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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Modi must now assert his authority

By Swapan Dasgupta

With the Bihar Assembly elections over and Prime Minister Narendra Modi having completed his long overdue visit to the global capital of Anglophone liberalism, it is not surprising that the heady rhetoric of “intolerance” and “Hindu Taliban” has quite abruptly receded into the background.

Maybe there are no more awards to return and more pressing issues than the silly deletion by the Censor Board of a deep kiss in the new James Bond film. Whatever the reality, the overdose of excitement that India experienced in the past six months has yielded way to issues that seem normal — not least of which is a controversy surrounding Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar’s single-handed demolition of the conventional understanding that Pakistan is a foreign country whose involvement in India’s domestic affairs is unsolicited.

While the past six weeks have been cruel for the Government, the concerted assault on the Modi Government has also served a purpose. Apart from exposing the fact that the ancien regime is alive, kicking and unreconciled to the May 2014 general election verdict, the revolt of the intellectuals has exposed the vulnerabilities of the BJP and, by association, the Prime Minister.

At a political level, the experiences of both the Delhi and Bihar elections have shown that it doesn’t take much to whip up feelings and consolidate the ranks of those who are in any case looking for opportunities to give the BJP a beating. In Delhi, it was the largely manufactured reports of attacks on Christian churches that was the trigger for en masse minority voting against the BJP; in Bihar, the impression of cultural insensitivity played a role in depriving the BJP of even some of its traditional backward caste and middle class vote. Both in Delhi and Bihar, the BJP proved remarkably unsuccessful in countering the hostile propaganda. Indeed, some of its own functionaries ended up (unwittingly) providing additional ammunition to the critics.

There is a belief in the BJP and RSS circles that undue importance should not be attached to a media-inspired campaign, particularly the issues that are highlighted by a deracinated English language media. From a narrow statistical perspective, the scepticism is warranted. The readership/viewership of the English language media is very limited but, at the same time, it plays a disproportionate role in setting a larger intellectual agenda. One of the reasons why a section of the media in Britain viewed Modi as yet another oriental ‘despot’ is because it took the cue from the Indian English language media.

I guess that in a country where there is no rationing of democratic expression, this expression of unconcealed and often politically-motivated hostility is an occupational hazard. Yet, before conspiracy theories overwhelm sober assessments, it is instructive to remember that shrill opposition in the media doesn’t always strike a responsive chord in the public space. Had that been the case, Modi wouldn’t have lasted 12 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Nor, for that matter, would he have successfully negotiated the minefields of India to emerge victorious in 2014.

The real reason why the ‘intolerance’ debate proved so costly to the BJP in Bihar had nothing to do with the supposed esteem with which the writers and intellectuals are held in society. The ‘intolerance’ narrative, it would be fair to say, merely complemented a far more damaging impression: A growing impression that in 18 months of being in power the Modi Government has little to show by way of achievement.

To my mind, this impression is misleading and false. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would hazard the opinion that few governments have been so energetic in so many different spheres as has the Modi Government. This is particularly so in the economic sphere.

From financial inclusion, greater devolution of power to the States, decontrol and deregulation to inflation management and dramatically lowering the levels of corruption, the Modi Government has gone a very long way in creating an environment that is conducive to rapid economic growth.

That the initiatives have not always been felt on the ground are due to two factors: first, the state of economic disrepair Modi inherited was far more than initially anticipated and, second, the expectations of instant transformation have not been met.

Yet, the electorate isn’t totally unreasonable. What voters are looking for is evidence that there is purposeful activity on the part of the Government and that things are beginning to get done. Sometimes this isn’t obvious and it is necessary for the Government’s messaging to be completely focussed. Unfortunately for it, the Government has failed miserably to communicate.

Or, expressed in a different way, the Government’s messaging has got overshadowed by conflicting noises pointing in different directions. I would go far as to say that there seems to be little messaging coordination between the Government, the BJP and the Sangh. Each of them seem to be cancelling out the other’s priorities-as happened in Bihar where a innocent but inopportune remark by the RSS chief was successfully exploited by the Mahagathbandhan to foster a forwards-backwards polarisation.

