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Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that politicians come late for meetings. I am there well in advance, of course, for my appointment with the chief minister of Delhi. And then Sheila Dikshit springs a surprise on me by appearing 20 minutes before the scheduled time. But then, the lady — like that old ad for a ketchup brand — has always been different.

We are sitting in her living room in her official residence in central Delhi on a Sunday morning. “So tell me, what would you like to know,” she asks as she settles down on a cushy sofa.

A lot of things, actually. For one, the criticism that her government has been facing for its tardy work on the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Or why Manu Sharma, convicted of killing Jessica Lal, was out on parole. Or, indeed, how she ducks all the knives that are chucked at her by her own party men.

But all that will come later. To begin with, I ask her how she looks back at her three-term tenure that started in 1998. “Thrilling, exciting and challenging,” she replies succinctly. Not one loose word there. No wonder she’s called a smart politician.

But she wasn’t born with a ballot paper in her mouth in Punjab’s Kapurthala seven decades ago. Her family was apolitical — but she was drawn into politics after she married a bureaucrat called Vinod Dikshit. His father, Uma Shankar Dikshit, was a home minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet. Widowed young, Sheila Dikshit started helping her father-in-law in administrative jobs. She also worked as secretary of the New Delhi-based Garment Exporters Association. But it was when Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister and launched a search for people he could identify with that she fought her first election.

She stood and won from Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh in 1984, and was appointed Parliamentary affairs minister in 1986. She was later made a minister of state in Rajiv Gandhi’s Prime Minister’s Office — a portfolio created for the first time.

“It was a huge learning experience working with Rajivji. He was extremely progressive and farsighted. Our thought process matched,” Dikshit recalls.

Is it the same working with Sonia Gandhi? “I share a very close, personal and political relationship with her,” says Dikshit. “She is an iconic figure for me,” she adds, looking at an artistic photo frame, kept on the table in front of her, which holds an old photograph featuring the smiling faces of the two.

Dikshit, however, had a falling out with the Gandhis after she lost the 1989 election from Kannauj. The political grapevine has it that the distancing happened because of Uma Shankar Dikshit’s demand that she be made the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. She was denied a ticket by Gandhi in the 1991 election but was finally rehabilitated by Sonia, who saw her as an ally in her fight against P.V. Narasimha Rao.

But her proximity to 10 Janpath has never stopped her detractors — and there are quite a few in her party — from attacking her. Among her top critics are party leaders Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler. Her opponents have often described her as an “outsider”.

“I never felt intimidated by such comments. One can call anyone an outsider but it is the people who elect you and decide your fate,” says the suave, English-speaking politician, an alumna of Delhi’s Convent of Jesus and Mary and Miranda House.

Sometimes, though, Dikshit is accused of making political gaffes. After Delhi journalist Soumya Vishwanathan was killed while driving home from work late at night, the chief minister’s reported remark “One should not be adventurous” drew flak from many. She came under attack recently for Manu Sharma’s parole, the request for which had been passed by the Delhi government. It was claimed that Sharma needed parole because his mother was unwell. But the “ailing” mother was seen at a media briefing in Chandigarh, and the son was found partying in Samrat Hotel’s nightclub Lap in Delhi.

Diskhit does not believe the Sharma incident embarrassed her in any way. “Why should it be embarrassing for me? I did nothing that was not to be done legally. I have been framed for being a political figure,” she replies. “But what Manu Sharma did was wrong. He shouldn’t have left Chandigarh,” Dikshit adds.

She speaks in her characteristic voice — soft and well modulated — but it carries conviction. In fact, her persona oozes confidence. The image of the chief minister in her trademark tussar block printed saris, worn in winter, or thin-bordered cotton print saris in the summer, is that of a favourite aunt — who may trip up now and then but is both pleasant and efficient.

We move on to the topic of saris. Dikshit is known to frequent handloom melas in the capital in search of good saris. She’s also picked up cotton saris from her earlier visits to Calcutta. “I used to frequent Calcutta when my father-in-law was the Governor of West Bengal in 1976-77. I have always been fascinated by Bengal’s art and culture but sadly the flavour has got lost in the past two decades,” says Dikshit, taking a quick potshot at the Left Front government in Bengal, while not naming it.

