About Sujata Anandan

Sujata Anandan was brought to political reporting by an old-time editor, kicking and screaming. She soon began to have fun, though. Today that kicking and screaming is mostly directed at her — by the politicians she writes about, with rarely a good word for anyone (there could be exceptions).  But she is never meaner or nastier than the subjects themselves and so lives to see another day, every day. Otherwise, she enjoys her job as the Political Editor of the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times.

As the monsoon session of the Maharashtra assembly gets underway from Monday, and the combined opposition gheraoes the government over corruption in the state cabinet, I am reminded more and more of Animal Farm – nothing ever changes, only the characters do.

When the BJP first ascended to power in Maharashtra 18 months ago, they came with a promise of fresh hope and clean governance. Less than two years later, the party and the government lie battered with allegations of administrative improprieties and corruption – and not just against the ministers who were sworn into government in October 2014. At least four of the nine new ministers inducted into the state cabinet last week have criminal cases filed against them, at least one was arrested by the police and released on bail just days before he was picked as a minister by Uddhav Thackeray, president of the Shiv Sena which is an ally of the BJP in government.

Right from Day One, Fadnavis, with a personally clean image, has had a troubled existence in government. A greenhorn, who had never had the experience of governance unlike many ministers in his cabinet, he was resented by these veterans in the BJP for being in the right place at the right time. That gives me a sense of déjà vu. Prithviraj Chavan, his predecessor, had a clean image too. He was in the right place at the right time as well – in the good books of his party president Sonia Gandhi and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as was Fadnavis vis-à-vis Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. And he was resented by all veterans in the Congress and NCP for becoming chief minister, as was Fadnavis by seniors in the BJP. When Fadnavis became the state BJP president, it was a job none of these veterans in the BJP, now opposing him, wanted because at the time it did not look like the BJP would get even close to seizing power from the deeply entrenched Congress-NCP alliance in the state. Fadnavis, however, took the thankless job and took on the two ruling parties in right earnest, pointing out their various transgressions and constantly demanding the resignations and arrests of the corrupt in the government, including former deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar.

But as senior journalist Sukrut Khandekar says, it took a decade or more for cases of corruption against the Congress and the NCP to come to the fore. The BJP has got caught in scam after scam in less than a year of its existence in government. Starting with Women and Child Welfare minister Pankaja Munde who was accused of violating all government norms in clearing tenders worth more than Rs 200 crore in just a day for the supply of chikkis to children in anganwadis for their mid-day meal — the chikkis turned out to be substandard and were supplied by the very same contractors who had been indicted during the previous regime for a similar transgression – to accusations against minister for education Vinod Tawde, who had not just lied on affidavit about his educational qualifications but actually involved in similarly tendering wrongly (for fire hydrants) and even a conflict of interest case wherein he was on the board of the company (Tarun Bharat) whose director he appointed to a government committee. The list has been long. “If you look closely at least ten ministers before the expansion had scam allegations against them,” Nawab Malik, the chief spokesperson of the NCP told me. “Now there are four more.”

Fadnavis who was earlier always on the ball, demanding the resignations of everybody in the government with allegations of scams emerging against them is now on the back foot, having no choice but to defend every minister in his cabinet, including Eknath Khadse who had to eventually resign when it became impossible to defend the conflict of interest that had emerged in a case of land grab against him when he was revenue minister. But as Khandekar points out, “Khadse till now does not have a police case registered against him. The new ministers do.”

Adds Malik, “During our regime, Fadnavis was in the forefront of demanding amendments to the Lokayukta act to arm that authority with powers equal to the police to arrest the corrupt. So why has he not brought in that amendment despite 18 months as head of the government? He knows the moment he does that half his cabinet would be behind bars. He cannot afford to acknowledge the corruption in his government.”

Among the new ministers inducted by Fadnavis, Ravindra Chavan had referred to Dalits as ‘pigs’ and has had several women’s groups register cases against him for the same. Sambhaji Patil Nilangekar, the estranged grandson of former chief minister Shivajirao Patil Nilangekar (who was with the Congress but his family defected to the BJP a few years ago) is considered close to Fadnavis and has been inducted into the cabinet as a Maratha who would ward off the challenge to Fadnavis from the current state BJP president Raosaheb Danve. Sambhaji, however, has cases registered against him for duping three banks of Rs 40 crore. Then, again, the grandson of former co-operative doyen Dadasaheb Rawal, Jaykumar Rawal, according to Malik, has cases filed against him for misappropriation and grabbing of government land. Gulabrao Patil, who is from the Shiv Sena, was also arrested days before his induction into the cabinet in a land grab case. Of the ministers inducted in 2014, Chandrashekhar Bawkule has a case of irregularities in the purchase of solar pumps, Girish Bapat has allegations of irregularities in the purchase of pulses (daal) for which he has been questioned by the Lokayukta, Ravindra Waikar is accused of indulging in irregularities in slum rehabilitation, Vishnu Savra is accused of irregularities in purchases of material supplies to Adivasi students, Girish Mahajan is accused in another land scam, Babanrao Lonikar is accused of filing a bogus election affidavit, Ranjit Patil is accused, again, of land grab.

