Posts Tagged ‘Congress


– Lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan tells Sonia Sarkar that the BJP-Sangh establishment poses a threat to Constitution and country
Illustration: Suman Choudhury

Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan is not known to mince his words. Today is no exception. “The biggest issue in the country today is the communal fascist agenda of the government,” he says.

We are in his cramped office in Lutyens’ Delhi, on the third floor of the New Lawyers’ Chambers, looking onto the facade of the Supreme Court across the street. Bhushan, who is known for his untiring judicial jousting, has just wrapped up a discussion with some activists from Chhattisgarh. It’s a case of a mining company ignoring the rights of forest dwellers in the northern parts of the state.

A question about the current goings-on in the country – mob lynchings, the killing (or silencing) of journalists and rationalists – has triggered this outpour. He continues, “It is a criminal gang that is running this country today… They are openly doing things that are serious offences under the Indian Penal Code, such as abusing and threatening people with violence and rape on social media. They want to intimidate people who are questioning them.” All the while his expression is of utmost calm, his voice soft, his tone even. If there is anything at all that betrays the intensity of his outrage, it would be his eyes. He narrows them while he speaks.

Bhushan himself has had a taste of intimidation, often backed by the powers. A few months ago, when he tweeted that Lord Krishna was a “legendary eve-teaser” – he was actually cheekily critiquing UP chief minister Adityanath’s decision to employ anti-Romeo squads to ensure safety of women in the state – he faced an avalanche of criticism. His exact comment, “Romeo loved just one lady, while Krishna was a legendary eve-teaser. Would Adityanath have the guts to call his vigilantes Anti-Krishna squads?”

Bhushan was called “anti-Hindu” and “anti-national”. Protesters belonging to the Hindu group, Sudarshan Vahini, defaced his Noida house with ink. An FIR was lodged at Lucknow’s Hazratganj police station against him for hurting religious sentiments. Eventually, he apologised.

“That was also an instance of the fascist atmosphere that has been created,” says Bhushan. “You cannot say anything even mildly critical about gods or those considered gods. Many people are saying [Narendra] Modi is our God, and if you say anything against him, I will kill you.”

He insists all such threats are supported by the central government, which in his view does not subscribe to the constitutional values of secularism and the fundamental right to freedom of speech. “If they [the BJP] get two-thirds majority in 2019, then they might remove secularism and socialism from the Constitution,” he warns.

Two years ago, on Republic Day, the BJP government had issued an advertisement that quoted the Preamble of the Constitution thus: “We, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic…” The words “socialist” and “secular” had been omitted. That led to a bit of a furore. Later, the information and broadcasting ministry tweeted saying it was done deliberately to “honour” the founding fathers of the Constitution. The words “socialist” and “secular” had been added to the original Preamble in 1976.

Bhushan says all these instances of fascism are orchestrated by the larger saffron family or the Sangh Parivar. He alleges that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the parent body of the BJP, has been enabled a grip on cultural and research institutions of the country and is now making inroads into the judiciary. Without naming anyone he adds, “They have appointed as judges in high courts and the Supreme Court those who were earlier members of the RSS.”

Does that mean the judiciary is going to kowtow to the state? It is already doing so, says Bhushan. He cites the Birla-Sahara case, wherein the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by him to probe two business houses in a pay-off scandal. It had been alleged that politicians belonging to Congress and BJP had been bribed by the Aditya Birla Group and the Sahara Group. “It was an utterly absurd judgement where it refused to investigate the case, thus going against all past laws laid down by the same Supreme Court,” says Bhushan, who runs a Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Public Interest Litigation.

Bhushan is the insider outsider. He has always been critical of the judiciary like his father, former law minister and Supreme Court lawyer Shanti Bhushan. Bhushan Senior had once moved an application in the apex court, accusing eight former chief justices of India of “corruption”. Prashant Bhushan has filed many public interest litigations (PILs) against India’s top industrialists. Last year, he took on Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited over 4G spectrum allocation. This year, he filed a lawsuit against the Adani group and other mining companies for allegedly inflating coal and equipment prices to siphon money from India.

In 2016, a Supreme Court bench questioned the credentials and authenticity of the PILs Bhushan has been filing at regular intervals. Not that it deterred him in any way.

Currently, Bhushan is taking special interest in the case involving BJP president Amit Shah’s son Jay, whose business has reportedly recorded a 16,000-fold increase in turnover in a year’s time. Amit Shah has filed a Rs 100-crore defamation suit against the journalist who wrote the exposé and the news portal – The Wire – that published it. “This defamation suit is a way to intimidate the media and those questioning the dubious transactions,” says Bhushan.

Threats, intimidation and attacks on freedom of speech are some of the things that define this government, he says. Others would be job losses, price rise and farmers’ suicides.

Why then is there no public outcry? How does the BJP keep winning election after election? Bhushan seems to think the ruling party’s denouement has begun. “They have been inept in managing the economy, have made huge blunders – demonetisation and implementation of GST. They are rapidly losing support.” He cites the recent students’ union elections in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University; in both places the BJP-affiliated students’ outfit, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, was defeated. “The youth are disenchanted with the BJP.”

The other indicator, according to him, is social media. “Ten per cent of the country’s population is on social media – even if you say that it’s the upper crust of the society, it is quite clear that public opinion has shifted quite substantially.”

And the alternative to the BJP would be? Pause. Bhushan agrees there is a problem, but soon turns to praising Rahul Gandhi. “He is more energetic now. He is travelling around. If he is able to put together a team of newer younger leaders, then Congress will hopefully revive…”

But he would say that; after all, his family and the Congress go back a long way. A little bit of steel creeps into his voice. Bhushan says, “My family parted with the Congress in 1969, when the party split. But if I had to choose between the Congress and the BJP, Congress is a lesser evil.”

Talking of alternatives, we cannot help but ask him about his own Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stint. He, along with Yogendra Yadav, had helped found the party and ran it till they were suspended by AAP boss and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal for alleged anti-party activities.

