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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Khattar's Gurugram is in Haryana, not in California

By Swapan Dasgupta


To many of the cosmopolitans resident (or working) in Gurgaon, Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar is a figure of ridicule. This is not on account of his party affiliation or because he was an unexpected choice for the top job after the BJP won power in Haryana. To those educated in the older English-medium schools, Khattar often appears the stereotype of the Sanskrit teacher, the proverbial Pandey-ji who was the resident oddity. His stern and somewhat archaic demeanour has conflicted sharply with the ethos of the gated, high-rise buildings. Khattar epitomised an aspect of the old Punjabi Haryana while the beautiful people working in glass-fronted offices imagined they were in California. 


In view of this cultural schism, it is understandable that the reaction of social media to the abrupt renaming of Gurgaon to Gurugram was accompanied by a blend of mirth and outrage. Gurugram, it was proclaimed, was the newest addition to the long list of name changes that the ‘dhotiwalas’ (an archaic term that conveys the sense) and cultural xenophobes had forced on Global India. There was, of course, a small difference. The junking of Gurgaon wasn’t exactly an act of armchair anti-colonialism; it was more a linguistic purification and a turn away from the colloquial. No doubt it also assaulted the rustic ‘Gurgawan’, preferred by those the beautiful people see as today’s ‘criminal tribes’, but it also deflated the handful that preferred calling Delhi’s extension as ‘Gerzhen.’


Name changes, however innocuous, are often a source of momentary inconvenience. Moreover, among a particular class, the persistence with the old name, even the archaic, is often a political statement—a proclamation of detachment from the vernacular. Yet, it is interesting to juxtapose the curious love of Gurgaon as both a city and brand name with the names of the upscale residential complexes that define this corner of Haryana. A glance at a property portal for Gurgaon revealed some names of the high-rise residential buildings: Casa Bella, Tulip Violet, Palm Drive, The Verandas, Merlin, Victory Valley, Palm Springs, The Primus, La Lagune, The Belaire, et al. The nearest to an Indian name was Vaatika. 


The mismatch between the professed elite fascination for the Haryanvi colloquial and their preferred building names couldn’t be starker. Maybe the contrived outrage would have been less voluble had the State Government opted for a name that would have fitted easily into a more ‘international’ (euphemism for American) environment. As it is, the only Indian feature of the Gurgaon architecture is the people who live or work in the buildings. And many of them try to pretend otherwise, except during cricket matches.


As controversies go, the storm over Gurugram is likely to blow over quickly. However, the mere fact that it agitates a section of the chattering classes is revealing. The real problem, it seems to me, is not that a variant of the ‘little tradition’ is being subsumed by a Sanskrit-centric ‘high culture’ but that the inspiration for resurrecting an old name has come from Indian mythology. 


A local belief that Dronacharya’s gurukul where both the Pandavas and Kauravas were instructed in the martial arts was located in Gurgaon is the basis of the new name. This in itself is not a new phenomenon as many Indian places are named around local beliefs centred on the Epics. Indeed, the historical lineage of Gurgaon and Gurugram are exactly the same, except that some find gram easier to pronounce than gaon.


The protests over commemorating Dronacharya, a guru who was guilty of favouritism and social prejudice, are also contrived. The Mahabharata, unlike the Ramayana, is not about the ideal man. It focuses on ethical and moral conflicts faced in the pursuit of dharma. Dronacharya was an accomplished guru but he was not an individual who is a public role model. Gurugram merely links a place to India’s own tradition of ithihasa. It is a facet of what is called “sacred geography.”


Gurgaon-Gurugram is a needless controversy that, however, has a way out. The Constitution also provides for two place names to exist simultaneously and without attaching value judgments. If India can also be Bharat, Gurgaon and Gurugram can coexist without inviting anguish or turbulence. The country has bigger battles to fight, even in Gurugram. 

Sunday Times of India, April 17, 2016


Monday, April 4, 2016

If we won't save Sanskrit, why stop foreigners?

By Swapan Dasgupta

India often gives the impression of being excessively fractious and not at peace with itself. Controversies, a few meaningful and others less so, hog the public space and encourage hyperbole and shrillness. Indeed, the nature of the controversies that gain traction are a commentary on the society we live in. And the results aren’t flattering. 

