A Humble Cookie Can Crumble The Virus

One thing India needs most amidst the persisting Covid-19 pandemic, besides the still-elusive vaccine, and the equipment and health infrastructure, which it has succeeded in producing, is the ubiquitous biscuit.

Making and marketing this humble ready-to-eat item that is also most accessible and affordable, has posed as big a challenge as fighting the pandemic itself.  Both, urban India and the rural poor have over the last three months virtually lived on it.

In initial weeks after the lockdown, one of the world’s strictest, stores in richer neighborhoods of Mumbai, Delhi, and elsewhere, ran out of it. For working-class citizens forced out of the cities for want of work, a glucose-enriched biscuit was the most easily digestible antidote to hunger as they headed home, miles away, many of them on foot.

Luckily, this sector – one of the very few – rose to the challenge. Indeed, it is on a roll. Companies have worked overtime and registered flourishing sales.

The big and small producers all experienced initial setback in April. Production was hit by abrupt lock-down when workers either could not report to work or had left for their villages. Yet, it was mainly the biscuit that the migrant labour walking back home under extremely trying conditions, found handy to carry, to feed self and the children.

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As the world witnessed this heart-rending mass movement, the worst since the 1947 Partition, there were also soothing pictures of biscuit packets being tossed on to the moving trains and buses.

To feed these millions on the move, government agencies, the NGOs, and buyers across the country rushed to get this packaged staple. Biscuit thus fulfilled the original role for which it was conceived: nutritious, easy-to-store, easy-to-carry, and long-lasting food for long journey.

For the pious, their conscience troubled by what was happening around it is also the easiest and the cheapest give-away. The smallest pack of five sells for as little as Rupees two. They prefer the little biscuit packets over perishable sweets for distribution to the poor and the children outside the shrines. Biscuit has become charity-favourite.

For the record, biscuit industry having Rs 12,000 crore annual turn-over is one of the largest food industries in India. It produces 5,000 tons daily. Biscuit is also a job-giver. The industry employs 3,50,000 directly and indirectly, over three million. Forty percent of the manufacture is with the small and medium-scale factories. Growing at 15 per cent pre-Covid-19, the industry as a whole has registered 50 percent higher production during the lockdown.

However, the situation is iffy in that the factory attendance is only around 66 percent, industry association says. This is mainly because companies are currently running on limited staff. It’s still partial production as there are not enough trucks to transport the product.

Covid-19 constraints may impact export and import too. Globally, India is the third largest producer after the US and China. It is also among the top five exporters. It imports biscuit as well to cater to the elite consumer, a growing market what with more and more people emerging with disposable incomes.

The per capita domestic consumption of 2.1 kilogram is, however, low for a simple reason. Indians get a variety of staples, affordable and available round the year. Biscuit goes with tea/coffee, not food.

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To clarify, the focus here is on the humble biscuit with wheat flour, sugar and glucose and claimed nutrients and not on the exotic variety that has nuts, butter, raisins, chocolates, colours and aromas added artificially with use of intelligent technology.

There is a vast market for biscuit in India that is growing in rural areas. Large population base which majorly comprises rural population creates a huge demand for an affordable biscuit. Unsurprisingly, non-premium biscuits dominate the market in the industry’s forecast period 2019-2025.

Premium biscuits were also projected to exhibit the fastest growth rate what with increasing awareness among consumers, widening of distribution channels coupled with advertising campaigns, high visibility and accessibility of biscuits in retail outlets. However, Covid-19 may change the producers’ priorities. So, wishing them luck, this is best left for happier times.   

Why this bonding over biscuit? Why is it so popular? To be sure, it is one of the most universally consumed foods. Across India’s complex and varied culinary landscape where food habits (remember the vegetarian-non-vegetarian divide?) often determine social relationships, biscuit is neutral. It is consumed by people of all class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and income. Wealthier Indians dip them in milky tea/coffee and poorer ones in spiced tea or just water.

Biscuit can be found at luxury hotels, in an urban ghetto as well as in the make-shift wooden kiosks along the farms of rural India. Wax paper packaging gives it long shelf-life and salty or sugary taste is welcome to those engaged in physical labour.

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Biscuit has long history in South Asia having evolved with the Muslim rule. Even today, old parts of Delhi, Hyderabad or Agra cities have the producer/hawker armed with an iron slab on coal-fire making sugary, ghee-rich ‘nankhatai’.

The art of confectioning thrived with Europeans’ arrival, be it British French, Portuguese or the Dutch colonizing different parts of India. Modern-day biscuit first became popular among Muslims when the British introduced it in Sylhet in the present-day Bangladesh. The Hindu elite took a while to emulate. What was elite food once has now been embraced as comfort food by the common man. Think of the sweeper who, having cleaned the road outside, taking the first sip of tea with biscuit.

There are social contexts galore if you use Bollywood down the decades as a yardstick. One of the most telling, perhaps, is Shubh Mangal Savadhan (2017). The young protagonist subtly conveys to the eager heroine of his erectile dysfunction (ED) problem. He dips a biscuit in tea and lets it crumble. Enamoured of him still, the girl, confesses to her best friend: “I will never be able to have biscuit and tea!”

Over three months after Prime Minister Modi’s first announcement, although the pandemic is not, India’s lockdown is beginning to ease. For workers, the village-to-city reverse journey has begun. As they travel back, not on foot this time and with hope in their hearts, biscuit is there on the trains, at railway stations and awaiting them in factory canteens.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Ertuğrul – Solace In Fictional Glory

How far and deep into the past can a people go, be it history or mythology popularly perceived as history, to rejuvenate their present that is in turmoil and one that portends a bleak immediate future? Answer to this complex question may be found in the heady mix of piety and populism dished out with political support to people locked-in by Coronavirus pandemic.

After the Indian experience of Ramayan and Mahabharat television serials, it is time to see Pakistanis glued to their television sets watching an epic-size Turkish series about 13th century Muslim renaissance. Begun in the holy Ramazan month, it continues to win audiences. 

Dubbed Muslim Game of Throne, Dirilis (meaning Resurrection): Ertugrul has established viewership records with 240 million people watching it on YouTube alone. Said to be the new avatar of a 2002 film on the same subject that was an entry at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in 2002, this 2014 series is a milestone in Turkey’s entertainment world. After five successful seasons, Director Mehmet Bozdag is planning a sequel.

Its main protagonist is Osman I who rallied squabbling tribes of Oghuz Turks, won territories and paved the way for his son to establish the Ottoman Empire. It stretched to parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa and remains an enduring phase of Muslim political, military and cultural supremacy.

The end of this empire, the Caliphate, a century back post-First World War has not impacted its lure. A modern secular state that Kamal Ataturk then created stands rejected by the new political leadership and Turkey continues to reclaim its past glory.

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The Turkish prowess, past and present, attracts Muslims in general, but especially in Pakistan as it explores an identity away from a hostile India. In that quest, it is wary of a Shia Iran and an iffy Afghanistan, although Ghazanvi, Ghori and Abdali are used to remind what remains of India of the past conquests.  

“At its heart, what Ertugrul represents in this scenario is a battle for the soul of the Islamic narrative and for Pakistan’s own self-image,” Imran Khan, a Doha-based journalist writes for Al Jazeera.

He queries: “Does the country have a unique Muslim identity forged via Muslim India, or is it part of the wider history of the Muslim world?”  He concludes: “The answer to that is what informs its current self-image.”

