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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Salil Tripathi | Reimagining India

Salil Tripathi | Reimagining India

It became clear that we would see a different India after the 2014 election. Here, a writer sets his imagination free

Next year holds the promise of a best-seller. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP

Lately, Saheb had not been able to sleep well. The heat in Delhi was unbearable. He put on his glasses and saw the light flashing on his iPhone, reminding him of messages he had not yet seen. It can wait, he thought.

Governing Gujarat had been a simple matter; India was much more complicated, and constant interruptions were a nuisance. Gujaratis were simply more efficient—he issued an order and the job was done. In Delhi, the bureaucrats were just not obeying—every time he unveiled a new idea, they cited precedents, arguing that laws prevented them from doing what he wanted them to do. The judiciary wasn’t much help either—courts had blocked three of his initiatives. And the senior bureaucrats kept responding to his oral instructions in writing, copying other officials in their response. That was the biggest change from Gujarat—the bureaucrats here behaved as though they ruled the country. He felt he was in a foreign country; Lutyens’ Delhi a foreign capital.

The one man he relied on implicitly was Amit Shah, his home minister. But even his performance outside Gujarat had been faltering. When they were in Gandhinagar, Shah could be relied upon to send him detailed accounts of what everyone did, moment by moment. In Delhi, his reports were always at least a few days behind.

Take Jayalalithaa, his deputy prime minister. How hard was it to track her? You could spot her from a mile. But the recordings of her phone calls were not of much use. The silly woman kept speaking in Tamil, and the translators in Gandhinagar often took a full week before sending the transcripts back through angadias, the only messengers who could be trusted. The tapes of Mamata Banerjee’s conversations were much worse—her accent was so hard to follow that it was impossible for the transcribers to figure out if she was speaking in Bengali or English.

He drank his glass of milk. He didn’t like the taste. Probably the Vadodara flight was late again. All along he had believed that the milk in Delhi came from Gujarat. But apparently there was a Mother Dairy here, which supplied milk to Delhi (why had nobody told him that?). Each morning the first flight from Gujarat brought him milk from Anand near Vadodara, but some days the flights were delayed, like today.

Saheb left his new residence in New Delhi, in a car with outriders and the new Indian flag, the tricolour with a trident in the middle. There were still many parts of India where people kept using the old flag, with the Ashoka Chakra. He wanted the Ashoka Chakra banished—after all, after the Kalinga massacre Ashoka renounced violence and turned to Buddhism and became a pacifist. What would be the point? A dozen years after Godhra he was India’s prime minister. Now who was right?

He was certain people would accept the new flag. And then, slowly, he would have the green and the white removed. And the flag would be gloriously saffron. But that would take time. Indians are an accepting lot, he knew. How easily they had accepted the new national anthem, Vande Mataram.

He looked with satisfaction at the workers dismantling the elaborate barriers that blocked access to Race Course Road, now renamed Rathayatra Marg. One of his regrets was that the night of the election results, Sonia Gandhi had left for the US, ostensibly for health reasons. One of his first acts upon coming to power was to cancel her diplomatic passport. He thought the Americans would then send her back, or at least not let her in. But they did, on “humanitarian grounds" (must read up what humanitarian grounds are, he had made a note to himself on his iPad then). Saheb wanted to ask Americans to extradite her, but his foreign minister Naveen Patnaik threatened to withdraw his MPs if he did so. From that day, Shah was told Patnaik’s email account too had to be monitored.

He had no choice but to accept bullying by regional leaders. When the din and dust of electioneering had ended, the Saheb-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won only 148 seats in the new Lok Sabha—the figure was much higher than the Congress’ 105, but much lower than the 335 that NitiCentral’s poll had predicted for the BJP. It could hardly be described as a resounding victory, and the BJP was woefully short of a majority.

Like several Indian prime ministers before him, he’d have to forge a coalition. Arun Jaitley offered to help, but Saheb did not trust him. Jayalalithaa had agreed to support him, but demanded a big pound of flesh, his speech writer Kanchan Gupta told him. Saheb had no idea Jayalalithaa was non-vegetarian. Yeh maans khaane waale logon ka vyavahar hi alag hota hai, he said, reminding Gupta that meat eaters followed different customs. Gupta asked Swapan Dasgupta—who was writing a book on the rise of conservative politics in India—to explain, and Dasgupta told Saheb that actually “pound of flesh" was a turn of phrase from the Shakespearean play, The Merchant of Venice.

“Don’t talk to me about Venice and those Italians," Saheb retorted angrily, and that was that. “Saheb gussa ma chhe (Saheb’s angry)" Shah told the two Bengali intellectuals. “Aap log jaiye(you’d better leave)."

