The Prime Minister of Tawa: Chapter 8
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Stephen Seymour was mildly hung over when he woke up the next day in his room at the Hepara Bay. He had entertained a retired bureaucrat the previous night and had drunk more than his usual two large gin and tonics. They had talked late into the night, analysing the current situation in Tawa. No excuses, he told himself severely. This was not the way any journalist worth his salt should behave. He had this habit of breaking all the rules again and again. For one, he was taking too personal an interest in Tawan politics. Which was why he had not been able to end his conversation with that retired bureaucrat at a decent hour last night. If he were sensible, he would have sent off the report on his interviews last night itself. New York was now ten hours behind Tawa and if he could have emailed his editor last night, his report would have saved an entire day. Now it was ten in the morning in Tawa and midnight in New York and it did not really matter if his report was not sent for another ten hours. It was no wonder that he was still a reporter covering the same patch for over twenty years. A more enterprising reporter would have sent out the report last night and then followed up with the editor to make sure that it was allotted a few column inches.
Stephen poured himself a hair of a dog, just enough to get over his hangover. Laimee was staying with her parents, as she always did when they came over to Hepara. Stephen then opened his laptop and switched it on. While waiting for the software to load, he dialled room service and ordered breakfast – toast and eggs and some orange juice. He did like Tawan food, but he would get enough of that when he joined Laimee for lunch at her parents’ place.
He started to type. It was always a matter of debate as to how much background information his report should carry. Stephen went by the maxim that it was safer to add more and have it excised by someone in New York, rather than say too little.
The rhombus shaped Indian Ocean island of Tawa is south of India and south west of Sri Lanka. It has a monarchy. Its population of ten million is split along tribal lines. The majority Keendas form around 80% of the population. The Seedas form the remaining 20%. The Royal House of Moshee had ruled over it without interruption for over six hundred years when the French arrived in 1720. The British arrived briefly after and had a small settlement at Hepara. As part of the settlement between the British and the French after the third Carnatic War, the French handed control over the whole of Tawa to the British. Since the Royal House of Moshee was extremely popular, at least among the Keendas, the British allowed the Moshees to rule in name, but maintained a Resident who wielded real power. Almost all Keendas and a few Seedas follow a religion called Deelahee, which is not found anywhere else in the world. Tawa got independence from the British in 1957 and the Tawa Freedom Party came to power. Seleem Zoloda, the most prominent among Tawa’s freedom fighters, became the Prime Minister. The monarchy continued to subsist in name. There was a military coup in 1974 and General Akram Naranin captured power. Seleem Zoloda was put on trial on the basis of a few trumped up charges a few months later. He was found guilty of ‘conspiring to weaken the military and the State’ and sentenced to death. The death sentence was carried out. Many members of Seleem Zoloda’s family were shot dead by firing squads. Seleem Zoloda’s wife and only son were in England at the time of the coup, where Mrs. Zoloda was undergoing treatment for cancer, and so they survived. Mrs. Zoloda lived in the UK till she died of cancer. Immediately after taking power, General Naranin ruthlessly crushed the Communist Party of Tawa. Many CPT members were imprisoned without any trial and some were killed. In 1976, the US was allowed to set up a naval base at Yalee, north of Hepara. US aid ensured that General Naranin stayed in power. An insurgency by the Seeda tribe was also brutally crushed. After many years of direct rule, General Naranin persuaded Kemon Padusee, a senior TFP leader to desert the TFP and form the PDA. General Naranin installed Kemon Padusee as a puppet Prime Minister and ruled by proxy. In 1993, the US withdrew from the Yalee naval base.
After the US withdrew from Yalee, over ten thousand Tawans employed at the base lost their jobs. Financial aid from the US was reduced to a trickle. Naranin’s regime started to totter. As a last-ditch attempt to stay in power, General Naranin orchestrated riots against the Chinese community blaming them for all problems. Many leading Chinese families had left Tawa after General Naranin took over. The only ones left behind were the non-so-rich ones who own small shops and restaurants and have nowhere else to go. But the anti-Chinese riots distracted the public’s attention for a brief period.
In 1996, General Naranin ceded power to an interim government headed by Horan Samiban, a respected leader of the TFP, and fled the country along with a few senior army officers. He was allowed to live in Switzerland after the interim government headed by Horan Samiban, in the interest of peace, assured the Swiss government that were no charges against General Naranin. The TFP came back to power in the elections held immediately afterwards, thrashing Kemon Padusee’s PDA. Horan Samiban became the Prime Minister. But the TFP has not performed very well in its current term. Inflation and unemployment are at all-time highs and the PDA is expected to pose a serious challenge in the coming elections. Tawa owes the United States almost a billion dollars, borrowed during General Naranin’s time. However, four months before the elections, it was announced that Seleem Zoloda’s only son, Maheshdas Zoloda would return from the United Kingdom where he has been working as a tax advisor for an accounting firm and take charge of the TFP. This news has totally changed the fortunes for the TFP since the Zoloda name is still a force to reckon with in Tawa. Maheshdas Zoloda has now just arrived in Tawa and has plunged into election campaigning straightaway.
Stephen still had not made up his mind whether he should prefix the history lesson to his piece. There was a very good chance that his editor would decide not to waste too much space on Tawa and print a sanitised version that would offend no one. The bell rang and Stephen opened the door. A hotel waiter wheeled in a breakfast trolley. Stephen decided to eat his breakfast and then write his report. He picked up the plate of eggs and toast in one hand and the glass of orange juice in another, and walked out to the balcony, which overlooked the bay.
