Kejriwal and the art of stopping Modi-Shah

February 10th, 2015 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments »

 AAP emerges as fulcrum for anti-Modi vote, consigns Congress to dustbin.


The Congress party is the biggest loser in the most one-sided election result to ever come out in India since 1952, and it is not because of the zero marks it has scored in the all-important mid-term test in Delhi.

The topper, Arvind Kejriwal, has pulled off what not even Jawaharlal Nehru at his peak, or his grandson Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 – both impressive scores, without a doubt – could manage. Granted, their tally was in the Lok Sabha election, while Kejriwal scored in what is dissed by some as a non-state election.

For Indians, long used to seeing pass marks and grace marks in electoral tests for 30 years, Narendra Modi scoring a first class in May 2014 came as a wow moment. Well, Kejriwal has just reminded us that it is still possible to score a double distinction in the exams, provided the student remains focused on his studies and not get distracted by other factors like caste, polarisation, etc.

Since it started sliding some time in 2011-12, and particularly after the 2014 electoral debacle, the Congress has readily thrown in the towel, its think tank no match for the obvious brilliance of the Modi-Amit Shah combine.

As they swallowed up swathe after swathe of regions, the mystique surrounding the PM and his Man Friday tended to grow bigger and bigger, to an extent that it almost appeared that there was no state, no election they could not win.

The Congress itself was willing to buy into this argument, hoping no doubt that in the larger scheme of things, given the level of expectations the prime minister had raised, it was only a matter of time before he tripped – and the electorate would turn to its old and trusted friend, the natural party of governance as the Congress still tended to think of itself.

Kejriwal, the pygmy politician who has faced a level of ridicule on social media that even Rahul Gandhi cannot lay claim to, and who a month ago was given an outside chance of winning this election, has thus managed to do what the hoary Congress brains trust, that is full of more than a century’s electioneering, simply could not.

Kejriwal has shown that not only can Modi-Shah be stopped, they can in fact be routed.

And this is why, more than what the numbers themselves seem to suggest, the Congress is the biggest loser in Delhi.

For Modi-Shah, a ‘Congress mukt Bharat’ would almost entirely be BJP territory, with minor regions here and there ruled by regional parties who, in the face of the stellar administration provided by the saffron party, would simply wither away.

The regional parties, Modi-Shah knew, sprouted and flourished because the Congress had become weak. The antidote was not to make deals and adjustments with the satraps, as the Congress has been doing, but to take them head-on, alongside aggressively building up your own organisation.

And in Modi-Shah the BJP, and its parent body the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, found it had got a political buy one, get one free offer we don’t find even in Big Bazaar.

While Modi, with his currently unmatched power of oratory and communication, dazzled the voters and lured them in, Shah, with his innovative and aggressive style of booth management, ensured that Modi’s allure was converted into votes.

On the face of it, it was a strategy that unnerved not just the Congress with its lacklustre leadership but also the powerful regional parties, who realised that they were simply no match for the duo.

But even as Modi and Shah stitched up state after state, they were aware of one fact that the rest of us had become blind to in the dazzling lights, a fact that my politically sagacious colleague Syed Firdaus Ashraf greenlighted made me aware of last year, that there was a large segment of voters who do not vote BJP and who had no viable alternative. Once upon a time, they would have voted Congress, but not anymore. Where do they go?

For this segment, who wants no truck with the BJP’s brand of politics, or with Modi’s brand of leadership, Kejriwal became the magnet.

There is this quality to life that most of us miss out on, that mistakes are not the end of the world, and sometimes there is a larger lesson to be learnt from them. But most of us spend our time in self-recrimination and/or blame games for committing mistakes, that we fail to see the positives from it, we fail to move on from that point.

Kejriwal knew he had made a mistake in 2013, when he stomped out of power after a mere 49 days in office, perhaps in the mistaken belief that Indians love those who show disdain for power. Similarly, he knew he made a mistake in 2014, when he tried to spread his wings too wide before he had learnt to fly, entering the Lok Sabha election and offering himself up as a prime ministerial alternative.

They were mistakes, yes, and the BJP wasted no time in reminding him and the Delhi voters ad nauseam of this. Kejriwal, instead of either getting stuck on this point or being perennially defensive over it, quickly admitted to the public his error, sought their forgiveness, and promised to never repeat it.

Contrast that with Amit Shah’s ‘political jumla’ comment for his chief vote-catcher’s campaign rhetoric to bring back black money, and you see the difference between a new-age politician and the traditional.

Similarly, used as one is to seeing politicians kowtow to the caretakers of minority vote, or the majority vote for that matter, AAP’s summary dismissal of support from Imam Bukhari furthered deepened the message that here was someone who played by different rules, and not be stuck in age-old matrices.

The astute Modi-Shah saw this too, and the effect it was having on the electorate. Which is why they made Kejriwal the centrepiece of their election campaign, as they knew what he represented. And that unless he was stopped, he will emerge as the fulcrum for anti-BJP forces to gather around.

In another time and place, it would have been the Congress that would have reaped the anti-Modi votes.

Today, as the Delhi votes are counted, it shows not only the AAP’s victory or BJP’s defeat. But also the Congress’s final irrelevance.

The Congress, having lost in the states, possibly hoped that as a national party it will be in a position to reap the anti-BJP votes in the next Lok Sabha election. Kejriwal has just shot that dream out of the ballot box.

