Friday, April 18, 2014

India: Non Vegetarian Majority With A Vegetarian Ruling Class?

India: Non Vegetarian Majority With A Vegetarian Ruling Class?
                                                                                       Saeed Naqvi
The Hindu newspaper, which has its main office in Chennai, has asked its employees not to bring non vegetarian food to the dining room because the smell offends vegetarian members of the staff.

Is it an illiberal step? In the times we live, dietary restriction, or license, would be the wrong measure to gauge liberalism in a newspaper office.

In a country as varied as India, generalizations too must be resisted. Beef is taboo in the Hindi belt but not elsewhere. Mention of pork in Moradabad and Rampur would be an invitation to a riot. But every decent home in, say, Mizoram would have piglets in a pen at the entrance.

This infinite variety is the bulwark and insurance against uniformity. Chennai’s plentiful fish may no longer be allowed in The Hindu dining hall but its consumption in this the most non vegetarian of states will continue unabated.

Quite frankly, one does not know what pressures operated on The Hindu management to issue the edict. Was it reckless non vegetarianism of the new employees or their squeamishness which resulted in the notice? Is there a clash of generations, of castes? It is a sociological study.

As a non vegetarian with a Catholic palate, I endorse vegetarianism once a day, even some days in a week. This is the custom in countries like Turkey and Iran, known for their cuisine. Pakistani hospitality is overwhelming but I sometimes fear that the people make a statement with a culture of excessive red meat.

During my years in Chennai as a journalist, I was fortunate to have struck a chord with S. Balachander, the great Veena player, who cooked chicken curry for me in his house in Mylapore, the Mecca of Brahminism in South India. The chicken came with a string attached to it. I had to side with him in the epic battle he was waging against a renowned Carnatic singer, S. Semmangudi. The music community was divided.

Was Swathi Thirunal, the young prince of Travancore state in the 19th century, a good enough composer to have his portrait adorn the Music Academy, the very heart of Carnatic Sangeet, alongside the great trinity – Thyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswamy Dikshitar? Ofcourse yes, said Semmangudi. Over my dead body, yelled Balachander and proceeded to cook one more chicken for me. He won.

The least provincial part of Chennai was the Madras Club, on the Adyar. The club accepted its first Indian member in 1963, celebrated Deepawali as Guy Fawkes Day until 1982 and served fare which would not amuse the present management of The Hindu – bull’s hump, boiled overnight in salt and sliced into steaks. It was the Madras variant of Oxtail – famous in Spanish cities known for bull fights.

The march of time has taken its toll of colonial exoticism. Idli and Dosa are back on a varied menu.

By flying the banner of vegetarianism, The Hindu has in fact joined the mainstream newspaper houses like The Time of India, Hindustan Times and The Indian Express. In these establishments even garlic and onion are taboo. These ingredients are also banned in the famous “langar” or mass feeding at the great Sufi shrine in Ajmer, but the argument is different. In establishments mentioned above, these are banned because “we don’t like it”. In Sufi shrines these ingredients are prohibited so that the food is acceptable to the largest number. The Hindu management could have achieved the same effect employing a gentler argument.

In large parts of India, most notably in the Hindi heartland, urbanity is being overwhelmed by a mofussil invasion. The non vegetarian Hindu elite in Lucknow evolved because it had crossed over from its feudal enclaves or the old cities to the cantonments and the Civil Lines. This elite is being replaced by a substantial mofussil intake, less cosmopolitan and more devout. It will keep calendar photographs of Gods under the glass top, and possibly even insist on a small puja in the adjacent room.

First, the black ties and the cummerbunds disappeared, then the Shervanis receded. Slowly the Khan e samaan (the keeper of the kitchen) faded away with his recipes. The aabdar (classical bar man) mutated into a character in the hospitality sector. Society changes as it must. One must credit some of it to growing egalitarianism. In the twirl of transformation one permanent fixture always puzzles me. When will “English wine and liquor” shops merge with “theka sharab desi” or “country liquor” vends? We are the only country in the world with institutionalized separate liquor outlets for the rich and the poor.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Congress Prepares For Defeat, As Smaller Parties Build Castles Around It

Congress Prepares For Defeat, As Smaller Parties Build Castles Around It
                                                                                     Saeed Naqvi
I thought election 2014 would come with nailbiting suspense until I turned up at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club on Mathura Road where the Congress Whiz kid from Chicago, Sam Pitroda, was holding court in a Tarpauline Tent which looked like a parking lot for camels.

