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Sunday, October 16, 2016

Implications of an imploding Trump campaign

By Swapan Dasgupta

Not unexpectedly, the world shares an obsessive preoccupation with the US presidential election. Many people, particularly those who have internalised the American way of life as their own, take sides and often seem far more engaged than those who will actually vote to select the new occupant of the White House. 

It has been no different this year, but with one difference: the outcome of the election seems a bit too predictable. Barring an absolute political miracle that will put pollsters permanently out of business and transform Facebook into a wailing wall, it seems certain that Hilary Clinton is heading for a resounding win. Some say that it could be a win that, in terms of electoral votes, could equal President Richard Nixon’s victory over George McGovern in 1972. But just as Senator McGovern commanded a significant measure of support from the uber liberal community across the world, Donald Trump also has his vocal support base. 

However, while there is something historic in the fact that Hilary Clinton will be the first woman president of the US, her likely win will be less her personal triumph. It is generally agreed, even by those who will make the effort to actually vote, that the Democratic nominee is not inspirational (unlike President Obama or even Bill Clinton) but quite wooden. In addition, there is much in her past record to suggest that she is often unable to make a distinction between personal interests and public office. A different Republican nominee would have ensured that her victory in November was by no means assured. 

However, much more than the shortcomings of Trump, the transformation of the race in the final month of the campaign into a one-horse contest owes almost entirely to the media. When Hilary is sworn-in on a wintry January morning next year, she must ensure that there is a special enclosure for the media that ensured the transformation of Trump from an angry rebel to a crude misogynist. The relentless enthusiasm with which it broadcast Trump’s ‘locker room’ profanities and subsequently embroidered those with even more ‘grope’ tales ensured that the Republican campaign imploded. It was theoretically possible to create a moral equivalence centred on the misdemeanours of both candidates. Trump has a sordid record as a private citizen and Hilary’s record in public office does not bear exacting scrutiny. However, by literally thrusting the wooden stake into Trump’s nether region, while underplaying Hilary’s dodgy record, the mainstream media tilted the balance quite decisively against the Republicans. In particular, the press and TV channels ensured that Trump approached the election having incurred the displeasure of all women—of all colour and all political persuasion. It was theoretically possible for Trump to win on the strength of the White vote alone, but not with White women also deserting him. And that late swing was entirely a media creation. 

There are serious implications of a Trump defeat. Trump was probably the first example of a non-politician, with robust views but no clear political identification, actually prevailing over the Republican establishment. This has not happened before and nor do I suspect will it happen in the foreseeable future if the Trump campaign implodes. At the same time, the likelihood of established political leaders who have cut their teeth in conventional politics actually internalising populist disruption, shouldn’t be discounted. In France, to take a Western example, the unlikely possibility of National Front leader Marine Le Pen actually ever winning a presidential election has prompted former President Nicolas Sarkozy to appropriate the populist plank and blend it with a more conventional personality. In Hungary, the resounding anti-immigration verdict of the recent referendum points to the Establishment itself embracing populism.

In hindsight, what was wrong with Trump was not what he was advocating. Controlling immigration, reviewing multilateral trade pacts and stepping away from America’s role as the global policeman are themes that resonate throughout the US and constitutes a legitimate anti-Establishment plank. However, the chances of disruptive politics actually succeeding is diminished if it is apparent—as it was in the case of Trump—that the person championing it is not emotionally all there. 

I don’t believe that Trump’s defeat will signal the end of a viable anti-Establishment populism. All over Europe populism is growing as a response to an uncaring cosmopolitan elite that seems to disregard those frightened or left behind by economic or demographic changes. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Theresa May is building a new conservatism that leans more on the nationalism of the far-Right and the class resentment of the Left. I don’t believe that May necessarily believes in what she has said is her policy thrust. She is merely responding to what she sees are political opportunities. 

It is more than likely that Hilary Clinton will either try and forge a rainbow coalition based on identity politics or, if she is clever, try and incorporate elements of Trumpism into her presidency. Either way her ride will be choppy. And that is because Trump has demonstrated that the bipartisan Coca Cola-Pepsi Cola consensus that defined US politics for long is now breaking down—irretrievably. It took a maverick such as Trump to lay bare the new faultlines. Alas, he didn’t have the polish and communication skills of Ronald Reagan to convert it into a winning platform. Trump is over but the themes of his campaign will haunt the US for much longer. 
Sunday Pioneed, November 16, 2016

Friday, July 29, 2016

An old contest - Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship

By Swapan Dasgupta 

The battle between the judiciary and the executive (and its various arms) is never ending. In the recent past, it has actually intensified as the courts have stepped into a twilight zone created either by the executive's dereliction of its responsibilities or by an onrush of judicial activism. In the public eye, the intensity of the conflict is magnified when the battle lines are over civil liberties.

