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Friday, December 21, 2007

The men and women who dominated events in 2007

New Delhi(IANS): It was a year of Marx and malls, billionaire fantasies and pangs of land acquisition, Nobel glories and Nithari shame. In the scramble of events, it wasn't easy to pick just 10 names that dominated events in 2007. But this list of newsmakers compiled by IANS journalists attempts to embody the new India with all its contradictions.

There's billionaire businessman Ratan Tata whose Tata Steel acquired the largest British steel-maker Corus in an $11 billion deal in an empire-strikes-back move.

If business showed a new can-do attitude, Indian politics presented a spectacle of schizophrenia and unresolved tensions. Marxist chief Prakash Karat makes it to the list for almost single-handedly derailing India's nuclear covenant with the US and questioning how the government modernised the economy.

His comrade Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the market-friendly chief minister of Left-ruled West Bengal, also dominated headlines but for the crisis he caused with his land acquisition policy, particularly in Nandigram.

Dalit leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati forged a rainbow electoral coalition that embraced upper and lower castes and Muslims in one magic formula that brought her to power in India's most populous state.

Away from the hurly burly of politics, environmentalist R.K. Pachauri brought Nobel glory to India as head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with the promise of clean climate that has become the reigning theme of global discourse.

Shah Rukh Khan, the unquestioned king of Bollywood, reinvented himself as the quiz show host and fed billionaire fantasies of middle class Indians with "Kaun Banega Creorepati" and became a mega earner for Bollywood with "Chak De! India" and "Om Shanti Om".

Ace actor and born-again Gandhian Sanjay Dutt showed grace under pressure by braving the rigours of jail after being sentenced for his role in the 1993 Mumbai bombings.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni enthralled the cricket-crazy nation by shepherding India to victory in the latest Twenty20 makeover of the game. Rajnikant soared to new heights of mass adulation in southern India with "Sivaji: The Boss", India's most expensive movie at $20 million.

In this list of newsmakers, one name may sound incongruent. Moninder Singh Pandher made headlines for plumbing new depths of depravity as skeletons of girls and children whom he and his servant allegedly raped and murdered emerged from his house in Noida.

The 10 headline-grabbers:

Prakash Karat
India's youngest Communist commissar, Prakash Karat, dominated headlines like no Marxist has ever had, almost killing a path-breaking nuclear deal with the US and injecting political uncertainty for a government when none existed.

The unassuming Karat dramatically took on the Congress-led government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, warning it not to sign the deal that had been arrived at after months of intense negotiations in New Delhi and Washington.

Even in his aggression, the Myanmar-born and Edinburgh-educated Karat was suave but made it amply clear that the government existed at the mercy of his Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) and its smaller allies and that they could not be ignored without a heavy price being paid.

In the process, Karat became a powerful political actor, determining the future of one of the most significant and controversial foreign and strategic policies, without being in power and without ever contesting any election to parliament.

However, mirroring the dialectics of Marxism, Karat exhibited flip-flop, now hinting at early elections and then saying he didn't mean it, now insisting that the government can't talk to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then giving a reluctant go-ahead.

Eventually, Karat did lose some sheen and contributed to the rumblings among his smaller allies that the CPI-M boss was acting unilaterally akin to a "big brother" - much like the George Bush he so much reviles.

In the CPI-M itself, the man who took supreme charge two years ago, succeeding the ageing but veteran Harkishan Singh Surjeet, remains the undisputed hero. And along with his wife Brinda, the Karats are probably the world's most influential Communist family.

If Karat made waves, Dalit icon Mayawati unleashed a tsunami in 2007. The feisty former school teacher single-handedly achieved what everyone thought was impossible: bringing her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) to power in India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, on its own strength.

It was a success that had eluded her mentor, the late Kanshi Ram. At a time when all major political parties had accepted the inevitability of a hung house in Uttar Pradesh (population 166 million), Mayawati proved everyone wrong.

