Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Friday, September 12, 2014

Scotland: The Division Bell

By Swapan Dasgupta


External Affairs Minister is by no means the only ‘foreigner’ to view the possibility of a possible secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom with a measure of disbelief. The dissolution of long-established national boundaries has invariably been preceded by civil strife and bloodshed: Biafra, Bangladesh, East Timor and South Sudan being recent examples. Where separation has been relatively peaceful, though not necessarily devoid of bitterness, there has been a near-unequivocal assertion of the popular will. Ukraine, often regarded as the alter ego of Russia, for example, broke away from the Soviet-established ‘Union’ in 1991, after nearly 88 per cent of its citizens voted for independence.


Going by the opinion polls, the referendum in Scotland on September 18 is likely to be much more fiercely contested. Some six months ago, the likelihood of Scotland voting for the ‘independence’ that the Scottish National Party sought was remote. However, recent polls suggest that the SNP has successfully closed the gap and that the Yes vote could even enjoy a slim majority. Earlier, the British media was referring to SNP leader Alex Salmond’s foolhardly gamble; now they are talking about the disarray in the No camp with former Prime Minister Gordon Brown undertaking a last-minute rescue act.


Since much of the debate over Scottish identity and its supposed incompatibility with British identity centres on readings of history, it is tempting to compare the panic that has overtaken the establishment in London with the panic of 1745, the last occasion when the creation of a independent Scotland seemed possible.


In that year, the ‘Young Pretender’ Bonnie Prince Charlie, grandson of the Stuart King James II—also, simultaneously, King of Scotland—who had been ousted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for his Catholicism, landed in western Scotland from France with a few hundred loyalists. Initially, very much like today’s No campaign, the Hanoverian court didn’t take the threat very seriously. However, after Edinburgh fell and the Jacobite army started moving into England that panic set in. The rich merchants of London, fearful of their future, poured in finances to prop up an English army with formidable artillery power. When the two armies met at Culloden, there was a one-sided massacre of the Jacobite army, made up in the main of Scottish clans from the Highlands.


It is possible that had the vain and dissolute Young Pretender confined his ambitions to Scotland and not ventured into England, the political union forged by the accession of James I to the English throne would have not endured for four centuries. But regardless of the romantic myths around the Jacobites, the exiled Stuarts never enjoyed total support within Scotland. Just as the No campaign, the English army at Culloden had a large contingent of Scots.


Yet, received history doesn’t depend on the actual complexities of what really took place but more on how subsequent generations believe events unfolded. The perception that Scotland always got a raw deal from England and was the victim of intense cultural condescension have struck deep roots among resident Scots. This may have been truer of the Irish—forever the butt of ‘Paddy’ jokes—than the Scots. Yet the stereotype of the rustic Scot, so well portrayed through the eyes of the opinionated Rhodesian mining engineer Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s best-selling The Thirty-Nine Steps (later immortalised on celluloid by Alfred Hitchcock) somehow persisted.


For a lot of us, born in the aftermath of Empire, the British Isles was never the United Kingdom: it was always England, and that included Scotland. At the same time, even till the mid-Seventies, travelling to Scotland (Edinburgh apart) was akin to travelling to the ‘Continent’—a place that was different. Sometimes the experience fitted the stereotype. I recall a visit to a remote village in Skye in 1979 and being plied with drink by an overwhelmed local in a pub. It seems he had served in India during the War and I was the first Indian he had encountered since being demobbed more than three decades ago. An Indian face being a novelty in the late-1970s would have been unimaginable in any other part of the UK.


In pure historical terms, however, the notion of Scotland being left behind by Great Britain was pure fiction. The British Empire was the source of unparalleled prosperity at home. However, the plethora of opportunities that the far-flung possessions accorded to the peoples was not confined to England. The Empire, and certainly in India, was in many respects a Scottish Empire and even the Scottish Enlightenment was underwritten by Britain’s thriving overseas trade. From the “devils in skirts” who brought terror to the natives during the suppression of the 1857 revolt—hilariously caricatured by that great slapstick comedy Carry on up the Khyber—to the Scottish stranglehold over the boxwalla community of Calcutta, Scotland benefitted disproportionately from the Empire and, by implication, the Union.


