Battle for Bihar: What’s behind BJP’s confidence?

As the battle to claim Bihar heats up, the gloves are certainly off. The BJP aims to keep its winning streak alive, facing off against a united front of parties seeking to counter the saffron juggernaut on the election battlefield. For voters, it is a clear Modi vs Nitish battle. Nitish Kumar is trying to retain power in the state after the voters gave him a clear thumbs down in the Lok Sabha elections, and he had a bitter turf war with former Bihar CM Jitan Ram Manjhi. The election also sees the re-entry of Lalu Prasad Yadav–the RJD supremo and fodder scam convict attempts to re-test his political mettle. For the Modi-Amit Shah combine, a victory seems essential to boost the morale of the supporters after the monsoon session washout–the might of the BJP’s numbers in Parliament was brought to its knees by the Opposition.
The BJP is confident of victory, so says party spokesperson Devesh Kumar. After spending 20 years as a political journalist working for organisations like the Indian Express, the Economic Times, India Today, Mail Today and NDTV, Devesh Kumar has stepped into the election battlefield. Over the past many weeks, Devesh has travelled the length and breadth of Bihar, holding many meetings in towns and villages to gauge the mood of the public. Privy to the ups and downs of Indian politics, he is confident that the BJP will sweep the state using Prime Minister Modi’s signature development narrative. I sat with him for a chat about the BJP’s election strategy and the tussle between the different parties at the ground level.
Q1: Is the RJD’s tie-up with the JD(U) your prime target when taking on the anti-NDA alliance in Bihar? If not, in which areas are you targeting the Bihar government?
Devesh Kumar: Highlighting the political opportunism behind the JD(U)’s tie up with the RJD, is only part of our overall campaign. We seek the mandate to boost development in Bihar. The BJP is the best option for the state as the JD(U) and the RJD are responsible for 25 years of misgovernance–which is 15 years of ‘jungle raj’ under Lalu Prasad Yadav and 10 years under Nitish Kumar.
When we were allied with the JD(U), the state prospered and was developing in all sectors. But ever since the JD(U) snapped ties with the BJP, growth in the state has plummeted. Law and order has deteriorated as there has been a rise in cases of rape, murders and kidnappings across the state. The JD(U) also insulted the Mahadalit community after it sacked Jitan Ram Manjhi from the post of Bihar CM, just 11 months after he took office. Manjhi’s crime was that he sought to function independently as Chief Minister, but Nitish Kumar wanted a puppet CM.
This was followed by a bitter turf war in which Manjhi was humiliated, and the Mahadalit community has not taken it well. On the JD(U)-RJD alliance, we really don’t need to do much. Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have allied after years of enmity, but the people of Bihar are not fools. Nitish Kumar clearly does not mind sharing stage with someone convicted of corruption. At the Swabhimaan rally, Lalu Yadav’s speech once again played the political game of the backward class vs the forward class, but the voters won’t fall for it. They are angry, and are waiting for the opportunity to vote the JD(U) and RJD out of power and welcome the BJP.
Q2: How can the BJP distance itself from the current Bihar government as it was an alliance partner till 2013? Is your focus on the situation of Bihar after the JD(U) snapped ties with the NDA?
Devesh Kumar: Let’s be clear, Nitish dumped us. We didn’t dump him. There was no development in Bihar till 2005, but things turned around after the BJP-JD(U) government came to power. BJP ministers in the coalition government were the best performers. There was a significant boost in multiple sectors namely transport and health. Numerous roads and highways were constructed connecting the far-flung regions of the state. Citizens had better access to healthcare as the medical infrastructure in the state was significantly expanded. Ever since JD(U) snapped ties with the BJP in 2013, all the growth indices have come down. The Bihar growth story has come to a grinding halt. The voters are aware of that and hold Nitish Kumar responsible.
modi biharQ3: Bihar is famous for being a lab for caste politics. Is that being factored into the BJP’s campaign strategy?
