It’s a good time for Atlas cycles to make a comeback

Recently I got a call from my brother, and he could not contain his excitement. More than a decade after he left high school he invested in a bicycle to go around our little but busy neighbourhood in Delhi. COVID-19 and the restrictions it imposed had clearly tested the patience of thousands like him who had had enough of indoor workouts, and thought cycling outdoors was a better way to burn calories.

This reminded me of our favourite wheels as children — our Atlas cycles.

Sadly, the bicycle manufacturer shut shop in June. Atlas’ exit is nothing short of unfortunate for a business with a seven decade history behind it. It all started in 1950 when Janki Das Kapur, a small businessman in Sonepat, Haryana, set out with a dream to make cycles affordable to all. This was decades before two-wheeler transportation became a revolution in rural India. Kapur’s first factory grew exponentially within its first year, and in the next 15 years, Atlas was India’s undisputed leader in cycle manufacturing.

Today, the company is out of the market at a time consumer demand has boomed and the humble bicycle has made a fierce comeback. The pandemic-induced change in customer behaviour and preferences have ensured greater demand for health and fitness products. In a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic when we live each day saddled with the constant fear for our health, our best bet to stay optimistic lies in what we do to keep ourselves healthy. The bicycle is a low-cost, socially-distanced way of doing this during the lockdown.

The current surge in demand for bicycles is a global trend. More than 4 million bicycles were sold in India during the lockdown period, and the manufacturers struggled to keep up with the demand. In the United Kingdom, British cycle stores sold as many bicycles in three months during the lockdown summer and as they sold in entire 2019. Cycling was the hottest exercise trend of 2020 and the hottest personal mobility product. In the United States, bicycle sales saw the biggest spike since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

This sudden, pandemic-led boom in the global demand for bicycles is reminiscent of the British bicycle mania between 1895 and 1900. During this period, Britain saw a rapid increase in the number of registered cycle manufacturers, but the boom didn’t last with half of these companies closing down by 1900 due to cheaper American bicycles flooding the British market. Yet, the craze for bicycles led to firms adapting during the crash by moving into newer technologies, especially motor cars, establishing the positive effects of technology bubbles — in this case, they directed high levels of investment in the most innovative section of the economy at the time, the innovative bicycle manufacturing companies.

While the British bicycle mania was driven by a series of technological innovations that drove the demand for bicycles, the current boom could accelerate innovations in the industry led by fresh challenges of demand, supply and delivery.

Some of the innovation may already have begun. Bicycle manufacturing is a complex chain of production that passes through a global value chain which is currently adversely affected by the pandemic. With many of the spare part suppliers located in Asia for the British bicycle manufacturing industry, many companies ordered stocks in advance and several of them even shifted their focus to target healthcare workers and doctors who were encouraged to cycle to work and avoid public transport. In London and Paris, hundreds of kilometres of pop-up cycle lanes were added to incentivise ridership and reduce traffic and emissions. The biggest revolution seems to be happening in the e-cargo bike segment, a phenomenon that has the potential to entirely remodel transportation as e-cargo bikes can be ridden on roads and bicycle lanes, without polluting the air.

In India, the bicycle industry is the world’s second-largest producer of bicycles, next only to China. However, the industry is severely challenged by technology gaps, inferior quality materials and demand-related bottlenecks. The unexpected uptick in sales is an opportunity for the industry to innovate. Projected to now grow at a rate of 15-20 percent annually from 5-7 percent the previous year, India’s bicycle industry might be on the cusp of a revolution.

The time for legacy companies to remodel their businesses may just be right. Increasingly, brand equity has been shown to be a tool for growth in an age of volatile markets, and companies such as Atlas Cycles could use its heritage appeal to revive business.

In a recent paper, business historian Sudev Sheth showed how businesses have leveraged history to become global brands as brand equity gets less and less tied to the productive capacity of firms. In India, many legacy businesses, such as Arvind Mills, Raymond and Tata, have played on brand equity in recent years to revamp operations, and be profitable. In 2020, Parle re-launched its Rola Cola after a social media movement seeking the return of the product went viral.

In this fast-altering universe that favours nostalgia associated with legacy brands, Atlas Cycles has plenty riding in its favour — its rich history from being the official supplier of bicycles to the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi to being the bicycle that made saree-clad women cyclists a currency in India. Its brand appeal cuts across generations and for decades purely built on the back of affordability, brand agility and product offerings that kept up with the times.There isn’t a better time for Atlas to come back into the race.

Originally published in moneycontrol.

PALLAVI SINGH is a journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal.

Can Atlas Cycles make a comeback?

I wrote this for @moneycontrolcom and the inspiration came from my brother. More than a decade after he left high school, he invested in a bicycle. This reminded me of our favourite wheels as children — Atlas cycles.

COVID-19 and the restrictions it imposed had clearly tested the patience of thousands like him who had had enough of indoor workouts, and thought cycling outdoors was a better way to burn calories. Sadly, Atlas cycles shut shop last year. The company is out of the market at a time consumer demand has boomed and the humble bicycle has made a fierce comeback.

The pandemic has induced changes in customer behaviour and preferences and the surge for the demand in bicycles is a global trend. This reminded me of the British bicycle mania in history when Britain saw a rapid increase in the number of registered cycle manufacturers. Check out @wquinn05 ‘s excellent working paper for @QUCEHBelfast which offered me great insights for the piece: http://quceh.org.uk/uploads/1/0/5/5/10558478/wp16-06.pdf

Demand leads to innovation. Will it for India where bicycle production is second only to China? I learnt a great deal from Sudev Sheth’s paper on small businesses who used history to leverage their brands. A summary of the paper is here https://linkedin.com/pulse/tapping-history-how-empty-mills-leapfrogging-todays-global-sheth/

Some of the innovation has already begun and there isn’t a better time for Atlas to come riding back into the boom. Read the full piece here:

You could download the piece below.

Also, for a learned deep-dive into the British Bicycle mania and other booms and busts in history, do read @ProfJohnTurner @wquinn05 ‘s @BoomBustBubbles. Book available here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boom-Bust-History-Financial-Bubbles/dp/1108421253

That’s it for now, back again with more. Watch this space or follow @econhistorienne @moneycontrolcom.

Enjoy your Sunday,

PS.

Debuted with Opinion in Moneycontrol today

I will be writing op-eds for moneycontrol, India’s number 1 financial news website, and today was my debut. Do read.

Moneycontrol Link: https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/opinion/time-for-a-policy-rethink-on-crime-and-poverty-eradication-5762451.html

7 Things Govt Could Have Done To Stop the Delhi Riots

The law, judgments and precedents are unanimous: the police are empowered, can and must take urgent action to curb rioting. As former police chiefs tell us, the Delhi riots could have been stopped at many levels and stages. They were not. First published in Article-14.

PALLAVI SINGH

New Delhi: The toll in the deadliest communal riots—doctors reported gunshot wounds, crushed skulls and torn genitals—in India’s capital since Independence is now up to 46 with hundreds injured, the majority of those Muslims.

Over three days from 24 February 2020, violent mobs shot, bludgeoned and stabbed people and burnt houses, shops, marketplaces and mosques. Journalists covering the riot were heckled, threatened and beaten.

Many Muslim and Hindu residents agreed on one characteristic: even as truckloads of unidentified masked men poured in, the Delhi police either stood by or went missing. One account said Hindus praised the police for saving lives, while Muslims said their calls for help went unanswered.

Did the Delhi police and the home ministry, which controls the city police, do enough? Could they have stopped the riots from escalating in northeast Delhi, one of India’s most densely populated districts, amongst the poorest of the capital’s districts and one with the largest Muslim population?

Yes, they could and should have, former police officers told Article-14. The result, according to Ashutosh Varhsney, professor of Political Science at Brown University, who studied communal violence in India during the 1990s, was a “pogrom”.

A number of guidelines and statutes governing police action during communal riots, including specific sections under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), various Supreme Court judgements and observations (here, here and here), the Delhi Police Manual and government guidelines (here, here and here) on communal violence, are unanimous: the police must take urgent and immediate action to prevent and curb the riots and minimise damage.

Here is what the police and government could and should have done.

1) Act On Intelligence, Deploy Forces

The manner in which clashes began on 24 February 2020 had all the makings of a riot: urban, evidence of being stoked by “outsiders”, and engineered. Experts said conditions for a riot were taking shape, and the Delhi Police were best placed to track the contours.

“The month-long anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests in northeast Delhi, however peaceful, were the reason why the police should have been extra vigilant,” said Yashovardhan Azad, former Central Information Commissioner and Indian Police Service (IPS) officer. “Sudden eruptions do occur but all communal disturbances, by and large, develop over a period of time. So, solid steps must be taken right in the beginning.”

Local police stations have demographic profiles, records of past violence and disputes, helping them identify riot-prone areas and foresee potential conflicts, according to the Delhi Police Manual. Regular patrolling, deployment of personnel, contingency plans and regular and independent intelligence gathering from sources cultivated within local communities are other commonly followed measures.

Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) guidelines to district administrations on managing communal riots are clear about what the police must do with “prior knowledge”.

“With reference to the sensitive/hyper-sensitive areas as mentioned above, the district administration should anticipate possible development that can happen on certain occasions…so that escalated situation/riots etc. could be preempted/prevented,” say MHA guidelines.

2) Act Against Hate Speeches, Make Arrests

On the day Kapil Mishra of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) delivered an incendiary speech, threatening to clear out anti-CAA protestors, once US President Donald Trump left on the night of 25 February after his two-day visit to India, the intelligence wing and special branch of the Delhi police sent six warnings to deploy security forces.

“Northeast Delhi has a history of communal tension,” Maxwell Pereira, former joint commissioner of Delhi Police and retired IPS officer, told Article-14. “The police needed to act at the first sign of provocation…The first sign of provocation in the area came from Kapil Mishra. The police had ample time till this provocation erupted into a riot on the third day thereafter.”

The police could have immediately identified and detained people accused of provocative speeches, such as Mishra, or before him Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur, who urged people at an election rally in January 2020 to “shoot the traitors”. Neither the local police, the commissioner of police, the Lieutenant General or the Home Minister “took cognizance because the hate speech was against a minority community”, said Pereira.

“Police should have acted when these speeches were being made,” Ajay Raj Sharma, Delhi Police Commissioner from 1999 to 2002 told The Wire. “A person should have recorded these speeches and action should have been taken after the speech is completed.”

Under the law, Delhi Police are required to also act against hate speech under provisions 153C and 505A of the CrPC, which call for prohibition of incitement to hatred and fear, alarm, or provocation of violence in certain cases. More provisions under the IPC such as section 153A, 295A and 298 penalise “promotion of enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony” and “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”.

“The hate speech was recorded which makes it an admissible evidence in a court,” said Prakash Singh, retired IPS officer, who in 2006 Prakash Singh versus Union of India case in the Supreme Court (SC), pioneered a set of rules—most were never implemented—for police reform. “Hate speeches prepared the ground for the Delhi riot and they shouldn’t have been ignored by the police.”

