Romanticism of Student Activism!

As the rage over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) spread across many parts of the country in the last week, few things became apparent. In India, we do not know to protest peacefully. Any protest quickly goes out of control and ends up inflicting colossal damage to public property. Second, parties try their best to tap into the raw energy of the students to further their own cause. In India, many of our campuses are already highly politicised. Campuses are clearly identified with one political front or the other.  And political parties use these as fertile grounds to advance their agenda.

The enduring images of these protests this week, apart from the burning buses are the ones where we saw students participating in big numbers in these protests in big cities. Commentators of the liberal variety have been gleefully talking of the heralding of “New India” when they saw students in the forefront of an agitation in many parts of the country, otherwise normally restricted to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).  To me, this is not a very reassuring sign. As a nation still trying to battle huge problems of poverty, I firmly believe that the youth have got better things to do apart from taking part in political street battles.

A rebellious streak usually runs among all, in the college student age. And along with that naiveté too! And we all have been through this. An opportunity to bunk arduous classes, meet like-minded groups & carry out endless animated discussions, create posters, carry placards, burn candle lights, shout anti-establishment slogans and participate in symbolic processions has a ring of romanticism around it. And going further, taking selfies & groupies, posting on Instagram & other social media accounts and watching the mounting of likes, comments & Emoji’s, leave in oneself a sense of some great achievement. And in these times of societal approval by social media among youngistan, the temptation is high not to miss such occasions, whether you understand the cause and effect properly or not. Whether you believe in the cause or not.

A short clip of a young girl (probably a NRI) is going viral on social media where she talks of being there in Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest against the CAB which she felt was discriminatory using her liberty, freedom etc….and when she is asked to explain how the Act is discriminatory, she just smiles off and excuses herself. At least that’s what the clip reveals. I feel sorry for the girl for being trolled like this for her ignorance. I don’t think she should be singled out like this. There would be many others who in spite of living in India having limited knowledge on the Cause and Effect of CAA. Therefore, just picking on her is a bit unfair.

In India, particularly if you are from the middle class which is a big pie in itself, your only calling card for a better future is education. One’s stepping stone for jobs is the degree what you have. There could be exceptions of few individuals who made it big “without taking shelter in schools/colleges even during rains” to use a popular Tamil cliché. But that’s not the rule. I can bet that most of the students  have a better lifestyle than their parents only because their parents studied well, helped themselves with good careers and reached a stage where they could afford a better life for their wards.

As a college student, if you are not well off, if you are not dependent upon your educational credentials to find a career and if you are not wanting to become a career politician, it doesn’t really make sense to ignore your studies and waste time indulging in campus politics and activism. One would site examples of a Sitaram Yechuri or a Brinda Karat or a Arun Jaitley as role models who made it big in politics after being student activists. But for every successful Arun Jaitley there are at least ten other nameless individuals who fell by the way side without completing their studies in time.

There are other issues as well. It just takes one provocation for what seemingly starts as a peaceful protest to turn violent. Even if you are a peace loving dove with no intentions of fermenting trouble, you could get in the thick of action involuntarily, beaten up black and blue and even locked up. One police entry on the wrong side is enough to deny you a passport. In these days of prying camera phones, you may just get captured randomly by random people who share these pictures in social media. And who knows? You could be the next viral sensation but for all wrong reasons!

And this is exactly what happened to two young girls from Kerala – Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Aysha Reena who are studying in Delhi and participated in the anti-CAA protests. When the pictures of them protecting their male friends from the menacing lathis and standing up to the might of the police went viral, they were hailed as “Sheroes” by the ever over- enthusiastic media, only to climb down in a few days when their now deleted social media profiles revealed their radical faces! I am quite certain that in a country like India, this episode would shadow them where ever they go.

At the risk of sounding extremely conservative, the point I am trying to drive at is – if you are a college student from poor or middle class, just focus on activities that will enhance your employability. That would mean studies and probably other creative pursuits. I know of bright students who got distracted by campus politics and ruined their lives. And for once no one should think that I am saying all this keeping the current CAA/NRC student protests in mind. I held the same view during the Chennai Jalli kattu protests as well.

