik, Abhijeet & Bappi Lahiri in SRGMP – LC and Suresh Wadkar & Sonu Nigam in SRGMP – LC 2; bigger names in playback singing and music composition do not necessarily make better judges
This is also an appeal to organisers of Gajendra Singh’s ilk to keep their dancers away from singers on the stage. Genuine music lovers were concerned about the performances of Aishwarya and Anwesha when some dancers, moved disturbingly close to the girls, prancing about them with hankies, mufflers, chairs and other props in the programme, “Voice of India – Chhote Ustaad”.

Anyway, Gajendra’s otherwise inimitable touch as an organiser was conspicuous in the Star Plus programme’s elongated set, especially in the sitting arrangements inside the auditoria where different rounds of the contest were shot. It seems the organisers of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa” have no acoustician in their panel. It surprises one to note that in the set, the wall opposite the singer is too close to him/her for the right effect. It’s common sense that your voice sounds better inside a hall when you are facing its breadth along the length, not the opposite. And they have repeated this mistake after the last phase that was called challenge 2007.

Acoustics reminds me of an edition of Star News. That day before the finals of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2”, Raja Hassan, who lost the fight to Aneek Dhar, was singing in the news channel’s studio on viewers’ request. Till then he had mesmerised many with sheer control over his voice. But that day there was no echo-effect in the mike, and there was no accompanying music. Anybody who has strolled on the lanes and by-lanes of a suburb in West Bengal can tell you that any of those girls singing with a harmonium (equivalent of a reed organ) and tabla-bãyah sound better than Raja Hassan when not assisted by technology.

Raja’s natural voice, not made fanciful by echo-effects, points a finger to the wrong parameters of judgement in these ‘reality’ shows. In the lines of the format of (the first) Sa Re Ga Ma, the organisers must put all participants to rigorous tests of various kinds. One of them has to be singing without a microphone and accompanying orchestra. Whoever thinks nobody sounds good without the echo-effect must refer to Kolkata Doordarshan’s archives and hear Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar (Hemanta Mukherjee), Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and other jewels of the bygone era sing in between their chats with interviewers. Fortunately for this generation, those golden moments are frequently relived on Kolkata Doordarshan after 11 pm.

Now, on to another programme, in the first version of “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa - Li’l Champs”, a visually impaired boy — the commiseration due for the disabled notwithstanding, the choice was supposed to be for the best singer, not he who was longanimity personified — reached the finals, riding a sympathy wave from voters who got animated enough to spend Rs 3.00 – Rs 6.00 per SMS, even though all his renditions lacked the respective right moods. For some reason best known to the velvety-voiced playback singer, Abhijeet, he kept calling a hoary-voiced, happy-go-lucky Sameer his “favourite” singer throughout the programme. Abhrakanti, who overcame his breathing problem within the first few episodes to render some memorable classical numbers, perhaps belonged to a genre that is unintelligible to today’s generation that excels on superficiality. Paavni, the 12-year old whose item ‘Khallas’ (Company) could give an adult female playback singer a run for her money, was shown the door, too. Mercifully, Sanchita, the winner, can still be accepted as a deserving winner. But one suspects she was more than the eligible age during the contest.

“Sa Re Ga Ma Pa - Li’l Champs 2” was grossly disappointing. Steeped as Suresh Wadkar and Sonu Nigam are in the classical genre, these judges deserved better than Anamika Choudhury, the winner whose performance throughout the series was inconsistent. Maybe to cover this lacuna, she had once thrown a tantrum, threatening to leave the show, purportedly citing as reason the death (or ill-health?) of a fellow-contestant’s father after the poor chap was thrown out of the contest a few weeks therebefore. Mercifully, Suresh and Sonu were not impressed. But for sure, the viewers were (they don’t qualify as the “audience”). Runner-up Rohanpreet, despite his average voice, was stable throughout. He must take advice from a guru, if he wants to further his career as a playback singer.