Devesh Kumar: Our focus is only one thing – Development, Development, Development. First time voters in Bihar, the youth of Bihar, are not interested in caste. They are interested in jobs, livelihoods, better education and civic amenities. During my travels across Bihar, I visited many villages, and no matter where you go, despite the caste makeup of a place, people are mainly interested to know how political parties and governments can improve their lives and surroundings. It is evident at the ground level that caste loyalties are getting blurred, and citizens believe that the BJP is their best bet to boost growth in the state.
Q4: Nitish Kumar recently attacked the PM for insulting Biharis. How effective is Nitish Kumar’s positioning as a ‘protector’ of the Bihari people? What traction is it achieving on the ground?
Devesh Kumar:  The late Congress President Dev Kanta Barooah once said that Indira Gandhi is India and India is Indira Gandhi. The voters rebuffed him when Congress lost the 1977 elections and the Janata party came to power. Nitish Kumar is equating himself with Bihari pride, but it won’t work as he’s trying this tactic after almost 2 years of misgovernance in the state. Nitish Kumar once had the image of being a great performer as Bihar Chief Minister, but after he dumped the BJP, the voters moved away from him and more than one election has proven it. We swept the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar where the JD(U) won only 2 seats and we also won the recent MLC polls in the state.
Nitish Kumar himself is not confident about his chances, otherwise why would he create such a rag-tag alliance? He is in fact leaning on Lalu Yadav to shore up support for the assembly elections. Consider the recent Swabhimaan rally. The crowd puller is always the last speaker, as seen in all the rallies where PM Modi has spoken. At the Swabhimaan rally, it was Lalu Yadav who was the last speaker after Nitish Kumar and Sonia Gandhi. Nitish Kumar knew that if Lalu Yadav would have spoken first, people would have left the rally after he finished.
He is clearly not in control of the alliance, it is Lalu Yadav who is in the driver’s seat. Consider the campaigns Nitish Kumar started to galvanise support and counter the BJP. His ‘Har Ghar Dastak’, ‘Parcha Pe Charcha’ and the ambitious ‘Shabd Wapsi’ campaigns have all bombed. They were started and now no one, even the media does not talk about them.
Q5: Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav have formed an alliance after being enemies for many years, and their parties will contest 100 seats each in the elections. Does the public believe they have buried the hatchet?
Devesh Kumar: Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav may have buried the hatchet, but not their supporters. The alliance is very young and has been formed after a rivalry spanning many years. On the ground, JD(U) and RJD supporters are at loggerheads. They are finding it difficult to work with each other, and coordinate their campaigning. Such unions need time to sink their roots into the ground level. JD(U) & RJD won’t be able to resolve their differences and fix the problems in their alliance in time for the elections.
sonia-rahulQ6: You have been in the field for several weeks – and the Congress is now set to contest 40 seats in the elections. What is the activity from their side so far?
Devesh Kumar: I don’t understand what the Congress thinks it can gain by contesting in the Bihar state elections. They have almost no support or presence in the state. In the Lok Sabha polls in Bihar, Congress won only one seat, while in the 2010 state elections they won only 4 seats. God only knows what Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav were thinking allocating 40 seats to the Congress. We also welcome Rahul Gandhi to come and campaign in the state. His presence on the election battlefield will only add to our tally.
Q7: The Congress continues to claim the nation has moved away from the BJP, highlighting the debacle in Delhi. Is a win in Bihar essential to silence them and energise the party cadre across the nation?
Devesh Kumar: Congress has no locus standi to question us on our support base. We may have lost in the Delhi elections, but how many seats did the Congress win in Delhi? Winning no seats should be an embarrassment for India’s oldest political party. They rule the state of Karnataka, but lost the Bengaluru civic polls to us. Our party cadre is energetic. Even after our loss in Delhi, we have won multiple civic body polls in different states including Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Assam, not to mention the recent MLC polls in Bihar. The writing on the wall is very clear. The BJP is going to win the Bihar state elections, and fulfil its promise to boost development and help the state and its people prosper.
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FTII Protests: Students losing perception battle

