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Sunday, October 19, 2014

In new India, dissent is just a remote button away (Sunday Times of India, October 19, 2014)

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Is India becoming less welcoming of dissent? 

 

This is a question that should strike normal people as being somewhat odd, considering that the country has just witnessed two, characteristically rumbustious, Assembly elections. These polls were marked by generous bouts of verbal artillery fire. No one was spared and certainly not Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was colourfully equated with the perfidious Afzal Khan and charged with plotting to divert Mumbai’s resources to Gujarat. The high turnout confirmed that the high-decibel campaign had motivated citizens to go out on October 15 and vote. In every respect, India’s tamasha-filled democracy is thriving. 

 

Yet, quite astonishingly, there are Indians who are convinced that the Republic (the needlessly pompous term for the nation) is perched precariously on the brink of democratic disaster. The villain apparently is ‘majoritarianism’. 

 

The reference is not to wacko conspiracy theories that resonate in the social media. The apparent truncation of the democratic ‘space’ and threats to India’s pluralist heritage are now the themes of the numerous Lit fests. It was the subject of a concluding debate at a convivial festival in Bangalore and is billed as a session for a similar gathering in Mumbai and the big one in Jaipur. The fear of India becoming a less tolerant place was also the theme of a gratuitous editorial this month in, of all places, the New York Times. Clearly, to appropriate a Bob Dylan song, “something is happening and you don’t know what it is…”

 

If the exit polls forecasting a spectacular Modi surge in Maharashtra and Haryana turn out to be accurate this Sunday morning, it is likely that the fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who view themselves as the voices of beleaguered enlightenment. For normal people intent on making the best of the drudgery of daily existence, political stability, especially one that holds out the promise of an economic resurgence, is welcome. To those who don’t obsess about noisy and unintelligible debates on news channels, the emergence of a strong leader with popular backing is also a heartening departure from national despondency. 

 

Yes, there may well be an overdose of Modi on the front pages and prime-time TV. But as long as the remote control is firmly vested in the hands of the viewer, there is the inalienable option of opting out of the political sphere altogether. Contrary to the experiences of our intellectuals, there is no obligation to watch Big Brother or even cheer him. 

 

Politics becomes repugnant when it is accompanied by the invasion of the private and community sphere. This may be the experience of West Bengal where extortion by political activists is a daily irritant. It may even be an issue in parts of Uttar Pradesh where communities are often encouraged to hate each other. However, in most of India, street politics is the prerogative of the activists. Conservative India shapes its views within the extended family or through kinship ties. 

 

That India is changing at an amazing pace is a no-brainer. This change is reflected in two big ways. 

 

First, there is a frenetic desire of individuals and families to better themselves. Having tasted the delights of consumerism, India is anxious to embrace it enthusiastically. In an earlier era this quest for self-improvement manifested itself through a one-way ticket overseas. Today, there is a greater commitment to India and, by implication, India’s nationhood. Nationalist politics stems from rising aspirations.

 

Secondly, most Indians are exposed to influences that go well beyond the local and even embraces the global. The uninhibited expression of both informed views and uninformed prejudices has become non-negotiable. India, it would seem, would prefer to exercise the right to debunk Wendy Doniger, denounce the film Haider as “anti-national” and applaud Modi’s 56-inch chest. 

 

What the average Indian truly despises is the debunking of “common decencies” and being patronised by those who see themselves as custodians of taste and aesthetics. 

 

