1. New Delhi: 24.09.2018
‘I wonder what his punch for the day is going to be,’ she said, stepping out of the OB van.
‘I know, just when you think you’ve seen his best, he comes up with yet another gem,’ Rohan replied with a
smirk. But Afsha wasn’t waiting for a response.
Instead, her eyes were busy surveying other vans lined up outside the Press Club of India. Five of them, one
bearing the insignia of the national broadcaster and two each from other leading English and Hindi 24x7 news
channels were already parked on the roadside.
Competition in the industry was truly mounting. It wasn’t just about getting the facts right anymore. Television
journalists nowadays had to work harder than ever before to get the best camera shots and exclusive sound
bites for their channels. And if a bite they were able to obtain with much gusto didn’t tie-in with the intended
tonality of their report, well, it simply had to be junked.
This meant that the reporters needed to be armed with just the right set of questions for each important
attendee who were expected to grace the events they were covering. And, sometimes with close to half a dozen
events to cover in a day, they barely had time to dart from one location to another, let alone prepare for them.
But, despite the crazy pressures, obnoxious timelines and unearthly hours, there was nothing else that Afsha
would rather do. She had spent five gruelling years pursuing her passion, and now, as the principal political
correspondent for one of the most watched TV news channels, MPTV 24x7, she was well and truly entrenched
into the profession. There was something about the entire business, something thrilling and snobbish that had
her completely hooked.
Hobnobbing with people who shaped the history, geography and economics of the country, and tracking stories
that had the potential of impacting many million lives was an intoxication that could not be matched. No, she
wouldn’t trade her job for anything under the sun. She loved it for what it was, with all its quirks and
unreasonable demands. It was no less than a wayward son to her. And she, its doting mother.
‘Let’s go,’ she said, looking in the general direction of the van. ‘I hope some decent spot is still left for the
Rohan, who had retrieved the required equipment from the van by now, scampered behind her.
The venue for the press conference was the central hall of the Press Club, an indication that media invites had
been doled out liberally. The hall could comfortably accommodate an audience of sixty to seventy people.
Afsha glanced at her watch as they stepped inside the spacious hall. Another 80 minutes to go for the
conference to begin. That is, if it began on time. Such events rarely ever did.
The room, though, was abuzz with activity already. Event organisers jostled about with a sense of purpose, the
double satin ribbons pinned to their torsos telling them apart, adding finishing touches to the set-up on stage
and in the hall. Some of them appeared abnormally harried. A sight that Afsha had got accustomed to by now. It
happened in most political events. Party volunteers, eager to catch the eye of someone, anyone who mattered,
were often found projecting a degree of responsibility, ownership and control that far transcended the actual
need. After all, in the big, bad world of politics it was perception that made or destroyed careers.
Then there were those of her own ilk, journalists and cameramen, busy in setting up their apparatuses, making
their timely arrival count by claiming the more favoured spots. Most of these faces seemed familiar to Afsha,
some more than the others. She waved at those who caught her eye and exchanged greetings with the ones she
crossed, making her way to the low platform in the centre of the room. This was the designated spot for
stationary cameras, and a few of them were already up, keeping a keen eye on the stage from atop their tripods.
‘Let’s set it up then,’ she said to Rohan. ‘I will get our registrations done in the meantime.’
She traced her steps back to the registration desk that she had noticed near the hall entrance. Although their
equipment and they were made to undergo the mandatory security screenings, they had not been intercepted
for registration earlier. One of the many advantages of being a known face and of carrying the name of a leading
media house on the identity cards dangling from their lanyards.
There were about six people ahead of her. She joined the queue, waiting for her turn to sign in and pick up her
copy of the media kit.
‘Oh, if it isn’t the very lovely Ms Khan,’ she heard someone call out from behind.
‘Mr Singh! It’s so nice to see you. How have you been?’ She responded, stepping aside to shake hands with the
Kshitij Singh was a bony-framed, bespectacled man whose unkempt facial hair added to his carefree and easy-
going persona. But if looks could ever be deceiving, Kshitij was a living example of it. At just under forty, he was
the principal aide of one of the most serious challengers to the incumbent Prime Minister of India. Although
Afsha hardly believed that Rajat Gandy had it in him to make it to the top, the ground that he had managed to
cover since Kshitij’s advent was nothing short of phenomenal.
Kshitij, an old acquaintance of Rajat, had readily agreed to quit his high-paying corporate job when approached
to take on this role after the last general elections, over four years back. The People’s Party under Rajat’s
stewardship had just taken a drubbing of gargantuan proportions. Their presence inside the parliament had
been reduced to a meagre one, and that too, just after they had concluded their second straight term in
government. The people of India had spoken, and their verdict was damning.
These election results were sufficient to brutally cut short careers of even the most seasoned politicians, but not
Rajat. He was after all the son of the party’s matriarch, a scion of the first family that had remained at the helm
of affairs forever. Ever since the party had been founded by his great-grandfather.
