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Batla House is no Birla House

October 21, 2008

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Once upon a time Indian politicians would stage photo-opportunities at Birla House, where Mahatma Gandhi [Images] breathed his last. Yes, of course it was a cynical attempt to suggest that some of the Mahatma's moral sheen had rubbed off, but at least it held out the hope that enough Indians held Bapu in some regard to look kindly upon visitors.

Today? Well, it seems as if Birla House has been handily replaced by Batla House as the place you must visit to be taken seriously.

Batla House, for the benefit of those who might be unfamiliar with the name, is the site of Inspector M C Sharma's death. Or, as hard-core 'secularists' would have it, it is the site of the "alleged" encounter on September 19 with "reported" militants who were "supposedly" hiding in Delhi's [Images] Jamia Nagar.

Amar Singh [Images], the Samajwadi Party's ubiquitous general-secretary, made it a point to visit Jamia Nagar a couple of times. (To be fair, his first trip was before the hand-wringing began.) A month later, on October 17, his leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav [Images], upped the ante; addressing a rally after the Jumma prayers, the Samajwadi Party supremo told the crowd, 'We demand a judicial probe into the matter in which two youths Atif and Sajid of the village were killed. Both of them had gone to take computer education there and the investigations so far indicate they were innocent.'

And you knew it was a genuine cause celebre when author Arundhati Roy, that darling of drawing-room 'activists' across India, echoed the call for a judicial probe. Ms Roy also took shots at the "middle class" because it was not questioning the police version. One waits with baited breath for some suitably proletarian political group to take up the bait.

The Congress probably doesn't give a hoot for Arundhati Roy's readers but it was quick to respond to the Samajwadi Party's potential voters. That rally in much-maligned Azamgarh, as noted above, was on October 17; on October 18 a delegation from the Congress minorities cell was pleading with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [Images] to remove the "alienation" and the sense of "victimhood" felt by a "section". This, please note, was after two Cabinet ministers, Mani Shankar Aiyar and Kapil Sibal, had made the pilgrimage to the Batla House area.

Speaking in Azamgarh, Amar Singh also reportedly used the opportunity to explain why the Samajwadi Party had backed the prime minister on the nuclear deal. This, sadly for the Congress minorities cell, is something that its office-bearers cannot possibly match, given that the nuclear deal is inextricably linked with Dr Manmohan Singh.

Clutching at straws, the Congress is now praying for Barack Obama's [Images] victory in the calculation that the Muslim animus is more toward the person of President George W Bush [Images] rather than against the United States per se. How this squares up with the prime minister's exuberant declaration that India "loves" the American leader is something that escapes everyone.

(I believe it is a forlorn hope anyhow. Senator Obama has vowed to prosecute the war in Afghanistan with ever greater intensity even if he withdraws American troops from Iraq -- scarcely something calculated to win Muslim sympathy.)

You have to feel a smidgen of pity for poor Dr Manmohan Singh in all this. His government can scarcely step back from anti-terrorist activity and the Indo-American nuclear deal if it wants to retain even a shred of credibility, but his party is scared of losing (even more) Muslim votes. (Several states go to the polls within a month or so, and the next general election cannot be all that far away.)

Dare I also note that while it would be easy to mock the Samajwadi Party for its flip-flops over the nuclear deal some other allies, such as the DMK, were scarcely better? Here is what M Karunanidhi said back in October 2007 when asked whether he had any doubts over the deal: "I began to have some doubts and they were strengthened by the Left parties...It was only because I had doubts that I spoke up for the Left."

I claim no expertise in grasping the DMK supremo's chaste Tamil, but make haste to point out that the English translation was done on the spot by his poetess daughter, Kanimozhi, and that they have never since been denied after appearing both on television and in print. It would not surprise me in the least if the DMK, having started waving the banner of Tamil solidarity, also rediscovered a sympathy for the minorities and the Left.

All this is part and parcel of the usual silliness in the electoral season. There need be no lasting harm done -- as long as the beleaguered prime minister and the Congress president do not take such demands too seriously.

Arundhati Roy might groan at such a "middle class" attitude but let us never pretend, even in jest, that Batla House is the equivalent of Birla House.

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