It was Scotland’s inability to retain its competitive edge in the aftermath of Empire that began the process of disillusionment with Westminster. Scotland, in particular, felt the pain of Margaret Thatcher’s realignment of the British economy most acutely. By the mid-1980s, with the possible exception of Edinburgh, the scenes in urban Scotland often resembled the gloom and doom of the post-1929 Depression. Before its dramatic facelift in the Blair years, Glasgow was a distinctly riotous and even dangerous city at night.


Anger against a government shouldn’t, ideally, translate into a larger anger against an entire political dispensation. However, the electoral geography of the UK carried its own lessons. Scotland disavowed the Conservative Party quite emphatically after 1979 whereas southern England embraced it. With the Labour defeat in 2010, the perception grew in Scotland that the region had been permanently disenfranchised. This was untrue since the Scottish Assembly enjoyed considerable discretion in determining government expenditure and, in any case, Scotland’s government expenditure was always significantly higher than its revenue collection. The rest of UK was, in effect, subsidising Scotland.


Unfortunately, politics doesn’t depend on cold facts. The consummate politician that he is, Alex Salmond has been successful in converting the anger against the belt-tightening approach of the Cameron government into a larger revolt against Westminster. The anti-English undercurrent that used to surface at football matches and over the flying of the Union Jack has found a new focus with the achche din of independence.


I am on of those who feel that the last-minute panic over an uncertain future may actually see the wavering voters opt for the status quo—what with the promise of even greater devolution. However, just in case cussedness prevails, Scotland will provide a classic case study of how the clever manipulation of history and loss of British romanticism under a contrived multicultural dispensation destroyed a political arrangement that many of us believed would endure indefinitely. If Scotland falls off the map of the UK, there will be an immediate knock-on effect in Northern Ireland—a part of the UK that was emotionally abandoned by England after the Good Friday agreement of 1998. I don’t believe that we are witnessing the last gasp of the “green and pleasant land” that is England. But we could be experiencing the formal announcement of Britain’s loss of political power, a process that began in 1939 and whose first casualty was the British Empire.


Regardless of the September 18 verdict, Britain will have to redefine itself—just as Germany did after the loss of territory that followed the defeat in 1945—as a creative zone that is at the same time proud of its cultural moorings. Maybe there could be a happy ending in adversity. 

The Telegraph, September 12, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Abe-Modi bromance goes beyond trade talks

By Swapan Dasgupta


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mischievous aside in Tokyo about “secular” critics at home questioning his gift of the Bhagavad Gita to Emperor Akihito wasn’t out of place in Japan. His hugely successful five-day visit to Japan was mainly centred on the promotion of India as a manufacturing hub and interlocking the two countries in a larger strategic dialogue. However, what added an extra zing was the underlying convergence in the political approaches of Modi and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


It is instructive to recall that prior to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin emerging as the principal rogue leader of a ‘normal’ country—Syria, Iraq and the Caliphate are thought to be beyond the pale—that position had been occupied by Abe. Just as the entire liberal establishment of the West had agonised over the horrendous implications of an India under the ‘majoritarian’ Modi, they had earlier rung alarm bells over Abe’s supposed bid to rekindle militaristic Japanese nationalism.


In a quirky process of ideological realignment, the anti-Abe clamour was joined by China, a country that is otherwise careful to maintain its distance from the internal politics of other countries. It is no surprise that the state-controlled Chinese media has debunked the idea of an Indo-Japan ‘united front’ as “crazy fantasy generated by Tokyo’s anxiety of facing a rising Beijing.”


As someone who has been at the receiving end of cosmopolitan derision for insisting that a modern, indeed, global India has to be rooted in traditional values and cultures, and that social harmony necessitates national pride, Modi has reason to be sympathetic to Abe’s plight. The Japanese PM who got a resounding mandate on the promise to extricate Japan from a period of prolonged stagnation is also committed to reworking the political settlement imposed on Japan by the occupation forces after 1945. Why this right should be contested seven decades after the World War is bewildering.