Its’ good to be politically aware and have an opinion as a student. But taking it to street every time for a political cause sounds romantic. And that’s about it.  Unless you are a wannabe Kanhaiya Kumar who wants to be a career politician. Which makes sense.

CAE of CAB/CAA!!

In the last one week, what was known as CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) got passed in both the houses of the parliament and became CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) when the President put his stamp on it. However, as we have been seeing in the last few days, the CAE (Cause and Effect) of this has been different in different parts of the country and among different sections of the society.

In Delhi and in states like West Bengal, Kerala and even parts of Uttar Pradesh, the opposition to the Act stems from the point that the act is discriminating against Muslims. This was what was being echoed by the opposition in parliament and by and large by liberals in the media. The narrative here is that the Act goes against the “Idea of India” as enshrined in the constitution which is “Secular” in not singling out a religion on any ground.  On this pretext, as expected there is a large resentment among Muslims and of course among political parties who depend upon their votes and among liberals. So we see huge street protests in Delhi, Kolkata and in Kerala. As I write this, the protests have gone violent and turning into a mob fury!

In some states like Tamil Nadu for example, the disapproval to the Act is because, it has only included persecuted minorities from three countries namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while leaving out Tamils from Sri Lanka who are minorities there. The opposition on this count is less intense and is mostly restricted to TV debates, newspaper columns and not much on the streets.

The third category is how the Act has been seen in the North Eastern states like Assam and Tripura. Here, the reaction has been more virulent with fire spreading on the streets with little signs of slowing down. And the cause for the same is completely different from what it is in say, West Bengal. The fundamental issue is that people here see this Act as going against the spirit of Assam accord by opening up the states to foreign illegal refugees of all religions. The opposition here is more about protecting regional identity and space and less about Nationalistic considerations.

And then there are other parts of the country where the reaction is muted and thereby letting one to deduce that the people are neutral on the Act.

In Engineering and Quality Management, “Cause and Effect Analysis” is an oft repeated technique to look at all possible causes for a particular effect. This technique was pioneered by Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese professor who later came to be renowned as a Quality Guru. The corner stone of this technique is to brainstorm with as many relevant people as possible and list up all possible causes (Man/Material/Method…) that could lead to a Quality problem.

In the case of CAB/CAA, at the outset it could be argued that probably the Act was required to correct a historical festering issue. However, from the kind of reactions which have emerged, it is clear that the government has not thought through the ramifications of the Act in different parts of the country. Hence I would conjecture that the government has not done a proper “Cause and Effect” analysis on the issue by involving a cross section of domain experts to list up what could be the reactions to the Bill.  It is extremely surprising that on a crucial move like this, perhaps in the interest of confidentiality, the government did not discuss the bill and its implications enough before bringing it to the parliament.

The kind of homework and alacrity the government had shown when it went about annulling of Article 370 is clearly missing this time. Otherwise, Assam and parts of North East where BJP has its own governments would not be burning today. Today, the home minister is busy assuaging one and all that the government will address all genuine concerns of the North East states.  And I believe that a roll back is in the offing soon as the government goes about dousing the fire.

Loyalists to the government argue that CAB was clearly part of the BJP manifesto and hence now that it has got the mandate, it is only going about ticking off items one by one from the manifesto. While one cannot pick too many holes in this argument, one cannot avoid asking if this was really a top priority at this point in time.

Ever since May 30th 2019 when this government took over the reins for the 2nd time, two ministries have hogged the headlines, for different reasons. First, the home ministry under a very aggressive minister – Amit Shah, has been busy with issues around Kashmir. Annulling of Article 370 and 35A, splitting of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then handling the fall out of these moves have kept the home ministry under constant attention. Second, the finance ministry under Nirmala Sitharaman has been on the receiving end of the media, opposition and the industry due to the tanking economy. Quarter after Quarter the GDP has been touching new lows, not to mention of other economic indices as well, except perhaps the Sensex!

