Malayalam film star Mohan Lal had barely stepped out after his meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week when TV channels began to run visuals and scrolls predicting the actor’s imminent entry into the BJP. Some quoted sources to suggest that the prime minister wanted Lal to contest as the BJP candidate in Thiruvananthapuram, his home town, against the incumbent MP, Shashi Tharoor of the Congress.
The facts are quite different. There was no discussion about his entry into politics. Lal had met the PM to invite him to unveil some projects, including a cancer institute set up under the aegis of the Vishwashanti Foundation that he founded in memory of his father, Vishwanathan Nair, and mother, Shantakumari, both of whom passed away in recent years as well as extend an invite for a global Malayali Round Table scheduled for early next year in New Delhi.
However, hyper-active channel discussions would have you believe that the star was joining the party. Even Malayalam channels went overboard.
The Modi-Lal meeting and the media reports that followed bring to mind a similar interaction that Mammootty, another big Malayalam film star, had with LK Advani over a decade ago. At a function in Kochi where his book, My Country, My Life, was released in Kerala, the BJP leader handed over the first copy to the actor. Nobody then speculated that Advani had invited the actor to join the BJP, probably because the breaking news brigade wasn’t around then.
Prodigal’s Return, Sort of
It has been a few weeks since Congress President Rahul Gandhi revoked the suspension of Mani Shankar Aiyar from the party’s membership. A former Union Minister and staunch Nehru-Gandhi loyalist, Aiyar had been suspended from the primary membership of the Congress earlier this year after he slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “neech kisam ka aadmi” (a lowly person) in the midst of the heated Gujarat assembly poll campaign. Aiyar’s comments were given a casteist twist by Modi, who used the slur to his advantage. The veteran Congress leader later apologised for the remark and blamed his poor knowledge of Hindi for the gaffe.
Last month, a disciplinary committee of the Congress had, following months of deliberations, suggested to Rahul that Aiyar’s suspension could be revoked. However, journalists who hoped that the return of Aiyar, a vocal and acerbic critic of Modi and the BJP, would give them “quotable quotes” for spinning headlines and deafening TV debates, have been left disappointed.
Ever since his return to the party, Aiyar has been keeping a low profile and avoiding any media interaction. Sources say this could be because the party had placed a precondition for his return—no sound bytes against Modi, and definitely none in Hindi! Aiyar seems to be complying for now, but given his penchant for slamming the PM, one wonders for how long.
The Vajpayee Wave
Ever since the demise of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP has been in overdrive to rename places, institutions and roads after the party icon. Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s government issued full-page advertisements to various national dailies announcing that the Naya Raipur township (above)—a “smart city”—be renamed Atal Nagar.
The BJP’s Delhi unit, which rules over the national capital’s municipal corporations, has been sulking over not doing enough to stay in the competition. The party’s leaders in the local municipal corporations came up with the idea of renaming the Ramlila Maidan and the Hindu Rao Hospital, the largest hospital under the BJP-led North Delhi Municipal Corporation, after the late BJP stalwart. The plans failed to take off after Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal got a whiff of them and announced on Twitter that renaming Ramlila Maidan after Vajpayee won’t fetch the BJP any votes.
Kejriwal’s tweet aside, both the Ramlila Maidan and Hindu Rao Hospital are names that touch a certain chord with the BJP’s Hindu vote-bank. The Hindu Rao Hospital is named after the Maratha nobleman, Raja Hindu Rao, a “friend” of the British during the pre-Independence days, and the hospital building, constructed in the early 1900s, was his residence. So while technically, the Hindu Rao hospital draws its name from a friend of the colonial masters, BJP’s Delhi leaders feel the “Hindu” in it assumes a different significance. BJP state president Manoj Tiwari has told his colleagues to search for other monuments and institutions that can be named after Vajpayee and deny any reports of renaming Ramlila Maidan or the Hindu Rao Hospital.
The Currency Fall
The BJP is the first political party to adopt the use of social media and in such a decisive way, thanks to its army of trolls and fake news experts. However, social media is an unforgiving beast and it boomeranged badly on the party following a YouTube post that has gone viral. It is actually a set of videos taken in August 2013 in which various BJP leaders are attacking the then UPA government for the fall of the rupee. The attack, seen on-screen, is led by Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, who is heard saying: “Today our currency is on deathbed. It is in terminal stage, hovering between life and death.” The rupee had touched 70 against the dollar. Also seen on video in Parliament is Sushma Swaraj, then an extremely aggressive BJP voice, who is heard demanding that the government step down while Arun Jaitley is his usual caustic self in attacking Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now, in 2018, with the rupee breaching record lows almost every hour, all three maintain a pregnant silence.
The prime minister’s visit to Kathmandu last week for the seven-nation BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) summit was not just about regional cooperation and finding common ground on terrorism and trade. There was another prickly issue involving his government—demonetisation. Modi left for the summit shortly after the RBI confirmed that 99.3 percent of demonetised notes had returned to the banking system, diluting the government’s claims on black money. In Kathmandu, he had another rude reminder of his reckless act—summit host Nepal and member Bhutan are both awaiting word from the Indian government on when the old Indian rupee notes that have been deposited by their citizens in their local banks will be exchanged for the new post-demonetisation currency. Both neighbours have open borders with India and the Indian rupee is widely used. It is, in fact, legal tender in Bhutan which is totally dependent on the Indian economy. Estimates of old Indian notes reported in the Nepali media range from Rs 300 crore to over Rs 10,000 crore. Bhutan is much less. Both countries have been pushing India for a time-frame when the old notes can be exchanged for new. The delay from the Indian side is because Nepal is used by Pakistan to introduce counterfeit Indian currency. At last week’s summit, Modi’s counterpart, KP Oli, pressed him for a date but the latter fobbed him off with assurances that it would be soon.
Waiting for Rahul
Congress President Rahul Gandhi is on his much publicised pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar and has been posting images of the tranquil and calm high-altitude lake on Twitter. However, his party colleagues in Madhya Pradesh don’t seem to be amused by their leader’s photography skills, nor are his philosophical tweets calming their nerves.
With assembly elections due in the state in less than four months, the BJP which has been ruling MP for the past 15 years, has already kickstarted its poll campaign. Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is, in fact, about to end the first leg of his statewide tour soon.
In stark contrast, the Congress under state chief Kamal Nath is waiting for Rahul’s return so that the party can officially launch its campaign. Given that the Congress in MP has gained notoriety for its factional feuds, Nath wants the campaign to start off with a show of unity. A statewide yatra with satraps like Digvijaya Singh, Jyotiraditya Scindia and other factional heads like Suresh Pachouri and Arun Yadav has been chalked out and a Volvo bus in which all these leaders are supposed to traverse the state has been parked at Nath’s official residence in Bhopal for nearly two months. Nath wants Rahul to flag off the bus following a massive rally in Bhopal but the Congress president has been unavailable. He will be visiting Bhopal only on September 17. The BJP would have started the second leg of its campaign by then.