Great discoveries: Anamika (left), the winner of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Li’l Champs 2, is no match for either of them.
Anwesha (left in the right frame), the introvert, lost to Aishwarya for coming out of her cocoon a bit too late
Finally, with all its shortcomings, “Voice Of India – Chhote Ustaad” was a greater pleasure listening to — I can’t ‘see’ songs — than the simultaneously running “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Li'l Champs 2” sequel. Zee Telefilms Ltd must patch up with Gajendra Singh and call him back from Star TV Network. His contemporaries just don’t have his panache.

And let’s hope the audience does not have to relive the pains of injustice with “Sa Re Ga Ma Pa – Challenge 2009”. After all, as rightly pointed out by Himesh — pardon his garrulity — the very first episode of the programme has witnessed contestants of the caliber only the final rounds of the me-too competition has so far seen.

The writer is a mathematician and linguist, now a corporate communicator and has been a journalist, a teacher and marketing manager (in reverse chronological order) in his previous vocations. He holds a Sangeet Visharad too

10 June 2010

Bengal Will Be Left

Unless Mamata does a volte face

More than a quarter-century of political praxis looks like changing. The Left Front’s sweep in West Bengal is giving way! To the politics of a maverick, a firebrand woman politician who, in the eyes of her constituency and friendly Bengali media, pursues a dedicated political career to the exclusion of other calls on a woman’s life (such as marriage), who lives a Spartan life, happily munching on muri while on tour, which can take her hawai chappal-clad feet to Nandigram or the platform of fast unto death over land acquisition in Singur for her spadework drama.

Mamata Banerjee’s theatrics are sincere, or so believe the people of South Kolkata constituency, not some gullible lot from the backwoods that vote for her. Perhaps they consider her histrionics an evil lesser than that of the regime they are now disgruntled at. So what if the anti-Left commentators in New Delhi are not elated by the drubbing the Left Front Government has got in the form of the results of the 2010 civic polls, for they are wary of the eccentric woman, the face of possible change? Bengal seems all dressed up to sing the threnody to Left dominion.

That the ruling coalition has met with four consecutive setbacks since its win in the last assembly elections cannot be denied: 2008 panchayat elections, 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the assembly bypolls and now the 2010 election to the civic bodies. That the people are tired of the 33-year-old regime is almost a given. What must be explored is what they are looking for in the shape of change: changing the visage of the government or that of governance as well?

For one, the prevailing mood in the boondocks is that the post-2000 Marxist dispensation has failed to deliver on the promises of socialism, and not that the formula of Marxism was never deliverable. The ageing comrades of the late Jyoti Basu, many of them still influential on the hustings, are missing him badly. With unwavering faith in the canon of socialism, they had never agreed (when Basu was the chief minister) that the state was in a sorry state. And they were the overwhelming majority of Bengal’s thought leadership.

Of course, socialism has prevailed in the region since an era much before the CPI or the CPI(M) was actualised. But experimentation was the hallmark of the Bengali socialist before Independence. Misgivings about change mark the Bengali socialist of today.

The contentment with a set order can be explained by studying a certain pattern that the Bengali society follows. Bengalis may be among the most travelled communities in India. Their travelling has but mostly been of the domestic tourism kind, and tourism hardly lets one understand the peoples and places visited. Few among the permanent residents of Bengal have had a history of living outside the state for long spells. Non-resident Bengalis, typically emigrants from Kolkata and not from the hinterland, on the other hand, may think like other Indians but, not being enrolled as voters in the state, their views are inconsequential.

Thus the resident Bengali basked in the all-is-well glory. Many even bore an unctuous attitude and refused to take lessons from the rest of India. Al Beruni wrote about a similar problem in temper that prevailed in mediaeval India, where the people had failed to build on the good work done by their forefathers in the ancient ages; they stopped travelling and learning from the world. Such druthers saw it hurtling down the graph of development until some invaders filled in the vacuum. The ubiquitous Bengali chatter clubs — which, unlike their contemporaries in Mumbai and Delhi, are not all bourgeois; they are not to be dismissed on this ground — betray a startlingly similar mindset.

Criticise Bengal’s economy, and the most likely refrain you hear from an average resident Bengali is that you earn less in his state, alright, but you manage to sustain; elsewhere, earning as much means starving to death!