Last month, witnessed a mini-controversy with a difference. Some 130 academics wrote to Infosys Co-founder Narayana Murthy and his son Rohan questioning the choice of Sheldon Pollock, a renowned Professor of Sanskrit at Columbia University, as Chief Editor of the Murty Classical Library—a well-funded project to translate 500 volumes of classical Indian texts into English. The doubts over Pollock centred on two broad themes.  

First, it was suggested that Pollock had insufficient “respect and empathy for the greatness of Indian civilisation.” Pollock, who was honoured with a Padma award in 2010, was seen to be too partisan both in his disavowal of the “Sanskrit cosmopolis” and his public stands on contemporary politics. The appeal expressed fears that Pollock would attach needless hidden meanings to classical texts with a view to demonise India’s inheritance. This apprehension was further fuelled by the hissy-fit of a Pollock bhakt: “Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in Brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the Right…”

Secondly, in a separate intervention, Professor Makarand Paranjape of Jawaharlal Nehru University and a signatory to the appeal, argued against the logic of outsourcing such an ambitious project to foreign “neo-Orientalists.” He felt that by missing out on an opportunity to develop India’s own intellectual capacities, the Murthys had tacitly acknowledged the West’s leading role in interpreting India for Indians. The battle, he wrote, “to regain India’s civilisational poise, equilibrium, and self-confidence is far from over. In matters of culture, education, and thought, we are still largely colonised and subservient.”

Although the move to remove Pollock from the project has been a non-starter, the effect of this controversy has been positive. No doubt it has exposed the schisms in a rarefied discipline and pointed to an excess of political agendas.  At the same time, it has forced India’s intellectual community to at least begin debating the decline of serious Sanskrit studies in the land of its origin. Coinciding with this controversy and associated disputes over interpreting texts, the apparent loss and misappropriation of India’s inheritance have also become issues of concern. 

There is, of course, a possible danger of the debate turning xenophobic. However, before ridiculous questions are raised over the right of non-Indians to delve into India’s antiquity, it is relevant to note that the sorry state of Sanskrit studies is entirely a post-Independence phenomenon. In its haste to acquire the trappings of modernity and even the stipulated ‘scientific temper’, India turned its back on its classics, viewing it as a dead and even retrograde inheritance. In our universities, the few that opted to pursue Sanskrit (or even Persian) became objects of social and intellectual derision. The esteem with which classicists are viewed in Western universities has not been replicated in India.

Indeed, had it not been for the Western universities and a handful of traditional institutions in India, the rigorous pursuit of both Sanskrit and Hindu theology would have died altogether. The insistence on cultural empathy and the acquisition of adhikara to delve into Sanskrit-based knowledge systems should not blind us to the virtues of transnational engagements, not to speak of untapped soft power.  

Sanskrit in India has been a casualty of an unresolved tussle in higher education between knowledge and skills. True, a monastic tradition of pursuing knowledge for its own sake doesn’t correspond with economic imperatives. However, as India progresses in a global ecosystem, society can afford to create enclaves of pure knowledge, insulated from the ‘relevance’ debates, that don’t suffer from condescension and neglect. If, in the process, Sanskrit philology also generates better computer programmers, it is an unintended bonus. 

Pollock’s biases may be socially unsettling but they have acquired a larger intellectual legitimacy (including within India) by sheer default. Challenging cultural misappropriation implicitly demands the recreation of lost intellectual traditions at home. If Murthy’s priorities are a little different, there are others who can step in. 

Sunday Times of India, April 3, 2016

Sunday, March 27, 2016

No place for denial or double standards

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is remarkable how easily people in real life correspond to stereotypes. Last Friday, as the news of the senseless murder of a young dentist in Delhi’s Vikaspuri by a lumpen mob agitated social media, a friend with strongly ‘liberal’ and ‘syncretic’ inclinations posted a tweet: “#DrPankajlynched really, are we reduced to debating such nonsense and giving communal twist to everything.”

As question  if indeed it was a question rather than an assertion-the tweet seemed innocuous. There are criminals, ruffians and neighbourhood toughs from almost all communities. If every incident, however unfortunate, comes to be reduced to a community-wise dissection of both the victims and the perpetrators, life would become a madhouse.

