Archive for May, 2009

Left and wrong

Sunday, May 17th, 2009

May 17, 2009

I used to write a fortnightly column called Hitch Hiker in the Sunday Indian Express. This is the last one.

This is the last ride Hitch Hiker will take, at least for some time. The launching and nursing of a magazine is taking its toll, especially time available for my independent pursuits. It has been a delight, these 15 months, writing this column for The Express, especially for the reader response I have received. Some of you have even invited me to be friends on Facebook. Thank you. I am writing this as the final election tallies are streaming in on television. I think very few of us expected these results, and I think for most of us, they come as a bit of a relief. We were expecting a totally hung Parliament, and even perhaps another election within a year. The Congress combine has fallen just short of majority, but we can be assured of a stable government for the next five years. No one will dare to try to pull down this government, since that will only ensure that the Congress gets a larger number of seats in the next polls. And, very importantly — most of us had little confidence in Rahul Gandhi’s political acumen, and we were wrong. For the astonishing gains the party has made in Uttar Pradesh, Congress has only Rahul to thank. He has managed to revive the party organisation, which had been in a state of coma for more than a decade, and it has delivered.

As I was writing the last sentence, Jyotiraditya Scindia became the first Congressman on TV to demand that Rahul become prime minister. Will he? I doubt it, but we could yet be treated to shameless cringe-inducing supplications from Congress MPs to Rahul, as we saw after the last Lok Sabha elections, when each and every MP pleaded with Sonia to become PM. I sincerely pray that Dr. Singh will not have to go through that ordeal once more, this time with Rahul seated by his side.

The other glad outcome of this election is that the people of India have unequivocally told the Left what they think of them. Mr Prakash Karat, with his Luddite cussedness, has single-handedly decimated his party. We must be grateful to him for that. He has done his nation a much-needed service. Though I do feel sorry for Buddhababu. Granted, the Nandigram and Singur issues were poorly and arrogantly handled by the Left Front government in West Bengal, but if these two messes are the reason why the people of Bengal voted against the Left, then they voted for the wrong reasons; they voted against development and a better future. Emotions overtook reason. This will only weaken the moderates in the party’s state unit, and make the hard-liners stronger. And a resurgent Mamata is a scary thought. She is the perfect politician to sit in Opposition and protest, but the thought of her in power gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t even want to think of what she will do to the Railways, if she gets that ministry, which she wants.

Of course, when the politburo meets to analyse the setbacks, the only conclusion will be that the Left was right and the people of India have made a mistake, that, OK, perhaps, the Left did fail to articulate and communicate its vision properly. Because that is the way Communists are; there is no room for scepticism in Communism.

This was an election that was devoid of any national-level issues. Not the nuclear deal, not national security, not the economy, not secularism, not good governance, not development (though lip-service was paid to all of these by the campaigners, but not, we could make out, with much conviction; they were mannequins mouthing by rote). It was also perhaps the most cynically fought Lok Sabha polls ever. The promises made in both the Congress and the BJP manifesto were as wild as they can get. If a BJP government fulfilled the party’s promises, or if a Congress one goes through with theirs now, the economy would be bankrupted. Both Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa promised that they would make sure that a Tamil Eelam is established in Sri Lanka, a laughable fantasy and a heartless joke on the electorate. There was enough mud-slinging to build a largish Laurie Baker home. Yet nearly 60 per cent of voters trudged to the booths in the middle of a heat wave and cast their lot. India’s elections continue to amaze. And that’s an immeasurably good thing.

So let’s see how things turn out now. We’ll all be watching. Au revoir.

The sounds of Kolkata

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009

May 03, 2009

The Dharmatala traffic junction in Kolkata must be the noisiest place in India. At least it is the noisiest that I have ever been to. Taxis, buses, minibuses honk constantly; conductors of minibuses and private buses shout at the tops of their voices to induce customers and bang on the sides of their vehicles, a dozen at a time: “Gariahat Gariahat!” “Behala Behala!” A hundred pavement hawkers scream at you, peddling wallets, handkerchiefs, nighties, fake international-brand perfumes and everything else under the sun that can be hawked on a pavement. And this tsunami of sound is completed by some small-time politician/ activist shrieking into a microphone over some issue that one can’t decipher in the mad clamour. I am sure if someone measured the decibel level here, it would be the equivalent of what a Boeing 747 sounds like while taking off, with you just 100 m away. I have watched the Rolling Stones perform, standing 20 feet away from the stage with its giant speakers, and trust me, compared with Dharmatala junction, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are timid wankers.

I flee from there to visit my branch office. It’s a heritage Victorian edifice located at the heart of the city’s central business district. The Raj Bhavan and the Eden Gardens are nearby. So are the state secretariat and the beautifully restored riverfront. Almost every large corporation has its Kolkata office within a radius of three km. I stand at the gate of our building with a colleague for nearly half an hour, smoking. After about 15 minutes, it strikes me that in all this time, we have not seen a single person pass by who looks upper-middle class. The highest-priced cars that have passed were Indica-s. There is an Innova parked across the road, but that is a car for rent. I tell my colleague this, and he is not surprised-he has noticed it too.

It’s end of office hours. But none of the men walking back to catch their bus or ferry look happy. They don’t walk, they trudge, their heads bowed, apparently exhausted or in despair. “That man you see will now go home, have a bath,” says my colleague, pointing to a particularly melancholy trudger. “Then he will go over to his nightly haunt-local club or maybe some chai shop-and he will be a different person altogether. He will be lively, he will laugh and joke, all the while discussing Bolshevik poetry or Hugo Chavez, totally useless stuff. That’s what he’ll do. He’ll come back to work tomorrow morning, not do a jot of work, and then walk back again, looking thoroughly depressed, as if the world is plotting against him.” My colleague has been asking for a transfer to Delhi for quite some time now. To perhaps fight boredom, the Innova’s driver drives it out of its parking spot and then reverses into the same spot.

The Lok Sabha elections are coming, and true to tradition, the Left Front’s slogans and billboards are simple, enjoyable and aesthetic. “Pashchim Bangla’s Nano/Gujaratey Kano/ Manush jabab chai”, says a billboard. (Why is West Bengal’s Nano at Gujarat? The people demand an answer). In comparison, the Congress’ posters and billboards—at least the ones I saw—are written in highly Sanskritised Bengali.

On my way back to my hotel, I stop at music megastore Music World on Park Street. Many of the shelves are packed with DVDs of European film classics. Living in Delhi, I didn’t even know that these were available in India. As I browse and pick up a few DVDs, a store attendant—who looks like he is in his teens—walks up. “Sir, I saw you’ve taken Fritz Lang’s Metropolis,” he tells me. “We have his M also.” He finds it, I take it. The next 10 minutes, he stays with me, suggesting a Turkish director I had never heard of, a German film I had been hoping to be able to watch one day, an obscure Argentinian movie. He studies what I choose carefully; the moment I pick up a Renoir, he finds three more Renoirs for me. If I am looking at a collection of Sherlock Holmes films, he is there with a set of Hercule Poirot films. Finally when I smilingly say: “Enough, enough,” he shoves a Chinese film into my carry-bag: “This last one, sir. You must take. My recommendation.” In the car, I count the DVDs. I’ve ended up buying 15.