Afsha didn’t hold Rajat’s political acumen in particularly high esteem, but to his party loyalists, and that of his
family, he was still a young man learning the tricks of the trade and making permissible mistakes along the way.
At least this was the stance that they stuck to in public. In his mid-forties, politics was perhaps the only
profession that would allow him such luxuries and Rajat seemed to be making the most of it until Kshitij
appeared on the scene.
Then began the gradual but certain transformation of Rajat Gandy’s public image. Although Kshitij had preferred
to remain away from the media glare, astutely effecting his makeover from the shadows, his accomplishments
were not hidden from the inner circles of Lutyens’ Delhi. From effectively using social media platforms for
connecting with people at large, to challenging government policies—or inaction, sometimes—not on mere
rhetoric, but on facts, Kshitij was successfully establishing Rajat Gandy as a serious political figure.
‘Politics is a game of perception,’ Kshitij had once confided in Afsha. ‘It isn’t Rajat or the mistakes he might have
committed that cost us the last election. After all, which politician doesn’t slip up every once in a while? In fact,
you would know that there are several politicians who have made a career out of entertaining people through
their stand-up comedy acts during public rallies. We lost the elections because the opposition succeeded in
magnifying these errors and projecting Rajat as a shallow and light-minded politician. They made the voters
believe that he was not the right man for the job, and this is what I need to rectify.’
His task was far from over though. Pulling off a one-off act in public is one thing, but to do so on a consistent
basis—day after day and appearance after appearance—required talent. And talent, at least when it came to
establishing himself as an earnest political leader in the eyes of the public, wasn’t Rajat’s forte. Gaffes and goof-
ups had remained an integral part of his public appearances. While his party colleagues attributed this to his
youthful exuberance and lack of experience, opposition leaders blamed it on his incompetence and insincerity.
This, Afsha knew, could not change overnight. Rajat Gandy’s personality could not sober down suddenly just
because he now had Kshitij by his side. And it hadn’t!
He would still walk into a well-planned press event and mix-up names of people who were sharing the dais with
him. He would come up with bizarre rejoinders on televised debates in a bid to improvise on the meticulously
drafted script that had been given to him, and he, in an inexplicable fit of rage, would end up trouncing some
initiative that owed its genesis to his own party’s governments of the past. Rajat Gandy, despite Kshitij,
remained a ceaseless source of content for news channels, especially those who didn’t believe in holding back
The fact that Kshitij had achieved all that he had despite the insurmountable odds stacked up against him had
earned him the reverence of many, including Afsha.
‘So, what’s the big announcement on the cards today?’ she asked, meaning to initiate conversation.
‘Nothing that you wouldn’t already be in the know of,’ he replied genially.
‘Not one to give away anything, are you?’ she said, arching her brows playfully. ‘Can I at least get an exclusive
line or two from him later?’
‘That might be tough in this setting…’ he said, waving his hand around at the crowd of journalists surrounding
the registration desk. ‘But, let me see if I can do something. You could however, ask him about the water issue
with China during the Q&A session if you wish to. He should be willing to make a comment or two on that.’
This is how the media industry worked. A word here, a hint there, nothing too glaring, but subtle pointers that
served both parties well—journalists getting their stories and politicians getting their desired messages across.
‘Sure thing! Thank you…and do give me a shout if you are planning to have him give a prime-time interview one
of these days.’
‘Will do. You take care and I will see you around,’ he said, shaking her hand and scampering off to greet another
group of attendees.
The exclusive interview, Afsha knew, wasn’t happening anytime soon. Rajat, as a lead up to the last general
elections, had done the mistake of giving one such interview and it had set his career back by a minimum of a
few years and the party’s fortunes by several parliamentary seats.
The channel and the journalist they had chosen for this interview were known sympathisers of their principal
political opponent. It was perhaps an attempt to position Rajat as a brave and fearless youth icon, for nothing
else appeared to explain this selection to Afsha. But the move had backfired. The said journalist had peeled off
Rajat’s mask, layer after layer, exposing his lack of political foresight and preparedness to the entire country, all
on live television. Kshitij had not been around back then. But upon taking charge he had made it a point to shield
Rajat from such misadventures, even if the channel concerned was a friendly one, like MPTV.
Afsha hadn’t given up trying though. Persistence, even when not backed by conviction, was capable of ushering
in unexpected rewards. Moreover, if ever Kshitij happened to have a change of heart, she wanted her name to
be the first one he thought of. It was just one of the many investments that the journalist in her thoughtlessly
made. Who knew which one of them would earn her the next big scoop?
Rajat Gandy appeared on the stage nearly 20 minutes after the scheduled time. He was flanked by another
budding politician from his party, Sachin Jaywardhan, and leaders from three regional parties from the states of
Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar. The assembled journalists greeted them with a resounding applause,
more out of relief that the wait hadn’t turned out to be particularly long, than a real show of excitement. Once
the applause receded, the emcee invited Rajat Gandy to address the group.
