8. The Next Five Years | Crooked Media
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July 08, 2024
Killing Justice
8. The Next Five Years

In This Episode

Ravi talks with Vaibhav Vats about the election results in India and what the next Prime Minister’s term will look like.




Ravi Gupta: This spring, 640 million people voted in the Indian election. Twice the population of the United States. 


[clip of Reporter Neha Poonia] You know we’re talking about a mammoth population. Now India’s home to the world’s largest population. And the Election Commission recognizes the staggering task at hand. 


Ravi Gupta: The election took place in phases over several weeks in order to accommodate the sheer volume of voters. Hearing the lengths that election workers went through to ensure every citizen could vote felt like a trailer for a summer blockbuster. 


[clip of CBC’s Salimah Shivji] Taking boats, choppers, even horses trekking through mountains deep in the Himalayas and through lion infested jungles. 


Ravi Gupta: For all that trauma, the election results were never truly in question. It was widely expected Modi would win a third term as prime minister. 


[clip of CNA’s Andrea Heng] Strong favor of Modi securing a third term, and he’s aiming for that ambitious 400 seat. 


Ravi Gupta: That’s 400 seats in the Lok Sabha, India’s parliament. Enough to give an overwhelming majority to the BJP. Modi wasn’t shy about his ambition during the campaign, bragging that the BJP would improve their existing majority in parliament. [clip of Narenda Modi speaking in Hindi plays] But the voters surprised nearly everyone. 


[clip of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria] Shocking. Stunning. 


[clip of Palki Sharma] This was a rare counting day where everyone was on the edge of their seats. 


[clip of Channel 4 news anchor] The BJP has lost its absolute majority. 


Ravi Gupta: Modi won, but the headlines that followed touted his stunning setback and failure to secure a majority in parliament. The BJP only won 240 of the 400 seats they were hoping for. It was a huge win for the opposition led by the Congress party. They gained ground despite a playing field they said was tilted in the BJP’s favor. At the beginning of the year. Congress officials alleged that the government froze party bank accounts. Amnesty international called several of the government’s actions, from suspension of opposition leaders in parliament to criminal suits against Congress figures. A crackdown on the opposition. Many saw the election results as the beginning of a seismic change in India. 


[clip of AlJazeera reporter] Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been cut down to size. 


[clip of Reporter Sreenivasan Jain] What has happened in this election is a reality check. 


Ravi Gupta: Modi is still in power, but without a BJP majority, he’ll have to push his agenda through a coalition government, aligning himself with non BJP members. His hold on India will certainly look different in his third term. For our final episode, I’ll unpack how Modi failed to deliver on his previous election promises and what this election’s results reveal about India’s future. This is Killing Justice. And I’m Ravi Gupta. This is episode eight, third act. [music break] Today I’m speaking with Vaibhav Vats. He’s a writer and journalist who lives in New Delhi, and he covers Indian current affairs for publications in and outside of India. His most recent article for The Atlantic went to press with the title The Humbling of Narendra Modi. I wanted to speak with him because he’s written extensively about Hindu nationalism and its connections to politics. He told me that one of his earliest memories growing up in Old Delhi was actually tied to the fallout of Hindu nationalism. 


[clip of Vaibhav Vats] I went to school here. I went to an interesting neighborhood in Old Delhi, which is like old historic Delhi, that was where my school was. And that was a mixed neighborhood, both Hindus and Muslims. And then ’92, ’93, it was shut because the Babri Masjid demolition happened. 


Ravi Gupta: We talked about the Babri Mosque in an earlier episode. The historic mosque was demolished by thousands of Hindu nationalists wielding hammers. The demolition sparked waves of riots across India, including in Delhi. 


[clip of Vaibhav Vats] I was 6 or 7 years old so I didn’t know why we were off for vacations. Examinations were canceled. 


Ravi Gupta: That event continues to have national significance today. A Hindu temple built at the site of the mosque was inaugurated at the beginning of this year. This was a win for Hindu nationalists, and one of the things that the BJP hoped would clinch them the election. Surprisingly, the BJP lost this very district that the temple stood on. Vaibhav has continued to study and write about Hindu nationalism and the RSS. We reached him in his apartment in Delhi on June 13th. Welcome to the podcast. 