Abe is seeking to reverse Japan’s constitutional commitment to pacifism by re-building a national army for the ‘self-defence’ of the islands. India is an important partner in this process as is Australia. Interestingly, an increasingly beleaguered US has shed its objections to Abe’s “active pacifism” because of its growing inability to undertake the global responsibilities it assumed during the Cold War. The only real elephant in the room is, quite predictably, China that nurtures a visceral distaste of anything remotely resembling Japanese self-assertion. Like the patronising Charles De Gaulle, Beijing would rather keep alive the stereotype of the Japanese as “transistor salesmen”.


The second feature of the Abe project has been painted—in language familiar to India’s chattering classes—as “divisive” and “polarising.” The post-war settlement, apart from disbanding the military, led to Japan’s defeated leadership accepting the downgrading of the Shinto faith and adopting a school curriculum that promoted collective self-flagellation for the sins of militarism and Emperor worship. As a nation, Japan appears to have accepted apologia as its national creed with, many believe, ominous consequences.


There are undeniably facets of Japan’s past that invite unease. But that is true for almost all countries without exception. However, what is unacceptable is that 69 years after the world’s greatest weapons of mass destruction were tested on the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan is obliged to persist with a history written by the victors of that war. Western liberals have teamed up with China’s Red nationalists to question the right of Japan to honour the souls of those who died for the Emperor—then considered the personification of the nation. China stopped within an inch of severing diplomatic ties with Japan after former Prime Minister Koizumi made annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo—a temple that blends national honour and faith.


Maybe Modi should have visited Yasukuni but not out of a desire to score a point against China. He would have paid tribute to those Japanese martyrs who also died for the freedom of India. He would have witnessed Japan’s tribute to the Indian judge who contested the principle of victors’ justice. Equally, and in the context of the proposed monument in Delhi, he would have imbibed the significance of crafting an inseparable link between a martyr’s memorial and the national ethos. 

Sunday Times of India, September 7, 2014



NaMo scripting real change in the way we approach politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

Should Prime Minister Narendra Modi have gone on national TV to address school children on Guru Divas or, if you so prefer, Teacher’s Day? The answer to this seemingly innocuous but inevitably politicised question will naturally depend on who you ask. 

To parents who see school education as the cumbersome waiting period before a child gets into an American university and life in the First World, Modi’s interaction was simply a waste of time. After all, as a Modi-hater tweeted, why clutter a child’s mind with politics? In any case, the sceptics will pronounce, what worthwhile message can a neta—and one who didn’t go to Cambridge like Chacha Nehru and Rahul baba—deliver to our young citizens? The more paranoid ones will perhaps go to the extent of describing the entire exercise as RSS-inspired “brainwashing” of impressionable minds. 

I suspect the answers will be a little different if you were to ask members of the ‘aspirational classes’—the ones who set aside a disproportionate share of their annual income for their children’s education. They would perhaps feel a certain pride if their child’s Kendriya Viddyalaya had been selected for the national hook-up. And, if by chance, their son or daughter had been pre- selected to ask one of those (no doubt rehearsed and somewhat stylised) questions to the PM, they will be walking on air for the next three months. 

Yes, Modi’s televised Guru Diwas interaction did trigger a controversy. Most things Modi does—including beating the drum in Tokyo and gifting the Bhagwad Gita to the Japanese Emperor—becomes a subject of some acrimony. That’s something Modi will have to live with and I daresay he actually enjoys the toofan he generates. But political posturing apart, was the Guru Diwas engagement something worthwhile. And should it be repeated next year? 

My answer to both questions is a categorical Yes. 

Leaving aside the presumptuousness of the assertion that no PM apart from Jawaharlal Nehru has the right and the credentials to engage with India’s school goers, the point to note is that the larger message of Modi was laudable. 

First, he tried to impress upon the children the importance of belonging to a national community. To my mind, however, there is something quite appealing in every ( or, at least, most) school children sharing a common experience in an atmosphere of collective unison. There is a big difference between children watching Modi’s interaction from home and them experiencing it as part of a collective. The extension of the collegiate spirit into a national spirit is what the programme intended. To that extent, it will form an important part of a child’s larger school experience. Indeed, next year Modi should endeavour to have the interaction outside Delhi, maybe at a school in Arunachal Pradesh. 