The so-called emotional truncation of India is, in effect, the intellectuals’ loss of status as trustees of the nation. It symbolises a shift in power equations, not a personality change. Modi has facilitated this downgrade, a reason why he is admired by the many and loathed by a few. (END)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Nobel for whom: the giver or the recipient ? (Sunday Pioneer, October 12, 2014)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Whether it is the Nobel Prize for literature or the local Rotary Club’s recognition of local distinction, all awards are governed by subjective preferences. Indeed, the honours lists often tell us more about the preferences and priorities of the award-givers than the achievements of the award-winners.
The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded by a committee of Norwegian politicians, is no exception. Like the now-extinct Lenin Peace Prize or even our own Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace and what-not, its choice is out-and-out political and reflects the world as seen through the eyes of a Scandinavian country that now sees itself as a moral force for the good.
President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in the first year of his presidency, even before he had time to leave any mark on global affairs. The reason lay not in any tangible achievement but to the unspoken celebration of the first black man to occupy the White House. Mahatma Gandhi didn’t win any Peace Prize because Scandinavian opinion of the times regarded him as a subversive crank. But times have changed and Norwegians assess their own relevance these days in a different way. I am sure that they may even have awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly to a Sri Lankan President and the LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran had Colombo been foolish enough to concede Eelam as the price of peace. Certainly, the Norwegian mediators tried very hard to push for a line of least resistance.
To point a finger at the implicit political dimension of the Nobel award that was announced last Friday afternoon doesn’t amount to belittling the contribution of either our very own Kailash Satyarthi or the Pakistan-born, Birmingham-based Malala Yousafzai.
Through his Bachpan Bachao Andolan, Satyarthi has liberated thousands from the indignity and drudgery of child labour. By incessantly drawing attention to the evils of child labour, he has helped in drawing attention to a social evil. He has played a part in restoring an iota of childhood to many who were victims of both poverty and callousness.
Malala’s own contribution to combating extreme religious bigotry within Pakistan may have been nominal. However, in her determination to receive an education — otherwise denied to women in parts of the world — she has been an inspiration to many. Through her book and speaking tours she has, in effect, become a force challenging the radicalisation of impressionable Muslims living in the West.  
Both Satyarthi and Malala are inspirational figures battling for noble causes. However, they didn’t receive the Nobel Peace Prize because of their good works. The choice of the Norwegian Parliament was dictated by other considerations, not all of which are flattering to India.
For a start, there was the spurious equivalence drawn between Satyarthi and Malala by individuals for whom the “Third World” is one, big amorphous mass. “It is an important point”, declaimed the Nobel Committee, “for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle…” Yes, Satyarthi is a Hindu and Malala is a Muslim. But pray what has Satyarthy’s religion got to do with his crusade to restore the delights of childhood to those who have been prematurely exposed to the darker side of the market economy? Maybe there is an anti-theological underpinning to Malala’s feisty opposition to bigotry. To club the two, however, seems woefully contrived unless it was the Nobel Committee’s desire to expose the inherent barbarism of those outside the pale of Judaeo-Christian civilisation. If the Nobel Committee reflects on its rationalisation of the award, it may realise that many in the subcontinent would find it deeply offensive.
The contrived India-Pakistan hyphenation brings with it a huge baggage of stereotypes, some innocent and others less so. The Talibanisation of a large part of the Islamic world has created a serious image problem for countries such as Pakistan. As a symbol against perverse theocracy, Malala is important. But where does Satyarthi fit in? The answer is: awkwardly.
For the more calculating West — and I am not suggesting that the Norwegian Parliament is part of it — India occupies a grey zone. At one level, it has demonstrated its tremendous receptivity to modern science and technology — the very cost-efficient Mars Mission was a shining example. At the same time, there are patches of India where modernity is still a long distance away. In particular, India’s cheap labour costs are an unending source of concern to a West that is has lost its manufacturing edge.
One way out for the West is to adjust lifetstyles and standards of living to more realistic levels. But since that is politically unacceptable, the temptation to create non-tariff barriers for products emanating in countries such as India has proved irresistible. Satyarthi is battling against child labour as a legitimate human rights issue. Most of enlightened India supports initiatives like the Bachpan Bachao Andolan. For Western activists, however, the child labour issue is a useful handle to tar the Made in India label. The idea is to either black out Indian goods on grounds of unethical practices such as environmental degradation and dodgy labour practices or, at least, to raise the cost of production by adding to the levels of certification.
It is unduly simplistic to believe that there is a specific anti-Indian agenda. India has become an object of wariness partly because it has all the potential (and often shows the signs) of emerging as another variant of China. Bringing it down a notch or two by symbolically appropriating one man’s selfless agenda is clever politics. What Indians are celebrating as global recognition may well turn out to be a booster dose of Western condescension.

Friday, October 10, 2014

MODI AND MUCK - By far the most ambitious of the prime minister’s schemes

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indian politicians are not usually inclined to be self-deprecating. In his address to an ecstatic crowd of overseas Indians at Madison Square Garden last month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi struck an unfamiliar note by suggesting that as a humble Indian who had risen from the ranks he was disinclined to posit a grand vision. He would, he assured the ranks of his supporters, concentrate on small things to make a difference to the lives of ordinary Indians.