He had come to Hepara almost twenty-three years ago when it was ruled by General Naranin. He was a brute of a man who had devastated Tawa with his policies. When Stephen arrived, the pogrom against the commies was over and General Naranin was about to start the second one against the Seedas. He declared that all Seedas were traitors who had sided with the British in oppressing the Keendas. In all honesty, there was some truth in it since the British had recruited almost all its soldiers from the Seeda tribe and had played them against the Keendas.
All the good work done by Seleem Zoloda after independence in creating a rapport between the communities was undone in a few years by General Naranin. Seedas could no longer get government jobs or bank loans. Seeda regiments in the army were disbanded. The Seedas soon rose in revolt, only to be crushed brutally by Naranin. Army hit squads cold bloodedly killed thousands of military age Seeda men.
After suppressing the Seeda revolt, General Naranin had started a process of nationalising all businesses. First the two main banks of Tawa were nationalised. Then the only insurance company in Tawa was taken over. After that the few factories that existed in Tawa were nationalised. Finally, General Naranin nationalised all plantations. Stephen gripped his glass of orange juice harder. This was a country which was so fertile that paddy farmers could easily get two crops in a single year. Fruit growing trees were aplenty and scattered all over the countryside. Plantations of all types, cashew nuts, rubber, pepper, coffee, and tea, dotted the landscape. No one had ever starved in Tawan history. And yet, within a space of less than ten years, General Naranin had created large swathes of extreme poverty.
The food riots of nineteen eighty-three which started in Cornovee and spread to the rest of the country was something that struck in Stephen’s memory. Mobs of people went around ransacking government property, including the nationalised plantations. General Naranin had restored order with a heavy hand and installed Kemon as a puppet Prime Minister. It was only in the early nineties after the collapse of the Berlin wall that ordinary Tawans started a political movement for restoration of democracy. Until then there were a few token protests by a few senior TFP members. The US decided that it no longer needed a naval base in south Asia and withdrew from Yalee. US aid was reduced to a trickle. Once the political agitation gathered momentum, General Naranin was forced to flee, leaving Tawa with a debt of a billion dollars.
Maheshdas Zoloda did not return from the UK after the military dictatorship ended. Instead, he had come back just in time for the second set of elections. Yesterday evening, Stephen’s friend the retired bureaucrat had confirmed what he had always suspected about Maheshdas Zoloda. Apparently Maheshdas Zoloda had never really kept in touch with any of his father’s colleagues in the TFP. As long as his mother was alive, there had been some contact. But after her death sometime in the late eighties, Maheshdas Zoloda had totally cut himself off. He did not even play much of a role within the expatriate community in the UK. Immediately after General Naranin fled, a TFP delegation had gone to the UK to persuade Maheshdas Zoloda to return to Tawa. They had failed. After Horan Samiban became the Prime Minister, various TFP politicians who visited the UK tried to meet Maheshdas Zoloda, but he rebuffed them all. Horan Samiban and Peelee Threeman had avoided any state visit to the UK because the TFP would have faced too many questions if Horan and Peelee were unable to meet with Mash while they were in London. As recently as a year ago, Maheshdas Zoloda had curtly told a visiting TFP to get lost and not trouble him.
No one really knew why Maheshdas Zoloda had changed his mind all of a sudden. There were various rumours within the top TFP circles. One was that he had run up a lot of debt and by returning to Tawa, would be able to avoid paying back his creditors. The other rumour, which was much more credible, was that as Maheshdas Zoloda grew older, he slowly realised how enjoyable it would be to wield power over twenty million people.
Stephen finished his breakfast. He went back inside the room, dumped his plate on the trolley and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. He stared into the mirror and spoke aloud, as if he were a news anchor for a satellite channel reporting live from Hepara. ‘The people of Tawa don’t really have too many choices. There’s Kemon Padusee, a man once chosen by General Naranin to head a quisling government. A man who stood by and watched while the military rulers imprisoned and tortured so many Tawans – both Seedas and Keendas – including many members of the TFP, the party he had once belonged to. Then there’s Maheshdas Zoloda, a totally unknown quantity who has the weight of his father’s brand name behind him. The TFP was begging for his to return to Tawa for many years and he had steadfastedly refused. Then all of a sudden, he returns to Tawa to take part in the elections. And within a day of reaching Tawa, Maheshdas gets elected unanimously by the TFP’s executive council as the party chairman. It seems to be settled that if the TFP wins a majority, Maheshdas Zoloda will be the next Prime Minister. No one seems to be bothered to even put up a semblance of intra-party democracy. But why blame the TFP members? There was no one who could pose a challenge to Maheshdas Zoloda in terms of popularity. It didn’t matter that Horan had a million times more experience than Maheshdas Zoloda, that he had led the struggle against the military rulers, that he had even gone to jail for the cause of democracy. No. All that mattered was whom the masses preferred. Which was how it ought to be in a democracy, wasn’t it?
Stephen started to brush his teeth, taking special care to brush the rear of his teeth. He could not speak out aloud, but his thought process continued. So, who’s to blame? The people always get the government they deserve. Was Maheshdas Zoloda going to be any worse that Horan Samiban? No. Not really. In fact, there was a very good chance that Maheshdas Zoloda would never stoop as low as any of the other politicians. He might turn out to be incompetent, but then, with some luck, he could turn out to be a half decent Prime Minister. A few good advisors, some sensible advice, a willingness to learn, a kind heart … No, he needn’t be kind-hearted. A kind-hearted man would not survive Tawan politics. A sensible man who was not evil. That’s all that was needed. But for some reason, Stephen was not too optimistic for Tawa’s future.
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