The Delhi High Court slammed the police inaction and directed it to file FIRs against people for making hate speeches but the government counsel representing the police sought more time from the court saying the time was not “conducive to file FIRs”.

“Basic principle of criminal law is, any delay in filing of FIR is suspect, questionable and that much more vulnerable in its efficacy,” Pereira says. “The solicitor only bought time for the partisan government to evolve a strategy to save the individuals (their own party leaders) concerned.”

3) Detain Local Goons, Stop Unlawful Assembly

“Preventing a riot is far more important than containing it,” read MHA guidelines on communal violence.

When violence appears imminent, the police usually detain “history-sheeters”, commonly listed in police surveillance records and databases. History-sheeters are repeat offenders, put on a list by police stations for regular monitoring.

The Unlawful Activities (Prevention Act) 1967 or UAPA, gives police additional powers to act against communal activities of organisations or individuals by declaring them “unlawful”, where “unlawful” refers to any action, spoken or written words, which support or incite violence, or disrupt public safety and law and order.

The police were too slow to respond, accused of either inaction or complicity. In images emerging out of Northeast Delhi, police watched as rioters gathered iron rods and bricks, drove into residential areas, and attacked places of work and worship. Emboldened by police inaction, mobs ran riot.

In New Delhi’s Guru Teg Bahadur Hospital, a 19-year-old man nearly lost his life because one of the rioters had pierced his skull with a drill. Nearly 21 died of gunshot injuries. A 26-year-old Intelligence Bureau officer was stabbed to death. In a video shot by a journalist, a group of agitated young men unleashed violence with sticks and bricks.

Each of these deaths and violent acts involved the use of harmful objects. These could have been prohibited by the police under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), CrPC, the UAPA and, specifically, section 30 of the Delhi Police Act, 1978, to prevent disorder and physical violence.

But, the rioters’ grip over Northeast Delhi’s public places of work, worship and community appeared tighter than that of the police, sparking criticism that the police were acting under political influence.

If implemented in time, the prohibition on arms and other dangerous objects could have minimised the death toll and the damage to public property.

Before the mobs arrived in riot-affected areas, various Police Acts and section 129 of the CrPC say that the police “may command any unlawful assembly, or any assembly of five or more persons likely to cause a disturbance of the public peace, to disperse” or “may proceed to disperse such assembly by force” to maintain public order.

Instead, policemen in riot gear stood next to political leaders and watched them speak. “Not only were they (Delhi Police) mere bystanders, they acted partisanly when they did,” Pereira said.

4) File FIRs Against Mobs Destroying Public And Private Property

When violent mobs unleashed destruction, a man in Jafrabad fired shots at policemen, while masked men armed themselves with bricks and stones in the background. In the ensuing fury, a scrap market in neighboring Gokulpuri was charred to ashes; numerous shops, cars and residential buildings met similar fates.

This loss or destruction of public or private property is punishable under different sections of the IPC, more importantly, Sections 141 to 153, which specifically relate to communal violence and breach of communal peace, and under the Right of Private Defence (IPC sections 96 to 106).

“Most of the violent acts have been captured on camera. A video is a good enough start for the police to register FIRs,” said Singh, referring to visual evidence of a mosque being burnedverified by the fact checking website Alt News as genuine—a saffron flag hoisted atop another.

This was one of the offences relating to disturbance created towards the practice of any religious worship or assembly under IPC sections 295 to 298. Till the evening of 27 February, no more than 18 FIRs 18 had been filed and 108 people detained.

5) Act Tough, Impose Curfew On Day 1

No curfews were imposed until the third day of the Delhi riots. “If the situation is spinning out of control, violence should be nipped in the bud instead of letting it fester. Timing is critical here,” said Singh.

Experts also referred to the image problem of the police: they needed to be seen to be tough and unsparing of any curfew violations, dressed “ideally” in riot gear and look like they mean business.

“The police must not just act but also look like a determined, swift and effective force right in the beginning,” said Azad. “Delay in tough measures often gives the mobs the impression that the police are either weak or indecisive, and that emboldens them and demoralises the police.”

Over 6,000 police men and women were on duty during the riots, an inadequate number to control the streets of one of Delhi’s largest constituencies, Azad said. One eyewitness accounts found some police terrified of a rioting mob.

6) Act Against Police Who Support Rioters (Which Is Not Easy)

Many policemen were seen taking sides during the Delhi riots, according to many accounts, joining the chorus of Jai Shri Ram, pelted stones with mobs, and where they did not, watched rioters, as they screened people by religion. In one video recorded by a journalist, policemen beat a group of inured Muslim men (one later died), asking them to sing the national anthem. To some reporters covering the riots, rioters said the police were “on our side”.

“The police must remain absolutely impartial in the handling of communal disturbances. …. Competent and selected officers should be posted to sensitive areas having a history of communal disturbances,” says the Delhi Police Manual Chapter 13.

Siding with rioters or standing by amounts to dereliction of duty, subjecting them to administrative measures, such as suspension or dismissal from service and criminal charges under the IPC for engaging in violent acts.

“Section 197 of CrPC, in fact, says on the prosecution of public servants that they are protected against offences only when they commit them during the discharge of their official duties,” said Suroor Mandar, a Delhi High Court lawyer and member of the legal collective, Lawyers for Detainees. The law requires prior sanction from the government for prosecution of such public servants.

“When any person who is or was a Judge or Magistrate or a public servant not removable from his office save by or with the sanction of the Government is accused of any offence alleged to have been committed by him while acting or purporting to act in the discharge of his official duty, no Court shall take cognizance of such offence except with the previous sanction,” says Section 197 of the CrPC.

Mandar added that the liability of the police for failing to ensure peace and security must also be established.

7) Encourage Dialogue Between Communities Through Their Leaders Religious polarization was at the core of the Delhi riots: it showed in hate speeches, sloganeering rioters and actions of mobs. In communal-charged situations where neighbors turn against each other in the name of religion, the Delhi Police Manual prescribes involvement of peace committees to defuse tense situations through dialogue and mediation.

“Such provisions involve the local communities and the state government, which doesn’t govern the police machinery in Delhi but is entrusted with initiating peacekeeping measures, as part of its civil administration duties,” said Mandar.

Yet, representatives of the state government, run by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), were accused of staying away from the scene of rioting. Represented by seven members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) and one member of Parliament, Northeast Delhi saw only one visit by an MLA on the fourth day of the riots: BJP MLA Ajay Mahawar met the family of the slain IB officer.

No peace committees were involved and none met during or after the riots.

(Pallavi Singh is a journalist and researcher in international political economy.)

Sec 144, CrPC: Is the law being misused? I find out

Here is a piece I wrote for Article 14 on Section 144 of the CrPC:

This is the law that has been used by the police only too frequently to put restrictions on anti-CAA protests across India. But is such frequent use an abuse of the law? Read to find out.

Five Ways You Could Reduce Inequality in Daily Life

Start the new year by worrying less about things you can’t control and doing something about what you can. Inequality, for example.

Photo credit: wikimedia.commons.org

It’s a loaded term, alright, but let’s think like economists and see where exactly in our daily lives could we make a difference to mitigate inequality.

So here are my top 5 suggestions:

  • Pay your taxes honestly – While the government struggles with progressive taxation, you go ahead and do your bit. Pay your taxes honestly- no bungling rent receipts, or forged investment certificates anymore. Pay your taxes online and hey, when you eliminate corruption in private life, it goes a long way in eliminating corruption in public life.
  • Work on gender budgeting for the household: this is a much bandied about term but the govt still doesn’t get it right. This doesn’t mean you should be like that too. If you truly believe in gender equality, start paying your maids for their life saving work on par with your drivers. Allocate resources equally between genders for consumption, education, health and future savings. Always remember, gender inequality begins in households, and it’s well within you to tackle that.
  • Save for future big time – While you are young, who cares about ageing, right? Wrong! Demographic change is a reality and it will catch up with you sooner than later. Remember Japan? In India, social security net for its ageing population has shrunk. Add to this the effects of adjustment and without savings, you are in for a very cold and debilitating old age. Start saving big and do this till the time you are working. This is your safety net and your instrument to tackle inequality that may arise out of a combination of factors including economic shocks, ageing and changing labour market demographics, slowing growth and poor pension spending by govt.
  • Brighten your child’s prospects at intergenerational equality by security a child fund – If you have a child, this has to come right on top of your priorities. Start taking out a decent amount of your income for a child fund that grows as your child grows, to give you enough in the long run. Remember, a child’s education 10 years down the line would need a minimum of a crore INR, conventionally speaking. If you are aiming Ivy League, you wouldn’t want to just hedge your bets on scholarships. Work out a fund that pays out 5 crores. An equal amount for marriage ceremonies, contingencies, and helping the child settle down as he starts out in this big, bad world. We have seen how that works, so better safe than sorry.
  • Delay gratification, cut down on unnecessary spends, learn to grow your money – More savings that outflow means more money, simple. Yet, not so simple. When the value of money and your purchasing power has been deciding with inflation, you don’t need to just guard against excessive spending; you also need to grow what you have. But money doesn’t grow on trees! Start to get to know how to spot great shares you could buy, how SIPs work, how much of mutual funds is good for you, and how traditional more conventional ways of growing your money can still help you. Check out Monica Halan’s super advice on all do these in her book ‘Let’s Talk Money’. I have been holding off a review of the book for sometime; will do this soon. Keep watching this space.

So that’s it. Don’t wait for the govt or the capitalists to figure out inequality for you. You could do your bit. Why wait.

Don’t Let TikTok Play You!

I couldn’t resist my curiosity to find out more about TikTok, the social media app that’s bringing the mass following for scores of people from India’s hinterland. Watching all those TikTok people for a couple of days, I am left with an overpowering sense of fatigue. I know I qualify to be judgemental, elitist and parochial purely because I am saying that I am tired of TikTok. But if this is the new form of a culture shaped by an app that makes you while away your time creating nothing but millions of crassly funny videos, I say, God save us.

It’s not a question of moral trepidation, though: In an economy where jobs have been shrinking and an education system that doesn’t focus on skills but mere degrees, I couldn’t blame these teenagers out to have some fun on TikTok. Perhaps, they don’t have anything better to do. Many users are from small towns of India with luxury to bunk colleges where nothing much happens except irregular classes and absentee teachers. However, must these people still not show some enterprise and find out ways to find meaning in their lives instead of acting like small children obsessed with dumb toys?

TikTok, after all, is no YouTube. There is no window of originality here – you aren’t a hero here because you are a great singer or a dancer or actor. But even popular artists today are on TikTok – from singers to actors to dancers. TikTok has amassed great audiences and everyone seems to want a pie of this. Its appeal lies in the ease with which it allows users to film and edit musical videos or to lip-sync to popular film dialogues which can be picked from its database of songs, visual effects, or sound bites. Everyone else with originality is here because they want the audience, but the popularity of second-rate content creators far exceeds the original folks here. This is what TikTok does – a user may be from any place on earth but if one can appeal to the taste of audiences on TikTok, that’s what matters. And I am all for little known talent to splash all over us, but there is a problem of quality with popular taste and TikTok exhibits it only too well.