Modi was being needlessly modest. Although he has steadfastly shied away from either articulating a grand strategic doctrine — much as the Think Tanks would want him to do — or even a political ideology that can be marketed as ‘Moditva’, the schemes he has undertaken are by all standards extraordinarily bold and ambitious. Judged from a contemporary perspective, the programme of financial inclusion to ensure a bank account for every adult Indian seems lofty, but doable. So too is the programme to dot India with smart cities with modern civic amenities — particularly clean drinking water and sanitation. Determined political will and honest implementation could even make the polluted Ganga a cleaner river. However, by far the most ambitious of all his schemes, is the Swachh Bharat or Clean India initiative that he intends as a grateful nation’s enduring tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in October 2019.

That Modi has prioritized a massive cleaning up of India may seem unusual on many counts. First, not since pre-Independence public figures and religious social reformers focussed on trying to modify the Indian personality has India witnessed anything like this. However, the great stalwarts of the 19th and early-20th centuries never had to run the gauntlet of electoral politics. Their contributions were assessed in terms of the impact on local communities and regions. Modi’s scope is national and he will be judged on an all-India basis. All it requires is for the ever-cynical media to make a mockery of the Clean India initiative by unendingly focussing on what hasn’t been done for the whole exercise to be overwhelmed by cynicism.

The maverick Aam Aadmi Party that uses the media as a force multiplier has, for example, decided that the best way to expose the spuriousness of Clean India campaign is to flood the media with tell-tale photographs of accumulated garbage and overflowing toilets. This would have been a welcome initiative if it were backed up by a citizen-cum-government drive to clean up. Tragically, the principle behind the exposés is to demonstrate that in India nothing changes.

The challenge posed by creeping cynicism isn’t idle. Personal cleanliness may well be an Indian obsession but, as many have observed over the years, the average citizen of Bharat lacks the commitment to ensure a wholesome public space. Poverty, over-crowding and the lack of amenities may well be the reasons why, as the young V.S. Naipaul was exasperated enough to observe in one of his early works, that Indians “defecate everywhere”. At that time, Naipaul was denounced as “anti-Indian” — an assessment that was drastically revised in subsequent years as he embraced the political assertion of Hindu India as a reawakening of a subject nation — but his observation won’t seriously be contested by 21st-century Indians.

The sheer enormity of the Clean India project Modi has undertaken is daunting for it necessitates a mindset. A newly elected Lok Sabha MP from Jharkhand narrated to me the magnitude of the challenge. Having identified nearly all the schools in his sprawling constituency that needed toilets, he was confronted with a problem that extended beyond running-water supply and routine upkeep. To maintain a clean, odour-free environment, he was told by local teachers, the authorities would also have to construct boundary walls — an expensive proposition. Without this separation of space, the children would be inclined to use adjoining fields as toilets. “This is what they do at home,” the teachers informed him.

Maybe it will take a daily dose of brainwashing and some imaginative propaganda on the electronic media, not to mention special toilet grants, before the importance of clean public spaces is acknowledged as a worthwhile national endeavour — perhaps even more important than securing the elusive permanent berth on the United Nations security council. It is reassuring that the prime minister is not losing any opportunity to spread the word. Apart from roping in celebrities, particularly of the Bollywood and cricketing kind, he seems intent on adding the Clean India agenda to all manner of public events. Thus, this year’s Children’s Day — the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru — will have cleanliness as its main theme. Modi has also been modestly successful in incorporating Clean India to the corporate social responsibility programmes that are now mandated by law.

Yet, these are small beginnings. One of the biggest problems any programme launched by a prime minister or, for that matter, any holder of an official post, faces is the perception that it is a government initiative. Anything with an official tag attached to it is confronted by public apathy and the belief that the entire onus is on the government to ensure its success. This sense of citizen detachment is often reinforced by the unfailing ability of babudom to turn good ideas into displays of tokenism, verging on the tamasha. Over the past few days, for example, I have noticed the low-circulation papers, hungry for advertisements and even the proverbial ‘paid’ news, carrying innumerable photographs of officers of government departments and public sector units sweeping the streets in front of their offices. The general idea, it seemed to me, was for the officers to get themselves photographed and their names publicized in print. The clippings can then be framed in the offices and re-printed in glossy brochures that, hopefully, will be seen by senior officers or, better still, ministers.

Tokenism of the sarkari variety is, of course, a big hurdle to popular participation. To this can be added the perverse tendency of the political system to convert good ideas into partisan talking points. The firm censure of the Lok Sabha MP, Shashi Tharoor, by the Kerala unit of the Congress for endorsing Modi’s Clean India programme wasn’t an isolated act of churlishness. It was meant to send out a clear message to Congress activists that the party doesn’t view Swachh Bharat as a national initiative that transcends party lines. The Congress, it would appear, would rather Modi is shown up as a failure than India imbibing the virtues of public hygiene and becoming muck-free. Indeed, the spirit of contrived partisanship may well increase with the prime minister praising the supportive stand taken by the chief minister of Assam, Tarun Gogoi.