But despite her party’s differences with the Left, she says she has high regard for her Bengal counterpart — chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. “I find him very accommodating and understanding. He has modern and progressive thinking,” says Dikshit, who worked with Bhattacharjee in the Central Advisory Board of Education during Arjun Singh’s tenure as the human resources development minister. Even as she talks about her “rapport” with the Left leader, she strives to point out that her appreciation for his rival Mamata Banerjee’s “hard work” is no less.

“I am thankful to her that she has upgraded a couple of stations in Delhi that needed urgent renovation. Things have moved pretty fast after she took over as railway minister,” feels Dikshit.

Not only that, Banerjee has also agreed to meet the Indian Olympic Association’s demand for a special train to popularise the Commonwealth Games of 2010, an event surrounding which Dikshit’s government has been roundly lammed for not completing the scheduled work — stadia, roads, hotels and so on — within the stipulated time. “I am nervously excited about the event,” she confesses. But “the stage will be set for action on time”.

And once the mega event gets over, she plans to go on a long vacation. As she talks about her travel plans, Dikshit suddenly recalls one of her “adventure trips” in Europe with her husband way back in the late 1960s.

“It was winter, freezing cold, and we were driving from Italy through the Alps to Britain. Neither of us realised that there was a car heater, which had to be turned on. A friend later told us how we could have avoided the bone-chilling cold in Switzerland. But by then, we had already driven for more than 12 days without the car heater. Whenever my husband and I recalled the incident, we had a good laugh at our foolishness,” she says and laughs again.

But it was not easy for this daughter of Sikh and Hindu Punjabi parents to marry a Hindu Brahmin. When her husband, a graduate of St Stephen’s College in Delhi, first told her that his parents would not accept her because she was from a different caste, her reaction was — “Oh my God! Is caste so important?”

But eventually the caste difference was overshadowed by love, and in 1961, a year after Dikshit got inducted into the IAS, she tied the knot with him at the age of 23.

“Though I am not a religious person I did perform a couple of pujas to keep my mother-in-law happy,” recalls Dikshit who, in her early days in marriage, had to cover her head with the traditional ghoonghat in front of her in laws.

Now, at 71, Dikshit is a bit of a loner. She stays alone in her sprawling government bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi. After a long day at the secretariat, she likes to bury herself in a book. And her favourite book, till date, is Alice in Wonderland.

She likes doing up her house — and the drawing room is tastefully adorned with mirrors, vases, picture frames and pots, all placed in strategic corners. “If I were not a politician, I would have been an interior designer,” she says.

A movie buff, she also drops by at the nearest theatre for late-night shows. Her all-time favourite is Yash Chopra’s romantic flick Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ) — a film that she has watched 15 times.

But it is not Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ who has caught her fancy. “My latest crush is Shahid Kapoor,” she says skittishly.

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

 

You can’t accuse her of not moving with the times. We did say she was different!

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Drawn to India by a ‘homecoming’ campaign, Pakistani Hindus, having escaped discrimination and poverty, feel betrayed.

Before the 2014 vote, India launched a 'homecoming' campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]
Before the 2014 vote, India launched a ‘homecoming’ campaign aimed at providing protection for persecuted Hindus, but many say they are treated as second-class citizens [Sonia Sarkar/Al Jazeera]

He has stressed upon development and democracy, but it remains to be seen whether he will he abjure faith-based politics.

 

Sitting in his limousine, the Indonesian president, Joko Widodo or Jokowi, as he is popularly known as, rolled out a 32-second-long video message on Twitter on June 10. He said in Bahasa, “Let’s join hands, unite, and put our mind and energy to build a developed Indonesia.”

Ever since Widodo got re-elected for a second term last month, his focus has been on development. But soon after his re-election, he faced disruptions. As the final election results were declared, riots broke out in the capital city of Jakarta for over two days, killing eight people and injuring seven hundred others. Early reports suggest that apart from a group of paid thugs, members of the militant Islamist group, Front Pemuda Islam, attacked the police with rocks and petrol bombs.

Interestingly, these hardline Islamists supported Jokowi’s opponent, the former army commander, Prabowo Subianto. The grand imam of FPI, Habib Rizieq Shihab, addressed his election rally from Saudi Arabia via video call. Analysts call Prabowo and Shihab ‘bedfellows’, united by a common enemy — Widodo.

Widodo’s win could create trouble for the FPI. Its status as a legally registered social organization expires today, and there are chances that its appeal for re-registration would be rejected. Public pressure is mounting on authorities to do so. A petition called ‘Stop the Permit of FPI’, filed by Ira Bisyir at Change.org, has received over 4,81,665 signatures so far.