In a recent judgment, the Bombay High Court cleared the film, Udta Punjab, for public viewing after ordering one scene to be deleted. Earlier, the Central Board of Film Certification - erroneously referred to in everyday usage as the censor board - had made the release of the film conditional on 89 cuts. Additionally, the high court berated the CBFC for its "poor understanding of people's minds"- a serious charge considering that the board has been entrusted the responsibility of being the country's moral guardian, at least in one sphere of the creative arts.

The battle between film-makers and the CBFC is not new, and predates the contested appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairman by the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. However, the spirited controversy over the appointment has served to make the issue a facet of the wider war being waged by 'progressive' and left-inclined artistes and intellectuals against the Bharatiya Janata Party. A significant section of the creative community believes that the BJP is blessed with a retrograde world view that it seeks to impose on the country.

Given the fact that international - and, by implication, Western-dominated -views on India are disproportionately shaped by the predilections of India's intellectual community, it is hardly surprising that the Udta Punjab controversy was viewed as further evidence of India's steady drift towards becoming an 'illiberal' democracy, along the lines of, say, Turkey. The world media had a blast ridiculing the Narendra Modi government for the CBFC's censorship of a prolonged kissing scene in the most recent James Bond film - an act that, apart from being a little over the top, amounted to doing the reputation of Agent 007 grave injustice.

To view the Udta Punjab controversy exclusively through the prism of artistic freedom is tempting, and even partially valid. However, in the context of a booming industry whose box-office turnover is calculated at something in the region of Rs 250 billion, there are other important considerations.

The striking differences between the high court and the CBFC over what is appropriate for public viewing turned out to be huge: one cut versus 89 deletions. Arguably, the Indian Cinematograph Act that prescribes the responsibilities of the CBFC allows a huge scope for discretion. Section 5(B)1 of the Act stipulates that "a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if... it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality... or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."

If this constitutes a vast canvas, there are also the May 1983 guidelines issued to the CBFC by the Union government. These charge the CBFC with ensuring "the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society"; to ensure "artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed"; and to see that "certification is responsive to social change."

That the guidelines of the CBFC permit for a great deal of subjectivity is obvious. However, when the differences between two versions of enlightened wisdom turn out to be yawning, it could mean either of two things. First, that one of the involved parties was guilty of individual flights of whimsy. Second, the huge perceptional difference could point to the fact that the national consensus over the limits of freedom has broken down irretrievably.

Viewed either way, this is not good news for an industry that combines both wholesome entertainment and the avant-garde. It is understood that film-makers in India work with a large measure of self-restraint, particularly in matters of sex, violence and politics. Moreover, while being mindful of the CBFC, they have also had to develop a sixth sense about the 'super sensors' - those who believe it is their right to be violently aggrieved at the slightest provocation. Taking offence has become a vibrant cottage industry in India and even films cleared by the CBFC without too much fuss have been withdrawn from cinemas following charges that they offended someone living or dead or some community.

Indeed, given the minefields in its path, not least of which is the sheer unpredictability of the film-certification process, it is a wonder that India's film industry has soared to such heights and become an important facet of the country's soft power. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the industry would have grown further and even notched up Rs 500 billion at the box office annually had it not been for socio-political impediments. At the same time, it is worthwhile remembering that most of the films that have been box-office hits and even set cultural trends haven't faced problems with the CBFC. Neither have the so-called 'daring' films that have tested the open-mindedness of the CBFC made much of a mark in the Indian diaspora. The only possible exception may have been Sholay, made during the Emergency years, that was forced to modify a part of its storyline because the CBFC objected to its supposed glorification of violence. But then Emergency also saw Kishore Kumar songs being taken off the State-controlled radio because he had said no to performing at a Youth Congress rally.

The suggestion put forward by the yet-unreleased Shyam Benegal committee report to force the CBFC to confine itself to certification and avoid negotiating cuts is appealing. However, it is unlikely to appeal to most of India and not even to the industry. The last thing India can afford is to face a cultural backlash on account of the radical experimentation of a few film-makers whose contribution to the industry as a whole has been modest. What sets a trend and secures the endorsement of the practitioners of the abstruse discipline called Film Studies should not be allowed to set the standards of openness.