There is little point suggesting that the autonomy of different organisations should be respected. This may be the norm of other democracies but in India, people are inclined to favour a strong leadership and clear directions. Anything else is seen as incoherence and a sign that all is not well in the Republic of India. Having projected himself as a strong, no-nonsense leader, Modi must now show that he is the last word. Even if this results in momentary unpleasantness, its political returns will more than offset the bruised egos of a few.

Sunday Pioneer, November 22, 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Focus on optics of war on negativism

By Swapan Dasgupta

Every election—or, at any rate, most elections—have both winners and losers. By the time this column appears in the print edition, India will have a sense of which side, the Mahagathbandhan or the NDA, has prevailed in the bitterly contested Bihar Assembly election. The election has agitated the minds of the entire political class and has affected the process of governance, both positively and negatively. Many important decisions that ought to have been taken have been put on hold on the after-Bihar plea. This is unfortunate but an unavoidable price of democracy. 

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, the end of the Bihar election saga must necessarily involve getting back into the serious business of governance, attending to outstanding issues and taking decisions that are overdue. Whether the BJP wins or loses, the arduous business of governance (and, by implication, normal politics) must be resumed. 

The first item on the agenda is to redouble efforts to secure the passage of the Goods and Services Tax in the Rajya Sabha. No doubt this will become easier if the NDA wins in Bihar. But even if Nitish Kumar is resumes his post as Bihar’s Chief Minister, it is important to reach out to every non-NDA formation to ensure that India’s growth story is not held hostage to partisan politics. This is a message that must be particularly conveyed to the Congress leadership in no uncertain terms. It is understandable that the Congress—and Rahul Gandhi in particular—is anxious to get over the consequences of the horrible defeat it suffered in the 2014 general election. But a recovery strategy based on making the elected government dysfunctional is a recipe for adventurism. There are some rules governing politics and one of them is respect for a popular mandate. Modi was elected in 2014 to govern for five years and this has to be respected not least by ensuring that Parliament is allowed to function and either approve or reject outstanding legislation. Normal governance cannot be dependant on the proceedings of one National Herald case. 

Secondly, the pace of decision-making has been markedly uneven. The phenomenal energy that the Prime Minister has displayed in foreign policy and in selling the India story to global audiences has not always been mirrored by the same sense of urgency in all the departments of the government. It is not that the government has been unreceptive to the requirements of making India more conducive to growth, investment, entrepreneurship and job creation. But has he succeeded in impressing upon all his colleagues and the bureaucracy that decisions delayed are a day wasted? The mood in India is one of impatience and it is important for all concerned to realise that the pace must be one that of a one-day match rather than a five-day Test, with mandatory lunch and tea breaks. If instilling the sense of utmost urgency necessitates a shuffling of the ministerial cards, the Prime Minister must not be shy of doing what is right. 

Finally, there is an expectation that the destructive and vitriolic debate over intolerance and the so-called space for dissent will ease off after the voting in Bihar—only to reappear in time for the next round of elections. The issue of which side was right and who was being needlessly alarmist need not detain us for the moment. It is sufficient to note that there is a large body of individuals who will persist in tarring the government with the brush of ignominy. Nothing Modi does or doesn’t do will change their determination to battle on as long as the BJP is in power. However, it is not these professional protestors that should be of interest to the regime. Far more important is to reach out to the middle-of-the-road Indians who want to get on with their lives and build a future for themselves and their children. It is this section that has been also shaken by the relentless campaign mounted by the ‘intellectuals’ and a section of the media. Their fears have been aroused by the reckless statements and activities of individuals and fringe groups who imagine they have the monopoly of the truth. 

The Prime Minister has hitherto maintained a strategic silence which has wrongly been interpreted as acquiescence. This impression has to be corrected without much delay, not least because even the remotest hint of social turbulence sends undermines the larger confidence in the government and, by implication, in the country. Isolating the well-entrenched disruptionists requires an imaginative political strategy that does not always lie in frontal, no-holds-barred confrontation. It is time the BJP and the government paid heed to the optics of the war against negativism. One of the important planks of this approach must be better communications and coming down hard on all those who believe in shooting off their mouths without any regard for the wider consequences. 

