Ashutosh's “crocodile” tears, and the shameful media circus that led to them, prove that all is fair in love and class war, says Ajachi Chakrabarti.
Writing in Saturday’s Indian Express, Delhi University professor and political commentator Apoorvanand expressed his disgust over the inability of our political leaders to grieve. It reveals, he wrote, “a critical absence in their humanity. People for them are an idea, or an ideological abstraction.”
He was referring, of course, to the reactions that followed the tragic death of Gajendra Singh at an AAP rally at Jantar Mantar on 22 April, a sordid series of allegations and counter-allegations that has displayed the true ugliness of our polity. Despite being witnessed by a large crowd—which included a sizeable media contingent, armed with a bevy of cameras—Gajendra’s death has, in the four days following the incident, been referred to in the mainstream and social media as a suicide, an accident, even a murder. (For their part, the police have registered a case of abetment of suicide.)
The AAP has been attacked relentlessly by both the BJP and the Congress as well as the Delhi Police, been accused of forging the “suicide note”, of having instigated Gajendra, of having impeded the police in their attempts to save him. It’s not as if Delhi’s ruling party has been above the fray; even as he urged Gajendra to come down from the tree, Kumar Vishwas kept complaining about a conspiracy to malign his party: “Kya yeh yojnabaddh tareeqe se kaam ho raha hai? Do mahine se kendra ki sarkar pareshaan hai ki kisi tarah Arvind Kejriwal ki sarkar ko badnaam kiya jaa sake.” To be fair, the Delhi Police stood idly by, refusing to intervene despite repeated requests—it was AAP volunteers who (clumsily) brought him down from the tree—but that could have just been the bureaucratic apathy they are famous for, rather than a conspiracy.
In any case, a firm believer in the maxim of never letting a good crisis go to waste, Kejriwal took the stage soon after Gajendra had been cut down and renewed his pitch for gaining control over the police, just as he had done after the police refused to take part in Somnath Bharti’s witch hunt in Khirki village. Gajendra’s death also provided him a prop to use for his actual reason for being at Jantar Mantar—to attack the Land Acquisition Bill and the BJP-led government that introduced it.
The only person who came out of the saga looking good is Anusha Rizvi, whose 2010 satirical masterpiece Peepli [LIVE] looks all the more prophetic. (The politicians have already started arriving at Gajendra’s village with competing compensation packages; the first handpump, one imagines, is just a news cycle away.) Instead of art imitating life, here was life—consciously, with no sense of irony—following art’s footsteps.
Only, Gajendra Singh was no Natha. It seems he was at most a part-time farmer, the scion of a powerful landed family—his uncle is sarpanch of his village—known more for his talent at tying Rajasthani turbans (for tourists coming to Jaipur and VIPs, including Rajnath Singh) and his dalliances with electoral politics. Turns out he’d sought tickets to fight assembly elections from the BJP and SP in the past, and was flirting with the idea of joining the AAP. That climbing the tree was likely not an act of desperation over personal losses, but an act of advocacy for farmers from his village, who were being denied compensation for crop failure by the local patwari. That rather than screaming “Soocide! Soocide!”, he was asking for a chance to speak at the dais. (The note could have been someone else’s, meant to be read out by him.) That he’d excitedly told a cousin that he would be on TV.
The humanising expression of grief Apoorvanand sought in his article, presumably written before the events of Friday afternoon, came on Aaj Tak. I’m not sure, however, that it’s what he was looking for. In the proud tradition of Indian television news, it was manufactured, exploitative drama: the channel had managed to convince Gajendra’s 18-year-old daughter Megha, two days after her father’s death, to show up on national television and confront the AAP’s Ashutosh, the BJP’s Sambit Patra and the Congress’ Rajeev Tyagi.
It happened just after Megha raised questions about her father’s death, saying he couldn’t have committed suicide and asking for an explanation about the note. Instead of addressing the questions, Ashutosh began a rant about how the other political parties were politicising the entire affair, breaking down into uncontrollable tears in the process. “Ham log insaan hain, rajneeti karne nahin aaye hain,” he wailed, as if the two were mutually exclusive. (He soon corrected himself: “Itni gandi rajneeti karne nahin aaye hain.”) As he continued to cry, Megha was edged out of the frame by a producer gleeful at the prospect of such an exclusive. Ashutosh obliged by literally beating his breast while proclaiming himself a gunahgar; the splitscreen was back now, all the better to capture the bizarre spectacle of the deceased’s teenage daughter consoling a veteran newsman and national spokesperson of a political party.