Some of the videos are so tasteless, yet shockingly popular, that it makes you wonder if we are hurtling towards an apocalypse where it would no longer matter if any good art exists as long as it has a million views.

TIkTok world is a strange world – strange and sometimes pretty faces keep staring at the screen lip-syncing to a song or some humor and millions watch it and want more. It’s all aimless because it’s not going anywhere. These 15-second videos are hurting eyes, attention spans, our idea of time and our sense of propriety. In any other universe, this would be abnormal. But what TikTok has done is create its own alternate universe where no one has to face the real world anymore. The real world where stalking girls isn’t funny and sexist jokes can’t pass as internet-breaking humor! Of course, there is hardly any political correctness in TikTok stars, most of them teenagers, which is even more worrying given these folks will eventually someday walk into the real world far different from the virtual reality they create and inhabit. The sheer scale of TikTok is terrifying: it is not just the most popular social app on the planet but also a fast-growing one, promising to distort reality as it exists.

To start with, there are tools to distort, conflate or deflate you physically; then there are tools to always beautify your world no matter where you are dancing before your camera in dingy surroundings or next to a nullah. And there are always Bollywood songs to sing, no matter whether you understand music or not.

This is not the real world but is TikTok better than the grim facts of life? Maybe not, as its users have complained of abuse and harassment on the platform with the app management doing nothing at all. But when TikTok meets the real world, it can get fatal. A boy died while making a video for TikTok, a man killed his wife for being active on the app, and another woman committed suicide after her husband reprimanded her for being on TikTok; TikTok stardom sometimes leads to grim murders, and we don’t like these at all.

Education Is A Great Leveller And IITs Do It Best

I have always felt that IITs have been the subject of unfair criticism over the years. I think IITs flowed with the liberalization wave of India. Indian economy opened and offered IITians a chance to go all over the world. Brain drain happened and media reportage on big salaries for IITians became the sensational stories of success every Indian wanted to chase. I read this piece by Sandipan Deb in Mint recently and I felt I had so much to say. After all, I come from the state where a phenomenon like Super30 exists, having lifted over the years hundreds of bright students from economically weaker households out of their circumstances, and enabling their dreams to make it to the IITs. If you are interested in reading more about Bihar’s obsession with the IITs, you could read this story I did ages ago , but this still holds true.

My op-ed for Newslaundry, prompted by Deb’s piece, primarily says this:

 

I write today because the film Super30 reminded me of Ratan. He was my best friend in college where I was studying for my 12th. Tall, dark and sensitive, with a heart pure gold. Every morning, our college van undertook a bumpy ride to reach his house on the outskirts of Patna. He would emerge from the front door, his shoes sticking to the kutcha road muddied in the rains. In monsoons, I would see him wade, and wear the same mud-stained jeans throughout the week. For a girl who was constantly told to make friends with people she could learn from, Ratan was my best friend in a city where girls weren’t expected to compete. Ratan had a dream too – to make life comfortable for his parents. His father, a clerk at the Secretariat, believed he could make it to the IITs. After all, Ratan was the top of the class, great at Maths and English and Science. Unlike the students in Super30, he didn’t even need the coaching. Just eight hours of study every day and everyone knew his chances were bright.

Ratan made it to one of the top three IITs and drifted away. In a decade, our paths crossed and I found him transformed. Ratan had acquired an American accent, his hair coloured ember, and muscles the size of Stallone. And he was doing his best for his parents: right from bearing expenses for his sister’s wedding to getting his mother a 10,000 rupee facial in a tony beauty clinic in Delhi. His job at an American multinational had taken him around the world, and in just five years at his job, he could now afford the fees of a mid-career MBA in S

Ratan hasn’t been the only IITian I know. As a journalist writing on India’s higher education, I met hundreds of them on the IIT campuses. I still remember writing about the trio at IIT-Delhi who made a fun film called Formula 69, and they weren’t the only ones devising brilliant ways to express themselves, within and outside the academic frameworks. There were others whose IIT education helped them overcome the limitations imposed on them by their physical disabilities and the barriers of caste. I distinctly remember the absolutely inspiring story of this talented guy with a major physical deformity, who if not for his IIT education, wouldn’t be leading teams at MNCs today. What’s more, he fared handsomely in the marriage department and now is proud father of two bright kids completing his circle of joy at home. Then, there were many others who burnt the proverbial midnight oil to study mechanical engineering but took up coding jobs in the American companies because the money was good. 

For long, parents in India have ambitiously woven the IIT dreams for their sons and the boys have obliged. The path is usually decided in the womb – if it’s a boy, he needs to go to the IIT; if it’s a girl, she needs to be a doctor. Anyone else doing anything else is not good enough, a mere compromise for vaulting ambitions of families propelling aspiring IITians into the real and daunting challenge of making it to the IITs. It’s here, in this clamour of ambition, that we get to see the great enterprise of millions of Indians for whom education remains a great leveller and IITs, with their high standards of pedagogy and rigorous training, have been doing a great job of it. 

Super30, beyond the grit and glamour of its success stories, is also a reminder of what an education at the IIT has done for thousands of Indians over the years.  It has inspired, uplifted and made them believe in the power of education to make their lives better, and this is better than anything the materialistic brands in your Instagram feed promise you every day. In Kota, the city where coaching centres are grim reminders of the rat race for the IITs, the students come from villages and small towns most people in India’s cities wouldn’t have heard of. They hear of them in the headlines of stories celebrating their incredible successes. Fair enough then that the appeal of the IITs endures; more than 11 lakh students appeared for the IIT-JEE this year.

The real trouble  lies in the culture of looking at the IITs as repositories of money-minting jobs. An education doesn’t just prepare us for jobs; a good education’s primary job is to enable dreams, find our ever-lasting purpose in life and to allow us to find ways to live for that purpose. Yet, the appeal of brand IIT remains inextricably linked to its promise of jobs with attractive pay packages. The media coverage on IIT placements and the preponderance of reports on pay packages makes it worse. Making it to the IITs thus has become sort of an Indian fable – person makes it to the IIT and makes it big. Not surprisingly, because for long, a person’s success and social status have been defined by his job and the economic value of his labour. For men in particular, failing to earn enough money doesn’t just mean economic hardship and loss of social status; it’s also an insurmountable barrier in the marriage market. 

Yet, the time has revealed that excruciating long hours and hard work have their limitations, especially in the age of automation which has wreaked havoc on jobs as we know them. It’s in this shaky new world that the nature of jobs, meaning of success and how one earns the living needs to be redefined. There may be cues for an alternative approach here. May be, disentangling from the pursuit of a job and career the pressure of making impossible amounts of money could lead us on the right path. Maybe then, we will see the unreasonable pressure on the IIT aspirants and the students easing up. And maybe then, we will truly learn how to appreciate the transformative power of the IITs, beyond the considerations of money and capitalistic ideas of success.

Do read the full piece here.

The Girl With The Peacock Tattoo

It was always the tattoo that stood out. Peacock tattoo on the waist. It hurt to get it done but then, is there ever any gain without pain? Neetu Singh Solanki knew it only too well. She was a girl from Matiala, the congested suburb in West Delhi that we hear of only during elections, or when a teen has shot himself to death over a family altercation, or when a man is shot dead for marrying out of his gotra. Matiala is that kind of a place you never want to go to because you don’t expect any good to come out of the suburb, notorious for illegal factories and colonies.

It is in this milieu that Neetu Singh Solanki appears like the proverbial phoenix attempting to emerge out of darkness, unhinged, a winner of life. Everyone used the words “courageous” “smart” “bright” “vivacious” to describe her. The fact that she was pretty was a bonus. Nothing could ever pull her down, not her modest roots, not her sexist locality, not her contemptuous neighbours. One day, she said to her parents what they always expected she would: she was moving to Singapore. Trusting parents them all, they dropped her at the airport and expected her to stay in touch.

In just a few months, a sack loaded with a woman’s mutilated limbs was found lying near the New Delhi railway station. It appeared like the gruesome murder of a young woman by someone whom she knew well. Her parents identified the body, and Neetu Singh Solanki became the most controversial figure of Matiala.

I wrote a story about her in Mint right after her murder. I travelled to Matiala, met her family, spoke to the cops and tried very hard to make sense of the murder. Eight years later, her boyfriend, accused of murdering her, died of multiple organ failure in Gurgaon and the case was back in news again. What stunned people was that Raju Gehlot had lived and worked in Gurgaon all these years and faked his identity to escape the police’s eyes.

Every report today seems to be calling her the tattoo girl, and she indeed was. But she was much more – a girl trying to rise above her circumstances to do make something of her life. But we aren’t asking any questions. To the police who couldn’t trace the murderer who was in Delhi all along. To the police who never even filed a chargesheet in the case. To the police who now wants to ask the court to allow them to file a closure report in the case.

This murder was no less gruesome than others. In fact, murders can’t be less or more gruesome. Murder is the forced discontinuation of life and no one has a right to do that to anyone. In Neetu Singh Solanki’s case, who was called many names, not all of it good, by her neighbours, her murder served as an excuse for many in Matiala to deny girls their rightful place within families and society.

Never could anyone doubt the free spirit of Neetu from the pictures on the walls of her home, but what was a matter of pride for her parents, became fodder for gossip for uncaring neighbours. All they could talk about was the tattoo. The tattoo stood for something profound: the courage of a girl to make her choices and live with conviction.

Kabir Singh Doesn’t Exist In An Alternate Universe. Fellow Feminists, It’s Time To Accept It

Though it’s a bit late in the day, here are my thoughts on Kabir Singh, the movie, which has been trashed by feminists as utterly vile and sickening for the sheer misogyny of its lead character played by Shahid Kapoor. A few critics have argued that Kabir Singh, the character, is so misogynistic that he couldn’t possibly exist in the universe we live in. Right from his violation of consent while kissing his love interest played by Kiara Advani,  to his treatment of women in general, Kabir Singh many argue couldn’t belong to the world we live in. They say, it’s impossible and I wonder why. Isn’t this the world where men rape women with rods and rape babies when they are as young as two. I have even heard that some of them don’t even spare lesser than mortal animals in their animalistic quest for sexual gratification. I haven’t heard anyone scream over these reports and say that these men couldn’t be from our world. They are in our world and we accept this with great horror and disgust. Kabir Singh needs this acceptance too, an imperfect, deeply misogynistic man tugging at our feminist hearts as a curse only to be condemned.

Yes, life and reality of it can be very difficult to swallow. For someone who feels very strongly about sexism, I hate to be saying this but Kabir Singh is NOT from an alternate universe. I hear you when you insist he is. What you mean, really, is that he couldn’t be belonging to this world. Yes, he couldn’t be, with his ugliness and imperfections but world, as it exists, can be very ugly. Not accepting ugliness as part of your world, I think, is a mostly urban and utterly myopic view of the world, acutely unaware of the small town cultural and social landscape, especially in the Hindi belt of our country.