In this last term, analysts say that Widodo would give a fresh push to his liberal and progressive image, which was largely compromised earlier. In his previous term, the “hard-metal-loving secularist” failed to protect free speech, the rights of religious and ethnic minorities and those of LGBTs. But Indonesians still pinned their hopes on him. They preferred to choose a ‘moderate’ Widodo, representative of ‘pluralist’ Indonesia, over a ‘conservative’ Subianto, representative of a ‘hardline Islamist’ Indonesia. Clearly, this is a positive shift from the faith-based politics, which is thriving elsewhere.

For example, across the Indian Ocean, Australia, a country whose politics has long been secular, recently re-elected the 51-year-old conservative, Scott Morrison, as prime minister. In 2008, while he was delivering his maiden speech in Parliament, he said that he derived the values of loving-kindness, justice and righteousness from his ‘faith’. While quoting the American senator, Joe Lieberman, who had said, “the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not from religion,” Morrison asserted at the same event, “I believe the same is true in this country.” In April this year, Morrison, who holds regressive views on immigration and same-sex marriage, invited television cameras to film his Easter Sunday service at a church.

A similar trend is visible in India, which has re-elected the 68-year-old Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi. Like Morrison, Modi loves to wear his religion on his sleeve. A day before the last phase of the general election, Modi invited television cameras to film him meditating inside a cave near the Kedarnath shrine. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, which rose to power by playing divisive faith-based politics, won 303 seats in Parliament. On the day of his victory, Modi had tweeted, “India wins yet again.” Perhaps he was referring to the India that has lapped up his politics of religious identity and Hindu majoritarianism.

Faith-based politics has played a leading role in the politics of neighbouring Bangladesh too. Bangladesh re-elected Sheikh Hasina Wajed last year. Wajed, a ‘secular’ leader, has been wooing the radical Islamist group, Hefazat-e-Islam, for many years. She introduced religious education in government schools, edited out poems and stories that conservative Islamists deemed atheistic and also recognized the Qawmi Madrasa degrees. In return, the Islamist group’s head, Shah Ahmed Shafi, bestowed the honorific, ‘Qawmi Janani (mother of the qaum)’, upon Wajed. Like Wajed, who hobnobbed with the Islamists to garner the support of the large Qawmi Madrasa populace, Widodo chose the conservative cleric, Ma’ruf Amin, as his running mate to strengthen his candidacy’s Islamic credentials.

Now that Widodo has been re-elected, questions have been raised regarding his present term by his constituents who gave him a second chance. He has stressed upon development and democracy, but will he abjure faith-based politics? Will he revive the vanishing, tolerant Indonesian Islam? How is he going to do all this with Amin — he issued a fatwa opposing religious pluralism, liberalism and secularism — as vice-president?

But what if Widodo adopts the political strategy of the leaders in his neighbourhood? What if he becomes like Morrison, someone who doesn’t like being labelled a ‘fundamentalist’ but has reservations about gay rights? Or like Wajed, who calls herself ‘secular’ but appeases religious extremists? Or, perhaps, like Modi, who talks of ‘inclusive’ India but doesn’t bat an eyelid when minorities get lynched on the streets?

This piece was published in The Telegraph on June 20, 2019.

https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/will-joko-widodo-revive-the-vanishing-tolerant-indonesian-islam/cid/1692739?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=tt_daily_twit

 

 

By Sonia Sarkar

As election results started indicating the Hindu nationalist BJP’s landslide victory by Thursday afternoon, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “India wins yet again!” It is important to understand which India he is referring to. It is not the secular and liberal India whose Constitution guarantees “freedom” and “equality” for all.

It is a new India which Modi started building little before the previous parliamentary elections in 2014. When he proposed to build this new India, he projected, “development” as its core agenda. But during his tenure in the last five years, this new India is being built upon polarization and chest-thumping muscular nationalism.

This India is not shaken by huge job losses because of demonetization and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), a government agency, the unemployment rate was at 6.1 per cent in the period of July 2017-June 2018, the highest since 1972–73.

This India could be easily taken into fold with grand advertising campaigns on flawed government schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, launched in haste. This India doen’t question why only 60 lakh houses have been built so far against the target of constructing one crore rural dwellings by March 31, 2019, since the scheme was launched on November 20, 2016. This India doesn’t question, how do the rural poor sustain to cook using LPG with the rising prices of gas cylinders, even if they got free cylinders under the Ujjwala Yojana.

