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Friday, December 19, 2014

Turbulence ahead - Narendra Modi must shift the BJP's centre of gravity to governance

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

The past fortnight has witnessed a series of conflicting trends in the political arena that has seemingly jeopardised the clarity that was expected after the categorical verdict in last May’s general election. 

 

First, on the economic front—and despite the apprehensions of some of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s more over-zealous backers—the government appears to have moved quite decisively. Apart from the popular achievement of having achieved near-zero inflation that was also a consequence of spectacular good fortune—the sharp fall in global oil prices—there has been positive movement on one of the government’s stated objectives: improving the ease of doing business in India. From managing a broad agreement on the contours of the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax to introducing a note of pragmatism in the Ministry of Environment, the Modi government appears to have largely satisfied the lofty expectations of the markets that had suffered from a prolonged bout of depression. 

 

Naturally, much more needs to be done if the improvement in the ease of doing business in India translates seamlessly into success for Modi’s Make in India policy. Domestic capital is particularly anxious that Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan modifies his inflation fundamentalism and effects a significant lowering of interest rates to prop up a sluggish manufacturing sector. There has been a difference of opinion between Rajan and the Ministry of Finance but this divergence has so far been marked by gentlemanly behaviour on both sides and hasn’t contributed to an ugly spat. Industry is also keen that Finance Minister Arun Jaitley act on his professed commitment to modify some of the more non-monetary dimensions of the neo-Luddite Land Acquisition Bill that was enacted by the Manmohan Singh government in its last year. 

 

Regardless of the formidable challenges in the path of India realising its true economic potential, it is heartening that the Prime Minister has not lost sight of the government’s principal task. In this context, Modi’s speech to the BJP Parliamentary Party on December 16 was significant. Angry with colleagues who had been speaking out of turn and raising extraneous issues in public, the Prime Minister had to remind MPs that they had been elected to raise people’s living standards, create opportunities and transform India into a global power of consequence. He was clear that he could not deviate from this agenda, not even if he wanted to. 

 

Modi’s outburst was occasioned by an emerging trend that, apart from disrupting Parliament repeatedly this Winter Session, has attracted speculation over the ‘real’ agenda of the BJP government. 

 

To a modest extent, the furore in Parliament over Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti’s utterances at a public meeting, the ghar vyapasi programme planned by Hindu groups in Aligarh and the non-holiday for Kendriya Vidyalayas over Christmas was a result of media activism. The BJP cannot be entirely faulted for nurturing a conspiracy theory that the traditionally hostile and loosely Left-liberal leaning English language media will do its utmost to show the government in a poor light. Yet, while over-playing the utterances of loose cannons does distort the big picture, the government has to be mindful that there are tensions within the wider ‘parivar’ over what constitutes the primary agenda of the Modi government.

 

The larger consensus is that the electorate reposed its faith in the leadership on two counts. The Indian voter believed that Modi’s personal attributes—his fanatical dedication to a work culture and his decisiveness—were an answer to a decade of weak and unfocussed leadership. There was, at the same time, a shared confidence over Modi’s unwavering development agenda. As a rule, and unlike western democracies, Indian voters don’t like being cluttered with policy details and prefer generalities, leaving the leadership to attend to the nuts and bolts. The generalities that found favour, however, had very little to do with either questions of identity and assertive nationalism. 

 

In a large country, however, there are significant departures from aggregation. The BJP, like most mass parties, isn’t really cadre based when it comes to electoral politics. However, it is undeniable that the greatest chunk of its activists—the karyakartas that figure so prominently in the party’s political imagery—have a broad commitment to Hindu nationalism. The BJP’s victory in May and the good showing in the Maharashtra and Haryana Assembly polls has convinced some of the more marginalised sections of the parivar that the moment has arrived to press ahead with an ideological reorientation of the country. Viewing Modi as an instrument of convenience, this section is anxious to take advantage of a friendly Centre to press ahead with its pet schemes. Hitherto, Modi has placated this fringe with token, inconsequential sops such as appointments in bodies linked to education, but they now want more. 

