When it is a meal with ace sociologist Dipankar Gupta, food and choices are bound to share space with generous servings of politics, people and the upcoming elections
Choosing a restaurant to dine out with Dipankar Gupta is the least of your problems. The well-known academic-author, when it comes to Hyatt Regency in New Delhi, knows where to have a satisfying meal. At La Piazza of course, perhaps the oldest — and also the best — Italian restaurant in the National Capital today.
So there we are, at a corner table in La Piazza overlooking the manicured lawn of the hotel. The question of choice lingers in our conversation and Gupta adds that if it would have been Chinese food, he would have certainly preferred The Claridges.
A glass of Diet Coke is swiftly opted for against a glass of wine. And in no time arrives at our table an assortment of Italian breads paired with olive oil and a yummy cheese dip. Breaking breads, Gupta mulls over what to order. No, no fish for him. The streak of stereotyping in me (we all have, don’t we?) peeps out to ask, well, a Bengali and no fish? Turns out, it is because he is a Bengali!
“They are sea fish. I am fond of sweet water fish. At the most, I would go for estuary fish. That also is limited to hilsa, which I am not very fond of, and prawns and crabs,” he fills in. The banter loiters for sometime about fish and Gupta, with a laugh, adds, “Bones in the hilsa might be difficult to negotiate for many but an aunt of mine eats it as if she is eating sandesh.” Gupta also loves fish oil fry, a very Eastern dish, and yes, “fish egg bora is so very nice!”
Having lived in North India for a long time, and talking about food, saag does pop up. “Sarson ka saag is rather nice but East India has more variety in saag. What Punjabi cuisine gives us is the variety in breads. Also the kababs in North India are super.”
The Chef soon materialises at our table, offers to serve us a three-course meal — a salad, cream of carrot soup, some chicken. Gupta nods in agreement.
Choices made, we begin talking about people’s choices, rather about asserting their choices, an example we saw during the last assembly elections in Delhi. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) won 28 of the 70 assembly seats in the First City, setting in motion expectations — both in the party and in many voters across the country — that it might bring in a ‘revolution’ against India’s rampant corruption in governance today, and be a viable option against the hegemony of the big political parties increasingly being seen coming to the common man only for his vote. The debate, both in the media and on the streets, is also whether the AAP effect is already petering out. The bigger question is will AAP be able to deliver?
A keen observer of politics and people, Gupta is categorical. “We all have doubts whether AAP will be able to do it. But remember, it is a huge responsibility, a gigantic task. After 66 years of rubbish that the country has accumulated, many people even think corruption is a way of life. Whether Arvind Kejriwal would be able to deliver in a limited period of time is debatable but what is interesting is that he has changed the political landscape.” With Lok Sabha elections round the corner, it is certainly a welcome shift.
The former JNU professor points out a crucial thing here, “I would also like to suggest here that because AAP might not succeed doesn’t mean it is a failure. It may not succeed entirely but the questions it has raised are not easy to dismiss. Look at history, look at the Suffragate movement, the Civil Rights movement in America. They didn’t succeed at one go. When it failed, one could have said, forget it, it is utopian, women will never be able to vote, Blacks will never be treated like the others in America. In my own lifetime I have seen Kennedy escorting Black children to school in America. But one carried on and look what has happened. Changes take time.” Because “human beings are not necessarily good people, they have to be pushed to do things.” And herein comes the role of “citizen elite”, a term he has coined in his last book “Revolution from Above”. Those at the top would have to show courage for change.
The conversation pauses to take note of the enticing green salad placed in front of us, complete with baby spinach, cheese shavings, peppers soaked in extra virgin olive oil. We dig on, into the salad, further into the conversation.
AAP opted out of power in Delhi because of inability to pass the Jan Lok Pal Bill and also the Swaraj Bill it has tailored. “I am not very clear about the term ‘swaraj’. Kejriwal is probably playing to the metaphor of ‘swaraj’ because he is also calling the fight against corruption our second independence movement. He is addressing big problems, like water bills, discoms, etc which are not neighbourhood problems. However, if you want to boil it down to communities, to the users, you will have to listen to them. Say, you are building a bridge, a flyover, you will have to listen to its users. You can’t say, we are experts, we know better. Because experts get transferred overnight, or get retired one day but the users remain.”
Our second course, the cream of carrot soup — strikingly orange, gives good company to the topic that comes up next — how much is there a Modi wave in the country? Gupta, like many of us, is not too sure whether he will be the next Prime Minister. “There will be a BJP-led government at the Centre but I am not sure about the PM. If BJP doesn’t get the majority, Modi might face more competition from within the party than from outside for the PM-ship. For him to become the PM, BJP should get majority because he is one-man show, not a coalition partner.”
As we get over with the last course — a chicken breast lightly done with Italian herbs, the chef returns, to offer the popular dessert tiramisu. Gupta declines, tells him with a laugh, “Some years ago, I had an entire set of sweet tooth, I have lost all of them now.”
What he leaves behind from the conversation is but food for thought. A possible dessert if at all it comes true one day.
“We are bringing more and more laws, talking about banning this, banning that. But what we need to do is to ensure that our existing laws are enforced better. Look at the RTI Act for instance. What purpose has it served so far? It is not enough to get replies from a department for a question by a member of the public. It is important to get the correct answer, also very important that conviction happens because a wrong-doing has been brought to light by an RTI application.”