This India is not bothered that Modi had promised to double the farmers’ income but owing to huge debts, over 12,602 farmers and agricultural laborers committed suicide in 2015, as per the last available official data.

This India believes only in alienation.

This is a divisive India which believes in “othering” the minorities in the country, especially the Muslims, who needs to be shown their place.

This India doesn’t blink an eye when hundreds of Dalits and Muslims get lynched by state-backed self-styled cow vigilantes for trading cattle or for allegedly storing beef at homes.

This India celebrates when a Kashmiri is tied to the jeep of an Indian soldier who uses him as a “human shield.”

This India loves the barrel-chested Modi who has the guts to say, “Ghar pe ghuskar marenge( Will enter their home and kill them)” while referring to Pakistan. This India laps up BJP’s narrative of being the savior of the nation. This India, which voted for the “interest of the nation, “ is convinced by Modi’s claims that Indian Air Force carried out surgical strikes at the “terrorist nation” Pakistan, weeks before the elections, in retaliation to Pulwama attacks by Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad.

But ironically, this India also elects a terror accused, Pragya Singh Thakur, BJP’s candidate from Bhopal, to the Parliament, with a huge margin of over three lakh votes. The fact that she carried out a blast at Malegaon, a Muslim-dominated area in Maharashtra, perhaps, was the motivating factor behind electing her. There could be counter arguments that Bhopal has been the traditional bastion of BJP, and therefore, Thakur’s win was inevitable. A question which some liberals are asking is, even if it is BJP’s traditional seat, how could people vote for someone who hailed Nathuram Godse, the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi? But that’s the real essence of Modi’s new India, nobody is encouraged to think. It’s the herd mentality which rules supreme, be it when a Muslim is lynched on the street or a terror accused is elected to Parliament.

This India has also elected 28-year-old lawyer Tejasvi Surya from south Bangalore, who too won by almost three lakh votes. The face of educated urban and elite India, Surya, once tweeted, “BJP should unapologetically be a party for Hindus.”

Pundits have already dubbed Modi’s victory as the rise of Hindutva 2.0. Indeed, it is. This new India believes in the ideology of the BJP’s fount, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which advocates for a “Hindu Rashtra (an exclusive land for Hindus).”

Now speculations loom large over the next five years of Modi’s second term. A section of Indians who were always worried about this new India, being built over hate and bigotry, are asking some pertinent questions — Will there be jobs now? Will farmers get their debts waived off? Will there be normalcy in Kashmir? Will it be easier for Muslims to live in this country?

Modi has made an attempt to answer such questions by tweeting — “Together we will build a strong and inclusive India.” But these words have found no resonance with his new India. His cheerleaders have already started stressing democracy is all about majoritarianism, no space for dissenters, who are a minority now in new India. The sentiment is well-articulated in this tweet by a Modi supporter — “Take it or leave it, this is New India ready to take on the world… India is in good hands.”

Clearly, hatred and intolerance would continue to remain the lifeline of Modi supporters, even in the next five years.

The onus is on Modi now to prove that he understands the meaning of the term “inclusive” in its true sense. His words, spoken at the Parliament’s Central Hall — “sabka vishwas” should not turn out to be another “jumla.”

Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking, ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

It’s celebration time in Singapore. Exhibitions, heritage walks, light and sound shows, and fireworks — Singaporeans are spoilt for choice. Ideally, celebrations should make one happy; but it isn’t the case here. The ruling People’s Action Party is commemorating 200 years of the arrival of the British statesman, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles, in Singapore with a bicentennial pageantry. Largely conformists, Singaporeans, for a change, are asking — ‘Why are we celebrating colonial rule?’

People are cynical about the government’s intentions as they suspect that the bicentennial is another attempt by the PAP to propagate nationalism before the elections in 2020. The apprehension is genuine. At the inauguration of the bicentennial in January this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Without 1819 (the year Raffles arrived), we may never have launched on the path to nationhood as we know it today.” In this speech, which sounded more like a National Day address, Loong added, “For we are never done building Singapore. It is every generation’s duty to keep on building, for our children, and for our future.”

