Political Milking Of Sushant’s Death

It is a month since Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput died by suicide but there is no let-up in the controversial and often unsubstantiated revelations which are continuously being aired by television networks on his untimely demise, particularly since the case acquired political overtones.

From an initial discussion on mental health of actors to nepotism in the Hindi film industry and discrimination against outsiders, 34-year-old Rajput’s death has degenerated into an all-out war between the Maharashtra and Bihar governments which are currently led by opposing political coalitions.

It is no coincidence that the Bihar government, led by National Democratic Alliance partners, Janata Dal (U) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has upped the ante on this case as the state assembly elections are due in a few months. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s popularity ratings have dipped in recent weeks as the state machinery is unable to cope with the rising cases of coronavirus.

Fighting with his back to the wall, the Rajput case has proved to be a handy diversion for Nitish Kumar who has successfully deflected public attention by decrying the Maharashtra government’s tardy investigation into the death of Bihar’s son Rajput. It helps that the Maharashtra government is headed by his coalition partner BJP’s bete noire Shiv Sena.

It suits the Janata Dal (U) and the BJP to build pressure on the Maharashtra government by keeping up the narrative on Rajput’s “mysterious death”. In Bihar, the two parties have an eye on the Rajput vote, a small but influential community which has been demanding justice for the actor.

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It is not just the JD(U) and the BJP which are eyeing the Rajput vote but opposition parties, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress, have also joined the race. The two parties joined the chorus for a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation when the issue figured in the state assembly when it met recently for a day to discuss the COVID-19 situation in the state.

BJP legislator Neeraj Kumar Singh, the actor’s cousin, raised the demand first, drawing instant support from across the political spectrum. Leader of opposition Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD went a step further and proposed that the upcoming film city at Rajgir be named after Rajput while Congress leader Sadanand Singh suggested that the assembly adopt a resolution demanding an inquiry by the Central agency.

If tempers are running high in Bihar, it is no different in Maharashtra. Always on the lookout for issues on which it can discredit the Uddhav Thackeray government, the BJP feels the Rajput case is a potent weapon to mount an effective attack against the chief minister and his son Aditya Thackeray. Former Maharashtra chief minister Narayan Rane and his son Nilesh have been particularly vocal and even suggested that Rajput was murdered. They have demanded that Aditya Thackeray should step down as minister to facilitate a fair probe since his name has figured during the course of a hearing in the Supreme Court.

Finding himself under constant attack, Aditya Thackeray broke his silence to deny his involvement in the case while his Shiv Sena colleagues are putting up a stout defence in his favour. Senior party leader Sanjay Raut, who has been at the forefront in hitting out at the BJP, described its allegations as a “political conspiracy”, aimed at maligning the government because the opposition did not succeed in toppling it.

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Though the controversy regarding Rajput’s death had been simmering since he was found hanging in his Bandra apartment on July 14, it picked up pace after the Bihar police registered a case against the actor’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty and others on July 25 following a complaint filed by the dead artist’s father KK Singh. The charges ranged from cheating, abetment to suicide and wrongful confinement.

On cue, the Bihar government dispatched a team of police officers to Mumbai to investigate the case. Furious at this interference, the Maharashtra government retaliated by placing Vinay Tiwari, the leader of the Bihar police squad, under quarantine by citing existing guidelines for containing coronavirus. 

At the same time, the Maharashtra police made it clear that the Bihar police has no jurisdiction to investigate the matter in their state as the incident took place in Mumbai. Moreover, it said, it was already in the process of investigating Rajput’s death. The Bihar police charged that the Maharashtra police was deliberately going slow in this matter as it was protecting an important person (read chief minister Uddhav Thackeray’s son and minister Aditya Thackeray) whose name is said to have surfaced during the investigations.

This opened the floodgates further as charges and counter-charges have been flying thick and fast. Faced with an obdurate Maharashtra government and under all-round pressure from political parties in Bihar, an angry Nitish Kumar proposed that the case be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. It was not surprising that the request was accepted with alacrity by the BJP-led ruling alliance at the Centre. Normally a demand for a CBI probe is made by the state government where the crime has occurred. In this instance, rules were conveniently bypassed by the Centre which acceded to the Bihar government’s demand even though the incident took place in another state.

Meanwhile, the case gets murkier by the day. Besides the CBI, the Enforcement Directorate has been summoning the actor’s girlfriend and other associates for questioning. Rajput’s father has accused Chakravorty of siphoning off Rs. 15 crore from his son’s bank account, of overdosing him with drugs and creating a wedge between the actor and his family.

Needless to say, the media has had a field day reporting and “investigating” this case. It has essentially declared that Chakravorty is guilty. Breathless and excited reporters on television news channels have, with leaks from helpful sources, accessed details of Rajput’s holidays with his girlfriend and provided “breaking news” about the actor’s finances and mental health in back-to-back coverage. Chakravorty is predictably the villain of the piece.