But it is not so easy and simple. Pakistan’s largest benefactor – spiritually (being the home to Islam’s highest shrines), in terms of political influence and even financially – is Saudi Arabia. Born in the aftermath of the end of the Caliphate, it has no reason to take a secondary position to Turkey in Pakistan.

Ahmer Naqvi, a freelance cultural writer, sees Ertugrul as part of a wider agenda. “There is definitely an element of the Pakistani state pushing a certain idea of Islamic history, that focuses on conquest and expansionism and that has a long history of being used as propaganda,” he writes.

“This push has come at the expense of even acknowledging the history of what is now settled Pakistan. So, you would know about Muslim general Salahuddin but not about Chanakya, who lived in settled (present day) Pakistan, so yes, there is valid concern that the state is pushing a wider history and not its own,” Naqvi says.

Naqvi’s viewpoint is debatable, but there is no escaping Prime Minister Imran Khan’s push for Ertugrul. He watches it regularly and has even promoted it in an interview for its “Islamic values”. He thinks they are in contrast to the ‘vulgarity’ that Hollywood and Bollywood dish out to the entertainment-starved Pakistanis.  

With such popularity, political flutter is but natural. Parallels are being drawn in domestic arena. Supporters of the prime minister see in him qualities of Ertugrul – the larger-than life saviour/conquorer. Not to be left behind, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League sees such virtues in Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the imprisoned daughter and political heir of Pakistan’s three-time premier. The young and handsome Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, it seems, is yet to make the grade.         

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The Pakistani lure of a relatively more prosperous Turkey is immense. Former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, posted there as a soldier, used to be a great Turkey fan. But his being seen with his pet dog in the initial phase of his rule caused anger. Dog is a no-no for Pakistan’s Muslims.

This is only one of the reservations Pakistanis nurse about Turkish entertainment fare, going by reports of how Ertugrul is being received. The more serious one, perhaps, is the way women consorts of mighty Turkish characters live in real lives. Many viewers explore the social media for ‘more’.  The veil-less Instagram images of these actors put them off. They have taken to criticising and even counselling the female players, particularly the lead character, Esra Bilgic, on how they should dress and behave in public. It should be befitting a Muslim woman, they insist.

Pakistani feminist writer Aimun Faisal says: “If you are a Pakistani man, here’s why this Turkish woman has you simultaneously exasperated and enchanted.” She writes: “Ever spurred on by their commitment to religiosity and piety, Muslim men from Pakistan who had looked up a Turkish actress on a photo and video sharing platform, felt it their spiritual duty to educate her, or advice her, or berate her – depending on their self-confidence – on the ethics of being a pious Muslim woman.”

Faisal sees this as an act born out of misogyny. To the Pakistanis, a Turkish woman, almost-Westernized, “is desirable, but not achievable” unlike their brown-skinned compatriot who can be dumped-down into domestic social/moral milieu, but then, she becomes less ‘desirable’.

Truth be told, such conflicts have also bedevilled Indian audiences – at least they did in the past. Many were angry with Anita Guha, last century’s actor who usually played mythological characters and was Sita in Sampoorna Ramayan (1961) because she dressed and drank like any Bollywood socialite. Saira Bano and Sharmila Tagore, wives to famous, liberal Muslims, continued to act in films long after marriage, to the chagrin of their traditional audiences/admirers. They would volunteer to “protect the honour” of the bhabhi (sister-in-law) by destroying film posters depicting them fashionably clad.

Sadly, that body-shaming is now becoming rampant on the social media, also some mainstream one, as the conservatives who seek to dictate dress code for women get stronger.

Come to think of it, is it the return of “Victorian values” in the 21st century? Then, blame the British! Faisal approvingly quotes a study by Frantz Fanon and Partha Chatterjee about how “the encounter of men of colour with colonialism impacted gender ties in the colony.”

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

No Lockdown For Liquor

One change the Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed in India’s private and public lives that was unimaginable only a few weeks ago, is of the state conducting home deliveries of alcohol.

It is dictated by stampedes at many places across the country when the liquor vends re-opened after 40 days’ lockdown, burying physical distancing in the dust. They got even the Supreme Court to nudge state governments to consider online sales and home delivery.

This is a radical departure in a tradition-bound country with a diverse population that practices faiths many of which, per se, disapprove of alcohol consumption.

Add to this, the cultural mores. Although history is replete with evidence of soma, sure and shiraz and mythological narratives talk of ancient Indians drinking, there is no reference to it in Ramayan and Mahabharat, two of the mythology-backed TV serials currently being re-run to keep the Corona-hit locked-in people entertained and home. 

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Whether drink-at-doorstep is progress or if Indians have turned ‘modern’ is debatable. The age-old squeamishness about alcohol consumption has been given a go-bye for the greed to generate revenue, by even adding a hefty “Corona Cess”.  Necessity has become the virtue for central and all state governments except Gujarat, Bihar and Nagaland and the Lakshadweep union territory. It’s supposedly temporary, but one can’t be too sure of the future.

Two very apt lines have gone viral on the social media: “When a drunken man falls, nobody lifts him. But when the economy falls, all the drinking men gather to lift it.”   

Significantly, there is no objection from the politico-cultural czars who dictate what people should wear, eat and drink. They don’t seem to mind their governments profiting from selling liquor. Eschewing beef and bovine urine talk and dress diktats for now, they have shut their eyes to the ill-clad families of daily-wage workers, left hungry and unpaid by their contractors, walking back, shoe-less, from big cities to their villages hundreds of kilometer away.

This tragically contrasts with opening of the liquor vends, especially when the same Supreme Court says it “can’t stop them from walking.”

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This modern-day Marie Antoinettes’ culture is omnipresent. With Gandhi and those who worked with the Mahatma long gone, the original ‘nashabandi’ adherents, now down-and-on-the-political- periphery, are also silent. They never took Prohibition seriously when they ruled and made money, conveniently ignoring Article 47 of India’s Constitution. Also a Directive Principle of State Policy, it prescribes: “….the State shall endeavor to bring about prohibition of the consumption except for medicinal purposes of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”.

All are guilty of shedding principle for practical reasons. Truth be told, Prohibition does not win votes and drains the exchequer. The law, whenever and wherever applied, has been impossible to enforce given the porous international and inter-state borders. Past experiments that failed were by C. Rajagopalachari (old Madras State) and N T Ramarao (old Andhra Pradesh).

Nitish Kumar’s Bihar is the current example. Prohibition is non-debatable in Gujarat, although liquor flows in from nearby states. Erstwhile Bombay state developed ‘bevda’ (double-distilled hooch) culture till as Maharashtra, influenced by its powerful sugar lobby, it gradually went wet.

Alcohol has definitely ruined millions of families. Men resort to domestic violence, incur debt and take to crime. In segments of society where women, too, drink, damage is compounded, without giving women any social or economic advantage.  

Besides some committed NGOs, women where organized in groups, perhaps, remain the sole Prohibition supporters. Liquor bans have often spared them from penury and domestic violence. Sadly, Coronavirus has weakened these womenfolk, seemingly ending the debate if Prohibition delivers medically, socially and/or morally.

The ground has been laid over long years by going easy on collective conscience. Late Jayalalithaa financed her ‘Amma’ welfare schemes for the poor from excise revenue. Things were not different earlier, and not just in Tamil Nadu. They gain momentum before each election when freebies are distributed to the electorate.

