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August 23, 1999

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E-Mail this column to a friend Varsha Bhosle

The stuff we are made of

We never learn. Even after the revenge of the Shroud at Bhor, and after swearing to our heavenly ancestors that we shall never, ever, set out to do things that proper correspondents do, we found ourself on an assignment in Srinagar. Actually, we had gulled the sainted editor into dispatching us to Kashmir, ostensibly for a tete-a-tete with the chief minister. Our ulterior motive was quite different; that is, communing with the men in green. Which meeting was, to put it mildly, an unmitigated disaster...

But first things first: Our giddy-headed sister-in-law rudely shook us awake at 7 am on August 15, babbling something which sounded like, 'Doctor's far out on the phone'. Her panicked urgency made us believe that our cherished shrink had finally caved in under the burden of the sordid confessions we regularly make to him, and now needed guidance from us. It turned out to be Dr Farooq Abdullah, calling to give his assent to a request for an interview.

Even as we absorbed this in our slumberous haze, we found it very strange, indeed; such communications are handled by staff. The gist of it was that we should reach Srinagar two days later, and we would be picked up and put up. Beguiled as we are by the idea of skimming along in helicopters, we instantly asked to be taken on campaign jaunts, to which Dr Abdullah kindly agreed. Through it all, our sister-in-law was standing stiffly at attention at our elbow, like those young men with spangled epaulets who tower behind presidents. We felt justifiably adored.

The timing was brilliant: Had our mater been home (the poor dear was preparing to walk 17 blocks of Manhattan in the Independence Day parade), she would never have let her precious jewel stray north of Delhi. We quickly got into reporter-mode: beat-up carry-on luggage, squalid keds, one pair of jeans, a soiled windcheater, several pads and pens. Though we stopped short of the mandatory filthy-fingernails, we were fully determined to show the sainted editor the stuff we are made of. After all, that is hardly the domain of foreign commoners.

We were in the pink of disposition as we settled into our Indian Airlines seat, with visions of rogan josh, rishte and tabakmaaz floating before our eyes. Which was when we made the mistake of opening a newspaper: Anxiety gripped us. The future suddenly looked grim. Our dear Atalji was in trouble. After all, it is one thing to vie against politicians, and quite another to contend with the Election Commission...

We weren't quite disturbed by the EC's firman against the carrying of all mediapersons except Doordarshan staffers on board the plane the PM uses for campaigning. Certainly, the diktat violates a 50-year old tradition, and the ground that an Indian Air Force aircraft can't be "misused" to promote publicity for a political leader, is eyewash. But we could still grin like the Cheshire Cat because our colleague, Amberish Diwanji, who was supposed to be part of the PM's media entourage, would now be left holding his PIB card.

Besides which, we deeply empathise with Francoise Gautier, who wrote in The Hindustan Times of August 9, " Le Figaro has for instance applied for more than two months for a live interview with the Prime Minister but it still has not been granted. No doubt Prime Minister Vajpayee thinks it is more important to receive Dilip Kumar, more known to raise money for Bosnian Muslims than for Kargil, rather than give an interview to a newspaper which has constantly defended India's point of view."

You see, we too have been figuratively running from South Block's pillar to the BJP's post trying to snag some time with our icon LK Advani --- in vain. Our mater has led us to believe that the anguish of rejected loyal souls unfailingly produces a detrimental effect on the rebuffing object of interest. Between Mr Gautier and us, the EC's media decree must be it.

But that's small beans. What made us worry for Atalji was the dawning suspicion that the EC could well be the electioneering wing of the Congress Party. The fatwa that Doordarshan must delete all references to Kargil since that could benefit the ruling party, takes care of precisely what the Pomeranian and Jar Jar Binks (aka Ajit Jogi) have been demanding all along... We wonder, what happens now if Kargil re-erupts? Do we all pretend that it isn't really happening??

What confirmed our suspicions was the EC's engaging Congress spokesman and Rajya Sabha member Kapil Sibal as its lawyer. Already, Sibal is making statements against the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh (which had approached the Supreme Court challenging an EC guideline) in his capacity as EC counsel. Therefore, it would not be outlandish to conclude that the situation is beyond simple partisanship. In practical terms, the three wise men of Nirvachan Bhavan could well be Congress spokesmen themselves. And now that former CEC TN Seshan is also standing for the Congress, sone pe suhaaga.