Finally, there is the curious non-participation of the voluntary sector in this initiative. True, some big-ticket philanthropists such as Bill Gates have publicly praised aspects of Modi’s mission to clean India. However, it is remarkable that a country that boasts of having a huge NGO industry, often with generous international funding, has seen the ‘jholawalas’ stay out of the campaign. Part of the reason could lie in the profound activists’ distaste for Modi and everything he stands for. In the main, however, the aloofness of NGOs can be explained by the vested interest this sector has developed in the maintenance of poverty and India’s image as a squalid country that needs dollops of welfare, not an injection of productive investment.

Modi, it would seem, doesn’t have to merely confront filth and muck. An equally big challenge is to motivate enough Indians to believe that change is indeed possible — and in their lifetime.

The Telegraph, October 10, 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A silly controversy over Mohan Bhagwat's speech

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

From a purely news point of view, there were three facets of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s annual Vijayadashami speech in Nagpur last Friday. 

 

First, the Sarsanghachalak extended his full endorsement of the Narendra Modi government, thereby dispelling fears that the coming days could see a repeat of the Prime Minister-RSS tensions that had marked the previous NDA government of Atal Behari Vajpayee. 

 

Secondly, the RSS expressed its scepticism over the ability of the West to mount a successful opposition to the new Khilafatist state now operating on the borders of Iraq and Syria. This is significant insofar as it negates conspiracy theories of any proposed grand Christian-Jewish-Hindu alliance against radical Islamism. 

 

Finally, the RSS chief was extremely harsh in his opposition to the global economic designs of a rising China. In suggesting that Indian consumers should shun cheap Chinese imports he actually questioned the rationale of the economic cooperation that China’s President Xi Jinping offered during his visit to Delhi last month. 

 

It speaks volumes for the priorities of India’s media and political class that the substantive features of the RSS chief’s marg darshan was overwhelmed by a silly controversy over whether or not Doordarshan should have facilitated a live telecast from Nagpur. 

 

Earlier, controversies centred on the news coverage of the state-run broadcaster were always about non-coverage. From the 1970s to the late-1990s, when DD and All India Radio enjoyed a monopoly of the electronic media, opposition parties used to complain routinely about being blacked out on TV and radio. Even as late as 2013, the Aam Aadmi Party expressed indignation that the state media pretended the new outfit didn’t exist—although the lavish (and, occasionally, disproportionate) coverage in the non-state media more than compensated for this loss. 

 

This is probably a rare occasion when a number of political parties and a section of the intellectual class have ganged up to protest against the fact that an event was covered. In its defence DD has argued that coverage was justified on account of its news value. For once—considering how much irrelevant non-news sarkari events it covers—the state broadcaster is right. In today’s political environment the RSS is important because it enjoys a special relationship with the ruling party at the Centre. What the Sarsanghachalak says could potentially offer insights or have a bearing on the thinking of a large section of the BJP that was nurtured in the Sangh. 

 

The hoary debate over whether the RSS is a religious, socio-cultural or quasi-political organisation is interesting. However, the news value of this year’s Vijayadashami speech is on account of its possible political implications. Almost every second day a newspaper or a TV channel contains some remark—invariably outrageous—by a member of some RSS-affiliated organisation indicating a mismatch with government thinking on the subject. Earlier, the VHP’s Pravin Togadia was a great favourite. These days, Dina Nath Batra, the doughty crusader for educational cleansing, has been milked for his forthright views. Should the TV channels, most of which held studio discussions on DD’s coverage of the Nagpur address, now ask themselves whether their coverage of what they construe are RSS views are illegitimate? 

 

In an astonishing comment in its news report on the controversy, Times of India wrote that “Even universal concerns like terror, when spoken about by RSS, acquire a sensitive edge.” The paper appeared to agree with the “political class and social commentators” in calling the telecast “a dangerous trend of state patronage of majoritarian politics.” The implication is clear: the “public broadcaster” must black out the RSS because its ethos is unacceptable to a few the Praetorian guards of public taste. In other words, the job of a public broadcaster is to exorcise anything remotely controversial and beam scintillating news of ministers speaking inanities at seminars and babus opening branches of nationalised banks. The issue of whether or not DD and AIR should compete with other channels for the news space is a disputed one. But the suggestion that India has somehow got contaminated because someone saw Mohan Bhagwat holding forth on DD News is laughable. But more pernicious is the suggestion that the RSS ought to be blacked out because some “social commentators” think it to be a personification of “majoritarian politics.” 