Secondly, much of what Modi said was devoted to values and national priorities: having a lifelong respect for teachers, motivating parents into sending girls to school, developing the reading habit, mastering all available technology, saving power and avoiding waste, mastering skills and, most important, enjoying the exhilaration of being young. The term ‘value education’ has been rubbished by the votaries of progressive education who believe that children mustn’t be taught, only encouraged to discover. With his formidable national standing and political clout, Modi has attempted to link good schooling with good citizenship. 

Finally, in attaching so much importance to Guru Diwas, Modi sought to confer on school teachers a large measure of professional pride. Yes, teachers have a litany of complaints—some legitimate and others that smack of a trade union mentality. In time the government will have to persuade state governments and private institutions to be more mindful of their legitimate needs. But this will be enormously facilitated if the old-fashioned respect for the guru becomes the social consensus once again. 

In the process of easing himself into his prime ministerial responsibilities, Modi, it would seem, is conferring on politics an additional dimension. Right from the Red Fort speech on August 15 to his intervention last Friday afternoon, he has been stressing aspects of governance that appear to have bypassed India’s political class. According to conventional logic, the construction of toilets (especially for women), the enrolment of girls in schools, and the promise to clean up India’s physical space don’t constitute politics. Modi is borrowing a leaf from Mahatma Gandhi’s enlargement of the political space through the “constructive programme” and positioning himself as something more than just a political leader engaged in competitive electoral politics. 

The transition of Modi in less than a year has been remarkable. In September 2013, he was just the first among equals in the BJP; by end-May of this after his resounding electoral victory he became the unchallenged leader of his party and coalition; by the end of 2014, he would have transformed himself into a PM who is also the country’s acknowledged leader. What we are witnessing is not merely the transformation of Narendra Modi but a decisive shift in the meaning of political leadership. The Modi who will present himself for re-election in 2019 will be a very different man than the individual who was the candidate for the top job in 2014. The change promises to be very exciting. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 7, 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Our real friends

By Swapan Dasgupta


Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been judged harshly by his contemporaries for his unending failures to protect the integrity of his office. In plain English, he was too often a pushover, succumbing to pressures from the dynastic owners of the Congress Party and their unpalatable representatives. However, as one of his most trusted aides once revealed in an indiscreet moment some time ago, there were odd occasions when the economist-politician did take a stand—maybe because it didn’t involve the Gandhis.


The occasion was the choice of chief guest for the 2014 Republic Day functions, the final one of Singh’s long stint as Prime Minister. Singh, who had quite rightly detected the growing opportunities in Indo-Japan bilateral relations, wanted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a known friend of India, to be the chief guest. This was bitterly opposed by a section of the foreign policy establishment. The opposition (or so I was informed) was very strongly articulated by the then National Security Adviser who was said to be a veteran China hand. In the context of India, a China expert didn’t translate as Sinologists; it implied a Sinophile. Menon, it was said, had an instinctive knack of second-guessing the mandarins in Beijing.


China, the battalion of Sinophiles in Delhi argued, would not be amused by the invitation to Abe. Apart from everything else, Abe had by then developed a formidable reputation as a nationalist who played the so-called anti-China card even more deftly than the enigmatic former Prime Minister Koizumi. Much of Beijing’s anger stemmed from Koizumi and Abe’s inability to grasp the “correct” history of Japanese militarism prior to 1945. China was particularly incensed over the presence of Japan’s top leadership at events to commemorate all Japanese war heroes since the Meiji Restoration at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo. The shrine incorporated the spirits of all those (by name) who had died for the Emperor in battle. These included 18 Class A “war criminals” who had been convicted and executed by the International War Crimes Tribunal set up after Japan’s surrender on August 15, 1945.


It is to Singh’s credit that he overruled the objections and invited Abe for the Republic Day celebrations. In his final months Singh wasn’t able to achieve anything substantial but he at least laid the foundation of robust bilateral relations that Prime Minister Modi was able to build on during his recent, hugely successful visit to Japan.   


China’s official reaction to Modi’s visit and his close personal rapport with Abe has been understandably guarded. With President Xi Jinping scheduled to visit India later this month, Beijing—which always understands the virtues of patience—is unwilling to say anything that will sour the mood in India. At the same time, the state-controlled media has not missed the opportunity to take pot shots at both Japan and India—and certainly not after Modi’s snide reference, in a response to a student’s question on China, to a 18th century “imperialist mindset” that still prevails. The state-run Global Times, for example, described Japan’s purported attempt to forge a united front against China as a “crazy fantasy”. An article suggested—perhaps not inaccurately—that “Modi is more intimate to Tokyo emotionally. Therefore…he embraces some nationalist sentiments against China.”