In India, the public space does indeed become completely unmanageable thanks to the media preference for selective indignation. Most democracies have disabused themselves of the notion that there is something called a ‘balanced’ media that looks at any event from multiple angles and arrives at a middle-of-the-road conclusion. Such tentativeness may not necessarily suit those blessed with certitudes, but it does give most uninvolved individuals and groups the space to assess events in the light of their experiences. The problem really begins when people’s own experiences don’t correspond with a cultivated sense of moderation.

Take the case of the senseless waste of a young dentist’s life in Delhi over the Holi break. For a lot of citizens, the incident was a tragedy waiting to happen. They would blame the lynching that followed an inconsequential tiff to be much more than road rage the bad behaviour that often accompanies traffic accidents. For them, this is the sort of organised loutishness  ‘dadagiri’ that comes from a combination of muscle power, criminality and a sense of political entitlement. It is not necessarily specific to the more deprived areas of Delhi. Most urban centres have experienced it in some way or another. And, inevitably, the street-smart gangs of youth that make it their business to be obnoxious are categorised according to community or, occasionally, by the name of the gang leader. What is also well known is that these gangs enjoy the patronage of political leaders with an eye on bloc votes.

Since most people have, either directly or anecdotally, experienced these varieties of urban roughness, they are disinclined to believe the media or police versions of the fatal assault on the doctor as simple road rage. From all accounts, the attack was a very determined assault on a man with whom one of the ‘dadas’ of the locality had a sharp exchange shortly before. The attackers probably felt emboldened on account of their political connections that give the otherwise disempowered a sense of entitlement. In Vikaspuri the perpetrators may have been entirely Muslim or their composition would have been more mixed.

The composition of the attackers assumes importance not on account of their denominational character  they were hardly carrying out a religious act by beating to death a man engaged in the innocuous act of playing cricket with his kid. The controversy over whether the attackers were Muslims or even illegal Bangladeshi migrants has acquired importance on account of the fact that the political and media response has been tempered by expediency. If the response of the well-meaning liberals hadn’t been one of intense squeamishness and if media stalwarts hadn’t appeared to exercise self-censorship, the act would not have acquired an additional sectarian dimension.

As I mentioned earlier, reports carry conviction when it corresponds to the lived experiences of people. All over Delhi, for example, there are reports of gangs of bikers hurtling down the roads at night intimidating people with their menacing boisterousness. It is also a well known secret that most of these biker gangs are from Muslim-dominated clusters. It is also known that, by and large, the police are mute spectators to their actions. This, in turn, has prompted a conclusion that there are no-go areas where the normal writ of the law does not run. Therefore, when something untoward happens, the inevitable conclusion is one of political complicity. Maybe the comparison is excessive, but TV reports suggest that something similar happened (or, at least, people believe happened) in Brussels that ensured the two horrible acts of terrorism. The agonised claims that these were “misguided youth” and that “terrorism has no religion” appears a little hollow when it emerges that there were pockets of the Belgian Capital that the police were afraid to enter and which provided sanctuary to the pro-ISIS terrorists.

As far as ‘responsible’ TV reporting is concerned, all Brussels is in a state of shock and mourning. But what the heaps of flowers, candles and stuffed toys that have been left in the City Centre to mourn the victims don’t acknowledge is the undercurrent of rage that accompanies each outrage. Together, this rage forms the basis of a virulent but often silent political reaction as have been witnessed in France, Holland and now, even Germany.

The heads of Government have to maintain equanimity and repeat the mantra that “terror has no religion.” They are duty bound to prevent expressions of retaliatory hate from engulfing those innocent minorities who genuinely want no part of political disorder. However, by not acknowledging that both swagger and radicalism have some basis in communities they are actually fuelling an anger that could be explosive. Being upfront is always hard but the sense of greater good demands legitimate outlets for popular frustrations. There is, after all, nothing as dangerous as a large community that sees itself as the silent majority that feels done in by the organised political blackmail of a small handful.

The lesson is clear: a public discussion on the unfortunate lynching in Vikaspuri is as important as the outrage over the beef-related murder in Dadri. There is no place for either denial or double-standards.