 

I recall that when the victorious Narendra Modi travelled to Varanasi and attended a puja at the Vishwanath Mandir and the Ganga aarti, many private channels had live broadcasts and covered the ceremonies in minute detail. At that time too many social commentators voiced their displeasure over cultural majoritarianism. Maybe it was the same logic that prompted the politically correct organisers of Delhi’s oldest Dusserah celebrations at the Ram Lila maidan to break with tradition and not invite Narendra Modi for the event. The organisers invited Sonia Gandhi to do the honours because, presumably, she is not the personification of “majoritarian politics.” 

 

For a very long time, a coterie has set themselves up as the guardians of public taste and public information. Their writ, of course, doesn’t run because neither religiosity nor political thinking can be regulated. But they have succeeded in creating a gulf between a sanitised, indeed contrived, “official” India and the people’s India. It is time these barriers were broken and India is given the necessary to re-acquire its real personality. That implies that any individual or organisation carrying the ‘Hindu’ tag shouldn’t be automatically be deemed untouchable. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 5, 2014

Friday, October 3, 2014

Modi and the networks

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Last week I attended a very convivial Literature Festival organised at the Technology City, Bangalore, by a group of young enthusiasts. Normally as happens in such gatherings, there is a very thin separating ‘literature’ from current affairs. I was therefore not very surprised to find myself—along with three other Delhi-based journalists—as a speaker on “Polls 2014 and their message.” 

 

What, however, left me a little stunned was the direction of the conversation. Instead of dissecting the meaning of the mandate for Narendra Modi, the discussion centred on the relatively peripheral issue of the Prime Minister’s relationship with the media. In short, instead of the media addressing the larger political phenomenon, the gaze was firmly focussed on itself. The media itself became the subject. 

 

There is no harm in the Fourth Estate occasionally undertaking a bout of navel gazing. However, in the past three months the media is increasingly becoming self-obsessed. 

 

First there were the mutterings of outrage over the Prime Minister’s refusal to take a large media contingent on his aircraft during foreign visits. Modi, it was felt, had violated an established custom. 

 

Secondly, there was a long resolution of the Editor’s Guild of India complaining about the government’s alleged denial of access to the media. Dripping with moral indignation, it declared:"By delaying the establishment of a media inter-face in the Prime Minister's Office, in restricting access to ministers and bureaucrats in offices and in reducing the flow of information at home and abroad, the government in its early days seems to be on a path that runs counter to the norms of democratic discourse and accountability." 

 

Finally, there have been whispers—never substantiated—that the Modi victory has coincided with big editorial changes in a few leading media companies. The implication is that the new regime has somehow arm-twisted owners into removing journalists the government or the BJP deems hostile. This conspiracy theory has been bolstered by the lavish coverage of the Prime Minister, particularly during his visit to the United States. The sceptics have debunked the saturation coverage—that, incidentally, involved considerable expenditure—as being completely over the top. 

 

That Modi has had a troubled relationship with the media is undeniable. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, an influential section of the Delhi media chose to impose sanctions against the Gujarat government. Important initiatives of the state government, not least the numerous Vibrant Gujarat Summits, were at best accorded perfunctory coverage. Indeed, for many English-language publications and channels, the only relevant Gujarat stories were related to the events of 2002. On TV, senior editors made a show of dubbing Modi a “mass murderer” and celebrating the US State Government’s denial of a visa to him. 

 

There is little doubt that the media’s deep hostility to Modi was a factor in its inability to anticipate the national mood during the general election. But whether this strident opposition was, in turn, responsible for Modi choosing to keep the media at an arm’s length is a matter of conjecture. 

 

The Prime Minister’s natural preference is for Doordarshan and All India Radio coverage to be complemented by robust interventions in the social media. This approach may well be determined by a desire to keep a firm control over the messaging and not be derailed by agendas determined by a small left-liberal cabal that exercises a disproportionate hold over the mainstream media. But this is not the complete story. Over the past 15 years or so, the power and influence of the media has grown exponentially. What the complaints of the Editor’s Guild willfully glosses over is the fact that the media has ceased to be a passive recipient and dissector of raw information; it has developed a stake in the decision-making process itself. The terms ‘news trader’, ‘paid media’ and ‘power brokers’ are unflattering descriptions of a profession whose self-image is gloriously elevated. However, recent events (and scandals) have served to establish that media doesn’t merely seek to report but to influence decisions. 