However, it is instructive to remember that the overriding importance of cinema in the social and cultural life of India has been significantly eroded by the multiplicity of entertainment channels on TV and the internet revolution. Both these developments are interesting for the simple reason that TV programmes and video streaming on YouTube are available to everyone without pre-censorship. The sheer volume of sexually explicit and culturally reprehensible material available on the internet has only served to underline the self-defeating character of prudish moral policing by the CBFC. Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship.

At one level, the censorship debate constitutes a footnote in public affairs. For the mainstream film industry too, the inherent arbitrariness of the certification process is a minor (but entirely manageable) irritant. Yet, each occasion, some pretentious film-maker dares the authorities and tests the endurance levels of artistic freedom, the international fraternity of liberals comes down hard on India, portraying it as a grim place where only buccaneers would love to do business. Contesting this one-sided narrative is, alas, not really possible in an unequal world where the idea of freedom is judged in terms of its proximity to permissiveness. Curbing prudish impulses has become an ease of doing business imperative.

Telegraph, July 29, 2016

Friday, July 1, 2016

Against The Grain: Brexit is a comment on the EU experience

By Swapan Dasgupta

When the British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey detected the lights going out all over Europe on a summer evening in August 1914, he was being both poetic and prescient. The war that ensued following the accidental assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had no real victors and signalled the end of Old Europe. The scars of that war still live us as Great Britain commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a single devastating battle that could be said to have begun the process of the end of the British Empire. 

There was a lot of melancholic poetry that accompanied the referendum over continuing membership of the European Union on June 23. As the dramatic decision of the electorate to leave the EU became apparent, there was an outpouring of emotion from those who had endorsed the losing side. ‘Our futures dashed’, ‘youth disenfranchised’ and the ‘end of the United Kingdom’ were among the more parliamentary expressions of sadness. On social media—an invaluable archive for future historians—the losers turned their anger on the surprise winners of the Brexit campaign. The No voters were dubbed ‘morons’, ‘bigots’ and ‘racists’ and the heavy artillery was directed at the UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and the two Conservative Party stalwarts—Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The 17 million ‘idiots’ who had voted No were accused of succumbing to ‘lies’. In a spectacular display of the crab mentality, the media reserved its harshest abuse for fellow journalist Johnson because he was said to have pilloried the EU in order to get his foot into the door of 10 Downing Street. 

Never, in recent memory, has a democratic outcome been subject to so much vilification. This included a demand for the disenfranchisement of elderly voters, the social vanguard of the Brexit army, and a demand for Parliament to overturn the sovereignty of the people. A Leftist pamphlet I received on email observed: “There seems to be a special brand of bigotry aimed at white working class voters, with talk of ‘sewers’.”

Unappetising decisions often result in lamentation. Sir Winston Churchill’s eloquently horrifying prognosis of the India that would emerge after the Union Jack had been lowered must surely count as one contemporary history’s most famous wrong numbers. But there have been more considered, but no less heartfelt, expressions of despair. In July 1971, shortly after Britain announced its intention of entering the European Common Market (as it was then modestly called), the British High Commissioner to Australia wrote to his Foreign Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home in London: “The world seems chillier and more lonely than it did a fortnight ago. Speeches are made and editorials written, drawing the inference that in a world where Britain seeks her future as a part of Europe, Australia must henceforth base her relationships on the Pacific and on Asia… But it is all done somewhat against the grain. This is not yet an Asia-oriented country but a displaced European one, and in a deep sense still British.”

As diplomatic despatches go, this was remarkably forthright. More important, it was prescient too. Britain’s entry into the Common Market in 1973 led to a corresponding downgrading of the Commonwealth, particularly as far as the old Dominions were concerned. Australia, as the High Commissioner quite rightly anticipated, was dragged into becoming more of an Asian country, as it is today. But the emotional links that tied Britain to Australia, New Zealand and even Canada are still alive, even if there is lack of intensity. 

In their articulation of a post-Brexit world, the leading No campaigners (and I am not including Nigel Farage who seems quite content with his contrived golf club conviviality) have stressed that liberation from the EU is likely to give Britain more elbow room in the world. Using a combination of trade and strategic partnerships, the UK, it is argued, can revive its older links with the Anglophone world (including India) and China and give these a new direction. 