ftii protestA protest at India’s premier film studies institute over the appointment of Mahabharat actor Gajendra Chauhan has dragged on for over two months. Students boycott classes and agitate, demanding Gajendra Chauhan be removed even before he actively assumes his post as FTII Chairman. The protests escalated recently where the students
prevented the FTII Director from leaving his office, and the Director says the students forcefully interrogated him for hours. Meanwhile, the media is busy debating the idea of freedom and democracy, arguingit is the right of the students to protest, even saying Gajendra Chauhan is not the right fit for the institute.

In every organization, government or private, we know there are people who are not fit for their post, but it is the prerogative of the institution heads to make appointments. If anyone holds that organization to ransom, they will be kicked out without hesitation. Every employee in every news organization, which has been debating the morality of this case, knows this reality.

In the credibility war, the protesting students at FTII are not model candidates. The protesters have been delaying their studies for a long time, living on a government-subsidized campus for an indefinite period of time. They have the right to protest, but the institute has a right to take action against them for falling below the required standards, just like any other educational institute. Protesting students say, force and fear has been used against them, but functionaries of the
institute have accused the students of the same. At the same time, for the media, there has to be a limit to what extent we can actively back the nature of the protest at FTII. Hiding behind the notion of freedom to protest, is not the justification for hampering the studies of numerous other students as well as the functions of a government institution.

ftii protest 2It must be highlighted that students at FTII have been protesting for years over issues ranging from appointments to changes in course structure. They have agitated even when luminaries like Shyam Benegal and Mahesh Bhatt served as FTII chairman. The fact is that this protest is not just about Gajendra Chauhan, he is part of a series of
flashpoints via which some students have found a reason to agitate. Even if Christopher Nolan became FTII chairman, some students will find a reason to agitate, if he amended or tinkered with their course in any way.

This protest has now become political.  It fields an ideological argument re-iterating the age-old line that the Modi-led BJP government has been trying to bulldoze free expression across India. Now these protesters are accusing different functionaries of FTII of lying and being under the influence of the Centre, even denying their roles in perpetuating the systemic problems at the institute. Their argument is now similar to the Opposition during the last Parliament
session – that they will protest, but it is the government’s responsibility to resolve the impasse, not theirs.

They may feel that inviting Rahul Gandhi and other politicians to the protest is essential to keep their fight alive, but they shouldn’t be surprised if the government hardens its position. For AAP and the Congress, the FTII protest is nothing more than a launch pad to attack the Modi government. These parties are not interested in solving the issues at FTII, and even AAP’s Ashutosh’s remark that the protesters are heirs to the JP movement of the Emergency era, shouldn’t fill them with hope.  They should learn from the ex-servicemen protesting for One Rank One Pension. They shooed Rahul Gandhi when he tried to join them at Jantar Mantar, as they wanted to keep the argument between
them and the government. They know inviting other parties will pollute the debate.

The inability of FTII students to keep the protests ‘clean’, by keeping it away from political parties bent on targeting the government, even escalating it by threating functionaries of the institute – has weakened their position in the perception battle. This has turned the focus away from Gajendra Chauhan’s credentials, which is what started the agitation in the first place. The protesters now seem adamant to call the shots at FTII, in an open challenge to the government. But they seem to have bitten off more than they can chew, as the Centre will not remain this patient. Gajendra Chauhan might win this Maharabharat as well.

Nameless

gas-mask-soldier_087726

I am calm and composed in the shadows,
The stillness and silence is empowering,
I shift between the shadows, dodging the light,
They call for me, yelling a name,
But it’s never mine.

My purpose is simple,
I fall a monster with a blade,
I am unmoved by the weak relief of civilisation;
Of robes, debates and claims of humanity,
I serve the blind god with conviction,
She knows me by a name,
But it’s never mine.

The world howls in hate,
For I test its many illusions again and again,
Yet it whispers about me with relief and gratitude,
They say a name,
But it’s never mine

I am a dog of War,
I am consumed by the Berserker trapped inside,
I cannot live in lands of hopes and dreams,
I will perish under a banner I will not know,
They will carve a name on my tomb,
But it’s never mine.

I wander this desolate plane,
I understand it and it understands me,
They cry and they rejoice over my actions,
But the dead remember no glory,
The dead remember no sins,
Hero, monster, saviour, they say,
But these names are never mine.

Not Just the Opposition, the News Media has tasted blood

sushmaExternal Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje’s aid to Lalit Modi has energised some Opposition parties, namely the Congress, to counter PM Modi’s ‘scam free’ year in power.

Multiple press conferences by Congress leaders are trying their best to sustain the issue. Former union ministers are slamming Swaraj and Raje, accusing them of undermining the  Enforcement Directorate investigation against the former IPL commissioner. They have even accused PM Modi of being hand-in-glove with Lalit Modi, conflating the IPL scam with Swaraj and Raje’s actions, making allegations of a quid pro quo despite any evidence of a money trail.