Ashutosh, however, was inconsolable. Megha soon gave up and was duly edged out again. With folded hands and a voice that bordered on the hysterical, he pleaded to Narendra Modi, Rajnath Singh, Sambit Patra, Sonia Gandhi, Ajay Maken—any politician he could think of—to stop playing politics over the issue. The others were unsure how to respond; the debate had lost all combativeness. Social media wasn’t satisfied; #AshuCries, featuring sarcastic messages about how he deserved an Oscar, or at least a casting call from Ekta Kapoor, was soon trending on Twitter. But Ashutosh’s tears more or less ended the news cycle; they would be bracketed with Kejriwal’s apology in the next day’s papers as the AAP admitting the error of its ways, and today’s Express has a little piece in one corner of Page 2 quoting a “senior leader” that the party will now concentrate on the work done by its MLAs, rather than continue to confront the central government on the land bill, since “we cannot afford to make any mistakes after the kisan rally.” The earthquake, of course, did the rest.
Was it all an act? Was Ashutosh indeed shedding crocodile tears? Or was he moved to hysterics by the occasion? It doesn’t really matter what started him off. Nor am I trying to suggest that there’s something wrong in a grown man crying, even on national television. But he had the choice to stop at any point, to at least appear to be composing himself, to remember that he was talking to a grieving young girl. Just as Kejriwal had the choice to not carry on with his speech after Gajendra was rushed to the hospital. That they did not make these responsible choices doesn’t mean they are unfit to govern or in any way responsible for Gajendra’s death, but it tells us something about the kind of people they are.
Once you think about the circumstances that led to his tears, though, it’s hard to think of an alternative. Ashutosh could hardly have dismissed Megha’s questions in the brusque way he had shrugged off a reporter who asked him why Kejriwal, who could climb electricity poles to make political points, did nothing to save Gajendra. (His voice dripping with sarcasm, he had “apologised” and said that next time, the chief minister would personally climb the tree.) There was little he could have said to Megha that wouldn’t have sounded like a platitude or a denial or petty political point-scoring. There was very little upside to calmly debating the merits of the case, but a significant downside to appearing arrogant or dismissive. You can’t, after all, “win” a debate against an 18-year-old in mourning. At least crying was a filibuster of sorts; it ensured he wouldn’t be interrupted by Sambit Patra’s annoying nasal twang every second sentence.
This is what Delhi politics has come to: when it makes more sense to abandon all dignity and bawl away than to engage in “serious” debate. It’s the sort of choice necessitated by the cringe-inducing level at which the day-to-day politicking takes place in the city state—unlike Bengal, where the principal parties fight gangster-like turf wars with crude bombs and lathis, the weapons of choice in the fishbowl of Delhi are press conferences and TV studio debates, where wild allegations, rarely backed by actual evidence, and bizarre publicity stunts are par for the course. Where no one, not the police, not the bureaucracy, not other politicians, definitely not the media, can be trusted. No wonder Kumar Vishwas and the other AAP leaders at Jantar Mantar thought Gajendra, like the “guest teachers” protesting under his tree, was a BJP plant trying to disrupt their rally. For all we know, he could have been.
The constant streetfighting brings with it a sense of paranoia that is ubiquitous in India’s political class. Kejriwal, for all his pretence at delivering a different kind of politics, has succumbed to the same paranoia, cleaving to himself again and again until his inner circle was peopled only by sycophants as paranoid as he is. They see conspiracy behind every corner, and aren’t averse to playing the conventional politics of appeasement and victimhood. Sure, their circumstances and opponents have played their part in bringing about this metamorphosis, but its existence cannot be denied. The AAP has lost the inclination, if not the ability, to transcend the pettiness around them and stay above the fray. The distinction between them and the rabble-rousers we call our leaders is fast disappearing.