These may indicate China’s early misgivings of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives in Asia but they don’t as yet suggest that Beijing has decided to travel down a hostile path vis a vis Delhi. There may be a belief in Beijing that any leverage Japan might gain with its enhanced economic partnership with India can be neutralised by even more generous Chinese offerings. This buy-the-country approach has worked partially in Sri Lanka and large chunks of Africa but it is seen to be floundering in large parts of South-east Asia.


A section of Indian business may be attracted by the charms of cheap Chinese imports and very competitive financing offered by China but these are offset by the larger threats posed by China. In simple terms, China has not made any secret of its desire to be the hegemonic power in Asia. It may respect national sovereignty but that comes with a larger political cost: tacitly acknowledging China’s dominance in Asia. Japan has realised this to its cost, as have countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Australia. Many of these countries now look up to India as an important countervailing force to China.


The real challenge for India is to balance a very legitimate and growing business relationship with China with wariness over its larger strategic designs. Japan has offered India defence collaboration and economic partnership for the sake of a loose alliance aimed at keeping Asia outside the control of a dominant power. In the coming days, the visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot is likely to revive the old idea of a Australia-Japan-India trilateral arrangement, maybe as a return gift for a nuclear agreement and supply of uranium. Should India fall back on some mythical Non-Alignment-2 that translates into a policy of appeasement of China? Or should the Modi government also draw a few new red lines in its relationship with the great power across the Himalayas?


There are no simple answers. At present India has lost the capacity to make a meaningful decision that can withstand sustained pressure. Its economy is yet to go on full steam and its defence preparedness is non-existent. The Modi government’s main priority must be to enhance India’s national capacity, using all available opportunities at its disposal. This could even mean playing limited footsie with China and keeping uninhibited cohabitation with Japan and Australia for another day. Of course, the risk is that China won’t hesitate to encash its many IOUs in India to force Modi into acknowledging China’s titular supremacy. Recall how easily the CPI(M) teamed up with the Congress after the 1998 Pokhran-2 tests.


Some deft diplomacy is the order of the day. But let there be no confusion over the fact that a menacing China isn’t in India’s national interests. By comparison, neither Japan nor Australia has agendas inimical to India. On the contrary, with a weakened US, their friendship acquires greater meaning. 

Asian Age, September 5, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

The ISIS challenge

By Swapan Dasgupta

The world, or at least that part that retains a measure of human sensitivities, has been both shocked and angered by the video circulating on the web of the decapitation of American journalist James Foley by a proud soldier of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS). The outrage has been most profound in Britain on the realisation that the executioner was in all probability an individual who is nominally British—in that he travels on a British passport and speaks in what has been identified as a distinctive East London accent. There are also indications that at least 25 per cent of the ISIS jihadists are probably Muslim imports from Europe, mainly Britain.

Even the US which has been slowly extricating itself from overseas involvements reacted strongly by sending bombers to pound ISIS positions in Iraq. Speaking at a Pentagon media briefing last week, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel suggested that ISIS “is as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded…beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is that you take a cold, steely, hard look at it…and get ready.”

Maybe it needed the tragic death of an American citizen for the Obama administration to realise that ISIS is much more than just another army headed by a warlord, exploiting Sunni anger in Iraq and the power vacuum created by the West-inspired destabilisation of the Assad regime in Syria. The tragic fate of the Yazidis—with whom Indians share a civilizational link—was largely ignored by hard-nosed apparatchiks who determine the affairs of state. After all, as British historian Tom Holland lamented, their murderous ethnic cleansing had no consequences for military and political strategies. “In cultural terms”, Holland wrote movingly, “it is as though a rainforest is being levelled to provide for cattle ranching. Not just a crime against humanity, it is a crime against civilisation.”