Adding to the government’s woes the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court has just ruled against the award of tenders worth more than 6000 crore rupees for the provision of take home rations for children and lactating mothers awarded by Pankaja Munde’s child and women welfare department to dubious contractors.

Munde was also involved in a public spat with the chief minister when he took away the water resources department from her and allocated it to another minister Ram Shinde who has, equally publicly, refused to take charge until Pankaja willingly hands it over to him on her return from Singapore (she has returned now and Shinde has taken charge).

All this raises the question – is the BJP as clean as it projects itself and does Fadnavis really have the authority to command the respect of his cabinet? That was a question we were constantly asking of Prithviraj Chavan too.

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Sometime in the mid-1990s, I came upon Dr Zakir Naik in the back lanes of Bhendi Bazaar – I was looking for enlightened Muslim preachers and someone pointed me in his direction as somebody removed from the run of the mill mullahs and maulvis of the time. I could see he was suave, dapper, with perfect English speaking skills and young Muslim boys were fascinated by his talks on the Koran and the religion which he projected as pretty modern and advanced when it came into being in the areas of science, women’s rights etc.

I lost track of him over the years and then I was shocked when he resurfaced with a controversy after controversy – from propounding the positives of Islam, he was ridiculing other religions, he was poking fun at Lord Ganesha and other Indian gods, was advocating wife beating, saying it was allowed in Islam, etc. I wondered if it was the same man I had met years ago and indeed he was; only he had undergone a sea change and had become very rabid and provocative – no religion could equal Islam, which might have been okay per se. But then he thought he could teach Hinduism to Hindus, Buddhists didn’t know their Buddhism and Christians needed to be taught their Christianity, etc. I was shocked and horrified and wondered when he would be acted against by the Indian authorities for by then he was already banned by countries like the United Kingdom and Canada. But nothing happened and he was allowed to continue his rabid rantings on his free to air television channel Peace TV.

I could see why Muslim boys were fascinated by him – he was not a madrasa educated person, he was a medical doctor, his accented English was beyond their ken, he wore dapper suits (though with skull cap and beard) and he was a world traveller not confined to the bylanes of Mohammad Ali Road which most of them were condemned to forever and could never hope to break out in a lifetime or more.

But over the years I have noted that it is the English more than anything else that draws these boys to such preachers – and that is the reason Naik is hated by the traditional Urdu-speaking mullahs and maulvis of both the Deoband and Barelvi schools (he is a Wahabi but that is only one reason for the detestation). Of late, these young Muslim boys have had some new role models, notably the Owaisi brothers who they are following in larger and larger numbers every day. Both the Owaisis are similarly English speaking, have had a secular education, even spent some time studying abroad, they run premier educational institutions in Hyderabad and yet wear their religion on their sleeves and skull caps on their heads without glorifying terrorism (though the younger brother Akbaruddin Owaisi has been known to wish for the police to be removed for an hour from India to `teach’ all Hindus a lesson while his older brother argues that the yoinger man is not more radical than the Togadias ad Sadhvi Prachis of the country are) and they give the young Muslim boys hope that they can be part of the mainstream with similar education and English speaking skills.

Once upon a time there were people who would argue that since not many of us understood Urdu any rabid Muslim cleric got away with using Urdu to further his divisive agenda. But since Dr Naik is entirely English spoken I wonder why he has been left lone by the authorities for so long.

Perhaps that is because, as a police officer told me, they did not want to make a hero out of him. So long as they thought that not many believed in Dr Naik (and there are more in the Muslim community who oppose rather than support him), they did not want to make him better known that any action against him would result in.

Even now there is some reluctance to act against him for the same reason but I am glad to know that Dr Naik’s free to air channel – out of which cable operators earn nothing – might be taken off the air. But until his preachings are run through with a fine tooth comb and any case filed against him for inspiring youth to terrorism, I do not think anyone can be blamed — as Congress leader Digvijaya Singh is being subjected to – by anyone for sharing a stage with him. I agree with the Congress leader that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh who shared a stage with Malegaon accused Pragya Thakur is more culpable for giving a boost to terrorists of a different hue by similarly sharing a dais with her and what is sauce for the goose should equally be sauce for the gander.