Loong’s critics say that the bicentennial is an occasion for the PAP to not only legitimize existing colonial policies and laws on repression and detention without trial but also drum up nationalistic fervour. The year-round festivities, which are likely to get bigger during the National Day Parade on August 9, will surely have a feel-good effect on voters because the people are now repeatedly reminded about the early turbulent days before the British, who turned Singapore into a modern port, arrived in 1819 and how the PAP took over the responsibility to make Singapore a first-world economy after decolonization.

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

This appeared in The Telegraph — https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/singapore-s-bicentennial-pageantry-and-scepticism/cid/1689767  on May 2, 2019

The last time the PAP invoked nationalistic sentiments as part of a big celebration was during ‘SG50’ in 2015 when Singapore completed 50 years of its Independence and separation from Malaysia. It was the PAP’s idea to let the people celebrate all things that are ‘uniquely’ Singaporean months before the previous election. It was a national project in which the party wanted to build history, memories and a national identity. The PAP wanted every citizen to have an attachment to the country and foster a national team spirit in the next 50 years.

Nationhood and national identity are the two favourite words in the PAP’s dictionary as Stephan Ortmann noted in a paper titled Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity. Over the years, the PAP has reiterated that Singapore prioritizes ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘communitarianism’ for ‘nation-building’. There is a concerted effort to promote multiculturalism in schools, public housing estates and the National Service as these are places for communities to mix with one another. Those in power claim that they articulate the true will of the collective nation.

This idea of nationhood has also been built upon a sense of insecurity that has been instilled in people who are forced to believe that the PAP is the only party that can protect Singaporeans from the ‘enemy’ which is, of course, neighbouring Malaysia. The frosty Singapore-Malaysia relation has worked as an advantage for the PAP.

It is somewhat similar to what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is doing in India — telling people that it is only the BJP that works for the nation’s interest and that only the BJP has the ability to protect Indians from the ‘enemy’ — Pakistan.

Again, like the BJP government in India, which has made a slogan of brave Indian jawans to fan nationalistic sentiments, even using them as a weapon to fight elections, the PAP has often used the armed forces as a card to stoke nationalism. Of late, glossy advertisements of men in uniform carrying guns are spotted in public spaces. Gun-toting men are seen guarding the MRT stations in the central business district, giving an impression of a potential threat. This, once again, fits into the government propaganda of geopolitical ‘dangers’ threatening the country.

Critics allege that this is also a diversionary tactic by the government that is being used at a time when people are complaining about rising prices, low wages and growing inequality. This is also an attempt to turn people’s attention away from the subtle voices that are demanding greater accountability, transparency and democracy from the government. Not surprisingly, such voices are also being silenced by a growing number of over-zealous, self-styled vigilantes — online and offline — who deeply believe in the government’s nationalistic narrative that Singapore will fail as a nation without the PAP at the helm. They call these critics ‘communists’ or ‘traitors’, terms used by the PAP to describe its opponents.

Sounds familiar?

Thankfully though, every country, no matter how tiny it is, has its own bunch of ‘traitors’ or ‘anti-nationals’ who know the difference between loving the country and loving the government.

A group of 15 men proudly salute a saffron flag hooked firmly onto an iron rod. The flag belongs to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist group that claims it has more than 6 million direct or affiliate members and is the ideological mothership of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “Our flag is our guru, our identity,” says 30-year-old dentist Vikram Dhillon, a resident of Supreme Towers, a high-rise apartment complex in Noida near New Delhi.

It’s a sentiment the RSS — whose early leaders publicly admired Hitler and Mussolini — feared it was losing a decade ago among Indian youth, a group that is becoming increasingly urban, globalized and middle class. But a 21st-century upgrade, from a new uniform to modern recruitment tactics, is helping draw young engineers, doctors, lawyers, chartered accountants, bankers and journalists into the fold, especially in upscale neighborhoods where supporters traditionally felt the need to hide their allegiances.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity also helps, RSS leaders say, at a time when nationalist forces are bringing once-fringe conversations to the mainstream globally. As Modi seeks reelection — results will be declared this Thursday — these new recruits are emerging as some of his biggest cheerleaders.

Over the past two years, the RSS has witnessed a 20 percent increase in most neighborhood units (shakhas), which offer daily and weekly milans (gatherings) in suburbs and cities dominated by young upwardly mobile professionals. Noida has seen 120 new shakhas emerge since 2017, compared to around 100 in the same period before 2016, says RSS volunteer Pankaj Kapil. Between 10 and 20 volunteers attend each shakhadaily, with more on weekends, he adds. In Gurgaon, another Delhi suburb with offices for global financial and tech firms, at least 80 new shakhas and milans have started in the past two years in high-rise apartments, says Vijay Kumar, the regional RSS in charge. In Bangalore, 160 new milans for information technology professionals have started in this period. And 90 new shakhas and milans have come up in the Mumbai neighborhoods of Andheri and Lokhandwala, and in the satellite township of Navi Mumbai since 2016.