In a very real world where girls haven’t been raised to be independent individuals, men step in to behave like Kabir Singh, and are welcomed to behave like one. They could be our fathers, boyfriends, and husbands. They could be in our families, or outside of it, but their existence isn’t unreal. I have heard the noise on the male protagonist in the movie not caring about consent to kiss women, or make out with them, but for decades, we have had women allowing men to usurp what’s been theirs, willingly or unwillingly, and it’s this universe (not alternate) that the film portrays. This explains why the struggle for women’s rights_right from a Shah Bano to the pending legislation on marital rape remains a difficult one.

To get back to the film, since when do we label reality as an alternate universe, say it doesn’t exist? That’s like being in a place of privilege and making judgments about a reality that may not be yours. And do I need to say that without placing difficult truths where they belong, we (feminists) could never win any battle? Without accepting what the problem is and why, one couldn’t really address the problem. And that brings me to what I thought the problem is that truly needs to be discussed.

What made me very anxious about the movie was the character of Kiara Advani. Haven’t I seen many of her ilk in the town I grew up in and did they not travel with me when I moved to a global city for my global education? Many landed in the city with their boyfriends hailing cabs, carrying their suitcases to their rooms, showing them the path from college to hostel and suggesting, sounding very concerned, safe ways to navigate in the foreign city and keep themselves surrounded by people (especially Indian friends) all the time. This protective girl gang partied together and ate together and slept together, shutting themselves in the process to the multicultural world they found themselves transported to for their education.

I saw them needing boyfriends or brothers or mothers for security, protection and every day adjustments in life as if they could always have the luxury to live life joined to the hips with those they love and trust. Nothing wrong with this, after all, India is great for the support system that covers in its broad sweep friends and families who are utterly protective and giving.  Perfectly fine, but this may be why the spirit to venture out and live life independently dies early in some girls. and they are not to be blamed. We are in a country where a majority of girls are still raised to get married and start a family. I am not talking in thin air, maybe this UN Women report I wrote about yesterday will give you a sense of the problem.

If you aren’t one of them, I must tell you that you (and I too) are in minority. You are lucky you aren’t told to continue in a tasteless, abusive marriage because marriages are forever. You are bright and you deserve it, but those conditioned to act like they would die without a Kabir Singh don’t need your shock and condescension, for Kabir Singh is just the kind of man they may be stuck with for life. What would really help is your acceptance that such men exist just as they do, the rapists and dacoits and murderers do, and then LOUDLY say, cinema reflects life and life is sad. Life is sad, yes. At times. Girls like Kiara Advani’s character exist. They are in a prison cell, the lock to the prison door is missing and yet, they stay.

Why are they staying? Often times, they don’t have the support of parents who say, girl, we are with you, don’t take anyone’s shit. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they should walk out or if it’s okay to walk out. Sometimes, they know but they still won’t. Sometimes, they just can’t. Let us please not forget the real issues, then. The real issues we (feminists) need to be raging about are our unfair inheritance laws, son preference in Indian society, female foeticide, social structures that don’t favor strong and independent girls, cultural underpinnings that wouldn’t allow men to help out women in domestic chores, women sacrificing careers to make way for obligations in a marriage, inequality in families that hinders or limits their access to education, jobs, a career, their rights to property, equal pay …… the list is endless. Don’t say these don’t exist. Next time, you think of Kabir Singh, say this aloud: Kabir Singh is a product of the inequalities women face. Then, be very angry about these inequalities and make this into a chorus. This anger will do justice to Kiara Advanis across India you wouldn’t want to let down.  

 

 

 

 

WHAT ATISHI’S DEFEAT AND PRAGYA SINGH THAKUR’S WIN TELL US ABOUT INDIA

More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship In A Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is, as Roosevelt said, critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, today as we stand, electoral trends point to her losing out on her political debut to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi also trails behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the lead of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot—in Bhopal even as Atishi trails. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi. Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped her the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just the BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi. Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

The Modi wave

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate, and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises. An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion. A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

Even today, women constitute only 11.8 per cent (64 of 543) seats in the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent (27 out of 245) seats in the Rajya Sabha. A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11 percent ever since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48 percent in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60 percent in 1984 and then to 65.3 percent during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail. However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

This story was first published here.

Nightmarch: an intimate journey into India’s Naxal heartlands

nightmarch

I opened this book with a conflicted mind. As a capitalist, my understanding of India’s Naxal movement has been that of a movement galvanising ignorant people to block India’s development. I strongly believe that they deserve what is rightfully theirs, but I have never been a great admirer of alternative governments and violence.

Alpa Shah’s brilliant examination of the movement—not as an outsider writing on the subject but as a participant observer—made me revisit some of my beliefs. By the end of the book, I felt familiar with the world of the Naxals, their motivations and conflicts, and the sordid path of those who lead the movement forsaking worldly pleasures for the difficult dream of a just and egalitarian society.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone—and that’s what takes this book right to the top of political writing in narrative non-fiction. Nightmarch: A Journey into India’s Naxal Heartlands is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India.

Between 2008 and 2010, Alpa Shah spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, a professor of anthropology in London, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

Shah moved to Jharkhand at the time when Operation Green Hunt, a government operation to flush out guerrillas, was launched. This made her task more difficult as tribal communities were far removed socially, geographically and politically from the rest of India and she had to venture into the interiors. Towards the end of her stay, she joined a platoon of more than two dozen Naxals on their night march from Bihar to Jharkhand—a 250-kilometre trek—dodging scrutiny of police camps and check posts. This was a dangerous and audacious exercise given that Shah was unarmed, the lone woman in the platoon, and also new to navigating the rough terrain at night. But her determination convinced the Naxals. Very soon, she was off on a ten-day trek that would allow her to not just connect with Naxal leaders at a personal level, but to also have the most intimate view into their motivations, dilemmas and conflicts.

On the night march, Shah meets Gyanji, a senior Maoist leader whose soft feet belied his Naxal identity. Later, she would discover that he came from an upper-caste, well-to-do family, committed to bringing justice and fairness to the lives of the tribals. With her description of Naxal leaders, Shah humanises them and at times, also seeks to address popular myths about the men and women leading the movement. Gyanji, for example, with his playful eyes, love for poetry and interest in grooming himself, is not a gun-wielding Naxal. Prashant, with his guns, songs of revolution, and books written by Gulzar, Tagore and Russian revolutionaries such as Alexandra Kollontai, is a Naxal who was driven to the movement after the upper-caste feudal army, Ranvir Sena, burnt his cousins’ house. Overnight, he became a Naxal from being a Naxal sympathiser. Kohli, with his boyish appeal, joins the movement to escape his father’s reprimand on spilling milk. Clearly, everyone has different reasons to be a Naxal.

Yet, despite these differences, Naxalism, as it stands today, endures dreams of a classless and equal society. Inspired by Soviet Russia and Maoist China, India’s early Naxal movement in the 1960s was killed. Yet, seeds of rebellion were sown and it resurfaced in the later years in the “flaming fields” of states such as Bihar where fierce caste wars between the Naxals and dominant caste landlords raged on.

Extreme caste hierarchies still continue to plague the Indian society, giving succour to the Maoist movement whose war is against caste oppression. And this continues to mobilise the most socially discriminated group, the adivasis.

The most extreme counterinsurgency measures began in 2005, affecting lakhs of adivasis who were seen by the government as Maoist sympathisers. The crackdown followed the emergence of a new political and military organisation the Communist Party of India (Maoist) and its People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army. Today, as per government claims, 20 Indian 28 states are Naxal-affected.

Shah describes police action in these states against the guerrillas as the “juggernaut of perhaps one of the greatest people-clearing operations of our times”. The underlying message in the book is that of development pitted against social justice, with corporations invading natural habitats of adivasis for profit, destroying environment along the way, even as Naxal leaders mobilise the tribals they drive to homelessness.

Alpa Shah discovered Naxalism, and the “participant observation” method, proposed by British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, while she was a university student in London as an antidote to armchair research. But the motivation to finally travel to a Naxal-dominated, remote Jharkhand village perhaps came from the grit and fortitude of her grandmother who many years ago had travelled in a small boat to Nairobi in the late 1920s from a dusty Gujarat village. While Shah’s personal history and her father’s secular values shaped her outlook in life, it was not until her stints in the slums of Delhi for the World Bank that made her want to question injustices and change the world.

In Jharkhand, Shah spotted NGO workers in Land Rovers, development funds siphoned off by local elites, votes bought during elections, corporate honchos landing at Ranchi airport to mitigate land acquisition worries, and Naxal armies recruiting tribals in the region. This is how she eventually came to see the Naxalites: protection and rent seekers. But when her doctoral research supervisor asked her if Naxals were “really a bunch of thugs”, she decided to find out.

Nightmarch is Shah’s account of what she saw when she immersed herself in the lives of Naxals and their ideological war against the Indian state. Yet, Shah is astutely objective in her narrative and reflections, and notes, with profound understanding, how the idealism that holds Naxalism together is very often undone by the movement’s ease with using means of violence, how a movement modelled on principles of equality can create a more unequal society for Adivasi women and how Naxal leaders survive the hardships of jungle life to be betrayed by their own trusted men.

In the end, Shah discusses the contradictions the revolutionaries face. Besides being betrayed by their own people as they continue a relationship with their kin and families, Naxals find themselves ideologically pitted against capitalism when capitalism is needed to fund largescale revolutions. Not just this, their tendency for violent resistance also invites violent state oppression.

Being led by upper-caste men, Naxal movements have also overlooked the inequalities within their own ranks as men from elite classes have failed to give space for nurturing of the lower caste, adivasi women leaders. Yet, Shah argues that revolutionary movements such as Naxalism have provided an alternate vision where individualism, hierarchies, and accumulation of wealth at the cost of exploitation are discouraged, thereby acting as a democratising force.

Nightmarch isn’t just a journey into India’s Naxal heartlands, it’s a journey into your minds and hearts as you turn page after page, and for this and this above all, it must be read.

Nightmarch: A Journey Into India’s Naxal Heartlands by Alpa Shah

Published by Harper Collins

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First published here.

Is the Aam Aadmi Party dying?

Start-ups sound glamorous, never mind the toil and the backstory behind the celebratory lead about its success. Prescient founders of novel enterprises remember the backstory more than the lead, because they know when the hard knocks come calling, the backstory is needed to reflect and repair.

The Aam Aadmi Party as a political start-up was glamorous too. It was once the social media favourite, the new revolution, the beacon of urban politics, and the anchor of the young and the restless fed up with corruption. With Lok Sabha elections 2019, the cracks in AAP’s ambition to go national are visible with the utter decimation of the party in its stronghold Delhi.