It is not that we in India did any better. I was recently told of the frustrating experience of an Indian writer (with impeccable academic qualifications) who chronicles the history of ancient cultures. When he heard of the ISIS assault on the Yazidis, including forced conversions and captivity for slavery, he wrote an article on the pagan brotherhood that links Yezdi and Indian traditions. Most of our ‘national’ press refused to print it, presumably on the ground that it would unsettle a fragile secular consensus that depends so much on denial and expedient silence. I compliment Indian Express for finally publishing it.

Our editorial class was guilty of the same perversity that made the redoubtable ‘secularist’ crusader Teesta Setalvad compare the depredations of ISIS with the Hindu worship of Kali and the deification of the sudarshan chakra. Her message was quite calculated: Hindus can’t protest against ISIS because they are as guilty of glorifying murderous practices. She was attempting to draw a moral equivalence between Hindu traditions and Islamic extremism.

Setalvad—one of the iconic figures of professional secularism—may have apologised and withdrawn her offensive tweet subsequently but the intervention provided a valuable insight into why the likes of ISIS gain from ‘liberal’ squeamishness.

For the past two decades, for example, under the guise of ‘multiculturalism’ the British government tolerated the dissemination of hateful and murderous theological messages from community mosques. The term ‘Londonistan’ may be an exaggeration but there are large areas of urban Britain where rebellious Muslim youth swagger about fantasising the virtues of sharia rule. It is this swagger and the sustained vilification of the West and Israel that created the foundations of the love affair with ISIS. Britain is paying the price of its own permissiveness.

The threat posed by the so-called Islamic Caliphate should not be minimised by India. ISIS flags have made their appearance in Srinagar and it is more than likely that a clutch of impressionable Muslim youth—mainly Indians working in West Asia—have joined the transnational jihadi brigade fighting in and around Mosul. For the moment their numbers may be insignificant but the larger ideological challenge posed to Indian nationalism is real. There is an ideological line that link so-called mass movements such as Jamiat-e-Islami and Muslim Brotherhood to the armed struggle of the likes of Hamas and ISIS. A section of the ‘liberal’ world chose to overlook Hamas’ determination to eliminate all Jews from Israel and now they are confronted with the systematic butchery of all non-Muslims from Iraq and, maybe, Syria. It is an open question whether Indian workers who were left stranded in Iraq after the ISIS’s summer offensive have survived to tell the tale.

The liberal capacity to be self-delusional is infinite. Last month we witnessed an attempt to prevent any modification of India’s Palestine policy on the ground that Mahatma Gandhi had once said something critical of the early Zionist movement. If it comes to the crunch, will the country now see the spectacle of ‘useful idiots’ ploughing through the Mahatma’s Collected Works to resurrect his pronouncements favouring the revival of the Ottoman Caliphate?

They will find lots of misplaced wisdom. In 1919-20, Gandhi made a colossal blunder by hitching Indian nationalism to a retrograde cause. This time, when the opportunity presents itself, we must ensure that there is no ambivalence. Indian nationalism and the Caliphate’s brotherhood cannot be reconciled. (END)

A Better Sense: How the Modi Government has fared for the first 100 days

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are many customary but meaningless rituals that govern politics in India. The 100-days stocktaking of a new government leads the pack. The exercise is quite meaningless because there are no similar audits at the end of 200 or even 300 days. Yes, there are annual assessments but even these—marked by a lavish media-spend by the government—are overshadowed by the one assessment that really matters: the verdict of the electorate at the end of a government’s term in office. 

Next week will witness the Narendra Modi government’s first 100 days in office. For a Prime Minister who received his popular mandate on the strength of a promise to change India in 60 months and even once spoke of 10 years in government, the importance of 100 days is purely episodic. At best it is a tentative indication of the way in which the government plans to move. 

However, there is an importance attached even to this tentativeness. As the first government after 1989 where a single party enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi is being viewed through a very different prism than the ones that shaped perceptions of all Prime Ministers since Rajiv Gandhi. Although the government still does not command a majority in the Rajya Sabha, there terms “coalition dharma” and “coalition compulsions” have ceased to enter everyday usage. Much more than V.P. Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee—Prime Ministers that enjoyed a measure of popular endorsement—the present National Democratic Alliance government is seen as the Modi sarkar. In a country where the parliamentary system of government is expected to work within a presidential mould, this total identification of the government with the captain of the team makes political judgments much easier. To put it bluntly, the buck stops at Modi. 

