“We are coming together to defend secularism by defeating Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the RSS,” proclaimed Lalu Prasad with typical bombast in September 2015 just ahead of the Bihar assembly elections. “Our biggest challenge is to defeat the forces of communalism represented by Mr Modi,” argued Nitish Kumar vehemently. The die had been cast: in the autumn of 2015, the citadel of secularism had to be protected at all costs from the saffron army led by the strongman from Gujarat.
There is a wonderfully poignant story, possibly apocryphal, about the original Hindi cinema ‘phenomenon’ Rajesh Khanna that reveals the limits of superstardom. During his peak years, Khanna would hold a daily durbar where his fans would gather to hear him recite dialogues from his films. The room would be packed and the drink would flow. Many years later, Khanna found the hall empty. “Arre, where has everyone gone?” he asked his Man Friday. “Sir, there is a new hero in town and his name is Amitabh Bachchan,” replied his aide softly. Shaken, Khanna went back to sleep.
It was a picture that perhaps best captured the angularities of Indian secularism: AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and Trinamool Congress MP Derek O’Brien in a topi even as Delhi lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung and vice-president Hamid Ansari preferred to be bare-headed. The occasion was an iftaar party organised by the Delhi chief minister. Perhaps Kejriwal and O’Brien (an Anglo-Indian from Kolkata) had taken their cue from Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who once said, “To run the country, you have to take everyone along ... at times, you will have to wear a topi, at times a tilak.”
I have met Deepika Padukone just once: it was the CNN IBN Indian of the year awards last year when she won the special achievement prize for having acted in a series of hit films. She cried on that occasion on receiving the award from her father, the legendary badminton player Prakash Padukone.