Arvind Kejriwal, the activist leader of the political start-up, seems to have forgotten the backstory behind the party—the remarkable story of passion and underclass aspiration that went into the making of the AAP. Making its debut in 2014, the AAP broke open a fresh and new political cleavage in India’s national party system and set the stage for a movement by the urban lower and middle classes claiming access to basic amenities by upsetting a corrupt political class. Today, somewhere along the way, the AAP has lost its appeal. But it hasn’t happened overnight. THe AAP’s ambition to grow nationally, the once entrepreneurial experiment in Indian politics, has been in peril for quite some time now.

The AAP’s very basis of formation was the movement against corruption led by octogenarian Gandhian activist Anna Hazare. While Hazare, a grassroots activist, had no political ambition, Arvind Kejriwal joined the movement with clear political goals and took the movement to a political level with the formation of the AAP in November 2012. One high profile scam after another, from “Coal-gate” to the Commonwealth Games scandal, the UPA government was struggling to save face and the urban class was fatigued. This was a political opportunity and Kejriwal used it well. The meteoric rise of the AAP created excitement in the country, particularly among the youth. The party focussed on the mobilisation of Delhi’s urban dwellers for the establishment of a new anti-corruption ombudsman known as a Lokpal.

Riding on popular support, the AAP won 28 seats in the 2013 Delhi Assembly elections and formed government with support from the Congress. It bettered its performance in 2015, with a whopping majority: 67 out of 70 Delhi Assembly seats were won by AAP. Its supporters and believers expected the government narrative to stay firmly focused on corruption and it did—but just too inflexibly.

Under the Modi regime since 2014, the national discourse on good governance had moved to economic growth, priming the demographic dividend for progress and meeting the aspirations of young Indians. In Kejriwal’s case, corruption was the evil his government was up against with the symbolic broom. In Modi rajya, a corruption-free government led by a “hard-working” and “honest” prime minister became the popular discourse. Any other narrative, outside of or opposed to Modi’s mould of clean bureaucracy, failed. So did the “Chowkidar chor hai” slogan of the Congress party, as Lok Sabha election results indicated last week. Sensing the sentiment, even the AAP kept its silence on corruption and failed to find resonance with its voters.

If AAP’s entrepreneurial activism drew attention to the issues of corruption and good governance and earned it votes, Kejriwal as chief minister also claimed his space as the rabble rouser of urban politics. Starting from the time he collaborated with Hazare to get corruption on the national agenda, the negotiations and polarised debates proved to be tumultuous. Soon, his agitational style was called anti-democratic. After the clamour of hunger strikes, protests, and failed negotiations, Kejriwal—who once had said that “all the politicians are thieves; throw them to the vultures“—joined politics. Even as chief minister of Delhi, Kejriwal continued as an activist sitting on dharna, at one instance the venue being the Delhi Lieutenant Governor’s office. From openly called himself an “anarchist” to calling his resignation as Delhi CM a mistake, Kejriwal’s politics and public speeches kept shifting, betraying the gravity and prudence that a chief minister’s office demands. After resignation, many saw him as a bigger threat to democracy and his style of politics a major inconvenience to the common man he stood for.

Add to all of these, the agony of public humiliation: Kejriwal has been attacked very publicly more than once, the latest being on his road show in Delhi earlier this month. His criticism wasn’t just limited to the media though; growing dissent within his party led to infighting and ugly fallouts in the shape of the expulsion of party MPs. Two of them were from Punjab, the only state the AAP could make inroads in outside of Delhi. Very soon, this chaos within the party led to the loss of a compelling face of Kejriwal and his colleagues.

The recent debates on the AAP’s anarchist tendencies and a sudden eruption of negative reports on the party in the mainstream English media are indicative of media’s alarm against activism going out of hand. Kejriwal’s performance as a party leader in 2014 was uneven but the outcome of two Lok Sabha elections—2014 and 2019—have exposed the geographical limits of Kejriwal’s national appeal. In Delhi, it has been shut out entirely, with its candidates faring third in the votes tally. Kejriwal, driven by national ambition, moved too fast, endangering local power for a place on the national tally of politics. Now, the AAP is staring at zero.

The AAP started off as an abrupt and powerful change from the political status quo with the slogan of anti-corruption at its core. But as the party faced political defeat, in parliamentary elections and in the passage of the anti-corruption Lokpal bill, its political representation began to change. In fact, the Jan Lokpal bill debate, vote and aftermath can be called a watershed event in the self-presentation of the party. The party, going by the political rhetoric of its leaders and its social media posts, gradually moved from being a party against corruption to being an opposition to its political adversaries. Prior to the debate on the Jan Lokpal bill, the party rhetoric was positive and uniform with sparse references to the other political parties. Afterwards, it turned negative and aggressive, and heaped labels on its political opponents, calling them anarchists. The focus shifted from the virtues of AAP to the concrete evils of its political opponents. This went on to build the image of AAP as a political party that only knew how to protest and knew nothing concrete about governance. From faceless corruption being its enemy, now the Congress and BJP were synonymous with corruption for the AAP.

Last but not the least, it would be plain ignorant not to discuss the AAP’s use of celebrities in its political campaigns. In the run-up to India’s general election in 2014, the party used actors such as Ranvir Shorey, Vidya Malvade and Ayub Khan, among others, for party campaigns in Mumbai. In elections this year, actors such as Swara Bhaskar, Gul Panag and Prakash Raj campaigned for the party. The AAP’s defence for using the Bollywood glamour for expanding his party’s appeal may be that these actors are not part of India’s box office elite, but nothing can discount the fact that this break from their filmdom to commit to the rigour of political campaigns made the exercise a spectacle.

While the jury is already out on the efficacy of this exercise in fetching votes for the party, it’s clear that it undermined the AAP’s message and image for the common man. By no stretch of imagination can the actors used in the campaigns be called the common men and women of Mumbai or Delhi, nor can we say that their commonness derives from their socioeconomic condition. Their proclaimed commonness emerged through campaign tactics such as standing in the streets or sloganeering. While this may work for other parties, it has worked against the AAP purely because it stands in contrast with its original identity of “a party for the common man”.

The AAP’s victory in the Delhi elections had provided it with a platform to expand in other parts of the country. However, to build a national presence, one needs to deliver not just on governance in Delhi but also articulate a clear ideology and raise regional leaders. As things stand now, the AAP has failed to do that. It could at best be called a party with an urban appeal with limited ability to challenge the larger national and regional parties in the near future. There is always a thin line between the making and the unmaking of a revolution and as AAP stands today, the unmaking has begun.

This article was first published in Newslaundry.

#Elections2019: Five ways the media says all is not well with the saffron sweep

One of the most compelling worries of the fourth estate in recent years has been the restricted window of communication it was offered with Narendra Modi during his first term as India’s prime minister. This, many journalists argue, has undermined their position and journalism’s place in matters of national interest. But for journalists across the world who may share Indian journalists’ worries, just one question to America’s capricious President Donald Trump should settle matters. Trump, similar to Modi in his relationship with the liberal media of his country, will invariably say, for the sheer number of times he has been investigated and critiqued for his policies and personal wealth, that journalists wield enormous power over the political process of a country.

This can be a good way to look at journalism and the role of journalists and how asking the right questions supersedes everything, and can be more important than succeeding at acquiring “scripted interviews” with political leaders at the peak of elections.

Regardless of whether the political class or the ruling dispensation gives the fourth estate the time and attention as they wish for and rightly so, the very manner of media doing its job freely establishes without doubt its importance to democracy. As elections and its results have unfolded before us, it is a moment of realisation on how important media and good journalism is to the participatory process, enabling not just dissemination of information regarding candidates and the voting process but also shaping how voters engage in public debates on matters of national importance.

On Thursday, when the results of the Lok Sabha elections were declared, media coverage of elections moved to the next step: interpretation of the electoral wins and analysis of next steps for the new government.  

Here, for the coverage analysis, the focus will be on the two main parties in the fray and their candidates: the BJP and the Congress. The coverage will broadly include prime time shows on television channels such as NDTV, India Today, Republic, Bloomberg Quint, CNN-News18 and Tiranga TV on the day of counting of votes, and front pages of newspapers such as The Times of India, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Mint, The Hindu and The Telegraph the morning after the results were declared.

Defining themes: messages on the big win converge on its dangers

The overwhelming message this morning, as one goes through the coverage of elections in newspapers and television channels, is that of victory and defeat, both at once. While the analysis and reporting has dissected minutely the gains of the BJP-led NDA and the humiliating loss of the Congress party, it has done so with the refrain that it doesn’t come without its dangers to democracy. In its prime time coverage, news channels focused on vote shares of parties and their go-to-poll strategies, and on the way forward for the next government including speculations on key players in the new cabinet.

The NDTV debate touched upon issues of BJP’s sweep in unlikely states, its winning strategy that led to the defeat of regional parties, and its consolidation and improvement of past performance. Fair weightage was also given to the Congress party with discussions on what its leadership  could have done to stop the saffron surge. In Modi’s win, its anchors saw the dangers to inclusion and repeatedly raised it during the discussion.

Ravish Kumar, in primetime show India ka Faisla, conveyed a sense of helplessness in discussing the BJP’s win. At the start, he recalled the attacks on Pulwama and Balakot, and said none of these issues seem to have mattered in ensuring Modi’s win. In touching upon the BJP’s vote share and clean sweep in 17 states, he stayed clear of analysis, saying it was of “no use” discussing any of it. In Ravish’s show was plain elucidation of numbers and seats and avoidance of analysis of trends, accompanied by silent fatigue over results. All television shows played a major chunk of Modi’s post-win speech from the BJP headquarters in Delhi, followed up by analysis. Only Ravish Kumar moved on to other topic without a word on the speech.

Taking an unusual defense of the Congress, his analysis also seemed to gloss over the Congress’s debacle in these elections by arguing that the Opposition “managed to not make this a one-sided fight in spite of its limitations” whereas in 2014, the Opposition had “capitulated” to the NDA.

In newspapers, The Times of India front page called it the Modi magic, broadly touching upon Jagan Mohan Reddy’s win in Andhra Pradesh, AAP’s defeat in Delhi as a third ranker, a surge in the Sensex, a breach in the Gandhi bastion of Amethi, and a possible bigger role for Amit Shah in the new government, even as a brief report also analysed how the private wealth of Lok Sabha MPs has increased between 2014 and 2019.

Economic Times dedicated the front page to elections, highlighting not just the decisive win but also pre-poll preparedness of Modi’s bureaucracy vis-à-vis economic agenda. It also had a list of 10 ideas for the govt to “kickstart” the economy. Modi’s win sent the stocks soaring, and the front page coverage highlighted that, placing it next to the main story. The front page anchor was Rahul Gandhi’s loss in Amethi.