Tribute to the unknown Indian

May 16th, 2014 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments »

Every five years the Indian voter shrugs off his indifference, and trundles to the polling booth to renew his tryst with democracy.


He has no motivation or inducement to do so. If he is still able to fire himself up and make the trek to the voting station, it is because he, the Daridhreshwar, still nurses the hope that some day things will change for the better, some day he will get a government that truly cares for him and his ilk.


For, over the last 67 years when he is told that the nation threw off the foreign yoke and gave its citizens the right to elect their own government, he finds that his lot has not improved one bit.


His poverty remains as viscerally incapacitating as it was.


He still finds it excruciating to make both ends meet.


There is barely enough food to go around; his children have no education, and will probably end up doing the same thing as him. Which is nothing much.


But India is changing, they say, he knows. Cities are getting richer; people in it are getting richer. New roads are being laid – not for him, he knows, but for the people who vroom past in their fancy cars.


He can see all of it. And how he has remained where he always was even as the world around him has moved ahead.


The only change in his life is the Nokia Asha he holds in his hand, through which he and his family get to know what is going on elsewhere. Which is really not a good thing, as that it only makes him angry and upset.


Where is the development, where is the progress. Where is.. what is that word, yes, tryst with destiny that he learnt about in elementary school before dropping out?


He has waited and waited for a day when someone who will know poverty, grinding poverty, first hand rise from the grass roots to occupy the highest post in the country.


Has it happened today? He doesn’t know. He knows he has kept his tryst with democracy; will it keep its tryst with him?


As always he lives in hope. Votes in hope. Prays in hope.


Some day his prayers will be answered. Some day his poverty will be removed. Some day his belief in his country will be redeemed.

Has that day dawned yet? He will know five years hence.

Some Lok Sabha constituencies worth visiting

March 19th, 2014 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » record for election-related travel is very poor, one of the sucky things about being a backroom boy is that you miss out on all the front-room action, but since the 2014 election is being billed as a make-or-break for India, let me think up a few Lok Sabha constituencies that any journalist worth his salt, or mouse, should visit.
The man who could be the next prime minister is fighting his first, and most significant, election from the holy city. Is the subliminal message from the manouevre too subtle to be lost in the din from the city of salvation, or will the city see a transformed campaign from the BJP candidate? Whatever, it is worth walking the bylanes of the city, sampling the views from the ordinary folk.
In popular perception he is the face of the corruption scandals that assailed UPA 2. Andimuthu Raja, the deposed telecom minister, has been renominated by his party the DMK. When I was in Tiruchi for the last Tamil Nadu assembly elections a knife could cut through the pall of gloom that surrounded the DMK’s campaign. The rout was on the wall. For a party that had slipped in the resultant muck to put up Raja again is either an extremely stupid act, or they know something about voter behaviour we journos don’t. Sure, I’d like to see for myself which one it is.
Confession: I have a soft corner for Prem and Lakshmi Sahgal’s family. Naturally, when the Marxists put up Subhashini Ali from Barrackpore, my ears perked up. This is not her first electoral foray, and knowing the feisty lady it won’t be her last. Will Ali survive the seemingly unstoppable Trinamul wave in Bengal? Only time, and visiting journalists maybe, can tell.
Yes, this election will probably go down as the one with maximum number of journalists in the fray, all attention seems to be focused on other, ‘electronic’ scribes. Maybe this generation needs to be told who Anita Pratap, the Aam Aadmi Party candidate from Kochi is. For us hacks of a particular vintage, AP stood for Anita Pratap, not Associated Press. Naturally, when the lady enters the fray, one would like to witness it first-hand.
Confession again. It’s home to my favourite shrine, the Swarna Mandir. But that’s the reason why I’d like to visit it during election time. Nor is it to celebrate the exit of motormouth Navjot Singh Sidhu from there. When a man against who a whispering campaign is run by his own party leaders, decides to call their bluff and move from the Upper House to the Lower House, it is worth covering his election campaign. For despite his tonnes of experience in politics, this will be Arun Jaitley’s first popular election, and hence interesting.
The BJP rode rough shod over its senior leaders’ request to retain their constituencies, but it is unlikely they will do the same to L K Advani from Gandhinagar. The man who single-handedly built the BJP up from a measly two MPs in 1984 will be fighting his last Lok Sabha election from the Gujarat capital. It will mark the passing of an age, and worth every bit of a journalist’s while to be present there.
The AAP may not have lived up to its lofty claim of nominating only those who had local support and that such decisions will not be taken by a gang of four in a closed room (or words to that effect), but they have put up a few interesting candidates, never mind their winnability. And to me, none more interesting from Soni Sori from Bastar. Don’t know who Soni Sori is? Don’t know where Bastar is? Doh!
This, of course, is only a wishlist. Chances are I won’t get to visit even one constituency.
What do you think are constituencies worth visiting in 2014? Let me know…