With Bihar elections a few months away, it can be safely said that interested political parties will continue to work doubly hard to ensure that the Rajput case remains centrestage.

Will JP Nadda Come Out Of Shah’s Shadow?

The humiliating defeat suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Delhi assembly election has not proved to be an auspicious beginning for the party’s month-old president JP Nadda. Though it is true that it was Union Home Minister Amit Shah who led the party’s high-decibel campaign in Delhi, history books will record the result as BJP’s first electoral drubbing under Nadda’s stewardship.

Out of power for over two decades, the BJP was predictably desperate to take control in Delhi. But the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party proved to be a formidable opponent and the BJP fell by the wayside once again.

Well before Nadda took over as the BJP’s 11th president, it was widely acknowledged that he will not enjoy the same powers as his predecessor Amit Shah did but, nevertheless, would be called to take responsibility for the party’s poll defeats as well as organisational matters.

Nadda began his tenure with a disadvantage as it is difficult to live up to Shah’s larger-than-life image. Amit Shah, who served as BJP president for five years has easily been the most powerful party head in recent times. Known for his supreme organisational skills, Shah is chiefly responsible for the BJP’s nation-wide expansion, having built a vast network of party workers and put in place formidable election machinery. No doubt Modi’s personality, charisma and famed oratory drew in the crowds but there is no denying that Shah contributed equally to the string of electoral victories notched by the BJP over the last five years.

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Given that Shah has revamped the party organisation from scratch and placed his loyalists in key positions, there are serious doubts that the affable, low-key and smiling Nadda will be allowed functional autonomy. Will he be able to take independent decisions, will he constantly be looking over his shoulder, will he be allowed to appoint his own team or will he be a lame-duck party president? These are the questions doing the rounds in the BJP as there is all-round agreement that Shah will not relinquish his grip over the party organisation. This was evident in the run-up to the Delhi assembly polls as it was Shah and not Nadda who planned and led the party’s election campaign.

In fact, it is acknowledged that Nadda was chosen to head the BJP precisely because he is willing to play the second fiddle to Shah. Party leaders maintain that the new president is unlikely to make any major changes in the near future and that he will be consulting Shah before taking key decisions. For the moment, state party chiefs appointed by Shah have been re-elected, ensuring that the outgoing party president remains omnipresent.

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Though Nadda has inherited a far stronger party organisation as compared to his earlier predecessors, the new BJP president also faces a fair share of challenges. He has taken over as party chief at a time when the BJP scraped through in the Haryana assembly polls, failed to form a government in Maharashtra and was roundly defeated in Jharkhand. The party’s relations with its allies have come under strain while the ongoing protests against the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens and the National Population Register have blotted the BJP’s copybook.

These developments have predictably came as a rude shock to the BJP leadership and its cadres who were convinced that the party was invincible, especially after it came to power for a second consecutive term last May with a massive mandate.

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Nadda’s first task has been to boost the morale of party workers and make them believe that the recent assembly poll results were a flash in the pan and that the BJP’s expansion plans are on course.

After Delhi, the Bihar election poses the next big challenge this year. The party’s ally, the Janata Dal (U), has upped the ante, meant primarily to mount pressure on the BJP for a larger share of seats in this year’s assembly elections. Realising that the BJP cannot afford to alienate its allies at this juncture, Amit Shah has already declared Nitish Kumar as the coalition’s chief ministerial candidate, which effectively puts the Janata Dal (U) in the driver’s seat. This has upset the BJP’s Bihar unit which has been pressing for a senior role in the state and is even demanding that the next chief minister should be from their party.          

The BJP has to necessarily treat its allies with kid gloves as they have been complaining  about the saffron party’s “big brother” attitude and that they are being taken for granted. While Shiv Sena has already parted company with the BJP, other alliance partners like the Lok Janshakti Party and the Shiromani Akali Dal have also questioned the BJP’s style of functioning.

The crucial West Bengal assembly election next year will also be held during Nadda’s tenure. The BJP has been working methodically on the ground in this state for the past several years now and has staked its prestige on dethroning Mamata Banerjee.

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But the Trinamool Congress chief is putting up a spirited fight, sending out a clear message to the BJP that it will not be so easy to oust her. Banerjee has declared war against the Modi government on the issues pertaining to the CAA-NRC-NPR and also activated her party cadres who have spread across the state to explain the implications of the Centre’s decision to the poor and illiterate. The BJP, on the other hand, is struggling to get across its message.

As in the case of Delhi, Shah can be expected to take charge of the Bihar and West Bengal assembly polls while Nadda will, at best, be a marginal player. Again it will be left to Shah to mollify the party’s allies as it is too sensitive and important a task to be handled by Nadda.

Like all political parties led by strong leaders, a BJP defeat will be seen as Nadda’s failure while a victory will be credited to Modi and Shah.