Puneet Issar as Duryodhana (left) and Vinod Kapoor as Dushasana in the 1988 TV serial

New Delhi, Oct. 5: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has unwittingly or otherwise upgraded an economic feud to epic proportions, prompting his tormentor Yashwant Sinha to grab the quiver with glee and shoot armour-piercing arrows at two “infamous” brothers.

Yesterday, Modi had referred to Shalya, the Mahabharata character who had sided with the Kauravas although he was uncle to the Pandava twins and demoralised Karna, while berating the economic doomsayers. “Shalyavritti (Shalya’s habit of demoralising people) exists even today…. They spread pessimism and get a good night’s sleep only after they spread gloom…,” Modi said.

He did not identify the modern-day ” Shalyavritti” practitioners but the consensus was that one of the targets was Sinha, who had expressed concern at the economic “mess” during Dussehra week.

Today, Sinha returned the compliment. “The Mahabharata is the flavour of the discourse these days. Characters from the Mahabharata have suddenly appeared. Somebody talked of Shalya yesterday. Shalya was the (maternal) uncle of Nakula and Sahadeva, the youngest Pandava brothers. Duryodhana played a trick on him. Duryodhana misguided him by throwing a feast,” he told a book launch.

Having warmed up, the former finance minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government delivered the knockout punch. “There are a large number of interesting characters in the Mahabharata. Of the 100 Kaurava brothers, you only remember Duryodhana and Dushasana. Nobody remembers (any) third brother. Only two became infamous.”

As the audience applauded, Sinha asked: “Do I need to say anything more?”

Ripples of laughter followed, making it clear that no one needed any clues to the identity of the two, whom Sinha had not named.

Yashwant Sinha and Arvind Kejriwal at the book release in New Delhi on Thursday.
Picture by Prem Singh

A third figure (again unnamed but no prizes for guessing who) too received the treatment – which must hurt more because the book the BJP veteran was launching had been written by Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari.

Amid lusty cheering, Sinha continued: “Some people believe I have reached the ripe old age of 80 and am still looking for a job. The phrase used was – ‘job applicant at 80’. I come from a part of the country that produced Babu Kunwar Singh. He was a freedom fighter in 1857 and when he joined that war, he was 80. There may be a bar on joining government service at 80 but no bar on fighting for freedom.”

After Sinha skewered the Modi government’s economic policies in a newspaper article, finance minister Arun Jaitley had described the veteran as a “job applicant at 80”.

Asked about the charge that he had rebelled because the Centre had not entertained his application for the job of Brics bank chairman, Sinha said: “I was never a candidate. I have been the finance minister of India; they could have talked about the post of UN secretary-general, World Bank chairman…. Brics bank, this tut-punjia (rag-tag) job?”

Laughter eddied around.

The BJP condemned Sinha with full force. “While claiming to be a ‘know-all’ economist, Sinha is conveniently glossing over his own disastrous performance as finance minister when he pledged India‘s gold overseas,” BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao said. “He has turned an unabashed apologist for the corrupt, inflationary, anti-poor and disastrous economic governance of the UPA.”

Sinha suggested that there was a ploy to turn the economic debate into a family brawl on the very next day he wrote an article criticising some of the policies of the Narendra Modi government.

The former finance minister was referring to an article by his son Jayant Sinha, a minister in the Modi government, in another newspaper on how well the economy was doing.

“They thought I will get embroiled in the family brawl. Then they brought up this BRICS charge, that didn’t work either. Had it worked, somebody would not have spoken for over an hour yesterday,” Sinha said in response to a question.

The Prime Minister had yesterday given a long speech on the state of the economy, using the opportunity to hit back at his critics.

Asked about the diverse opinions aired by the father and the son, the elder Sinha said: “I am assured of one thing – there is no Agra Fort in which I can be locked up.” That was an allusion to Mughal-era conspiracies to drive a wedge between father and son – emperor Aurangzeb had confined his father Shah Jahan in the Agra Fort.

What if the BJP threw him out of the party? “That will be the best day of life,” Sinha replied but then put the answer in perspective. “I have not done anything to deserve punishment. This is as much my party as anybody else’s. I have given my blood and toil. I have worked with the tallest leaders…. Vajpayee and Advani. This is a passing phase. Values are more important than personalities. I will not allow personalities to affect my values.”

Asked what he would do if the Prime Minister invited him for a cup of tea, he said: “My gurus have told me – ‘don’t answer hypothetical questions’.”

Sinha had started his speech extolling the virtue of debate in a democracy and the value of personal relations despite political differences. He said his first leader Chandra Shekhar (former Prime Minister) trained him like this.

Sinha also criticised Modi and Amit Shah, without naming either, for the agenda of “Congress-mukt Bharat“.

“Nobody earlier talked of this mukt, that mukt. All is part of democracy. Democracy is not about numbers. It is about debate and consensus-making. Take everybody along. Dar and democracy don’t go together. If there is an atmosphere of fear, we have to get out of it.”

He added: “We all have to strive to maintain the greatest traditions of democracy established by our forefathers. There is so much talk about Stand up India, Start-up India, Sit-down India…. All we need is to stand up against the attempt to create fear and face it with courage.”

Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who also attended the event, had said the government had created an atmosphere of fear among traders, political rivals and ordinary citizens. “Everybody feels he is under surveillance, their phones are being tapped, there will be income-tax raid, ED-CBI will come knocking. No government in the past created such an atmosphere. They have sent out lakhs of tax notices. Traders spend their time worrying about the raid raj.”

Describing demonetisation as the biggest scandal of the country, the Delhi chief minister said: “I talk to people and they are scared…. Job losses are pushing up crime. Society has been divided on religious lines. How can you manage peace and harmony in these circumstances?”

BJP spokesperson G.V.L. Narasimha Rao later said Sinha had found in the Congress a new ally to seek his next job. “It remains to be seen what a jobless Rahul Gandhi can offer to an ever-job-seeking Sinha. Far from his ludicrous claims of being the Bhishma, Sinha is acting as the Shishupal of the Mahabharata…. He must be ashamed that he is in the company of those engaged in shaming India, spreading doom and not falsely claim to be a protector against cheerharan (disrobing).”

But Sinha had said at the event: “Legacy issues are not unusual; every government inherits some problems. But 40 months down the line, you cannot hide behind legacy issues. The UPA is history, people have punished them. This government will be scrutinised for its own performance.”

Tewari, the author of the book of essays on a range of subjects – Tidings of Troubled Times – echoed the sentiments expressed by Sinha and Kejriwal. “This battle is not merely political; this is a fight for the soul of India. And hubris destroys any party, any individual,” Tewari said