This is natural in politics to counter the might of the BJP, which has maintained a relatively positive image regarding governance in the last one year. The Centre has not buckled under pressure, and even hit back with a reality check that several Congress leaders have rubbed shoulders with Lalit Modi in the past.

cong pcBeyond the politics, the news media seems to have tasted blood. After the Congress offered a scam feast on a silver platter, even press conferences laden with controversial sound bites from union ministers like Beni Prasad Verma, the Modi government has made the news media starve. The last one-year has been packed with achievements of the Modi government with mini-controversies over sound bites which don’t survive more than a few days in the news cycle. Swaraj and Raje’s case has wet the news media’s appetite, reflected by the constant coverage, the long, loud, righteous tone debates, and the standard line of questioning with the repetition of the basic facts to keep the allegations alive – creating more room for speculation and less reporting.

The news media seems to be in a vengeful mood as the Modi government has effectively managed political communication ever since it came to power. With the BJP’s dominance on social media where it speaks directly to the voters, the party has reduced its dependence on the conduit of the mainstream media, a fact the big media houses are painfully aware of. On almost every news channel, there are shrieks over why isn’t ‘serial tweeter’ PM Modi speaking up on the issue, despite clarifications from senior ministers in the government. There have even been attempts to compare UPA’s multi-crore scams with the Lalit Modi row, with the simple thread that the PM’s office is silent on the issue. Yet, unlike the UPA era – there is no public mobilisation against the Centre, no public protests or online campaigns against corruption, with the outrage contained in the political arena, where even the Opposition is divided.

mediaWhile Congress is there to prop up the coverage, the news media even looked to Twitter, seeking its blessings. However, it was not cooperative for long. Twitter discussed the story the first few days, but attacked the news media for conflating the Lalit Modi row into a full-fledged ‘scandal’. The number one hashtag which emerged just a few days after the story broke was #ShameonTimesNow followed by #IStandwithSushmaSwaraj. The news media was primarily attacked for not highlighting how leaders across political parties have links with dubious personalities including Lalit Modi and even extended favours to them from positions of power. The focus on Sushma Swaraj and Raje has come across as a media witch-hunt.

The news media and the Congress can at least take credit for pressuring the ED to increase the speed of the probe into Lalit Modi. However, in the court of public opinion, which the news media dearly values, the coverage of the controversy has got a thumbs down. The news media and Congress’ blitzkrieg against the Modi government has not been digested well. The bottom line of the case is that a man was helped by the government to be with his ailing wife. Raje’s case has come across as a non-issue. The recommendation letter has failed to make the ‘impropriety’ argument a serious one as Lalit Modi is not public enemy number one and this is reflected by the absence of public outcry. It is extremely difficult to generate even manufacture public outrage over this case.

Sushma Swaraj’s Twitter hotline: Part 2

sushma 2It has been over two weeks and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj continues to face flak from the Congress party and the news media over the Lalit Modi case. Yet, the political assault has not deterred the union minister from helping normal Indian citizens who ‘tweet’ her their problems. Beyond the political skirmishes in newsrooms across the nation, Sushma Swaraj continues to elevate the stature of the MEA, through her ‘direct governance’ approach. Mumbai-based professional Neha Parikh spoke to me about how the External Affairs minister recently came to her family’s aid.

CNN-IBN: What predicament did your family face that prompted you to reach out to Sushma Swaraj?

Neha Parikh: My parents were returning to India from their first international trip to Europe on May 29. While travelling from Rome to India via Istanbul, my mother’s passport got lost in transit and my parents were stranded at Istanbul Airport for a day. My parents are senior citizens and I was extremely worried about their situation. My family members and I were trying to do whatever we could but nothing productive happened.  A friend suggested that I should tweet about the situation to Sushma Swaraj. At that time, I had no knowledge of how helpful it could be, but nonetheless I posted a tweet to Sushma Swaraj and appealed to her for help.

CNN-IBN: How prompt was the help from the MEA?

Neha Parikh: Within a few hours, I saw that Sushma Swaraj had favourited my tweet. Soon after, the Indian embassy in Turkey got in touch with my father over the phone and assured him of all assistance. By the evening of May 30, the Indian Embassy in Turkey issued emergency travel documents to my parents. They were able to board the flight and fly back to India that very night.