Rahul on TV: Half-done is well begun

January 28th, 2014 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments »
As a rule politicians are loath to give answers. As a rule they’d rather avoid being asked questions, especially on camera where there can be no mercy shown. But since public life increasingly demands public elaboration of decisions taken in private, most politicians, especially the ones eyeing the top job, choose their interviewers since they know who are the ones who are easy with the questions, can be ‘managed’, or simply be charmed.
However, Arnab Goswami is not one of them. You don’t have to watch his Newshour at 9 pm to know that. This is probably the first lesson one suspects aspiring politicians are taught in kindergarten: Don’t mess with the Arnab. it’s been a matter of immense curiosity as to why Rahul Gandhi made his debut on national television with a grilling session with Arnab Goswami (image on the left courtesy Vicky Nanjappa). 
It’s obvious that Rahul Gandhi is not political enough to be a politician. So was he sold a lemon by his so-called “well-wishers” among the Congress old guard, led like a lamb to slaughter, after being told by them that all he has to charm the inquisitor is to flash those lovely dimples?
A more political politician would have prepared adequately, known what the opponent is all about, anticipated the questions, and readied the answers well. Instead Rahul came across as someone well-intentioned but under-prepared for battle – a persona that is all too familiar to those of us who have been following his political peregrinations of the last 10 years.
As image-building exercises go, this was a disaster from start to finish – unless the purpose behind it was to build up Arnab and his television channel’s image.
Having said that, were there no positives to take away from the interview at all? 
My mind somehow goes back to the run-up to the 2009 elections, when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s L K Advani was its Arjun leading the army into battle, with Narendra Modi playing his faithful charioteer. managed to interview Modi in Gandhinagar about the election, and as the exercise wound up the boss and had to pop the inevitable question on the 2002 riots on his watch.
The reaction of the man who pitches to be prime minister today was classic – perhaps honed by the times he had done it before with other journalists. The interview was abruptly terminated:
Q: If you were to go back in time to the 2002 riots is there anything you will do differently?

A: OK, let us go, it is time to end the interview, thank you.
Which takes me back to my original point about politicians being loath to face questions they don’t want to.
Arnab certainly gave Rahul Gandhi a much tougher time than we had done with the Gujarat chief minister, but to his eternal credit, the Congress vice president did not take the easy way out despite the discomfiture that was playing on his face.
For that alone, for taking it on the chin square and fair, the first Gandhi-Nehru to be grilled so on national television gets my vote. 
Since this is only the first of Rahul’s media exposition, we can be sure of more interviews, across various media. But before he embarks on the exercise, here are a few tips for the Congress vice president.
  • If you have an image makeover team, sack them immediately for not preparing you well enough. There are some basic ground rules during a TV interview. The first being, do not look away or down. Always maintain eye contact with the interviewer/camera. Didn’t look like you were briefed about it.
  • If you have a media advisory team, sack them immediately too. A journalist’s questions are not arcane matters – they pertain to the very topics you are not willing to talk about. The media team should have put Gandhi through the paces, preparing tough questions, reviewing replies, improving them. If this exercise was done, it was not evident on Monday night.
  • Interviews are not about what you want to talk about, but what the interviewer wants to know. As Arnab rightly said, if it was the former he would listen to your speech at the AICC session. But it’s downright cheesy to ask the interviewer for questions before hand, only failed Bollywood actors do it. So it makes better sense to prepare your answers beforehand.
  • When you are in public life expect to be asked about everything by an inquisitive media. Usually the Indian media is not intrusive or scandalous, but in Rahul’s case they may just cross the line and want to know about his love life etc – only because the Nehru scion has been a media recluse all along. Once the novelty wears away they won’t bother him so much.
  • Review the tape of the interview with Arnab, pick out all your fumbles and evasions, and practise how you could have answered those questions differently, and better (ideally this should have been done before the interview, but a post-mortem never hurt the dead).
Rahul Gandhi was not wrong in invoking the 2002 Gujarat riots but when Arnab threw the curve ball of judicial clean chit to Modi he looked like a deer caught in the SUV’s headlights and did not know what to say. A better-prepared man would have come back that it was not a question of a judicial clean chits but about owing up moral responsibility, would have even cited AB Vajpayee’s own rajdharma plea. 
That this would have inevitably brought in the 1984 riots under Congress’s watch, is a no-brainer. Even there, Rahul Gandhi had everything to gain by making a clean breast of it, by owing up responsibility on behalf of his party, and promising that communal riots will never happen on his watch. It was a bad miss on the part of the Congress vice president to spell out his vision for the party and government under him.
Similarly he was all at sea when faced with the Congress’s Achilles heel, corruption. A more seasoned interviewee would have known that all the high-falutin’ talk of transforming the system yada yada yada falls flat when confronted with the cold mirror of specifics (or superficialities, as Rahul chose to dismiss them). Another golden chance lost, to expound his own thinking to the party and address the nation. By stumbling over ‘Ashok Kumar’ instead of ‘Ashok Chavan’ and mentioning ‘Gujarat’ instead of ‘Bihar’ when questioned about an alliance with Lalu Yadav, Rahul appeared as if he had come underprepared to wrestle with this issue.
One could go on and list out the entire 75-minute-long exchange that was touted as the interview of the year, but I suspect Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra would have undertaken this exercise already.
In sum, the, while it was refreshing to have the Nehru-Gandhi scion grilled on television, one hopes the experience won’t put him off the exercise altogether. And if it doesn’t, here’s hoping that he comes better prepared for his subsequent outings.