It is often said that the bench strength of the BJP is weak. Part of this assessment stems from social condescension and the frustrations of disappointed office-seekers. However, it doesn’t negate the larger principle of entrusting the right people with the right responsibilities. After 18 months in office, the Prime Minister must have had the opportunity of getting the full measure of those around him. He must now operationalise his findings. 

The time available between the Bihar results and the next round of Assembly elections is a window of opportunity that must be availed. (END) 

Sunday Pioneer, November 8, 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

Enemies of Liberty: The Liberal World and its Predetermined Conclusions

By Swapan Dasgupta

For historical and other reasons, London has traditionally been a vibrant centre for 'causes'. These range in intensity from support for the Palestinian 'struggle' - the undeniable number one 'cause' that is the equivalent of what the Anti-Apartheid movement was in the 1970s and 1980s - to sectional support for Khalistan among a minority of Sikhs preoccupied with the politics of the local gurdwara.

The net result of this explosion of 'causes' is that there is considerable attention to foreign news in the British media, not least radio and television. Some of this stems from the lingering legacy of the British Empire, whose memorabilia still occupy a large part of the London landscape and whose peoples now form a significant part of its population. But even beyond the erstwhile Empire, the United Kingdom's importance as a trading nation has made foreign news an economic necessity.

The issue is not so much the importance that is accorded to having an international outlook but the nature of the perceptions. The grainy, black-and-white Pathé News footage now available on YouTube, for example, reveals the huge curiosity that accompanied Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Britain for the Second Round Table Conference in 1931. That curiosity and the bewilderment over his clothes, his diet and his wily negotiating stand were factors that ensured a relatively benign perception of the Indian nationalist movement. This was equally true for Nelson Mandela. The legend surrounding the man incarcerated for so long by the South African State ensured that apartheid never secured the full-throated endorsement of fellow-whites in Britain.

Both Gandhi and Mandela were unintended beneficiaries of a natural tendency to see happenings in foreign lands as a tussle between the good and the bad. Neither the Indian nor the South African icon could ever be painted as baddies. By an over-simplistic extrapolation, this meant that India's freedom movement and the war against white racist rule in South Africa were never subjected to unqualified denunciations. At best, the sceptics raised the question: are these good men leading armies of individuals who are not equally blessed?

In today's more complicated but far more inter-connected world, the hierarchy in the Chamber of Horrors is often determined by the media. There are some all-time hate figures: among African leaders, it used to be the Ugandan Idi Amin and now it is the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe whose sweeping victory in the 1979, post-Lancaster-House election created an acute bout of anxiety in London's Clubland. In Europe, the hate-list is, quite predictably, headed by Russia's no-nonsense leader, Vladimir Putin, who is charged with being an authoritarian in the mould of his predecessors in the Kremlin. No one has actually suggested with any measure of seriousness that the post-Ukraine sanctions against Russia will propel a 'regime change' - that demand is reserved exclusively for the hapless Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, waging his clumsy war against the Islamic State - but it has always been made clear that the ex-KGB strongman is not quite kosher. Also failing the British media's kosher test is Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his Likud party. They are debunked quite spiritedly because of their stubborn unwillingness to tailor policies to suit the Made in Britain liberal consensus.

One of the newest entrants into the ranks of the politically unacceptable is Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party (AKP) coasted to a comfortable victory in last week's general election. It was described by most media commentators as a "shock" victory. The question is: shocking for whom? Judging from the footage of the celebrations in Istanbul and the categorical nature of the mandate, it would seem that most Turkish citizens - with the exception of the Kurdish minority that voted differently - were exasperated by the drift that had resulted from the fractured mandate of the June 2015 election, and re-elected Erdogan to restore stability and give a definite direction to the country. Using Indian analogies, the outcome in Turkey was akin, in different ways, to the victory of Indira Gandhi in 1980 and Narendra Modi's triumph in 2014. Both may have been shocking for those who (perhaps unwittingly) posit their own thinking and values on the electorate, but it probably came as no great "shock" to voters who live outside the chattering class ghettos of Istanbul and Ankara.

If the British media are any indication, the liberal fraternity of Turkey-watchers have equated Erdogan's victory as their personal defeat. On Monday's Channel Four news, the reporter proffered a curious observation: the election was free, but was it fair? The implication was that the AKP had twisted the terms of the debate to favour itself. That's not surprising, and isn't that what David Cameron did in Britain earlier this year when he invoked the horror of a left-wing Labour frittering away the economic gains of the past five years? Would we say that the UK general election was free but not fair?