To be fair, the finance minister who is considered a green horn in the ministry has been earnest. Though she comes across as haughty, truth be told, she has been busy meeting a cross section of opinion leaders in trying to understand what needs to be done to fix the economy. It is perhaps her bad luck that she was thrown in to the circus ring when the Indian economy was on a decline. Some steps have been taken but they have not yielded any visible results.

Having seen the versions of many economists who have been critical of the economy, one thing is clear. The experts are split down the middle as to whether the problems in the Indian economy are structural, cyclical or a bit of both. So, it would be good for the finance minister to first do a detailed Cause and Effect analysis of the Economy on top priority, understand the causes first and then go about fixing them.  If these are not addressed before the next budget time frame, once again the fabled “India Story” will miss the bus as it did many times in the past!

That is why, it is time the government also goes about ticking off the manifesto points on issues related to the economy on SOS basis instead of just focusing on home affairs. Here, I feel that the finance minister needs political heft which can be provided only by the Prime Minister. And it is time he does that. What was that? “Modi hai to mumkin hai”, right???

Pic courtesy: Indiatimes

Book Review – 2019 How Modi Won India!

In this 201st post of mine for this blog, I thought of doing a review of the book ‘2019 How Modi Won India’, written by ace newsman Rajdeep Sardesai which hit the shelves a few days ago. This book is almost like a sequel to Rajdeep’s very first book, which he wrote after 2014 General elections. Titled ‘2014: The Election That Changed India’, it was engrossing from start to finish, peppered with personal anecdotes not just about that election but around events that happened right from the time he started his journalistic career way back in the 90’s. So, it is with heightened expectations that one sat down to read this new book to gain insights into the 2019 elections, hitherto not seen in public domain. At the onset, after finishing the book, I must say that I was not disappointed.

As introduction, Rajdeep gives an overview of how Modi managed to win India in 2019. He attributes the victory to 13 Ms (Modi, Machine, Media, Money, Messaging, Marketing, Mobile, Middle Class, Millennials, Majoritarianism, Muscular Nationalism, Masood Azhar and Mahagathbandhan), 2 Ws (Welfarism and WhatsApp) and a GK (Gharib Kisan). Frankly, I think that many of the factors here are double counted and one can actually put it down to set of fewer unique Ms.  For example, Messaging is part of Marketing. Welfarism is linked to Gharib Kisan. Muscular Nationalism can be clubbed with Masood Azhar. Mobile and WhatsApp are basically the same.

Having setting the context, the usual method is to go about detailing all these factors one by one. Thankfully, Rajdeep avoids that route as that would have been less interesting and by now, we have read quite a bit about most of these factors. Instead, Rajdeep chronicles in detail, with back stories, the key events right from the swearing in ceremony in 2014 leading up to the last day of polling in 2019, which had some impact on how Modi eventually won India in 2019.  I liked the way Rajdeep segues from one chapter to another with a hook to end the chapter to the upcoming topic, a style which he used very well in his first book as well!

In his 2014 book, Rajdeep had shared many conversations which he had with political leaders including Narendra Modi when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister throughout his career, to drive home his points. However, this book is less anecdotal and more of research and reportage. It has very few references of conversations with leaders from the current political regime except for late Arun Jaitley with whom the author enjoyed good chemistry. Rajdeep makes it a point to inform us that in spite of being a leading prime time anchor, he still spends the mornings often at the Parliament and so one did hope to read more personal anecdotes and conversations with key players. But that is not to be.

The author himself admits with a tinge of regret that he has not been able to speak to the Prime Minister since May 2014 and probably he is now become a persona non grata in the current regime. This sort of re-affirms the now touted model of media management of the Modi regime.  That of cultivating its own set of favourites and maintaining a report card on “positive” and “negative” journalists. Rajdeep says this is very much akin to the “Big Boss” TV Serial style where everything and anything is watched and accounted for. Being tight lipped and catching the media unawares of what’s in the offing, most of the time is also part of this method.