 

It would seem that the experience of the Winter Session of Parliament is likely to trigger an internal rejig in the BJP. With the Opposition having a numerical upper hand in the Rajya Sabha—and this disadvantage will persist until late-2016—it is now clear that important economic legislation will have to be negotiated every inch of the way. The Opposition has realised that it possesses the ability to blackmail the government and it will be reluctant to relinquish that advantage. This in turn implies that Modi’s political managers will have to use a combination of persuasion and threat to keep the hotheads in check. In the longer term, Modi will have to shift the political centre of gravity in the BJP towards development and governance. The moves to making BJP membership more open—membership through a missed call—constitutes a small step. In the short term Modi will have to find imaginative solutions to the possible problem of matching the priorities of activists with that of the average voter. 

 

Economic growth presupposed a large measure of social stability; radical ruptures necessitate social turbulence. It is difficult to reconcile both, except through a process of regimentation that is so very un-Indian and even un-Hindu.

 

The final trend that has the potential of creating a political byway is the re-emergence of Islamist terrorism in a virulent form. It may be unduly alarmist to suggest that either the lone wolf attacks in Ottawa and Sydney or the ghastly massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar could be replicated in India. At the same time, it is impossible to underestimate the grotesque impact of the brazen cruelty that is the hallmark of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on dysfunctional minds. The Bengali Muslim man arrested in Bengaluru for operating a pro-ISIS twitter handle may well be a loner, disinclined to pick up a gun. But there are nearly 100 or more Indian citizens who have signed up with the ISIS in the war zone, and not all of them are engaged in cleaning lavatories—as the lone defector was. The possible impact of their bravado on impressionable fed on a diet of victimhood is a source of worry. 

 

Security in India is uneven and the government is likely to step up efforts to plug as many loopholes as possible. This exercise is certain to give priority to pre-emptive policing, a phenomenon that creates localised tensions and a sense of victimhood—the aftermath of the Burdwan blasts being a case in point. 

 

For the Modi government the next few months are certain to be challenging. The government seems clear on its priorities but there are significant roadblocks that have to be negotiated calmly. It is important to ensure that subterranean currents remain firmly underground and don’t create diversions from the path the electorate voted to travel down. 

The Telegraph, December 19, 2014

Friday, December 5, 2014

Waiting for a big bang - The government cannot afford the patience of the long-term

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Last Tuesday’s bi-monthly monetary policy review by the Reserve Bank of India was—by the stodgy standards of Central Banks—a little unusual: it was preceded by competitive proclamations. 

 

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley went public barely two days before the announcement pressing the RBI to bring down interest rates, now that inflation had fallen to a more benign level. India’s industry bodies that stressed the need to give manufacturing a boost by lowering the cost of money backed him vocally. RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan didn’t personally jump into the debate with the Ministry of Finance and the business community. However, there was an unmistakable impression in Mumbai’s financial community that a clutch of economists linked to foreign financial institutions were engaged in a proxy battle against the government on behalf of the Governor. A portrait of Rajan as the custodian of India’s long-term interests battling against neo-literate politicians and moneybags was disingenuously painted. 

 

There is absolutely nothing to suggest that Rajan was in any way connected to this counter-offensive by fellow economists who, in any case, were also concerned with appropriate strategies to bolster India’s credentials as a growth centre. Indeed, the Governor was very measured in replying to media queries about the Finance Minister’s plea for a cut in interest rates: “We are very respectful of the views of the government and we try and accommodate these views to the extent we can…We are not combatants; we are on the same side.” However, this tact wasn’t always on display by those who saw the RBI’s decision to defer a rate cut till 2015 as a turf war. Take the comments of Per Hammarlund, chief emerging markets strategist at Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB. According to this Swedish banker (as quoted in Mint) “Since Rajan became head of RBI, we see the central bank independence increasing… (and) he’s one of the few now definitely in a position where he can speak out more forcefully against the government.”