Next, economics derives ex post facto justification from sociology. In the minds of a small-town Bengali, so deep-seated is the prejudice against the general lifestyle of the mero/maura — a pejorative, colloquial Bengali term that refers to the Hindi-speaking population — that, even when he migrates for employment, he seeks vindication for the canard about other Indians. Some days later, after having cursed everybody from the landlord to the bus conductor, he returns to his hearth, sullen that the rest of India does not produce good Samaritans!

Either the uninterrupted socialist pecking order has killed the dreams of the riches, or, to play devil’s advocate, one might postulate that the communist rulers did not deliver more because the proletariat, by nature, wasn’t demanding enough! The long and short of it: capitalism, for right or wrong reasons, does not catch Bengali fancy.

The idea did, however, penetrate a small but significant section of voters. As information from the pro-market parts of India poured in, the youth of Bengal increasingly got disillusioned with the Marxist regime. This was the transition period of the 1990s. Before the mood could spread to the rural areas, the Left Front sensed it and replaced the ageing Basu with a much younger Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the helm.

The new chief minister’s image married dynamism with the part of socialism the voters still had faith in. That he is a man of letters — never mind the BA in Bengali (Honours) has no acclaimed published titles to his credit — and also among the relations of revolutionary poet Sukanta Bhattacharya was an impression cleverly cultivated by the Left’s foot soldiers. A leader couldn’t have had a better bio-data to make an unassuming Bengali drop his jaw.

In the years that followed, the promise was found to be misplaced. The bid to reform ran into two stumbling blocks. First, veteran comrades did not take to Bhattacharjee’s reformist streak kindly. Maleficent, they went about vitiating the cadres’ minds against the new leadership. Even the people of Delhi should know it, as The Pioneer, a newspaper unofficially boycotted by the Left, was picked up by several notable members of the RSP, the Forward Bloc and even the CPI to vent their frustration through successive op-ed columns every Saturday. This dissent was but a faint echo of the uproar in the villages. To the rural folks, Bhattacharjee had turned an embodiment of treachery who had failed socialism!

Second, the non-socialist section of voters, who had thought after Bhattacharjee’s ascension that the state was in for an overhaul, met with gross disappointment. The culture of mass strikes and routine street demonstrations never ended. Even new sectors like Information Technology were threatened with the intrusion of trade unions. Notably, the population of this voter segment, the urbane youth, has far outpaced that of the old.

For the opposition in West Bengal, it was always a matter of bridging a gap of roughly two per cent of votes that the Left Front had been getting more than the Trinamool-Congress combine — the BJP is as good as non-existent in the state — which, in turn, translated to a majority of assembly seats remaining with the ruling coalition election after election. This decisive gap is narrowing.

Now, since rural areas offer the bulk of votaries who will decide the 2011 outcome, it is their sentiment that will count. No wonder, all of the current Union Railways minister’s programmes in the state that are making her constituency swell by the day, be it her posturing in Singur and Nandigram or her playing footsie with Maoist-backed PSBJC, are typically Leftist. To consolidate her position further, in a public meeting in 2007, Banerjee had famously said that she was not anti-Left, merely anti-CPI(M)! The pronouncement not only impressed the cause célèbre rabblerousers, but also rekindled the reverie of never having to relinquish power among the smaller constituents of the Left Front. The Bengal picture is clear now. Next year, its government might change, the style of governance will not.

Yet another thing will not change. The huddled masses were so far daunted by the all-pervading CPM cadre. They will now bow to the Trinamool’s hoodlums. The commentary broadcast from New Delhi will change, though. The by-now-impugned sympathisers of Maoists apart, this city’s ‘intellectuals’ will not tout the phenomenon as ‘people’s revolution’.

Those who want a new guard to usher in an era of industrial revolution in West Bengal have now but only one hope — that Mamata Banerjee does a George Fernandes. ‘The Coca Cola Company I had sent packing to the US 16 years ago will be thrown out again when we come back to power’ — pre-1998 election, as a member of the opposition; ‘the Coca Cola Company has nothing to fear’ — in 1998, after swearing in as a cabinet minister of the NDA Government!