Then there was the second catch phrase: Erdogan, it was widely suggested, was "divisive" and could steer Turkey in an "authoritarian" direction. Just prior to voting, a European Union report suggesting a possible erosion of democracy was leaked. In addition, there were the usual bouts of verbal skirmish between AKP leaders and media that mouthed the usual liberal platitudes, including, presumably, some we'll-fix-you threats from both sides. In India, these would be run-of-the mill stuff, a part of what Amit Shah would presumably call " jumla". They don't correspond to decorous conduct in the UK where the height of offensiveness consists of pelting opponents with rotten vegetables. But surely the media have to judge every society through indigenous standards.

Indians, it would seem, understand the forces at play in Turkey far better than Guardian-readers from London. On a Radio Four news programme shortly after the Turkish results were known, a BBC reporter asked an English-speaking psychologist her reactions. She admitted that she was both upset and disappointed by Erdogan's victory. "Will you now leave the country?" the reporter proceeded to ask. It was such a strange and leading question that even the lady was taken aback: "Why?" she retorted, "This is my country."

The question flowed from the pre-conceived notion that Erdogan was a baddie and that his "shock" victory would usher an era of "divisive" politics where the ultra-secular elite would lament the passing of the good old days of uninhibited cosmopolitanism. There was a pre-determined conclusion, and the questions and answers were expected to provide it substance.

I recall participating (from Delhi) on the BBC's flagship Newsnight programme on the night of Modi's victory in May 2014. I expected a few searching questions on the priorities and agenda of the new government. What was on offer instead was a pre-recorded lament of Sir Anish Kapoor suggesting this was not the India he grew up in. A pre-determined narrative, in other words, had been kept ready to pander to predetermined conclusions. Erdogan has been subjected to that same treatment: his view of the Turkish future differs from the liberal narrative on the subject.

The day after Diwali, Modi arrives in Britain for his first visit as prime minister. In terms of the liberal consensus, Modi is an affront and must be brought down a notch or two. Don't, therefore, be surprised if the rally for 60,000 doting Indians at Wembley stadium on November 13 becomes the occasion for gratuitous comparisons with rallies in the town of Nuremberg. In the liberal world, there is space for only one view - their own.

The Telegraph, November 6, 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Indian Right has risen. Now who's the 'Stupid Party'?

By Swapan Dasgupta


Some years ago, while researching for an article on Australia, I came upon an observation by Pru Goward, a journalist-turned-politician of the ruling Liberal Party, that has a bearing on today’s Indian politics. “Conservative governments”, she wrote, “don’t have natural supporters who are articulate and philosophical writers. The conservative intellectual group is very small in Australia. So the politicians are lonely and they are joked about all the time.” 


What Goward observed about Australia can be said to be true for much of today’s democratic world. In Britain, the Conservatives have for long been derided as the “stupid party” and even the “nasty party.” Margaret Thatcher was denied an honorary doctorate by the dons of Oxford University—an astonishing act of petty-mindedness. Today, the Left-inclined cartoonists paint Prime Minister David Cameron and his Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as variants of the upper-class twits portrayed in Monty Python skits. In the US, Ronald Reagan, arguably the architect of one of the most transformative presidencies after Franklin Roosevelt, was unendingly mocked for his ‘simple’ beliefs that were said to have derived more from John Wayne movies than the tomes of Adam Smith—a caricature that was also extended to George W. Bush. 


In India, thanks to Jawaharlal Nehru’s self-image as the enlightened, cosmopolitan socialist, his conservative opponents were painted as provincial bumpkins riddled with obscurantist priorities that ranged from cow protection to Ayurveda. To this was added the social disdain of the ‘progressive’ for the dhoti-clad bania, the supposed epitome of a commercially-minded ‘Hindu Right.’ When the Cambridge-educated Congress MP taunted the ‘chaiwala’ credentials of Narendra Modi he was simply mirroring attitudes the Nehruvian order tried to implant as common sense. This perverse common sense often masquerades as the modern alternative to India’s larger cultural inheritance.