 

Whether speaking out “forcefully against the government” is part of the RBI Governor’s job description seems contentious. No doubt there are those in the political arena who would love to witness an ugly clash between the Narendra Modi government and the RBI Governor who was appointed by the earlier regime. For the moment, however, neither side is rising to the bait. From the government’s perspective, the RBI decision to put off rate cuts till early-2015 is disappointing but not catastrophic. The RBI has proclaimed its commitment to a low interest economy, which is encouraging. At the same time, the sharp fall in global oil prices has given the government sufficient elbow room to cater to its election promise of bringing down inflation. For a party that banks quite heavily on its middle and aspirational class supporters, the sharp fall in the retail prices of diesel, petrol and cooking gas has been a great bonanza, especially with three state Assembly elections underway. In hindsight, Jaitley may well savour the impact of a 100 bps cut in January or March, around the time of the Union Budget, rather than the nominal 25 bps reduction that may have resulted from any announcement last Tuesday. 

 

Overall, the Modi government has been extremely lucky in a number of ways. About six weeks ago, it seemed that that the GDP growth for the quarter would at best touch five per cent—a fall from the 5.7 per cent growth registered in the previous quarter. That the final figure was 5.3 per cent suggests that, despite the unending sluggishness of Indian agriculture, there has been a marked improvement in the fortunes of the services sector. As things stand, India seems decently poised to cross six per cent annual growth by the time the Modi regime celebrates one year in power. 

 

For the government, however, the GDP figures are a small consolation. In the summer of 2014, Modi received a resounding mandate on two counts: to bring decisiveness and coherence into the government and to bring about a discernable improvement in the quality of life of people. There may have been other factors but those were subsidiary to the main thrust of popular expectations. In particular, Modi was aware that the enthusiasm of the 18 to 35-year age group for him was centred on expectation of opportunities. With approximately one million new entrants into the job market each month, Modi cannot afford jobless growth. It is this silent but massive political pressure on the government that may explain why Jaitley can ill afford to share Rajan’s preoccupation with the long-term. Politicians need to deliver results fast, before disappointment sets in. 

 

After six months in power, the economic thrust of the Modi government can be very clearly discerned. It comprises two central (and interlinked) objectives. First, the government is seeking to dramatically improve the ease of doing business in India. Apart from reducing the procedural complications that accompany business, there is an emphasis on simplifying taxation and removing statutory obstacles in the path of entrepreneurship. The recent changes in labour legislation have made life easier for small entrepreneurs. 

 

Secondly, Modi’s “Make in India” mantra is geared exclusively towards domestic job creation. Reviving manufacturing is obviously at the heart of the exercise, but it extends to all other sectors that have the potential of generating employment. The easing of visa norms for visitors to India wasn’t, for example, only a ruse to draw cheers from Overseas Indians in New York and Sydney. It is inextricably linked to adding to India’s inward flow of overseas visitors that, in turn, creates large numbers of jobs in the services sector. Likewise, the new Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been entrusted with the lofty mission of creating a manufacturing base for armaments and ancillaries within India. 

 

For the moment, both industry and the markets have responded to the government’s economic thrust quite exuberantly. If the stock market graph and future projections are any guide, India is beginning to think big and attempting to make up for lost time. However, after six months, there is one major problem: the mood of optimism, indeed over-optimism, has yet to be felt on the ground. In Mumbai, for example, there is a nagging concern that capital expenditure of corporates (both indigenous and foreign) remains below expectations. In plain terms this means that capital is still adopting a wait-and-watch attitude. 

 

It is entirely possible that two major initiatives can change the mood dramatically. The first is the proposed changes to the Land Acquisition Act that Jaitley has often spoken about. The second is the expectation that the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax will be enacted and made operational by April 1, 2016. Yet, both these measures face political obstacles, not least of which is the government’s numerical deficit in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP and its allies will be in a legislative comfort zone by mid-2016. But 18 months is too long a time to persist with modest incremental reforms. The present political support for the Prime Minister could turn into exasperation if there isn’t evidence of forward movement in the next 18 months. 