Having consolidated her base among the Dalit community and having expanded the BSP's fangs to all parts of northern and central India, using lingo that often put off other communities, Mayawati suddenly changed tracks to do a "social engineering". She forged bonds between the long-oppressed Dalits and the high-caste Brahmins to create an electoral revolution, having many others including large sections of Muslims already on her side.

It was a magic formula that decimated the Congress - the original inventor of the Dalit-Muslim-Brahmin formula, jolted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and ousted an overconfident Samajwadi Party. For the first time, the BSP won seats in every region of the sprawling Uttar Pradesh, bagging 206 seats in the house of 403.

Mayawati, her admirers say, has set her sights high - very high. And the lonely ranger believes that the slow and steady always win the race. A "social engineering" of the Uttar Pradesh type may not be possible everywhere but the BSP chief knows the power even some seats in a hung assembly can command. With both the Congress and the BJP hoping to forge electoral ties with Maywati some day, she is most likely to play a more and more important role in national politics.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharya
While Karat rode high in 2007, his friend and fellow Communist Buddhadeb Bhattacharya hit a new low in the politics of West Bengal that has been in the grip of the CPI-M for three long decades.

From a 'bhadralok' who was counted as a saviour when he took charge of the state, Bhattacharya became one of its most hated figures when he sent hundreds of his party cadres to storm and "capture" Nandigram from those who had taken charge of the region to protest against the government's bid to hand over farmland to industry.

For the first time since the Left Front led by the CPI-M came to power in 1977, thousands, many otherwise sympathetic to the Reds, took to the streets to denounce the chief minister who had topped popularity charts since replacing the veteran Jyoti Basu and leading his nine-party alliance to victory in 2006.

But the theatre-lover Bhattacharya's love for industry, in a state where the CPI-M and other leftwing groups have had a strong base among farmers, proved to be his undoing.

As the chief minister unveiled plans to set up special economic zones, by acquiring farmland albeit after compensating the landowners, a revolt swept parts of West Bengal. The Trinamul Congress plunged in - and found unexpected support from within a disgruntled Left Front.

Even as Singur, where the Tatas will build small cars, and other places accepted fate, willingly or otherwise, Nandigram turned out to be Bhattacharya's Stalingrad. There, an assortment of anti-Marxists joined hands to drag the CPI-M into long-term misery.

Nandigram was not the only black spot. The role of some of his senior police officers in the mysterious murder of a young Muslim man who had married the daughter of a Hindu industrialist and the manner his government asked Bangladesh writer Taslima Nasreen to quit Kolkata following Muslim protests shocked many.

In no time, Bhattacharya lost the high moral ground he had for so long. Towards the end of 2007, Bhattacharya looked like a poor shadow of the Chinese revolutionary he tried to ape: Deng Xiaoping.

Ratan Tata
It was a glorious year for Ratan Naval Tata, chairperson of India's biggest industrial house, and for India Inc when his $29 billion group bought Anglo-Dutch steel maker Corus for $11.1 billion - the largest acquisition of an overseas company by an Indian business house.

The global corporate elite was impressed with Fortune magazine naming Tata as one of 25 most influential people in the world in 2007. This deal pitchforked India into the big-league of the multibillion-dollar world of mega mergers and acquisitions and raised many an eyebrows as Corus, at that point, was ranked the eight largest producer of steel in the world and several times larger than the Tata Steel.

A graduate of Cornell University, Tata pulled off something a coup when he announced that Tata Motors, another company in the group's stable of 97 companies, would sell a small car for all of Rs.100,000 ($2,500) that India's burgeoning middle class could afford.

The hiving off of Tata Consultancy, India's largest exporter of software, into a separate company, part acquisition of Energy Brands of the US for $677 million and buy out of Singapore's NatSteel for $468 million are some of the major deals that bore his distinct personal stamp.

Buoyed by a string of successes, Tata Group has now set its eyes on acquiring two iconic British automobile brands - Jaguar and Land Rover. The global business community saw the Tata success as the symbol of India Inc's new acquisitive appetite and global ambitions.