5 takeaways from Rahul Gandhi’s AICC speech

January 17th, 2014 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » was a never-seen-before Rahul Gandhi who addressed the All India Congress Committee session at New Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium on Friday. Slated to address the session at 3.30 pm, even as delegates kept up a steady, intermittent chant to bring him on, the Congress vice president told his party that he will speak to them in the afternoon and clarify a lot of things.
Beginning his speech at a little past 4 pm, Gandhi spoke for around 45 minutes, making it one of his longest speeches. But it was not the length or the English-Hindi-English switch of his speech that made a mark but the never seen before toughness that he exuded. And it was not only about the words he used to castigate the opposition but his dialogue delivery, facial expressions, overall body language that conveyed a different, more confident Gandhi. 
And minutes after he exhorted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to raise the cap on the number of free cooking gas cylinders from the existing nine to 12, the government complied. 
So is Rahul Gandhi finally ready to take the electoral bull by its horns? The jury maybe out on that, but these are the five important takeaways we could glean from his sometimes-prepared, sometimes extempore speech at the AICC session on Friday.
50 per cent of Congress chief ministers to be women
For a party that has been struggling to pass the bill reserving 33 pc of seats in legislatures for women, this should not be tough at all. The Congress currently has 13 CMs, but if you can count out Andhra Pradesh’s Kiran Kumar Reddy from the list there are 12 states in its kitty: Arunachal Pradesh; Assam; Haryana; Himachal Pradesh; Karnataka; Kerala; Maharashtra; Manipur; Meghalaya; Mizoram; Pondicherry; Uttarakhand. Did Rahul Gandhi mean that six of these states will get a new CM? Let’s wait and see.
Crowd-sourcing the manifesto
As Gandhi told the AICC delegates, hitherto the Congress manifesto was drawn up by four people, and the rest of the party workers and officials had no say in what went into it. But not anymore, if Gandhi’s word is kept (and there is no reason why it won’t be). We will throw open the process of manifesto preparation to you, we will ask everyone for inputs, he said. “We will take the views of Dalits, tribals, workers, industrialists, youth, women and NGOs” for drafting the manifesto, he told the delegates, to thunderous applause. 
Great words, though we wonder how much of the inputs would make it to the final document. Nevertheless, despite our scepticism, we are all for the process of wide consultations in preparing such an important vision and policy document.
Workers to decide candidates in 15 constituencies
It is not just the process of preparing the manifesto that is restricted to a privileged few, the process of selection of candidates is also an esoteric one (why blame the Congress party alone here, though!). Most times the workers are foisted someone not of their choice, at times even someone who does not belong to the constituency, and the workers are expected to throw their heart into the campaign even if they knew the non-winnability factor ahead. Gandhi on Friday promised the AICC that a pilot project will be undertaken in 15 Lok Sabha constituencies for the coming election (he did not specify which these 15 seats were) where the candidate will be decided on the basis of inputs/feedback from the party workers. “We will ask the block presidents, workers, district president to directly select the candidates,” he told the AICC session. And the experiment will be slowly extended to other elections and more seats seeing how it works.
Still short of the American style primaries, we must admit this process of selection is a huge improvement on the present system of arbitrary selection. 
No ticket for party-hoppers
Tied to the previous point, Gandhi told the AICC that the party belonged to the worker who gave it his all. You are the party, and from hereon only party workers will get tickets to fight elections, he sid. What he left unsaid, but nevertheless came across clear and loud, was that those who join the party on the eve of elections for various reasons (another party did not nominate them, being the most common) will not be given Congress tickets — never mind their winnability. In other words, give us your blood, sweat and tears before you get a Congress ticket.
But lest this be read as a sign that the party’s doors were shut for everyone, Gandhi clarified that the Congress was always open to new members, youths and new ideas. Possibly even to party-hoppers, but not ticket-hopers.
Going full tilt at corruption
Congressmen usually are defensive when it comes to corruption, and not without reason. Not Gandhi, however. At the AICC session he extolled the party’s anti-corruption credentials and told the workers that it was not the Congress but the opposition that was stalling the six crucial anti-corruption legislations that were stuck in Parliament. After all, “we gave the country the Lokpal,” he reminded the party. Gandhi’s message to them: Have these six bills passed in the next three months, put your full strength behind the bills even though the opposition will try its best to stall the passage of these bills.
What are the six pending bills that Gandhi feels will burnish his party’s anti-corruption image? They are: the prevention of Corruption(Amendment) Bill, 2013; the prevention of bribery of foreign public officials and public international organisations bill, 2011; the right of citizens for time-bound delivery of goods and services and redressal of their grievance bill, 2011; the public procurement bill, 2011; the judicial standards and accountability bill, 2010; the whistleblowers protection bill, 2011.