 

What the government needs at this juncture is one big bang announcement of a landmark project, preferably in the manufacturing sector. It was the shifting of the Nano plant of Tata Motors to Gujarat in 2008 that proved a game-changer for the then Chief Minister Modi. He needs something equally big and dramatic in the next two or three months to demonstrate that the groundwork is beginning to yield returns. That is why the government can ill afford the patience of the long term. 

The Telegraph, December 5, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Modi-phobic Imam's social sleight of hand

By Swapan Dasgupta

At one level my sympathies are entirely with the Shahi Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid for drawing up a personal guest list for the anointment of his son as the Naib Imam. Since there is nothing official about the function and, for all practical purposes, the Jama Masjid is run like a hereditary fiefdom, the Shahi Imam can invite whosoever he wants for his son’s coming-into-the-family-profession party. As far as my information goes, I don’t think his circle of friends and political ‘contacts’ extends to Narendra Modi who also happens to be the Prime Minister.

To the extent that the mandal head of a BJP unit in some corner of India will not be censured for failing to invite the National President Amit Shah for his son’s 18th birthday feast, I think it was unfair of Arnab Goswami to fire his Bofors howitzer shells on a guy who imagines himself as the equivalent of a Pope of all India’s Muslims. Incidentally, there is a self-appointed Jagatguru Shankaracharya who imagines himself a pre-Reformation Hindu Pope. Hypothetically speaking, had the Prime Minister received such an invitation he would have politely sent his regrets.

I don’t think anyone can contest the Shahi Imam’s Constitutional right to invite anyone from Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the ISIS “Caliph” Abu-bakr Al-Baghdadi to his son’s coming-out party. The guest list reflects his preferences.

However, it is an entirely different matter when the Shahi Imam decides to convert his personal choice into an instrument of political grandstanding. We are told that Modi wasn’t invited because he hasn’t done anything for the Muslim community.

I guess the charge is right because in the past five months the PM hasn’t done anything for Muslims specifically. His targeting has been wider: he has reached out to all Indians, a community that presumably includes a significant body of Muslims. The “make in India” initiative covers all manufacturing units, including those owned and operated by Muslims; the jan dhan yojana is aimed at introducing modern banking to all of India’s poor, an economic category that we have been repeatedly reminded includes a large percentage of Muslims; and the Swachh Bharat campaign does not, to the best of my knowledge, exclude areas (including Jama Masjid) where Muslims predominate.

Yes, the PM did not host an Iftar party in Race Course Road. But he didn’t host a Diwali party either.

The Shahi Imam doth protest too much. He may not be enamoured of the PM—and he is under no obligation to be. He may even advise his congregation to not vote BJP. That too is just about permissible in our democracy. However, he is totally in the wrong by insisting that governance should be compartmentalised into communal compartments. In the past, successive Congress succumbed to the sectarian pressures of those who acted as gatekeepers of the Muslim vote. Modi has the wrath of the likes of the Shahi Imam by shutting his doors to all types of power brokers. If the emerging growth of the Indian economy has left a professional sector untouched, it is Delhi’s power brokers, including those who flaunt “Press” stickers in their SUVs. Their hatred for the PM is unconcealed and they are plotting their revenge, waiting for him to trip up.

Actually, the Shahi Imam isn’t the only one who doesn’t want the shadow of Modi in his party. Earlier in October, a body that hosts Delhi’s oldest Dussera at the Ramlila Maidan overturned convention by not inviting Modi to the effigy burning ceremony. Instead, it invited Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to fire the ceremonial arrows. For that Congress-friendly body, time stood still since the morning of May 16.

Living in denial, it would seem, is rapidly becoming a unique Congress trait. On October 31, there was a great deal of fuss made among others by Congress’ Anand Sharma and Digvijay Singh over Modi’s non-attendance in a ceremony to pay respect to Indira Gandhi who was assassinated that day 30 years ago. While the President of India and the Vice President were present, the Economic Times heading was that “Modi shuns Indira event…” The inescapable conclusion: the PM lacks grace.