Bhushan admits electoral politics is not his cup of tea, but not before he has had a go at Kejriwal. “He is undemocratic; doesn’t have principles, no interest in understanding the issues of the country and he is willing to use unethical means to achieve his ends.”

This year, Bhushan, along with Yadav, co-launched a political party – Swaraj India. “Here, you remain true to your principles and take up issues that are entirely in public interest.”

But can power politics and public interest ever go hand in hand? Perhaps he is right to say politics is not quite his cup of tea.


1977: Bhushan joins IIT Madras, but quits after one semester
Completes his law degree from Allahabad University. In between, goes away to Princeton in the US for a brief while
1983: Starts practicing as a lawyer in the Supreme Court. Known to fight for civil liberties, human rights and environment issues, and expose corruption in high places
1990: Writes a book on the Bofors scandal — BoforsThe Selling of a Nation
Among his most talked about cases are 2G scam, Radia tapes, Coalgate and iron ore mining scams. Has argued 300-plus PILs to date
Known to be against the death penalty and use of violence against Naxals; wants AFSPA revoked in Kashmir
Threw his lot behind the India Against Corruption movement launched in 2010. Was among founders of the Aam Aadmi Party
Following his expulsion from AAP in 2015, co-founded Swaraj Abhiyan with Yogendra Yadav

They’ve been at the forefront of social and political activism in Manipur but women haven’t got their due share in power yet. The forthcoming Assembly elections hold out little hope that things will change. Sonia Sarkar looks into the reasons why


  • LADIES LAST: Irom Sharmila Chanu (centre)

Imphal. It’s 4am. At five degrees, 44-year-old Irom Sharmila Chanu warms up with an hour-long suryanamaskar. She boils some rice and ‘laphu tharo’ (banana florets) for breakfast. At 7am, donning her green phanek and yellow pullover with a pink shawl, she prepares for a long day ahead. A water bottle, hat and a scarf in the bicycle basket, she sets off for Thoubal, 30 kilometres away.

“I like to start early. I get more hours of the day to meet people,” says Sharmila, famed rights activist and co-convener of the newly formed People’s Resurgence and Justice Alliance (PRJA).

She is having to work hard. After all, she is taking on the three-time sitting chief minister of Manipur and Congress leader, Okram Ibobi Singh, in the forthcoming Assembly elections. Also, being a woman politician in Manipur isn’t easy.

Bharatiya Janata Party’s Indira Oinam, who has been into politics for the past eight years, knows better. “As women politicians, we are made to feel that we are intruding into the man’s world and every day, we need to fight this patriarchal mindset,” says Indira, who too has pitted herself against Ibobi Singh (this is her second attempt at unseating him).

  • Indira Oinam

The irony is that women feel politically left out in a state where they have been at the forefront of many a battle. “Having women participate in social agitations is one thing, giving them their rights in politics quite another. We have failed to do the latter,” says S. Mangi Singh, professor of political science at Manipur University.

There is only a handful of women in politics in Manipur. In the outgoing state Assembly, only three of the 60 MLAs are women. And for the coming Assembly, only two women other than Sharmila and Indira have entered the fray. Both are from Congress – Akoijam Mirabai Devi from Patsoi constituency in west Imphal and Nemcha Kipgen, a Kuki from the Kangpokpi constituency in Sadar Hills. The celebrated boxer and the Rajya Sabha MP, Mary Kom, is likely to be courted by the BJP for campaigning.

“There are only a few women candidates because it’s predominantly a patriarchal society, so the real decision-making power lies with men,” Mangi Singh says.

But it’s not that women in Manipur have no say in society at all. Two Nupi Lan (women’s agitation) movements, the first in 1904 and then in 1939, both against the British, became the defining moments of woman power in the state. Protests led by Rani Gaidinliu against the British, forcing them to leave Manipur, is a local legend. In 1925 and 1932, women also led agitations against the increase of water tax by the then king.

When the late Indira Gandhi was addressing a gathering in Imphal’s polo ground in 1969, women staged a black flag vigil to press their demand for statehood. Curfew was imposed but three years later, statehood was granted.

  • Nemcha Kipgen

An all-woman campaign for prohibition, called Nisha Bandh, was much highlighted in the 70s. Irom Sharmila’s 16-year-long fast to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is iconic, of course. Also, Meira Paibis, or women torchbearers, redefined public protests when 12 naked Manipuri women agitated against the killing of 34-year-old Thangjam Manorama Devi by security forces. Imphal’s all-women Ima market, centre point of the Nupi Lan movement, is considered to be a sign of women’s economic progress.

“But in politics, women are treated as second-class citizens,” says 57-year-old Akoijam Mirabai, the social welfare and co-operatives minister. “People feel women are not committed to politics and their focus is the family.”

That’s the reason Mirabai never got married. “I wanted to tell people that I am serious about politics,” she says.

But the journey wasn’t easy for her when she joined politics in 1980 at the age of 17 – first as part of the Congress Sevadal and then the Mahila Congress. “My neighbours used to tell my parents that my image as a woman would be tarnished if I joined politics. I fought every gaze and every taunt because I knew politics was my true calling,” says Mirabai, who hails from Taobungkhok in west Imphal.

There are several deterrents for women. “Women lack winnability. Even if we want to give tickets to women, we would lose out seats because the BJP might just put up stronger male candidates there. Social goals and political gains cannot go hand in hand,” says a Manipuri Congress leader.

In contrast to national politics, where political parties often foreground women candidates, keeping their glamour quotient in mind, Manipur politicians don’t look at “glamour” as a valid reason to give tickets to women. But glamour or no glamour, Indira thinks, women should get a chance. “When our PM talks about beti bachao, beti padhao, women should get priority in politics,” she says.

A senior BJP leader in Imphal argues that elections are all about money and muscle power and women fail to exhibit both, in most cases. “Indira will fight against Ibobi Singh but we are not projecting her as the CM candidate,” says the BJP leader.

Indira, who fetched 3,668 votes in the 2012 elections, the second largest tally any BJP candidate swung in Manipur, has faced such a bias once before. In 2014, Indira was expecting to get the ticket for Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency but the party chose R.K. Ranjan Singh, instead. Women members of the party protested openly, but quite in vain.