09 April 2010

Cong Cut Its Nose Off To Spite The Face

Operation Lalgarh may bear fruit for the Central Government. Rather, from the Union's point of view, it's an imperative. However, it bodes ill for the political party that heads that government. The Congress has compromised with its electoral prospects in West Bengal, in all likelihood, to cut Mamata Banerjee down to size

Unlike the other states where the Maoists are active, West Bengal had had no Maoism until the recent past when the events of Singur and Nandigram shook the conscience of the nation. There too, it was the local population that was up in arms against an arrogant state.

Maoists saw the total lack of development in these areas and found in it an excellent alibi to extend their sphere of influence. On the other hand, the local population that was protesting atrocities by the CPI(M)-backed police needed means for the sustenance of their struggle. After all, you cannot expect the poor to go without food and basic amenities for days on end to humour a political party, no matter how correct the party's position was in this one-off case. This was an added opportunity for the Maoists as they pitched in with help, aided ably in Singur by a multinational competitor of Tata Motors. When Chairman of the Tata Group, Ratan Tata, alluded to his company’s rival without naming it, the then head of Maruti Udyog Limited obtusely shot his own company in the foot by demanding substantiation of the allegation. Or, perhaps, since Jagdish Khattar knew he was about to retire, he tried to settle some scores with the rest of the management of the company he was not quite pally with. The MUL had, otherwise, nothing to do with the affray.

Back to the core issue, be it filmmaker Aparna Sen or writer Mahasweta Devi or the entire posse of Kolkata-based intellectuals, or their poster boy, the convener of the Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee (PSBJC), Chhatradhar Mahato, no one was a Maoist or even a Maoist sympathiser to begin with. The Kolkata-based elite — fashionably described as "intellectuals" — had turned livid especially when the potential land grabber was feared to be the ill-famed Salim Group of Indonesia, to protect the interests of which the state administration had unleashed its CPI(M) cadre-infested police on hapless protesters in Nandigram on 14 March 2007. But when the Maoists appropriated the legitimate people's movement and helped sustain it, spreading to other districts thereafter to gain control of areas where there used to be no such thing as a government, the city-bred 'root cause' maniacs either felt indebted to the red army for the help it had extended in Singur and Nandigram and hence turned a blind eye towards its excesses, or they now fear for their lives, lest the Maoists should seek revenge for their 'ingratitude'.

West Bengal’s politics serves as the backdrop of this power struggle. The people of the state are by and large tired of the Left's rule. And the CPI(M)'s henchmen who had unleashed a reign of terror spanning more than three decades are now on the run. The end of the depressing and repressive era of Left rule was never as imminent as it is now. But before the inevitable could happen, the Centre has turned the table in favour of the state's ruling coalition once again by ordering Operation Lalgarh — for the media, it's Greenhunt (or an extension thereof), a code used by some officers of the paramilitary forces operating in pockets of Chhattisgarh — even though this fallout was not a part of its gameplan. New Delhi had to intervene to re-establish its writ in that part of the Indian territory, if not to re-establish the Left Front Government's control over that region. The Congress is thus bracing for collateral damage by compromising with its own electoral prospects in the assembly elections scheduled to be held in 2011 — where it will be an ally of the Trinamool Congress (TC) and, thus, get to share power in case this alliance wins — so as to deal with the Maoist threat to the Indian state at large.

The state unit of the Congress — 'tormuj' or the CPI(M) by proxy, as it is pejoratively referred to in West Bengal — saw a golden opportunity to get even with its Big Brotherly (or Big Sisterly?) ally, the TC, in the course of an event that emerged as godsend. As has been observed in people's movements throughout history — India has its Chauri Chaura incident after which Gandhi sulked and the Non-Cooperation Movement fizzled out — it's difficult to fine-tune them and make reactions proportionate to the establishment's monstrosities. A convoy carrying West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and Union Ministers Ram Vilas Paswan and Jitin Prasada was ambushed by landmines planted by the Maoists on 2 November 2008. Mercifully, the ministers escaped unharmed. The state's rebels must regret this diabolical attempt for a long time to come, though. Why the establishment alone, the locals did not take to the violent act kindly either; they voted for the CPI(M) candidate Pulin Bihari Baske in the Lok Sabha constituency of Jhargram, going against the trend in the remaining state. That would prove a mistake too.