Maybe we should teach social niceties to all ministers but there seems to be a catch. Was the PM invited to the function in Akbar Road organised by the Indira Gandhi Memorial Trust chaired by Sonia Gandhi? President Pranab Mukherjee didn’t drop in unannounced; he must have been invited. Was such an invite sent to Modi, even as a gesture of courtesy since he is, after all, the PM? I tweeted this question last Friday evening, and sought a clarification from anyone who could provide it. There was no reply and the silence suggested that my hunch was right: the Gandhis don’t like a Modi in their midst on a day they consider a private occasion.

As with the Shahi Imam, I respect the right of a dynasty to mourn (or celebrate) in the company of the like-minded. But, in that case, why make a song and dance over either a non-invitation to Modi or his reluctance to gate crash? You can’t have it both ways.

Confronted by a series of political disasters, the enemies (to be distinguished from political opponents) of Modi are seething with rage. They don’t have too many weapons in their armoury (as yet) and the ace in their pack is a social sleight of hand. In the coming days, other forgotten people will be boasting: “we didn’t invite Modi to our party.” For the moment, it is the theme linking a Madam and an Imam. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 2, 2014




DISORIENTED CONGRESS HOPES MODI SLIPS UP

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, I spoke to a senior politician from another country who had travelled to India to attend the Congress party’s commemoration of the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. A keen observer of India that cuts across partisan lines, he was curious to assess how the Congress, once the country’s most formidable political party, was coping with the devastating defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election.
As a point of inquiry this was of legitimate interest. Victory and defeat are normal in democratic politics but what is of exceptional interest is how parties cope with both. His impressions were quite unflattering for the Congress. The Congress, it seemed to him, was unwilling and even unprepared to assess the larger concerns that stemmed from the victory of the BJP and Narendra Modi. The Congress, he felt, was basically playing a waiting game, waiting for the BJP to make mistakes and for popular disenchantment with the Modi Government to emerge.
In this context, the over-emphasis on the Nehru event was quite significant. Rather than use the memory of Nehru to assess how democracy and society has evolved in the past six decades, the Congress seemed intent on using Nehru (and, for that matter, Indira Gandhi) as a symbol of frozen principles. It is almost as if a modern Communist Party felt it necessary to deify Leninist principles of party organisation and the debates of the early decades of the Soviet Union to approach the modern world.
In particular, the foreign observer was struck by two examples of foolhardy certitude. First, despite the scale of the defeat, the Congress was unwilling to approach the vexed question of leadership with an open mind. As far as the Congress was concerned, there was nothing to discuss about a leadership that had failed to inspire. Secondly, rather than tap the creative instincts of Young India, particularly its restless desire to force the pace of change, the Congress was intent on basing its political appeal only on those who were yet to be fully drawn into a new world centred on entrepreneurship, self-improvement and opportunities.
The second observation was particularly significant. By its very nature the Congress was always a broad church party. During the national movement and notwithstanding the unquestioned moral leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress operated as a broad platform for divergent tendencies ranging from conservative and right-wing to the moderately socialist and the Marxist Left. Later, under Nehru and his daughter, the party veered towards statism and welfarist populism, and under Rajiv Gandhi it embraced a variant of confused modernism.
It is interesting that under Rajiv, PV Narasimha Rao and even patches of Manmohan Singh, the Congress did appeal to the modernising impulses of an India that was exasperated by the over-regulation of society. There are academic studies based on surveys that suggest that it would be imprudent to equate popular exasperation with the inefficiencies of the state sector with a full-throated endorsement of the free market. India, it would seem, is anxious for a deft balance between state regulation and the market economy. The importance of political positioning lay in knowing how much to tilt in which direction and the timing of the move. It was the unresolved conflict between the two tendencies during the UPA decade that explained the incoherence of the Congress during the general election.
Judging from the contrived nostalgia among Congress leaders over the Nehru commemoration, it would seem that the Congress has chosen to take two steps backward. The decision may have been influenced by the reading that the Modi Government is, in sloganeering terms, “pro-rich” and insufficiently mindful of an elaborate welfare net for India. Whether this is a fundamental misreading of the impulses that drive the BJP Government will be determined by subsequent events. What is important for the moment is the emerging reality of Congress non-cooperation towards all important ‘reform’ initiatives of the Modi Government.
During the Budget session of Parliament, an impression had grown that a demoralised and dejected Congress would, at best, delay the passage of important legislation such as the increase in foreign investment in insurance, the modification of land acquisition norms and labour flexibility. In a sense that is what Opposition parties are often expected to do: delay but not obstruct. However, it now seems that the Congress will utilise its strength in the Rajya Sabha and its growing proximity with the rump Left and the unity-seeking Janata parivarto prevent all reform.
The calculation is simple: if it can be demonstrated that much-needed reform legislation will face parliamentary turbulence, the investing classes (both domestic and foreign) will gradually lose their interest in India and once again look elsewhere. If this happens, the Modi Government will falter and may even become a victim to a backlash centred on disappointment.
The cussedness of the Congress is directly linked to the perceived indignities heaped on the “first family”. The Congress remains angry that it wasn’t gifted the status of the official Opposition and the loyalists are seething with rage at the Haryana Government’s “harassment” of “private citizen” Robert Vadra. As of now, the Congress doesn’t realistically believe it can stage any electoral comeback: the Punjab election of 2016 is thought to constitute its end of the beginning. But, meanwhile, it has declared war in the belief that all roadblocks in the path of India touching a 8.5 per cent growth rate is legitimate.
Modi is not one to disregard challenges. The next few months will determine the contours of both the BJP and Government fightback. It will be exciting politics but India could well have done without the excitement.
Sunday Pioneer, November 23, 2014
 
