Thuglaq turns 54 and The Forgotten art of Dialectic!

 

 

The late “Cho” Ramaswamy was a Indian actor, comedian, editor, political satirist, playwright, film director , Member of Parliament and lawyer . in 1970 he had an argument with his friends who dared him to start a magazine  and to win the bet , he launched a political magazine that turned 54 this year. The first issue had this iconic cartoon where one donkey says to the other ” Looks like this Cho fellow has launched a magazine” and the other replies “Great , we will have a feast then!”.  The cartoon donkeys make their appearance once in a few years while all of us readers have been reading Thuglaq for decades !

I happened to attend the 54th annual meet of Thuglaq, the one-of-a-kind event where the entire rank and file of the magazine meet with its readers, on Pongal day ,as it always happens. This unique practice was started by Cho and after his death in 2016, S. Gurumurthy, the Chartered Accountant, Journalist and RSS Idealogue has been successfully running the magazine while maintaining such traditions as well. Cho, while his sympathies for the right wing and Modi was always transparent , also was known for changing his views as the situation on the ground demanded and did not hesitate to critique even sharply the parties he supported. He was famously responsible for the TMC (Tamil Manila Congress – Moopanar and P.C Chidambaram led) formation and TMC – DMK alliance and helped in shaping the BJP-DMK Alliance during Vajpayee’s time as well when he went against his childhood friend Jayalalitha. Under Gurumurthy, while Thuglaq retains most of the founding tenets of the magazine, discussing mostly only politics and a sliver of spirituality, the irrepressible and at times irreverent humor of Cho is definitely missing. Gurumurthy seems to have almost made it a dry right leaning political magazine to the mild disappointment of long-time readers like me.

 

In spite of the strong shift to the right, Gurumurthy has retained and even strengthened some unique features of Thuglaq. One being inviting political leaders of all hues including the ones he opposes like DMK, Congress, Communists to share their experiences and points of view in the magazine. And to continue and strengthen this annual unique event on Pongal day when the Editor of the magazine and his entire staff meet and interact with all the readers and invite political leaders to address and interact with the audience as well. Who’s who of Indian politics have attended these meetings – Advani, Modi and most of the BJP Leaders, the erstwhile Janata leaders like VP Singh,  senior communist leaders and Tamil Nadu leaders across political parties.

 

For this year’s event, the two main guests were Shashi Tharoor from Congress and K Annamalai, the firebrand BJP Tamil Nadu Chief. Sadly, since Annamalai was coming in from a meeting at Delhi, his flight was delayed and by the time he entered the Music Academy Hall, Shashi had finished his speech and had left. The program began the way it always does, with the editor introducing the entire staff of the magazine on stage starting from the veteran reporters like Ramesh whom most of Tamil Nadu knows to the attenders.  This is again a unique gesture that surely must be appreciated. Then selected readers from the audience come to the stage and make their comments, queries and criticisms to which Gurumurthy replies. This year, apart from the  regular questions about state and national politics , there were a few questions and concerns regarding the Maldives standoff and Guru gave his opinion and also deferred to the veteran diplomat and politician and ex Minister that Shashi is and requested him to give his point of view when his turn came. The audience as expected was mostly sympathetic to BJP’s cause.

Shashi spoke well, noting down all the key concerns and objections raised by the audience against Congress and addressed them valiantly. He also accused Modi government of subsidizing North at the cost of the South, lamented the subjugation of federalism and also explained the Maldives situation in an objective way without blaming the BJP government but cautioning it to be careful not to push Maldives into the axis of China.   Ram temple issue being a topical one, he took it head on saying that he will visit the temple but not on the 22nd as he has in any case not been invited and would not want to go even if he were as he felt it was made into a political event. This caused some unrest in the audience as it did when he was overly critical of Modi. Overall, it was a measured speech, fully knowing it was a partisan audience who were against his world view, Shashi Tharoor, I felt stood his ground gracefully.  It was comforting to see Gurumurthy come up to the stage after and admonishing the audience for interrupting Tharoor’s speech, commenting that since Dr Shashi Tharoor maintained the decorum of the forum, it behooves the audience too to do the same even if they believe he is all wrong.