The appeal of patrician socialism may well have diminished over the decades, but the projection of the ideological ‘Other’ as stupid, socially regressive and aesthetically unsound has persisted. Indeed, it has made a dramatic re-entry into the public discourse in recent months following the outbreak of the culture wars. The editorial pages of newspapers are replete with outbursts against the simple-minded ‘Hindu Right’ that has failed to understand the metaphors of Hinduism, the complexities of the historical process, diverse food habits and the ‘idea of India.’ In a recent article, a historian who made his mark in the echo chamber of Jawaharlal Nehru University asserted that the “Hindutva brigade has… failed to produce any notable professional historian. The new developments in the discipline have passed them by.” In short, the intellectual ecosystem of the Indian Right is seriously deficient and unworthy of being taken seriously by “professional” scholars. 


That the Indian Right has been preoccupied with political activism rather than creating an alternative intellectual tradition isn’t in doubt. However, much of this failure can be attributed to the fact that the scholastic environment in Indian universities since the late-1960s has been unrelentingly hostile to anything inimical to the liberal and Marxist paradigm. The element of group-think was so marked that non-conformists such as the writer Nirad Chaudhury and the economist Jagdish Bhagwati found living in India quite suffocating: they became intellectual refugees from progressivism. Traditional disciplines centred on classical studies underwent such derision and neglect that Sanskrit studies survive today courtesy institutions in the West. The result: India’s ‘traditional intellectuals’ were completely marginalised from the intellectual mainstream. 


It is worth remembering that this systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems didn’t take place only under British rule; the trend persisted in post-Independent India under the spurious guise of implanting a ‘scientific temper’. 


That despite the absence of a level playing field, the Indian Right with a culturalist agenda (and commitment to economic deregulation) has grown exponentially over the past decades is significant. It suggests that when proffered a real choice, Indians are more inclined to put their faith in rooted traditions—particularly those grounded in traditional value systems, the family structure, collective historical memory and what can loosely be called common decencies. 


For too long, Indian conservatism has been at the receiving end of condescension and caricature. It may now be time to turn the notions of stupidity upside down. 

Sunday Times of India, November 1, 2015


Sunday, October 25, 2015

Media has dropped the mask of neutrality

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are a lot of people—or so I gather from a casual perusal of the social media—that believe General V.K. Singh was quite unfairly pilloried for his unfortunate ‘dog’ analogy. They are right, but only half right. 

The past two years—dating back to the time Narendra Modi was announced as its prime ministerial candidate by the BJP back in September 2013—has seen a determined section of the media launch a crusade against the so-called ‘Hindu Right’. Initially, the campaign was centred—as the Supreme Court judgment in the Sanjeev Bhatt case has pointed out—on an attempt to target Modi on the 2002 riots, using the services of disgruntled officers, Congress functionaries and politicised NGOs. As the campaign progressed, the media switched tack and began a perception war to show that while Modi would help the BJP better its 2009 performance, he would never win. The leading lights of this campaign were media stalwarts—in fact the very people who are most active today in fuelling the culture wars. 

I need hardly elaborate on the media’s conduct since May 2014. No stone has been left unturned to attack the government and tarnish Modi’s image. Initially it was done surreptitiously, under the cover of professionalism. However, now that the opposition has reached a critical mass—with the induction of writers, intellectuals, socialites, NGOs and, above all, the discovery of a new leader in the form of Nitish Kumar—even the pretence of neutrality has been discarded. The secularist bush telegraph having proclaimed a Mahagathbandan victory in Bihar—with Lalu Prasad Yadav under wraps—the cloak of professionalism has been discarded. It is now open season on the BJP—a process that will continue unabated till the general election of 2019. What Finance Minister Arun Jaitley described as “politics by other means” now involves making governance impossible for Modi, shifting focus from development and economic growth to old-style identity politics, and triggering a backlash of unfulfilled expectations. 

As a strategy it is clever—possibly as clever as the CIA-inspired political backlash against the left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early-1970s. Anyone studying the phenomenon in its totality will realise what the game plan of the emerging anti-Modi coalition is, and the paramount importance of the media in the entire operation. Certainly, as a former military man who has been trained in anticipating the enemy, General Singh should have known about it. 