In this space, there were no murmurs of the dangers overwhelming media coverage highlighted. For example, in Hindustan Timescoverage of the victory, the lead story called the election results a vindication of the BJP’s strategy of turning Lok Sabha elections into a “presidential style” of elections, enabled by a consolidation in BJP strongholds, flexibility in the BJP’s choice of alliance partners, and its exploitation of anti-incumbency in regions where the party wasn’t in power. Alongside the lead coverage, there was hint of Opposition leaders’ clamour over EVMs. Indian Express continued with this narrative by calling it “Modi 2.024”, an allusion to the one-man show and underlining the “deification and personification of one man”. A report dedicated to BJP president Amit Shah and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra also analysed their individual strategies and performances.

The Telegraph was almost poetic in its description of the saffron surge. Calling the election results BJP’s thunder of majority, reports in the newspaper also likened the BJP to the TMC of 2009, alluding to the hint of anger and violence in its vote. Another edit called it the story of ultra-nationalism, of unabashed majoritarian assertion, and of the one-man charisma of Modi.

Big words, alarming messages

A close look at the use of descriptive words gives us a rough sense of how candidates and parties are being talked about in the media. In television discussions, phrases and words such as “spectacular performance”, “largest victory”, “a wave and a landslide both”, “how is the josh”, “defeat of dynasty”, “wave election”, and “nobody could see this” were liberally used to express the scale of the victory and the shock of those who found the results unexpected.

The Congress’s loss was largely described by phrases such as “caught out at the wrong place, wrong time”, “break of traditional loyalties”, “rejection in semi-feudal seats”, among others, indicating a soft corner for the party and its young leader Rahul Gandhi. At one point, Gandhi’s win in Wayanad was also described as the “biggest win” in 2019 elections (Ravish Kumar on NDTV India).

Words used for Narendra Modi ranged from the incoming prime minister being a “dabang leader”, “guardian of the Hindu” “protector of the majority” to a magical “chowkidar”. This went on to reinforce the dominant personality sketch of Modi that media has drawn all throughout: a macho strongman who is great with weaving election-winning narratives. Yet, the BJP leaders on the shows tried to move away from these descriptions by constantly using words such as “poverty alleviation”, “inclusiveness” and “big-bang economic reforms” to set the tone for the new government’s agenda. The underlying caveat of most journalists for the new government hinged on the Muslim sentiment over a largely majoritarian verdict and the personality cult of Modi imposing dangers to India’s democratic polity. In all this noise, Ravish Kumar’s silence on Modi’s speech was the most vocal of his message.

A look at the front page headlines in print newspapers that perpetuated the magic of Narendra Modi: While Times of India invoked the Chowkidar slogan to headline its lead story as “Chowkidar’s Chamatkar”, Hindustan Times preferred to call it a “NaMoMoment” stopping short of calling it “magic”. Economic Times, true to its style, proclaimed “Yes! Prime Minister” in a loud and dramatic declaration of the results.

Indian Express said: “In five years, Brand Modi had transcended religion, class, caste”. Its editorial called it a “remarkable victory, a great responsibility” underlining the dangers of “majoritarian triumphalism” and the challenges the new government faces on secularism and economic performance. Telegraph called NDA’s win a “thunder of majority” with the refrain that “to view Thursday’s mandate as a triumph of Hindutva and communal polarisation would be a misreading of its complexity”. In another report, it also sought to sensationalise Modi’s reference to secularism in his victory speech with the headline: “Secularism ‘dramebaazi’ over, said the soon to return Prime Minister”.

Dabang vs Inexperienced: words associated with candidates

Another interesting trend of the media coverage of the 2019 elections has been the words and phrases used to describe the main leaders contesting elections while undermining opportunities for more nuanced and substantial discussion. The most noticeable obsession has been with finding phases to describe Modi’s personality, or Brand Modi so to say, and there are plenty of examples to choose from.

In describing voters’ perception of Modi, media analysed him as a “strong and decisive leader”, a “disruptor” changing the election arithmetic in India, a “risk taker”, a “protector” of the masses—all of these feeding into his popular persona of an corruption-free, macho personality. His confidante and ally, BJP president Amit Shah, has been described as a super organiser and planner, insightful election planner, and mobiliser of BJP workers with clear strategy and a passionate agenda.

In contrast, the post-poll coverage has described Rahul Gandhi as “inexperienced” and “unprepared”, having “failed to raise leaders at the state level” and in planning an electoral strategy. His sister Priyanka has simply been called a “non-starter”.

This might reflect a fairly fundamental flaw in India’s news media—perhaps the focus is too much on horse race and numbers, and not solid reporting on the bigger debates around public policy schemes and vision of candidates, their life stories, leadership ability and temperament to be able to address the issues that matter in addressing the overarching issues of democracy and inclusion.

Picking favourites: sentiment of coverage

Objectivity being the cornerstone of journalism, the main goal of newspapers and television channels is to cover each candidate and party on equal terms. Yet, while that is usually the stuff of the mastheads, journalists may end up choosing words, candidates or parties that betray the goal. Words and weightage of coverage to specific candidates and parties may also reflect pre-existing favour or biases towards certain leaders and their political affiliations.

While the overwhelming coverage of television channels restricted itself to discussing the numbers and vote shares of political parties, it’s impossible to ignore Tiranga TV and Republic’s coverage for the much evident messaging they seemed to convey on the core political parties. On Republic TV’s prime time coverage, Renuka Chowdhury of the Congress was severely quizzed on Rahul Gandhi’s loss in Amethi and at one point, it was difficult to distinguish if the journalist questioning the politician was angry about the way she seemed to undermine the influence of his channel or hunting her down for her defence of her party’s leader. At the end of the show, through repeated references to Republic TV’s growing audience and reach, the messaging on Narendra Modi’s clean sweep of India and Republic TV’s network expansion had merged, as if the latter was linked to the former.

Tiranga TV’s coverage majorly focussed on the Congress party, with its headlines constantly underplaying the magnitude of defeat. This prime time video on election analysis was headlined as “Don’t Be Afraid, Our Ideology Will Win: Rahul Gandhi After Conceding Defeat”. The choice of discussion topics also tended to draw the focus back on Pulwama and Balakot attacks and on Congress’ limited gains in Kerala. This is not to say that the poll verdict wasn’t the mainstay, but in the choice of panelists and presentation of news, the implied message veered towards the Congress.

 

Television and print visuals

For most people, visuals carry an even more powerful impact than words on a page. There has been a surge in data journalism in the media and a lot of visual coverage reflects this trend. Charts on vote tallies, individual wealth of politicians and Sensex graphs dominated the coverage. Images of political candidates such as Modi and Shah were used but in limited space, unlike past years when we have seen a splash of visual brilliance in political coverage with the exception of Hindustan Times.

While listing the broad trends in media coverage, it’s important to underline that often, media publications are accused of partisan coverage, which reflects political biases in their coverage. This has especially happened in the Internet age as breaking plain news is passé and context setting and perspectives have become the next important thing to do. Aside from ideological bias, journalists across outlets are also accused of perpetuating biased views by oversimplifying complex issues and drawing character scripts, while looking at elections merely as a big political competition. I am not sure if I can say that the media coverage of Lok Sabha poll results this year have been free from these.

Yet, one thing hasn’t changed: working as a passionate watchdog of democracy to deliver stories to the people still remains the most important part of media’s job description.

This was first published in Newslaundry.

What Atishi’s defeat and Pragya Singh Thakur’s win tell us about India

More than 100 years ago, in the iconic Citizenship In A Republic speech, US President Theodore Roosevelt outlined the key drivers of a successful republic: the quality of its citizens and high calibre political leaders who would hold the average citizen to a high standard—not just by words, but by deeds as well. The Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi fits this idea of a high calibre leader, one who is, as Roosevelt said, critical to the success of a democracy.

Atishi, born to Delhi University professors Vijay Singh and Tripta Wahi, studied at St Stephen’s and Oxford University, excelled at academics, and chose to work for Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) when she could have chosen the path of corporate opulence just as an overwhelming number of people with pedigree do. The 37-year-old was AAP’s only female candidate in Delhi, besides being the only woman on its highest decision-making body. In one of her interviews, she said she chose politics because that is the path that helps bring change.

Yet, today as we stand, electoral trends point to her losing out on her political debut to BJP candidate from East Delhi, Gautam Gambhir, another political debutante and star cricketer who is far removed from everything she stands for: the politics of development, social policy and genuine groundwork. Atishi also trails behind the Congress candidate from East Delhi, Arvinder Singh Lovely.

As Delhi’s education advisor since July 2015, Atishi was at the helm of large-scale education reforms in the government schools of Delhi with stunning results. A gaping divide separates government-aided education from private school education in India and she helped bridge the gap with policies and programmes that sought to replace the tarred image of government schools with that of swanky and sharp ones where classes do happen and dedicated teachers show up at school for children from India’s underclass. Her door-to-door campaign turned the BJP’s religious slogan of “Mandir wahin banayenge” into “School wahin banayenge”, a clear marker of the kind of politics she has been vouching for.

But in the din of Indian politics, strong interplay of caste and religious identities can take well-meaning leaders down. This could explain the lead of the BJP’s Pragya Singh Thakur—who has absolutely no development agenda to boot—in Bhopal even as Atishi trails. Pragya wears her Hindu nationalistic robes with fervour, rides on the politics of saffron symbolism, and played the victim card in her campaign by talking of police cruelty while she was jailed.

Atishi’s struggle has been a departure from Pragya’s politics. For Atishi, being in the electoral fray with confusion over caste and religion turned out to be a self-defeating thing to do. Advising the government on winning programmes can win women respect but to talk of real development as a woman politician fighting to win is even worse—or so it appears.

In India, being a well-meaning woman in the electoral fray isn’t enough. The political structure is designed to accommodate women in non-threatening roles with little or no career progression to bigger political roles. Those who co-opt into the system survive with glorious wins. Like Pragya Singh Thakur has. Many view women as intellectually or economically weak to win an election. From Lalu Yadav’s cheesy references to actor and BJP MP Hema Malini’s cheeks to Congress candidate and actor Urmila Matondkar’s rival calling her a bholi bhali ladki to SP politician Jaya Prada being called derogatory names—all this drama and mansplaining in politics is contemptuous and sickeningly sexist, and yet it continues to resist women from moving forward.

Atishi’s surname of Marlena, given to her by her Leftist parents, was attacked first with rumours projecting her as a Christian. Days into her political campaign, Atishi had vehemently said that the only plank for her in the elections would be her work on health and education and her vision for East Delhi. Very soon, her surname was called into question and we heard Atishi declaring her caste at birth: “My actual surname is ‘Singh’ and I come from a Punjabi Rajput family.” This is how she went around telling people, frazzled about the fuss over her caste and religious identity. Atishi ultimately dropped her the name Marlena.

In the rabidly masculine world of politics, Delhi’s East Delhi constituency looked like just another post waiting to be swallowed by the saffron surge. Gautam Gambhir was just the BJP’s foot soldier like hundreds of others, guarding the post as votes were cast for the overpowering persona of Modi. Atishi and her report card, her campaign videos and her repeated emphasis on developmental issues were just weak straws against a very strong saffron wave. The fact that Atishi suffered an attempt at her character assassination doesn’t seem to matter.

