Illustrations: Sudeep Chaudhuri
Illustrations: Sudeep Chaudhuri

History will judge him harshly for betraying faith; for failing the chance it gave him. It is not everybody who gets two shots at being the prime minister of the most populous democracy in the world. To get to be so as its unelected head is even rarer. Unfortunately for Dr Manmohan Singh, so stark and unexpected have the betrayals been, history has begun to train its lens on him even before his term is done.

For most of the nine years so far in his miracle position, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been uniquely protected by an adjectival fortress. Even as his government has steadily imploded into darker and darker scams, even as the economy has slid into seemingly terminal decline, even as, shamefully, the 15th Lok Sabha has clocked the least number of hours in its history, even as the country feels completely adrift and leaderless, Singh personally has remained curiously firewalled behind the idea of him being a decent, upright and erudite man.

That fortress of goodwill has been fraying for a while. Events this week prove, finally, it is just not tenable any longer. It is time, in fact, for a complete reassessment of who Singh is and what his tenure as PM has meant for India.

Over the past nine years, Singh has often cited “coalition pressures” for stands not taken, decisions not made, scams not averted. This time, he has no such alibi. The CBI’s investigation into the coal scam was being monitored by the Supreme Court. Both as PM — which makes him the head of the council of ministers and responsible for all his colleagues’ actions — and as coal minister for three of the five years under scrutiny, Singh is himself a subject of the inquiry. The Supreme Court had explicitly asked the investigating agency not to share its report with the political executive. But not only did the law minister and officials from the coal ministry and his own office vet the report, they were complicit with three of the highest officers of the land — the Attorney General, Additional Solicitor General and CBI director — committing perjury in the Supreme Court. This is a scandal of unprecedented proportion. The court has made scathing statements about “erosion of trust” and how the entire “process of investigation has been shaken”. But how does the PM react? He asserts there is no reason for the law minister to resign and defers taking any decisions till the Court should force his hand.

This absence of propriety — this chronic timidity in taking a stand — has been a key signature of Singh’s tenure as PM. Leader of Opposition, Arun Jaitley, who has long been a strident critic of Singh, has often exhorted him both within and outside Parliament to behave like the head of the country and not merely a civil servant or party marionette. “The trouble with the prime minister,” he says, “is that he is completely ideology-less. He does not act like a leader; he does what a cabinet secretary should do.”

There was a time when only critics held this dim view of the PM. Increasingly now, even his well-wishers are voicing similar misgivings. Sanjaya Baru, who was Singh’s media adviser, says, “For the first five years of his tenure, he was seen as a puppet PM, a nominee of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi. In 2009, had he stood for Lok Sabha elections, it would have been his mandate. Those 60 extra seats they got were earned on his goodwill and performance. But he could not bring himself to claim that mandate.”

The second thing Baru faults him for is to not have had the spine to assert himself when corruption charges began to emerge in UPA 2. “He should have gone to the party and said, I refuse to carry the can, but he did not do that. Being the prime minister is no ordinary position. You are the symbol of the entire country. There is no position more powerful than that. Even the president cannot make a speech in Parliament unless it is cleared by the prime minister, but he never assumed that authority.”

There is a sort of reductive irony about a good man in a big chair who insists on behaving small. Baru encapsulates that with a joke doing the rounds in Delhi’s power circles. When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the PM, people used to say the real prime minister was his national security adviser and principal secretary Brajesh Mishra. Now that Manmohan Singh is the PM, they joke that he is the principal secretary. Baru says he shared this crack with the PM; Singh had the magnanimity to laugh. But clearly, he did not draw on its lessons.

This talk of Singh’s proclivity to behave like a bureaucrat — an employee dependent on some higher political authority — rather than as the country’s foremost leader is no ordinary criticism. In fact, its damaging impacts cannot be emphasised enough. It has resulted in an unparalleled power vacuum; a loss of morale; stagnant decision-making; a log-jammed Parliament; zero public messaging; a crippling absence of vision. And a country lurching from crisis to crisis.

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In fact, the dismaying truth about Prime Minister Singh is that his positive attributes may only be a shallow cover for darker ones: cowardice, complicity, an inordinate attachment to power and a constant abdication of responsibility. In effect, this has hollowed out the very institution of the prime minister’s office, leaching it of authority, making it the butt of jokes. Ironically, in the process, Singh has even made the idea of decency, erudition and honesty — genuine calling cards he had to begin with — seem effete and irrelevant to public life.

