Excerpts from conversations I had with GenNext leaders for my book, The Contenders, which was launched this week.
1. SOLUTIONS DON’T LIE IN RINGING TEMPLE BELLS: I’d first met the Yadav brothers during the November 2015 state polls where both were contesting their first election. Initially, the interview was scheduled to be a joint one, but Tej Pratap, bare-chested with ash smeared on his forehead, demurred saying he had to complete his prayers. Tejashwi, too, was impatient to be off on the day’s campaign but, clearly the more affable of the two, he allowed himself to be bullied into an interview which lasted 15 minutes, during which he denied that he was being shortlisted as his father’s heir apparent; reiterating that it didn’t really matter whom Lalu chose, whether it was Tej Bhai or Misa Didi as “we are all popular”. He then distributed green lanterns to my crew—since these happen to be the party’s symbol—along with cups of some rather milky tea before he left. Halfway through the interview, we’d heard the sounds of the conch blowing from Tej Pratap’s prayer room, so hoping that we could also catch him, we hung around the courtyard but in vain. In the meanwhile, we got a sneak peek at the family’s garage that had a gleaming BMW and a Honda Fireblade superbike. Both, I was told, were Tej Pratap’s rides. When I was interviewing Tejashwi for this book, I recalled my earlier meeting with the two brothers. Especially when I asked Tejashwi about his religious beliefs, for I noticed the absence of any religious threads on his wrists and certainly his forehead was not ash-smeared. He replied saying, “I am very practical, the way to God is through acche karam [good work] and not daily mandir ki ghanti [ringing bells in temples]. Bhagwaan bhi kehte hain worry about your work and not dekhawati stuff [Even God says worry about your work and don’t do all this to impress me].” Before I could slip in the next obvious question, he quickly added, “My brother is very religious. That’s okay too. I am not into day to day rituals like him, if you pray in your mind that’s ok. It depends on person to person. There is a God but I believe that ghanti bajane se sab kuch theek nahin hota [solutions don’t lie in ringing temple bells]. You have to work also.”
2. ON HIS ALLY RAHUL TEARING UP THE ORDINANCE THAT SHIELDED LALU: Tejashwi’s reply came with a slight smile. “How do you only relate the ordinance to my Dad? Does it matter in today’s India if he tore it or not? People should worry about the current situation, not whether he tore an ordinance or not. That was in the past. Worry about the now. We have to face it all together. Rahul is an alliance partner. Soniaji and my Dad had a very good relationship. Theek hai [It’s ok]. We are the NextGen and there are some things which I would hesitate to say in front of Soniaji, but not with Rahul. Sab theek hai [Everything is ok].”
SCOTCHES SPECULATION THAT HE WAS RAHUL’S CHOICE AS CM IN 2009: The buzz in the Valley is that Omar Abdullah became the Chief Minister only because Rahul made that a condition of Congress support to the National Conference government. Until then, it was expected that Farooq Abdullah would be the next Chief Minister. He had even hinted as much on a few TV interviews immediately after the results. But almost overnight, Omar’s name was finalised. The general perception was that Rahul had pushed for Omar’s candidature. When I tried to cross-check something that I thought was a given, Omar denied it outright, claiming he was not Rahul’s, but his father’s choice for CM. “They [Congress] don’t get to choose. I don’t get to decide who the Congress’ face for PM or CM will be and similarly, the Congress doesn’t get to decide who their allies will put in any position. Who the NC’s CM candidate is or was is a decision only the NC will take. At no point in time did the Congress have a veto as to who would or would not be CM candidate of the NC.” Noting the sceptical look on my face, he shrugged and added, “I’ll tell you this much, if the Congress had at any point of time told us to choose A instead of B, there would have been no alliance. I would never have tied up with a party that told us they would rather have me than my father. That is out of the question. And in all fairness to the Congress, that conversation never took place.” Then why hasn’t he denied this earlier? His response was typically Omar. “I was never asked. Why deny something that’s not been asked. If I deny everything that people talk about that’s all I’ll do every day.”
THE PROGRESSIVE JAT: Jayant and Charu have two daughters, Sahira and Ilesha. He laughs and says, “A lot of my constituents are worried that I don’t have a son. They don’t understand that I am happy with my daughters and don’t want a son. But the older women keep giving my wife advice on how to have a son and once I got a call from an old man who had gone to Vaishno Devi and had the head priest on the line to give me blessings for a son!”
HIS DAYS AS RSS SPOKESPERSON: That was also the time of the Ram Janambhoomi movement—a BJP-led agitation for building the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya that had toppled a masjid to make its point. Saffron was a colour that needed a lot of explanations, some spin and a broader brush. The bespectacled, English speaking Ram Madhav was the right ideologue for the job. Dressed in telegenic FabIndia kurtas, his iPad and the latest smartphone in hand, he met journalists and tried to erase the stereotypical image of a narrow-minded Sanghi. I recall when I once pointed out that it was almost an anachronism to see an RSS leader using the latest technology, he retorted saying, “There is a difference between being modern and being western. I may be wearing a kurta-pyjama but I am sufficiently liberal, democratic and open to criticism. In that sense, I am modern. But at the same time, being modern should not be confused with being westernised. The two are not synonymous.” The suave Sangh apparatchik remained an RSS spokesperson during the tenure of the first BJP-led government at the centre, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM and did most of the firefighting during the 2002 Gujarat riots. He was also manning the mikes during L.K. Advani’s Jinnah moment. This is when the Hindutva hardliner Advani tried to do an image make-over during a visit to Pakistan in 2005. Standing before the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, he described the founder of Pakistan as “secular” and an “ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity”. This created an uproar back home. As the RSS spokesperson, it was Madhav who had to articulate the Sangh’s stand on Advani who was also then the BJP president. He was deputed along with other senior BJP leaders such as Venkaiah Naidu for crisis management. As soon as Advani landed in India, the media was outside the airport waiting to question him. A chit was handed to Advani which said, “protocol should not be mistaken for policy.” For reasons of his own, Advani chose to ignore this advice.