Sunday Pioneer, March 27, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

Sums and solutions - Two questions form the crux of the Bengal assembly polls

By Swapan Dasgupta


One of the consequences of democracy striking deeper roots is that elections have become less predictable in India. The sheer frequency with which ruling parties at both the Centre and the states have been ousted by quiet expressions of rage has made the political class nervous and more responsive to grassroots opinion. In the normal course this should have ensured that there is greater emphasis by governments on governance and delivery of state services. 


Curiously, this has not always been the case. Both the Left Front in West Bengal and Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar managed to win successive elections, not on the basis of their track record in governance, but on the strength of their ability to mobilise either class or caste. However, in neighbouring Orissa, the understated Naveen Patnaik has prevailed for four successive elections almost entirely on the strength of his innate decency and the quality of governance. Indeed, in 2009, when he broke with his long-time Bharatiya Janata Party ally, the Biju Janata Dal was able to turn psephology on its head. 


The validity of psephology—loosely translated for the purposes of this article as electoral arithmetic—in both planning and forecasting elections has often been questioned.  My own experience suggests that politicians, especially those with a mass orientation, are inclined to discount psephology in favour of the ‘chemistry’ of politics. 


This ‘chemistry’ is sometimes difficult to fathom. In last year’s Bihar Assembly elections, the BJP was convinced that the arithmetic of the Rahtriya Janata Dal-Janata Dal (United)-Congress alliance would be overturned by the realignment of forces after the 2014 general election. It didn’t happen. The BJP and allies more or less maintained their 2014 vote share but a united opposition was easily able to overwhelm them through the first-past-the-post system. The chemistry in evidence at Prime Minister Modi’s hugely attended rallies failed to defeat the logic of arithmetic. 


In the Delhi Assembly election of January 2015, there was a curious combination of both chemistry and psephology. Here the BJP vote slipped significantly from 46.6 per cent in 2014 to 32.19 per cent in 2015. But more significant, a new political party—Aam Aadmi Party—took a sizable chunk of the both the BJP and Congress vote and swept the board by polling a monumental 54.34 per cent of the popular vote. 


It is troubling to compare a state Assembly election with a parliamentary poll where national issues dominate and national parties enjoy a bulge. Viewed against the 2013 Assembly poll in Delhi that resulted in a fractured verdict and a short-lived government headed by Arvind Kejriwal, the results seem more confusing. The BJP vote fell nominally from 34.12 per cent in 2013 to 32.19 per cent in 2015. But the real collapse was that of the Congress. Its popular vote slipped from 24.67 per cent in 2013 to 9.70 per cent in 2015. The huge 25 per cent surge in the AAP was, it would seem, a direct consequence of the Congress collapse and the irrelevance of smaller parties and Independent candidates. 


Was Delhi, therefore, a triumph of chemistry or psephology? First, there a phenomenal display of voter volatility and the notion of a ‘safe seat’ went through the window. Secondly, it is undeniable that Kejriwal captured the imagination of voters, with AAP polling over 50 per cent of the votes. Finally, the erstwhile dominant party, BJP, held on to its core vote but lost out owing to the de-facto consolidation of all non-BJP votes behind AAP. 


Each Assembly poll has its own dynamics and it is hazardous to extend the logic of one to another. Yet, there is a simple psephological logic that is applicable throughout India: unless there is a dramatic change in the chemistry, electoral arithmetic prevails.


West Bengal is one of the prime examples of this—as indeed are Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Before Mamata Banerjee split from the parent party in 1998, the principal opponent of the CPI(M)-led Left Front was the Congress. Before that split, the Congress vote (from 1977) varied between a high of 41.81 per cent in 1987—at the height of Rajiv Gandhi’s popularity—to a low of 35.12 per cent in 1991—when it lost a chunk of its traditional vote to the Ram wave of the BJP. But this vote share—which may have even ensured a majority in fractured Uttar Pradesh—invariably proved inadequate to defeat a united Left Front. 


It necessitated a blend of chemistry and psephology in 2011 to oust the Left Front. The Left Front vote fell from 48.41 per cent in 2006 to 39.68 per cent—a decline of 8.73 per cent. In 2006, the Trinammol Congress-BJP alliance had polled 32.30 per cent—a decline of 3.55 per cent from its 2001 performance—and in 2011, Mamata Banerjee’s alliance with the Congress fetched it 48.02 per cent, with the Congress polling 9.09 per cent. Obviously, the chemistry of anti-Left sentiment and the charisma of Mamata played a huge role in effecting this landslide victory. 