So far, Singh has evaded scrutiny despite an epic season of scams. But how much longer can he? The blueprint of this scandal stretches disturbingly, much further back into his tenure. The patterns make for dismal reading.

Singh’s most severe critics — Supreme Court lawyer and Aam Admi Party leader Prashant Bhushan, for instance — would concede one thing about him: he is not in the clumsy business of greed and kickbacks. His failing is subtler but, in the long run, far more corrosive. His failure is that he has allowed chaos and corruption to balloon around him. The charitable view on this would be that he has been helpless, or “out of depth” as one sympathetic officer in government put it. (The riposte to this would be that such naivete then has no business being in such a complex chair.) More clear-eyed analysis would say when push came to shove, he’s always deliberately looked the other way — or knowingly allowed things to happen — so he could stay in his seat and his government could run. A couple of such incidents could pass as oversight. When it becomes a habitual way of being, it can only count as corruption.

The current crisis with the country’s law officers is extremely telling. As Supreme Court lawyer Kamini Jaiswal says, “This government has ravaged every institution in the country. The scandal of GE Vahanvati and Harin Raval lying in court is the saddest day for India. Vahanvati’s convenient opinions have lowered the office of the Attorney General. These officers are meant to have the same moral stature as the judges of Supreme Court; they are meant to give sound legal advice to the government, they are meant to uphold the law, not become errand boys.”

What makes this doubly dark is that the perjury is not an isolated incident. As Gopal Subramaniam, former Solicitor General who resigned over a moral disagreement with the government over a representation in the 2G case, says, “The UPA government led by PM Manmohan Singh has shown very little regard for constitutional values and the rule of law. They have no legal ideology. This is the deepest faultline of this government.”

The gravity of this charge tops the Richter. It suggests that the UPA has been willing to subvert due process whenever convenient, even though, as Subramaniam puts it, “due process of law” is the very heart of fundamental rights and parliamentary democracy.

Another lawyer who declined to go on record said, “There’s no point blaming Vahanvati. If the PM or his law minister had wanted higher standards from him, he was perfectly capable of delivering on them. But they only wanted the shortcuts and the getaway strategies.”

As political nominees, the quality of its law officers is indeed directly reflective of the government. In that light, Vahanvati’s track record is not a flattering one. On 27 February this year, in an infamous first for an Attorney General, Vahanvati deposed as a witness in Judge OP Saini’s court examining the 2G scam. Former telecom minister A Raja has vociferously maintained that both the prime minister and Vahanvati (who was the Solicitor General at the time of the scam) were completely aware of all the decisions for which he was jailed. In an outburst in court one day he shouted pointing at Vahanvati, “He gets promoted from SG to AG and I am jailed. Is this justice?”

Raja stands on some valid ground. In a cover story last year, former TEHELKA Investigations Editor Ashish Khetan had detailed why jailing Raja and exonerating Vahanvati was legally untenable. In a nutshell, the argument goes like this: The brunt of the accusation against Raja in the 2G scam is 1) that pricing for the spectrum had not been raised to accommodate new market conditions; 2) that he arbitrarily advanced the cut-off date for applications, thereby disqualifying almost 60 percent of the applicants and favouring a few; and 3) that he subverted the terms of the first-come-first-served policy.

On 10 January 2008, Raja issued a press release that outlined the contours of all these decisions. This is deemed to be the heart of the scam: D-Day. The then law minister HR Bhardwaj had wanted this referred to an empowered group of ministers for further deliberations, but Raja by-passed him and sent a draft of the press release to Vahanvati for legal clearance, along with a comprehensive file. Vahanvati, who had been appearing for the government in several telecom-dispute related cases and was presumably very familiar with the policy issues involved, wrote in the file, “I have seen the notes” and declared it “fair and reasonable” and “transparent”.


When the scandal broke in 2011, both Prashant Bhushan and BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, who was heading the Public Accounts Committee, raised questions about Vahanvati’s role in the 2G scam, but the CBI submitted a detailed affidavit defending him on flimsy grounds. They argued that Vahanvati was not culpable because Raja had changed the press release after the AG’s clearance. In truth, Raja had merely dropped a paragraph that had absolutely no bearing on the case.