In any case so much is the hate of the traditional Muslim clergy for Dr Naik that I think they might just do a better job of finishing off his pretensions than any action by the police or the government which will only turn him into a hero. For a lot of them he is the bigger villain.

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Some years ago, the singer Abhijit Bhattacharya, on his way back from dinner at a South Bombay hotel, apparently saved a young girl at Churchgate from being molested by a bunch of goons at a traffic signal. He wanted his good deed noted and appreciated. So his publicity agent harangued me for days to take note of the noble act but I was stuck because Hindustan Times then did not have an edition in Bombay. I then called a reporter I knew at a city newspaper and asked him to help the singer out. Bhattacharya was pretty pleased but kept thanking me instead of the editor of the city newspaper who had accommodated the story – he was highly confused between HT and the other newspaper, both of which were vastly different from each other, including in form, size and content.

I could see the same confusion when he tweeted that Madras techie Swathi’s murder was a case of love jihad – how could he know from Bombay what was happening miles across in Tamil Nadu, I wondered. Later when police caught the engineer Ramkumar for the murder and senior journalist Swati Chaturvedi called him out for spreading lies, I was shocked by his subsequent abusive tweets to her that went beyond even indecent and obscene. He seemed to see no need for an apology for getting it wrong and no need to be polite or circumspect.

I am glad that the Mumbai Police has reacted with alacrity and registered Chaturvedi’s complaint, even called her up assuring action. I am hoping Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, who has been closely monitoring the Mumbai Police actions to prevent conflagrations also makes sure that no frustrated out of work Bollywood has-been vents his spleen on the people in such fashion that it might cause a lot of communal disharmony. This one is a mediocre singer at best, has been driven out of business by better Pakistani singers and so hates them from the core of his heart, though better Indian singers like Sonu Nigam and Kumar Sanu arrived on the scene after him and he never stood a chance anyway. Now that resentment against Pakistani singers translates into anti-Muslim rants and thus a love jihad where none exists.

I am glad, though, that Maharashtra and Bombay didn’t react to Bhattacharya’s provocations as he perhaps expected them to – I know as a matter of fact that he has been trying to bamboozle the Shiv Sena and other likeminded parties to throw Pakistani singers currently working in Bollywood out of India. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena did do that once in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks but they have now returned. In the meantime, though, their absence did not make any remarkable difference to this singer’s career. I am also glad that Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray has shown some restraint while dealing with the singer’s constant urgings, though the Sena is not one to let go of an opportunity to throw Pakistani authors, writers, singers or other stars out of Bombay or preventing them from performing anywhere in the city.

But what amazes me now is that someone, even if currently on the downside, with such a public profile as this singer would lose all control over his words and actions as to make comments bordering on the sexual and actually threaten attack so openly as he did with Chaturvedi. He was completely unapologetic even in subsequent tweets, even not realising that what he had said was utterly despicable and condemnable to begin with – he thought he had been very patriotic and nationalist in calling women journalists names and accusing them of sleeping with the enemy.

Chaturvedi’s complaint to the Mumbai Police escalated the war and I am glad the cops are acting promptly. This is not the first time though that Chaturvedi has lodged an FIR, though in the first case the Delhi police seem to be taking an enormously long time in investigating and acting against the culprit. The amount of times women journalists are targeted with abuse and sexual innuendoes is not a joke any longer and more of us should follow Chaturvedi’s example and call out such abusive trolls who cross the limits of all decency in the belief that we would be cowed down and rather ignore than escalate the fight.

Though right wing trolls have called my parents names, made comments on my personal life (including speculating that I am either a Christian or a Communist for, according to them, I cannot be a Hindu and still take on the right wing trolls), sometimes made remarks on my physical attributes, somehow I have been able to overcome them all by either muting or blocking the trolls. But now Abhijit expected Chaturvedi to do otherwise and warned her not to block him and await further action from him. Is that a threat? Isn’t that a crime?

I think it is both and I wonder how far this man has come from doing a good deed and wanting public acknowledgement for it to actually seeking it by threatening women with dire consequences. He was never mighty to begin with (or he would not have needed the publicity for his good and bad deeds) but he sure has fallen. It is sad that abuse should have replaced his lyrics.