Vaibhav Vats: Thanks a lot for having me. 


Ravi Gupta: Let’s start with what the expectation coming into this election was, because from my perspective people seemed both, within India and outside of India, seemed fairly despondent and resigned to not just another Modi term. 


Vaibhav Vats: Right. 


Ravi Gupta: But Modi domination for another term. And perhaps they were going to expand their majority. 


Vaibhav Vats: Yeah, I mean, you’re absolutely right about the despondency. In fact, some exit polls came out on the last day of polling. That’s June one and the exit polls on June one, every single one of them said it’s going to be a supermajority, which is like 400 seats, because the BJP campaign slogan. But then I think it’s the inscrutable Indian voter delivering a shock because they predicted 400 seats of the BJP, in the end were 240 seats. And I think that’s because of the authoritarian climate. But people do not want to be open about if they’re opposing the BJP. They do not want to put their cards out in the open. I mean, there’s a kebab shop I go to here in Delhi and during the election, I asked the owner who I know well and he’s an old Punjabi man. He’s a refugee from Pakistan and I know him well. And I asked him, okay, so which way are you going? And he just smiled at me and when once the customers left. Then he whispered into my ears and saying, listen, I am a Congress supporter. But something changed I think once the campaign began in earnest. And then I went two days after the election results and he was talking loudly. He was like, yeah this just needed to happen. Other people were talking loudly. So it reminded me of the India before Modi. But I think once the campaign began, I think all the problems that were buried underneath because the BJP also had captured the press. And this is really the problem with most authoritarian regimes, that you don’t really know what the public mood is because the press is only singing your praises. So that’s been the big change. 


Ravi Gupta: I want to zero in on something you just said, which is the shopkeeper. This, I think is the best case scenario coming out of this election is if we come out of this and now we have another five year period heading to the next election, where people actually feel free to speak openly about their beliefs. That could make a huge difference, because it seems like over the past five years, all trends were in the opposite direction. Part of me fears, though, that Modi, like a caged tiger, is going to get even worse when it comes to cracking down on free expression, cracking down on the free press. For those of us who don’t understand what a sort of a coalition government means for him, does that weaken his ability to crack down on civil society, or does he still have all the same machinery? 


Vaibhav Vats: I think we are at a crossroads. Modi has been weakened, he’s not been defeated, he’s been weakened. So I think it’s going to be a contest. And I think at this point it’s too early to say what the result of that contest will be, because I think the cult that Modi created over the past ten years, I think it needs a sort of complete infrastructure. You need complete control of the airwaves, you need to be able to pass legislation. And I think the ability to do that has been severely diminished. And I think that is part of the despair that you saw on his face on the evening of the election in the following days, because I think he knows that he doesn’t have control, he doesn’t have complete control of the infrastructure anymore because, remarkably, the opposition is back on the airwaves. Rahul Gandhi had held a press conference. The opposition leader, the Congress party leader, he held a press conference two days after the result. [clip of someone speaking in Hindi plays] And something that I haven’t seen for the last decade, I could see again. The network cut live to his press conference. 


[clip of Rahul Gandhi] And this is the main thing that this election has set. The country has unanimously and clearly stated, we do not want Mr. Narendra Modi and Mr. Amit Shah to be involved in the running of this country. We do not appreciate the way they have run this country for the last ten years. 


Vaibhav Vats: The caption on India Today reveals a particularly good weathervane of which way things are going, had something called Rahul breathes fire. So [laugh] a lot of people marveled at that. So I think there’s been a pent up repression. But I think now that things are again sort of moving towards the new equilibrium, we don’t know which road though, we are we are at a crossroads. But I think one important thing we must say is that the spell has been broken. I think Max Weber, the famous sociologist, had this concept of charismatic authority. And I think the thing about charismatic authority is that once the spell breaks it’s very hard to recover from that for leaders who depend only on charisma. And I think an interesting uh fact that came out in one of the post-poll surveys is that in Uttar Pradesh, which is a state that you obviously know well and is the most politically consequential state in Indian politics. More voters preferred Rahul Gandhi as prime minister than Modi when they surveyed voters. So that is a seismic change. And I think that is really the biggest problem for Modi, that his charisma is waning. 