Gupta was right in referring to the pound of flesh. Jayalalithaa was willing to let Saheb be the prime minister for the first two years, but she wanted to take over on the second anniversary. The prime ministership in the fifth year would go to the leader under whom growth was higher during their two-year reign. Saheb was worried—what if? To prevent Amma, he decided to keep Didi on his side as reserve power.

As he passed the Nathuram Godse Maidan, he wondered what that crafty Bihari, Nitish Kumar, was up to. Kumar had been meeting Sushma Swaraj this past week when she was in hospital and Saheb himself hadn’t had the time to visit her. Tehelka, the magazine which now operated from abroad, had reported they were plotting a vote of no-confidence against him. Sushmaben would take a chunk of MPs and support Kumar from outside. The Congress would also support, and then withdraw support, forcing fresh elections. And what would be its outcome, if Sonia’s health kept worsening? Too many things that could not be controlled.

He had at least neutralized Rahul Gandhi, who was now in Tihar jail, held on corruption charges. But the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had told him that Rahul genuinely seemed to know nothing about how Congress finances were run. Even Manmohan Singh, whom he had spared because he knew very little anyway, had no idea what happened to the money United Progressive Alliance (UPA) politicians had accumulated over its almost 10-year rule. He would release Rahul if the Americans would promise him a visa if he applied, he had decided, as a gesture of goodwill towards Americans, the way Chinese leaders do, releasing dissidents before a Washington visit. But he didn’t know how Americans would react, so he hadn’t applied.

Saheb’s one serious regret was that Robert Vadra had managed to escape to Dubai. Vadra and his wife Priyanka had fled even though there were strict instructions at the Delhi airport to look out for them. But they had left from Mumbai, where the order was ignored because it was not translated in Marathi. Saheb wanted those officials fired, but law and order being a state subject, the Maharashtra chief minister had ignored Saheb’s note.

Saheb’s convoy drove through Veer Savarkar Road, turning sharply on Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Avenue. He returned to his iPad to read his favourite newspaper, NitiCentral. All government officials were now required to read NitiCentral first. His information technology (IT) cell had configured all desktops such that their browsers would open only to NitiCentral’s home page, and unless they clicked on at least five articles, no other website would open.

In a few weeks the IT cell would report to him on the field trials, to test the new surveillance software he had encoded on the chips of the new generation of biometric Aadhaar cards. Then Shah’s burden would reduce, and it would be possible to track all Indians.

At the end of his first hundred days in office, Saheb’s major achievement was the taming of the media. Advaniji may be old, but he had been right—when asked to bend, the media crawled! Open was closed; Hartosh Singh Bal was teaching applied mathematics at the Indian Institute of Science; Outlook had become a magazine evaluating email software after Microsoft bought it; India Today kept its circulation alive by publishing polls on teen sex on campus.

Journalists were also taken care of: Barkha Dutt had retired, setting up a handloom boutique in Connaught Place (which was to be renamed Deoras Chowk on Vijayadashami); Sagarika Ghose had gone to Oxford on a fellowship; Karan Thapar taught elocution at The Doon School; Rajdeep Sardesai was covering county cricket; and Aakar Patel was published only in Dawn. Teesta Setalvad was in protective custody, as CBI sleuths were going over the funding of the magazine Communalism Combat; Mallika Sarabhai’s passport had been cancelled so she could not go abroad to perform; Harsh Mander had moved to Bangladesh to run an NGO.

The one man Saheb could not trust was his defence minister, Sharad Pawar. The Maratha strongman had to be cajoled to join the cabinet, and Pawar had agreed only after reports emerged in the Western media that Pakistani troops had made successful incursions into Indian territory along the Line of Control, and Chinese troops had entered Arunachal Pradesh (Saheb’s first thought was that they were Christians anyway, but Pawar said India must not kowtow to the Chinese). The information and broadcasting minister, Madhu Kishwar, said India could barter Arunachal Pradesh in return for Chinese investment in Bangalore’s IT sector. But someone had been defacing billboards—a giant one near Modi Gardens (once known as Lodi Gardens) saying “Na Mo!" was overwritten to say “No More!"

The plan to build the Sardar Patel statue had been put on hold—the price of iron had shot up, and the rupee had continued to decline. It was 85 rupees to a dollar now, and the new Reserve Bank governor, Arvind Panagariya, had tried to assuage markets, but the markets were spooked when Raghuram Rajan left as RBI’s governor abruptly, saying he wouldn’t officiate over a Lakshmi pujan before the budget.

Saheb’s car reached the Red Fort and suddenly the driver applied the brakes. Saheb shouted at the driver. “What happened? Can’t you drive carefully?"

“Sir, there was a small dog in the way; I had to stop, otherwise…"

“If a puppy dashes across, it is the puppy’s fault. If the puppy dies, it is regrettable, but we must keep going," he said. “We can’t control everything all the time. Things happen."

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

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