And yet, beginning from Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar to General Singh, BJP functionaries have basically competed with each other to provide ammunition to the party’s opponents, particularly the media. The reasons for their apparent boo-boos are multiple. First, speaking to the media involves skill sets that many politicians, accustomed to speaking with fellow politicians and ‘normal’ people, just don’t possess. Secondly, many politicians—like many in the media—live in echo chambers and are seemingly impervious to how their matter-of-fact utterances are likely to be interpreted, misinterpreted or even distorted in translation. Thirdly, there is still insufficient awareness, on the government side at least, that the media’s courtship of them isn’t necessarily a reflection of their importance in the political ecosystem. In recent times, the media chases ministers and MPs not because they feel obliged to understand what important functionaries feel or believe. Rushing after political functionaries with a camera or tape recorder has become akin to throwing a banana skin in their path and hoping they will slip. Politicians may feel that they are telling the people, through the media, about their good works. But they are in no position to determine the nature of the final product. 

Recently, to take a random example, the Haryana Chief Minister gave a few interviews on the occasion of his first year in office. He must have spoken about his development works and other challenges facing the state. But what grabbed the media space were the questions on beef, where a contested translation made headlines. The victims of distortion—where they occur—might well engage in subsequent damage limitation, as Khattar did. But it is important to remember that the media does not believe in apologies or admissions of error. The tiny corrections in small print—or, in extreme cases, taking the offending article off the web editions or YouTube—doesn’t contain the damage because the controversy, by then, has reached every corner of the political world. 

There are politicians who feel that the sins of the mainstream media, while worrying, are overwhelmed by the direct communication that social media enables. This is partly true. There is no doubt that the monopoly of the mainstream media over information and analysis has diminished, and is diminishing as Indians are more and more exposed to better net connectivity. However, there are two shortcomings of the social media. Firstly, the so-called opinion leaders and opinion makers still take their cue from the mainstream media. The influence of the mainstream media also follows a demographic curve: it is more marked among older people than the young. Secondly, for all its other attributes, social media suffers from its inability to establish a hierarchy of information. It fails to distinguish what is very important and what is less so. This matters in an age where there is a veritable information overload of what is happening internationally, nationally and locally. The hierarchy of news is still determined by the mainstream media: a reason why it still exercises considerable influence. 

Some of the campaigning hyper-activity that is visible in the media today is almost entirely determined by the Bihar election. After November 8, the intensity of the campaign will depend on the outcome: a BJP defeat may propel the media to go for the kill and make the government dysfunctional. On its part, the government will have to evolve more effective communication strategies to focus popular attention on issues that really matter for India. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 25, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Feeling Superior: India's dietary brinkmanship

By Swapan Dasgupta

In its October 15 edition, The Telegraph accorded extraordinary prominence to a lecturer of my alma mater, St Stephen’s College in Delhi, who invited a group of friends to an eating joint in Majnu ka Tilla—which, in my university days, was a Tibetan colony that served a potent home-brewed rice beer—for a pork-heavy meal. The lecturer, nominally a Muslim who gave the pork dishes a miss, had a definite objective in mind: to demonstrate that we can and should be accommodative about other people’s food preferences, even when it doesn’t correspond to our own. 

One of the guests, another lecturer at St Stephen’s, is quoted by this paper as having posted a Facebook message that went a step further: “We had among us Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a Sikh! We ate beef, pork, lamb, chicken and vegetables but we did it together and all the while respecting each other’s choices of what to eat and what not to eat! We share concern, anguish and frustration over the fascism that is taking over this beautiful land of ours.” 

Apart from the over-use of the exclamation mark, the Facebook message was revealing. This was no ordinary meal of a group of friends: with the attendant publicity, it was a political protest—somewhat akin to the inter-caste dining that used to be favoured by reformist bodies in the past, but sans a common fare for all. The larger libertarian message was unmistakable: in India, everything goes or, rather, should go. And particularly in the battle against ‘fascism.’ 

Maybe the horrible killing in a Dadri village called for an exceptional protest—what Lenin used to call “bending the stick” in the other direction. On Twitter, a vocal Congress supporter called for a beef-eating protest in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. But it is not surprising that this public grandstanding failed to gather any worthwhile support and was quietly dropped. Nor did the videographed killing of a cow by a pro-Pakistan Islamist leader in the Kashmir Valley—the footage was mischievously distributed through WhatsApp—prompt emulation by her co-religionists. 