Ravi Gupta: And people don’t understand this who aren’t from India. When one of the most striking things in being in the country, Modi’s image is everywhere. It’s in gas stations, it’s in billboards. People have his face on their t shirts. He’s almost like he’s watching you everywhere you go. What was fascinating, though, is that the deeper I got into the countryside, when I got to the smaller towns. Other than government posters, the G20 posters, you didn’t see Modi everywhere. And actually, when you asked people about Modi, they were like the shopkeeper you described. They were not eager to praise him. And I’m curious as to what you think is behind that? 


Vaibhav Vats: I think there’s one theory by a prominent commentator here which I’ve very convinced by. And he said in advertising speak, there’s a concept called brand overall exposure. You don’t overexpose your brand. And I think there was a sense of fatigue with Modi. I mean, it’s the most inevitable thing through history that after a time, people start getting fatigued by seeing the same face everywhere. It becomes oppressive. And I think that was one of the big reasons. And I think the other reason, I’ll take you back to 2014. I was covering the election for The New York Times, and I went to this rally outside Varanasi just before Varanasi was going to vote. And it’s one of the most breathtaking things I’ve ever seen. It was like the searing May heat. I got burned standing there. There was like a tsunami of people. I mean, literally everywhere you could look, there were people. And at that time, Modi was really resonating, you know, in a huge way because of the failures of the previous government, the economic discontent, the sort of monarchical disconnect that people felt with the ruling Gandhi dynasty. And he was really, I think, drawing on some very genuine faultlines in Indian democracy. The Indian state hadn’t delivered economically for a large number of people. And they saw Modi as a savior. So his message from ten years ago, when I was at that rally, and that speech was largely about economic resurgence and a sort of China type boom. So I think apart from the personality cult, this was the other problem. That after ten years, he hadn’t really delivered. And when he went on the campaign trail this time around, he knew that he hadn’t really delivered. We had record unemployment levels. You know, the economy was not working for most people at the bottom. And he didn’t talk about it at all. He never talked about jobs. He never talked about the economy. He never talked about what he had achieved or delivered for the people because he hadn’t delivered much, especially for the poorest. 


Ravi Gupta: Vaibhav says the gap between what Modi promised and what he delivered economically left him vulnerable in this election, and Modi’s opposition took advantage of that vulnerability. The Congress party’s manifesto, published in the lead up to the election, focused on job creation and proposed a universal basic income for India’s poorest citizens. At the same time, Modi and the BJP focused their messaging on topics aimed at the Hindu nationalist base. Vaibhav told me that the BJP was banking on Ram Mandir, the newly constructed Hindu temple on the site of the Babri Mosque, to be a force propelling Modi to a third term. But it didn’t resonate the way they hoped. When we come back, I’ll be discussing with Vaibhav what the election tells us about Hindu nationalism’s political potency going forward. [music break]




Ravi Gupta: Welcome back. While reporting the Judge Loya story, I saw with my own eyes how dysfunctional the Indian justice system has become under Modi. It seemed to me to be a major driver of the cynicism and hopelessness that so many Indians feel about their institutions and civil society. I wanted to ask Vaibhav about that. If he sees the judiciary and the rule of law at a crisis point. 


Vaibhav Vats: Absolutely. I think one of the things that’s made Hindu nationalism such a force in Indian life is the sort of complete sort of social pathologies that sort of developed over decades under the Congress years. And one of the reasons, which uh is that we never really reformed the colonial state. You know, we haven’t reformed the police force. We haven’t reformed the legal system. I mean, these are really colonial relics. And the way those agencies existed under colonialism is pretty much the same way they exist today. Like people fear the police. The ordinary person is intimidated by, you know, entering a courtroom. And that is because that was very much part of the colonial project, to have the state intimidate and coerce the subject. And I think that that reform never really happened under the Congress. And that is one of the reasons where we find ourselves today. And I think with the BJP, what’s happened is that under the Congress, at least, the higher judiciary, the high courts, the supreme courts still remained fairly independent, fairly free, living up to high standards of jurisprudence. I think what the BJP did with its enormous power has completely crushed that. Because that’s really the obstacle in its pathway of creating a Hindu nationalist state. And let’s not forget that they have their centenary next year. The RSS has uh completes 100 years next year. And I think they felt that ok they have this tantalizing prize of recasting the Indian state into their image, which is a Hindu nationalist state, and they felt that it was tantalizingly within reach now, just as they reach 100 years. 