In the past, women in Manipur have mostly contested elections under the legacy of their powerful husbands in politics. For example, former Manipur King Bodhachandra’s wife, Srimati Ishwari Devi, contested from the Inner Manipur parliamentary constituency in 1952, but lost.

The first elected woman in the Manipur state Assembly, Hangmila Shaiza, came into politics in 1990 after the assasination of her husband and the former chief minister, Yangmaso Shaiza. Similarly, K. Apabi Devi won the 1992 by-elections after MLA K. Bira Singh died in a plane crash. Both benefited from “sympathy votes”, writes Binarani Devi in her paper, “Electoral Politics and Women”.

Again, Wahengbam Leima Devi, wife of Angou Singh, contested and got elected from Singh’s seat in 2000, only after Singh became an MP. Landhoni Devi, wife of Ibobi Singh, contested and won from the Khangabok constituency in 2007 and 2012 after Singh vacated it as he could retain only one, and that was Thoubal. In Ibobi Singh’s party, patriarchy rules. “Now that his son, Okram Surajkumar, is contesting, Landhoni Devi has had to sacrifice her seat. A woman has to make way for the male members of the family,” a state Congress leader says.

Mirabai feels that her singlehood is certainly a boon for her as a politician. “Being single, I don’t have the compulsion to listen to my husband, at least,” she laughs.

  • M.C. Mary Kom

Mirabai and Nemcha are the only two women to have made a mark in mainstream Manipuri politics without any political patronage. “When I joined politics in 2012, many discouraged me but now they are happy to see that I have sustained,” says Nemcha, who left her job as a nurse in Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences to join politics.

Nemcha – her husband S.T. Thangboi Kipgen is chairman of the United People’s Front, a Kuki militant group – claims one of her biggest achievements is forcing the government to create the new district of Kangpokpi – a longstanding demand of the people of her constituency. The creation of seven new districts, which led to an economic blockade by the Nagas, is one of the issues in the Manipur elections, besides the Centre’s secret peace deal with the NSCN-IM, corruption, unemployment and repeal of AFSPA.

But issues related to women such as compensation to widows, whose husbands were killed either by the militants or the state forces, and women’s empowerment are also likely to enter party manifestos.

In fact, political parties often float women self-help groups to generate funds. In Manipur, a woman’s entry into politics is mostly through social work. Both Indira and Mirabai were well-known social workers before joining politics. But few make it to the decision-making level of the party.

Here, another irony. Female voters have outnumbered the male voters in almost every Manipur election. In 2012, 6,94,893 women cast their votes as opposed to 6,31,223 men. The truth remains, though, that – as Sharmila herself rues – even women voters lack confidence in women candidates. She’s set on contesting nevertheless.

The Congress’s fortunes might have reached a nadir, but senior party leader Kapil Sibal is humming Mast hawa and Tere bina. The busy lawyer-lyricist,
however, finds time for a metaphysical chit-chat with Sonia Sarkar 

It’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. When he speaks on politics, he is trolled. When he is elected to the Rajya Sabha, his opponents do their best to have him defeated. And when he talks of love in a song for a Hindi film, there is an outcry, though the hullabaloo, of course, is more over the film than the song.

Let’s start with his love song. Earlier this week, a Hindi film called Shorgul, based on the riots of Muzaffarnagar, was released in many parts of the country, but was not allowed to be screened in theatre halls in parts of western Uttar Pradesh. Sibal , 67, had written two songs for the film. One was an item number called Mast hawa (crazy current); the other a love song called Tere bina (without you).

“All of us have a romantic streak is us,” the senior Congress leader says modestly. “That’s why we are fallible, aren’t we?” Sibal switches on his iPad and zooms in on his debut Bollywood song Tu jaldi bata de (tell me), which he wrote for a 2013 crime thriller, Bandook.

It’s been a busy week for Sibal. His comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interview to a television channel led to an uproar on social media sites. “Modi ji, have a press conference. Let our journalists ask you questions. This is better than an interview with one person,” Sibal had said after the interview.

The Twitterati, as one would expect, had pounced on him. What exactly did he mean by “our” journalists, they asked. Indeed, just what did he mean by that?

“When I said, ‘our’ journalists, I meant journalists sitting in front of us at press conferences. They (PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party) may have journalists in their pocket but we don’t.”

Sibal, who has been fighting the BJP for long years, was a mite shaken during the RS elections from Uttar Pradesh last month. He had been nominated by the Congress, and was expected to sail through, but an independent candidate, backed by the BJP, put a spoke in his wheel. The candidate, Preeti Mahapatra, got 18 first preference votes cutting across party lines. Sibal finally made it through with 25 first preference votes. Six Congress MLAs have been expelled for not supporting him. Three of the six voted in favour of Mahapatra, the others sided with the BSP.

“The BJP had sent her (Mahapatra) to poach votes. It shows the mindset of the party. Cabinet ministers – Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley – moved heaven and earth hoping to ensure that I wouldn’t get into the Rajya Sabha. They made it out to be like a Lok Sabha election,” Sibal says.

No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal. And it’s certainly not easy to be in a party that is seen losing ground in almost every state. Is that because the party doesn’t have a credible leader any more? Rahul Gandhi – who once evocatively spoke of farm widows in Parliament – is being lampooned as Pappu across the media, social and otherwise.

“If you look at the army of trolls who use that term, you’ll understand that it’s part of a political campaign by the BJP in the social media,” he says. “But personal politics cannot work in a huge country like India. In 2019, we’ll know who the real Pappu is,” he says, referring to the next general election.

Looking at the state of the Congress, few would believe that the party could reclaim power, I point out. “We have to get our act together. We have only 44 seats (in the Lok Sabha). We have a long way to go,” he says.

Congress watchers believe that the party is not trying very hard to get its act together. They refer to the recent appointment of Asha Kumari, convicted in a land grab case, as the Congress in-charge of Punjab, which goes to poll next year.