Every now and then he would throw up his hands and shrug his shoulders in an expression of disgust. “What can I do?” he would ask in a state of despair. He was lamenting the spectacular way in which the Congress was about to lose the elections.

According to him, Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi refused to meet the press, connect with the people, even when the “opposition” campaign consisted overwhelmingly of media management. He spelt out other reasons for the coming debacle, among them a singular lack of commitment or application on the part of the coteries around the trio. He shrugged his shoulders again and blurted out in Chicago accents: “That’s what we gaat (got)”. He repeated. “That’s what we gaat”. In other words the human resource in the service of the party was devoid of talent.

Bifurcation of power between Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh was bad enough, but the emergence of a third power centre, Rahul Gandhi, after the party’s reasonable showing in the 2009 elections, turned out to be disastrous. Rahul should have become a Minister in the Prime Minister’s office. That way he would have learnt the system, Pitroda said.

Instead, Rahul was persuaded by his coterie to become the third power centre. The three coteries then proceeded not to talk to each other. And now that defeat stares Congressmen in the face, one detects the beginnings of recrimination.

Is it not surprising that a confidant of the Gandhi family should be throwing in the towel in public view a full month before the last polling day?

The mood in the house of another Gandhi loyalist was almost funereal. Also, a fierce blame-game had begun:
“Manmohan Singh and his Principal Secretary during UPA-I, T.K.A. Nair lost their grip on the administration. Officials down the line stopped listening to us. Gradually, a sense grew that there was no government in Delhi.”

Congressmen have developed a culture in recent years of backbiting their seniors consistently and in whispers. If you string together these “whispers”, what emerges is a disturbing narrative of the Congress High Command and their coteries, allowing power to slip out of their hands, like a sand glass. What they supervise today is a structure which has been hollowed out. A coup of sorts has already taken place. Retired Supreme Court Judges have refused to head a committee to investigate “snoopgate” against Narendra Modi.

Army Generals, senior bureaucracy, including Home Secretaries, have crossed over to their party of choice on the morrow of their retirement. A whole system has in its mind defected.

No one heard Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde when he went around beating his breast that Home Secretary R.K. Singh was not listening to him. The way Singh supervised Afzal Guru’s hanging in Tihar jail was allegedly in violation of Shinde’s instructions. Having brought about closure of a case which had its origins in the NDA, Singh crossed over to the BJP.

Long knives are out even against political colleagues like former Law Minister, Hansraj Bhardwaj and Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. During UPA-I, they are alleged to have hesitated in taking timely action against Modi in Gujarat. The implication of this astonishing plaint is that the two gents were closet Hindutva. If that indeed is what the High Command thought of them, why were they gifted with comfortable gubernatorial slots? In the cloak and dagger world of courtly politics, Ministers of Home and Law respectively must be kept in good humour. They know too much.

Meanwhile, an ironical twist attends the fate of the Congress. While some of its own stalwarts have thrown in the towel, warranting Sharad Pawar’s anxious plea that it must fight harder, the Left Front’s secret assessment is that the Congress will win 135 seats. To reinforce this line of optimism, youth wings of the Left parties including CPIML have been sent to Varanasi to help Ajai Rai of the Congress in his contest against Modi and Arvind Kejriwal. Powerful Muslim candidate Mukhtar Ansari’s withdrawal from Varanasi had tilted the scales in Kejriwal’s favour. But the Left priority here seem to be not so much to defeat Modi as to keep AAP in check and also to hold out an olive branch to the Congress for a possible post election game plan.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

But For Modi, Muslims Have Little To Choose Between Congress And BJP

But For Modi, Muslims Have Little To Choose Between Congress And BJP
                                                                                           Saeed Naqvi

Muslim Spokesmen, appointed by few know whom, are all over the TV channels. With election fever picking up, they are also forming delegations and trooping into homes of politicians to strike deals on behalf of the Qaum.