Ravi Gupta: I’ve seen some reporting recently that there’s a bit of a rift between the RSS and the BJP. I’m wondering if you’ve been following that, and I’m just curious as to what you think is going on there and if there’s any truth to reporting? 


Vaibhav Vats: So I’ve been covering Hindu nationalism for quite some time, in fact I’m writing a book on Hindu nationalism. And the one rule I have for myself is just have a good laugh whenever the RSS chief says anything, because I never, ever trust anything that the RSS says, I think the only thing we have to trust the RSS is what they do, because this is a movement that’s always been steeped in great secrecy. In fact, they don’t even have registration of their members. To this day they call themselves a cultural organization. But as anyone who knows anything about India knows, that that’s far from the truth. They are very much involved in politics. So I think one of the problems that the Indian state and I think this has been the problem, even with Congress regimes, that the RSS hasn’t been brought into a legal framework. What the Indian state really needs to do is to bring the RSS within a strong legal framework, scrutiny like they do over any other nonprofit organization about where it’s funding comes from. Um. You know, whether it can participate in politics or not. So I think all of those things need to happen, and I think they will happen whenever power shifts hands, because I think the last ten years of uh Modi have completely woken up the whole Indian political opposition to what they faced which is complete annihilation if they let this go on. So I think it’s a virtual certainty that whenever they come back to power, you will see the huge crackdown on the RSS, and it’s sort of activities. 


Ravi Gupta: I visited an RSS shaka while I was in India the last time I was there, and I also visited their their huge training facility in Nagpur. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s incredibly large. 


Vaibhav Vats: I have. 


Ravi Gupta: It looks like a college campus basically. 


Vaibhav Vats: Yeah. 


Ravi Gupta: And I was left thinking to myself, as somebody who comes out of the left in the US, we don’t have an equivalent. [laugh] What and I wonder if you think about this in India, that one of the challenges that the left in India has faced, which reminds me a little bit of what we deal with at home in the US, is the right because of the religiosity, the deference to authority that I think sometimes happens within right wing organizations. And then you combine with it this massive organization that gives people purpose and meaning. And then I look across and I say, well, what’s the left wing equivalent of it? Or even the centrist? You know, I wonder if this is something you’ve thought about as somebody who thought about right wing politics in India. It’s like they’re playing this long, deep game, whereas we’re, you know, bouncing from one election into another trying to cobble together coalitions. 


Vaibhav Vats: You’re actually right that they’re playing a long, deep game so they can wait, unlike most other right wing movements. And they were inspired by the European fascists when they came out in the 1920s. But I think they are very different from those European fascists. I think and the fact that they can wait, they have immense patience. Whenever they face setbacks, they can recalibrate. They can again slowly build themselves up and wait for the next opportunity. And that’s how they’ve grown. From 3% vote share to 7% to 20%. To today, when they’re close to 40%. Your other point, I think you’re absolutely right. And I think one of the problems, if there was actually an equivalent of the RSS, which was, uh Gandhianism. One of the problems with Gandhi’s assassination is that Gandhianism as a social movement just withered away within the Congress party. And what remained was Congress became a party of government. It became a party of sort of, you know, winning elections. But this bottom aspect, which is what you’re talking about, the footsoldiers, uh you know, the people who are doing stuff that is uh, essentially social movement stuff. I think they wither away. And I think some other parties which actually oppose the BJP very effectively. You have the Aam Aadhi party in Delhi, which is an upstart populist party which is now in power in two northern states. I think they have a bit of the social movement aspect. And then there are other parties like the DMK in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian movement. They are very social movements sort of, and which is why I think the BJP and the RSS find very difficult to break through. So I think uh you’re absolutely right that that aspect really withered. And whenever there’s effective opposition to BJP, it’s largely where those parties are also some form of social movements. 


Ravi Gupta: Yeah. I mean, such a great point, right? My grandfather was a cloth merchant and gave up the family business importing British cloth to join the movement and was on the run for a bunch of years. And, I’ve never met him. He passed away before I was born, but my sense is he was less in it for politics per se, and was less enamored by Congress party than he was in it for the sort of call to the service. 


