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'I used to play the guitar but I now I only play the fool'

By Aditi Phadnis
Last updated on: October 26, 2013 11:59 IST
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Your constituency has only two kinds of people: the rich and the richer. So, politically, what do you have to offer to those who have everything?" I ask Milind Deora, member of Parliament from south Mumbai and Union minister of state for information technology and communications, over coffee and cake.

The Big Chill is an upmarket cafe in New Delhi's tony Khan Market and that's where Deora wanted to meet. He introduces me to his favourite cake: tiramisu with a generous infusion of Bailey's, the Irish creme liquor. I take a spoonful, recall the reading on the bathroom scales earlier that morning, and resolutely push it aside, writes Aditi Phadnis.

Deora mulls the question thoughtfully. "That's not quite correct, you know," he says, stirring his espresso. The cafe was quiet because the ladies who lunch had not descended on it yet.

"It is true that many who count among the wealthiest people in the world live there. And actually, that's what a part of my constituents believe - that is must be an easy constituency to represent because it is full of PLUs…”

"...where the biggest political issue would be the first information report on Kumar Birla," I interject.

Deora ignores that and continues: "...but actually there's a bit of all of India even in South Bombay. A majority of voters live in chawls protected by the Rent Control Act. Their sensibilities are similar to other urban voters. But there are huge differences as well. There are linguistic differences, for instance. The son of a mill worker in South Bombay will have different aspirations, different political views and tastes from a young person who lives on Napean Sea Road. So, someone like me has to be at ease with both. I've been brought up to imbibe all that south Bombay represents. So, in a sense, in 2004 when I fought my first election, it was equally easy for me to be comfortable in both settings."

Deora went to CathedralSchool where the children of the wealthiest in Mumbai study and he recalls how his contemporaries saw him as a bit of an oddity, being the son of a politician.

"Every time an election would come close, my classmates would start chanting 'vote for Milind' when they saw me. But I was different from them: I could chat as comfortably with the driver of my best friend, talking to him about the condition of the slums where he lived, as I was sitting in my friend's air-conditioned Mercedes. The way I was raised, it was common to attend the wedding of one of India's richest people, and later that week, go to the wedding of the daughter of a prominent person in the fishermen community. I say this because I've done both."

Deora says he doesn't believe in the kind of politics that panders to one or other section just because it helps win an election. He believes it doesn't work in the long run. Is that why he opposes Narendra Modi?

He is careful not to sound disrespectful, only dispassionate. "I oppose the Bharatiya Janata Party because it is exclusivist. Its idea of India is different from mine."

Deora concedes that regardless of the number of seats it wins, no party "including mine" is perfect.

"One can say it is the best. But no party is perfect" he says. The stage is set for the next question. It was his now-famous tweet on the ordinance that the government was going to bring to allow convicted MPs to continue in Parliament that shook the collective conscience, as it were.

It prompted Rahul Gandhi to make his "it should be torn up and thrown away" remark. What prompted it? "I just felt that if we don't speak out, we run the risk of being permanently hostage to a section of the party that thinks it's okay [to be a criminal in politics]," he replies.

But that's easy for him to say, having been born with a silver spoon in his mouth. "I am not denying that. My father [Murli Deora, former petroleum minister] first became municipal councillor, then mayor and was 48 when he first became an MP. I became an MP at 27. I will be the first to admit that my entry into politics was much easier than others. But entering is one thing. Staying there is another."

"Oh, come on," I scoff, "you won the 2009 Lok Sabha election only because Raj Thackeray's Maharashtra Navnirman Sena divided the BJP-Shiv Sena vote…".

"Yes, but I've represented the constituency for 10 years now and I want to believe I am not unpopular. I may not be doing a good job but I am not a bad legislator. And it was the Shiv Sena that took away the MNS vote. Mine was one out of two seats where MNS came second…" Deora retorts.

I asked him about the other anachronism: that in a party where the vice-president was trying to weed out dynasty, people such as he only reinforced it.

"Well, that happens in the biggest as well as the oldest democracy in the world. True, the weight given to children from a political family is being brought down in my party. But no one is saying it is a perpetual disqualification. It can't be held against you permanently. Ultimately, winnability and performance is what counts".

The cafe is now full with a kitty party and young people chattering loudly. It is time to shift to subjects less serious. I ask him about about the somewhat zany element in what is apparently quite a conservative family: he was a regular in a rock band and his brother has dabbled in several unconventional businesses, including film production.

Deora's eyes light up. "We both have the genes of a nomad. Now, I am in politics so that gives me grounding, some discipline. Otherwise, I would have been all over the place, the core of me being music…," he says, regret evident in his voice that he cannot be a full-time musician.

"We had a rock band. We called it 'Tightrope'. I used to play the guitar but I like to say now I only play the fool," he continues wistfully. "I formed it when I came to Delhi. But I could be part of it for only about 18 months… I quit when I became a minister."

"Yes, well you can't be minister-in-waiting to the prime minister of the Republic of Palau and run off because you have a gig in some corner of India," I point out, practically. Perfectly seriously, Deora replies: "Yes, it would have been disrespectful to the musicians. Music is serious business. It defines my politics."

So, what kind of music did he like. Politically correct stuff? Or was it heavy metal and rock, in which case it was also obligatory to use mind-altering substances, because it was a package deal. He dimples at the second part of my question and stares out of the window.

I rattle off names only people of a certain age are familiar with: Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan. To my great delight, he's familiar with all of them. He says his music is not just about the lyrics, the tunes but where it came from and where it went.

"When I sing a song I know how it was born, and what it went on to do. Rob Johnson is not just a jazz and blues musician. When I sing a song he sang, I am singing about the black empowerment movement of the Mississippi. I am a great admirer of Ravi Shankar, for what he did for the music of India, turning it into soft power for our country."

He recalls a visit to Mali as part of the United Nations conference where he met the country's best-known musician.

“He played an instrument called the kora. I learnt how slaves were taken from Mali to Ghana, the songs they sang of liberation became anthems in along the Mississippi. From the Stones, we learn the importance of decadence, which highlights fluidity and flexibility, allows you to be timeless… there is no better place to learn politics than through music."

He wants to talk more, but timelessness is a luxury he cannot afford right now - he has a flight to catch. We part, resolving to return to politics and music another time.

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Aditi Phadnis
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