In the context of the Left Front’s tacit alliance with the Congress in the forthcoming Assembly poll, it is pertinent to assess the independent strength of the Congress and the efficacy of its new alliance. After the TMC split, support for the Congress, fighting independently, varied between 7.98 per cent in 2001 and 14.71 per cent in 2006. In the 2014 election, the Congress polled 9.69 per cent, below the BJP that polled a whopping 17.02 per cent. Much of the Congress support came from the border districts of North Bengal. In the rest of the state it was a fringe player.


If we assume the Congress support to be around nine per cent, the TMC would seem to be under threat. In 2014, against its popular vote of 39.79 per cent, the combined tally of the Left Front and Congress was 39.64 per cent. On paper therefore, both sides seem evenly poised. 


However, elections are not determined by simple arithmetic alone. First, while the Left and Congress undoubtedly enjoy an upper hand in North Bengal, Mamata doesn’t seem to under any apparent threat in the rest of the state. Secondly, the ability of the Congress to transfer its vote to the Left—always the adversary, barring a brief spell in 1972 when the CPI allied with Indira Gandhi—is untested. I have little doubt that the Left votes will transfer to Congress candidates but there may not be any reciprocity. Finally, using the 2014 results as a base may prove misleading. Traditionally, the BJP has performed better in Lok Sabha elections than local elections. In 2014, courtesy the national euphoria around Modi, it polled 17.02 per cent and even led in nearly 24 Assembly segments, including Mamata’s own. It is unlikely this is going to be replicated, not least because the local BJP failed to maintain its post-2014 momentum. It may recover ground in the 2019 parliamentary poll but the present election doesn’t seem its take-off point.  


In sum, the West Bengal Assembly poll rests on two imponderables. First, will Congress voters transfer their votes to the Left? Secondly, who will BJP voters perceive as their principal enemy? Recall that in 2014, the BJP votes came from all the three groupings. It is hazardous to make election forecasts but history suggests that Bengal’s voters are inclined to give the incumbent a long rope. The Congress won three consecutive terms between 1952 and 1967; and the Left won seven consecutive elections from 1977. The precedent suggests that Mamata still has some more time at the crease. 

The Telegraph, March 25, 2016

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Statute vs sacred: Owaisi’s game has a familiar ring

The By Swapan Dasgupta 

Those who maintain that the sky won’t fall down if either the Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi or his party’s MLA in Maharashtra refuses to say Bharat Mata ki jai are no doubt right. India is a large country with diverse political orientations. Consequently, if a small number of people choose to be wilfully contrarian, India’s nationhood is unlikely to be irredeemably jeopardized. Unlike many liberals who flaunt their “idea of India” as being the only acceptable philosophy, the reality is that nationhood lends itself to competitive visions. Some of these are grounded in understandings of India’s civilizational ethos and others are based on rights and entitlements. The contests between these conflicting perceptions constitute India’s democratic politics.

In shunning the imagination of India as a divine mother, Owaisi was harking back to the bitter pre-Independence conflict when the cultural underpinnings of the freedom movement were contested. The Muslim League’s portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi as a ‘Hindu’ leader, the portrayal of Vande Mataram as ‘un-Islamic’ and the demand for a Muslim homeland were facets of a clash that culminated with the triumph of freedom and the parallel tragedy of Partition.

The roots of Owaisi’s misgivings over Bharat Mata can be traced back to earlier battles, and even to the desperate bid of the Razakars to maintain a sovereign Muslim enclave in the heart of India in 1947-48. In tune with his new project of expanding beyond the Deccan, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen leader was wilfully resurrecting an old controversy for a new generation that has a tenuous awareness of the past.

Owaisi’s grandstanding is, however, not a carbon copy of the old Razakar project. Those who see the MIM as a separatist force, committed to some Pakistani agenda, are wrong. Despite its controversial origins and the inflammatory rhetoric it employs in the ghettos, the MIM is not assaulting the integrity of the Indian Union — at least not yet. In invoking the Constitution to uphold his right to spurn any mandatory chanting of Bharat Mata ki jai, Owaisi is attempting to delink Indian nationhood from its historical inheritance. In the context of the wider churning on the meaning of Indian nationalism, he is seeking to forge a link between Muslim politico-cultural assertion and the tide of ‘constitutional patriotism’ centred on individual rights and group entitlements.