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Whenever former Prime Minister VP Singh used to visit Bombay – and he was in the city almost every other week during his life time – it was my job to keep track of his activities and follow him around at the newspaper I was working for around the time. Every alternate day of his Bombay visit used to find him at the Bombay Hospital. I used to hang outside his private room at the hospital and after he became familiar and friends with me, he invited me in to his hospital room where he was always sitting up, reading a book or listening to music, with tubes running through his arm and a machine whirring beside his bed. I chatted with him for hours as he underwent dialysis and it is from him that I earnt that no patient of dialysis survived in India for more than two years – not because there were not enough good nephrologists in India but because there were not enough donors for all. The remaining who had to undergo dialysis all died in a short while, again not for lack of technology but for the water used in the dialysis machines.

“I have had all bottled waters available in India tested for germs. I was horrified to discover that except for one (Bisleri) every other bottled water has human faeces in them.’’

But that was nearly a quarter of a century ago. Now there are several premier bottled water brands and patients don’t need to die within two years because they cannot have the hospital set up water filters for themselves that use only Bisleri water for the dialysis process as Singh had demanded at both the Bombay Hospital and Apollo Hospital in New Delhi that helped him survive for long after the two years given to dialysis patients at the time. Kidney patients in Bombay have been on dialysis for years now without any discomfort or complications (indeed many prefer dialysis to transplant because they can lead a ner normal life with dialysis these days) – the reverse osmosis plants take care of impurities in water supplied by the municipal corporation and infection is rare. But I discover that while dialysis technology is safe and comfortable even today it is only Bombay, New Delhi and a handful of large cities that can offer dialysis with guarantees. But now there is an effort from Bombay to improve the chances of kidney patients for as Dr Shrirang Bichu (voluntary disclosure – Dr Bichu saved my life last year when I was admitted to hospital with many complications), a leading nephrologist of Bombay tells me, every year India adds two lakh kidney ailments patients to its health system. Nearly 90 percent of them die within the year because there are not enough dialysis centres and indeed very few dialysis technologists to man the machines and the patients.

Keeping this in mind now a consortium of leading nephrologists in Mumbai along with Rotary International and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences have come together to set up for the very first time in India a school of dialysis technology which will educate and train young professionals in dialysis technology over one to three years offering diplomas and a degree in dialysis technology. So far dialysis technologists have not had specific training in the processes and have been mostly self taught and trained on the job. Rotary Metropolitan Club of Mumbai is funding the training for 50 students in the first batch which begins in July at the Tata Institute of Social sciences which for the first time is introducing the B. Voc (Bachelor of Vocation) degree under the Skilling India programme of the union government. The course has been designed by the Apex School of Dialysis Technology, an offshoot of Apex Kidney Care which has been running both paid and charitable dialysis for patients at its numerous dialysis centres across Mumbai and Westerns Maharashtra but now plans to go national. According to Dr Shrirang Bichu who is one of the doctors in the consortium it took them two and a half years to design the course which offers students an exit option every year. The students have been handpicked from poor and deprived families and the three year degree course costing Rs 80,000 every year is free for these students. The tabs will be picked up by Rotary Metropolitan of Mumbai and the Rotary Club of New Jersey which have together already created a corpus of 45,000 US dollars for the first year. Students who exit in the first year will be offered a diploma. They will get an advanced diploma after the second year. Completion of three years will secure them a degree. “Thus every year they are offered the opportunity to enhance their job possibilities,’’ says Neela Dabir, the administrator of the course at TISS. “Usually if you quit after first year of graduate college, that education has no value. We are now making sure that if they are not able to sustain their education (though students will be offered stipends apart from free education), they can quit without losing a year and take up the degree whenever they are better placed.’’ The course will be only 12 hours per week of theoretical classes. The rest of the time the students will be mentored at dialysis centres cross Mumbai by senior technologists who have so far been self-taught and self-trained. “We hope in time we will have enough technologists who can spread across India into even the small tons and villages where there is a severe dearth of dialysis facilities where they can save many lives by use of their special skills. The nephrologists who are part of the consortium that runs Apex Kidney Care also have support from the Harrd Medical School in the US and the Universitt of Sydney in Australia.

There is hope that the programme will have a twofold benefit – help kidney patients survive in large numbers, of course and bring many rural children into the health system as trained dialysis technologists. This year the students have been picked from maharshtra. All three promoters of the programme hope word of their effort will spread and more students from the parts of the country will take advantage of the course and bring the benefit to other parts of the country as well.