When he was sworn in on the evening of May 26, Modi wasn’t quite the untested gamble that foreign observers of India believe he was. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years, Modi had always been a part of the political conversation in India. He was either adored or intensely disliked but never ignored. Following his energetic eight-month campaign that took him to nearly every part of India, the army of admirers increased exponentially. So, for that matter, did the legion of Modi-haters who, having based their assessment on his reputation as a juju man, were exposed to his aggressive campaigning style. Consequently, when Modi became Prime Minister there was no real neutrality surrounding him. Modi wasn’t quite deprived of the honeymoon that awaits a new occupant of Race Course Road. But it was more of a temporary cease-fire rather than a display of open-mindedness. 

The problem, as Modi quite rightly emphasised in his August 15 address from Red Fort, lay in his status as an ‘outsider’ who threatened to play by setting very different rules of the game. Beginning with his spartan, loner lifestyle—his penchant for simple but stylish clothes being the welcome aberration—to his maniacal work schedule and complete disavowal of humdrum media publicity, Modi has turned PM-watching into something akin to the Kremlin-watching of yesteryear. 

The reason lies only partly in the reluctance of ministers to speak out of turn and media gripe over lack of ‘access’. Ever since the government assumed office, Modi has been preoccupied with two things: familiarising himself with the totality of governance and relentless questioning of fundamentals. True, there have been the usual quota of government schemes where the Prime Minister has taken the lead and some energetic neighbourhood-centric diplomacy aimed at re-establishing India’s primacy in the region. However, in the main, the government has devoted the past 100 days in ironing out pre-existing glitches in the system. 

Yet, just because decisions weren’t ‘sexed up’ doesn’t mean they are inconsequential. The economic ministries have devoted themselves to a very big project: improving the ease of doing business in India. Starting with the modification of obscure excise and tax rules that made life hell for Indian entrepreneurs to clearing a huge backlog of approvals pending before the Ministry of Environment, the government has taken important steps to restoring business confidence in India. On his part, Modi has made “make in India” a priority. This implies that modifications in land acquisition laws, labour laws, power sector reforms and the streamlining of banking will be the focus in the coming months. The past 100 days have been devoted to strengthening the foundations of India’s imperfect market economy. The belief is that these small steps initiated by the government will have a knock-on effect on business confidence and facilitate large-scale investments whose effects will be felt after two or three years. 

There was a belief, particularly among those who rallied behind Modi during the elections out of a sense of total exasperation with the UPA’s economic policies, that Modi would rush through with big ticket changes. As of now, only the abolition of the Planning Commission, a move that has enormous implications for shifting the terms of the federal arrangement, is seen as being ideologically decisive. Disappointment has, however, been expressed over the intrusive, one-size-fits-all approach of the University Grants Commission, a body whose relevance in today’s world is questionable. Likewise, many friends of the BJP that expected a marked shift in the orientation of foreign policy have been bewildered by the underlying conservatism of the Ministry of External Affairs. Finally, there is bewilderment that the government has dragged its feet over the removal of over-politicised bureaucrats and pro-Congress functionaries from departments and government-funded institutions. 

Whether the tardiness stems from an exaggerated sense of caution or is evidence of ministerial ineptitude and cooption by the bureaucracy is the subject of constant speculation. However, Modi has to be mindful of the fact that his government’s circumspection has been interpreted by the relics of the ancien regime as evidence of dysfunctionality. In an article in Telegraph earler this week, for example, a writer suggested “there is no one in ( Modi’s) establishment who has the intellectual prowess to correlate intricate international developments to India’s diplomatic footwork…” Likewise, a New York Times correspondent in Delhi hinted at a growing realisation ( in which sections?) that India may have elected a “cipher” as Prime Minister. 

Driving these indictments is, of course, the enormous condscension that invariably accompanies a reordering of the establishment from the cosmopolitan to the rooted. But it is also accompanied by a combination of both smugness and fear: smugness over the belief that nothing will change and fear that change may be more far-reaching than initially imagined. 