Many of these fresh recruits have studied at elite schools. They tend to make more than $100,000 annually, work for multinationals, go on international holidays and send their children to global schools. Yet, they’re finding meaning as members of the RSS, which advocates for a Hindu nation.

“Now, you can be tech-savvy and upwardly mobile, yet support sectarianism,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right. “Earlier, it was politically incorrect to be a part of shakhas. Now it is not improper to publicly say [that] Muslims need to be shown their place.”

For some recruits, shakhas  — where volunteers sing prayers, chant nationalistic slogans and perform physical exercises — are primarily attractive as pathways to fitness, discipline and a reconnect with Indian “family values.” Others concede they want to edge closer to the ruling BJP through the RSS. For several volunteers, such as Dhillon, the RSS is also fundamentally about doing something for society. “Social work is part of the RSS’s Hindutva package,” says sociologist Shiv Visvanathan, referring to the group’s guiding philosophy.

He adds, aspirational young middle class has many anxieties – economic, religious and cultural – RSS is only cashing in on it. “RSS’s solution to all problems is chest-thumping nationalism which gives them a sense of security,” says Visvanathan.

Founded in 1925, the RSS has long counted India’s urban middle class as a key base, with shakhas in neighborhood parks a common sight throughout India. But that relationship was beginning to snap with a millennial generation that found the organization’s rigid hierarchical structure outdated, and the daily physical exercises boring, says Mukhopadhyay. As liberal, left-leaning education and politics dominated India, the RSS came to be seen as regressive among the English-speaking elite of the country. Dhillon’s neighbor, 42-year-old Supreme Court lawyer Bipin Bihari Singh says that people didn’t want to be identified as shakha participants.

That’s now history because the RSS is adapting — except its ideology — with the times. After consulting a top fashion designer, it swapped its khaki shorts in 2016 for smart brown trousers and made the uniform optionalThe RSS now recruits door-to-door and offers weekend and virtual events for those who can’t attend daily meetings. In meetings, Sanskrit lexicon is now occasionally replaced by English, and the RSS has launched 65 new affiliate bodies targeting specific professions. Since 2016, an average of 100,000 new recruits have signed up through just the website each year, compared to just over 60,000 annually before that, according to the RSS.

Abhishek Junnarkar, a 38-year-old assistant vice president for a multinational company, says the RSS “trains us how to save our country from people who want to overpower us.” That sense of threat from an often-unspecified source — be it Muslims, Christian missionaries, Pakistan, communists or secular liberals — is at the heart of the RSS training.

Take the common shakha game Lahore Kiska Hai (Whose is Lahore). The group leader asks, “Lahore kiska hai,” and players shout back, “Lahore hamara hain (Lahore is ours).” Players then push each other to grab a stone that’s meant to symbolize Lahore. The RSS vision for India, after all, includes most of South Asia as a single nation.

The urban middle class in India largely subscribes to RSS ideology to proliferate and dominate by eliminating the ‘other’ to overturn country’s secular consensus,” says Visvanathan.

Modi’s muscular nationalism which is based on this principle of alienation fits this narrative. “People want to work for the nation the way he does,” says Ajay Mudpe, RSS publicity head in the Konkan region. But working “for the nation” can mean “othering” those the RSS sees as outsiders. A WhatsApp campaign in a Noida neighborhood, for example, led to a boycott of Bengali Muslim household helpers who were en masse labeled  illegal migrants from Bangladesh.”

Meanwhile, the National Voters Forum, an affiliate of the formally apolitical RSS, has been urging professionals to vote for a party that works for the “interest of the nation” — code for the BJP.

Back in Supreme Towers, Dhillon says he’ll stay with the RSS no matter how the BJP does this week. The deep roots the organization has put down in India’s high-rise apartment blocks aren’t going anywhere. “Once in RSS, always in RSS,” he says.