If alcohol quenches thirst or kills, it also sanitizes. Thus sanitizers, direly needed to combat Caronavirus has alcoholic content, were consumes by many in Karnataka as a substitute to alcohol. Taking the cue as it were, some liquor manufacturers have used their expertise to make satinizers and donate them. Surely, they also serve who rinse their hands with sanitizer – before lifting the peg.

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Money remains the mantra. Alcohol sale delivered over 15 percent of tax revenues for 21 states in 2018-19. Earnings range from Punjab (Rs 5,000 crores) to Tamil Nadu (Rs 30,000 crores). Going by the booze-boom, the 2020-21 fiscal should witness a whopping rise for all.

These official figures, however, conceal inter-state smuggling and hooch produced and sold through the unorganized sector, statistics for which are seldom available.

India consumed 2.4 litres of alcohol per capita in 2005, which increased to 4.3 litres in 2010 and scaled up to 5.7 litres in 2016, a doubling in 11 years, as per a WHO report. Hence, the estimate to reach about 6.5 billion liters by the end of this year may be upwardly revised.  

“The big picture is that this is the right approach even if Covid were not wreaking havoc,” declares a Times of India editorial in support of home delivery. It seeks to draw a global picture of Covid-driven liquor policies adopted by different countries, confidently adding that “none have reported a conversion to teetotalerism.”

A “non-prohibition” U.S. has seen $2 billion more spent on alcohol in stores since the start of March than last year. Mexico has kept its citizens dry but also kept tequila production going and tequila exports have soared. Sri Lankans have taken to home brewing in the face of their government’s ban on booze.”

Historically, Prohibition is a failed notion the world over. The idea of restrictions on the use and trade of alcohol has punctuated known human history; the earliest can be traced to the Code of Hammurabi, the Babylonian law of 1754 BC Mesopotamia. In the early 20th century, Protestants tried prohibition in North America, the Russians between 1914 and 1925, and the US between 1920 and 1933.

Having presented both sides of the picture within this space, as a social drinker, I must confess to tilting towards ending Prohibition, but with caveats and controls that should come from within. Drinking, after all, is a personal choice that should have family consent and of course, economic and medical ability.   

But one thing is sure: Coronavirus compulsions are unlikely to end this to-drink-or-not-to-drink debate.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Bollywood In Red Zone

The loss in a single day last week of two Bollywood stalwarts, Irrfan and Rishi Kapoor, compels us to worry about the health and well-being of those on whom billions ride.

Equally important, and more urgent, is the need to see the potential impact of Coronavirus, or Covid-19 that is the new game-changer. Will India’s cinema/entertainment industry, especially Bollywood, dependent on crowds, survive and rise to entertain again with the same verve even as it suffers from stars dying, cinemas closed and filming stopped?

The worldwide pandemic is unlikely to leave soon. Having humbled societies and wrecked economies, it has imposed conditions that have already begun to influence our – including those who entertain us — behaviour, individually and collectively.   

My own perceptions are limited and the space here, even more so. But I am not alone when I ask how world’s largest cinematography, making 2000-plus feature films annually, that is estimated to have touched $3.7 billion this month, can respond to this mix of complex circumstances.   

Not all of India’s film-making centres follow the Bollywood model and not all have money-spinning stars. But all of them depend upon viewers in cinema theatres, on television and now, increasingly through streaming.

Covid-19 is only the latest health-scare. None asked “Was it Corona” about the two stars. It was well known they were cancer survivors back after being treated in the United States. Bollywood’s list of cancer patients/survivors currently includes Manisha Koirala 49, who has returned to the screen.

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Precisely two years ago, Vinod Khanna had succumbed. With Rajesh Khanna, Bollywood’s “first superstar” who too died of cancer in 2012, Vinod strode the Bollywood scene in the 1970s.

Cancer is a killer. One of Rajesh Khanna’s most memorable roles was in and as ‘Anand’ (1971). Smiling his winsome smile he hid his agony instead of being overwhelmed by cancer, poking fun at “lymphosecoma of the intestine”. The last line was an ode to life amidst pain: “Anand maraa nahin; Anand martey nahin” (Anand is not dead – Anands do not die.) This was a significant departure from the suffering protagonist, staggering with eyes half-closed, do-gooding till the end, winning audience sympathy.

A social media post in the wake of Irrfan/Rishi deaths lists so many marquee names suffering from one complication or the other and offers a thought. Well-off, these stars hit the gym even before they debut, eat special diet and work hard to maintain their physique. They live well. They go abroad to relax and get the best treatment money can buy. What they can get is not available to the common man. Yet, they suffer like any ordinary being and go when their time comes, leaving their fans in tears. Disease and pain are great levelers.

Covid-19 has made everyone feel more vulnerable than ever. Bollywood appears to have responded well and fast, surprisingly, without waiting for a political diktat. All cinema theatres are closed. All indoor and outdoor shootings are off. Paparazzi are out-of-job since the stars are strictly indoors. Very few attended the two funerals.   Some Award Nites are cancelled. There’s no way Bollywood can shoot crowd scenes, anywhere.  Lockdown is complete and like other film-making centres, Mumbai remains in Covid-19’s “red zone.”

All this means losses in man/days, gate-money revenue, ad earnings and services worth billions. With the overall economy in doldrums and production jeopardized, the impact on entertainment business, public’s ability and inclination to spend on it and perhaps, the utility of the stars we adore remains uncertain.

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The stars seem to realize their own vulnerability. They use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay in public eye every single day. Their unease is discernible the way some of them called cameramen to film their doing “jharoo-ponchha”, doing yoga and for a change, cooking their own frugal but healthy meals. This may have killed some of their glamour and closed the enormous gulf they maintain, both physically and in their lifestyle, from the public.     

Everyone fears that not all jobs lost may return. Covid-19 is changing basic norms that may stay substantially, if not fully. It has already forced us to work from home, to go digital in business and banking, to keep fit without gym and outdoor sports and to shop and be entertained without visiting malls.

The irony of empty roads that can’t be traversed and clear skies but no flying cannot be lost. How much of the present can be retained and how much of the past shall remain relevant is uncertain.

But I remain optimist about Bollywood’s ability to adapt. Hence, on a different note altogether, I am tempted to explore the past and wonder: can Bollywood make a disaster film on Covid-19? 

Frankly, there is not much to go by. Of man-made disasters, Burning Train (1980) showed journey of a brake-failed passenger train. Kaala Patthar (1979) sought to reenact mining disaster at Chasnala Colliery. Multi-starrers, they were essentially entertainers, with some serious moments.

In Aman (1980), a rare health-related disaster film, the mandatory entertainment quotient was high with love songs. It highlighted perils of a nuclear disaster Japan has suffered. But that came only in the second half. Even then, alas, the focus shifted from nuclear radiation to the dead hero’s journey back home. 

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To be fair, the hero saving fishermen caught in a nuclear zone was not about disaster, but about suffering that radiation victims endure and long-term damage caused by atomic weapons. This anti-war film featured a rare cameo by Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. To its credit, Aman did not treat disaster as an amoral affliction.

Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946) took political/ideological route while India was still under the British rule. It was about an Indian doctor’s role in Chinese resistance to Japanese invasion during the World War II. It was filmed immediately after that war.

Producing, directing and playing the doctor, V Shantaram enacted a real-life story of Dr Dwarkanath Kotnis who responds to appeal by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Bose to join the medical mission. While other Indians return sick, Kotnis, married to Chinese assistant, continues and eventually dies of epilepsy.

