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Questions for a likely ex-chief minister

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-12-07

FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto reports from India's financial capital as the city slowly recovers from the devastating attacks that killed nearly 200 people.

30/11/2008 - In city of dreams, a star café



Monday, Dec. 1


Wearing a sparkling, crisp white kurta-pyjama, the traditional flowing shirt-trouser ensemble favoured by India’s politicians, Vilasrao Deshmukh enters the room.


The media erupts in a howl of protests as TV camera crews yell to the press photographers in front to sit down, they’re blocking the camera views. Behind the speakers, a scramble erupts as radio and TV correspondents literally rip each other’s cables from the sound boxes since there aren’t enough plug-points to service every media outlet.


This is just the aperitif. It’s nothing compared to the outpouring of hostility that bursts forth once the press conference actually begins.


Political press conferences in India can be raucous affairs. A hardwired bunch frequently disgusted with their politicians, Indian journalists can be brutal when it comes to grilling their politicians.


But this is hostile even by Indian standards.


We’re gathered here at the office-residence of the chief minister of Maharashtra, the state of which Mumbai is the capital, for an extraordinary press conference.


The morning papers and the TV stations are already reporting that the beleaguered Deshmukh is “set to go”. This follows yesterday’s announcement of former Home Minister Shivraj Patil’s resignation on moral grounds over the government’s failure to act on available intelligence to prevent last week’s carnage in the Indian commercial capital.


As the body count from the attacks is being finalised, this city is ready for heads to roll.


The press conference is delayed – as usual – and in the waiting room, blackberries are already breaking the news of Deshmukh’s upcoming departure.


So, when the likely ex-chief minister opens the presser with series of new security measures – a unified security command centre, a new intelligence training centre, additional orders for speedboats for coastal patrol – there’s a discernible insouciance in the air. For the citizens of this city – including its journalists – who have repeatedly experienced the horrors of terrorist attacks in recent years, it’s all too little, too late.


Deshmukh has barely launched into the awards for bravery announcement when a journalist yells at him to address the elephant in the room. He is immediately joined by his comrades. “The home minister is not in his seat,” yells one. “What are you doing here?”


The entire conference is unfolding in Marathi, the regional language of Maharashtra. With its forceful, rustic cadences, Marathi is not a language for the weak-willed.


Deshmukh has a stock reply for the blood calls. “I offered,” he repeats pointedly in English, opting for the stoicism of the Queen’s tongue. “Whatever decision high command takes, it is binding on me.”


Leaders of Deshmukh’s Congress Party, the largest in the ruling coalition, are considering his fate. Despite his unpopularity, Deshmukh might be difficult to replace before the country goes to the polls in next year’s critical general elections.


But it’s difficult to imagine how he can resume normalcy in his post. The residents of this city are so enraged by their political leaders, they tell me they are in no mood to return to life as normal because normalcy breeds complacency in India’s notorious political class. Something has changed in this city. But I’m not sure if this change will transform the way things work – or fail to – here.


Date created : 2008-12-01