Sunday, June 26, 2016

Decoding India’s vox populi hysteria


2014: The Election that Changed India, by Rajdeep Sardesai, Viking in Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., Gurgaon – 122002, Year2014, 372pp, Indian Rupees599, Hard.      

ndia witnessed its most hyped general election in 2014 since country’s independence in 1947. This election revived Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fortunes by bringing Narendra Modi at the helm of power in an extreme glorification. Political pundits would profess his win a ray of hope for then “beleaguered Indian economy.” Ironically no such revival is seen yet which analysts had foreseen. His exaggerated vision stimulated but equally thawed fast.  

Television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai brilliantly observed Indian elections as watchdog—and thus came the book 2014: The Election that Changed India. Viewpoints on election strategies of BJP and Indian National Congress (INC) or regional parties are bold assessments. It primarily focuses on India’s watershed general election of 2014 though. He also disseminates many circumstantial factors that proved bad omen for few political outfits in this election.  

The polemical observation of world’s largest electoral exercise is from the manifestation of Narendra Modi to Rahul Gandhi and many other leaders. This book critically studies the fast emergence of Hindu chauvinism and voter mobilization escalations. Campaigns which created extreme hypes orchestrated Modi as a messiah by superseding the gory incidences of 2002 Gujarat genocide during his rule in the Western Indian state.

In a daring but eloquent narration, Sardesai mentions personal encounter in Gujarat as a firsthand witness of worst form of communal disharmony. He narrates how a band of sword-wielding Hindu fanatics literally dragged his team onto road asking to prove if Muslim to be killed or Hindu to be spared soon after they had interviewed the then chief minister Modi. Such descriptions in this book portray the deep variance between claims and realities.

Author’s narratives illustrate equivocal journalism he practiced as a sharp reporter with nerve to judge political scenarios. In-depth assessment of Indian polity, own observations and election reporting analysis, this book sheds light on the changing scenarios of India’s electoral exercise. As an analog on political ambitions, well-crafted mass mobilizations and vested interests this book is a true account of election gimmicks.   

Study of India’s 16th Lok Sabha election would remain incomplete without thorough reading of this book which highlights multiple factors paving the way for Modi’s win—and BJP literally shrunk besides INC facing its crossroads. Without any visible change seen from BJP-led government preceding observations by political pundits has literally proved futile. Modi’s election strategies were unparalleled campaigns planned strategically to use digital tools for mass mobilization. Two years prior to election year he was determined with action plan for a win-win target—to make the win predictable.

Modi’s groundwork was deliberately kept aloof from the media glare until felt necessary. It is worth observing his emergence from a smalltime politician to country’s premiership. Sardesai first met him in 1990s. Their occasional interactions continued thereafter. He would report all his moves as BJP prime ministerial candidate meticulously even before general elections were declared. Many reports projected his enigmatic figure, aspirations and the creation of a wave. This book equally reflects several opponent leaders’ haplessness during the elections.

Politicians from other cult, especially regional parties who could leave bigger impact in case of a coalition or perhaps BJP could be short of majority, have also been profiled sincerely. In giving big share to Modi, this book highlights his campaigning brilliance, humor, edgy bombasts and earnest desire that eased him surpassing other senior BJP leaders.

Sardesai writes that his friendly relation with Modi almost became tempestuous post-Godhra coverage. Other events before the general election like anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare protest covered by the global media to birth of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) headed by its leader and current Delhi chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal to loopholes in INC and Rahul Gandhi’s inefficiencies have been penned sharply. Congress’ failing in damage control and fear psychosis of many other leaders across the parties are book’s notable snapshots.

The author has magnificently profiled few self-made Indian women politicians Mayawati, Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee et al. As a newsman he showcases the temperament of these leaders besides presenting a firsthand experience of knowing those powerful women.

Strategic campaign plan of Modi amalgamated business school graduates and swayamsevaks working together. Ironically, his opponents implied several wrong strategies to mess up and invite doom. In nutshell, this book perfectly profiles India’s political diaspora. Mature readers enjoy it with keen sense on politics without opinionated biasness. Going into great detail, it also examines counter narrative on Modi’s PR team unleashing with an aim to build his image out of the 2002 pogrom. As groundbreaking reportage, it informs readers about countless individuals working in a backdrop as Modi’s publicity machineries for win. Sardesai claims that it was not media that created Modi wave. Rahul Gandhi’s easygoing leadership against the solidity impression of Narendra Modi widened that gap. Media only rode that wave.