 

To a very large extent Modi establishment’s detachment from routine media engagement stems from an awareness of this extra-constitutional pressure on the process of governance. But it is also premised on the belief that as long as he retains his popularity and the trust of the people, the media will not be able to either ignore the Prime Minister or boycott him. 

 

The US visit was a classic case study. The reason why the Indian media descended on New York and Washington DC, even setting up temporary studios, wasn’t to fawn over Modi and flatter him. The media has always been mindful that Modi attracts eyeballs and generates huge interest. This was what forced many TV channels to disregard their earlier hostility and live telecast Modi’s speeches during the long 2014 campaign. It is the same realization that is driving the coverage of him as Prime Minister. 

 

Modi is providing content to media but he is denying journalists unhindered access to the government’s decision-making process. The Editor’s Guild believes that the establishment of no-go zones is interrupting the flow of information. I disagree. The media is still having access to a huge mass of raw information but it is being denied the spin associated with it. Traditionally, spin has been associated with the communications departments of media-savvy governments. In India, however, bespoke messaging had become the prerogative of corporate lobbyists, arms dealers and old-fashioned fixers. In regulating that zone, the government hasn’t impeded relevant information flows; it has removed the roadblocks in the path of smooth and rapid decision-making. Whether consciously or unwittingly, the media had become instruments of pressure groups and had started affecting purposeful governance. This distortion has been partially checked. 

 

There would have been cause for concern had the government started putting pressure on the media to tailor its reporting for political ends. This has not happened. The likes of the Editor’s Guild are, in fact, complaining about the fact that this government is not leaking in the way its predecessor was. That, to my mind, is the media’s housekeeping problem and not something that compromises India’s vibrant democracy. 

Asian Age, October 3, 2014


Friday, September 26, 2014

Delusions of comfort: Will Modi's India look a more powerful neighbour in the eye?

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

The term “bamboo curtain” has today fallen into complete disuse. Yet, until the post-Mao Zedong succession struggle was conclusively resolved in favour of the reformist Deng Xiaoping in 1978, China was a closed society and, indeed, a mystery that professional China-watchers tried to solve with an imperfect mixture of information, ideology and conjecture.

 

One of the few foreigners who enjoyed privileged access to the Communist Middle Kingdom was the writer Han Suyin, the pen name of Elizabeth Comber, the daughter of a Hakka father and Belgian mother. Han Suyin was an incorrigible fellow traveller who combined her insights into Chinese society with a near-slavish adulation of the regime.

 

In 1979 or thereabouts, Han Suyin delivered a talk at—if my memory serves me right—London School of Economics. She spoke at length on how the perfidious Gang of Four, that included Mao’s ambitious widow Jiang Qing, had tried to hijack the legacy of the Great Helmsman and had been thwarted by the proverbial “great, glorious and correct” Communist Party of China. After the talk, an insolent student got up and reminded the great China expert of her earlier praise for the “revolutionary” qualities of precisely those individuals that were now being denounced as “counter-revolutionaries.” It was an awkward moment for Han Suyin and she tried to get out of a sticky situation by recalling some conversation with a wise Chinese peasant—the counterpart of the ubiquitous taxi driver favoured by foreign correspondents—who had warned her of the dodgy personality of Mao’s second wife.

 

The West Indian-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall used to remark that Communists never admit to being wrong: they merely travel from “correctness to correctness.” This was particularly true of the Sinophiles who doubled up as Sinologists.

 

In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution when Maoism was both a political and fashion statement, the students of Contemporary China in Indian universities were forever told of the monumental achievements of the collectivisation process, the backyard foundries that had contributed to the exponential growth of steel production and the Great Leap Forward. A lot of time was devoted to deciphering Mao’s cryptic utterances such as “everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent” and “it is always darkest before it becomes totally black.” In hindsight, it seems bizarre that some of the most intelligent products of our universities were inspired by Mao to undertake vicious bouts of self-flagellation, all the time quoting the Chairman’s great advice: “To read too many books is harmful.” What was even more unpardonable was their state of hallucination was egged by on by the so-called China experts.

 

Contemporary research, based on a combination of archival research and Chinese self-realisation, has demonstrated the scale of the Chinese disaster under Mao. Reading the histories by scholars such as Frank Dikotter—Mao’s Great Famine and The Tragedy of Liberation—makes me wonder whether the “China experts” can ever be truly trusted to convey an accurate picture of events and trends behind the old “bamboo curtain.”