What followed was police raj. Just about anybody and everybody would be picked up at random by the constables from the Lalgarh police station, interrogated, heckled and even tortured for being a suspected Maoist. This only worked towards emboldening the Maoist alibi: state terrorism. As the local adivasi population united and rose in protest, the police, fearing the people's growing solidarity, made false promises of releasing the detainees. In reality, hardly anybody of consequence was released, even as the adivasis fumed in rage, cutting off all modes and means of communication and transport to and from the village so that no political leader, whom they did not trust a bit, could mediate and negotiate with the administration on their behalf. And yet, they were only appropriated by the Maoists. They were not Maoists themselves. This was a pertinent nuance the Union failed to observe, even as Sudhir Mandal, a leader who mobilised 10,000 adivasis to protest Maoist violence, was shot dead within 48 hours of the rally.

In the meantime, the odd victory of the CPI(M) in Jhargram notwithstanding, the locals egged on by the supporters and workers of the TC began getting even with the Marxist party's henchmen who had presided over all proceedings of the state for thirty-two years under a tyrannical regime. The leading party of the Left Front lost many of its cadres from the region; they were either slain, maimed or thrown out of the villages, or they simply changed their loyalty and became a part of the PSBJC to save their skin. Cornered and threatened by the portent of political extinction, the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee Government cried for help. As if waiting anxiously for the cue, the Centre obliged immediately, despatching five companies of the CRPF and two companies of the COBRA to the Midnapore district forthwith. Thus began Operation Lalgarh.

The response from New Delhi was unusually prompt. This may well be Pranab Mukherjee's politics, as he has never been comfortable with the prospect of being chaperoned by the obvious choice for chief minister's chair, Mamata Banerjee, in the state, in the scenario of the TC-Congress combine emerging victorious in the next poll. Sources in the UPA tell this writer that Home Minister P Chidambaram was a mere façade; Operation Lalgarh was Mukherjee’s brainchild. The finance minister did little to not lend credence to this suspicion. Between June and November 2009, it was he more than the home minister who would answer all questions pertaining to Lalgarh!

There was some communal strife in a part of the Jadavpore constituency. Kabir Suman, being the MP from the area, went to the spot to make the warring local lords patch up. After three days of hectic parleys when a deal was about to be struck, some of his colleagues from the TC told him he was no longer required in the party's scheme of things and that the matter in that pocket of his constituency was well taken care of in his absence. Suman felt humiliated and, the temperament of an artist that he has, left the party in a huff, sending his resignation to Banerjee and two other leaders of the TC through an SMS! The whole act was, however, pre-meditated by the TC leadership that, in turn, was browbeaten by the Congress ‘highcommand’ to get rid of the Maoist sympathisers within its ranks.

The TC does not realise the harm it has done to itself. Or, even if it does, it was helpless in the face of increasing coercion by the Congress-led government at the Centre, which had roped in the services of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, requesting her to use her good offices with Mamata Banerjee and rein her in.

The TC-Congress alliance's phenomenal victory in the recent Lok Sabha elections owed largely to the mobilisation of people by many former Naxals (who should not be taken for today's Maoists; there's a difference). It is not sure now if that magnitude of mass mobilisation can be repeated if the Naxals, largely comprising semi-urban middle class Bengalis, with little or no representation from the state’s tribal population, do not come to its support in the 2011 state elections.

The supporters of the Congress and the TC — and even those of the BJP — should factor in the predicament above before cheerleading the security forces' march across the rural hinterland of West Bengal. Maoism in West Bengal and that in the rest of the country's 250 odd districts are not the same. Clubbing them together is naïve.

And yes, the Maoist movement is driven by way too much arbitrariness to sustain in the long run. What about the institutional machinery of the CPI(M)'s tyranny? How can the once-undivided Congress forget all the workers and supporters it lost to political violence in the last three decades? How can the New Delhi-based party overlook the reason that split the party's West Bengal unit? How can the average Bengali in small town Bengal ignore the eeriness associated with being identified as a non-CPI(M) votary in the midst of the local populace? Should the people of West Bengal keep seething even as it seems, on the surface, all is well?

