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22 Jan 2017

Surprise strike on surgical strike

Baba Ramdev speaks as (seated from left) his team members Sambit Patra and Shaina NC, and the opposition of Sugata Bose, Jawhar Sircar and Kanhaiya Kumar listen at the Camellia Group presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2017 in Calcutta Club on Saturday. The motion: In the opinion of the house, surgical strike is the magic pill for all maladies. The motion was defeated by a show of hands. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
TT, Calcutta, Jan. 21: There was one surgeon on the stage but strikes there were aplenty: verbal missiles flew in every direction for a packed 75 minutes, warming up a chilly evening like pyrotechnics lighting up a Diwali night sky.
But the surprise came at the very end when the motion at the Camellia Group presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2017 - "In the opinion of the house surgical strike is the magic pill for all maladies" - was resoundingly defeated by a show of hands.
The star power, if measured by prime-time television appearances, was clearly stacked in favour of the proponents of the motion: Shaina NC, fashion designer and BJP national executive member who is the go-to person for sound bites on any and every issue; Sambit Patra, once trained to be a doctor and a surgeon at that but now the ruling party's most vociferous voice in TV debates night after night after night; and Baba Ramdev, whose tele-evangelism laid the foundations of a wellness empire.
The opponents to the motion, much like the Opposition nationally, was a far more disparate lot: Sugata Bose, academic-turned-Trinamul member of Parliament; Jawhar Sircar, retired bureaucrat who has served governments of many hues, including the present one; and young Kanhaiya Kumar, student leader whose famous " azadi" speech stirred the nation almost a year ago but who soon ceased to be the flavour of the season in the frenetic "here today, gone tomorrow" pace dictated by 24/7 television news cycles.
The proponents of the motion, especially Patra with his soaring rhetoric and canny attempt to play to the "Bengali pride" gallery complete with recitations in praise of Ma Durga, won the loudest applause.
(From left) Baba Ramdev, Shaina NC, Sambit Patra, Sugata Bose, Jawhar Sircar and Kanhaiya Kumar at Camellia Group presents Calcutta Club The Telegraph National Debate 2017 in Calcutta Club. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Baba Ramdev's "work more, question less" exhortations seemed to go down well with much of the audience. And Shaina's spirited defence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not seem too off-key either. After all, moderator Sankarshan Thakur at the very outset underlined that the words "surgical strike" had become "a metaphor with a life of its own".
A metaphor born of the September 29, 2016, strike by the Indian Army on alleged terrorist camps in Pakistan and then used again to describe the November 8 demonetisation decision. In short, whatever be the dictionary meaning or strategic import of a "surgical strike", today it stands for the governing style of Narendra Modi - back it or slam it.
In view of all that - the star power, glamour quotient, loudness of applause and a continuing preference for a "macho" Prime Minister combined with disdain for an effete Opposition among India's more well-heeled sections -the victory of the motion seemed the more likely outcome. But the audience, not unlike the Indian electorate on many an occasion, delivered a surprise verdict, preferring the measured arguments of a sober Harvard don and the gutsy demolition of the limits of "branding" by an earthy young student activist to the polished pro-Modi arguments of the trio of television stars.
The first speaker, Shaina NC, may have made a tactical error by making the debate a quasi referendum on the Prime Minister's politics and not a general defence of the efficacy of bold reforms over slow, incremental change. She spoke of Modi's courage, of his integrity, of the great support to demonetisation from "the public at large" and asked the audience to "put your hand on your heart and genuinely tell me if we've ever had a leader who had this kind of courage of conviction to take a decision and take the onus of the decision...."
She offered the perfect opening to the next speaker, Sugata Bose, to slam her for "defending the indefensible" and going on to slam the Prime Minister for the "ineptness" of the surgical strikes - both across the border on September 29 and the ill-thought-out demonetisation exercise. He went on to point out that terrorism and black money were not the only maladies facing the nation. We also suffered from class exploitation, caste discrimination, spread of religious hatred and growing intolerance, none of which could be solved by surgical strikes.
And then he delivered his final blow: "Surgical strike is really a metaphor for machismo, a particularly offensive form of machismo, which is why I would like Shaina NC to come over to our side. It is a kind of machismo which I am sure will be rejected by all the women in the audience and all the decent men in the audience. Let us not be hoodwinked by gimmicks and stunts that go by the name of surgical strikes."
Patra hit back with ferocity on the machismo jibe, invoking Ma Durga no less and her "surgical strike on Mahishasura". He then went on to list all the great Bengali icons who conducted "surgical strikes" - Netaji, Rammohun Roy, Swami Vivekananda.
But he got the greatest response when he quoted Trinamul MP Derek O'Brien's tweet yesterday on the great strides made by Bengal in tax collections, planned expenditure and growth in recent years. "So why were you on the streets saying demonetisation was destructive? You quote all this, it only proves that demonetisation has done all this to Bengal. And thank you, Bengal, for acknowledging that the process we brought in has helped you."
Jawhar Sircar said he would not talk like a politician, and he didn't. He spoke much like a retired bureaucrat - moving from one point to another - about successful and unsuccessful surgical strikes in history, about the inefficacy of magic pills.
But his best line was a throwaway one: the first successful surgical strike in India took place in Myanmar in June 2015 when 18 Indian soldiers were killed, he said, adding almost sotto voce: "someone referred to 56-inch chest, don't know if they were referring to Pamela Anderson...."
Baba Ramdev tried to rise above the fray, and said he would not criticise anyone and no one should listen to anyone else to make up their mind. Since God had given everybody a mind of his or her own, each individual should decide what is right and wrong.
To support the September 29 surgical strike was a no-brainer, he indicated, saying: "His decision to make a surgical strike against terrorists, rise a little above politics and think - what our army did, 125 crore people feel proud of that, and that the decision was taken by Modiji, so they are proud of him too."
Kanhaiya came last and proved, in the end, to be the most effective. He accused the proponents of the motion of speaking "half truths" - talking of the success of the September 29 strike but not revealing that 42 jawans died and terror acts continue apace; tom-tomming the removal of the tumour of corruption after November 8 but not mentioning that more than 100 people died standing in line; claiming a 22 per cent rise in revenue but not a 42 per cent rise in farmers' suicides. He went on to accuse the ruling party of branding everything, putting everything on sale, including the image of Gandhi's charkha...
In summing up the arguments of his team, Sambit Patra aggressively combated Kanhaiya but Sugata Bose had the last word - mocking Patra's "verbal acrobatics" and his attempts to turn facts on their head by invoking Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, Rammohun Roy, and Vivekananda - who stood for values of religious tolerance and the triumph of reason that the ruling dispensation was out to dismantle.
"Let your vote be a precursor for the larger vote of 2019..." he appealed to the audience.
The motion was defeated a couple of minutes later - but to regard it as a precursor for 2019 may be much too premature, if not immature, too.

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