The latest in brief limelight is Imam Bukhari of Jama Masjid. He met Congress President Sonia Gandhi “for 45 minutes”. He says he “discussed the arrest of Muslim youth in terror cases, implementation of the Sachar Committee and Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendations, Anti Communal Violence Bill”. More likely, she listened to him.

The Indian Express report said the Imam’s endorsement would “bolster the Congress campaign, especially in Uttar Pradesh”. But this was precisely the calculation when the Congress fielded the Imam’s son-in-law from Saharanpur for the 2012 state assembly election. He lost.

If Sonia Gandhi imagines she is dealing with a leader of Indian Muslims, she will not be doing much good to her party, Indian Muslims or the Imam. It is empirically proven that in the political sphere his word does not carry.

The Congress President should know that a running battle between Muslim factions on the issue of Waqf land in New Delhi has been holding up traffic in key areas of the capital region with alarming frequency. It is a trifling matter but with potential for sectarian clashes. Did the Imam ever intervene? If he did not have a say in the matter, surely the government had the authority to implement a High Court order pertaining to the land which happens to be in the fancy Jorbagh area. It is not even an issue, just a small dispute which has led to a breach of peace more than once. People who live in the area have begun to see this “intra Muslim” quarrel disturbing their daily lives.

It turns out that there is no leadership worth the name which can mediate between people and the government on this as on any civic issue. The problem becomes severe in Muslim enclaves. People, after having voted on Election Day, are left to their devices. Come Election Day and again the Imam is required to pull out his grand apparel.

For decades Muslims remained regular Congress voters. This was their respite from the trauma of partition and its aftermath. The first intimations of political mortality for Indira Gandhi came in 1967:  she lost in eight northern states.

Then came the first indications of a Nehru-Gandhi figure becoming saffron-positive: Indira Gandhi began to canvass Hindu support. The “Muslim appeasement” chant of the Sangh Parivar had begun to corrode the secular fa├žade of even Indira Gandhi.

This anxiety became even more pronounced in the Rajiv Gandhi years. V.N. Gadgil, Congress General Secretary, told me in 1985, that “Hindus were beginning to fear that Muslims were appeased by successive Congress governments”. How “appeased” the minorities were became clear in the Sachar Committee Report in 2006. But the Congress had already set into motion steps to woo Hindu sentiment. In 1986 it opened the locks to the Mandir in Ayodhya. Climax was reached with Rajiv Gandhi promising “Ram Rajya” while kicking off the party’s 1989 election campaign from Ayodhya.

To keep the Muslims in his sway, Rajiv banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, upturned the Supreme Court verdict on the Shah Bano case and delayed upgrading relations with Israel, as if these were the bread and butter issues for Indian Muslims. Those have never been addressed.

Rajiv’s faulty moves on issues he had no instinctive feel for left the field open for the BJP to expand. P.V. Narasimha Rao found it more important to thwart Arjun Singh’s political aspirations, than to build defences against the rising tide of the BJP.

History will judge P.V. as having been a better friend of Atal Behari Vajpayee than of any Congress leader. Little wonder that L.K. Advani described him as the best Prime Minister since Lal Bahadur Shastri. And why not? During the 1965 war with Pakistan, Shastri had asked the RSS to take over Civil Defence duties.

This, Madame Congress President, is a trend which your party is not equipped to reverse. You must know that the party you supervise is the one that Muslims would have been the most averse to had the RSS-BJP not chosen a candidate whom even a magazine like the Economist has flinched from endorsing.

On the December 7, 2013, the country did not know what would be in the cards on December 8, when election results to four state assemblies were to be announced. The Congress was trounced in all the four and in Delhi emerged AAP, quite miraculously. Many including the Muslims did not know that AAP had this extraordinary potential. It became a matter of survival for the Indian establishment to check AAP in its tracks. That too is what the nation including its Muslims will wait to see with bated breath on May 16.