Vaibhav Vats: Right. 


Ravi Gupta: Generally for the country. And I think that I love that point, that outside of politics, outside of Congress, which is obviously such a flawed vessel. You know, I think about the country as an outsider. It seems weird to me that one family has had a lock on the party for so long. You know, Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi, to Sonia Gandhi, to Rahul Gandhi. You know, it just seems to me like and no offense to any one of those people, you know, like Rahul Gandhi. I have no strong opinions about him. But if I’m an average Indian looking at that, I’m like, well, we don’t want a monarchy. 


Vaibhav Vats: Yeah. 


Ravi Gupta: It leaves the left and the center exposed to very real accusations of nepotism and corruption, which Congress party didn’t really do a great job of battling against. And that allows somebody like Modi to, you know, disingenuously take advantage of that. As we record, you know, you mentioned that Rahul Gandhi is getting more airtime. What happens now with them? Do you see Rahul Gandhi as the face of the opposition? Or who would you say is the leader of the opposition to Modi right now? 


Vaibhav Vats: I mean, it is Rahul Gandhi, for sure. I think he’s had a very interesting transformation that most people did not see coming. In 2023, which is last year, early 2023, he launched Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, which is the Unite India rally. 


[clip of unidentified reporter] The last day of the U.P stretch of the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra witnessing these scenes–


Vaibhav Vats: And he walked across the length of the country, which was almost 3000km, he traversed on foot. 


[clip of unidentified reporter] In a legal way. You can also see a welcome by Congress workers who are right there on that stage, welcoming Rahul Gandhi. 


Vaibhav Vats: And I think that he was sort of trying to bring those social movement energies back to the Congress party. And not surprisingly, the Congress won in most of the states where the Yatra went through. So I think that was a remarkable transformation, because until then, he was seen as a out of touch, entitled dynast. And you’re absolutely right that that is one of the biggest reasons that has propelled Hindu nationalism, because the Congress has been captured by a single family, and it makes it seem very out-of-touch in a country that’s ambitious, that’s modernizing. The Gandhis appear like an anachronism. But Rahul Ganshi has had a remarkable transformation, not just because they managed to weaken Modi, but also what they were faced against. They had a Partisan media, the state agencies, the investigative agencies were arresting political rivals. So they were just not just fighting the BJP. They were fighting the entire Indian state machinery. So in that sense, it’s been a stunning performance. And the opposition also has been remarkably united. I don’t think anyone saw this coming. I think even as late as April, I mean, there was an air of, you know, resignation that this is going to be a complete blowout. Then I think it’s only when they hit the campaign they realized that actually, Modi became a prisoner of his own myth. In a sense that he started drinking his own Kool-Aid. And I think when they hit the campaign trail, I think they realized that actually there was huge resentment against, you know, lack of economic performance. All the factors we discussed earlier on about why people were sort of fatigued with Modi. And I think they made another tactical error, which is like some BJP members of parliament start talking about changing the Indian constitution. And that became a huge tactical error because India has a very strong tradition of constitutionalism, and especially for the lower caste, because Ambedkar who was the architect of the Constitution, as you would know well, was a lower caste. So I think that was a tactical error that really cost them big time. 


Ravi Gupta: Yeah. And just to underline what you just said, so, you know, when you talk about affirmative action, so those in the US will probably think about our version of affirmative action. But partially what you’re talking about is that lower caste are ensured certain rights within the Constitution that kind of lead to things like a certain amount of seats in parliament and seats in universities and certain protections, which obviously haven’t done enough to snuff out discrimination, but have mattered a lot. But it seems to me like there’s a distrust of the BJP and their intentions around caste. And I honestly have never fully wrapped my head around it. And I’m curious as to where do you think this comes from? 