“BJP president Amit Shah has been charged with murder. Babubhai Bokhiria, involved in illegal mining, continues to be a minister in Gujarat. B.S. Yeddyurappa was involved in illegal land dealings is the president of the Karnataka BJP. Is that all right for the BJP? Why are fingers always being pointed at the Congress?”

Sibal breaks off to take a call, and I look around his office on the second floor of a palatial house that he’s leased in Jor Bagh in central Delhi. The bookshelves behind him are filled with fiction and non-fiction, as well as legal journals and copies of judgments. There is a framed photograph of Tagore by his side, while Shakespeare is framed on the wall. Sibal, as is well known, acted in several Shakespeare plays as a student of St. Stephen’s College, which he joined after schooling in Chandigarh.

Sibal later studied law – completing a master’s degree in maritime law at Harvard when his late wife, Nina, who was an Indian Foreign Service officer, was posted to the United States. One of the most prominent constitutional lawyers of India, Sibal was the additional solicitor-general of India from 1989 to 1990. In 2005, he got married again – his wife, Promila, is a social activist.

With the Congress out of power at the Centre – Sibal was a minister during the United Progressive Alliance’s two terms – the Supreme Court lawyer has the time to practise law. He defended Modi’s opponent, Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in court.

Sibal also represented Trinamul’s Madan Mitra in the Saradha scam – for which he was sharply criticised by his party colleagues in Bengal. Congress leader Adhir Chowdhury wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi in 2015, urging her not to allow Sibal to take part in any party meeting in the state.

“Some Congress leader from West Bengal, charged with murder, came to me for advice. So should I give advice only to Congressmen? I am a lawyer by profession. What’s their problem? I don’t cow down to these things,” he replies.

Sibal also defended Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar in Delhi in the high court. Kumar’s arrest from the JNU campus had evoked nationwide condemnation.

“Universities are not places where police can come and arrest people. Let the children have a discourse as they want to. They will learn as they move on in life. But to target individuals and institutions is dangerous,” Sibal says.

The former human resource development minister is critical of the way the ministry is now being run. “The harm the ministry is causing to the future generation is unimaginable,” he says.

I mention, in the context of JNU’s Kumar, who has been charged with sedition, that the controversy started over student protests about Afzal Guru who was executed in 2013, when the UPA was in power. It has been often said that Guru was not given a fair trial, and that he was hanged without his family being informed.

As a lawyer who defended the Kashmiri separatist leader and co-founder of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, Maqbool Bhat (who, too, was hanged), does he believe that Guru’s execution was a right move?

Sibal does not give a clear answer. “The judiciary is entitled to finally resolve a dispute. Not every decision is right,” he replies.

The former minister, who won his first Lok Sabha election from Delhi’s Chandni Chowk constituency in 2004 by defeating the current human resource development minister Smriti Irani, has often been criticised for his own tenures as minister.

As minister of communications and IT, he had claimed in 2011 that “zero loss” was caused by distributing 2G licences on a first-come, first-served basis. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India estimated the loss at Rs 1.76 crore. Sibal, however, stands by his comment.

“I meant that it’s not our policy to auction the spectrum. Where is the question of loss? Now that you have auctioned it, it is in loss. We did not auction it. The sum, Rs 1.76 crore, had not been pocketed by us,” he clarifies.

He has been reminded again by his aides of appointments with clients. We have discussed a range of subjects, and it’s time for me to leave.

But before that, he wants me to listen to one of his poems, a particular favourite that has been sung by Adnan Sami. The first line goes like this: Iss jahan mein mera kuchh bhi nahin hai, jo mera hai who bhi mera nahin hai – nothing in this world belongs to me, not even that which is mine.

“That’s the philosophy of my life. Everything I have is meaningless,” explains Sibal, who also released an album, Raunaq, with music director A.R. Rahman two years ago.

His last words ring in my ears as I walk towards the main gate of the house, past his brown Toyota Camry. No, it’s not easy being Kapil Sibal.

(This was published in The Telegraph, July 3,2016.

Karan Singh is out with a novel — a new version of an old work. But writing is just one of his passions. He tells Sonia Sarkar that he was Shakespeare’s Olivia in a school play, loves the Dire Straits and sings Dogri songs

Karan Singh sits ramrod straight on a sofa. His black labrador, Kaalu, walks up to the senior Congressman, breathing heavily into a plate that holds two cocktail samosas.

The former minister and governor picks one up and delicately bites into it. “I eat light,” he says.

But eating light is just one of the reasons why the octogenarian is so fit. “For two hours every morning I worship all the gods – Surya, Shiva and Ganesha. I also do rajyoga, the breathing exercise. This gives me energy and positivity,” he says, fiddling with a copper bracelet that has the words “Om Namah Shivaya” inscribed on it.

Singh is a Shiva devotee. His novel, Mountain of Shiva, an updated version of a previous work, has just been brought out by a new publishing house, Palimpsest. Ashok, the protagonist, follows a guru to Shiva’s abode in the Himalayas to fulfil his spiritual quest.

“In the previous edition, the quest was unfulfilled. But then I thought I must write what happened thereafter,” he explains.

The need to write the novel (his only novel so far), which he first penned 30 years ago, came from his own search for spiritual understanding. “If I were not born a yuvraj (prince), maybe I would have been Ashok,” says the son of the last ruler of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh.

A conversation with Singh is incomplete without talk of troubled Kashmir. Singh tries to stay away from the subject, ducking questions with his stock reply – “I was mostly abroad when the conflict erupted”. You can, however, take a man out of Kashmir, but not Kashmir out of the man. When he opens up, there is no stopping him.

The recent controversy when Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students clashed at the National Institute of Technology (NIT) in Srinagar troubles him. The clash – allegedly sparked by some anti-India slogans shouted by a section of students after India lost a cricket match in the World T20 series – led to some non-Kashmiri students leaving the campus.

“If non-Kashmiri students start leaving the campus, Kashmiri students might be targeted in other parts of the country. Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri students mean Muslim and non-Muslim students,” he says. “We must not allow a repeat of the post-Kokrajhar riots,” he says – referring to the exodus of Northeasterners from Bangalore after Bodo-Muslim riots in Assam’s Kokrajhar in 2012.

