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Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Poetry and Politics at a Time of Transition


Poetry and Politics at a Time of Transition


Turning and Turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold:
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— From ‘The Second Coming,’ by W.B. Yeats
Do poets see further ahead than the rest of us? From the evidence of “The Second Coming,’ the much-anthologized poem by the great Irish poet W. B. Yeats, poets indeed do. Written almost a century ago, the poem, which can be read on many levels, can also be construed as a prophecy of the cracking up of India that seems to be in process in 2012. Stripped of its mystical language, the poem can be read as a prophecy of New Delhi losing its hold on the outlying parts, of a breakdown of law and order, of the release of regional genii that no longer obey the commands of their master.
The poem, written in 1919, has been described by British and American critics as obscure. But if you look at the first stanza as referring to the state of India in the age of Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee, it makes perfect sense. The second stanza looks at the future, envisioning a second coming.
At a time when the old order is collapsing and the new is yet to take shape, a poem can be our best crutch to limp through the dust of collapsing structures.
*
An Airbus 330 had disgorged 320 passengers at Indira Gandhi International Airport on the morning of July 13, including this writer and Minakshi, at the end of a week of power cuts in the capital that would later be described in the Indian media, with characteristic glee at disasters, as the “second worst in history.” (The “worst power cut in history” would come at the end of the month, July 30-31, when 20 of India’s 28 states would be left without electricity.) Having been caught up in the Northeast blackout of 2003 in New York, I have some idea of the horror of power outages even in temperate regions. But the suffering caused by power failures must be a hundred times compounded in Delhi or Rajasthan where the mercury soars to above 110 in late July. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi was right. Shouldn’t have let ourselves be spoilt by electricity.
Anyway, if only the second worst, the New Delhi power cuts of early July meant that there was no relief to be had from the heat. In a week of being driven to 13 Talkatora Road and back to Shaikh Serai, with not much more exposure to the sun than while getting in and out of the car, I acquired such blisters on the neck and chest that wearing a shirt was torture. Everyone I met sweated torrents and smelt horsy. Ordinarily I have no sympathy for cops, but I felt sorry –and also an uneasy respect — for the Delhi policemen standing in full uniform in the sun. Ditto for TV commentators and interviewers hanging out at 13 Talkatora Road. While their crew sought shelter from the sun under awnings and the lone mango tree, the TV ‘personalities’ sweated and panted in their lounge suits, pacing the front yard of 13 Talkatora Road, waiting to interview the current occupant of the Raj-era bungalow, Pranab Mukherjee, finance minister and Congress party old-timer who had suddenly sprung into banner-headline prominence with the announcement that he was his party’s choice for the 13th President of the Republic of India.
Unlike that of the 12th President, the election of the 13th had aroused great interest, and — from an unexpected quarter — vehement antagonism.
Inexplicable to many was the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee’s opposition to Mukherjee’s candidature. She used to be seen as not merely Mukherjee’s protégé, but his very own creation, his surrogate in Bengal. Fellow Bengalis were aghast at the extremity of her opposition. After all, wasn’t the President’s largely a ceremonial office? Why was she going from door to door, bent on to shooting down Mukherjee’s bid for the Presidency?
Equally inexplicable were the clucking noises from Mukherjee seeking to pacify her. Making light of her rebuffs, he called her pleadingly on the phone, and told newsmen he didn’t mind her tantrums; she would always remain his dear little sister. Personal slights did not seem to touch him, nor was he moved by larger upheavals. In the mini general elections earlier in the year, the Congress party had won a majority in just one state out of seven. The straws fluttered this way and that in the erratic wind. There was, however, no mystery about the rejection of the Congress by Uttar Pradesh, which returns 80 members to the Lok Sabha, and has long been regarded as the demesne of the Nehru-Gandhi family, in the state elections in February-March 2012.
At the end of a hugely publicized campaign led by the scion of the dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, Congress came up with only 28 of the 403 seats in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly when the results were announced in March.