Indeed, there was a very mixed message that emanated from the Dadri killing and its aftermath. While there was all-round condemnation of vigilantes who take matters into their own hands and enforce lynch-mob justice, most sensible people felt that diet was too sensitive a subject to be exposed to the whims of either a stubborn religious orthodoxy or insolent libertarians. 

In the course of their private lives, particularly during travels overseas, most middle class Indians have deviated from inherited dietary practices. I know many individuals from shuddh vegetarian households who are not averse to eating meat or fish in restaurants—but rarely permit it to be cooked at home. I know beef eating Hindus and pork eating Muslims. What binds most of these dietary ‘deviants’ aren’t their rebelliousness but an over-weaning desire to keep their experiments with the forbidden as discreet as possible. 

When it comes to food, most Indians have willingly accommodated the sensitivities of others. The joint family structure that set social norms has always deemed that individual preferences should always be subordinated to the prevailing consensus. Few people gratuitously serve pork if there is going to be Muslim guests. Likewise, exceptional care is taken to separate the vegetarian dishes from the meat preparations, in the event that one of the guests is vegetarian. Indian airline companies, apart from separating the vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, never have either pork or beef on the menu. In the political gatherings of Delhi, the default food—unless expressly stated otherwise—is invariably vegetarian. True, there are exceptions—the Christmas lunches at the clubs of Kolkata come to mind—but in the main, Indians have over the centuries learnt the virtues of taking exceptional care to not needlessly offend others. 

It is certainly true that there is a large element of hypocrisy in India’s dietary brinkmanship. But pretence has always been regarded as preferable to offence. 

The alternative approach has invariably had unhappy consequences. The breaking of caste and religious taboos, for example, was a feature of the Young Bengal rebellion in the early-19th century. Intoxicated by an overdose of western rationalism, young Bengalis—mainly from the upper castes—chose to break down the barriers of what they regarded as superstition and mindless orthodoxy by throwing pieces of beef at unsuspecting Hindus or ‘defiling’ their houses in a similar way. The argument was that the resulting ostracism would force ‘mindless’ Hindus into seeing the light of the true faith. Unfortunately, the young rebels were literally chased out of society by the resulting backlash. 

In his Letters on Hinduism, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was unsparingly scathing about those ‘liberated’ Hindus who tried to impress others with their version of shock and awe. “And what shall I say”, he wrote, “of that weakest of human beings, the half-educated anglicised and brutalised Bengali babu, who congratulates himself on his capacity to dine off a plate of beef as if this act of gluttony constituted in itself unimpeachable evidence of a perfectly cultivated intellect?” 

Bankim babu penned his distaste for the poseurs some 130 years ago, at a time when the terms of upward social mobility were often set with a westward gaze. However, it is remarkable to see the same attitudes replicated in today’s India under the cover of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment. 

Last week, a leading publication devoted to economics and business warned that India’s pitch for foreign investment would suffer grievously if multinational corporations discovered that would not be able to serve to their expat executives. It would have been understandable if the publication had warned of the vitiated atmosphere resulting from anti-beef vigilantism but to suggest that red meat deprivation is an investment hazard seems far-fetched. The lunch room and staff canteens of the corporate group that brings out the publication, for example, has been unwaveringly vegetarian ever since its previous British owners sold out and departed in the late-1940s. This practice has neither affected its market reputation nor jeopardised its business strategies. It has been accepted for what it is: a symbol of one community’s cultural ethos. 

I once asked the manager of the iconic, Michelin star restaurant Waterside Inn, about the eating habits of his corporate clients. He showed me the menu for a dinner hosted by a prominent Marwari businessmen for his European associates: the fare was entirely vegetarian, albeit cooked French style. This Indian businessman too wasn’t squeamish about his socio-cultural moorings.

Whether or not Hindus ate beef in Vedic times is an interesting historical debate. But regardless of the answer, the fact is that beef has been considered a big no-no for as long as we can remember. To not eat beef—or in the case of Jews and Muslims, shun pork—doesn’t automatically rule them out of the cosmopolitanism league. On the contrary, those uber liberals who champion the wearing of T-shirts proclaiming ‘I am a beef eater’ (in French, presumably) betray an inferiority complex. 