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A couple of years ago, when there was a leadership struggle within the Shiv Sena, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Manohar Joshi who wanted control of the party just as he had exercised his authority over its founder Bal Thackeray and manipulated the Sena tiger all his life, had taunted Uddhav Thackeray in the most demeaning terms. In the context of a memorial to Thackeray, he had said, “Had it been Balasaheb wanting a memorial for his father and the government had been playing fast and loose with him over grant of land for the purpose, he would have created a ruckus and flooded the streets with Shiv Sainiks. The government would have been unnerved into promptly granting him the land he wanted… That kind of courage is lacking in today’s leadership.’’

Uddhav had not reacted at all – unlike his father who would have roared and raged and threatened Joshi with dire consequences for virtually calling him a coward. But some months later he responded by denying Joshi a ticket to the Lok Sabha that he had wanted and completely marginalised him giving Joshi no role in the party functioning and virtually rendering him unwanted and undesired by anyone in the party.

But as the Shiv Sena completes fifty yes of its existence today (June 19), I cannot help but note that Bal Thackeray seems to have shrunk not just in spirit but also in size – on the posters that the party has put up on the occasion. While earlier he was always larger than life, now he occupies equal room as his son and political heir and Uddhav seems to have finally completely taken over the party and molded it in his own image.

Of course, there is no flooding the streets with Shiv Sainiks as Joshi would have wished but that toning down is not necessarily a bad thing for the party – and mor particularly for the people. But the worrying issue for the party is that while it may now be a watered down version of what Balasaheb’s party was, it has few ideas beyond what its founder had had at the establishment of the party in 1966 and it is thrashing about for a raison d’etre in the 21st century.

In the absence of such ideas, however, the party continues to do what it does best – oppose the government. But now it is no longer the question of opposing an ideologically opposite party. It is strange that the Shiv Sena is getting away with calling Narendra Modi names and trashing every policy of the government both at the Centre and in the state. The party took particular delight in declaring that the Modi magic does not work any more when the BJP lost a series of elections every where except in Assam, it poked fun at the BJP’s self-congratulation at its Assam win, it trashed Modi’s Pakistan policy and, in the state, it is constantly needling Devendra Fadnavis at his inability to control the drought situation in Marathwada, bitterly opposing his alleged attempt to reduce the influence of Marathi speaking people by breaking up the state into several parts including Vidarbha (which would then become largely Hindi speaking) and Marathwada (which would then be Dakhani or Urdu speaking). It is strange to say the least because all the time the Shiv Sena is an equal partner in both governments and while one understands the dependence of the Fadnavis government on the party, one wonders why Modi stands for such nonsense – more fun is poked at his government by the Shiv Sena than by the Congress or other parties on the left.

However, I believe the turning point in both the alliance and the Shiv Sena’s existentialist crisis will come only after elections to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. The Sena does not care about ruling at the Centre or in the state but control of the civic body is all important to the party which has not grown beyond four or five urban centres, the most important of them being Bombay which continues to be it core constituency.

But even if the Sena were to win the BMC — and it has a fair chance considering that its closest rival is the Congress which is so ridden with factions that it might be unable to put up a concerted fight despite the best efforts of its city president Sanjay Nirupam, there is nothing the Sena will be left with at the next elections to the parliament or the assembly if the BJP goes ahead with its determined effort to marginalise the party so that it ceases its dependence on the whims and fancies of the Thackerays and is able to pursue its own policies and agendas without the Sena becoming a stumbling block – like in the separation of Vidarbha from Maharashtra. But even though the party has now taken on the personality of its president Uddhav Thackeray and may have reduced Balasaheb in size and spirit, I notice in substance it continues to follow the outdated policies of it founder. The question the party must ask , however, is if in a half century, the Marathi manoos has not evolved at all and is still fighting for Class 3 and Class 4 jobs or has sunk even lower. For while Bal Thackeray was fighting for clerical jobs for his supporters, today’s Sena is in conflict with north Indian taxi drivers and peanut vendors – jobs that no self-respecting Maharashtrian wants as they take their place alongside the best across a globalised economy.

The fight of the Shiv Sena continues to be the fights of the 1960s and 1970s, shorn of violence and bloodshed and that has contributed to a sense of ennui and lack of conviction among the people that the Sena has their best interests at heart.

I believe, therefore, that despite its possible victory at the BMC elections, the Shiv Sena’s GenNext leaders will have to think fast on their feet and evolve into a party of governance if they do not wish to be left behind in the next half century. Meanwhile the ghost of Bal Thackeray will continue to haunt the Sena even if it wishes to reduce the tiger in both size and plasma.

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