 
 

HANDSOME RETURNS - Modi’s mobilization of overseas Indians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Chinatown in London’s Soho is always a very agreeable dining venue for those on a tight budget. As a student in the 1970s, it was invariably the area many of us drifted to after the cheap beer at the college bar. The attraction was all the more since, invariably, there was always a student of Mandarin to negotiate the rude waiters and occasional dodgy bills.

One of my regular dining companions was an irreverent English Maoist—now middle-aged he has successfully transformed himself into a liaison man promoting China in business—who seemed to know most of the restaurateurs. Inevitably, he was partial to some establishments. One day, when I quizzed him over his over-fondness for one particular restaurant—which, alas, closed down two years ago—he explained the rationale: “It is owned by a patriotic Chinese.”

Those were the days when the strains between the People’s Republic of China (the mainland), the Republic of China (Taiwan) and Hong Kong were manifest. So, when my Maoist friend praised any local Chinaman’s “patriotic” credentials, he implied an attitude of non-hostility to the then wayward Maoist regime in Beijing or Peking, as it was then called.

The partiality was understandable. In the immediate aftermath of the debilitating Cultural Revolution and the rowdy Red Guards flashing Mao’s Red Book, mainland China was looked upon with intense suspicion, if not outright hostility, in the West. Apart from the small but dedicated band of fellow travellers, there were few who even feigned indifference or neutrality towards the happenings behind the Bamboo Curtain. The local Chinese community was not insulated from this partisanship and it was no surprise that the local Maoists clutched at straws, even if it meant something innocuous as preferring one restaurant over another.

Sharp battle lines, linked to either community solidarity or political stands, have always existed in diaspora communities. In the 1930s, the substantial German diaspora in the east coast of the US was sharply divided between those who perceived Hitler as a saviour and those who lamented the demise of old Germany. Many Hollywood films of the 1940s were based on the paranoia over a German fifth column operating within the US and subverting the war effort of the Allies. Likewise, the Irish community in the US tended to be fiercely anti-British and pro-Republican. Till as late as the 1980s, it was the Irish diaspora that bankrolled the terrorist Provisional Irish Republican Army, the perpetrator of terror attacks in both Northern Ireland and mainland Britain.

In recent years, the Tamil diaspora that came into existence in the 1980s and 1990s played a major role in being the propaganda arm of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and in financing the civil war in Sri Lanka. Indeed, even after the LTTE’s military decimation in 2009, there is a feeling within Sri Lanka that it is the Tamil diaspora that is standing in the way of a political reconciliation between Colombo and Jaffna.