But till date, Vahanvati has escaped all culpability for this. In the witness box this February, he argued rather incredulously that he had not seen the rest of the file, did not know about the advancement of date or that the policy had been subverted.

Most of Raja’s exertions in the 2G case seem to have been to favour the Anil Ambani group and Unitech. What makes this saga even darker is that Vahanvati himself is seen as being close to Anil Ambani.

In two other instances related to Ambani, he gave extremely dubious advice. In January 2009, the Department of Telecom had wanted the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to look into Swan Telecom’s ownership pattern, which was deemed to be a front company for Ambani and seemed to violate some eligibility clauses for spectrum. In March 2009, however, Vahanvati ruled out any need to investigate this further. Later, of course, Swan was one of the companies that lay in the eye of the 2G storm.

In 2011 again, the CAG report on coal flagged that Anil Ambani had been given three cheap captive coal blocks to service his ultra mega power project in Sasan in Madhya Pradesh. However, soon after, on Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chauhan’s request to the PM, he had been allowed to divert excess coal from these blocks to service another plant in Chitrangi. CAG calculated that this concession would earn Ambani Rs 29,000 crore over 20 years. The Tatas, who had also been in the fray for the Sasan plant, complained about this unfair concession. Both coal and power ministry officials wanted the decision cancelled, but Vahanvati and Pranab Mukherjee, then finance minister, overruled them.

The point in detailing these disparate cases is that even if one supposes the PM was not directly issuing instructions to Vahanvati to take a certain line, surely he could not have been unaware of the AG’s nepotistic interest in the Anil Ambani group or his dubious positions on the 2G policy? Why did he not flag any discomfort with the situation? Instead, the government’s relationship with Vahanvati has only continued to deepen while other law officers like Gopal Subramaniam and Rohinton Nariman, who held their ground at different junctures, were made to leave precipitously.

The PM’s own tacit complicity in the 2G scam is itself hard to deny. On 26 December 2007, Raja had sent a letter to the PM with a memo, explaining the process of spectrum allocation as he envisioned it. On 29 December, Singh had asked for this to be “urgently examined”. His officers in the PMO — Pulok Chatterjee and his then principal secretary TKA Nair — did a detailed analysis through a “comparative chart” on 6 January 2008.

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About a week later, Pulok wanted to share the PMO’s broad agreement on the policy with the telecom secretary, but the PM’s Personal Secretary BVR Subrahmanyam sent the now famous note that said, “The PM wants this informally shared, does not want any formal communication and wants the PMO to remain at arm’s length please”.

The PMO has subsequently clarified that the PM’s desire to “remain at arm’s length” was to enable the telecom ministry to apply its mind on the merits of the issue and not feel bound by a directive from the PM. However, the whole sequence shows the PM in very painful light.

When he was finally cornered into making a statement in Parliament, contrary to the paper trails detailed above, Singh categorically washed his hands of the issue saying the Cabinet decision of 2003 had specifically left the issue to be determined by the Ministries of Finance and Telecom.

But that is not where it ends. As an aide who once worked closely with the PM says, “It’s never the scam per se that is the problem; the real problem begins with the cover-ups.”

Even after the scam was exposed, Singh refused to claim the high ground by initiating any clean-up himself. He has of course consistently refused to appear both before the JPC and the PAC, rendering both mechanisms toothless. In a clear violation of just and fair process, Raja too has not been allowed to testify before the JPC. An official with the CBI says on condition of anonymity that the investigation into the 2G scam has itself been a scandal, with its illogical and selective arrests: some corporate chieftains, but not others; some ministers, not others; some bureaucrats not others.

Three circumstances have defined Singh’s tenure as a prime minister. First, as an unelected prime minister he has been perceived to be a nominee of Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi rather than a natural leader. Two, he has had to balance the unruly demands of coalition partners, often in contradiction to his own temperament. And three, he’s been part of what veteran columnist and journalist Prem Shankar Jha calls a “very complex diarchy”: an asymmetrical division of power between Sonia and Rahul Gandhi and himself.