08 January 2010

Amar Singh Cannot Do Without Politics

... even if politics decides to do without him
Surajit Dasgupta
Much caricatured as he is for turning the Samajwadi Party from a club of socialists into that of socialites (former party member Raj Babbar’s accusation), Amar Singh’s separation from the party is unthinkable... well, almost! For long, the man has been the public face of the SP, perhaps to a greater degree than its all-in-all Mulayam Singh Yadav is, thanks to this being the age of television and the fact that Singh has an incorrigible penchant for antics. Purporting reasons of health and family for his resignation from all party posts held by him, the high-profile Thakur has locked horns with the dynastic and nepotic Yadav that has been ruling the party roost with his loaded sarcasms. While the Yadavs cannot skirt the issue of a series of disastrous shows at the recent elections, owing much to the voter’s disillusionment with a single family rule — the latest instance of which was the drubbing the party received in the form of Mulayam’s bahu Dimple Yadav losing the Agra constituency — Amar Singh himself cannot be above reproach for pushing the loyal Muslim votaries of the party away with his ill-conceived advice to the leadership to ally with Kalyan Singh who, to the erstwhile devoted constituency, is the ‘villain’ of the Babri Masjid demolition. The immediate fallout of the alliance was seen in Azam Khan’s public spat with Amar Singh and his parting of ways with the faction then driven by the counsel of the latter. The consequence is now history; as the percentage garnered by the SP declined, the party could not cash in on the public disenchantment with Mayawati’s ‘social engineering’, and the underdog Congress staged a comeback in Uttar Pradesh to the psephologist’s utter bewilderment.

As much as the result was a reminder to the BJP that countering the Mandal with the kamandal no longer works, it was also a pointer to parties like the SP that carved its own niche from among the electorate by mobilising farmers in the name of socialism, in a bid to create yet another vote-bank distinct from the one that was targeted by VP Singh. If the potency of the Muslim-Yadav combine reduced due to what many Muslim leaders saw as the SP’s tacit deals with the BJP off and on, the rest of the followers’ base shrunk as the party’s agenda was trivialised by the Kolkata-based merchant’s partying with Bollywood stars and Page 3 upstarts alike. In any event, that the crowds drawn by star campaigners translate to hard votes is suspect, and bringing back Shahid Siddiqui, Azam Khan, Raj Babbar and Beni Prasad Verma to the party fold makes eminent political sense, which would be but difficult if Singh continues to be in the SP. Moreover, the Thakurs never stuck to the party, looking up to Singh to make theirs a caste that is not inconsequential in Uttar Pradesh politics. Now, that makes the man recuperating in Dubai dispensable.

But will a persona like his be redundant also for politics? And what about the celebrities who needed his help to lift their sagging fortunes? It’s safe to guess not all of them will bet on this old horse if it no longer pulls the carriage of some establishment along. Politics is, like the Mafia warns its operatives in the underworld, a one-way entry. You can enter it at will, but not quit when you want to. If you dare, a fate worse than death awaits: nobody recognises you exist. That would be tough for a man who is habituated to practising his profession in the focus of arc lights.

Of course, mincing some words, Amar Singh has not ruled out his entry into another political party. He says it’s any such party that has to make the first move. It will do him a world of good to realise that a no-first-use policy does not work at the political battlefront. The signs that Singh’s time is running out are telling, if not ominous; the other day, his ‘bade bhai’ Amitabh Bachchan graced a Narendra Modi show, the superstar’s first ‘apolitical’ appearance in an event organised by a party other than the SP! Uttar Pradesh can do without Amar Singh; arguably, Amar Singh can do without Uttar Pradesh too. Before he begins his second innings, he must identify his USP that he has so far been reluctant to admit because that would have been politically incorrect. The power texture of Mumbai, where politicians, film actors, underworld and touts of all hues mingle, is where this man can seamlessly fit in. It would serve him better than what would turning incognito for the rest of his kidney-transplanted life be.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.