Kotnis’ sacrifice and Shantaram’s film have been India’s strongest bridge to Sino-Indian relations, winning praise from Mao Dzedong to Hu Jintao. Till she died in 2005, Guo Qinglan, the real Mrs Kotnis, was unique to the cultural ties between the two distrusting neighbours. The glow endured despite the numerous fluctuations, including the 1962 conflict. Alas, old memories are fading.

Wuhan figured in Kotnis’ journey — the same Wuhan where Modi met President Xi Jinping in 2018 — the same that is supposed to be the cradle of Covid-19. Described as heavenly then, the world now calls it hell. 

After 9/11 happened spiking Islam-phobia, Bollywood produced My Name is Khan. Does it really need a disaster like Covid-19 to make its presence felt? It will rise again in its full glory from this ashes as it has done many times before because it knows how to. Its creativity is its resilience.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Devdas, The Show Isn’t Over Yet

As Hindu epics-based television serials Ramayan and Mahabharat gather encore from Indian audiences locked-in by Caronavirus, I wondered what could come next in reach, frequency and impact. My search ended with films based on the Bengali novel, Devdas, by Sharat Chandra Chatterjee. However, they are distant second by millions of miles, understandably, because Devdas is not an epic, nor does it preach any faith, ideology or philosophy.

Of the 20 odd films, one or two can arguably be called classics. Again, together they are no match to cinema, theatre, art and literature springing from the epics and other scriptures. Cinema and Devdas are but a century-old. None compares to, say, Hollywood’s Ten Commandments. But that would be digressing.

The novel or the films have not attained mass popularity because they end tragically. Readers/viewers find that depressing. Chatterjee who wrote this semi-autobiography in 1900 did not publish till 1917. He was embarrassed, as per his son, having written under alcohol’s influence. He thought it lacked maturity, although it remains his most famous work.

Devdas is a tragic triangle. Temperamental and timid by turns, the protagonist baulks when childhood love Parvati (Paro), entering his bedroom at night, proposes marriage. Blaming himself, but also her, for the ‘mistake,’ he takes to booze and to Chandramukhi, a courtesan. She loves him hopelessly but he, unable to forget an unattainable Paro, dislikes her, even as he depends upon her.

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Devdas dominates child-Paro, even strikes her on the eve of her marriage. Class and caste divides of the 19th century Bengal determine his parents’ rejection of the alliance and hers retaliate by finding someone higher and richer, even if old.

This story of viraha (separation) and self-destruction ends with a nomadic and sick Devdas, keeping the promise made to Parvati of “one last meeting”, dies at her doorsteps. There is no reunion.

Devdas’ 20 odd film versions cover the Indian Cinema’s evolution. The first by Naresh Mitra, released in 1927, was ‘silent’.  In 1935, four years after Indian cinema went ‘talkie’, its director P C Barua also enacted the lead. The very next year, he directed K L Saigal and Jamuna, captivating imagination of the pre-Partition India’s cine-goers with their acting and haunting songs. Barua was not done: the Assamese version came in 1937.

In 1953, Vedantam Raghaviah made Tamil and Telugu versions. Both had Akkineni Nageswara Rao and Savithri playhing Devdas and Parvati.  Two decades later, Vijaya Nirmala directed and played Parvati in another Tamil version (1974).   

In southern India, Akkineni’s depiction of Devdasu is considered the ultimate. Stories have it that for Bimal Roy’s Hindi version (1955), Dilip Kumar repeatedly watched the Telugu film.  Purists think no actor can surpass their performances.  

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Devdas inspired passion and continuity. Roy was Barua’s cinematographer. That it triggered several re-makes over a long period is remarkable. It laid the most significant milestones in careers of all concerned. 

It’s difficult, also unfair perhaps, to compare different versions made in different times with varying literary, technological, artistic, even financial inputs. I venture to say – and I am not alone – that Roy, by now working in what became Bollywood, getting Dilip Kumar – reportedly for Rs one lakh, a ‘princely’ sum in those times — to pair with Bengal’s Suchitra Sen, and with Vyjayantimala playing Chandramukhi, Kamal Bose’ photography and S D Burman’s music, is the most significant version.   

Devdas, following Jogan (1950), Deedar (1951) and others where Dilip Kumar played melancholic characters, sealed his reputation as the “tragedy king”. It caused him psychological imbalance. But it also inspired many a young aspirant to flock to Mumbai to act in films.

Translating a literary work on celluloid is never easy. Capturing Bengal’s countryside, providing the right musical notes from Baul to Mujhra, and of course, writing, played their respective roles. Roy, it would seem, got the combination right.  

In one of this film’s iconic scenes, Chandramukhi pleads with Devdas that he has drunk excessively and more would harm him. Surrounded by bottles, he retorts in utter despair: “Kaun kambakht hai jo bardasht karne ke liye peeta hai… main to peeta hun ke bas saans le sakun.”

I am unable to translate these lines by Rajinder Singh Bedi. But they were more or less repeated 47 years later in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2002 version.

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Unintended perhaps, there is continuity in the way Shahrukh Khan interpreted Devdas for Bhansali. Whether or not Kumar ‘learnt’ from Akkineni, Khan certainly emulated Kumar with whom he shares not only looks, but also ethnic/cultural roots. Think of the two Pathans hailing from Peshawar, interpreting a Bengali ‘bhadralok’!   

This ‘flexibility’ explains Devdas’ larger South Asian literary/cinematic reach, unaffected by India’s Partition. It has been filmed twice each in Pakistan (in Urdu 1965 and 2010) and Bangladesh (in Bengali in 1982 and 2013).  But it remains essentially Indian, with versions in Bengali, Hindi, Malayalam, Telugu and Assamese.  Most “non-Bengali” versions have been made post-Partition.

Generations have embraced Devdas. My father loved Saigal’s portrayal. Post-independence generations go gaga over Dilip’s. But my son prefers SRK’s colourful bonanza. One of the most lavishly mounted Bollywood venture, it was the first Indian film to be premiered at Cannes Film Festival.    

Sadly, I have seen only a few clips of Saigal. A Dilip admirer, I must confess to SRK’s interpretation growing on me as it were, on more viewings.

Film-makers by and large stuck faithfully to Chatterjee’s Devdas. But with the turn of the century, the current lot is taking artistic liberties. ‘Original’ Devdas went to Kolkata (then Calcutta) for studies. But Bhansali sent him to England, returning as a smoker, donning Western coat and hat. He lapses into dhoti-Panjabi ensemble when life gets tough and tragic. Incensed West Bengal lawmakers had demanded the film’s ban for its many ‘distortions’.

Among major actors of their times, besides Barua, Saigal and Akkineni, Kamal Haasan and SoumitraChaterjee played Devdas.    Parvati and Chandramukhi have been interpreted by Pakistan’s Shamim Ara and Banglaesh’s Kabori Chowdhur/Sarwar, Vijaya Nirmala (also its producer), Vyjayantimala, Supriya Chowdhury, Sridvi, Aishwarya Rai and Madhuri Dikshit.

Vyjayantimala was known to have rejected the Best Supporting Actor nomination, insisting that her Chandramukhi, and not Paro, is the real heroine. Her view can be compared to Ramayan being viewed from Ravan’s standpoint, not always Ram’s.

On Suchitra Sen’s passing away in 2014, however, she admitted to being acknowledged at the national level and by critics after she played alongside Suchitra.