Singh blames the People’s Democratic Party (PDP)-Bharatiya Janata Party state government and chief minister Mehbooba Mufti for the crisis in NIT. “It’s the responsibility of the state government to give students adequate security. This issue blew up after she took over, which is not a good sign.”

Singh, clearly, doesn’t think very highly of Mehbooba, though he respected her father, the former chief minister of the state, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. “Mufti Saab was a senior man. He had his own stature. Mehbooba was to Mufti Saab what Amit Shah is to (Narendra) Modi. She used to organise the cadre and meetings. Now tell me, what is Amit Shah without Modi,” he asks.

Does his criticism of the PDP go down well in the family? His son, Vikramaditya, after all is in the PDP.

“No, there is no jhagra over political differences,” he replies.

In fact, there is celebration in the family. Vikramaditya’s daughter, Mriganka, is going to be married to the grandson of former Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh. The engagement has just taken place.

Singh fishes out a glossy magazine which featured his grandchildren, Mriganka and Martand, on its cover. “She looks exactly like my wife,” he says.

Singh was 19 – and the regent in Jammu and Kashmir – when he was married to Yasho Rajya Lakshmi, the granddaughter of the last Rana Prime Minister of Nepal, Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana. Marriages in the family have mostly taken place with erstwhile royals. Vikramaditya is married to Chitrangada Raje Scindia, daughter of Madhavrao Scindia, who was the titular Maharaja of Gwalior. Amarinder Singh is the head of the erstwhile royal family of Patiala.

Why do the former rajahs continue to use their title, long after the abolition of princely states, I ask. “I have renounced my title. After my father died, I announced that I would never use the title of Maharaja,” he says.

I point out that when I had called his office for an appointment, a staffer had instructed me to address him as His Highness in my email. (I didn’t.)

Singh looks embarrassed. “Oh, I am going to blast these guys,” he says.The former minister is 85, but his use of words – along with his carriage and looks – makes him appear decades younger. Singh, in his trademark dark grey suit and Nehru cap, puts his palms on his face like a beauty queen just awarded the crown in a pageant. “Can you imagine I turned 85 in March,” he exclaims.

We are sitting in his office in his central Delhi residence. The books lined up in the shelves include a collection of Tagore, some classical poetry and Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’sKrishna Charitra. These days, he adds, he is reading U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Hindutva or Hind Swaraj.

So I ask him about the debate on Hinduism and nationalism. “The biggest problem is that there aren’t any Hindu intellectuals. The Right wingers say that Left intellectuals have dominated so far, now it’s their turn. But the Right wingers don’t have anyone of the stature of Left scholars such as Romila Thapar or the late Bipan Chandra. The Right wing suffers from an intellectual void,” he says.

Singh’s association with the Congress goes back to the Sixties. He was close to former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. He was the health minister when Gandhi imposed Emergency in 1975 and Sanjay Gandhi started his nasbandicampaign, forcibly sterilising people.

“We had our own targets for nasbandi, which we would have achieved in normal circumstances. But Sanjay Gandhi came in and forced it upon the people. I kept writing to the chief ministers of various states, saying that I was getting reports of coercion, please look into it,” he recalls. “But yes,” he admits, “I never objected to what he was doing.”

Singh, however, adds that he once wrote to Indira Gandhi, urging her to resign. “We never thought that the Emergency would go this way,” he rues.

The former governor of Jammu and Kashmir also feels that successive governments have failed Kashmir. “There is always a trust deficit among Kashmiris. I would say that whoever has come to power in Delhi has failed the Kashmiris. To put it mildly, the issue has to be handled with great courage and statesmanship.”

He believes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi – whom he calls Narendra bhai – has done “some healing” with Pakistan by inviting Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony, visiting Sharif in Lahore and also allowing the Pakistani investigating team to Pathankot to look into the terror attack there. “But he has not done any healing with the Kashmiris,” he says.

While we are on Kashmir, I ask him a question that is often posed by the people of the Valley. Why did Hari Singh sign the instrument of accession of Jammu and Kashmir to India? Generations of Kashmiris have held this act as the cause of the conflict in the region.

For the first time, I see a furrow on Singh’s forehead. The smile, too, has gone.

“My father signed it to save Kashmir. If he had not agreed to it, then Kashmiris would have all been killed by the invaders,” he replies.

Singh has seen the changing face of Kashmir – and of Indian politics. He talks about the increasing role of muscle and money power in today’s politics. “There is a change in the texture of politics,” he holds.

Politics, the Rajya Sabha member adds, is also more broad-based today. “Earlier, it was more about bhadraloks. Now…,” he says, his voice petering off. “I don’t want to put any label to it.”

Singh, who once chaired the ethics committee of the Rajya Sabha, sees more disruptions in Parliament than before. “These weaken the structure of democracy because the idea of Parliament is to debate. Previously, we had such amazing parliamentarians as A.K. Gopalan and Somnath Chatterjee, who used to haul the government over the coals through debates. But what people do now – such as disrupting proceedings and going to the well of the House – is a negation of democracy.”

But his own party members have been stalling Parliament repeatedly, I point out. Doesn’t he tell them to mend their ways? “I,” he asks incredulously, and laughs. Clearly, there is nothing much that he can say any more to party members.

Instead, he would rather focus his energies on music. Singh – who studied in Doon School and earned his doctorate in political science from Delhi University – is a great fan of the band, Dire Straits. And he loves to sing Dogri songs. He has even brought out an album of songs in Dogri, the language of the people of Jammu. Every Friday evening, he does riyaaz – practise music.

He loves the stage, too. “You will be amazed to know that my debut performance was when I played Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in school,” he laughs.

On Monday, he was back on the dais, but this time for the launch of a book on Indira Gandhi. And, as always, he sat straight. Clearly, 85 is just a number.

(The story was originally published in on May 29, 2016)

The advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol — has turned the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select as their electoral symbols, says Sonia Sarkar

If you want a pair of slippers and scissors, you are too late. And forget about laying your hands on a cot or a ceiling fan. These images — all electoral symbols — have already been taken.