Shah Rukh Khan
Whether for his six pack abs, his one-liners or as the man who gave Bollywood its two biggest hits in 2007, Shah Rukh Khan was seldom off the news this year - or from our consciousness.

He began the year as the charming quizmaster in the TV show "Kaun Banega Crorepati" that had men and women of all ages blushing as he flirted outrageously or took gentle jibes. In between he was the intense Kabir Khan who battled stereotype and failure in "Chak De! India", which was made for Rs.200 million ($5 million) and garnered more than three times as much - Rs.640 million.

For the 42-year-old SRK, 2007 has also ended in a blaze of glory with his portrayal as the goofy Om in the madcap "Om Shanti Om", produced by him and directed by pal Farah Khan. The film is going strong and is already being touted as the biggest hit of the millennium, beating the 2001 partition melodrama "Gadar".

Off the screen, Shah Rukh was the most seen and most talked about star, who shone as an actor too, with his many endorsements and pronouncements on everything from Islam to his six pack abs.

He spoke to a newsmagazine about his family and what it meant being a Muslim in today's India, he was an invited guest at the HT Leadership Summit and talked about his vision for the future, he was chief guest at the Summit on Entertainment and Media organised by the industry lobby Assocham. The young Khan was also widely believed to be taking on the mighty Bachchans - Bollywood's premier family.

Shah Rukh Khan was everywhere this year - because he was the most saleable, because he was the thinking person's hero who read his newspapers, and also because he now sports washboard abs and a gelled ponytail that has spawned a thousand look-alikes.

Sanjay Dutt
Is he the lovable Munnabhai who brought Mahatma Gandhi back into the reckoning or a pampered brat once again jailed for his connection with the 1993 Mumbai terror blasts? The many faces of actor Sanjay Dutt kept him in the news for much of 2007, with his screen successes eclipsed by the drama in his real life.

Dutt's biggest success "Lage Raho Munnabhai" was released last year. But the magic carried on to 2007 with the screen persona of the lovable hoodlum who becomes a Gandhian still holding sway. And when a Mumbai court sentenced him to six years in jail after absolving him of terror charges and convicting him for being in possession of illegal weapons, he captured the public imagination -- and the headlines.

The hot topic of discussion everywhere was whether he deserved it. Intricacies of the Arms Act and the Probation of Offenders Act under which he appealed for leniency were avidly debated.

The irony didn't escape anyone. The man who popularised the apostle of non-violence was playing around with deadly weapons before the worst terror attack in the country, and that only enhanced his appeal.

Dutt, who had only one big release "Shootout at Lokhandwala" in 2007, was in and out of jail from August onwards and every detail was lapped up. What he was wearing in court, what he ate for lunch in jail and even what his girlfriend was wearing, every incidental detail about the star's life was prime time news for the star-struck nation.

His mother's death from cancer and his wife's from a brain tumour, his battle with drugs, his straying to the other side of the law and his jail term... Dutt's has been a star-crossed life that is more compelling than fiction.

It is perhaps that tragic flaw in the otherwise charmed life that ensures that he is never away from the headlines.

Rajendra Kumar Pachauri
R.K. Pachauri is not your typical eco-warrior haranguing corporations and governments on their blithe indifference to the perils of climate change. But when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body which Pachauri heads, jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with former US vice-president Al Gore, this poetry and cricket-loving environmentalist was all over the world's airwaves.

The IPCC's seminal report on climate change is a collaborative work of hundreds of authors and thousands of contributors from all over the world. One of Pachauri's major achievements has been to put these together into a logically coherent report that has done more than anything else to bring home the danger and immediacy of global warming.

After the publication of this report, Pachauri went on an evangelical tour of the world, tirelessly explaining its significance to policymakers and common people alike. At the Bali meet on climate change, Pachauri's smiling urbane self and calm voice did much to bring some coherence into fierce quibbles over the contours of the new climate regime.