Whether the move away from an increasingly Federal Europe leads to Britain discovering a new national purpose is best left to posterity to judge. To begin with, there is the open question of the ability of the Brexiteers to identify a new leader that can unite the four nations of the UK in a common endeavour. As of now, it will require considerable nerves for the new leader of the Conservative Party to balance the scepticism of the financial markets, the cussedness of the Scottish Parliament, the bloody-mindedness of the Brussels Eurocrats with the “Independence Day” mood that has gripped the proverbial “forgotten people” who prevailed on June 23. As of now, David Cameron’s plea to the EU to show some flexibility and concern for national sentiment on immigration has fallen on deaf ears. But if other expressions of national resentment—as in France, Hungary, the Scandinavian bloc and even Germany—starts affecting Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Hollande, it may still be possible to secure a happy blend of market access and nationalism. 

The UK referendum outcome is momentous because one of the big European power with membership of the UN Security Council—and not some Ruritanian enclave—has questioned the efficacy of the grand post-War European project that sought to dissolve national boundaries. The Euro has not been an unmitigated success, and can’t be if there isn’t a political union. The efficacy of the Schengen arrangement of seamless borders was a great idea when the EU was confined to Western Europe. However, with Eastern European nations joining the club and the fear of the Islamic State triggering a huge movement of peoples, the EU is confronted with stark choices. Either it can grudgingly admit that British voters were wise and that the world is too imperfect to twin free trade with the free movement of people. Alternatively, it can dig in its heels and proclaim that the present imperfections can be done away if the EU has a common foreign policy, a European army and national parliaments are reduced to a decorative role. The EU is asking for its member states to be less French, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek, English and Hungarian and become more European. The EU project is aimed at reversing a process that began with the Treaty of Westphalia. 

Curiously, this is a debate that a section of the British intelligentsia are familiar with. In the 1960s, there was a schism between the Old Left and the New Left. It was claimed by the New Left radicals such as Perry Anderson that radicalism in Britain had never taken off because it was still influenced by both empiricism and the moderate radicalism of its Labour movement. The likes of Anderson implored their British colleagues to become more European and embrace the ideas flowing from the Left Bank and the Frankfurt School. The lively debate between Anderson and Edward Thompson on the “particularities” of the English was an important feature of intellectual life in the UK at the time of the first referendum in 1975. 

The UK has certainly become more European in the 43 years of its membership of the European project. But it says a great deal on the quality of that experience that the generation that voted so enthusiastically for the Common Market in 1975 has now resoundingly turned its back on the EU in 2016. That in itself tells a story—if only we could gauge its complex meaning. 

The Telegraph, July 1, 2016


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brakes Hit: Rampaging globalisation gets a reality check

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a rule, settled and reasonably prosperous societies prefer the known to the totally unknown. It is a commentary on the extreme exasperation of British voters with an arrangement that had endured for 43 years that they chose a high-risk departure from the European Union over a troubling dispensation that had conferred some prosperity but denied them political dignity. 

The outcome of last Thursday’s referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU came as a surprise to those who control the levers of global capitalism, a reason why the markets saw extreme turbulence. But the verdict was not unexpected, only that those entrusted with taking a call had chosen to not to go beyond their comfortable echo chambers. There was enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that a very large section of British society were becoming deeply troubled by the type of change they were experiencing. What exaggerated the disquiet was the realisation that they were powerless to do anything about it. 

The unease was partly a consequence of the demographic transformation of the UK. In the past four decades the human landscape of urban Britain has changed beyond recognition. Today’s London is a more cosmopolitan city than at any time before. It is also materially more prosperous and culturally vibrant. Unfortunately, there was an unintended social cost of a globalisation that was backed up by an indulgent welfare state. The rise of British competitiveness, a post-Thatcher phenomenon, rewarded successful professionals and moneybags but it also drove the less adept to the margins. On top of this, the free flow of migrants from the newer member-states of the EU depressed wages and curtailed opportunities. A substantial portion of the No vote came from the left behind sections, mainly traditional Labour voters who disregarded the party line. 