As an example, on Demonetisation, Rajdeep candidly admits that he and his team did not have a whiff of what the Prime Minister was going to address the nation on 8th November, 2016. He had actually lined up a few defence experts for the prime time discussions assuming that the address was related to some strike on Pakistan!  There have been other instances too where, the media did not get a wind of what’s cooking within the Modi Sarkar.

In a chapter wholly on media titled ‘Prime Time Prime Minister’, in addition to detailing how Modi and the government ensures maximum eye balls for themselves, Rajdeep also turns into a strident media critique, a hat we see him don often these days! Rajdeep tears apart his own fraternity which he feels has lost its moral compass and yearns for a time when media would not just be a lap dog for the government in power.

If 2014 was all about a one man army called Modi, in this book, Rajdeep makes a distinction. BJP is now not just about Modi but, Modi and Amit Shah, the Jodi No.1 of Indian politics. Even the cover design of this book drives this point featuring both Modi and Shah prominently.

The author credits the messaging strategy of BJP as one of the key elements that drove its victory. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar! So we should take it that BJP’s messaging was on point. However, I thought that compared to 2014 when a single point message of Abki Baar Modi Sarkar was flogged and many micro campaigns were woven around this central message, in 2019, BJP dabbled with different messages lime Modi hai to Mumkin hai, Main bhi Chowkidar and so on even till the initial rounds of elections till it boiled down on Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar theme.

In the book, Rajdeep claims that the Prime Minister who has a penchant for coming up with interesting acronyms had come up with another one – JAM to convey the coming together of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhar and Mobiles. As per me, the phrase ‘JAM trinity’ was first used by the then Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian in the Economic Survey report of 2014-15.  This was then widely adopted by the Government and the media to talk about this phenomenon which was bringing a huge change in the livings of the marginalised.

If you were Rajdeep and one who felt that you have fallen out of favour with this regime, you would be tempted to write a book that is more of an eulogy of the current regime and in particular of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. After all, Modi, Shah and the BJP did win the elections with an emphatic margin and there were enough reasons to talk high of. To his credit, Rajdeep does a fine balancing act, commending BJP, Narendra Modi and other leaders where required and equally being critical where he feels so. In fact, you get the impression that he has tried hard to present himself as a “Neutral” journalist, a species which is almost extinct these days. So, in the entire book, the writing yo-yo’s between “on the one hand, on the other hand”, “this and having and said that” format!

Far away from what is shown on TV and social media, the book gives fascinating insights of how the BJP election machinery works. The many faceless back room boys who take up tasks in mission mode and ensure they are accomplished, the many micro programmes which the party undertook at booth level and so on to win the 2019 elections emphatically have been outlined in detail. It is clear that it is these micro tactics more often than not are missed by journalists when they do ground reports during election times because of which they get the extent of the ‘hawa’ wrong.

While on this, I would have liked if Rajdeep had spent a chapter on the whole business and dynamics of opinion/exit polls in India. These continue to be an enigma. Even in the run up to the 2019 polls, media kept saying that it was a “wave less” election and it being “a sum total of 545 individual battles”! Most of the opinions based on ground reports suggested that BJP would be short of majority and have to tie up with new allies to form the government. What happened eventually though was a bigger win than 2019 for BJP and NDA which none predicted!

If you are a news buff and a current affairs watcher, ‘2019 How Modi Won India’ is a must read for not just the political stories but the granular detailing on what goes behind an election win in India!

Post Script: While talking of the many M’s that mattered, Rajdeep prefaces this book with the narration of another M – Madison Madness. It’s more like the author’s Mea Culpa (there you go, another M!) for what happened way back in September 2014 when he got involuntarily involved in fist fights with frenzied Modi supporters in Manhattan! (The “M” Madness doesn’t seem to end!)

2019 How Modi Won India

Rajdeep Sardesai

HarperCollins Publishers India

355 Pages, Rs 699