While it can be safely said that in seats that went to the BJP, the votes were cast for Modi, was it also Atishi’s aggressive campaign that weakened her position in a highly sexualised campaign? Popular support for macho, sexually-charged campaigns that male politicians run and women politicians like Pragya Singh Thakur co-opt into silences women with an agenda to work.

The Modi wave

“How will women participate in politics if treated this way?” was the common refrain during Atishi’s very difficult campaign, during which she publicly broke down. Atishi has been raw, articulate, and human. And her campaign relentlessly kept putting the focus back on real issues. In contrast, 49-year-old Pragya Singh Thakur’s contest in itself was an escape from the problematic questions that her candidature and now her win raises. An accused awaiting trial in the 2008 Malegaon bombings, she, as her political rival and Congress’s veteran leader Digvijaya Singh has said, is the face of Hindu terror. She faced arrest for terror charges, but has consistently used it to her advantage by playing the victim card. Her frequent references to her “tortuous” jail time and other comments have kept stirring controversies, the latest being the one where she called Mahatma Gandhi’s killer a patriot.

When examined through the lens of gender, Pragya Singh seems to have successfully channelled gender as a weapon to shame the state apparatus and its dealings with terror accused free of any other identity of privilege except religion. A sadhvi for Hindus remains a sacred identity and Pragya Thakur’s allegations about police torture on her body remains, if not a political issue, definitely a religious issue, finding appeal with the masses.

Way forward

Even today, women constitute only 11.8 per cent (64 of 543) seats in the Lok Sabha and 11 per cent (27 out of 245) seats in the Rajya Sabha. A 2017 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women indicates that between 2010 and 2017, the share of women representatives in the Lok Sabha rose only by one per cent. This means that the percentage of women elected to Parliament has stagnated between three and 11 percent ever since the first Lok Sabha was constituted 67 years ago in 1952.

This is a paradox, considering the increasing share of women voters in the electorate. From 48 percent in 1971, the turnout of women increased to 60 percent in 1984 and then to 65.3 percent during the 2014 general elections.

While the sheer size of women voters is heartening and the representation of women in Parliament may have a long way to go, it is time the debate on women’s participation in politics discussed the quality of women in the electoral fray and not just increasing the number of women in Parliament. To be sure, the same standards could be applied to male candidates as well, but we often fail. However, given the sheer impact of women’s political participation on the life of a nation, it’s important that we are clear about the role models we have: the ones who burn the unchartered path to build anew, or those who fall into the macho-masculine narrative of male politicians and close the room for negotiation.

This story was first published here.

Thrills, TRPs and precarious predictions: can we trust exit polls?

The madness, the anger, the bitter campaigns, the personal attacks, the unsavoury use of history, the sycophancy and the defiance, the arrogance and the posturing of politicians, the “Khan market gang” jibe, the way money influences election outcomes, the dynasty in Indian politics, the divisiveness of saffron surge, the chasm between voter aspirations and poll promises, the fringe and its rabid intolerance—do all these make politics less watchable? Given that on May 23, millions of Indians will settle down in front of their television sets, plonk themselves in front of their office desks with computers tuned into live broadcasts, or sink deep into their mobiles for a long and thrilling day wherever they are, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

As votes will be counted, viewers will receive not just the final tally of votes. An excess of analysis and commentary about the voting patterns and the state of our democracy will be available too in the bargain. But before that happens, no matter where we get the final tally of winners from, much of the preceding analysis and predictions have come from one source: exit polls, the exercise of interviewing voters just as they vote.

Exit polls 2019

By this time, we all know what the overwhelming majority of exit polls have predicted. As I sank on the couch last evening, the television screen flashed the poll predictions. While the numbers for each political party in the fray varied from poll to poll, the broader trend was resoundingly clear: the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government will likely return to power. A casual analysis of the numbers suggests a Bharatiya Janata Party win over Congress in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Not just this, in a first, the BJP has emerged as a big challenger to regional parties in West Bengal and Odisha, eating away into the Left and the Congress bastions. The Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party seem to be on the rise too, a far cry from 2014 and 2017 elections in Uttar Pradesh.

Until May 23 when the counting of votes gets underway, we don’t have a way to verify these predictions. But as it happens with exit polls every election, we do have questions. Predominantly: are exit polls always correct?

The answer may lie somewhere in the way the TV channels declared the polls on Sunday and what they predicted. On one end of the spectrum were channels like Republic TV where guest speakers arrived in their cars right up to the studio and CNN-News18 which had their anchor perched on a CG-powered helicopter taking an aerial view of the parliamentary constituencies. All this drama wasn’t for nothing.

This over-hyped presentation of news shows is at its core a promotional activity usually commissioned by news channels at the time of poll broadcasts. While not all of them on Sunday evening were this dramatic, almost everyone out there screamed how accurate, credible and intelligent their predictions were. A few of them, aware of the credibility crisis exit polls have faced in recent years, even declared that they were the only ones to get the numbers right. Yet, none of them asked questions critical to the accuracy of the numbers being predicted: the details on methodology, sampling, questions asked, how vote share was calculated, and more.

The vehement declarations on the accuracy of exit polls floated on TV screens irrespective of the channels, placing great emphasis on the tally on display as against the relentless reporting of the past weeks replete with ground reportage. At this moment, brilliant pieces of journalism and intelligent analyses by experienced editors and reporters faded, and psephologists took over. Along the way, ABP-Nielsen that had earlier declared 267 seats for NDA changed its NDA tally to 277, explaining that the changes were made after polling at 2 pm on Sunday, raising eyebrows. Blame it on the demand driven model of exit polls as well—TV channels and the Internet have added to the impatience and brief attention span of viewers, who now obsess about the numbers more than the process and the stories that went into conducting and covering the world’s largest democratic exercise.

However, as numbers are placed on the board, their difference on the prediction tally could be indicative of all the possible errors. On Sunday’s exit polls, there was divergence in the tallies: between then ABP-Nielsen and CNN-News18-IPSOS numbers for the NDA, there was a difference of 59 seats. Likewise for the UPA, a difference of 50 seats between the lowest number (CNN-News18-IPSOS) and the highest (Times Now-VMR) on the tally. Total tally for the NDA by India Today’s Chanakya (2014) and Nielsen (2009), who got the predictions right in the past, diverged by 73 seats.

Even state-wise predictions varied: there were huge differences in predictions for Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal made by Nielsen, C-Voter, Chanakya and Jan ki Baat. Even the exit poll vote share predictions vary but the gap between the NDA and the UPA stayed consistently large. But it also suggested that the UPA could have gathered more votes than the last elections in 2014.

Yet, the methodology used for these polls wasn’t clear beyond the sample size quoted by a few channels. While CNN-News18-IPSOS and India Today put out details online on how their exit polls were conducted, other channels—in a bid to present the numbers differently—focussed on different aspects of the polls to declare results. India Today began the polls with states in the South, moving on to the West, North and East; Republic went ahead with the total tally first, moving on to analysing state wise predictions; NDTV, which had a “poll of polls”, had more people on the screen than the space given to their poll, indicating average of all the exit poll numbers.

The real challenge for exit pollsters, though, lies in converting seat share into number of seats won, and this is where the math often goes wrong. Add to this the challenge of an adequately representative sample. Also, there are important factors like voter turnout, vote share, proper sampling, adequate sample size, rural-urban divide and choice of booth. Any miscalculation, missing or over-calculation of any data type or size reflects poor results, and that is why transparency in methodology used for these exit polls becomes very important. While the India Today exit poll claimed a sample size of seven lakh as against five lakh for C Voter-Republic, the demography and caste composition giving a sense of the representation of this sample size wasn’t clear.

Given the past record of exit polls, silence around the methodology adopted to calculate vote shares—and to convert vote shares into seat shares—has existed for a long time. In this piece, veteran journalist Rajdeep Sardesai says methodology has always been a grey area in the context of exit polls, the opacity and lack of curiosity around it having compromised media’s understanding of elections over the years. Transparency of polling agencies around methodological details could enable sharper and more scientific exit polls.

Yet, because this is missing today, replaced by psephologists and election experts on media panels, exit polls are more like an astrologer’s day at the science fair with its share of hits and misses, but never failing to amuse.

Past experience

Not surprisingly, given the lack of clarity on methodology, exit polls have often turned out wrong in the past, and not just in India. The reasons for the inaccuracy of exit polls could also include voters lying about who they actually voted for, the absence of random and representative sampling, biases in questioning or simply bad fieldwork.

Exit polls in 2014 had predicted the NDA to emerge victorious in the elections. But none of them, with the sole exception of India Today‘s Chanakya, accurately predicted the extent of the NDA’s victory. The NDA won 336 of the 543 seats and the BJP secured 282 seats on its own. The UPA, on the other hand, won merely 60 and the Congress was reduced to its lowest ever tally of 44. News24-Chanakya exit polls had predicted a landslide victory for the NDA with 340 seats. According to this, the UPA was likely to be reduced to its lowest ever tally of just 70 seats.

Slightly more in the mid-range was the Times Now-Org Exit Poll, which gave NDA 249 seat, 23 seats less than the midway mark. This poll also gave the UPA 148 seats, which was more than the 60 they actually won and the 119 they got in 1999. The CNN IBN-CSDS polls and the Headlines Today-Cicero polls predicted between 261 and 283 seats for the NDA and between 92 and 120 seats for the UPA. The India TV-C voter and ABP-Nielsen polls both predicted an NDA victory in the range of 281 to 289.

As we know now, none of these numbers matched.

On Sunday, as exit polls were relayed on television channels here, comparisons were also made with the recently concluded elections in Australia where the conservative party emerged as surprise winner of elections even as more than 50 pre-poll surveys declared its ouster from power. Nevertheless, the usual caveat here is that in Australia, the surprise was with respect to opinion polls and not exit polls, which are different, besides other reasons such as the waning popularity of the Labor prime minister.

If there is any margin of error, why are exit polls conducted at all? What is their purpose? Do exit polls merely serve the purpose of helping the media to “call” elections a few days earlier than the official results? This process of calling elections and the race among media organisations to be the first to do so, invariably serves a recreational purpose when telecast on TV with all the dramatic statements and high decibel debates. But does this in anyway contribute to the democratic process?

Possibly, because well-executed and well-analysed exit polls allow correct predictions. A second purpose that exit polls might serve is to provide valuable information about the electorate. While for journalists and the public, the importance of exit polls may end with the noise over seat projections and the maddening race for channels to get the numbers out first and accurately so, psephologists and sociologists could have valuable lessons to draw from exit polls.

What we should be asking of exit pollsters

Besides methodology and representative sampling, exit polls have other issues to address too. Research into exit polls has revealed that the form, wording and order of questions can significantly affect poll results. Whatever the technique may be, it is important to understand how a poll was conducted and what was asked. Do we know this about the exit polls aired on Sunday? No.