 

The issue arises in the context of the India visit of China’s President Xi Jinping and its immediate aftermath. In normal circumstances the visit would have been uneventful and routine had it not been for two factors.

 

First, it was preceded by the Indo-Japan bonhomie that was on display during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Japan. Modi’s stray comment about the pitfalls of “expansion” was quite rightly viewed as a reference to an over-assertive China. Read with China’s grave distrust of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to modify Japan’s post-war pacifism and build an indigenous defence capability, there were good reasons to believe that China would do its utmost to thwart any emerging Delhi-Tokyo-Canberra axis that would also have tacit US backing.

 

Secondly, unlike the erstwhile UPA Government that was forever trying to second-guess China and reacting with a spectacular measure of defensiveness, Modi reacted with great displeasure to the standoff in Chumar, along the Line of Actual Control. He is understood to have told President Xi that the much-touted economic cooperation and China’s assurance of $20 billion investment in India would not take off as long as border tensions persisted. Maybe Modi was throwing back at the China Xi’s assertion to the Military Commission in October last year that “core interests” would not be compromised for the sake of “development interests.”

 

Whatever the calculations behind India’s unexpected development of a spine, Xi had assured Modi that the People’s Liberation Army’s provocations would cease. But this assurance appears to have been greeted with either incomprehension or studied defiance by the local PLA commanders. Not only are tensions in Chumar persisting, matters have been complicated by Xi’s remarks to PLA commanders on September 22, immediately after his return from India.

 

The debate in India centres on which aspect of Xi’s message alludes to the India-China border tangle. Should New Delhi view the call for the PLA to be unquestioningly obedient to the political leadership as an indictment of those army commanders who had derailed his India visit? Alternatively, should the advice to the PLA to “improve… combat readiness and sharpen the ability to win a regional war in the age of information technology” be viewed as a veiled warning to India, Japan, Korea and Vietnam to desist from any anti-China alliance?

 

As with such cryptic remarks, no definite conclusions are possible. Unlike most “democratic” countries where decision-making is circumscribed by domestic pulls and pressures, the direction of Chinese nationalism is relatively less dependant on internal compulsions and guided essentially by calculations at the top. To argue that China would always shun a full-fledged, localised conflict because it values old-style economic hegemonism is only partly true.

 

Not since Beijing undertook economic reforms and out-performed the capitalists in their own game has it faced such wariness over its rise and rise. The benign view of an energetic China that prompts admiration in Europe and even the US is not so easily shared in Asia where China combines commerce with the threat of coercion. Even in Australia that had once embraced China exuberantly as its route into Asia, there is now a great deal of anxiety over the implications of an unchecked great power that doesn’t share the political and cultural assumptions of other open societies. Canberra’s endorsement of Japan’s re-militarisation and its decision to sell uranium to India can well be viewed as facets of contingency planning vis a vis China.

 

In this context, India appears as a soft target to China. Contrary to the Nehruvian myth about Asian solidarity, China’s present leadership and indeed its people view India with a mixture of contempt and condescension. This is a perception that neither Indian diplomacy nor Indian business has been able to meaningfully counter. On its part, the Indian government always pursued the line of least resistance in coping with China’s aggressive postures along the LAC. The capacity building exercise along the border that China has pursued with single-minded vigour has not been met by any worthwhile Indian response. The lack of serious intent in building up infrastructure in Arunachal Pradesh even prompts the speculation whether the Indian establishment has mentally abdicated its responsibilities over that region.

 

The mystification of China and the creation of an intellectual fog around it by India’s small-scale China industry are, under the circumstances, understandable. Lacking the political will to look a more powerful neighbour in the eye—a hangover of the 1962 debacle—India has often used abstraction to obfuscate its denial of China’s harsh reality. Is Modi about to destroy this delusionary comfort zone? 

The Telegraph, September 26, 2014


Thursday, September 25, 2014

Falling star: Mamata rules but her halo is gone

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Every government is periodically confronted with problems created by the swagger and reckless behaviour of its functionaries. However, when such events escalate into a full-blown crisis, it often symptomatic of a larger erosion of credibility. West Bengal is in the throes of such an experience.

 

Despite the saturation TV coverage in the Bengali channels and the heady middle class outrage, it may be more accurate to view the agitation centred on Kolkata’s Jadavpur University as a convulsion rather than a full-blown political crisis. With the Durga Puja holidays round the corner, it is likely that passions will subside street marches will be replaced by street revelry. Yet the impression of an unresponsive and insensitive administration is likely to persist.