“If he had any other surname, Rahul Gandhi, commonly mentioned as a prime minister-in-waiting, would surely be pondering a new career, reported The Economist from New Delhi on March 10. “His ill-starred record as a political campaigner reached a new low on March 6 when he accepted blame for his party’s dreadful showing in assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (UP). … Mr Gandhi must regret his personal effort, which he grandly dubbed ‘Mission 2012’ (he campaigned full-time, with lavish funds, for over a year)… He picked gargantuan UP, the old family fief, hoping that success there would compensate for Congress’s fading fortunes in another big state, Andhra Pradesh. His sister, Priyanka Gandhi, joined him in the campaign, urging voters to stay loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. They ignored her.” Will they continue to ignore the Gandhi-Nehru loyalists in the next general elections? Will any party emerge strong enough to hold the union together? Clouds of smoke rose from smoldering scandals. The ethnic clashes in the north-east were spreading to the south and the west. Narendra Modi seemed set to sweep Rajasthan in the election slated for the end of the year.
Many questions hung in the hot, hot air of New Delhi last July, but chief in my mind was what kind of a President would Pranab Mukherjee, my friend of over 40 years, make in the time of transition looming ahead? Would he be content to be a mere bowhead of a ship breasting a storm? Would he be just a rubberstamp for the Congress party?
*
When we first call at 13 Talkatora Road, Pranab Babu (as Mukherjee is universally known in India) is away on a nine-state tour, catching no more than a couple of hours of sleep between cities, emerging every morning colorfully dressed in the local traditional costume. The mathematics of the coming vote are clearly in his favor, but he is reinforcing the mathematics with charm and diplomacy.
We spend our first morning in Delhi with Suvra, who is emerging from a long illness to take up her place at her husband’s side and fulfill her many duties as India’s first lady. She has had long preparation for this role, having been initially mentored by no less than Indira Gandhi.
When Suvra arrived in New Delhi 42 years ago, she had no other recommendation to be one of the top hostesses of the Indian capital than being the wife of the rising Rajya Sabha member who had caught the eye of the Prime Minister.
Gandhi not only steered Pranab up the steps of the ministerial stairs, she took Suvra under her wings. What better finishing school would a debutante need? No detail was too small for Indira Gandhi, from how best to do her hair to dinner table etiquette.
“I would arrive at one of the dinners at 1 Safdarjung Road, out of breath, the stain of turmeric still showing, for I had just finished cooking for the kids,” Suvra used to reminisce, ramblingly– long before the possibility dawned of her being the hostess at the world’s largest lived-in presidential palace.
“She would take me aside, make me wash my hands and rub some soothing lotion on, while sharing with me a secret or two about the evening’s guests to put me at ease.  I used to make a loose lump of my hair, letting it hang on my back. Indiraji made me change to a tight bun gathered as high as possible — because I had a short neck, and looked dumpy.
“Her mantra was always to have faith in oneself. Accompanying her on her trips abroad, I was amazed by her complete self-possession; she always had the right smile and exactly slanted nod for all –from the ambassador to the honor guard to the head of state.
“And the right answers. She had a sharpness of mind I could never aspire after. I remember the British Prime Minister asking her after a dinner at 10 Downing Street whether India was ready to change its policy and stop making war on Pakistan. Indiraji replied: ‘Change policy! The first bullet has always come from the other side.’ That silenced him.”
It goes without saying that the Mukherjees adore their Indiraji. Is their worship based on reason, or is it blind idolatry?
*
I walk into Mukherjee’s private office attached to his residence the night of his return from his whirlwind tour, making my way through a side door from the living area, unobstructed by the secretaries, secret service men, politicians, and party stalwarts who throng the entrance. Pranab Babu is at a large desk at the other end of the room, with a mural size portrait of Indira Gandhi on the wall behind. He is alone. He looks up, puzzled, from his papers.
He needs a few seconds to recognize me, which I think is a feat of memory equal to his other amazing ones, such as quoting statistics about Cuttack from the 1881 Imperial Gazetteer by Sir William Hunter.
