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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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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On Rajiv Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary, I recall the devastation I felt when I was recalled for duty past my dinner time. I stayed closest to my place of work – a news agency – and there were no mobile phones at the time. All my colleagues were on trains on their way back home in the distant suburbs and by the time they got the message and started back, much time would have elapsed. So I was startled when some stones began to hit my third floor window and some one came tearing upstairs to inform me that two of my colleagues (peons) were at the gates, desperately asking for me. I rushed down in my night clothes and when they informed me about the emergency, my mind just went blank. I charged upstairs in tears and changed back into street clothes and got into the waiting cab to be driven back to office.

That night, I single-handedly operated the photo-fax machine and uploaded the pictures to all subscribers. Soon there were photographers from all newspapers in the city making a beeline to my office to look at pictures that I might not have sent across to them. We were the earliest to have got that technology in the city and the papers were eager for some ‘exclusive’ pictures that all would not publish the next morning. I was the first, perhaps, to see the devastating photo of Rajiv lying on the ground with clothes torn off his back and Tamil Nadu Congress leader GK Moopanar sorrowfully spreading a blanket across him – that was a picture never released and I do not know if any one ever published that in so many years. I kept up the transmissions till other colleagues arrived at four in the morning after a bath and change of clothes and then stretched out on a desk, in complete exhaustion.

Today as I see hash tags on social media avowing that Rajiv Gandhi was the one who first launched digital India and changed the way a nation came into the 21st century from the 19th century we were stuck in. I am also reminded about how my career graph shaped up parallel to India’s communication revolution. In 1984, I was assigned to cover the Lok Sabha elections in remote towns and districts – I remember strap hanging in the buses to reach the villages and then having to locate the nearest post office from where I could send either a telegram or a teleprinter message. It was a very painful exercise and there was no guarantee that the report would reach my head office the same day – some reports took three days between writing and publication.

The next election, in 1989, after covering Rajiv’s election rally in Solapur on April 14, after he flew to Mhau to commemorate Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, I trotted off to the nearest post office, again looking for another teleprinter machine and operator. The post master of that village post office was surprised. “Why do you want to send your message through teleprinter?” he asked. “We have a fax machine, Madam. If there is a supporting machine on the other side, your report will be there in minutes.”

We did have one and all I needed to do was make a long distance call to the news editor to make sure my report had not arrived garbled at the other end. In 1991, fax machines were everywhere and made use of with ease but by 1996, I was using a laptop – though I had to go looking for a working telephone to connect. By 1998, though, I had the luxury of e-mails but they might still take hours to reach the recipients. The situation improved through the elections of 1999 but by 2004, there was no doubt that my reports would be on the desk of my editor within minutes. In 2009, I was still using a lapop but now with the ease of a data card and in 2014, I did not have to tug along heavy computer bags. A tablet sat snugly in my handbag and the policemen checking me for security as I entered meetings of Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi knew exactly what it was. “Just switch on the tablet in front of us and switch on and off your mobile phone so that we are sure they are not wired for bombs,” they said. I obliged and they waved me through.

I agree the ease of communication today is entirely owing to Rajiv Gandhi – I still remember a visit to Russia in 1992 where foreign correspondents working for British and American newspapers told me India was an important transit point for their messages – the former Soviet Union had still not improved their communication facilities and only the lines to India worked. So they sent their reports to their New Delhi bureaus which faxed them onwards to their native countries. That was not just lack of development or backwardness – Soviet bosses believed in not giving too much freedom to communicate to their people lest information become a weapon in their hands against governments. Rajiv Gandhi, though, never thought of anything as bizarre as that. I remember attending one of his events where he earnestly and passionately told listeners, “The industrial revolution bypassed India. We cannot afford the information revolution to do the same.’’

There is much that I admired about Rajiv Gandhi but what I am very greatful to him for is this – I had to book fixed time calls to communicate with my parents when he first became Prime Minister. Gradually, I could get to a STD booth and wait in a long line to call my parents. Then one of these booth owners offered me the facility of the conference call so that I could sit at home and immediately connect with my parents. Then I got my first mobile phone in 1996 and suddenly I could talk with them whenever I wished.

Can anyone in the younger generation even imagine a life without that mobile phone? He/she has only Rajiv Gandhi to thank for that.

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At the tenth anniversary celebrations of his party, Raj Thackeray tried to gloss over his growing irrelevance in the nation’s polity by saying that everyone in the world – except perhaps Lata Mangeshkar – has been through bad patches and setbacks.

“Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, greater leaders than me also had downfalls and went through bad patches,” so he was no exception.

While he is right about bad patches coming into the lives of almost all individuals or leaders, his is an exceptional case in the sense that he has brought about his own setback.

When, just before the Lok Sabha elections, Thackeray had a meeting with Nitin Gadkari and very few people noticed that at the time, Gadkari had had no locus standi to ask Raj to refrain from contesting against the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance in Maharashtra.

That is an appeal that should have come from either Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate or at best from Rajnath Singh, the then BJP party president.

Gadkari had not been authorised by either and, indeed, he had not been overstepping his brief. He was actually meeting Raj merely to appeal to him to withdraw his agitation against the toll nakas in the state, which had been causing damage to a lot of vested interests including the Indian Roads Bureau and Gadkari even then had interests in the IRB.

Raj did halt the agitation but went ahead to contest the Lok Sabha polls against both the BJP and the Sena for that is a promise he had not made to Gadkari or any one else.

But the public perception that he was running with the hares and hunting with the hounds caused him lasting damage and he was unable to recover from that duplicitous image even during the assembly elections six months later.

Raj’s politics has always been reactionary, he derives his strengths from opposing various governments than from implementing or formulating policies of his own and that is something now even his supporters are able to see quite clearly. In the intervening period, he found little to oppose the new government’s policies unless it was to point out the flaws in the policy regarding smart cities but that hardly made for a street agitation.

Then he found a burning issue in the government’s decision to give 70,000 permits to new auto-rickshaws in Mumbai and decided that these will be reduced to cinders. But like the toll agitation, this was not so much about concern for the common people or even the Marathi-speaking people of the state as an opportunity to make good again. For those auto-rickshaws were all coming from the Bajaj factory in Pune and now Raj had someone to target.

Rahul Bajaj, however, has his measure and when he said, “We know where he is coming from and where to send him back.”

I knew the agitation would not last long. But even I was surprised at the speed with which Raj Thackeray withdrew this particular agitation. He modified his statement within just two days to say that no new auto-rickshaws were being seen on the streets and if the government was issuing these permits to old ones, those vehicles should be spared from burning.

There was, indeed, a clamour to slap sedition charges on Raj Thackeray for inciting violence but I do not believe that is what frightened or persuaded him to retreat.

I believe Rahul Bajaj knew exactly how to turn the screws on the MNS chief and I must doff my cap to the government – for all that the Congress was clamouring for his arrest, I am glad the state did not fall into that trap and turn him into a martyr.

The Congress, when in power, had been unable to take much action against him except after things went terribly out of hand. But, perhaps, with some good advice from Bajaj, this government did not even have to wait that long to defang this crouching tiger.

As a result, Raj Thackeray seems to have made himself even more of a laughing stock than he was before and many of his workers and supporters are sorely disappointed with him for not just withdrawing the agitation with lightning speed but for having started something, in the first place, that could only have ended up endangering their lives and liberties.

Raj Thackeray ought not to lose sight of two facts — he is no Bal Thackeray who could ask his Shiv Sainiks to jump from the 17th floor of a building for no good reason and they would do it for him eyes shut, no questions asked.

Secondly, no political party is ever built on blackmail, bargaining or setting one group of people against another. Bal Thackeray built the Shiv Sena on the plank of Mumbai for Maharashtrians. At the time, most Maharashtrians were a deprived lot and poor in their own city whereas the rich were almost always non-Maharashtrian and exploitative of the locals.

That is no longer true and the Maharashtrian youth is as aspirational as the rest of India.

They do not want to get stuck in jobs like auto-rickshaw drivers or peanut vendors. If he does not evolve a programme in keeping with the name of his party — navnirman – I am afraid, the temporary setback he talks about will become permanent and the downfall will be everlasting.

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I wrote the following article for ‘Femina’, a few years ago when hey wanted a debate on why one loves India – or not. I chose to `love’ India – another senior colleague had very valid reasons to make the contrary arguments for many of the things happening today that were happening even then on a smaller scale.

But many of my arguments would be seen as anti-national today. Eunuchs will be spat upon, anybody throwing even a barb at Narendra Modi would be slapped with sedition, sitting in dharna against the government to protest your rights would be a strict no-no. But do you know? I thought hard about it and decided I still love India, her warts and all, and will fight hard to keep her spirit and chaotic freedoms alive.