Ironically, save a brief frame, the two did not share a single sequence. While Vyjayantimala shot in Bombay, Sen’s part was filmed in Bengal.

For Madhuri who played Bhansali’s Chandramukhi with great aplomb, it was vindication. Clutching her Filmfare Award, she chided her critics who had written her off as a fading star after her marriage and migration to the United States.

Of Devdas’ five modern-day takes, in Anurag Kashyap’s “Dev D” all three protagonists are into booze and sex. The setting is Punjabi. His Chandramukhi is a hippy-like call-girl painting Delhi red. 

In “Daas Dev” (2018) Sudhir Mishra borrows not just from Chatterjee’s novel but also from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to capture the dynamics of India’s dynastic politics.

In a sense, Devdas is India’s answer to Hamlet. Both have survived generations. Life does oscillate between hope and despair.  Many would question their relevance today, though, especially their failure to rebel against prevailing norms.

The only known survivor of the 1955 saga besides Vyjayantimala, Dilip once stated that his aim was “to convey the sense of hopelessness that pervades the relationship between Devdas and the two women and others who are a part of his doomed life without leading ardent viewers to cynicism and despondence.”

The mystique continues. Gulzar’s 1980s attempt, with Dharmendra (who had reportedly financed the venture), Sharmila Tagore as Parvati and Hema Malini as Chandramukhi was aborted, nobody knows why. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI) is searching the two reels Gulzar completed, but are missing.

In early 1960s, India lost its treasure of old films, including Devdas, in a fire in a Mumbai godown. The NFAI engaged in protracted talks with its Bangladeshi counterpart to retrieve the only surviving copy of the 1936 version found with a Chittagong film distributor. It was exchanged for Satyajit Ray’s Apu Triology.

The recovery of Devdas, film analyst Gautam Kaul recalls, was aptly celebrated with a ‘premier’ held at Nandan theatre in Kolkata.   

Great story-telling on cinema may elude in this era when a film-maker must stay commercially viable. Yet, last word may not have been said on Devdas.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Can DD Re-Run Sustain Its Epic Magic?

With Coronavirus-forced lockdown across India, a captive audience huddles in homes before the television sets, morning and evening, gorging on serials based on Hindu epics, Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan and B R Chopra’s Mahabharat telecast by public broadcaster Doordarshan.

Their revival after 33 years requires flash-back, but more of relating it to the present that is vastly different, not just in terms of availability of hundreds of other TV channels, but also in sociological and political terms.

Take TV-watching first, spread daily over 10 to 12 hours. Broadcast Audience Research Council data indicates that even before the government announced the serials, as on March 25, it was 72 billion TV-watching minutes, an eight percent jump since January, dictated perhaps by a prolonged, nasty winter. Sixty-five million had watched the serials when first released in 1987-89. Seventeen million watched them over the last weekend. With nearly a billion people estimated to watch, new records may be established.

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Following the Indian experience then, the two serials were individually telecast on 91 national TV channels worldwide with at least nine languages sound tracks. Children in Indian families knew more of the epics’ characters than their elders of that generation. Given the rising diaspora, the appeal is worldwide, though Indians abroad are unlikely to await Doordarshan’s telecasts.

Undoubtedly, these epics have influenced the Indian society down the ages, possibly without any break. That makes it unique compared to other epics and old civilizations. Their impact on religious, social and spiritual mores, if not always political, can hardly be minimized. Ram-Sita and Ravan visit not just during the Dusserah festival. Shenanigans depicted in Mahabharat have willy-nilly influenced the ways of the political class. The impact could transcend philosophy and sociology and go deeper now since religion and politics are getting increasingly mixed.

Roads went empty when they were first telecast — now it is Corona compulsions — not just across India, but also the rest of South Asia, despite different faiths and cultures. Their narratives share the region’s locales (from Gandhara (Kandahar) and Takshashila (Taxila) to Assam (Kamrup) and to Lanka. Although the entertainment world and its mores have changed radically, a repeat, partial at least, is likely.

Of the two, Ramayan that changed India’s TV scene forever was the more popular show when compared to the thematically more complex and technologically superior Mahabharat that followed. Without comparing or contrasting them or seeking to pre-judge their contents that are already well-known, it is possible to say that their respective popularity during repeat telecasts now may indicate which way the present-day India is thinking.  

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The government announced Ramayana’s telecast plans “on public demand” without elaborating and took a while to add Mahabharat along with some other serials. Given the present times, with path cleared for building a grand temple at Ayodhya where Ram was supposedly born, the speculation is that its emphasis is on Ram’s greatness rather than the battle of Kurukshetra.

The idea to capture the popular mood as people struggle to stay active in their home confines apparently came from one or more media advisors who understand both the collective public psyche and the likely political impact the two serials, especially Ramayan could have.

Such advice was not forthcoming in the 1980s. Till Ramayan came, Doordarshan had by and large been religion-neutral. A politically naïve Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was convinced that Ramayan serial would help his Congress Party to balance the tilt the government had caused enacting a law to undo the Supreme Court’s Shahbanu verdict that was meant to appease the Muslim orthodoxy. He was also persuaded to initiate Shilanyas at Ayodhya.

Rajiv and the Congress fell between the two stools. All these moves squarely favoured their Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rivals. Indeed, Ramayan helped build a popular mood, not in favour of the Congress, but for L K Advani’s Rathyatra. India was to pay a heavy price when Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was destroyed in 1992.

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Then, as now, the Congress never realized its follies. It wanted Ramayan’s prominent actors to join politics and contest election. Deepika Chikhalia who played Sita and Arvind Trivedi who played Ravan chose BJP, not the Congress.

Ramayan can be said to have been the BJP’s launching pad for its Hindutva agenda and complete change of political discourse. Fearing loss of Hindu votes in elections, the Congress has given a go-by to secularism, its biggest political asset. Conceding political ground all along the way, it has itself adopted Hindutva’s softer version in the recent years.  

Fast-forward to the present as millions watch Ramayan and Mahabharat. They were outstanding, absorbing products then. But time has taken its toll and technology and public taste have changed. They are slow-moving despite the colour and spectacles and in part, the action they offer. It’s comic book experience for the kids. To the adults, in the two hour-plus daily dosage, benign smiles and syrupy dialogues Ram, Krishna and other characters deliver, beyond a point, is irritating.

Truth be told, the younger generation, though not uncaring, is less reverent of the elders. The latter are more insecure than their peers were. If amusing, it was fashionable to imitate the ‘correct’ behavior, addressing parents as ‘pitashree’ and matashree and brothers as ‘bhrartashree’. Not now, at least in urban India.

A lot has changed in the three decades-plus. India is more urbanized. Families are nuclear. TV has made them ‘Westernized”. They are used to faster, varied entertainment that is bolder, ‘open’, even explicit, dealing with bold subjects that were taboo earlier, going by censored mainstream cinema and the uncensored web-entertainment.

The telecasts are both media milestones and political events. How are they likely to work in these times laced with Corona-scare? For once, mythology can help forget history that is currently in the process of being re-written.

Would they help Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP, the initial beneficiaries consolidate the Hindutva agenda?

In theory, it’s a big yes. But who knows how a billion minds across a vast territory work? Rajasuya and Ashwamedha rituals conducted to establish military supremacy across a vast territory in northern India figure in the two epics. It is rather early in the day to speculate if the telecasts would deliver their modern-day political equivalents.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Raze, Rebuild, Repeat

At a distance from India’s current political discord and economic slowdown, but inevitably connected, has begun a spree to demolish what is there and to build afresh — state capitals, cities, conference complex and more.