Vaibhav Vats: I think their project has always been of upper caste supremacist, and I think that is also the reason why they’ve had this slow growth electorally. They’ve always been tactical about how they come across to uh lower castes. And I think the way they expand within the electorate is by giving lower caste representation while denying them real power. And this is the central contradiction of the Hindu nationalist project. And which is why, I mean, if I put it in an American context, the lower caste Hindu is the swing voter in Indian elections. The upper caste stay with the Hindu right. They are now a core vote bank of the Hindu right. The minorities stay with the Congress or other secular parties. So these are vote banks that never shift now. They haven’t shifted for the last ten years. So the lower caste Hindu becomes the swing voter. And uh, the RSS has been running huge outreach programs. They have immense money. Their ground game is unmatched. But the essential contradiction, the fact that they remain an upper caste, the essential project is upper caste supremacism. And I think that from time to time gets reviewed. 


Ravi Gupta: And so turning to Modi, you know, he’s now formed a coalition government. What are the implications of that? What happens now? 


Vaibhav Vats: I think they’re in uncharted territory. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to any of those questions because first of all, we have to look at Modi. Modi has never been in this situation in his entire political career, and he’s always been in power in a single party majority. So he has never been in a coalition. And even his working style, I mean, he’s the classic example of the authoritarian personality, which is top down command and control. So he’s never been really even within the BJP, the sort of person who takes everyone along, accommodates other voices. 


Ravi Gupta: And who’s in this coalition like his coalition partners, are they true believers or are these folks that you could see leaving the coalition? 


Vaibhav Vats: Not at all. In fact, they are notoriously fickle, and transactional political actors. And I think that’s another unknowable, that’s another unknown in the situation that we are. Because, first of all, they do not share a Hindu nationalist ideology. You know, they have a muslim electorate. They are in this coalition for their own interests. So the moment they feel that their interests would be better served by switching over to the other side. Let’s say the opposition alliance says they’ll make one of them prime minister, which is not inconceivable. Then they could easily switch over to the other side. And I think that’s another variable and a complete unknown. And in this very volatile situation we have right now where we are in completely uncharted territory as far as Modi is concerned. Will he moderate himself? Will he be someone who he has never been in his life? I mean, he’s 73 years old. So to me, it’s inconceivable that Modi will suddenly become some moderate version that we have not seen in more than two decades of his, you know, public life in India. I think the contest for Indian democracy will continue. I mean, that’s how I see that Modi has been weakened. But you will see more protest movements, more people out on the streets, on the one hand, and more repression on the other hand. 


Ravi Gupta: Final question for you. On a scale of one to ten, you know, one being totally hopeless and ten being very hopeful for your country. What were you a month ago and what are you today? 


Vaibhav Vats: A month ago, I was three. Today I would say I’m six. A week ago, I was probably eight because I was in some sort of euphoria, um [laughter] this completely electrifying election upside. But now I’m coming back to Earth. I’m seeing that the moves of the repressive moves are already in action and so I feel that, you know, we have to again, get back on our jobs. 


Ravi Gupta: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This was really great. 


Vaibhav Vats: Thank you so much Ravi for having me. 


Ravi Gupta: I truly want to believe these election results signal the durability of India’s democracy. But I keep coming back to my conversation with economist Ashoka Mody. He says that the problems with Indian civil society have only been growing since the days of independence. And the lesson of the Loya saga was that as flawed as it was before 2014, India entered a dangerous new chapter over the past decade, one in which perhaps even a judge wasn’t safe from political violence. It’s possible that the durability of the Indian state has already been catastrophically undermined. Then again, I didn’t pursue this story because I’m a cynic. India has many challenges, but there are reasons to hope. The biggest one is the people. Indians constitute the world’s largest electorate, and they are enormously engaged and motivated to exercise their rights as citizens. We just saw proof of that. Despite all the odds, they pulled off a surprisingly free and fair election. And with the final counts, checked the power of an autocratic leader. Could we be entering a new chapter, one in which the forces of democracy and the rule of law regain their footing? Only time will tell. [music break] Killing Justice is an original podcast from Crooked Media and the Branch media. I’m your host, Ravi Gupta. Our executive producers are me, Ravi Gupta, Katie Long, Ben Rhodes and Alison Falzetta. With special thanks to Sarah Geismer, Madeleine Haeringer, and Kate Malekoff. Our senior producer is Khrista Rypl, and Lacey Roberts is our story editor. Our associate producer is Sydney Rapp. Fact checking by Amy Tardif. Sound design and mixing by Sarah Gibble-Laska with assistant editing by Nathalie Escudero. And original score by Karim Douaidy.