However, class resentment tinged with a measure of anti-foreigner sentiment was part of the phenomenon. More far-reaching was the defence of national sovereignty—the call to rescue decision-making from a remote bureaucracy in Brussels—that lent intellectual weight to the pro-Brexit campaign. Maybe it was David Cameron’s inability to control immigration from Eastern Europe and the European Court’s spat with the British Home Office over ‘human rights’ of undesirable extremists that underlined the growing redundancy of Westminster. But the reality was also the inclination of some European politicians to constantly extend the reach of the EU. Britain had stayed outside the Eurozone and hadn’t joined Schengen—in hindsight, both sensible decisions—and now it was confronted with demands for a common EU foreign policy and even common defence forces. In other words, what had begun as a Common Market had gradually expanded into a Super State that, according to Brexit’s main campaigner Boris Johnson was “now responsible for 60 per cent of the law that goes through Westminster.” 

Globalisation, including regional arrangements, has always implied ceding elements of national sovereignty to a multilateral body. The World Trade Organisation is an example of how rule-based trade has curbed the economic autonomy of member countries. Today’s EU, crafted on the noble belief that the grim history of the 20th century must not be repeated, took the process many steps further and ended up negating democracy itself. Last year, there was the pathetic example of Prime Minister Cameron pleading to the EU to restore some of the UK’s sovereign rights on matters of immigration and criminal justice and being rebuffed. Maybe after the June 23 vote, the high priests of Europe may recognise that it is imprudent to force nation-states to swallow more than they are capable of chewing. Brexit has certainly put the brakes on rampaging globalisation. 

The more lucid advocates of Brexit are incorrigible romantics. Their view of a reinvented post-imperial UK becoming a Japan of the Western world has struck most cosmopolitans as being impractical and a recipe for a retreat into Little England. The possibility of regression shouldn’t be discounted, particularly if the post-Cameron leadership proves inept. But should the UK recover its sense of national purpose—missing since the end of Empire—it offers opportunities for re-forging historical links on a more equitable basis. 

For India, ‘independent’ Britain offers an opening to build a vibrant economic gateway in the West. In the coming days, the UK will need India as a special partner—a point emphasised by the Brexit lobby. India too could profit from a benign partnership that comes without the political baggage of either the EU or the United States. Having rediscovered ‘independence’, Britain may India’s strategic autonomy appealing. 

Times of India, June 25, 2016


Friday, June 17, 2016

In the echo chamber - India, Trump and the Brexiteers

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the rigid and unwritten codes of social behaviour in the England I inhabit in my frequent trips there is to never embarrass your host/hostess. I try to adhere to this rule by being anodyne in my comments on politics and pretending that I don’t do God in my public life. 

Last month, I tripped and almost caused a near silence to descend on a small gathering. The subject seemed pretty innocuous: the Brexit referendum scheduled for June 23. Having silently heard various comments proffered by professors, MPs and other beautiful people who make up a convivial dinner gathering, I was hesitant to say my piece. After all, Brexit was entirely a British or, at best, a European problem and there was very little we could contribute to the debate except face up to the consequences of the referendum outcome. Alas, I let my guard down and told the gathering that if I were a registered voter in the United Kingdom, my vote would probably be for the UK’s departure from the European Union. 

I don’t think I said anything that outrageous. If recent opinion polls are to be believed, the Brexit camp has a clear advantage over the Remain camp. As a consequence of this shift in public opinion, Sterling has weakened somewhat and British equities have suffered on the bourses. An Indian friend returning from a seminar in Oxford remarked that while the University seemed solidly Remain, adjoining rural Oxfordshire was equally solidly Brexit. 

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is quite clear that there is a sharp division of feeling over which way to vote. Consequently, my opinions on the dinner table weren’t necessarily all that outrageous. Nor is there anything to suggest that being a ‘person of colour’ (that horrible American politically correct term) and abandoning Europe to itself were all that contradictory. My friend the Cabinet minister Priti Patel who I have long advocated should relocate to India to head the BJP is, for example, one of the three stalwarts of the Brexit campaign, along with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. As an old reader of the Daily Telegraph (I think it has the best Obituaries page), I am also reassured that the campaign for national sovereignty—which is really what Brexit is really all about—also enjoys some media backing. 

Looking back, I think the reason why my rather subdued Brexit comment was thought to be a trifle odd were two-fold. First, most of my liberal, largely Labour-voting, Guardian-reading friends seem to live in an echo chamber. I would not be surprised that there was probably no one in their cosmopolitan circle of friends who would even envisage voting from Brexit. At best, their parents living in some small hamlet in the Shires and voting Conservative out of habit, were the nearest they came to associating with the Brexit ‘other’. 