There are two schools of thought on this. One school, represented by people like Sanjaya Baru, believes there is tremendous interference from the Gandhis in the choices Singh is allowed to make. He is neither allowed to choose his ministers nor his key officers; often the grey area compulsions that dictate his actions are communicated to him through informal channels. He is merely the titular face of decisions that are taken elsewhere.

“He should never have agreed to these terms of employment,” says Baru. “He could have become a very tall leader in his own right, especially after 2009. But he is driven by a sense of loyalty. He believes he owes his job only to the Gandhis.”

There is another school of thought, however, which asserts that the Gandhis almost never interfere with the actual workings of the government and are very mindful of the PM’s dignity. If Sonia claimed any space at all on the policies of the government, it was through the mechanism of the National Advisory Council in UPA-I. Other than that, they believe, she leaves Singh to take his own decisions.

One officer from the foreign services, now retired, hazards a third framework. “The truth is Sonia rarely intervenes, but because he’s always looking over his shoulder and there are indeed two clear centres of power, it leaves a lot of space for people in the middle to whisper innuendoes and orders in her name. There’s no way of crosschecking whether they are speaking on authority or not. This creates a lot of confusion and second-guessing.”

All three scenarios are in the realm of conjecture. But they have one common riposte: no matter what the circumstance, he is the man who has had the chair. What has he made of it? If indeed he’s been cornered into too many positions not of his liking, why has he not protested and risked his job to get the right thing done? On what does his reputation for integrity and decency lie? What is his legacy going to be?

In February 2012, while cancelling 122 2G licences, in a scathing indictment, the Supreme Court criticised the “arbitrary and capricious” way in which a precious natural resource like spectrum had been given out — “contrary to public interest and violative of the doctrine of equality”.

Before economist Raghuram Rajan joined the government as economic adviser to the PM, he spoke of how crony capitalism was destroying democracy; of how 80 percent of India’s new billionaires had made their “wealth through stealth”; through proximity to government rather than through innovation and genuine entrepreneurship.

For the man billed as India’s most revered “reform architect”, nothing could be a worse report card. Be it spectrum or coal then, quite apart from the specific instances of corruption, even at a policy level, Singh has been unable to acquit himself in his area of core competence: economy and governance. He has proved unable — or disinclined — to leave a robust legacy and regulatory framework on how natural resources should be transparently and judiciously used. In January 2011, aware of the growing crisis around him, Singh even set up a highpowered committee under former finance secretary Ashok Chawla to create this framework. But inexplicably, two years later, he has not even begun to act on the recommendations.

The same apathy and weakness marked his run-up to the coal scam. With coal secretary PC Parakh constantly raising flags by his side, Singh announced in 2004 that auction was the most transparent and preferred option for allocating coal blocks, but he did not operationalise this till 2010. The intervening six years saw a mad, cross-party scramble for coal blocks handed out to favourites and pressure groups. Both as coal minister for three years and, of course, as PM, Singh presided unblinkingly over that unseemly chaos without doing a thing to either streamline the ad hoc largesse of the screening committee or order and audit of the functioning of the blocks that had been given.

In a bitter irony for Singh, therefore, there is now a new reading of him doing the rounds. As Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar says, “People now say maybe he’s an overrated economist but an underrated politician. The presence of the PMO,” he continues, “in many visible instances of corruption — be it CWG, Coalgate, 2G, or CBI investigations — is very disconcerting. The PM and his team are supposed to reflect the moral attributes we expect of our leaders and not become the emblematic symbol of what’s wrong with governance.”

A Congress member of the Union Council of Ministers puts it more bluntly, “Don’t underestimate the PM. The Congress president may have made him the PM, but he has started enjoying power. He will not fade into oblivion quietly.”

Over the past few years, the media has indeed been rife with speculation about the internecine power struggle between Singh, P Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee.

Jaitley has a similar prognosis. “Singh,” he says, “has learnt the art of staying in power without doing anything.” Even coming from a political adversary, it seems a fair assessment. Singh’s instinct has been to isolate himself from the underbelly of politics. Yet he is quite comfortable to let others do his dirty work for him. In some sense, in his desire to maintain his own clean image while enjoying the fruits of power, he seems to have outsourced the very process of decision-making. While Pranab Mukherjee was in the Cabinet, there were 27 Groups of Ministers — popularly called GOMs — meant to review thorny issues and decisions. Mukherjee headed 12. Above this, there were 12 EGOMs (empowered group of ministers) with even more powers. Mukherjee headed them all.