Symbols are the flavour of the season. Two independent candidates from Ranchi, Ranjit Mahato and Lal Jatindra Dev, fought over the cot symbol earlier this month. Two others, Arshad Ayub and Abdul Hassan, wanted the fan. Finally an Election Commission of India (EC) officer drew lots to settle the matter. The cot went to Mahato and the ceiling fan to Arshad. Jatindra had to be satisfied with an autorickshaw, and Hassan with scissors.

These icons are an essential part of the elections that are being held across India in phases. The symbols of the bigger parties — an open palm, a lotus, hammer and sickle, bicycle and elephant — are known to the voters. But the advent of the jhadoo — the Aam Aadmi Party’s symbol, and message — has put the spotlight on all the curious objects that parties and candidates select.

Symbols have been a part of the process from 1951-52, when the first elections were held. The government wanted to help unlettered people identify the party or candidate of their choice.

“These have played very important role in India’s electoral politics for voters who have not had any formal education but are politically conscious,” Dhirubhai Sheth, senior fellow, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), stresses.

India’s literacy rate may have gone up from 18 per cent in 1951 to 74 per cent in 2011, but symbols are still important. With the number of parties growing massively (up from 53 in 1951 to over 1,600 in 2014), the pictures continue to help voters — and candidates. Not surprisingly, the number of free symbols of the EC has gone up from 25 to 87 in six decades. Apart from these listed symbols, candidates can ask for special figures which the EC has to endorse.

  • Logo list: (From top) Dr Daljit Singh, AAP candidate for Amritsar, and symbols of the Trinamul Congress, Congress, BJP and Jai Samaikyandhra Party; (below) the symbol Indira Gandhi chose when she broke away from the Congress in 1967

“With a large number of candidates fighting the polls, it is difficult for voters to remember their names. So symbols help them recognise their candidate,” points out N. Bhaskara Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, New Delhi.

Some political parties have been innovative while designing their symbols. In 1997, when Mamata Banerjee left the Congress, she wanted to send a strong message to her parent party that the grassroots level workers were with her. So she called her party Trinamul Congress (which means grassroots).

The newly-born party needed a symbol. One winter night, in her Kalighat home, Banerjee — an occasional artist — drew a logo depicting two grass flowers. “The symbol came naturally to her because it shows what we are — a party for those at the grassroots,” spokesperson Derek ‘ Brien says.

The AAP was lucky enough to find a tailor-made symbol. “The moment we saw the ‘broom’, we grabbed it,” says Yogendra Yadav, AAP political affairs committee member. “It shows our party is for the working class and wants to cleanse corruption. But when we chose it, some advertising agencies said it was ‘downmarket’ and urged us to change it. But we stuck to it.”

This year, three new symbols — a pair of slippers, green chilli, and nib with seven rays — have been added to the EC’s list. The slippers have gone to former Andhra Pradesh chief minister N. Kiran Kumar Reddy’s new Jai Samaikyandhra Party. “People wear a chappal for protection and therefore the party chose it — as its motto is to protect the people of Andhra,” a party official says.

The party says the symbol also alludes to the Ramayana. When Rama was exiled, his brother Bharata kept his elder brother’s wooden sandals at the foot of the throne as a symbol of his rule. “Footwear symbolises great service,” the official adds.

The green chilli is in the midst of a tug of war — wanted by both the UP-based Al-Hind party and actress Rakhi Sawant, who is fighting elections from Mumbai.

The EC bars the use of religious symbols and national emblems. It doesn’t allow animals because of protests from animal rights groups. Animal symbols were earlier allowed — the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Asom Gana Parishad both have an elephant as their symbol, while the All India Forward Bloc has a lion.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet.

“Since elections are all about serving the people’s needs, we usually think of articles of daily use,” a senior EC official says. “It is not our job to add meaning to it. Let the political parties make the necessary interpretations.”

Some free symbols do strike a chord with political parties. The Congress got its current symbol — an open palm — from the EC list in 1978. The party earlier had a pair of yoked bullocks as its symbol. After Indira Gandhi broke away from the Congress in 1967, she chose a calf and a cow as the symbol of her faction. The open palm became the symbol after she formed Congress (I). “We chose it because it is easy to recognise,” Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi says.

The political grapevine has it that the symbol was decided by Congress leader Buta Singh, who sought Gandhi’s approval over the phone. She kept hearing haathi (elephant), instead of haath (hand). She said no to it even as Buta tried to explain that it was not the elephant, but the open palm symbol he was advising her to pick, writes The Telegraph journalist Rasheed Kidwai in 24 Akbar Road.

Gandhi handed over the phone to Congress leader P.V. Narasimha Rao, who understood what Singh was saying. “He shouted, ‘Buta Singhji, panja kahiye, panja.’ Indira was relieved and took the receiver and said, ‘Haan, haan, panja theek rahega (Yes, yes, the open palm symbol will be appropriate).”

The Bharatiya Janata Party recently took away the orange colour of its symbol, a lotus, and turned it black and white to make the icon more visible. “The lotus represents nationalism because it is also the national flower,” party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says. “Also, as per Hindu mythology, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and Brahma, the creator of the universe, sit on a lotus. The lotus evokes strong Hindu sentiments.”

Political parties like their symbols to be distinctive. Recently, the AAP urged the EC to remove the symbol of a torch with rays arguing that it was similar to its broom. The EC modified it and it’s now a torch with no rays. It also removed a hat from its list of symbols for Andhra Pradesh at the request of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which held that the hat could be mistaken for its own symbol, a car. And it removed the road-roller for Haryana to avoid confusion with Haryana Janhit Congress’s tractor.

A symbol, clearly, is not just a picture. A victory or defeat could depend on it.

Among the free symbols are an electric pole, a telephone, table lamp, letter box, sewing machine, ring, stethoscope, pressure cooker, frock, necktie, nail cutter and helmet


The Indian icons

The time has come for all good men — and women — to come to the aid of the party. But celebrities are often treated as outsiders by political parties. Parties want them to win election but not rise.

  • Poll call: Krishna Poonia

Elections are in the air. Hoardings line the roads, prime ministerial candidates hop across the country to address the masses and recorded messages on the phone canvass for votes.