‘The country is in dire straits today… The youth of India are unemployed, the poor are starving, farmers are
dying, and minorities are feeling threatened. And this is all that the government has to show for the past four
years of its performance. The development that they had promised has happened… but only in the earnings of a
handful of rich businessmen. And these profits have come at the cost of common citizens like you and me. We
have been burdened with additional taxes, and it is this money that has flown out as profits into the books of
these businessmen….,’ he began, using a mix of English and Hindi to deliver his talk.
Cameras and recorders across the hall continued to roll, capturing every word that Rajat spoke. Afsha, from
where she was sitting, could even see some old-school reporters using notepads to scribble their notes in
shorthand. The announcement would come a little later, possibly once all the leaders had spewed enough
venom against the government and laid a foundation of paranoia for it to land on.
As the speakers took turns with the microphone, Afsha was already thinking about her report on the
announcement. The conference was being relayed in real time to the studio, but it hadn’t been considered
important enough to be aired live. The announcement to come was no secret to anybody. Incidentally, some
channels had even conducted full-fledged debates on the possible ramifications of the pre-poll alliance that was
to be announced today. The story had thus lost the status of being ‘breaking news’ unless of course Mr. Gandy
happened to come up with something unexpected.
The MPTV editor-in-chief and Afsha’s boss, Arunabh Gosain, was content with running snippets from the
conference as a ticker at the bottom of the screen, and a small video report in the news summary segment for
now. Later, they would do a more elaborate report, perhaps a half hour one, on the announcement and its
As she sat there, her colleagues were probably stationed outside other party offices already, or would have
rounded up known political commentators so as to obtain immediate reactions and counter reactions to this
development. Once the announcement was made, she would be linked up with the studio too, expected to pitch
in with her own understanding and analysis of the situation.
Stifling a yawn, a task that took some effort, she moved her gaze towards the stage. The emcee was now inviting
Sachin Jaywardhan to speak.
‘We heard Rajatji and other leaders talk about the gravity of the situation we are all faced with today. I will only
add a few facts to what you have already heard and leave it to you and the rest of the country to decide where
we stand…,’ he began after welcoming the invitees.
Afsha had heard Sachin speak on several occasions in the past—in rallies, in corporate events and on the floor of
the parliament. He was a captivating orator, using just the right intonation and words to establish connect with
any audience he came to face. More importantly, unlike numerous other politicians that she had heard, his
deliverances almost always made sense.
A third-generation politician and an M.B.A. from one of the topmost business schools in the world, Jaywardhan
was no less than Rajat in terms of pedigree. However, this is where the similarities between the two ended.
When it came down to making the most of the privileges they had been bestowed with on account of their birth,
they were poles apart. When Sachin spoke, it was difficult for anyone to ignore him.
Unlike earlier speakers, Sachin had refrained from embarking upon the route of passionate ranting to prove his
point. Instead he spoke objectively, relying on data from credible sources, including government reports that
were available in the public domain to cast chinks in the propagations of the present dispensation. Like a
learned teacher educating his ignorant students, he demolished several arguments lauding the government’s
performance that were doing the rounds. His oratory had a strange appeal, making his words sound pregnant
with meaning. Afsha could hear murmurs of concurrence rise across the hall with every punch he delivered. No
wonder it was him who they had chosen to make this all-important announcement.
‘If we don’t stand up to this tyranny, to this oppressive regime, we would be doing a great disservice to this
great nation and to our forefathers who gave their lives for it. It is about time that we presented the people of
India a viable political alternative, one that will usher the country into a new era of prosperity and development.
And under Rajatji’s leadership and due to his tireless efforts, we are all very proud to announce the formation of
the Grand Democratic Alliance.’ The announcement was greeted by loud cheers, mainly from the party cadres
sprinkled around the hall.
Sachin went on to share the broad guiding principles of the alliance, inviting other like-minded parties to join
them in the ‘war’. This was the action end of the event and Afsha could see many reporters scribbling away
furiously to keep pace.
‘It is a matter of personal honour for me that the Alliance has decided to kick-start its campaign for the 2019
general elections from my home state, Madhya Pradesh. Next month, the GDA will organise a massive rally in
Bhopal where we will release our common election manifesto…’
The People’s Party had made its first move by announcing the grand alliance for the general elections, and Afsha
was certain that the situation would only heat up from here. And that too, in quick time. She spared a fleeting
thought for the gruelling times ahead of her, and an involuntary shudder ran up her spine. She was quick to rein
in her thoughts and focus them on the question regarding the China stand-off that she still needed to ask. There
was no way for her to know then that a sinister shadow was already looming over her head. One that would
either have her play a significant role in shaping the future of the most populous democracy on earth or wipe
away her entire existence.