Sunday, November 25, 2012

Confessions Of A BJP Reporter: How I Outgrew Its Charm

Beautiful Sunday morning. Two headlines in the papers — Shatrughan seeks Gadkari resignation and Pollster predicts Modi sweep — brought back memories.

I was only ten when, in 1980, Jana Sangh became the Bharatiya Janata Party (the idea behind the change of name was to adopt a secular face that would be acceptable to larger sections of India).

When you are just ten years old, you are more familiar with the names of reigning film stars than those of political leaders.

But by the time I was twenty, BJP leaders had become stars in my part of the world, the Hindi heartland of Kanpur, which was being swept by the winds of Hindutva. They were seen as our saviours: Atal Behari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Murali Manohar Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharati. In the riot-stricken city, it had become fashionable for middle-class Hindus to put up BJP flags atop their homes.

In 1996, I began covering the BJP; and for five years I spent almost every afternoon at 11, Ashoka Road, the party’s headquarters in Delhi, sniffing for news. In any case, one had to be there for the 3 o’ clock press briefing. As a cub reporter, I would be a little intimidated to engage the likes of Vajpayee and Advani in a conversation, something that seasoned journalists did with enviable ease; but I would spend a lot of time with those who were easily approachable — the late Kushabhau Thakre and Sundar Singh Bhandare being among them.

On the whole BJP was fun beat: the party took great care of reporters. The snacks at the 3 o’ clock briefing was always something to look forward to; one was put up in the best hotels when travelling to cover the national executive or national council meetings; all facilities to ensure you are able to file your stories in time.

It was impossible not to be impressed with the works. And impossible not to be sympathetic towards them when you spent afternoon after afternoon in the company of leaders whose dedication to their ideology you admired, even if you didn’t agree with the ideology. You even felt sad for each time their coalition missed the majority mark by a whisker.

But dedication and discipline kept the BJP functioning like a well-oiled machine: the face of Vajpayee, the mind of Advani, the brains of Kushabhau Thakre and Govindacharya, the management skills of Pramod Mahajan, the PR skills of Sushma Swaraj, and silent contribution from countless others who remained in the shadows. Quite natural that one felt happy when the party finally won in 1998. It was a vicarious pleasure; my life remained just the same.

In early 2001, I left Delhi and moved to Chennai. And once I was out of the charmed radius of 11, Ashoka Road, something magical happened. I no longer felt the sense of bonding with my beat: from the distance, all the parties looked alike. The dark side of the BJP began to emerge. Bangaru Laxman, whose coronation as the party president I had attended in Nagpur only months before moving to Chennai, was now seen on TV, accepting wads of currency notes.

Gujarat happened. Egos grew. Personalities clashed. Dedicated old-timers were sidelined. And governance, as the 2004 elections proved, fell below expectations. It took just five years in power for a robust machinery to fall apart.

Today the BJP is a sum total of negatives: no leadership, no agenda, no vision, no orator, and — without these — possibly no future. I don’t know how 11, Ashoka Road looks like these days, but the party itself resembles a haunted house that was once brilliantly lit up by dedication, discipline and the dream to rule India someday.

I am reminded of the very first day I had stepped into the BJP headquarters. This was the summer of 1996. The office was largely empty — most leaders were out campaigning — and I nervously walked through the corridors peeping into the rooms, hoping to find someone to talk to.

Suddenly I came face to face with a man who wore a cropped beard, a kurta and a warm smile. When I introduced myself, he showed me into one of the rooms. We had a longish chat, and I took notes.

Finally, I asked him, “And sir, your name?”

“Narendra Modi,” he dictated as I jotted down, “National secretary, BJP.”

At least one man from the party has gone on to do very well — for himself.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Two Cities

These are difficult times -- packed with anxiety and the occasional dose of excitement -- for me. Till midnight, I am the City Editor of Chennai's biggest paper; and around quarter past midnight, when I have checked the last of the local pages on my tiny netbook screen, I click open the draft of my Calcutta book and get transported to that city and stay there, quite often, till the sky is just about to change colours.

Straddling two cities, and trying to do justice to both, is not easy. The moment I focus on one, the other starts nudging me for attention. So much so that when I wake up in the morning, I often forget where I am, until I notice the window. In the Chennai bedroom, the window is on my right, and in Calcutta, on the left. This worries me, because my mother used to always say, 'Never place a foot each in two boats, you will drown.' Will I drown?

I did not have this fear while writing Tamarind City. I live in Chennai, and it was a book about Chennai: so every single moment I breathed provided me with raw material to draw from. But then, the fear of drowning did not haunt me even when I was writing Chai, Chai, which was about seven different and diverse places other than Chennai.

I don't know where Chai, Chai will stand in a few years from now -- either they will find it endowed with literary value, or it will simply go out of print and be forgotten -- but it was a book I enjoyed writing. Those railways junctions offered an escape from Chennai each night as I sat in front of my laptop, midnight till 4 a.m. Only concrete benches, no benchmarks -- so I just wrote, and wrote with great pleasure.

But Calcutta is a different ballgame. It is easily the most written-about city in India. Sometimes celebrated, mostly derided, but rarely ignored by writers during the three centuries the city has been in existence. Almost everything has been written about it and almost everything about it written. So what new am I going to write, and how is it going to measure up to what has already been written about the city? That's worry no. 1.

Worry no. 2 is the discerning eye of the Bengali reader. Calcutta Bengalis are very sporting when someone makes fun of them (they'd even contribute a joke or two to your repository of Bengali jokes), but very touchy when it comes to their city or their icons. If you fail to see poetry in the faults of Calcutta, the fault is yours and not that of the fault.

And if the fault-finder happens to be a fellow Bengali, especially a non-resident Bengali, he will be instantly sentenced to death by residents fiercely loyal to their city -- residents whose guiding slogan in life is "Saala, jai bolish, Kolkata chhere ki thhaaka jaaye?"

Worry no. 3: the critics. I can already see them shredding the yet-to-be-published book into tiny pieces, saying how little I understand of Calcutta or Calcutta culture. (I can even visualise the editor of Outlook Traveller -- the only publication to rubbish both my earlier books, that too in a tone that reeked of malice -- engaging a reviewer to savage the book. Though I may just be rescued by the sudden closure of the magazine: if Newsweek is shutting down, then what field does this raddish called Outlook Traveller belong to?)

These are worries weighing heavily on my mind, but as long as they don't weigh me down, I should be fine.