There’s another sign of the 2014 parliamentary elections. Political parties are looking at well-known men and women — and vice versa — as possible candidates for the polls.

Consider this: Information technology (IT) honcho Nandan Nilekani is likely to fight an election from Bangalore. General V.K. Singh, the just retired army chief, recently shared the dais with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. Athlete Krishna Poonia may fight an election as a Congress candidate. And Olympian Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore has resigned from the army to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“Excellence in sports is limited to personal achievement but it doesn’t excite me anymore. Politics will complete my life,” Rathore, 43, stresses.

  • Diya Kumari

Alliances between celebrities and political parties are not new. Over the years, a great many icons have joined politics. The list includes Sunil Dutt, Vinod Khanna, Dharmendra, Raj Babbar, Shatrughan Sinha, Govinda, Kirti Azad and Mohammed Azharuddin. People have come in from other fields too — such as the army (B.C. Khanduri and J.F.R. Jacob), diplomacy (Shashi Tharoor) and science (Raja Ramanna). “It is a marriage of convenience,” says Shatrughan Sinha of the BJP.

At the core of this arrangement is a political party’s desire to rake in more seats, and a well-known personality’s wish to make a mark — usually when on the verge of retirement.

“Celebrities are already seen as heroes in the public eye, so this makes the seat winnable for political parties. For celebrities, it is a shortcut to more fame and the unlimited power that come along with politics,” explains Dhirubhai Sheth, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

Indeed, in these cynical times, when politicians are being roundly castigated for corruption, crime and communalism, the outsiders are often seen as whiffs of fresh air. “We need them to give a boost to politics. They have both visibility and credibility, which politicians often lack,” Congress spokesperson P.C. Chacko states.

  • Nandan Nilekani

That could be the reason the Congress plans to offer the south Bangalore seat to Nilekani, chief of the Unique Identification Development Authority of India.

“South Bangalore is a constituency of technocrats and for them, Nilekani needs no introduction. We wanted someone like him to fight the BJP’s candidate, Ananth Kumar, who has been winning the seat,” Chacko adds.

Like the Congress, which fielded actors Rajesh Khanna and Sunil Dutt, the BJP has a long history of showcasing candidates with no political backgrounds but immense public appeal. During the Ram Janmabhoomi wave — when Ramayan and Mahabharat aired on Doordarshan — its pantheon included Deepika “Sita” Chikhalia, Arun “Ram” Govil and Arvind “Ravan” Trivedi. Among the many Bollywood stars it has successfully — or not so unsuccessfully — projected are, apart from Sinha, Hema Malini and Dharmendra.

  • Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore

“We welcome them because they have already proved their calibre in certain fields,” says BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.

Not many, however, have had memorable stints in politics. Chikhalia, who faded out soon after her debut, describes her move as an “accidental jump” into politics. “I was seen as the perfect candidate to promote the ideology of the party then,” Chikhalia, who won from Vadodra in 1991, says.

Smriti Irani of the BJP — who made her mark on television as Tulsi — is among the few who segued into politics effortlessly. Though she lost to Kapil Sibal of the Congress from Delhi in 2004, she is the articulate face of her party.

  • General V.K. Singh

“It’s all about the meeting of minds,” Rathore maintains. “I chose the BJP because I believe in its philosophy of nationalism, cadre-based politics and good leadership.”

For political parties, celebrity endorsement is important. “Celebrities are in demand because of their ability to communicate with the people,” explains Chakshu Roy, head of the outreach team of the Delhi-based PRS Legislative Research.

But popularity doesn’t always translate into votes. Actor and Union tourism minister K. Chiranjeevi, who contested the Andhra election in 2009, had lakhs of people attending his rallies. But his erstwhile Praja Rajyam Party could win only 18 of 294 Assembly seats.

Often, once the election is over, the newcomers find that they have no place in the party hierarchy. They face resentment from party members who’ve worked hard over the years in the hope of contesting from a particular constituency.

“Politicians want stars to get the crowd but they don’t really want them to rise,” Sinha says.

Shooter and Asian Games gold medalist Jaspal Rana agrees. “I was 19 and wanted to be a youth leader when I joined the BJP. But seasoned politicians don’t let others grow,” says Rana, who is now with the Congress.

This, a source close to Poonia says, worries her too. Though overtures have been made by the Congress, she is not clear about the offer. “She would leave her job in the railways and join the Congress only if it promised her a good role in the party,” says the source.

Chikhalia’s story may deter Poonia. The ex-actress recalls that her equation with the BJP changed soon after she won the seat. “Gradually, I realised that the party fielded me because it wanted the seat. Once the seat was won, its attitude towards me changed. I was always seen as an outsider.”

Some newbies, on the other hand, claim they have no expectations of the party. “I am here to serve the people in the manner my party would like me to,” holds Diya Kumari of the erstwhile royal family of Jaipur, who has just joined the BJP.

Politicians stress that in this dog-eat-dog world, only the fittest survive. “If the individual has acumen, he or she gets an opportunity (to rise),” Sitharaman holds. Sinha adds that newcomers need to understand the rules of the game. It took him many years to mature as a politician, he says.

Political leaders add that the so-called “outsiders” often don’t know how parties function. “Many of them think that if they have won a seat, they should get a ministerial berth. They don’t understand the dynamics of politics,” Chacko complains.

Some of them are hardly seen in Parliament. Sinha and Hema Malini, who asked 117 questions and participated in six debates over four years, are exceptions. Others — such as Dharmendra and Azharuddin — have contributed little to policy or polity.

PRS Legislative Research reports that Azharuddin asked five questions and participated in two debates between June 2009 and September 2013. Chiranjeevi neither participated in a debate nor asked a question.

The electorate has to wait to see how the season’s new politicians will perform.

Preparations are in full swing in the white three-storey house in Hyderabad’s tony Banjara Hills. Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) chief Kalvakuntla Chandrasekar Rao or KCR is on his way back home. Roses have been prettily arranged in his living room. His favourite tomato dal and spicy chicken curry have been prepared. As Rao steps out of his white Innova, thousands of supporters welcome him with shouts of ‘Jai Telangana.’