For my arrival is unannounced. I am supposed to be at that moment on the other side of the Atlantic, while he is expecting some political boss or the other to walk in. Also, I know I have changed fast in the past couple of years, losing most of my hair and acquiring many wrinkles. I have also got rid of the thick glasses I have had since boyhood, while he is without his formerly inseparable briar pipe, which made drawing Pranab such an easy lark for cartoonists such as Abu and Kutty.
Despite he is almost the same age as me, his face is entirely without lines, with a ruddy glow many observers claim emanated from Gandhi. The other Gandhi. The Mahatma.
The last time I had extensive dialogues with Pranab Babu was in 1995, when, intent on forming his own political party, Rashtriya Samajbadi Congress, he was crisscrossing West Bengal by day, returning to Hyderabad House late at night to catch his usual fewer than forty winks. He was agog with his ideas of imbuing RSC with the true spirit of Indiraji, and would not stop talking till early the next morning, which was most welcome to me, as I was, as at a number of other times in my life, about to launch yet another newspaper, and exulted, at securing an exclusive interview. At that time, I had been the first to publish details of what transpired between Rajiv Gandhi and Pranab Babu on the IAF flight from Panagarh to Calcutta on October 31, 1984, following news of Indira Gandhi’s assassination. This July, I have no secrets to scoop. I am seeking, as a dramatist or a poet does, clues to the character of the man.
There are schools of thought that put no weight to the role of individuals in history, considering it to be a blind play of impersonal forces.  I disagree. At certain crucial moments, it does matter who is at the helm. Had Churchill not been Prime Minister, would Britain have taken such punishment by the Luftwaffe without reaching out for a Munich-style compromise? It is only by hindsight that the collapse of USSR seems a certainty; the Berlin Wall might still have been there was it not for Gorbachov. To Deng goes the credit for China now being the world’s No. 2 power, as perhaps to Obama the blame for the US not extricating itself from its direct and drone wars in the first few weeks of his election.
The question is: Will the office of the President of India ever be more than merely decorative? Happily, not much so, this far. Among other factors, the Edwardian English gentleman in Jawaharlal Nehru be praised for providing the necessary early shade for seedling parliamentary democracy in India. The Nehru-Gandhi families deserve also to be thanked for contributing three Prime Ministers who helped the system achieve a degree of continuity. It is, however, no longer certain that the country will continue to be loyal to the House of Motilal.

In fact, will there be one country? Suppose the Congress party gets no larger a share of seats than it did in Uttar Pradesh, and so does the BJP; what crazy sudoko of numbers will India resemble? Many in America are concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan following the US drawdown; the anxiety goes up many degrees when we consider the likely fractured outcome of the 2014 General Elections in the core region.
There is no denying the centrality of India in the region, which is less than 3 percent of the world’s land area, but is home to 20 percent of the planet’s population. If anarchy is loosed on India, it will be a planetary disaster.
*
While the Indian Presidency is described as a largely symbolic office, the reality behind the symbols is frequently overlooked. All those paper tigers have real teeth. Dressed up in Rajput and Mughal finery, the President’s Bodyguard may look a harmless picturesque lot, but the unit is capable of fast military strikes, having seen action in Chusul and the Siachen glacier. The President is the head of the Army, Navy and the Air Force. He opens the Sessions of Parliament, being driven there in a specially built bullet-proof Mercedes, with motorbike ceremonial outriders and flanked by turbaned cavalry men. But with the BSP, BJP, TCP, SP, CPI-M, INC, BLD, IEMC, and others turning Parliament into an alphabet soup, what hand but the President’s will be left to steer the ship of state? The Fathers of the Indian Constitution did indeed have such a situation in mind, and not trusting on the wisdom of the general electorate with its universal adult suffrage, had created the very special machinery of the electoral college to come up with a wise, experienced, nonpartisan head to come to intervene and act when the system was in dire straits and Parliament was in paralysis.