 

Then came the star of the show, Annamalai who has caught the imagination of the public in the state especially those who desire an alternative to the Dravidian parties. His was a systematic take down of the DMK, its history and all that he felt was wrongs done by them. He also attempted to answer all the criticisms laid by Dr Tharoor, replying to the preferential treatment to the North charge, gave a population-based defense of the budget allocations favoring the North. He explained the BJP’s plans for the south and Tamil Nadu in particular.  Gurumurthy too jumped on to the same North – South subject later and gave a historical perspective based on argument that the north suffered more from the partition which at least I could not buy fully.

 

A few broad inferences for me from the event

For Congress, it appears as though this boycotting of hostile TV Channels and media is a petulant and self-defeating act. I too cannot stand some of these loud TV Channels and can understand the reasoning but if one is running a political party, surely one needs a thicker skin and like Shashi Tharoor showed, one can hold their point of view even among a partisan hostile crowd and come out with head held high! I overheard a lot of the audience commenting that “Tharoor is a good leader but will he survive in the Congress”. It is up to the Congress to convince people of that and give such leaders more responsibilities and have them engage with people more.

 

For BJP, this preferential treatment of North over South and the damage to the federal structure narrative is hitting home to the audiences in this part of the world and even to those who are favorably disposed towards it. The narratives countering it, the ones I heard from Annamalai and Gurumurthy were not entirely convincing. There have been other arguments on this subject which have featured in BP Podcasts by folks like Maneesh about Freight Equalization policies and such which seems to have some merit in them but are seldom heard here. Are those too nuanced and complex arguments, am not sure but the ones that I listened to now still leave me with the feeling that we in the south have been hard done by both the Congress and more so by the BJP Government.

Interacting with the audience live, especially if it is a large one and answering them impromptu seems to be a rare occurrence and should be celebrated more. The audience too needs to learn to respect the speaker and not jeer if an opposing point is presented. The audience in this event have been that historically and when they went a bit haywire, they were immediately pulled up. Politicians, those who are well qualified (Please note I do not say educated!) and passionate about a subject can still convey their stances without resorting to name calling and hyperbole. Both Shashi Tharoor and Annamalai were strong but objective and respectful in their speeches.

The argumentative Indian can also be objective and respectful and can engage in constructive dialogue and achieve much more!

The YouTube Recording of the entire event.

Book Review: Jugalbandi- The BJP Before Modi, by Vinay Sitapati

An oft mentioned take by the critics and opposition of the BJP and the ruling dispensation in India, on social media, reads- BJP and its supporters think that patriotism is a post 2014 phenomenon. A fair rejoinder to the take would be- opponents of the BJP and ruling dispensation think the fault lines in India and opportunist politicians aggravating these fault lines is a post 2014 phenomenon. The rejoinder got reinforced as I read Vinay Sitapati’s new book Jugalbandi- The BJP before Modi.

The book is on the careers and partnership of Atal Bihar Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani across their stints with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Jan Sangh and with Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP).

The lives and careers of these two gentlemen coincide with the first six decades of the republic and in writing the story of their partnership, Sitapati gives us a ringside view of political developments that have shaped post-independence India.

Extensively researched, the book in part a biography of Vajpayee and Advani, commences with an introduction to their childhood and the early influences that shaped their lives- conservative Hindu and semi-urban mores for Vajpayee, growing up in the princely state of Gwalior, where the Maharashtrian rulers give RSS foothold and cosmopolitan, upper class mores that get overruled by the anxieties and aftermath of partition and nudge Karachi boy Advani towards the RSS.

As the duo evolve and grow in tandem with RSS and post-independence broader Hindu Nationalism, the book brings out the ideological pining, the organizational structure and years of grassroot work that paved the way for RSS, an organization banned in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, helping form the government at the Centre within thirty years of the ban.

Sitapati presents Hindu Nationalist ideology- spearheaded by the RSS as one convinced that Indian sub-continent is Hindu/Non-Abrahamic in nature, that lack of unity amongst the Hindus has caused hemorrhaging of territorial integrity and a fear of demographic change that will be disadvantageous to the Hindu majority. The purpose of the political arm of Hindu nationalism is to build a unified Hindu identity, overruling its various caste lines, that will help in maintaining the territorial sanctity and preserve Hindu cultural identity.