Compared to these examples, the experience of the Indian diaspora has been relatively placid. The movement for Khalistan did undeniably receive a shot in the arm thanks to the efforts of the Sikh diaspora in Canada and the United Kingdom. However, after peace returned to the troubled state after 1993, the Khalistanis have become a fringe tendency within the Sikh diaspora, although their capacity for creating diplomatic hiccups for India shouldn’t be under-estimated.

A possible reason for the relative detachment from public affairs in India can be explained by the fact that the bulk of those bought one-way tickets out of India after Independence did so in search of a better life. The West and in recent times Australia did exercise a pull factor but there was no simultaneous push factor operating from within India. No doubt India’s inefficient economy and the inability of its institutions of higher education to cope with the middle class’ insatiable quest for knowledge did trigger the exodus of both labour and skilled personnel. However, since economic mismanagement wasn’t accompanied by an oppressive political regime, the post-Independence diaspora didn’t feel that forcing the pace of change in India constituted one of its pre-eminent extra-curricular priorities. As far as public life within India was concerned, the diaspora simply switched off. At best its so-called community leaders in the West were content with being invited to parties at the local Indian mission and getting themselves photographed with an Indian politician of their preference.

This is not to suggest that the Indian diaspora chose to be unengaged with India. Family and village ties ensured annual or bi-annual visits to the old country. More important, it was also accompanied by unending remittances of hard currency to India, either by way of investments in land and houses or by subsidies to ageing parents and less-fortunate relatives who didn’t or couldn’t escape India’s drudgery.

Following economic liberalisation and the easing of foreign currency regulations, a new pattern of outward movement from India began to be discerned. Increasingly, business families made it a point to nurture overseas-based business run by a younger son or a close relative. Gujaratis, Sindhis and Punjabis have traditionally sought opportunities outside national boundaries. A large chunk of the Tamil Brahmin community also moved to the US after Tamil Nadu’s draconian reservations policy made the state somewhat inhospitable for the upper castes. In recent years, we are observing the new phenomenon of Marwaris from business families and newly- prosperous Telugus establishing a foothold for themselves in entrepreneur-friendly, foreign climes.

There is a qualitative difference between the earlier and the post-1991 emigration from India. The exodus during the decades of the shortage economy was dictated substantially by the paucity of meaningful opportunities in India; the second wave, however, appears to have been prompted by India’s steady integration into a globalised economy. Yet what bound the two sets of Overseas Indians was a deep scepticism over India’s ability to realise its full potential. Before the 2007 crisis, there was a brief spurt in optimism but that disappeared and turned into dejection during the second term of the UPA government. Once again Overseas Indians readied to switch off India—the linkages narrowing down to family and faith.

It is in this context that Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rallies in New York and Sydney need to be located. The return of a charismatic leader to the political centre-stage explains the enthusiasm partially. However, far more important is the fact that with his aspirational and nation-building message, Modi is able to connect with Overseas Indians—particularly those who still feel emotionally Indian—on their own terms. For Modi, the diaspora is not made up of people who ‘betrayed’ India for the bright lights of the West—the 1971 Manoj Kumar film Purab aur Pashchim captured that ethos. He is viewing Overseas Indians as an extension of India, as individuals who are driven by the same set of motivations and values as resident Indians. For a change Overseas Indians are encountering an Indian leader who is not intent on guilt-tripping them for their Green Cards and change of nationality. He is including them in his national project.

The importance of his out-reach programme is profound. Modi has made the Indian tricolour more than just a national flag; he has made it a symbol of a global identity. Not since the state of Israel tapped into Jewish emotions throughout the world has diaspora politics seen anything so audacious—and minus all elements of controversy. The mobilisation of Overseas Indians has become a new facet of India’s public diplomacy. It could yield handsome returns. 

The Telegraph, November 21, 2014







Thursday, November 27, 2014

The dynamics of an unusual J&K election

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

The encouraging 71 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll plus the violence-free atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted is a thumbs-up for Indian democracy. Whether the active engagement of voters with the democratic process was a result of widespread anti-incumbency will be known once the votes are counted on December 23.