Often, bias in exit poll surveys occurs when respondents provide socially acceptable answers rather than their true opinions on controversial issues. In the Indian context, Indian voters have dealt with issues such as Sabarimala, #MeToo, triple talaq and demonetisation to vote on, but the exit polls are silent on whether these factors were taken into account while surveying. A host of channels such as NDTV and Tiranga TV reported exit polls on the basis of “poll of polls,” where multiple polls were averaged together. Methodological arguments over how to do this accurately exist and some statisticians have objections to such mixing of polls.

Way forward

Everyone makes mistakes and so do polling agencies. Media coverage of exit polls could begin with media asking questions of pollsters on methodology, sampling and other details. Errors can be diagnosed and corrections made only when there is ample information on the process. Pollsters and partnering media channels need to come together and discuss ways to overcome the credibility crisis they are facing. Besides, accountability for wrong forecasts should be built into partnerships pollsters enter into with the media.

Until this happens, as they say, the only poll that will continue to matter will be the one on counting day!

This Op-ed piece first appeared at Newslaundry.

INS Viraat controversy: how the Indian media kept discrediting itself

Whichever side of the political spectrum one stands on, it’s no longer a debate that the political campaign ahead of India’s general elections this year has turned caustic and distasteful. But when the past is invoked to assail political rivals, it no longer remains an act of political impropriety; it becomes a grim reminder of the degrading use of history in a rabid political discourse for purely political gains.

On May 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the late Rajiv Gandhi—former prime minister and father of Congress President Rahul Gandhi—of using the Indian navy’s veteran warship INS Viraat as his “personal taxi” for holidaying in the Lakshadweep islands, thereby undermining national security. The reactions flew thick and fast. A war of words ensued between the Congress and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party over Modi’s remark. Until this time, readers and observers of the unfolding drama could discern that the entire class of Indian media had divided itself into two camps, each one out to discredit the other. Top journalists diligently posted their views on social media accompanied by reports that focussed on gathering versions around the event and broadcasting them without much corroboration.

Moving away from all the noise on social media and the ideological battles, let’s focus on the coverage by major national newspapers on the controversy to understand if the media lives up to its responsibility as an unbiased and diligent chronicler of events. A careful analysis illustrates that early reportage on the controversy was by and large symptomatic of the “he said, she said” brand of journalism, focussing on conflicting versions of people who claimed to be witnesses to the event when it happened.

What’s interesting here is that while Modi accused the former prime minister of using the naval ship as a “taxi” for personal holidays, newspaper coverage followed up with versions credited to former Navy officials on whether Rajiv Gandhi and his friends and family were picnicking inside INS Viraat. Reports refuting Modi’s claim said since the former prime minister did not take his friends and family inside INS Viraat for the holiday, calling it a national security threat would be a gross misrepresentation of the event. The coverage over the next two days quietly moved to a few publications publishing reports from their 1988 archives, when the trip by the former prime minister took place.

In the analysis of the present coverage focussing on people’s testimonies to validate or discredit Modi’s claim, and of the coverage in 1988 on the then prime minister’s holiday trip, disturbing trends emerge:

First, in reporting on Modi’s claim, newspapers relied on conflicting versions made by various people, including past Navy officials, who claimed to have had an intimate view of the trip when it happened, but couldn’t independently confirm or deny the accurate details of the event important in India’s modern political history for the people involved in it.

Second, most of the coverage on Modi’s accusation hinged on individual versions. While journalists could quote them as sources privy to the said event in the past, it was clear that much of the coverage also appeared gullible to the temptation to sensationalise the event. Most journalists chose to stick to relentless reporting of statements rather than discussing the disturbing use of history for cheap electoral gains during the election campaign.

Third, the majority of the journalists on social media taking sides on the veracity of the prime minister’s claim, chose to limit their criticism to the use of the past in election campaign, by calling it a vicious and personal attack on a deceased political leader. What went missing is the broader dialogue and information campaign that was needed on the alarming tendency to shift the political narrative with an invocation of history that is often vulnerable to misuse and misinterpretation, especially in the din of elections.

Fourth, it’s been even more disturbing to note that multiple versions of the event—starkly contradicting each other—came from people who belong(ed) to the Navy, exposing the vulnerability of journalists to play into political lobbies that might be at work in a highly-charged political season. Fact-check and consulting multiple sources, which are the de rigueur of credible journalism, were conveniently abandoned.

Lastly, past reports of the event emerging from the archives of India Today and The Indian Express appeared more definitive and unequivocal in their criticism of Rajiv Gandhi’s trip, a stark departure from the confusion of media coverage today. It’s useful to remember that archival reports clearly evidence the occurrence of the holiday trip, and some of them critical of the people and state machinery used for the purpose. However, publications (barring a few) who covered it in the past in great detail, today appeared to be quiet about the issues raised by journalists then reporting on the event.

The root of the controversy

It all started on May 8. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a public rally in Delhi, alleged that the Congress party undermined national security as former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had used the naval warship INS Viraat for family vacations. The accusation was widely reported by newspapers and criticised by journalists on social media, and it soon led to “source-backed” reportage with minimal efforts to independently substantiate, confirm or validate the versions being floated.

On May 9, The Wire quoted Former Chief of Navy Retired Admiral L Ramdas refuting Modi’s claims that Gandhi misused the warship INS Viraat for a family vacation in 1987. Along the same lines, NDTV the same day quoted Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, who commanded the Viraat in December 1987, denying reports that the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came on board the aircraft carrier, and that his friends and Italian mother-in-law were with him. The Hindu quoted former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas saying that Rajiv Gandhi was onboard INS Viraat on an official visit.

Two days later, an Indian Express report quoted former Union minister P Chidambaram saying that “another lie of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was blown away”. India Today quoted Rahul Gandhi admitting that he was on INS Viraat but that it was “crazy to think it was a holiday”. Another India Today report quoted the navy officer who planned former PM’s Lakshadweep trip as saying that the senior Gandhi didn’t misuse INS Viraat. On May 10, Firstpost reported counter versions quoting two navy veterans backing Modi’s claim; in the report, the officers said that Rajiv Gandhi used naval resources on the trip.

Media coverage on the issue even reported counter-attacks by Congress leaders on Modi. The Telegraph said: “By raking up a three-decade-old incident involving Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister has turned the spotlight on Canadian citizen Akshay being hosted on INS Sumitra under Modi’s own watch.” Indian Express covered Rahul Gandhi’s jibe at Modi asking him to explain Rafale even as he talked about his father. The confusion and shifting versions reported in newspapers were adequately covered in this Mint report on May 9.

Even as competing versions kept appearing in newspapers, India Today and Indian Express released reports from their archives that discussed details of the trip in 1988. While both reports from the past outlined in great detail the specifics of the holiday trip undertaken by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, the India Today report appeared critical of the manner in which the trip was conducted. It even had the writer of the report, Anita Prataprecollect the reactions her report received at the time. Indian Express’s archival reportage, though detailed, appeared casual about the trip. Yet, when it came to op-eds, there was an unusual silence in Indian Express on the controversy.

This brings me to raise some of the questions not just about the manner in which the Indian media covered the controversy, but also the stoic silence it maintained (barring the exception of a few) in confronting versions that kept surfacing by the day and in discussing reports published by their own ilk three decades ago.

A series of stories published in 1988 in the Indian Express clearly mentions three facts: First, the Lakshadweep administration was put to task to service the needs of the prime minister and his guests. Second, at least eight foreigners joined the prime minister and his family during their New Year holiday. Third, looking after their needs were 70 persons from various departments, including nearly 1,200 policemen drawn from the Lakshadweep Police and Madhya Pradesh Armed Special Police. Fourth, security was reinforced by a 24-hour watch by a naval fleet including aircraft carrier INS Viraat, the frigates INS Vindhyagiri and INS Taragiri, and the landing craft carrier 39 INS Magar.

The India Today archival report corroborated the details and noted that movie star Amitabh Bachchan was invited to the island even as his brother Ajitabh faced a government probe for FERA violations. Another Indian Express Magazine cover story (as well as The New Indian Express) described in detail the “opulence and extravagance of the Rajiv regime” as reflected in the said holiday.

So we can broadly agree on the fact that the trip Modi referred to did happen and the resources of various parts of government machinery were called to service. However, were Rajiv Gandhi and his friends and family inside INS Viraat?

The archival reports make no mention of that except that several naval ships were called to service for manning security for the holidaying prime minister and his entourage, including INS Viraat. This, reports in 1988 lamented, was “extravagant” and “opulent” on the part of Rajiv Gandhi, but did this compromise national security? There are no past reports that suggest this. But the prevailing media coverage relying on validation from sources seemed to suggest that national security was compromised. A number of journalists questioned the coverage, calling it “propaganda”.

While the theatrical debate continues, what has been missing is the willingness to confront and discuss the past reports, laden with pictures and details of the trip as evidence that appeared in newspapers thirty years ago. What’s clear is that the controversy may not push politicians to introspect their actions, it has seriously left enough room for journalists to question themselves.

Some important questions

If versions of Navy generals denying such a trip this week were true, were the reports carried out by credible newspapers of the day in the past questionable? If they are credible, why is the present coverage only focussed on ascertaining if Gandhi was indeed inside INS Viraat? Why are the facts of a prime minister’s private but extravagant holiday, facilitated by government machinery and the Navy, not important enough for discussion, if not to discuss the very important question of national security but surely to discuss impropriety of a high office in availing official perks for private holiday of friends and family? If the compromise of national security with discussions of such an event has been brought into question three decades later, why leave out evidence that points to misuse of naval ships and state machinery, since whether Gandhi and friends and family being aboard INS Viraat “couldn’t independently be confirmed”?

To be sure, the 1988 reports on Rajiv Gandhi’s trip made claims of the prime minister using state machinery and naval ships for his private holiday, even if to man security and facilitate transportation of people. Why didn’t the naval officials—who are quick to come up with conflicting versions of the trip today—confront the media reports then? Those who today claim that Modi’s accusation is indeed correct: what took them 30 years to finally speak up? If they chose to speak up, couldn’t they do so back then, during the governing party’s tenure? If statements released by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force after the Balakot attacks are to be seen, it’s clear that this is not the case. What happens to the evidence in the archival reports when we place it next to the denials or confirmations being made today?

Above all, as argued earlier, why now, and why not a broader conversation on the misuse of history to deflect attention from real issues critical to this election which every party is guilty of?

The only way to tackle the intrusion of the past in the political debate of today is to discuss it—to explain the myths or facts that exist and to confront them with the right questions and a dogged pursuit of the truth. Journalists are primary witnesses of history when it’s made. There are enormous dangers of misinterpretation when historical facts enter the realm of politics. With the INS Viraat controversy, an unwelcome, opportunistic and largely immoral attempt at misrepresentation may have been made. But by harping on to conflicting and uncorroborated versions of the event, Indian media not just kept discrediting itself, it also lost the opportunity to shape the historical narrative objectively, truthfully, credibly.