Around 12 kilometres away in a somewhat rundown apartment in Adarh Nagar’s new MLA quarters, a bespectacled man sips tea as he talks to a group of men. Professor Muddasani Kodandaram Reddy, the convener of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC), is charting out its next course of action. The TJAC is a collective of 20 pro-Telangana non-political groups and three political parties — the TRS, Bharatiya Janata Party and CPI(M-L) New Democracy







In his bungalow ‘Hemlatha’, Kavuru Sambasiva Rao, the five-time Congress MP from Eluru, is attending to guests. He looks relaxed and assures his colleagues who represent Seemandhra — a name carved out of Rayalseema and Andhra –that the Centre will not grant statehood to Telangana.





Meet the three men rowing a boat called Telangana. KCR and Kodandaram, both 58, seek to guide it to a new shore. Rao, 69, is trying to push it back to the dock.




KCR is the political force that spearheads the movement, Kodandaram is its non-political face and Rao its aggressive foe.




Throughout September, they were camping in Delhi, where KCR and Kodandaram met top Congress leaders including Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ahmed Patel, Vayalar Ravi and Oscar Fernandes. Kodandaram also met home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. Rao lobbied with the same batch of leaders and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.



Demands for Telangana – which the Centre merged with Andhra to form Andhra Pradesh in 1956 — first came up in 1969. The people of Telangana felt they were being marginalised in the new state.


Both sides have their arguments. Those supporting Telangana – a 114,840-sq-km region stretching from Adilabad in the north and Mahbubnagar in the south with a population of3.5 crore –believe a new state will bring development to an area that has been traditionally backward. Those against feel that losing the capital of Hyderabad will lead to untold losses and further unrest.





“KCR is demanding a separate state on the sentiments of the people, which is illogical. For the socio-economic development of the region, the Centre can form a Telangana territorial council,” says Rao, as he bites into a fluffy idli for breakfast.






The owner of the Progressive Constructions Limited and Hyderabad’s super-speciality Medwin hospital believes that if Telangana is granted, there will be calls for a separate Rayalseema and perhaps even a division of coastal and north Andhra. “We will not allow any division of Andhra Pradesh,” he stresses.




But KCR, MP from Mahbubnagar, is all ready for a fight. Belonging to the warrior community of Velama, he is known to be a good political strategist and has offered to merge his party with the Congress if it accepts Telangana.




“TRS was formed to get a separate statehood. Once it is achieved, there is no need for the party to exist,” says KCR’s daughter Kalvakuntla Kavitha.




Realpolitics is at play as well. The Congress may be in electoral trouble in 2014.  “In the Andhra region, the rise of (ex-Congressman) Jagan Mohan Reddy will work against the Congress. If the Congress doesn’t announce a separate state by the year-end, it will be impossible for the party to win any seats even in Telangana,” a Congress MP worries.



On the other hand, some believe the strong base of the TSR in the 10 districts of Telangana could help the Congress win 16 of the 17 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 elections if the two parties work together.




But Rao, who represents a team of Seemandhra Congress MPs while lobbying with the Centre, rejects the contention. The Gandhi family loyalist has been assuring the High Command of a sure shot win for the party.




Kodandaram, on the other hand, is seemingly unperturbed. The professor of political science at Osmania University — now on a sabbatical — is more concerned about mobilising masses.




A farmer’s son from Adilabad, Kodandaram was active in the civil liberties movement of the 80s. “Kodandaram is an honest intellectual who feels for the cause but is not a strategist who can get anything substantial out of the Centre,” says political analyst K. Nageshwar.




Kodandaram came into the limelight in 2009 when KCR went on an indefinite hunger strike. When the fast entered its 11th day, then union home minister P. Chidambaram told Parliament the process for the “formation of Telangana” had begun. But the move was followed by a mass resignation of Congress MLAs from Seemandhra, forcing the party to retract. It constituted a committee headed by Justice Sri Krishna to look into the issue.




Meanwhile, KCR floated his own channel T-News and set up the TJAC to mobilise popular support. Kodandaram was asked to head it. He believes it was his “clean” image as a teacher that prompted the party to seek him out. “When politicians say something, the middle class sees it with suspicion. When teachers say something, they believe it,” Kodandaram sresses.




But political insiders believe not all is well within the TJAC. There are rumours of a rift between Kodandaram and KCR – sparked by an assembly by-election in Mahbubnagar this year when the local JAC unit supported the BJP which won the seat.




Sources say KCR was also against a Telangana rally called by the TJAC on September 30, as it was organised when he was negotiating with the Centre. KCR did not participate in the march but his son Kalvakuntla Taraka Rama Rao and nephew Thanneru Harish Rao – both MLAs – were there, apart from Kavitha.



TRS members shrug off talks of a rift. “He has organised bigger meetings than this,” says a senior TRS member.



A graduate in Telugu literature, KCR’s fine oratory skills laced with folklore have always pulled crowds. “He speaks in the local dialect to connect with the people,” says political scientist G. Haragopal.





Everyone agrees that KCR is the sustained political force behind the Telangana movement – a demand that he has been voicing ever since he broke off from the Telugu Desam Party and floated the TRS in 2001.




Some in the TJAC, however, believe that KCR has been making “false” promises. “He has often announced specific dates for Telangana’s formation. But he has not been able to achieve anything. This is eroding his credibility,” says a TJAC member.




There is also speculation that KCR, who suffers from diabetes, wants to exit from local politics and is eyeing a bigger role at the Centre. But Kavitha, who is managing the media for KCR, stresses that he has not expressed any such desire so far. But he is a reticent man who keeps his thoughts to himself, she adds.




Rao too has decided to keep a low profile for the time being. “There is no need for further talks with the Centre as of now,” he holds.



Meanwhile, Kodandaram is busy reading books on civil society and its relationship with political parties. “It will help us work in tandem with parties,” smiles Kodandaram.



Telangana’s three Ks are taking a breather – only so that they can come back with more air in their lungs.