The situation was eerily dissimilar to that encountered by visiting academics from overseas in the summer of 2014. They had heard that there was a momentum in favour of Narendra Modi and the BJP but, alas, they had not encountered anyone who was likely to vote on the lotus symbol. Indeed, one American confessed to me that, purely on the strength of anecdotal evidence, he imagined that the Aaam Aadmi Party would do spectacularly well. 

Just reading the reports of the Brexit referendum campaign in the Indian media, I cannot be faulted for believing that most correspondents of India-based organisations rarely step out of their comfortable, quasi-lefty echo chambers. There is another Britain (or, should I say, England) that they choose not to engage with. 

There is a second factor too. The Brexit referendum has, quite coincidentally, coincided with the astonishing success of Donald Trump in securing the Republican Party nomination for this year’s US presidential election. Trump not merely defied the wisdom of established punditry that felt he was just a nutter who would shoot himself in the foot sooner or later, he took on the established might of the Republican Establishment and won. I can’t think of a single established Republican foreign policy pundit or a think tank apparatchik—the types we usually encounter in the politico-academic circuit of Delhi—who is a Trump supporter. That doesn’t mean Trump is bereft of supporters and that his electoral performance would equal that of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George Wallace, the third candidate in 1968. The point is simply that Trump is not ‘respectable’ in the accepted sense of the term. 

The inclination to equate Trump’s overstated views on immigration, Islam and multilateral trade agreements with the Brexit camp’s concerns over immigration and national sovereignty is quite tempting. Of course, insofar as both camps look back with nostalgia at past certitudes and the days of national glory, there are convergences. There is also a meeting point of sorts between Trump’s disavowal of a cosmopolitan elite that has no real commitment to the foundational values of the US and its underlying Judaeo-Christian ethos and the anger of the Brexiteers at an unresponsive, unelected Brussels-based bureaucracy. Finally, there is also a yearning on both sides for recreating communities based on broadly common cultural assumptions and ties. 

However, what makes both Trump and the Brexiteers seem unacceptable to those mocked as the ‘Davos-set’ is not a Right-Left divide. Since the advent of Margaret Thatcher and, to a lesser extent, Ronald Reagan, the Left and liberals have reconciled to Right wing economic impulses. Right-wing economics centred on the curtailment of the state, promotion of individual choices and the dominance of the market have now earned a place in the sun, despite the occasional sneers about neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. In the process what seems to have been intellectually outlawed are the older visions of conservatism centred on religion, community and the nation. What we are seeing with the Trump upsurge and the robust anti-EU sentiments across Europe is the restoration of traditional conservatism where economic considerations are secondary and even peripheral. 

For a very long time, the Indian intellectual establishment decried Right-wing populism. ‘If only the BJP was more committed to the economic Right’ was a familiar, even a legitimate lament. The model for the Right was, of course, borrowed from either Europe or the US. In the event that the UK walks out of the EU and Trump gives the liberal establishment a scare and even establishes a new basis of American populist exceptionalism, it will be interesting to see whether this leaves the world of cosmopolitanism unaffected. In both the UK (and indeed all over Europe) there is a vibrant and intellectually rewarding debate that is raging. This may be replicated in the US once the traditional conservative movement comes to terms with the reality of Trump. 

Since the 18th century, India has been strikingly influenced by Western intellectual debates. It will be interesting to see how it now internalises developments in the US and Europe that it never really anticipated. 

The Telegraph, June 17, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Residual pretensions - Hopelessness versus revolutionary politics in Bengal's Left

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Nuffield studies of each British general election since 1945 are valued to two reasons. First, they assess an election campaign from all possible angles, from the perspective of politicians to the media coverage of the exercise. However, far more important, these studies approach the elections, not from how it appeared in hindsight but how they seemed “in flight.” This is particularly valuable as it prevents sweeping generalisations of how an election campaign seemed before the final counting of votes and declaration of results.

It is important to inject this chronological perspective into the recent West Bengal elections, a fortnight after the Electronic Voting Machines revealed an unequivocal mandate for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. With the outcome revealing little or no scope for ambiguity, posterity will probably forget that even as late as the evening of May 18, after all the anecdotal evidence from the districts had been dissected by the pundits and analysts, there were a very large number of people who predicted that the next morning would see Mamata and her loyal followers scurrying for cover. On the final day of polling I had spoken at length to a Communist leader and a ‘dissident’ TMC parliamentarian at the Central Hall of Parliament. Both had assured me that the groundswell of anger against the Mamata administration was far beyond their wildest expectations and that the TMC was heading for a complete rout. One Left stalwart gleefully described Mamata’s apparently tense body language as she visited her offices for the “last time” before the declaration of results.