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Friday, March 28, 2014

Elections 2014: Between Wave And Reality, The Shadow Of Figures

Elections 2014: Between Wave And Reality, The Shadow Of Figures
                                                                                             Saeed Naqvi
Anil Trivedi, tall, with an unkept grey beard, settles down over a cup of tea in my Indore hotel room, putting aside his AAP cap. His companion, Gaurav Chandak, a younger man, is an Indian Institute of Technology graduate and committed social worker. He “had to vote” for the BJP in the December elections, he complains, because the Congress has not offered much of a contest in Indore in recent years.

Therefore when AAP erupted with the suddenness of revelation in the Delhi elections on December 8, Gaurav began to inquire if there would be an AAP candidate from Indore for next month’s Parliamentary elections.

A fortnight ago, friends led him to Anil Trivedi, the AAP candidate who was himself looking for help. Since then, Gaurav has been Anil’s one man secretariat. The two have discovered that campaigning on two wheelers is a huge convenience in a city which has 16 lakh cars in a population of 22 lakhs. “Whenever we stop, a crowd gathers enabling us to address street-corner meetings”. He proposes to mobilize “a car or two” to be able to campaign in the 700 villages under the constituency.

The sitting BJP MP, Sumitra Mahajan, not accustomed to too much exertion in past elections, is suddenly having to contend with a different culture of electioneering. It would be risky to pick victors and vanquished, but the electorate in Indore are finding the intimacy of AAP’s door to door canvassing persuasive.

From Patna, Lucknow or Indore, the overall picture also looks different. In the course of channel surfing the avid election watcher does linger longer on the manufactured Modi show beamed from the principal English and Hindi channels, but these images are not as overpowering as they tend to be in New Delhi or Mumbai. Smaller cities are reliable listening posts for the rural hinterland where the influence of the trunk route media declines.

A conversation in the plush office of Indore’s powerful Hindi daily is much more down-to-earth, based on real figures. There are a total of 200 seats in Andhra, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Odissa, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, West Bengal, Delhi, Arunachal, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, Tripura, Chandigarh and Pondicherry. In this substantial chunk of India there is, at present, not a single seat with the BJP. In a Lok Sabha of 543, the party has 343 from which to coax a majority for the NDA. This is a feasible proposition except that pocket calculators are out in every constituency where alternative coalitions are being dreamed up.

The party is certain to pick up a seat or two in Uttarakhand, Haryana but where else? Tamil Nadu?

In Bihar, Chattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh the BJP has a total of 66 seats out of a total of 126. It will probably add to its numbers here.

UP, Rajasthan, Punjab account for 118 seats of which the BJP has only 15 at present. Will it double these seats or treble them? This is precisely where the BJP could grow exponentially if its ambitious project of social engineering succeeds. This entails saffronization of the lower castes.

Will this project be to the liking of UP’s Brahmins who have been wandering from camp to camp in search of patronage and stability ever since their secure edifice, the Congress, collapsed in the late 80s. They shifted to the BJP imagining it to be the new parking lot for the upper caste. But the BJP at this stage was adjusting to the post Mandal commission caste politics. Kalyan Singh, a lodh, became Chief Minister, much to the Brahmin’s chagrin. He has over the years adjusted even to Mayawati’s blandishments.

This time, if a section of Brahmins stays with Mayawati her chances will be considerably boosted. It is of vital importance to Modi that this support somehow becomes available to the BJP.

The Muslim vote in UP is drifting towards the BSP. But here too there is a complication. In every alternate seat one runs into the same unexpected campaigners, wearing an AAP cap and riding a two wheeler. In a four cornered contest, Muslims will vote in the following order of preference – AAP, BSP, Congress and Samajwadi Party. Never was the SP so much out of favour with Muslims in UP. They are punishing the SP for Muzaffarnagar just as they punished the Congress in Rajasthan for it callousness in Gopalgarh.

The BJP will have to fight tooth and nail to improve its tally of 32 seats from a total of 90 in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Assam. The Gandhi family will be in deeper trouble if Uma Bharati and Smriti Irani are fielded from Rae Bareli and Amethi respectively. Congress workers in both these constituencies wait anxiously for Priyanaka who remains absent.

The greatest unpredictability imposed on these elections is by AAP which has changed the terms of the game but whose own score will remain a total mystery until the votes are counted on May 16.

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