Take New Delhi. It is barely a century-old, when other world capitals, ancient and modern, stay where they are. Over a dozen old cities that preceded it were invaded, occupied, abandoned and re-occupied over two millennia. Now, the first case of massive refurbishing is about to begin.  

The Parliament’s present complex will become a museum. Radical changes await the vast boulevard that stretches from Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace on the Raisina Hill to India Gate. Built post-Independence, Dozens of government office buildings built around it post-independence, will be demolished and re-built into modern, supposedly environment-friendly glass-and-concrete structures. On Friday, March 20, the Centre approved the land use change for execution of the Central Vista redevelopment project with the issuance of a notification to Urban Affairs ministry. The face of the Government of India built during the British era by Sir Edwin Lutyen is set to change.

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There is tearing hurry, it would seem. A new triangular Parliament will be ready by 2022. Only, estimates of the entire exercise are not worked out. The security angle is high, with plans to re-locate the Prime Minister’s residence close by and a tunnel to connect it with the office.

It is nobody’s case that new constructions should not come up or old ones should be repaired. But no priority, no rationale is put forward. The total cost is going to be staggering. 

Save Le Corbusier-deigned Chandigarh, a resource-starved India did not build a major city for a half-a-century. After years of discord, Haryana and Punjab settled for Chandigarh that also houses its own administration.

Perspectives have changed with the century. Chhattisgarh built Naya Raipur without much acrimony. But Uttarakhand, created on the same day doesn’t have a capital after 19 years. Gairsain, centrally located – near the tri-junction of Almora, Garhwal and Chamoli districts, was to be the state capital. But Dehradun located in the state’s extreme corner remains the ‘temporary’ capital.

Five successive governments have failed to take decisions. The state that was created essentially to undo severe neglect of the Himalayan hills when under Uttar Pradesh still has its capital in the plains.  Once-pristine ‘Dehra’ is getting congested, but its political pull is too strong for any government to consider a shift.  Just symbolically, one legislative assembly session is held at Gairsain.

If New Delhi is planning its splurging, the state satraps are having their own. In Hyderabad, which is five year-old Telangana’s capital, Chief Minister K. Chandrshekhar Rao, has built a sprawling hundred million rupees mansion that can beat the palace(s) of the erstwhile Nizam, the princely house that was one of the world’s richest in the last century.

In 2014, when Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, it was decided that Hyderabad would remain the joint capital of the two states for a maximum of 10 years. But Rao pushed Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu to build a city for himself. Naidu, who created Cyberabad, India’s first Information Technology hub, took the challenge.  From here starts the southern splurging saga that has gone haywire.

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Naidu nursed Amravati, locating it on the banks of Krishna, harking back to “the glorious capital of the Satavahanas,” the ancient kingdom that ruled the Deccan region for five centuries.

He needed 33,000 acres of land. To encourage farmers to give up their land voluntarily for the project, his government launched a land pooling scheme. Publicized as farmer-friendly, the scheme was, however, seen as the state government’s way of circumventing the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

Naidu also managed funds from abroad and brought a Singapore consortium on board. His ties with the Narendra Moi-led government were never close enough to get central funds. That Modi’s party aspired to make political gains at Naidu’s expense was also a factor.  And then, Naidu lost the elections last year to his rival, neither to the Congress nor the BJP, but to debutante Jagan Mohan Reddy.

By that time, work at Amravati, touted as a world capital, was 60 percent complete. It has involved Rs.10,000 crores investments from various agencies including central government assistance of over Rs.2500 crores.

Prior to the political change of guard, Amaravati was bustling with construction activity and tenders for projects worth Rs. 43,000 crores were already issued. The World Bank had agreed to finance the Singapore consortium. Now, investors have vanished.   

A green-field city with its revenue generating urban centric developmental model with an estimated three million population in next ten years is now being demolished even before it is born. The futuristic vision of Naidu, which he hard-sold to the people, especially the farmers who surrendered land, now lies shattered.

Jagan Mohan Reddy’s government is alleging wrongdoing and wants the city project, now at standstill, completely scrapped. There is none to ask what is to be done about the huge effort at constructing the city and the money that has gone into it.

That’s not all.  Reddy has mooted three different capitals for the state. He wants legislative capital retained in Amravati, judicial capital moving to Kurnool and the executive capital shifting to the coastal Visakhapatnam. Why a state having 13 districts needs, three capital cities, remains doubtful. Critics cite South Africa’s failed three-city experiment.  

Allegations fly around in any such project — they did even when Chandigarh was built. Jagan and his party leaders are being accused of inside trading of lands around Visakhapatnam, just as Naidu group was accused of doing around Amravati. 

Cash-strapped Jagan — the state has been revenue-deficit since 2014 and has run a debt of over 2.5 lakh crores — is lobbying with Modi for “special status” for the state, which means more funds. The unstated offer is willingness to join, or stay close to, the ruling alliance. Letting the kilkenny cats fight, the Centre last week refused to intervene.

That, again, is not all. Reddy has got two bills passed envisaging three capitals in the Legislative Assembly where his party enjoys a brute majority. But the Legislative Council where Naidu’s party has the majority has stalled the bills, sending them for further deliberation to the Select Committee. Now, Reddy wants to dissolve the upper house itself to push his three-capital project!  

The two regional satraps, instead of making a collective effort to salvage Amravati, are running highly personalized and caste-based political campaigns, damaging social harmony and the economic progress.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Thappad: The Slap Is On Us

Contradictions constantly rush at one another in India where the most progressive and the most regressive trends co-exist at any given time. The context here is society and cinema.

It was Deepika Padukone and her film Chhapaak two months back. Now it is the turn of another landmark film, Thappad. The former was trolled and boycotted by those angry at Deepika’s expressing solidarity with agitating students and teachers at the turbulent Jawaharlal Nehru University. The latter faces similar wrath since its director Anubhav Sinha and many of the actors led by Taapsee Pannu were part of similar protests at Mumbai’s Gateway of India.

While Chhapaak reportedly suffered at the Box Office and bowed out of most cinema halls, Thappad is seemingly surmounting the boycott from quarters preoccupied with violence in Delhi and its aftermath. Taapsee has dismissed prospects of any damage to her film coming from “a few thousand trolls.”

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The basic argument of both the actors is that it is stupid to condemn and punish a film because those behind it have publicly expressed their views on issues that is controversial. But we are living in highly polarized times.

Coincidentally, but significantly, both films challenge set social norms and prejudices that presumably cause discomfort to the trolls, their allies across the social media and more importantly, their political mentors. Chhapaak, already written in detail in this space earlier, is about brutal acid attack on women who reject unwanted male advances. Thappad is about domestic violence and the impact on an individual’s sense of self-respect, especially when it comes from loved ones and life-partners.

Domestic violence afflicts all societies, but more so those where patriarchy rules, where men dominate, irrespective of their ability to earn and carry out other responsibilities as family persons, family heads in most cases. Inbuilt male supremacy boosts male ego.

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One can argue endlessly whether it is prevalent more in traditional societies or those that follow Western norms, or whether it is in the joint family or a nuclear one. But the universality of it is not in doubt.

Conventional wisdom is that education (for all) and economic independence in the case of the woman help better relationship. But there is no rule of the thumb with changing societal values and perceptions and complexities of growing urbanization and the rate race to make it big in material terms. In India, dowry deaths and in-laws’ harassment may or may not have diminished, but a working woman’s autonomy to spend from her earnings does lead to domestic violence.