Rahul’s time is not now, only Sonia can lead Congress in 2014 finals

December 9th, 2013 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » script has a seen-before feel about it. Elections are held to five state assemblies a year before the general elections. The BJP sweeps them, and the Congress ends up as a poor loser. The winner naturally crows, the media is agog about the Congress’s rout and the assembly election results being a precursor to what’s to come in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. 
Even the Congress buys into this dirge, and mounts a lacklustre campaign, going into the general elections expecting to lose. But surprise, surprise, it actually ends up winning an election even it did not believe it would.
That, of course, was in 2003-04, when no one expected the National Democratic Alliance to lose the general elections, not even the Congress party. The AB Vajpayee-led NDA seemed unstoppable after the assembly election triumphs in 2003, and cocksure of its chance it even advanced the Lok Sabha elections by six months, hoping to capitalise on its luck.
It’s déjà-vu time for Indian politics. Ten years hence, the script is similar, except that instead of the NDA in power at the Centre it is the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in power. The BJP has once again routed the Congress party in the states, the latter resembles a deer caught in the headlights and if there’s any unanimity among commentators of all hues it is that the summer of 2014 can only get worse for it.
But should it? Can the Congress turn 2014 into 2004? How can it seize the momentum once again?
There’s still five months left for the Lok Sabha elections to come around and if we accept that a week is a long time in politics, then there’s more than adequate time left for the Congress to gets its act together and mount a counter-offensive against the Narendra Modi-led BJP.
It may not still be enough to halt the swing in sentiment in favour of the BJP, which seems set to capitalise on the pervasive anti-Congress sentiment in the country, but it will at least show the Congress has some fight left in it and is not playing possum, its favourite position over the last few months.
Ten years ago I, like everyone else, was sure the Congress stood no chance of winning with Sonia Gandhi in charge. In fact, to my eternal mortification, in the run-up to the 2004 elections I even wrote a piece with 12 questions addressed to Sonia Gandhi. If anyone had told me then that 10 years later I will be writing something dissimilar, I’d have recommended he have his head examined, or be certified, or get confined to an asylum, or all of them.
But such is the unpredictability of India’s elections, with mercurial factors like caste and charisma, dynasty and dogma being the imponderables, that no pundit can claim to know the outcome, even though our talking heads on TV will have you believe otherwise. 
So, here’s my list of 12 things for the Congress president to do ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
  • 1. Take charge of the Congress campaign, lead from the front. The first thing to do is for Sonia Gandhi to take charge of the party right away. She is still the Congress president, yes, but over the last few months, as ill-health has dogged her, she has slowly ceded control to her son. Rahul Gandhi’s time is yet to come, maybe it will in 2019, for now 2014 has to be Sonia’s grand finale. The BJP’s Narendra Modi is itching for a presidential election campaign, and rather than running away the Congress should take him head-on. Within the party there’s no one but Sonia who can do this. 
  • 2. Hit the campaign trail for 2014 right away. So the Lok Sabha elections are months away, but Sonia Gandhi needs to get moving. Physically. Within the week she should draw up a plan to cover ALL the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies before the elections are held. Democracy is synonymous with mass contact, and the time to play Greta Garbo is over, there is no keeping away from the people who elect you. That’s what the original Mrs Gandhi would have done.
  • 3. Firm up alliances. The BJP bested the Congress in 1998 and 1999 thanks to its alliances, and the Congress showed in 2004 and 2009 that it can play the game better. That was then, today the Congress seems to have few friends left. That the NCP is today its steadfast ally should tell you something about the state of affairs. If at all the Congress needs friends, it is in 2014. That election cannot be won without allies beside you.
  • 4. Revive appeal to SC/ST and minorities. Rahul Gandhi has spoken so much about his grandmother. Maybe Sonia should ask herself: Why have the Dalits and the minorities, who formed the bulwark of the Congress’s support based till Indira Gandhi’s time, migrated to others? How did the Congress let them down? If anyone can get them to return, it is Sonia Gandhi. 
  • 5. Governance first. Everyone is unanimous that UPA II has ground to a halt, there is policy paralysis. And the reason for this is the disconnect perceived between the party (Sonia Gandhi) and the government. Even if it only perception, get it corrected by having the government get going in the last few months of its tenure. 
  • 6. Family in government. The last time a Nehru-Gandhi was in the Union Council of Ministers without holding the top job was in Indira Gandhi’s time. Since 2004 we have had this spectacle of the Family remaining aloof from the government, even refusing to be part of it, strengthening perception that either it is the PMship or nothing other for them. Jawaharlal Nehru saw to it that his daughter spent time in government; there is no reason why Rahul Gandhi shouldn’t join the Union Council as a junior minister and learn the ropes of governance, before criticising its actions. 
  • 7. Name the PM candidate. It is clear that Manmohan Singh will not be the Congress’s PM candidate for 2014. But there is no clarity on who it will be either. The time to hide behind the Congress Parliamentary Party decision is long gone; not telling 1.2 billion Indians who will be their PM ahead of the election is an insult to their intelligence.
  • 8. Zero tolerance for corruption. That the UPA is splattered with allegations of corruption is not entirely a media creation, nor is it the handiwork of the BJP. The common perception is that the Congress has always been soft on corruption, something that Arvind Kejriwal has been able to exploit so successfully. If Sonia Gandhi believes the UPA is not corrupt, then she has to convince the voters through credible action, not words. 
  • 9. No shield for family. Talking of which, you can’t give homilies on your government being non-corrupt and also have your state government hound the bureaucrat who redlighted questionable land deals involving your extended family. The reluctance to come clean on Robert Vadra’s business transactions will boomerang once the no-holds-barred campaign unfolds next year. Limit the damage, come clean. Make it clear that no one will be shielded.
  • 10. Reservation for women. The days of over-arching Family charisma and sacrifice carrying the day is long gone. What matters today is the choice of candidates, their electability. Make sure you pick right the right men and women, and take a leaf out of 1984. And, since the Congress president has always advocated the jinxed Women’s Reservation Bill, it will be a good thing to walk the talk by nominating one-third women candidates in 2014. You don’t need a law to do what you believe is right, do you?
  • 11. Open up, speak out. You can google to see what the first family of India’s politics thinks of various issues confronting the nation. Barring some zany utterances by Rahul Gandhi, you will find very little. Why do the Gandhis shy away from engaging with the media, being open about themselves, speaking up on burning topics, rather than leave it to family retainers to convey what they think? Do they realise the damage this has done? Contrast this with its arch-rival’s media overkill.
  • 12. Revive economic reforms. If welfare schemes alone could win the election, then Ashok Gehlot won’t be making way for Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. The point is, the Congress brass seems to believe that batting for the aam-aadmi is antithetical to economic reforms, without realising that without robust economic growth, funding for welfare schemes would be hard to find. By all means swear by the aam-aadmi, but get the stalled reforms engine chugging again!
Would doing the above ensure that the Congress stave off the stiff challenge from Narendra Modi in 2014? That is for the future to reveal; but these will at least show the voter that the Congress still has fight left in it. 
Sonia Gandhi can either step up to the plate, or watch the Family legacy unravel right before her eyes. The choice is hers. 