Regardless of some by-election setbacks—which, ironically, help us quantify the Modi effect of the Lok Sabha poll—national opinion polls indicate that popular backing for Modi has actually increased since the general election. As such, having tested the waters for the past 100 days and blessed with a better sense of what changes are necessary and at what pace, Modi would do well to turn the underlying sense of fear of his critics into a self- fulfilling prophecy. He cannot afford to ever forget that the huge mandate he secured was for change, and for the better. It is how that belief in change in translated into action over the next nine months that will set the tone for the remaining four years of the term. 

The Telegraph, August 29, 2014

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Pakistan shouldn't read too much into Indian editorials

By Swapan Dasgupta


In the coming weeks, both civilian and military policy-makers in Islamabad are certain to mull over one of the most astonishing by-products of its latest spat with New Delhi: the legitimisation of Pakistan’s involvement in the internal affairs of Jammu and Kashmir by a section of India’s public intellectuals.


Whether this extraordinary development points to Pakistan’s success in nurturing Track-2 dialogues or is symptomatic of deeper schisms within India are issues that will be dissected by an otherwise beleaguered Establishment across the Radcliffe Line. Pending a considered assessment, the editorial pages of Indian newspapers will, however, produce many smiling faces in Pakistan.


The outpourings of rage against the Narendra Modi government’s supposed ‘over-reaction’ to the High Commissioner’s meetings with separatist leaders may even convince Pakistani strategists of the need to persevere with the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. The coming months will definitely witness a concerted Pakistani bid—backed by international do-gooders—to roll back the new red lines drawn by India, perhaps with the use of some explosive pressure points.


In Pakistan, there will even be an understandable temptation to interpret the criticism of the Modi government’s unilateral withdrawal from the Foreign Secretary-level talks as evidence of a weakening of India’s resolve to withstand the war of a “thousand cuts”. That would amount to a grave misreading of India’s internal dynamics.


For a start, it is important to recognise that the decision to withdraw from the dialogue in Islamabad was widely supported within India. The opposition parties had initially taunted the Prime Minister for not acting on his promise to not tolerate any Pakistani transgression. However, once Modi lived up to his image as a no-nonsense leader, the opposition guns fell strangely silent. Indeed, there was the bizarre spectacle of Congress leaders reacting to the event in different voices—one lot participating in the hand wringing and another lot demanding the expulsion of the Pakistan High Commissioner.


The desire to test Modi’s reaction was not confined to the opposition in India. There are indications that the Pakistani Establishment too was anxious to see how far it could push the envelope. It clearly never imagined Modi would react the way he did. There was awareness that Modi was different from Manmohan Singh. But how different? Most important, Pakistan needed to know whether Modi’s neighbourhood thrust would also translate into a variant of I.K. Gujral’s asymmetry doctrine. It’s now apparent it won’t.


Any understanding of a foreign country involves more than poring over press clippings. Presumably, those involved in monitoring India in Pakistan, even if it is for subversive ends, delve deeper. However, the influence of the media, particularly international media, in shaping perceptions can’t be discounted. On this count, the India desks in Islamabad may have been guilty of accepting the rash judgments of Delhi’s foreign media at face value.


The foreign media has traditionally based its assessments of India on received wisdom from the local media and interactions with the type of people who work for international agencies, patronise NGOs and attend literature festivals. During the general election, it demonstrated a deep hostility to the BJP and a partiality for AAP. More to the point, Modi was invariably painted as a deeply ‘polarising’ figure whose victory would put a question mark over India’s future as a plural and tolerant country.


After the election, and once the awkward business of explaining the ‘unexpected’ verdict was done with, there has been a rash of reports—particularly after India said no to the WTO—suggesting widespread disappointment with Modi. The suggestion was that the job of governing India was proving too daunting for the “outsider”. On August 12, for example, the venerable New York Times reported that “this early wave of disenchantment is a reminder that the man India elected this year is, in some ways, a cipher.”


According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary ‘cipher’ means ‘zero’, hardly a description that fits a Prime Minister whose presence in public meetings still evoke frenzy. Yet, when reportage becomes an exercise in affirming prejudices, misjudgements are bound to be recurrent. But then, for some people, any stick to beat Modi will do—even if means giving a helping hand to the patrons of terror and Islamist terrorists. 

Sunday Times of India, August 24, 2014