This, of course, is not to cast aspersions on Kapil Sibal's legal career. He's a very distinguished advocate and has a long list of achievements to his credit. Indeed, Sibal has an equally distinguished list of clientele. To name just a few: *Rubina Suleman Memon and Raheen Yakoob Memon -- both relatives of Tiger Memon, the Bombay blasts key accused -- charged under TADA for facilitating the commission of terrorist acts.

*Former Bihar CM Laloo Prasad Yadav, charged in connection with the fodder scam conspiracy cases. (A tidbit from India Today of November 16, 1998: 'A police investigation said Romesh Sharma was willing to pay any amount for the Rajya Sabha seat to Laloo. However, Laloo decided to transfer his surplus votes to Kapil Sibal who was a Congress nominee.')

*Former Bihar CM Jagannath Mishra. Ditto.

*The Jain brothers of the hawala case.

*Former Bofors agent Win Chaddha, accused of being one of the recipients of the kickback.

*Former Tamil Nadu CM J Jayalalitha in the 'Pleasant Stay Hotel' and 'Meena Advertisers' corruption cases.

In July, Sibal had solemnly inquired, 'Why does Vajpayee consort with the likes of Thackeray? Why does Lal Krishna Advani grovel politically in front of Thackeray? They say a man is known by the company he keeps. Is Vajpayee troubled by these things?' Which makes us wonder... Can a lawyer be known by the company he defends? Is Sibal troubled by these things...?

But anyway, Sibal's nationalistic credentials are completely non-partisan: It was he who helped the sacked CNS, Vishnu Bhagwat, frame his sworn affidavit indicting the defence minister, and, it is he who opposes the government's scheme to confer proxy voting rights to members of the armed forces.

With such foreboding did we land at Srinagar, where the CM's protocol officer met us -- and asked if we had reserved a room in any hotel: We instantly realised that, in our inexperience, we had fallen prey to the vagaries of politicians. The long and short of it is, we spent the whole day next to a phone, trying to get through to the gentleman who had so warmly invited us up north. The pads and pens were used to calculate the mounting phone bill and how long we could afford to stay...

If it weren't for the comforting shoulder of a friend of a friend, and the cheerful presence of Ashok Banker who happened to be traipsing through, we think we would have had to be fished out of Dal Lake the next morning -- we were that depressed. The airfare hung like the sword of Damocles over our neck -- it was a matter of put up or pay out. And which was when we realised the stuff we are made of: We shamelessly pestered the CM's staff till we finally got an appointment the next day. It was done. The Bhosle honour was saved. Too, we had a solid insight to the temperament of Dr Farooq Abdullah.

Now, we were free to visit the army. You get zapped by the idiosyncrasies of the bureaucracy, right? But if you ain't seen the army, you seen nothin' yet. No matter where the camp may be, nothing can budge without permissions and counter-permissions and counter-counter-permissions -- from Delhi. Which, since we didn't know, we hadn't taken. Even so, in our new pushy avatar, we managed to weave our way in and requested certain information. The response from the utterly gorgeous lieutenant colonel was such that we did something that we have never done in our entire life: We bawled before a man we had never seen/spoken/written to ever before. And when we say "bawled," we mean huge, HUGE sobs. The officer looked like he'd rather be at Kargil facing Pakistani bullets.

But there's a handicap in bureaucratic security arrangements; it's called "need to know." Usually, the left hand doesn't know what the right one's doing, and the system can land up defeating itself. In short, we achieved our ends. Another observation: We found tremendous similarities between the BJP and the Indian Army: Both slight friendly columnists, both foster hostile journalists -- and both get screwed in the process... It's called divine justice. Hence, the Subrahmanyam Commission.

Then it was time to capture the mood of Srinagar. The donning of mantles is an eerie thing; we are just beginning to discover how reporters report the way they do. For instance, this scourge of separatists didn't feel at all involved or infuriated when the representative of the All Party Hurriyat Conference -- just one of the orgs who have been threatening Kashmiris with dire consequences if they should exercise their right to vote -- said to us, 'We don't want to speak to the *foreign* Press, only to our people.' Or when the university student said, 'These elections are a farce. No one in town ever votes. We want independence from India.' Or when Bilqis Shah, wife of Shabbir Shah, told us, 'He was shifted to Central Jail today. He refused a personal bond, saying that if freedom is a crime, I'll do it again and again.'

What to say? The picture is dismal. On the flight back, when we pondered over the Kashmir issue, our mind was made up about Article 370: It must go. And as we doodled, we saw that "Ah! We run Allah raj!" is an anagram of 'Jawaharlal Nehru'. But that's another story...

Varsha Bhosle

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