Why the Gandhis need to come clean on their wealth

December 3rd, 2013 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » the weekend the social media – not the mainstream media, mind – was abuzz with talk of Sonia Gandhi’s net worth being higher than that of Queen Elizabeth. The reason for the online chatter: a feature by the credible and creditable Huffington Post on the wealth of world leaders, which rated Gandhi higher than the British monarch in the pecking order.

But HuffPo was not the first to make such a claim, but like with previous such listings by other news publications that either met with a stodgy silence from the ruling family of India or a redaction, HuffPo has since clarified:

Editor’s Note: Sonia Gandhi and the former emir of Qatar Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani have been removed from this list. Gandhi was originally included based on a listing on a third party site which was subsequently called into question. Our editors have been unable to verify the amount, removed the link, and regret any confusion…

But in this note lies a story. Which is that in the world’s largest democracy, the voters have no clue about the wealth of their netas, not just the Gandhis. But the latter stand out, one, because they occupy the centrestage of Indian politics, and, two, by deed and inference they seem to suggest that their brand of politics is different from the discredited version that we see play out on our television screens day after day, night after night.

But for a matriarch who, it was claimed, was the piloting force behind the revolutionary Right to Information Act which removed the veils of secrecy surrounding the government, she and her offspring, not to mention extended family, like the rest of their political ilk, have been chary of disclosing their wealth to the nation.

As none of the Gandhis are members of the Union Council of Ministers, they are not required to submit updated details of their wealth to the Prime Minister’s Office. Thus, the only details of their wealth is from candidate affidavits for the 2009 election, going by which Mrs Gandhi can never rank higher than the British Queen, unless the latter has fallen on really really bad times.

For these are her details: Cash of Rs 75,000; Rs 28,61,660.89 in a bank account with UCO Bank; Rs 20 lakh in mutual funds; RBI bonds for Rs 12 lakh; 10 shares of Maruti Technical Services Pvt Ltd (unquoted); 500 shares of Western India Tanneries Ltd; NSS Rs 1,99,380; PPF with interesting amounting to Rs 24,88,887.39; jewellery (presumably gold) of 2518.450 gm worth Rs 11,08,100 in 2008; silverware of a whopping 88 kg valued five years ago at Rs 18,37,440.

More interesting are the details of immovable properties owned by her. The 2009 affidavit says she owns three bighas of land in village Dera Mandi and 12 bighas in village Sultanpur, valued at Rs 2,19,300. Then there’s an ancestral property in Italy, valued at Rs 18.05 lakhs.

But, but, but.. the important point here is that either the valuation is at face value, like with mutual funds, RBI bonds etc, or market value as on March 31, 2008. If she was a Union minister, we would have known the current market value of every bit of investment and property she owns.

Even this, it seems, is not a very popular move among our ministers, for as of Tuesday morning 13 ministers are yet to submit their asset details, three months after the deadline expired.

And here is the clincher: The Indian Express points out that a BSP candidate in the 2008 Delhi assembly election had declared his landholding similar to what Sonia Gandhi holds in village Dera to be worth Rs 18.37 crore!

According to a Supreme Court ruling, candidates contesting elections are required to announce the value of their assets, but this seems to be something observed more in breach, most of them preferring to either not mention current details or take shelter behind outdated valuations.

When you think about it, rather than hiding behind legalities, verbal obfuscation and such, the HuffPo report could have been an opportunity for the Gandhi family, including the son-in-law about whose real estate dealings so much has been said and written, to tell the nation just how much they are worth.

The Gandhis, for all their claims, you realise, never ever address the media or the nation. What we hear from them is second-hand information, attributed to ‘sources close to the family’, and even this information is presented to show the family in a good light (like how Sonia wanted the food security bill passed despite being admitted to hospital during the vote) etc, never what the nation wants to know (and one is not talking of a TV show here). Even their reluctance to accept an office of power, you realise, could be tied to their reluctance to come clean about themselves, their wealth.

Could this reluctance also be tied to the family’s projection of themselves as the last bastion of the aad-aadmi’s interests? Do they fear that a full disclosure of their not-inconsiderable assets would go against their carelfully-cultivated pro-poor image?

In the absence of any word from any of them, all one can do is speculate. And add to the not-too-flattering buzz on the social media about them. Even on this medium, you realise, the family has been loath to engage, leaving their frontline defence to party loyalists.

Which is a real pity. For the India that reposed its faith in the Gandhi mystique in 2004, and followed it up again in 2009, is not the same nation that will go the polls next year. It is a changed India, impatient India, questioning India – and the UPA headed by Mrs Gandhi being the primary agent of this change.

It is this India that seeks, needs and wants a clarification from the first family about itself. Debunking it would be disowning the very change they have wrought.

And in the absence of disclosures from them, there will always be a miasma of doubt over their sincerity towards a new and clean brand of politics.