The 67-year-old Pachauri has been chairman of the IPCC since 2002. He has also headed the New Delhi-based think-tank The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) since its inception 25 years ago. As a member of the Prime Minister's Advisory Council on Climate Change, Pachauri is playing a major role in shaping India's response to global warming in the form of a national action plan, which is to be finalised by February or March.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni
He's the Captain Cool of Indian cricket who relishes pressure cooker situations. Leading from the front, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the 26-year-old wicketkeeper-batsman from Ranchi, showed that he had it in him and more. Not just did the Pepsi & MTV youth icon carry India through five humdinger matches at the Twenty20 world championships in Johannesburg, he pulled off an incredible victory against Pakistan and plunged cricket-crazy Indians into wild euphoria.

More importantly, his presence marked a tectonic shift in Team India's selection process. His self-belief and consistency have served as a model for aspiring cricketers, inspiring many to transcend their social and economic class to make it big in Indian cricket.

Now shorn of his neck length tresses despite Pakistan President Pervez Musharaf's advice to him not to change his coiffure, the cricketer's scant regard for world rankings and emphasis on performance have led him to don the mantle of India's one-day international captain.

Affectionately called Mahi, the talented cricketer has scaled great heights in just a short time since he debuted in international cricket three years ago. His on-field exploits have also made him one of the hottest properties in advertising, with his charisma selling products as diverse as Reebok to Mysore sandal soap!

He could well have been lost to football but for his soccer coach who felt he was destined for cricketing glory. Football's loss has become Indian cricket's gain, and Dhoni's fairytale career is peaking new heights.

His real name is Shivajirao Gaekwad. But he goes by other soubriquets such as Periya Thalaivar (Big Boss) and Kadavul (God) and rules millions of hearts not just in India but also across the world who literally worship his machismo and flamboyance. Without doubt, Rajnikant, the style icon of south Indian cinema and loosely described as the country's answer to James Bond, is a phenomenon that just gets bigger all the time.

After three decades in filmdom that has helped him achieve superstar status, the 57-year-old Rajnikant broke all records June 15, releasing the much-awaited big-budget Tamil movie "Sivaji: The Boss" worldwide. It was his 100th release, the most expensive Indian movie ever made at an estimated Rs.800 million and the first Tamil film to be released simultaneously in the US, Canada, Europe, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia.

Just in sheer terms of reach and marketing the movie was a roaring success story and bore testimony to the star's incredible fan following. In Malaysia there were riots by Rajni fans in front of theatres when the prints didn't arrive in time, sure-fire sign that Rajni's mystique transcends cultures and territorial boundaries.

Such is his trans-national appeal that even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could not resist evoking the cult of Odori Maharaja, as the star is known in Japan, in his address to the Japanese Diet last year. For the man who started his life as a bus conductor, it's been one long glorious journey and one that carries agonies and ecstasies of millions of his fans.

Moninder Singh Pandher
Evil lurks in the unlikeliest of places. It was a story of gruesome killing of children, rape and even cannibalism that repulsed India - and the man at the centre of it was the benign looking businessman Moninder Singh Pandher who lived in a bungalow in Noida and had studied in some of India's best institutions.

When skeletons of children and women started emerging from a drain adjoining the house in the fading days of last year, conventional notions of barbarity and shamefulness were challenged.

The skeletal remains of at least 19 children and young women were dredged out from the drain. Pandher, alias Goldi, and his servant Surendra Koli were alleged to have raped the victims, then mutilated the bodies - and there was talk of cannibalism too.

Almost every day since the scandal first broke, macabre details emerged about how the master and the servant colluded to enact a pornographic horror show with victims hacked to pieces after the orgy was over.

The rich businessman protested innocence and tried to make his servant the fall guy. But a shocked nation was not interested in the legal nitty-gritty and watched unquestioningly as television shots of him being almost lynched by lawyers outside the Ghaziabad court were aired. As 2007 ended, Pandher had been accused in a couple of murder cases and was safely ensconced in Ghaziabad's Dasna jail.

Pandher was more than just the crime story of the year.

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