CNN-IBN: Would you say Sushma Swaraj has set a new standard of governance as External Affairs Minister?

Neha Parikh: Definitely. The use of digital media by the government to connect with the common man and resolve their problems in this manner is something unheard of in our country. It feels so great to reach out to the External Affairs ministry directly in times of distress without having any intermediary in between.

CNN-IBN: What message do you wish to convey to Sushma Swaraj?

Neha Parikh: I am very grateful to Sushma Swaraj and her ministry for such prompt response and all the help.

Sushma Swaraj’s Twitter hotline

Sushma Swaraj’s Twitter hotline

SushmaWhile Sushma Swaraj faces flak from the Congress party and the news media over the Lalit Modi case, the External Affairs minister continues to help normal Indian citizens who ‘tweet’ her their problems. Beyond the political skirmishes in newsrooms across the nation, Sushma Swaraj has elevated the stature of the MEA, through her ‘direct governance’ approach interacting with voters via social media to address their problems. Delhi-based businessman Monty Chadha spoke to me about how Sushma Swaraj recently came to his family’s aid.

CNN-IBN: What predicament did your family face that prompted you to reach out to Sushma Swaraj?

Monty Chadha: On Friday June 19, my sister and her family were detained at the airport in Cape Town since my niece was not carrying her birth certificate. Indian passport holders ideally should not be carrying any such document as the date of birth and parents’ name is mentioned on the passport itself. But apparently, South African authorities have made it mandatory from June 1 to carry birth certificates to prevent human trafficking. The travel agent in India did not mention any such thing. My sister started panicking as her flight boarding time was approaching. My nephew sent a WhatsApp message to me stating the problem. I called up my sister and she told me about what was going on. While I was thinking about whom to contact I just happened to tag a tweet to the MEA and Sushma Swaraj appealing for help.

CNN-IBN: What help did the MEA provide?

Monty Chadha: Sushma Swaraj contacted me over Twitter by first favoriting the tweet within 5 minutes. I didn’t understand it at first, as I am new to Twitter. I called my sister again and asked if the authorities had allowed her to board. The MEA had called up my sister assuring her that someone from the Indian High Commission in
Pretoria will get in touch. MEA took about 15 minutes to call my sister after the tweet. The Indian High Commission sorted the issue out and my sister and her family boarded the flight soon after.

CNN-IBN: Would you say Sushma Swaraj has set a new standard of governance as External Affairs Minister?

Monty Chadha: Of course I would feel it’s a new benchmark as I had a first hand experience. I was later talking to my younger brother about how earlier we would not have even imagined getting through to the MEA
or any higher authority. My family’s problem was solved all thanks to Sushma Swaraj and social media.

CNN-IBN: What message do you wish to convey to Sushma Swaraj?

Monty Chadha: I would like to thank her and wish her all the best to continue the good work.

The Artist of the Soul

awakening

She sets the stage on fire,
Her impish charm is infectious,
Her words spur exhilaration and passion,
Eliciting laughter and sensation,
Even as the music fades away.

The cello plays a heavenly tune,
Her childlike smile turns to a passionate call,
Her words float on the wings of emotion,
Her guitar strums with her powerful devotion,
Her feet tap the tunes of her heart.

The music flows through her body,
The crowd watches in awe,
Losing themselves to the vision,
Soaking in her rhythm and passion,
Wondering how to capture her spirit.

The pianist lays down another tune, and she complies,
Recalling the joy of crafting her words,
Her lilting notes mesmerize,
Yet she, her eyes closed, is lost
In a world far away from my understanding,
Radiating her spirit as she roars and whispers.

Her voice rises like waves on the sun,
The instruments match her energy and the room comes to life,
Detached from the tedious world, all of us are alive,
Suspended in the moment’s bliss.

But we awaken as the tune fades,
The dimensions of the room become painfully real,
We realize, we are common.
But SHE, she is unique, special,
A phoenix in a crowd of tired souls.

Her soft voice calms the fires she ignited,
The crowd hangs on every utter,
Every strum of the guitar,
Every tap of her feet.
A spiritual buzz as the cold alcohol settles.

Who are you?
Where do you come from?
Where have you been?

You infused life in us wanderers,
Showed us joy that we’ve yearned for,
A happiness we can hold onto,
To melt away life’s recurring blues.

You are a true artist of the soul.