Currently, there are six EGOMs, four headed by AK Antony; one each by Sharad Pawar and Chidambaram. Of the GOMs, 10 are headed by Chidambaram, five by Antony and six by Sharad Pawar. Under the circumstance, if any area of decision- making gets sticky, the “arm’s length” distance can be invoked in an instant.

Singh, however, is clearly not above getting his way. Party insiders remember the 15th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in 2009. India and Pakistan had met on the sidelines of the summit and issued a joint statement in which Balochistan was officially mentioned for the first time as an area of concern in bilateral relations. This created a furore back in India. The Opposition, media, policy wonks and some within the Congress party itself were very perturbed by what they felt was a foreign policy gaffe. Sources say Singh’s own national security adviser MK Narayanan had a difference of opinion with him on this. This did not please Singh. To Narayanan’s utter surprise, Singh took him out of his powerful post and booted him up as Governor of Bengal soon after.

The only time Singh has played the self-assertion really high, however, is over the Indo-US nuclear deal in July 2008. Despite deep opposition from Sonia Gandhi and sections of the Congress, despite the risk of losing Left support and, in turn, the government itself, he stood firm. It was either the deal or him, he told Sonia.

The subsequent events are too well known to merit a revisit. Those who were close to the PM at the time say Singh had been told by John Kerry, now US Secretary of State, that if the deal was not done before George W Bush’s tenure ended, India would not get another shot at it. Singh was convinced India needed this deal. He went for broke.

But what makes Singh’s gauntlet then so interesting is a corollary question: why has he never felt so strongly about anything before or since? Certainly, no crucial governance or constitutional issues seem to have ever caught his passionate attention. The current CBI flashpoint is a good test case.

If Singh had wholly deserved his reputation for being a man of great integrity and probity, the intensely compromised state of the CBI should have been at least one equivalent concern. The misuse of the CBI is not a new phenomenon. When CBI chief Ranjit Sinha says now that the agency is not an autonomous body, he is articulating a truism many exasperated CBI bosses have echoed before him.

In another TEHELKA cover story last year (Leave the Sleuths Alone; by Ashish Khetan, 14 January 2012), several CBI chiefs have spelled out how successive governments have interfered in the investigation of the Taj Corridor Case involving Mayawati; the fodder scam involving Laloo Yadav; the Jain hawala case and many more. Each of them has outlined the myriad ways in which government control has crippled and compromised them. Some solutions already exist in the Supreme Court’s Vineet Narain judgement of 1997.

If Singh had been serious about leaving a luminous legacy history would remember, he would have deemed this a “wakeup call”. This is one vexed question he could have tried to answer: how do you make the CBI truly independent?

But in a typical pattern of abdication, Singh has done absolutely nothing since the scandal broke. Not expressed a word of dismay; not promised an iota of action. Instead he’s been quite happy to let the courts dictate how the agency can be resurrected. The talk, in fact, is that Singh has decided to hold on to law minister Ashwani Kumar — seen to be close to him — despite the embarrassment, so some assurance could be brokered that if Kumar was sacrificed, Singh would not be next.

The apprehension is real. In the past, when the need has arisen, Singh has stooped to conquer. For instance, the CBI investigation into Mulayam Singh’s disproportionate assets is a red button the government clearly switches on and off at will. Even a cursory look at it makes for a dizzying story.

This was particularly evident after the trust vote over the nuclear deal. Interestingly, Vahanvati, once again, had a major role. The sequence of events is pretty damning. Responding to a PIL in March 2007, the Supreme Court had directed the CBI to start a Preliminary Enquiry on Mulayam and his family’s assets. The CBI filed its report and requested the court to order the case to be registered. Inexplicably, the court failed to do so. In July 2008, the SP supported the UPA on the trust vote. A few months later, in November 2008, Vahanvati appeared for the CBI and said the application to proceed with the investigation was being withdrawn because it was improper of the CBI to include the assets of the kids unless it could be proved they were being held for Mulayam to avoid detection. Without allowing an investigation, it was impossible to prove this.