India’s Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005 begins and ends with the issue of violence. But it does not, and cannot, touch upon long-set social norms where a woman once married is expected to leave her parental home and not expect any relief or help if she is in trouble. They could include dowry demand, ill-treatment by in-laws who often side with the son against the daughter-in-law. Not just the mother-in-law, but the sister-in-law could also play a negative role. A daughter-in-law, but not daughter, is advised to accept a flawed relationship, occasional violence, even the son’s cheating. These are the realities.

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Traditional social norms in India have ensured that women by and large live with injustice and violence for fear of losing ‘izzat’ or else, being socially ostracized. A million women complained of domestic violence between the year 2005, when the law was enacted and 2016. Yet, the rate of reporting such incidents to the police are still considered small compared to the Western societies. Though illegal since 1961, dowry demand, at times camouflaged, remains ingrained in Indian society. Data reveals that 72 women die every day.

The law works, but only to the extent the society evolves and the State helps. For instance, “honour killing” is the norm, if not so much in India then certainly to its West where in some societies, women complaining of rape are punished.

This is all in the public domain, while domestic violence mainly occurs within the four walls of the home.  In Thappad, it is a mix of the two. One tight slap falls on the cheek of a loving, caring wife from an equally loving, caring husband. It is delivered at home but in the midst of a party, before several guests.

A still from the movie Thappad

It triggers a mini revolution. After failing to reconcile, the wife is determined to preserve her self-respect, even if it means a divorce. Just everyone, particularly women, including her woman-lawyer, dissuade her. Your place is there, not with us, parents tell her. All this is when each of them has story of aspirations suppressed at the altar of family life.

Reconcile and move on, the in-laws advise. All relationships are flawed, the lawyer counsels. Much ado over “just one slap?” she is told. “Not even one slap,” she responds. It is a wake-up call, not one to revolt. It’s a thin line, though.

The most effective parts of the film are the ones in which we are shown just how women are always being told how to feel, how to keep their feelings in check, how not to give into them.

Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta sums up: “Thappad bears its message, more essential than ever, on its chin: Women are not property. Wives are not owned. Dreams have no gender, and everyone is allowed to realise them. And how all it takes, from a woman who just wants self-respect, is a decision to say no, Not Even One Slap.”

Sadly, films speaking out against dowry are passé these days. But like domestic violence, there is another ‘No’, as more and more women join India’s work force. Pannu was the lead actor in another remarkable film, Pink (2016), about consent in sexual relationship. Amitabh Bachchan played the lawyer whose baritone “No means no. Only no”, drew the Lakshman Rekha.

All three films cited here are well-written, diligently performed, are not preachy, yet convey their respective messages forcefully.

This is where, and how, cinema comes, as it should. Undoubtedly, it has its limitations. The society cannot duck its responsibility. Not even when political leaders attribute increase in cases of rape and divorce to women going to work. The society has itself to set acceptable norms armed with legal sanctions and follow it diligently.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Can Amarinder Singh Save Congress?

Insinuations about the Nehru-Gandhi family’s ‘Muslim’ past, made by their cultural/political foes, are old. But for the first time, during a very toxic campaign for Delhi Assembly elections, Firoze Gandhi was called “Firoze Khan”. None from the Congress party that the family heads, objected, ostensibly out of fear that the issue would get communal hue. Congress is politically frozen. It needs a new leader.

It’s delicate. Criticizing Congress leaders/cadres for this is difficult when Nehru-bashing even by union ministers is the in-thing and when lawmakers question Mahatma Gandhi’s role in the freedom movement. But all this, besides weakening of secular ethos for which India is known, underscores the decline that the party has suffered over the recent years.

Assessing this decline is also not easy, indeed, difficult to define, when the party still has three scores of Members in Parliament (out of 800-plus) and rules, singly or jointly, in major states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Maharashtra.

The other, more important, aspect of this political reality is declining vote share, of its leaders and activists, young and old, jumping off the ship and turning vocal critics, overnight as it were, to get accepted in their new parties. But most important, over a long period now, is the low reached in the vote-catching influence of its top leadership.

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More glaring are the inertia within and directionless approach, of losing states – Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Haryana – despite numbers and being outsmarted by rivals. The worst is the public ridicule to which the party and its leaders are subjected to in social media-driven information explosion and a low-level public discourse.

The latest instance of all these is the Delhi polls that saw the Congress drawing a blank, yet again, cementing its vote-share loss during the parliamentary polls in 2014 and 2019. Sixty-three of its 66 candidates lost deposits, after ruling for 15 years straight in this small but politically important national capital.  

Newbie Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has almost entirely hijacked the Congress’ support base. Elsewhere, across the North – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, much of the North-East and the South – it has long ago lost out to regional parties.

Placed in similar dire stress after losing in 2004 and 2009, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) recovered. It held on to states where it wielded power with strong chief ministers and eventually, found its national leader and vote-getter in Narendra Modi. Mounting this process was its larger cultural/political family. The Congress does not have this, even as its mass base is eroding.

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India’s oldest party is stuck with the Gandhis, who are neither able to deliver, nor able/willing to give up. A ‘temporary’ president, Sonia Gandhi, had headed it the longest, for 19 years, earlier. She is known to be ailing and keen to retire. Her reticent son Rahul, resigned after a disastrous performance last summer and asked for selecting a “non-Gandhi” to lead. But nearly five decades of the family rule has totally benumbed the party, at all levels, into not even looking for a new leader or a set of people who can provide coherent, collective leadership. For want of a better word, the party is in coma.

The Delhi debacle and prospects of Rahul returning to lead, likely next month, if only to relieve his mother, have brought the prolonged crisis to the fore. Reports indicate a silent demand, a muffled one so far, for a “non-Gandhi.”

Reports also indicate deep discord and disarray within the family. Sonia wants Rahul to return, but does not seem to trust his choice of aides and his decisions – and not without reason. The “old guard” around her clashes with the ‘new’ one close to Rahul. The difference between the two is that the ‘old’ is really old and now rootless, while the ‘new’, by and large of young techies and managers, never struck roots.

Much was made of Priyanka and her resemblance to grandma Indira Gandhi. But repeated electoral outcomes show that the present-day voter’s memory is too short for that. If Priyanka is the alternative to Rahul, she is also the sitting duck for a government that is vigorously pursuing cases against husband Robert Wadra.

Rahul tried, with limited success last year, to by-pass his 24X7 ridicule. His ill-advised choice of campaign issues and gaffe-prone performance went against him and the party.  

To be fair, the Gandhis are a decent lot. Rajiv, the last Gandhi to rule was extremely decent, too. But that is not enough in politics. They are expected to deliver each time, often as the lone rangers. Absence or internal elections leaves them with leaders, but no workers.

The Congress’ shrinking cadres need leader(s) who actually perform full-time and not during the elections; who can rub shoulders, literally, with the crowds. Past sacrifices, charisma and token reach-outs with photo-ops, without support on the ground have not worked, and will not in future.

This is not the Congress of the Mahatma and Nehru who were relatively tolerant of dissent. Indira ended it, appointing leaders from the top and turning the party into a family estate. Although the Gandhi family was not active from 1991 to 1998, Narasimha Rao could not be without its overcast shadows. Ditto Manmohan Singh who had no base, no say in the party.  She lacks understanding of Indian social and psychological traditions. She must be credited, though, for forging alliances that earned the Congress power in 2004.