Several monotonous facts which have already reached to the Indian homes through television have been refreshingly highlighted through this book. Without wriggling the facts imprint in people’s minds and those available in print are meticulously summed in this narration which literally brought India on doldrums. Some of them were Ram Janmabhoomi movement, communal riots and other misfortunes that changed India’s political firmament.

Sardesai is derisive on Rahul Gandhi in a context of off the record interactions especially without latter’s overarching vision. The series of missteps brought expected disaster of INC. Through a sneak-peak into leader’s team he points out that cutting off from grassroots halted its prospects even after a decades’ rule. Giving ample room to AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal’s emergence this book mentions Indian media’s passionate coverage of Anna movement that metamorphosed country’s political mood. He is critical of television media particularly ridiculous journalistic exercises in prime time debates and failing to develop sense of ground reporting by ignoring media ethics. He questions rotten media identity that ‘breaking news has indeed become broken news.’ Cheap studio talks are ethically hollow and loose talks. They don’t maintain solid ground reporting trends and focus is on certain pockets only.

Historic swept of BJP in 2014 was a singular triumph for Narendra Modi and so did it defy the known orthodoxies pertaining to Indian elections. Rural-urban divides and traditional caste loyalties literally proved wrong in this election that was indeed thoughtful reflection on a new trend where sensation-seeking television paved the way for BJP rise. It brought constant decline of Congress to the cameo of few political protagonists.

Nondescript media campaigns by Modi team developed an understanding that India was in a verge of “change.” Younger, aspirational and upwardly mobile societies were his primarily targets. Energetic, focused and expensive campaigns in the presence of an unquestioning media engrained his foot. Discredited rivals further boosted his morale. According to him unpredicted success of BJP in 2014 election with Modi’s personality cult it became contextual to the US presidential elections. Well-planned agenda set pace for his voter monopolization.
This book questions the role of India’s television media failing to use resources for earnest interrogation of BJP prime ministerial candidate’s leadership credentials during campaigns. It literally swam in the wave as an offhand fourth estate. Questions are on media’s lax attitude to test the fabled ‘Gujarat Model of Modi.’

Scenario would have been entirely different if media played candid role to crosscheck his credibility as a responsible press instead of believing his words. Ironically media became part of ‘Modi propaganda machine’ instead of playing its role of an independent entity. Indian media will always be questioned in history for augmenting blunders during 16th general elections in reporting the biggest democratic exercise.

This review first published in on June 26, 2016

Monday, June 20, 2016

New hope, newer beginning


Sri Lanka: The New Country, by Padma Rao Sundarji, HarperCollins Publishers (India), Noida -201301, Year2015, 322pp, Indian Rupees 499, Soft.   

ooks on post-war Sri Lanka often bring variegated perspective on island nation. Padma Rao Sundarji illustrates a stimulating picture in Sri Lanka: The New Country. Most books themed on this country portray grim scenarios that engulfed it for three decades. This travelogue cum post-war reporting vividly recounts the observation of a journalist on the troubled region which strived for peace. It is a firsthand assessment of Sri Lankan masses gaining self-confidence after encountering the gory scenes.

A spellbind reportage on Sri Lanka at its best by German publication Der Spiegel’s former South Asia correspondence, this book claims to have carried detailed versions of reports on the island nation that would have often been trimmed to suit to the Western mindset. Impelling reports found room in this book. 

She spoke her mind while presenting the core idea of a nation. They are the scenarios from war-torn Sri Lanka to its emergence as a new country coming out of hounding past. Her interactions with Sri Lankan army officers, former LTTE cadres and locals are parts of the fact-finding reportages. Balanced reports defy ‘defending some and blaming other’ notion. 