In January 2009, in a bizarre twist, Vahanvati again appeared before the Supreme Court and trashed his own opinion in the case as ‘no longer relevant’ and requested that investigations be opened. In March 2009, as a pre-poll alliance with the SP went cold, the CBI further stepped up its investigations. In February 2011, Vahanvati appeared yet again and argued that the case should be withdrawn because no “fundamental right had been violated”. An exasperated court told Mulayam’s lawyers, “He is supporting you. He has argued for you.”

In November 2012, Vishwanath Chaturvedi, the original litigant, wanted to have Vahanvati charged for “criminal conspiracy”. It is impossible to imagine that PM Manmohan Singh has been oblivious to all of this: the backroom machinery that has kept his government in place — almost to a full term now — despite scams and alienated coalition partners.

The only other times Prime Minister Singh has even come close to something akin to public noise has been over the POSCO, Niyamgiri and Lavasa projects and his spat with Jairam Ramesh over the “go-and no-go areas” in allocation of coal mines. His other strident position has been on the tribal unrest and Maoist insurgency in central India. Singh famously called it the “biggest internal security threat in the country”, not out of a moment of conscience, not because the most dispossessed of India’s citizens had reached a point of desperation, but because the conflict was holding up mining leases and spoiling the “investment climate” in India.

Prashant Bhushan offers two clues into understanding Singh’s mindset. Singh’s PhD thesis in Oxford University, says Bhushan, was titled “India’s Export Performance, 1952-62”. In this Singh argued that India’s export had not grown sufficiently because it had failed to export its minerals. “He does not grasp the idea of a ‘resource curse’,” says Bhushan. “He does not understand that even domestic consumption is a curse, but to export a country’s mineral resources is completely a colonial mentality. His thinking is completely captured by foreign investments and GDP growth.” Joblessness, human development index, nutrition, education — these, says Bhushan, seem to hover very far on Singh’s peripheral vision.

The other clue to Singh’s mental landscape, feels Bhushan, is a detail in Apila-Chapila, Ashok Mitra’s autobiography. Mitra writes in his book that when Narasimha Rao took over as PM in 1991, India had only two weeks of foreign reserves left. The country was desperate for a loan from the IMF. The terms of the loan were one, that India would make the necessary structural adjustments to its policies, and two, that the finance minister would be chosen in consultation with the IMF and US government. It is in these circumstances that Manmohan Singh was made finance minister in 1991.

“He has been faithfully implementing their policies ever since,” says Bhushan.

Baru, though, scorns such easy binaries. “He’s the last guy you can accuse of being a neo-liberal,” he says.

Either way, on the economic front — be it on high GDP growth or the human development index — as the last year of his term creeps up on him, Singh has some hard problem solving to do. One only has to recall the euphoric “Singh is King!” jingles with which the media welcomed him back for his second term in 2009, to get a full sense of the travesty now.

India is seeing its worst GDP figures, inflation is high, joblessness is rampant, growth has outstripped infrastructure, the trade deficit is huge, the rupee has crashed, investments are fleeing and 10 million youngsters are joining the work force each year with nowhere to go. Economists complain that interest rates are too high. Food is rotting in granaries. There is little transparency, speed, cohesion or stability in decision-making. Infrastructure projects are stalled. India’s policies on forest, land usage and mining remain unclear and full of loopholes for industry to exploit. Consumer spending is down. Education, health indices, skill development and water management is in a mess.

The cacophanic list of woes goes on. But, chillingly, all it is met with is silence. That is the one thing India can no longer afford now.

Manmohan Singh lost his mother at childbirth in Gah, a little village in Rawalpindi. His father was never home. Singh was brought up by his grandmother. He walked to an adjacent village to go to school. His home had no access to electricity or drinking water. His aunt fed him selectively, he was bone thin. From there, Singh came to Amritsar and further to Cambridge and Oxford. He’s been RBI governor, Planning Commission head, chief economic adviser, finance secretary, leader of Opposition and now PM for 10 years. He’s lived every part of the Indian narrative: he could embody its best dream.

Unfortunately though, right now, he feels only like a slow fall nightmare.

— With inputs from Shaili Chopra, Brijesh Pandey, Ashhar Khan and G Vishnu