Sitapati alludes the success of RSS in becoming a major political force to its ability to work as a Unified entity, no individual is bigger than the organization and all disputes, owing to personality or ideological differences, are managed internally and away from the public eye. It’s ability to nurture and groom talent that helps communicate its point of view clearly to the world at large and talent that keeps the organization a well-oiled machinery and above all to an organizational design that fosters and forges a sense one family amongst its members.

Between the two of them Vajpayee and Advani help implement the RSS ideology, first with Jan Sangh and then later with BJP as they play the roles of the Orator- Vajpayee the supreme orator- within and outside the parliament and Organizer- Advani the quintessential party man and ace organization skills, with ear to the ground; Sitapati credits their Jugalabandi, fine-tuned with their long-standing personal friendship, that withstands the test of time, to the complementary skill sets that they brought to the partnership and their years spent as active workers of the RSS. A partnership that saw its high noon with Vajpayee serving as the Prime Minister and Advani as the deputy PM of the country.

In the book Vajpayee comes across as a wily politician, who seeks acceptance within and outside the parliament by sticking as close to the prevailing political consensus and what he feels is the popular mood. Advani comes across as an RSS man, who is happy to play second fiddle to Vajpayee till the late 1980s when he truly discovers himself as a political leader after the Rath Yatra. Sitapati contends they are both similar in their deference to the Nehruvian consensus- left of the centre on economy and extension of differential rights to religious minorities, till there is a ground up pushback to this consensus from populace at large.

It is in explaining the duos response to feedback from their voters that Sitapati presents an insight often overlooked by commentariat and ignored by polarized and angry participants on social media- politicians act in accordance with the wishes of their voters. They thrive and survive when they respond to what their voters wants.

Vajpayee and Advani, hard as it may be to believe, were laggards when it came to the Ayodhya movement, Indira and Rajeev Gandhi nurtured the movement before Vajpayee and Advani’s BJP took charge. The duos Jugalbandi that led to formation of an avowedly right-wing government, was the two of them letting go of their deference to Nehruvian consensus and whole heartedly aligning with mood of the nation. This submission leads to the question how much of present-day India is because of Modi or is Modi a product of present-day India.

The writing is lucid and the author sticks to the language akin to journalistic reportage. The expanse of the book- the collection of characters who make an appearance and events that unfold, are all written in the style of long form journalism, the book is unputdownable for new junkies and history buffs. The book however, does not help us understand what led to marginalization of Advani after 2004. What made the true organization man break the ideological connection- his statement calling Jinnah a secular leader on a trip to Pakistan in 2005? How much the disarray of BJP, between 2004–9, can be attributed to Advani? For the takeover of BJP by Modi and Shah is also one of the legacies of the Vajpayee Advani duo.

The big take away though is how political parties in a democracy respond to the public mood and the limited say they have in shaping the public opinion. Be it Indira Gandhi’s nationalization of banks, her polarizing the Hindu votes in elections in J&K or the support that Indira, Rajeev and the Congress party extended to the Ayodhya movement in its early years. V.P. Singh implementing recommendations of the Mandal commission report, Vajpayee accepting the indispensability of Modi to the BJP in Gujarat or Advani turbo-charging the Ayodhya movement. These are all instances of politicians responding to an incentive structure designed for catering to feedback from voters.

The ‘liberals’ and ‘resistance’ to current government in India perhaps need to relook at their methods of building a robust opposition. Op-eds in foreign publications, never ending columns on websites all written in a European language and tweets for an echo chamber can only go this far, opposition needs a political party that gets the pulse of the nation for there is no dearth of issues on which the Modi-Shah duo can be challenged.

P.S: Post reading the book I heard a podcast by Amit Varma where he talks to Vinay Sitapati about the book. The episode is available on Varma’s podcast channel The Seen and The Unseen, the episode is an excellent addition to understanding the Vajpayee Advani Jugalbandi.

 

Browncast episode 76: Sham Sharma and Mukunda Raghavan

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsyniTunesSpotify,  and Stitcher. Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe at one of the links above.

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Image result for Shambhav sharma youtube

 

 

In this episode we talk to youtuber Sham Sharma (he hosts the Sham Sharma show on youtube). We are also joined by past guest Mukunda Raghavan, master of Meru Media. We talk about Indian civ, Hindutva, Muslims, Dexter Filkins and all sorts of fun stuff.

 

Brown Pundits