The wild optimism that had gripped the Congress-Left combine in the final days of the election campaign warrants mention. The idea is not to mock their horrible misreading of the situation: even the most experienced of political observers do get their sums wrong. It happened in May 2016, just as it has happened in the past and will happen in the future. Basically, all politicians live in an echo chamber and are inclined to talk up what they envisage is the reality. I recall the remarkable extent to which both non-Congress and media professionals failed to anticipate the phenomenal pro-Congress avalanche in 1984. Even a casual re-reading of the press coverage of that election demonstrates how the popular mood was insufficiently understood.

That the state unit of the CPI(M) miscalculated the verdict of May 2016 and ended up behind both the TMC and the Congress is apparent. In Left circles, this spectacular debacle is now the stuff of a fierce political battle involving the so-called ‘Bengal line’ and the orthodoxy. The Bengal CPI(M), it may be recalled, had basically told the Politburo to go and take a walk as it, inspired by Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, crafted a variant of a Left-Democratic alliance involving the existing Left Front and the Congress. It was a quiet rebellion and was quite unprecedented from the standpoint of the CPI(M) that, in its internal structures, still adhered to Lenin’s top-down command structure. The Bengal CPI(M) was more or less united in its resolve to include the Congress in a broad alliance against the TMC. Indeed, the local unit was so determined that many of its hotheads were even willing to contemplate a formal split in the party.

Now that the disastrous performance of the CPI(M) is a grim reality, there are some awkward choices that confront the party. First, a recalcitrant local party has informed the Politiburo that, far from admitting the error of its ways and shamefacedly falling in line, it proposes to continue the alliance with the Congress both inside and outside the Legislative Assembly, at least until the general election of 2019.

On its part, the Congress, which was the major (and unexpected) gainer from the alliance, has indicated it is willing to play ball with the CPI(M). Humbled in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and confronted with its own existential dilemmas vis a vis the rising regional parties, Congress Party spin doctors have lauded the Bengal experience as a way of blunting the BJP onslaught. Dejected promoters of the Congress-Left deal in West Bengal now say that the TMC prevailed only because a major chunk of the votes the BJP secured in the 2014 general election went totally in favour of the TMC. Earlier, during the campaign, it was presumed by the same people that the anticipated contraction of BJP votes would benefit the main anti-TMC combine. The presumption was a bit unreal since voters who lean towards the BJP are more than likely to favour other anti-Left forces as their second choice. But then, in hindsight, many of the political assumptions of the Congress-Left were based on the spurious belief that the battle to oust Mamata was essentially to restore civil liberties in the state.

Indeed, for the beleaguered CPI(M), the electoral battle in 2016 was essentially one of political survival. There was a time when the CPI(M) was driven by a desire to effect profound social change and use West Bengal as a springboard for expansion into the rest of the country. That dream was put to rest after more than three decades of uninterrupted power and the Left Front’s failure to introduce socialism in one province. By and large, those who joined the CPI(M) after Jyoti Basu’s victory in 1977 were driven by the desire to benefit from being on the right side of the political power structure. Once power slipped out of the Left hands in 2011 and the TMC mounted a campaign of ruthless expansion, the Left found itself struggling to just about stay afloat. It is interesting that, apart from a few mass rallies, the Left has been unable to intervene effectively at the constituency level since 2011. In short, the character of the Left and its political priorities has changed immeasurably. At its best, the Left has piggybacked on loose ‘progressive’ causes in a bid to roll back the advance of the BJP. To add insult to injury, as the swearing-in ceremony of Mamata last week demonstrated, it is being regarded as a bit player (if not a liability) by the regional parties that now dream of providing a ‘federal’ alternative to Narendra Modi in 2019.

The growing mismatch between Left hopelessness in West Bengal and the residual pretensions of revolutionary politics in the CPI(M) Politburo are now becoming increasingly visible. There is a growing contradiction between the CPI(M)’s larger political programme and the grim realities on the ground in West Bengal. At one time, revolutionary intransigence may have been a shield against the bad times but with international Communism now relegated to the history books, there is little hope for future optimism.

Traditionally, in India, Communists punched above their weight and made their impact through strategic interventions in the larger ‘progressive’ ecosystem. That might still happen if the Congress persists with its leftwards lurch but for the CPI(M) to remain relevant, it will have to undergo a doctrinal revision, incorporate the Congress into its definition of ‘democratic forces’ and, most important, reassess the relevance of being the ‘vanguard’ party of the proletariat.