(A version of the story was published in Ozy on May 21, 2019: https://t.co/HsO9fXx7Li?amp=1 )

The Gurdaspur candidate has begun distancing himself from the nationalistic rhetoric

 

By Sonia Sarkar

The rich and resonant voice of Sunny Deol has mellowed down. He is barely audible. His sleep-deprived eyes are half-open. The 40-minute morning workout hasn’t really helped. He drinks a glass of lassi to boost himself. “It has been a little hectic because I came in pretty late,” says the 62-year-old Bollywood actor. He is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha elections from Punjab’s Gurdaspur, pitted against incumbent Congress MP Sunil Jakhar.

Deol is flooded with visitors at the courtyard of a guesthouse at Nawan Pind Sardaran Di, about six kilometres away from Gurdaspur town. Mill workers who have been laid off, want their jobs back. Farmers want their debts paid off. Young men want selfies with him. Deol interacts with them for about 15 minutes, and then goes inside. “I am trying to understand everything; I am battling,” he says candidly, while fiddling with a string of white beads on his right wrist.

Clearly, his colleagues in the BJP haven’t briefed him enough about his constituents. It seems they are only keen to milk the barrel-chested Deol’s muscular nationalist image from the silver screen for Gurdaspur, which shares 110 kilometres of international boundary with Pakistan. This is the same constituency that saw two terrorist attacks four years ago. As Gurdaspur goes to the polls on May 19, the party wants to project Deol as a “tough man” who has taught Pakistan many “lessons” in films such as Border (1997), Gadar: Ek Prem Katha (2001), Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2002) and The Hero: Love Story of a Spy (2003).

Several patriotic dialogues from his films are a huge hit even today. This one from Gadar – “Hindustan zindabad tha, hai, aur rahega,” which is heard in his rallies, was tweeted by even Prime Minister Narendra Modi after Deol met him last month. BJP leaders call him the sachha deshbhakt (true patriot). Initially, Deol too used to parrot, “Main deshbhakt hoon (I am a patriot).” But, after he betrayed his ignorance over recent Indian Air Force strikes on Pakistan’s Balakot in a media interview, he seems to be distancing himself from the nationalist rhetoric.  “I didn’t do those films because I wanted to do patriotic films. They just happened. I am not trying to cash in on that image — no way — I will never do that,” he clarifies.

While patting his forehead gently with a white towel, the actor adds, “People just didn’t understand Gadar: Ek Prem Katha was a love story.”  He stresses, “In that film, I fought for my family — I didn’t fight for India.”

Slowly, he is picking up issues that matter to his constituents. On arsenic contamination of groundwater in Gurdaspur, he says, “We have to stop farmers from using fertilisers.” His solution to the region’s drug addiction problem is this — “We need to divert the attention of the youth towards sports.”

But he isn’t speaking much at the rallies. He moves with a fleet of SUVs around villages, waves to the cheering crowd and shakes hands with a few enthusiasts from the sunroof of his white Land Rover. At rare times, he opens the door of his car, interacts with people. He nods when they share their problems with him, but he isn’t offering any solutions for now. Many find him honest, but are not convinced he would be around if he wins. After all, his father, actor Dharmendra, also a BJP man, remained a ‘missing MP’ in Rajasthan’s Bikaner.

His opponents allege he is fighting elections under pressure from the BJP to escape an income-tax raid, and that he has jumped into politics because his film career is virtually over. In fact, his latest release, Blank, where he plays an anti-terrorist squad (ATS) officer, isn’t doing well at the box office.

Are the allegations true, I ask?

He is irked. Now, I can hear the familiar intense voice. Without badmouthing his rivals, the actor, who has declared assets worth Rs 87.18 crore in his nomination papers, asserts: “My purpose of getting into politics is not for gaining anything… I am doing pretty well, where I am. I want to serve the people.”

Traditionally a Congress bastion, Gurdaspur was won by late Bollywood actor and BJP MP Vinod Khanna four times, till he died in 2017. Jakhar defeated BJP-Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) joint candidate Swaran Salaria in the by-elections. Rumours are that the BJP didn’t have a candidate who could match the charm of Khanna. So, at the last minute, it turned to this macho Jat Bollywood hero.

When I ask whether Khanna’s legacy would help him, he doesn’t have a straight answer. “There will be factors, which might work in my favour and also go against me,” Deol says. “I want everything to go against me, and I will still emerge a winner.”

His voice lacks conviction, though.

 

Published in Firstpost: https://www.firstpost.com/politics/will-gadar-trump-darr-in-sunnys-border-town-battle-6644491.html


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