Love her or hate her, but you can't ignore her. For more than two decades, Tavleen Singh has been one of India's foremost political journalist-cum-columnists. As one of the few women political columnists, Tavleen's iconoclasm is in sync with the Indian Express style. But she stands out as the first woman to write a political column in the Indian Express. And her career span is far more varied — she has reported for England's Evening Mail and Sunday Time, covering the subcontinent, including Pakistan. She has written for The Statesman, The Telegraph and India Today. She also anchors a TV show for NDTV Profit.
Tavleen's consistent theme has been governance, or rather the lack of it, in India. She is scathing, unsparing and candid in her observations and this makes it difficult to be indifferent to her columns. She is both reporter and analyst. And as her columns in the Indian Express entered their third decade, Harper Collins India, together with the Indian Express, decided to acknowledge Tavleen's contribution to journalism by bringing out a collection of these columns spanning two decades — "...a chronicle of change in India in the past twenty years as seen through the prism of a column that revels in being politically incorrect." Such high-flying rhetoric was matched at the book launch for Political and Incorrect: The Real India — Warts and All by an unconventional panel discussion, "Hindutva and Radical Islam: Can the two be equated?" Predictably, the discussion did not end with any conclusive verdict, but it may have been inadvertently symbolic of the contents of the book it helped to launch.
In the politically correct times that we are living in, which has formulated its own unwritten code of what can and what cannot be, what should and what should not be, this collection is timely. True, "India has changed incalculably in the last two decades. Today it is hard to find a village in India where the cell-phone has not reached and where there isn't at least one television set" and this makes it difficult to find the isolation and ignorance that was so widespread in the early 1980s "where barely a hundred kilometres from Udaipur", Tavleen met "adivasi families who did not know that India was no longer ruled by the British". The reason, the author concludes, is technology rather than better governance. For she notes that "as much as there has been dramatic change there has been a dramatic absence of change in areas of vital need."
Tavleen continues to remain undeterred, unfazed by change even as she chronicles it; her focus is, unwaveringly, on governance; on why, 60 years on after Independence, Indians continue to be deprived of the basics of bijli, sadak, pani. As Shekhar Gupta, Editor, Indian Express, elaborates in the foreword: Tavleen Singh is "...bold, in your face, argumentative and opinionated. Also she is not one to mince or waste words. She makes her point briefly..." She does not hesitate to speak her mind. And she has opinions galore — whether on the Gucci Gandhians, Kanshi Ram's horizontal philosophy or Kashmir.
Despite these stark opinions, or perhaps because of them, Tavleen resonates with the reader — she writes in a clear lucid style and asks the simplest of questions: Why is the Public Distribution System so full of leaks? For such a very poor country isn't it fascinating how very rich our ministers and ex-ministers have become? Is the Gandhi name enough to win elections? Why don't the RSS and VHP use their vast armies of Hindutva supporters to help clean Hinduism's most sacred cities (and some of the dirtiest in the country)? Why are liberals so vigilant when it comes to seeing saffron but become colour blind when it comes to Islamic green? Why, after all of these years, the Indian justice system continues to work at a pace that defeats the idea of justice? These are questions most Indians would like an answer to.
Iconic Israeli journalist Amira Hass has defined journalism thus: "to monitor power and centres of power". It is not necessary to always agree with Tavleen, but one needs to give it to her that she "monitors power and the centres of power." No one can accuse her of favouritism. To this effect she herself is ironically, almost politically correct, for she spares no one. If she is vituperative about the Congress party, so is she about BJP, the party "with a difference", the RSS's macabre agenda and the communist honcho Prakash Karat. At times, she almost seems to mourn that "it makes little difference who comes to power as nothing changes anyway."
But diplomatic she is not; hesitant she is not. She is jarring at times, there are moments when the columns descend into diatribes, but she does not feel the need to couch her thoughts in lofty vocabulary, she is not unduly bothered about the sensibilities or the correctness of the times.
Yet, even as the book chronicles change, it also records the "dramatic absence of change in areas of vital need". The reader is left with that lingering feeling of déjÀ vu.
When she asks why we are not more shocked at the story of 12-year-old Deepa (1994), who had run away bruised and battered from a nari niketan, we may ask today why we were not more shocked at the stripping and violence that locals subjected an Adivasi girl on the streets of Guwahati some months ago; or why we are not more shocked at the decrepit state of welfare homes even today.
Likewise, when the author narrates the harrowing tale of a man who lost his entire family in the Uphaar cinema tragedy (1997) — because "nothing worked, nothing at all" — we know that even today a fire can rage on for four consecutive days in a major market in Kolkata (as happened in January), and be quickly forgotten. Today, a particular column from 1992 sounds almost prophetic, in which the author asked why justice had yet to be meted out to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. And when, in a column on 'terrorism' written in 1995, she wonders, "Are we going to wait till bombs go off in Bombay and Delhi before we do anything else?" The growth of regionalism, the rise of coalition politics, the 'Mandalisation' of politics, fake encounters, custodial deaths, endemic corruption, denial of justice, skewed concepts of human rights — Tavleen has seen it all, and her columns duly document, analyse and, at times, prophesise them.
Due to the nature of the column in the first place, a collection of such writings is not easy reading. The very act of writing a weekly column can limit the originality of the writing and make columns repetitive and strident. This is particularly so when their writings are as bold and provocative as Tavleen's are — not to mention, still worse, at times predictable. Luckily, beyond the continued relevance of these pieces, her work is punctuated with tongue-in-the-cheek comments.
In "Delusions of Dynasty', she describes the Janata Party's rule following the Congress's post-Emergency defeat as the Janata government having "spent its time in office mesmerised by the inevitability of [Indira Gandhi's] return" and so ended up doing pretty little else.
Or, a sample of Congress sycophancy: "For a few months in 1985 a giant, ninety-foot, cardboard cut-out of Mrs Gandhi towered over India Gate, but it was removed because it caused unfortunate misunderstandings.
It was erected around Dussehra and confused the children who kept demanding to know why there was only one and not three." Or Nawaz Sharif on regional cooperation at Davos (1998): 'When …answering questions, Nawaz… referred to the motorway built between Lahore and Islamabad as an example of regional cooperation.'
To write of things political incorrectly is Tavleen Singh's hallmark. That is what distinguishes her from many other columnists. Tavleen does not let us forget. Political and Incorrect keeps highlighting the failures of the State, the lack of governance, the problems continuing to plague India — illiteracy, bureaucratic callousness, corruption, poverty. It does not gloat about the surging stock market or 'India shining', or the number of millionaires we now have — they continue to remind people that real India is still out there in the villages where bijli, sadak and pani still remain distant dreams. This is important for the nation.