Some of these shifts may have been forthcoming had the CPI(M) performed well in West Bengal. Unfortunately for it, the staggering setback has only hardened the resolve of those who see continuing merit in the historical legacy of the Red flag. If the CPI(M) is to maintain a relevance it can exercise two possible options. It can either make itself indistinguishable from the CPI of the mid-1970s by tailing the Congress. Alternatively, it can emulate the European examples and submerge itself into the largest ‘progressive’ party. The present incoherence can’t persist indefinitely.

The Telegraph, June 3, 2016

Monday, May 30, 2016

Partisan poll coverage puts media in the dock

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day after the first phase of voting last month in Assam, the political pages of the Delhi edition of a pink paper carried a curious report. It reported that the workers of the Congress Party had burst firecrackers celebrating the ground reports from Upper Assam that reported a huge consolidation of Muslim voters in its support. To be fair, the report also suggested that the BJP and its allies appeared to be doing spectacularly well in the urban centres, but this important detail was lost amid the gloating that followed the Congress’ premature celebrations.

The inclination of the media to put out positive stories in support of a side it is inclined towards isn’t new and nor is it a recent phenomenon. Throughout the recently-concluded round of Assembly elections, readers and viewers of what passes off as news were subjected to fiercely partisan accounts of the mood in the constituencies. In Assam, we were told that the Muslims were gradually veering round to the view that only the Congress was in a position to save the community from the BJP. This meant that the AUDF led by perfume trader Badruddin Ajmal was gradually being squeezed out of the race. The results revealed that the AUDF still retains its relevance and that the Congress too has a substantial Muslim support. Indeed, both the Congress and AUDF appear to have reduced themselves to becoming Muslim parties in Assam.

Likewise in West Bengal, a section of the media, particularly the ABP Group, the biggest media player in eastern India, actually launched a no-holds-barred attack on Mamata Banerjee. It not only created an environment to bring the Congress and the the CPI(M) together in an electoral alliance, but put out highly tendentious reports that suggested the unlikely combination was certain to win. The important distinction between what it thought to be preferable and an accurate description of what is actually happening on the ground was obliterated. So insidious was this campaign that most of the media were convinced till the early morning of May 19 that the Trinamool Congress would either lose or that the results would be tantalisingly close.

Finally, even in Tamil Nadu, the age old aversion of the media to a Jayalalithaa that accorded it absolutely no importance manifested itself again. This election didn’t result in a total, one-sided verdict — the DMK emerged a very respectable second and would probably have done even better had it not needlessly accommodated a Congress which is nothing short of being merely a letterhead in Tamil Nadu. However, the media seems to have quite deliberately overplayed the quantum of resentment in Chennai at the State Government’s apparent mishandling of the floods last year. If there was fierce and lingering resentment, it certainly didn’t manifest itself in the electoral outcome.

It was only in Kerala that we saw the media conduct itself quite professionally. Maybe this was due to the fact that there is a gentlemanly understanding between the two fronts and endorsing on or the other is part of a general consensus. The media reports suggested a genuine uncertainty over which combine would be most affected by the surge in support for the BJP, and this uncertainty was understandable. In the event, the UDF lost far more from the BJP’s spectacular advance to 15 per cent of the popular vote, than did the LDF. The BJP turned out to be a very effective anti-Congress spoiler.

The coverage and treatment of the Assembly elections of 2016 raises very important questions regarding the media’s larger role in a democracy. That media freedom is inalienable and is part of the larger democratic freedoms enjoyed by citizens is undeniable. The larger question that emerges is whether it is justified to view the media as a separate Fourth Estate any longer?

If these elections and the general election two years ago are any indication, the media is gradually shedding its autonomy and is becoming indistinguishable from the larger political process.

Its functioning suggests that the media is rapidly turning into fronts of political organisations. The allegiances may be negotiable and could even have a transactional dimension but the larger political purpose is unmistakable. Barring some important exceptions, the difference between journalism and political activism and between journalists and politicians are increasingly becoming blurred.

Maybe this is an old development and maybe editors have always seen themselves as waging political war by other means. However, as the consensual categories break down and India moves away from Congress domination, a need to formally acknowledge the shift is becoming paramount. By formally acknowledging its own demise, journalism may even end up enriching partisan politics. It will certainly make its job description more honest.

Sunday Pioneer, May 22, 2016