When Sonia entered politics in 1998, some left, dubbing her a ‘foreigner’. Today, some Congressmen clamour for the return of one: Sharad Pawar. Conventional wisdom still places Congress as the Opposition’s rallying point – only if it strives to organize and act.

The party is unsure of its ideological direction. Adopting “Soft Hindutva” has failed. The task of countering the BJP’s majoritarian agenda is extremely daunting when secularism means being pro-Muslim and thus, “anti-national.”        

The Gandhi-centric working has marginalized strong and credible Congress chief ministers Amarinder Singh (Punjab), Kamal Nath (Madhya Pradesh), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Bhupesh Baghel (Chhattisgarh). Decision-making by a weak leadership and anxiety to hold everyone together have left these older satraps fighting with younger rivals.

Generational changes have been most painful in Congress whose Treasurer is 92. None retires in India, anyway, irrespective of age and health.

The Gandhis need to take political sabbatical, completely, if not quit. Let Amarinder Singh head the organization, with young, strong support from the likes of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia. Lok Sabha needs an articulate Shashi Tharoor.

But naming names is futile till the party that is wedded to only one name acts. There is still time, last chance, perhaps, to stem the rot.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

From Howdy Modi To ‘Kem Chho’ Trump

Much water has flown down the Potomac and the Jamuna since Indian-Americans organised an enthusiastic “Howdy Modi” event last September. The Indian premier had then extended full political support to President Donald Trump who is eyeing re-election in November. The Indo-US ties have not changed radically, but are getting ready to be cemented, while domestic conditions and electoral prospects in the ‘largest’ and the ‘greatest’ of democracies definitely are altering. This lends diplomatic and domestic weight to Trump’s India visit, scheduled for February 24-25. 

Now, it is Modi’s turn to host a “Kem Chho”, equivalent to “howdy” in Gujarati. Like he had hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping and later, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Modi will begin Trump’s sojourn with home state Gujarat, where he remains wildly popular. Many Indian-Americans prospering as academics and entrepreneurs are from this western Indian state. Visiting Gujarat could thus help Trump politically, like it helped Britain’s Boris Johnson. A hark-back to ‘howdy’ will certainly be attempted.

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A more aggressive and triumphant Trump may be visiting India. Compared to 50,000 Indian Americans at the Texas event, Trump says Modi has promised him welcome by “millions and millions” of Indians at the just-built cricket stadium touted as the world’s biggest. “Donald Bhai” should be happy. 

Taking that the Trump visit is a quid pro quo exercise, what will Trump bring to India to ‘deserve’ the three million Indian-Americans’ support? India has a long wish list, and presumably, Modi, too, would have one, a private one, that enables him to ride his current woes.  

Tens of thousands of Indian-Americans gathered at the ‘howdy’ event had cheered on the two populist leaders, unmindful of the critics’ accusations of them both of having polarized their own people.

It is not clear if Sabarmati Ashram is on Trump’s itinerary. From his track record, however, the irony of his seeking solace at what India’s apostle of peace, truth and nonviolence would call his ‘home’ can’t be ignored.

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It would be a welcome distraction for both nationalistic leaders, who face deepening political troubles at home. Trump has weathered the impeachment storm since a majority of American lawmakers seemed to agree that it is okay for Trump to do just about anything if it is in “public interest.” This removes any doubts about his Republican re-nomination and helps take on the Democrats, as of now divided and confused. And looking at his berating the opposition in parliament this week, Modi, too, seems to be in a similar mood, despite a dismal debacle in Delhi’s Assembly polls.      

Trump has eight months to chart his political/electoral course, while Narendra Modi has over four years – more than Trump’s entire tenure. He may hope that the “Kem Chho” event may undo the damage to his standing at home and his image in the Western world, caused by his divisive political agenda and an economy in dire slowdown.

Run-up to the tiny but politically significant Delhi Assembly polls saw angry, but largely peaceful, protests, having women and children in the forefront. In what analysts say is accumulated discontent, Indians from all walks of life have railed against a new citizenship law that is widely seen as discriminatory toward Muslim minority and a blow to India’s roots as a secular democracy.

Protests are being replicated in several Indian cities and reportedly, in 30 North American and British cities. Although he is himself known for adopting such postures at home, Trump could come fully-briefed about all this to assess his hosts well.

The Trump visit, said to be born out of their New Year greetings on telephone, could well be Modi’s attempt at a bounce-back. It is a coup of sorts. An American president’s India visit – like it had happened when Bill Clinton, George W. Bush Jr. and Barack Obama visited in the recent years — carries political endorsement and definite economic benefits. With a warm hug to “Donald Bhai”, Modi hopes for both. And since both espouse similar ideologies, unlike Obama who criticized Modi a week after he was feted, Trump could be fully accommodating. Modi can hope to offset some of the Congressional and media criticism in the US.

Pending the visit, officials in two countries have made feverish preparations, including a much-anticipated trade deal. Both are eager for more business and looking to find a counterweight to the rise of China.

The brass tacks would begin in New Delhi. Trump and Modi will have to navigate some tricky geopolitics. Americans have for long been trying to woo India into a closer strategic partnership to contain China, but New Delhi has remained lukewarm. This is unlikely to change. India wants to retain its strategic autonomy while dealing with neighbours. And, truth be told, it’s not easy to deal with Trump’s America.

Both sides are also eager to ink a trade deal. Snags remain and only a partial deal of a modest $10 billion is likely. Although a much smaller economy, India with 1.3 billion people is a huge market. The Trump administration, with eye on the November elections, seems obsessed with the overall American trade deficit and wants India to buy more American goods.

India has tentatively agreed to end price caps on imported medical devices like heart stents and artificial knees, which had been a key sticking point in the talks. But that’s not enough. Trump himself has attacked India’s high tariffs, particularly on Harley-Davidson. The motorcycle, incidentally, is but a speck in the overall bilateral trade. But, it’s like the Rajiv Gandhi Government was forced to buy almond, a low-priority import, from Californian farmers who supported then President Reagan.

Thus, before granting any concessions on that front, the US wants India to promise to purchase billions of dollars of American turkeys, blueberries, apples, pecans and other agricultural products to help reduce a $25 billion trade deficit with India. The Modi government, for its part, is insisting that the Trump administration restore a preferential trade status for India that lowers tariffs on goods like textiles. Let’s see.

Seeking and securing American waivers to its purchases, like oil and defence equipment, from other counties has been painful for India. It has all but surrendered on Iran’s oil. After several decades, four major weapons systems purchased from the US were show-cased at the Republic Day Parade last month.

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Trump and Modi have been keyed-in on Afghanistan in the past. The former wants a role for India. But India would be the last thing on Trump’s mind when pushing the “peace plan”, which is actually a victory-less withdrawal facilitated by Pakistan. Hence question arises: Can the Americans overcome the Pakistanis who want to block India? Or, would they want to?  

With that is connected Kashmir since the Modi Government’s annulment of its special status and break-up of India’s only Muslim majority state, howsoever controversial, is aimed as a bulwark against preventing the Jihadi repeat of the 1990s.

Trump continues to propose to ‘help’ (a shift from ‘mediation’ and ‘facilitation’) its resolution. But knowing well India’s sensitivities, any whispers of the ‘K’ word will surely be in play-safe privacy when he meets Modi without aides.

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com