Post-war Sri Lanka is still a center of attention in the context of military reeling under the alleged human rights abuses during the final phase of brutal war which ended in May 2009 to rout out the Tamil Tigers rebels. Author’s travels around the country on many occasions including recent one for this book are meticulous firsthand reports and independent observations. She witnessed this country coming out of the “darkness of a long, murderous and frightening tunnel” to the ray of hope. She witnessed socio-political transition in the lives of common Sri Lankans in recent past.  

Readers get a dose of history which the author brings as an unbound treasure of facts on Sri Lanka especially its glorious past. She laments that civil war spanning for three decades crushed region’s historic gleam. Though boom is vivid now the sharp-eyed journalist converses with Sri Lankan Tamils to know reason of their angers over a senseless war LTTE waged hypothetically for them. They believe that Indian Tamils’ hues and cries for them are but unworkable hoaxes.

Insights into scenes in Jaffna which author visualizes as a foreign correspondent are vigorous. She interviews many people—literally everybody from those brought the idea of war to people causing the deadliest war to sufferers from this war. An interview of one woman Laxmi out of the countless poor victims whose lamentations have been narrated brings a vivid picture. They speak how LTTE would pick to sacrifice adolescent boys and girls for an aimless “cause” that steadily traumatized the masses just to tarnish country’s image. They were forcibly made fighters to die as human shields. Inside story on countless missing youths whose whereabouts are still not known has been questioned in this book.   

Persuading Sri Lankan military officers to explain the other side of the story of brutality believed to be allegedly done by them on the civilians, she repeatedly coaxes them during her meetings with them. Interviewing former Sri Lankan president Percy Mahendra ‘Mahinda’ Rajapaksa to know the exact scenario, unlike the world media’s prejudices on post-war Sri Lanka, authenticate her claims. Personal visits to places like LTTE jails where cadres accused of betraying were locked or executed besides inside stories from ordinary Sri Lankan Tamils encountering the pain of their children abducted from schools to countless other horrific tales are ghastly flashbacks.

This book also mentions the hypocrisies of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran who lived luxurious life in underground air-conditioned bunkers and availed best facilities in contrast to the poor Tamil families often slaughtered in the name of a promise for “their own land.” The author points out several such discomforting facts related to the war. Many former LTTE guerrillas are still considered outcastes in the Sri Lankan societies. Military officials reveal during interviews that ordinary Tamils would accept them back into their folds sooner.

Bringing other perspectives like pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora in Western world with their flimsy imaginations for revival of the mystic Tamil Eelam for Sri Lankan Tamil causes she has much to narrate. One senior army official emphasized during conversation with the author that until such ideologies circulate soldiers can’t quit the north and eastern Sri Lanka which is now prospering. Former LTTE cadres including ex-chief international financier cum weapons procurer K. Pathmanathan (KP) insisted that such ideologies would only damage the flourishing Sri Lanka.

As frequent visitor to Sri Lanka the author saw transformations hence agrees to that it is emerging as a new country now. Rapid developments in the regions that were once war zones strengthen this claim. With the eradication of LTTE countless Sri Lankan youths born during or after the war’s eruption have a newer confidence. This book though highlights other set of problems which halt country’s growth especially Buddhist suppressions of other religious minorities.

Likewise, steps taken by the army to destroy LTTE war memorials in Jaffna weren’t prudent. She agreed with army that it was time to move ahead to build a new country rather than keeping the monstrous memories from the past which could be rather erased at the earliest.  

It is a seminal book on contemporary Sri Lanka. It is a knowhow of a country as an outcome of author’s research and regular travels over the years. It brings many facts to learn about a nation that dreamed to obliterate a past to build future. Inundated with author's opinion and arguments the book has done justice in portraying Sri Lankan diaspora. Author’s travels prove cursory guidance for the future travellers. Her conversations and interactions with the common Sri Lankans provide a glimpse of nation’s current state of the affairs besides golden history.

Author’s perspective about Sri Lanka distinguishes it from the rest books published in the wake of the 2009 LTTE liquidation. She justifies the theme on island nation through reporting the ethnic conflict and thereafter. Exposures of hers are helpful for readers and future travellers for an awareness of the true emerald of an island nation—Sri Lanka.  

This review was first published in CeylonToday on 19 June 2016.