 

It is astonishing that an incident that began with students demanding action against the molestation of a fellow student quickly escalated into a full-blown movement against the high-handedness of the ruling Trinamool Congress. What could have been handled with tact and sensitivity became, instead, yet another civil society-state confrontation. On a smaller scale, the battle-lines were reminiscent of the kerfuffle over Singur and Nandigram that destroyed the mighty Left Front in 2011.

 

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s political vulnerability may well be overstated by those caught up in the immediacy of the latest turbulence to hit Bengal. However, even for a society where every facet of life is over-politicised, the mood in Kolkata is a curious mixture of conspiracy, disgust and expectancy. Coupled with the Chief Minister’s temperamental volatility and the reckless intemperate utterances of her colleagues, Bengal appears to have hit a political air-pocket yet again. The optimistic anticipation of “poriborton” that saw Didi win a landslide victory three summers ago has dissipated and been replaced by anger and resignation.

 

The impact of the CBI investigations into the Sarada scandal has contributed immeasurably towards eroding the credibility of the TMC dispensation. The overall impression of a bunch of scamsters throwing money extracted from gullible small investors to buy political and media protection has dented the reputation of Mamata as a leader who stood above Mammon. Individuals the Chief Minister had rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats are now hurling grave accusations at the entire TMC establishment. During this month’s by-election campaign, a BJP national office-bearer even attributed unwholesome motives to the Chief Minister’s five-day Singapore junket. Earlier, critics of Mamata would have questioned her political judgment, maybe even dubbed her “mad”, but no one doubted her integrity. With the Sarada scam and her less than forthright reaction to it, she appears to have lost her halo as a selfless, doughty crusader.

 

What should concern the Chief Minister is that tales of the apparent venality of the TMC have spilled over from the drawing rooms of Ballygunge and Alipore to the suburbs. From big businessmen to small-time entrepreneurs, the perennial complaint is one of extortion by the umpteen ‘syndicates’ run by TMC dadas, often in competition with each other. The complaint made by the authorities in Dhaka to New Delhi about Sarda money being used to fund the Jamaat-e-Islami in Bangladesh and the questionable links of a TMC Rajya Sabha MP to radical Islamist groups have even highlighted to apparent disregard for national security. The Chief Minister may be unaware but the impression of a political dispensation operating as an extortion racket—with Robin Hood features—is slowly permeating downwards.

 

On its part, the TMC leadership believes that the talk of a downward slide in its fortunes is media-inspired alarmism. This belief isn’t without basis. The two by-elections in Kolkata’s Chowringhee and Dakshin Basirhat in North 24 Parganas district demonstrated three clear trends.

 

Firstly, there is now evidence to suggest that following its resounding win in the Lok Sabha poll of May 2014, the TMC hold over the state has increased exponentially. In the Chowringhee seat it wrested from the Congress, the TMC vote increased by a staggering 9.7 per cent between May and September 2014. In the border constituency of Basirhat Dakshin (held by the CPI(M) in 2011), the TMC vote rose by 12.1 per cent—a great performance that fell just short of the BJP. The disaggregated picture suggests that the TMC has made further inroads in rural Bengal and among Muslims.

 

Secondly, the by-poll results clearly reveal that the decline of the Left so evident in the general election is continuing at a very rapid pace. The CPI(M) lost its deposit in Chowringhee, polling 1,906 votes less than it did in May. However, in Basirhat Dakshin—a constituency evenly divided between the rural and the small town—its vote fell dramatically by 17,454 (8.4 per cent). Most important, the erstwhile CPI(M) transferred to the TMC and helped it reduce the BJP’s margin.

 

Finally, by just about holding on to the votes gained in the course of the Narendra Modi surge, overtaking the Congress in Chowringhee and winning the Basirhat Dakshin seat, the BJP has positioned itself as the principal opposition to the TMC. Yet, it has a very long way to go before it can emerge as an alternative. Its support still lacks social depth, is extremely patchy in rural Bengal and lacks a robust leadership to counter Mamata’s charisma. The BJP is over-dependent on spontaneity. Its most noticeable gain is in the inroads it has made in the urban clusters that could stand it in good stead in the municipal polls next year.

 

There is a political vacuum in West Bengal caused by the decimation of the Left. For the moment, the TMC is filling the void—which may explain Mamata’s apparent unconcern with the vocal opposition to her erratic governance. West Bengal politics is in a state of transition and may be marked by increased tensions on the ground. 


Hindustan Times, September 25, 2014