The St Stephen’s lecturer was arguing that faith and food shouldn’t go hand in hand. The sub-text of his demonstrative protest was that, maybe, we should be more like either Christians or Communists—whose food preferences are determined by individual tastes alone. But the fact is Indians have their own values and eating beef isn’t a obligatory attribute of Indian-ness. Making a fetish of it offends common decencies. There are more wholesome ways of conducting a protest against a vegetarian Prime Minister who unfailingly observes the Navratra fast, regardless of where he is. However, if you want to show you are different and superior… 

The Telegraph, October 23, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Culture wars: It's more a clash of lifestyles than a battle of ideas

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1961, in a monograph woefully difficult to locate today, the Chicago sociologist Edward Shils studied the predicament of the Indian intellectual in the high noon of the Nehruvian era. His approach was sympathetic but his larger conclusions were not terribly flattering to a community that saw itself as the vanguard of India’s journey to modernity. 


Despite its near-uninterrupted Brahmanical tradition of scholarship and sustained exposure to the West, India, Shils felt, “has not yet developed the traditions which are essential to intellectual life.” Despite possessing a significant intelligentsia, the orientation of the Indian intellectual, he felt, was “provincial.” Part of this was due to the drudgery of economic survival, the depressing environment of the universities and media, the prevailing anti-business ethos and the diversion of talent into the bureaucracy. But at the heart of the “insulted and injured” self-image of the Indian intellectual was the confusion over where he stood in relation to India. At one level, he observed, nearly “all of what certain Indian intellectuals refer to as ‘modern thought’ comes to them through England and the medium of English.” At the same time, there was the reality of life in a traditional—and largely—Hindu milieu. “It would not be an outlandish exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Indian of Hindu descent to cease to be a Hindu.” 


To Shils, this mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s amission in his Autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere… (In) my own country… I have an exile’s feeling.” 


Shils penned his observations 54 years ago. Since then, India has undergone a massive transformation: the economic plight of the middle classes isn’t so dire; England has been replaced by USA as the new modernist Mecca; business is no longer an object of disdain; and the “Hinduistic traditionalist revival” that Shils so feared would occur after Nehru has become a reality. At the same time, in sheer numbers, the Indian intelligentsia has grown exponentially—with some intellectuals having acquired the prefix “public.” It has benefitted from more centres of learning, the growth of media and publishing, and, most important, to unhindered access to global currents. The Indian rendered inadequate by the shortage economy has evolved into a self-confident, if slightly cocky, citizen of a country that looks expectantly to a glorious Asian future. 


Yet, Shils’ study isn’t entirely dated: the intellectual neurosis that he detected is still visible but it has acquired new and interesting—but not always palatable—dimensions. 


In his study, Shils elaborated on the Indian intellectuals’ sense of disconnect from the wider environment and his attempt to overcome it through identification with an association with the broad Left. However, he also encountered an “excellent young historian, trained at Oxford, productive as a scholar… and himself head of a division in an important Ministry.” The gentleman told him: “I don’t feel out of touch with the people, they might feel out of touch with me but that is their concern, not mine.” 


The identity of the historian is very thinly veiled. But what is interesting is that what seemed like the outburst of a poseur in 1961 has persisted and become a fashion statement in 2015. Five decades ago, and despite the fond England-gazing, intellectuals were mindful of the larger society in which they lived. Their intellectual individualism was invariably circumscribed by the prevailing ethos of the joint family or the community whose ethos demanded an exceptional measure of self-restraint. True, there were the odd group of bohemians (like the 19th century Young Bengal movement) for whom creativity and self-indulgence were happy partners but, by and large, these were exceptions. Most intellectuals respected society, even when they were inclined towards the avant garde


The desire to break out of provinciality and embrace cosmopolitanism has, today, led to intellectual freedom being equated with iconoclasm, disregard for existing social mores and a show of intellectual insolence—bordering on snobbery—directed at those unable to appreciate the delights of permissiveness. Nothing is sacred—and certainly not the cow.


There is a culture war raging in India today. Alas, it is only nominally a clash of ideas and more about conflicting lifestyles. 

Sunday Times of India, October 18, 2015