Tarun Tejpal and the implosion at Tehelka

November 21st, 2013 by saisuresh sivaswamy 4 comments », this is my second consecutive post on the media, and while
it was easy to write about The Hindu, writing about what is, to my mind, the lowest
point in the Indian media’s existence is not going to be easy. But let me try
and crystallise my thoughts on l’ffaire Tehelka.


Is Tarun Tejpal the first Indian editor to molest his




But he is the first editor to be exposed for it – and for
that we have to send a silent thanks to the Delhi braveheart who was killed by
her assailants last year and whose valour, to fight them and to survive, has
encouraged a whole lot of women to not shy away from reporting such crimes.


Poor Tejpal belongs, as do I, to an older generation where
editors were known to have their way, and the victim was either cast aside (if
she did not yield) or went on to greater things (if she did).


Many shut up and put out, for fear of consequences.


The nonchalance with with Tejpal dealt with the girl
(according to her narration in her leaked mail to her office) after the first
encounter leads me to believe that it is not the first time he has done such a
thing or has been rebuffed. Likely that earlier the girls did not protest too much
nor pursue the matter, for whatever reason.


How their silence may have been bought is revealed in the
girl’s email after the first encounter: ‘You know how to keep your job’.


The sad thing is that for one Tehelka, there are easily 10
such incidents that are going unreported in the media. Browbeating the girl,
promising her the moon if she complied and kept quiet, or unwillingness on the
part of the girl to invite societal opprobrium on herself by making a noise
about it. It could have been any of these reasons.


After all, the salary cannot be ignored, and jobs for those
identified as ‘troublesome’ – especially by the powerful Editors’ Network – are
not always easy to come by.


For a magazine that railed against such societal injustice,
l’affaire Tejpal could have been a god-sent to set an example to others.
Imagine, instead of spewing crap about laceration etc Tejpal in his email kept
it straight-forward: ‘Yes, I did wrong, I forced myself on a young girl, my
colleague, and I have broken the compact between me and my staff, between me and
my readers, for which I resign from my job and offer myself up for any
punishment the law may hand out to me.’ And instead of stonewalling his deputy Shoma
Chaudhury had said: ‘Resignation accepted, sexual harassment committee has
found Tarun guilty, he will be tried under law.’


Now that would have been leader-like. Instead Tejpal hides
behind purple prose as if he were writing a feature; Shoma compounds the
original sin in her bland email to the office. What did they think they were
discussing, a lunch menu gone bad?


There is no point saying banalities like ‘oh, but sexual harassment
happens everywhere’ and such stuff. It maybe happening more in, say, call
centres, or star hotels, but that doesn’t make the media’s callousness,
unwillingness to recognise the enormity of the crime, and lack of sympathy for
the victim, any more palatable.


After all, journalism is not just another occupation or
profession, however noble the others are. Journalism is a calling. Not for
nothing is it considered, after the Legislature, Judiciary and Executive, the
Fourth Estate. The media is a pillar of democracy, and must comport itself as such.
Never mind the rot in the other pillars. So long as we remain rotten, we will
have lost the moral authority to write about the ills elsewhere.


This is by no means a call to all journalists to emulate the
Maryada Purshottam (though it will help if they do). Far from it. But there are
some basic ground rules that need to be observed. Here are a few of mine:


  • One, do not commit a crime (and rape/sexual harassment is a
    crime). If you do, admit it manlike and face the consequences.
  • Two, remain as objective as you can be (the standards may
    vary from individual to individual, what matters is that you try).
  • Three, don’t accept blandishments, they compromise you and
    your craft.
  • Don’t be a bribe-receiver. Ideally, you should not be a
    bribe-giver, too, though I admit it is quite difficult.
  • Don’t misuse the position you hold in the organisation, and especially
    don’t play power games if you are the boss.
  • Never force yourself on someone, always keep it consensual.
  • Don’t compromise your journalism. You may not be the best
    writer, or best reporter, or best photographer, or best editor. It doesn’t
    matter. What matters is that you did not compromise your trade.

Editors, drunk on their self-importance, are likely to
forget the story of how they began. Unless the owner or the owner’s kin, they
have risen from the ranks and hence know the struggles and disappointments on
the way. Never forget it. If you feel you have, nothing helps like a trip by
public transport instead of the chauffeur-driven limo, or a walk to the local mandi
to buy vegetables. It reorients you about reality.


I have no idea about much of Tejpal’s back story, I first
heard of him when he was at Outlook, where he was tinkering around as Vinod
Mehta’s deputy. Probably he is of the priviligentsia. Maybe he is not, and simply
forgot his early days of struggle once the blood rushed to his loins.


For this, he has to suffer the mortification of seeing
his legacy in journalism being negated, dismissed. All the path-breaking journalism
he and his team have been proud of all these years, will now be ignored. Can
a worse fate befall a journalist?