One doesn’t have to be a shaman to see what direction India is heading. In this drift, it is good to know we have Pranab as a reserve on the bridge. It is unjust to describe him just as Mr. Fixer of the Congress party. He has not always toed the party line. Those who know him intimately, admire him for not only his mind but his morals. If Indira was fond of him for his beautiful manners and sharp intellect, Mahatma Gandhi would have approved of his Spartan life. After six decades in public life, including forty years in such profitable ministries as shipping, commerce and banking, he remains one of the country’s poorest ministers. While according to Election Commission figures, 40 of the 69 MLAs of the sparsely populated, pastoral state of Arunachal are millionaires, it’s Chief Minister’s 35 year old brother has declared assets worth Rupees 220 crores, and the Union Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath is worth Rs. 263 Crores. The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Rs. Crores, Pranab Babu is worth a measly Rs. 1.8 Crores — which is less than half a million dollars.
Pranab Babu emerges from the soot and grime raining from India’s many corruption scandals, including ‘coalgate,’ with his Bengal-style punjabi and dhoti immaculately white. He may be a good man; will he be effective?
Of those who have worked with him, none have known how he operates behind the screen more than Sonia Gandhi and Mamata Bannerjee; one goes to the extent of consulting him in private for hours, while the other was for some time running around the yard like a chicken being chased by a man with a knife. Bannerjee’s shrieks got louder and louder as Pranab Babu’s election drew nearer, finally falling into a  last reluctant gasp of defeat, while the latter made soothing clucking noises, reminding one of scenes in rural Bengal in which women claim to be possessed by spirits, and the local ‘ojha,’ or witch-doctor approaches them, reciting propitiating mantras. Folk wisdom is manifest in the Bangla saying, “Shaaper Haanchi Bedei Chaynay,” that is, unknown to the rest, the snake-catcher and snake know when the hunt is on.
Pranab Babu may be effective, but will he be as good for the entire South Asia region as he is for India?
The minimum I can say is that he is not an interventionist. Same as his icon, Indira Gandhi, he is not seeking expansion of territory. Unlike Rajiv Gandhi, he is unwilling to send an expeditionary force to any neighboring country.
I happened to be at Pranab Babu’s side when as Minister of Defence he was asked by a powerful visitor from Nepal about the likelihood of a commando swoop on Kathmandu to whisk away King Gyanendro to exile — which he simply laughed away, declaring that he left such adventures to James Bond novels.
*
Who can see into the future? Even poets can see it only as reflected in a dark and smoky mirror.
Since July 2012, I can clearly relate developments in the immediate past in India to Yeats’s cryptic utterances in the first stanza of ‘The Second Coming.”
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre” — ‘gyre’ was Yeats’s favorite word for ’spiral’ — India is going into a spiral, spinning out of control.
The ‘falconer’ in the next line is the Congress Party which created the ‘falcon’ of Mamata Bannerjee hoping she would swoop down on the CPI-M (Communist Party of India -Marxist) and then fly back at its command to her perch on her trainer’s wrist in Delhi.
“The blood-dimmed tide?” — How else to describe the Gujarat killing! “And everywhere,” from Gandhi’s Sabarmati to Tagore’s Shantiniketan, ‘The ceremony of innocence is drowned.’
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” — Too true, alas, as honest Manmohan Singh suffles his feet and dithers, while the fanatics of Shiv Sena and BJP breathe fire and spit brimstone.
It is the second stanza that leave us a pray to doubts about the future direction of the country, the region and indeed the world. Was world civilization a two-millennia fantasy? Will all that Tagore sang and Gandhi spun come to naught? Will the region, the most fertile in the world, home to 2,000 ethnicities, cradled by the planet’s highest mountain and ocean named after it, watered by snow-fed rivers, nurtured by such a rich mix of religions and philosophies, end up as a nuclear war graveyard? The answer may be a “No,” if a keen mind and a steady hand at the helm of India counts. In the meanwhile, we wait breathlessly for the sphinx of the history to speak.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: A waste of desert sand.
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man
A gaze as blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant birds…

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