What is happening today is an aberration, civil society and fellow journalists are finally sanding up to the government and I have hope.

Here is the text in full:

Why I love India

I don’t have any big notions about why I love India – I just do. India is my one big love affair and I think that affair began several years ago on the edges of the Bois de Boulogne in Paris in the middle of a group of transvestites who had tripped me up, one frosty winter night, with a stocking tied between two trees.

They were mostly Latin American and they hated women – that’s all they saw me as, a threat to their business. Paris was then the world capital of transvestite prostitution and that morning on my way to work, I came across the police hauling up a magnificent sample of a sex change operation: High cheek bones so beautifully coloured, mascara running down his/her teary cheeks, such long endless legs, sheer stockings, all dressed in black. Her only colour — the red slash of a mouth.

Curiosity led me to look for a story in the woods of Paris where these transvestites hung out but they didn’t want me around. I thought it might be my skin or the fact that I was Asian but it was just that I was born a woman.

As I picked myself up resentfully and ran for my life amid their screeching threats, I could not help but recall how a few years earlier back home in India, on a train from Bombay to Howrah (enroute to Nagpur), I found myself in a `Ladies’ compartment full of eunuchs, dressed in saris and calling themselves “srimatis”.

The sight of them gave me the fright of my life (I was the only woman in that six-berth compartment) and then it was I who was screeching – at the ticket checker. When my hysteria subsided, I realised they were no threat. Far from wanting to molest or murder me, they had decided to ‘adopt’ me. They gave up a lower berth for my upper one to help me avoid trouble climbing up and down going to the toilet at night, one of them woke with me every time to hold the latchless toilet door for me against the men lolling in the aisles, did not allow me to get down even once to fetch water, shared their dinner with me – and all they wanted in return was that I read to them from their colourful film magazines (they were all unlettered) stories about their favourite heroes and heroines!

“That is my country,” I told myself even as I ran through the woods for the nearest metro station. “So what am I doing here?”

I had a five-year residence permit and I gave it all up in less than two years to return to India. As I told my African and other Asian colleagues who thought I was a fool to give up the joys of the West for the troubles of the East, “I think it is more worth my while writing about eunuchs of my own country than about the transvestites of Paris!”

They did not understand, nor did I expect them to. I just could not explain to them the innumerable freedoms of a democracy that India provides which other countries don’t.

I can squat anywhere in India with a placard to protest for my rights; in Japan, that’s just not possible. As part of Sunil Dutt’s team during his anti-nuclear walkathon in the 1980s from Nagasaki to Hiroshima, we were denied permission for even a maun vrat in the parks of Japanese cities en route. We can throw a stone at our Prime Minister and break her nose (remember Indira Gandhi’s bleeding nose in the eighties?) and the world will soon forget who did that (I don’t remember, does anyone?). But why is an Indian scientist who dared to voice criticism against then President George Bush still rotting in a US jail today?

We can walk through the streets of India in large groups, shouting slogans, singing, dancing. It would not be a crime. I and my Pakistani colleague were hauled up (thankfully, not arrested) by the Paris cops for singing Bollywood songs at the top of our voice on our way home one night because they could not understand the words and thought we were indulging in some unique kind of protest!

And, yes, no beggar in my country would tell me, “Me today, you tomorrow,” as one in London did, trying to bully me into parting with my money.

So with all the real and intractable problems that India may have, that’s why I love her, warts and all!

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Recently a BJP ideologue from Gujarat, Hemant Fitter, called me to express his anguish. “I will never vote for the BJP again in my life. It will be ghor paap (a cardinal sin) if I do so and I will have to burn in hell.”
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Nearly a decade ago, I found myself appointed, out of the blue, to the advisory panel of the Censor Board. I did not known why I should have been there, I was no film critic nor a political affiliate of any group or party. Read more

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I wonder how many people in India know that before Shakshi Maharaj who wants every Indian woman to produce four children and former RSS sarsanghchalak K Sudershan who had wanted us to produce five and remain barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen all our lives, there was a creature called Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania who had had the same idea about women in his own country? Read more

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As the reconciliation talks between the Shiv Sena and the BJP got underway on Friday, my colleague Sayli Mankikar tweeted rather tongue-in-cheek – reporters hanging outside Matoshree with Odomos. Last time many of them had caught dengue! Read more

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Writing on Children’s day, I cannot help but recall a childhood/teenage wish that will never be fulfilled, at least not in this life – I wish I had been born old enough to romance Jawaharlal Nehru. Read more

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