 

In the absence of opinion and exit polls, the analyst is obliged to rely on media reportage and anecdotal evidence. These indicate three broad developments. First, it is likely that the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his feisty daughter Mehbooba will be the principal gainer in the 46 seats of the Kashmir Valley. It is entirely possible that the National Conference led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his Congress ally may experience a total rout in the Valley. Secondly, it seems that the fear of an ascendant BJP and the possibility of a Chief Minister from the Jammu region have motivated many of those loosely associated with the parties of the Hurriyat Conference to break ranks and participate in the voting. Finally, it appears that the BJP has made huge inroads in the state where it won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the general election. The BJP gain in Jammu will primarily be at the cost of the Congress and NC. In addition, the BJP has forcefully registered its presence in Ladakh and may even be in the running in six constituencies in the Kashmir Valley. 

 

The spatial distribution of seats in the 87-member J&K Assembly does seem to negate the likelihood of the BJP achieving its 44-plus target unless, of course, it wins every seat in Jammu and Ladakh and score surprise victories in the six seats of the Valley. However, regardless of the scale of its performance, there is no doubt that the party has injected a new dimension in state politics. A reporter from Delhi who toured the Kashmir Valley told me of her astonishment that BJP candidates were actually canvassing for votes in Muslim-dominated localities: “A few years ago they would have run the risk of being attacked, even shot.” 

 

There are some who attribute the non-hostility to BJP campaigners to the good work done by defence personnel during the devastating floods a few months ago. Others suggest that, like the rest of India, there is a willingness to give Prime Minister a chance to repair the economy and reinvigorate India. I personally found it interesting that Mehbooba Mufti chose to highlight the importance of smart cities in her campaign while berating the NC-Congress coalition for mis-governance. This is not to say that the familiar alarmism over the BJP repealing Article 370 and effecting a demographic transformation of the state were absent. Certainly the Delhi media did its bit to prey on imaginary insecurities. Yet, what is interesting is that the BJP’s all-too-familiar position on the complete integration of J&K in the Indian Union did not generate an outpouring of Islamic identity. 

 

For too long, J&K has been a hostage to political ambulance-chasers with spurious crisis-resolution agendas. Some of them are only concerned with the Pakistan dimension of the problem. This preoccupation, curiously, is not terrorism-centric but centred on multinational solutions to national problems. Others imagine that there will be a miraculous change if the process of governance becomes more sensitive to the violation of human rights. 

 

It is not that all their observations are spurious. However, it is important to bear in mind a few facets of J&K. First, the Kashmir Valley is neither underdeveloped nor poor by Indian standards. By contrast, the Jammu region is relatively more neglected. There is a perception in Jammu that the paucity of resources for development is entirely a result of Delhi taking the unflinching loyalty of its people for granted. Secondly, it is worth recalling that J&K is among the largest recipients of central subsidies in the Indian Union. The state has not generated any meaningful revenue from inside; its people are under-taxed and over-subsidised. 

 

This special status for a border state is written into the Finance Commission’s brief and the people of the state need not have fears of abruptly experiencing a heavy dose of taxation or withdrawal of development funds. What is necessary, however, is for both the Centre and State governments to insist on a rigorous audit of the quality of expenditure. For too long, in both J&K and in many states of the North-east, the approach to national integration has been based on perverted pragmatism. In essence, this amounts to a policy of coopting a local elite through an indulgence of corruption. The havoc this immoral statecraft has done to India is incalculable. 

 

This election, it is widely acknowledged, is different from other exercises in the past. It is the presence of the BJP and the absence of any meaningful boycott campaign that have made all the difference. The new government has a chance of building on a changed mood and walking along a different road. Yet, an extra push may well be required. To my mind, a phased withdrawal of the army from all policing functions and its gradual replacement by well-trained and sensitive central para-military forces could well be a step worth considering. The Indian army should be on active deployment only along the Line of Control. Counter-insurgency should be the business of other arms of the state. 

 

After the election results have been digested, the approach to J&K both from Srinagar and Delhi could do with some revision. 


Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, November 27, 2014