Ram-ming it through in The Hindu

October 25th, 2013 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » prime minister holds office at the pleasure of the President. 
A newspaper editor holds office at the pleasure of the owner.
No wonder Dileep Padgaonkar thought it fit to draw parallels between his job as the Editor of The Times of India and the prime minister’s.
In a widely reported magazine interview some two decades ago, Padgaonkar had said he was doing the “second-most important job in the country” and he had no interest in the first.
Even making allowances for hyperbole, an affliction that is common to all journalists, from the lowly hack to the vaunted editor, this statement is sure to have put his employer in a quandary.
Samir Jain possibly wondered that as the paymaster he ranks above the editor but heck, in Padgaonkar’s scheme of things he did not figure anywhere! Or maybe he thought that was one helluva promotion for his newspaper.
Whatever it was, shortly afterwards Padgaonkar did not have that job. The nature of the job itself was changed, and incumbents since then either didn’t feel the weight of the job or they have learnt to keep their mouth shut.
Why am I saying all this? Because newspaper owners are a bit difficult to fathom, and I am only talking of the non-playing ones here.
And where the owners are also professional, qualified editors, as in the case with the The Hindu of Chennai, it gets even more difficult for outsiders who are not part of the ecosystem to figure out the lay of the land.
I usually don’t write on media and journalists, because we find that very often the shoe comes and sits on one’s own foot.
Still, for those of us like me who have grown up in Chennai at a particular time, The Hindu is not just a newspaper. It was at once our teacher (it taught me, with my early Tamil-medium schooling, English), our window to the world (it always had superior international coverage, nothing new about it), bulletin board (the joke used to be that if your obituary did not appear in the newspaper you were not dead), oh, it was everything to us.
I remember, in late 1984, when I was called for a job interview by the Times of India in Mumbai, a newspaper I had never seen till then, I hastened to the local ToI office in Gemini to go through their archives (it was this act, and not any hidden talent in a commerce grad, that got me the job, I believe) and being surprised by what I saw.
But, but, this doesn’t look like The Hindu, I remember telling the man there, who could only grin back wryly.
The point I am trying to make is, yes, The Hindu is different, and I don’t mean in appearance alone.
And, judging by the tumultuous events of this week, I don’t think it has changed much. It continues to be different.
I could’ve foretold long ago that the change initiated by N Ram two years back, of shifting the editorial control to non-family journalists (I consciously desist from using the phrase ‘professional journalists’), was doomed to failure.
Because, unlike with other newspapers, at The Hindu, the Family, right from the beginning, were not mere proprietors. They were also its editors, and judging by the paper’s connect in its catchment areas, or its target group to use a current phrase, the Family members did a damn good job!
It’s only when you understand that the Family had invested themselves both financially (as owners) and intellectually (as journalists) in the newspaper for over a century, can you even get a modicum of their deep attachment to the newspaper. Heck, ‘visceral connection’ or ‘umbilical link’ doesn’t come anywhere close to what they must feel for the newspaper.
Given that, it was inconceivable that the Family could have taken a hands-off approach to the newspaper for long. They are not banias (with no intent to hurt any community) in it for the money. Each member of the family has specialised in the newspaper’s various functions, collectively they all run it, and that’s the way it has always been. And that’s the way it will be going ahead.
Given this, why did N Ram decide to bring in non-Family journalists two years back? I have no idea. Possibly he meant well. Perhaps he felt that an outside perspective could help the newspaper when it was being hounded by the cash-rich Times of India. Or, perhaps, as critics say, he only did it to stymie other members of the Family with whom he was involved in a nasty tussle for control.
Whatever, but it’s taken him not too long to realise his folly. Again, I have no idea why he went back on his previous decision. While no one can question the owner’s right to change the setup in the newspaper he owns, I only wish in this instance it was handled better.
All of which brings me to the interface between the editor and the owner. 
An editor’s, or journalist’s, lot is unusual. He is unlike any other employee. The newspaper is his intellectual creation – subject, of course, to the thin red lines drawn by the owner – and it is him, his worldview, being put out day after day, to acclaim or ridicule as the case may be. No wonder, most develop a bloated self-image in which they see themselves as bigger than the newspaper, or the owner.
Which is a tragedy, because ultimately the journalist is just another employee, with no stake in his creation. And, despite what assorted sycophants may say, is not irreplaceable either, however big he may be. The travails of Girilal Jain post-retirement or, more recently, the ouster of MJ Akbar from the Asian Age, are always there to remind us of that. 

24 is surreally real

October 7th, 2013 by saisuresh sivaswamy No comments » story is about 24 hours in the life of a young prime
minister-elect about to be sworn-in.


There’s a sister to the young PM-to-be with uncanny
resemblance to you-know-who.


The prime minister in waiting has a control-freak mother,
who physically reminds you of someone.


He even has a cousin who is his closest advisor.


His father, also a prime minister, was assassinated. Next
target: The son.


There’s a couple of young girls who are kidnapped and taken
to what looks like a ramshackle textile mill.


There’s a don called Bhai who’s behind the assassination
plot – I am sure in the following episodes we will even see the ‘foreign hand’


Really, who wants reality TV when TV can get so surreally reall!


The first two episodes explode at least one myth. That there’s
no intelligent television content being produced because audiences only want
reality shows, dance contests or haranguing news programmes. A straw poll among my friends shows admiration and praise across-the-board (there are minor quibbles, but nothing to derail the show).


Anil Kapoor deserves credit for spotting a surefire hit and
Indianising it. The casting is near-perfect. The first two episodes, spanning
an hour each, run from midnight to 2am, yet to come are 22 episodes.


Anupam Kher makes a brief appearance before being shot dead.
Shabana Azmi, I read somewhere, will make an appearance too. And, I am not alone in
saying I can’t wait for more!

Take a bow, Anil!

Copyright © 2015 India Limited. All rights Reserved.  
Terms of Use  |   Disclaimer  |   Feedback  |   Advertise with us