That Owaisi’s project is not unique is also clear. Over the past few months, beginning from the unfortunate ‘beef’ lynching in Dadri and stretching to the sedition controversy in Jawaharlal Nehru University, the varied detractors of the Narendra Modi government have sought to complement their opposition to ‘intolerance’ and even ‘fascism’ with a deification of the Constitution. Indeed, they have lost no opportunity to posit the Constitution against the BJP’s ‘nationalism’.

On the face of it, there is no apparent disagreement on the centrality of the Constitution as a rulebook of statecraft. The Constitution sets out the dos and don’ts governing public life and outlines a lakshman rekha. The Constitution does not, however, determine the basis on which Indian nationhood is forged. To those who make the Constitution out to be the proverbial last word, the voluntary union of a billion people is on the strength of a statutory commitment to democracy, individual rights, some group entitlements and even secularism and socialism.

The alternative suggestion is that India is the Constitution and much more. Nationalists believe India didn’t begin in 1947 but dates back to antiquity and that Indianness includes emotion, history and collective memory. They feel nationhood is constituted through complementary and overlapping cultures that make Bharat more than just a piece of land. The perception of India as sacred geography, possessing a divine representation was an underlying theme of Vande Mataram, the invocation that inspired the battle for national sovereignty. The belief in India and the divine motherland are inseparable.

Rebuffing a symbol that is at the heart of the popular imagination of the nation naturally invites outrage. When Owaisi invokes individual rights, it is immediately viewed as a bid to convert India into a purposeless, fractured majority browbeaten by an organized minority with unitary beliefs. The Constitution is a part of the national philosophy; it is not the whole. Comprehending the totality is the challenge of our times.

Sunday Times of India, March 20, 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The End of Ideology

The Arun Jaitley Budget, which also marks the 25th anniversary of the landmark Manmohan Singh Budget of 1991, envisions an India sustained by an enlightened state and a less skewed market.

By Swapan Dasgupta


There were a lot of things that the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley got right in his 2016 Union Budget. The greatest achievement lay undoubtedly in the Finance Ministry’s adherence to fiscal deficit target that, apart from boosting India’s credibility in the troubled world of global capitalism, has put intense pressure on the Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan to bring down interest rates further and make the cost of money more competitive. 


To my mind, the 2016 Budget suffered from two significant shortcomings. The first, which has already kicked up a political storm and may even lead to a rollback, was the tax imposed on lump-sum withdrawals from the Employees Provident Scheme. The proposal to synchronise the different post-retirement schemes may well have precedents in the West. However, the belief that a privilege once given to the workforce of the organised sector can be peremptorily withdrawn indicated an astonishing measure of political naiveté. In the past, Jaitley has been accused of being too trusting of his bureaucrats, many of whom were positively hostile to the Narendra Modi Government, and not even kindly disposed towards the Finance Minister personally. In endorsing the EPF changes in the name of ‘reform’, he was guilty of accepting the wisdom of economists without political filtration. A Budget that had otherwise secured the approval of the political class, investors and even voters, was quite needlessly dragged into controversy for no apparent gain to the state exchequer. The obvious lesson of this EPF storm is obvious: the economy is too serious a business to be left to the economists. 


The second big shortcoming of a Budget that has otherwise brought a sense of relief in globally uncertain times may not actually even qualify as a shortcoming in India. Indeed, it has neither been noticed nor will it be acknowledged even if it is brought to the public notice.


In his post-Budget commentary, the more-feared-than-respected former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram dubbed Jaitley’s Budgets a set of missed opportunities. The Congress stalwart’s displeasure was, among other nit-picking items, based on Jaitley’s failure to announce a formal repudiation of the retrospective tax—a self-defeating measure of the UPA-II Government headed by a Prime Minister whose academic accomplishments as an economic pundit are truly enviable. 


I think that it was truly astonishing that neither Chidambaram nor the incumbent Finance Minister deemed it relevant to make any mention of the fact that the 2016 Budget marked the 25th anniversary of the landmark Manmohan Singh Budget that began the process of bringing down the curtain on the over-regulated, control-permit raj—the ‘socialism’ that Indira Gandhi had injected into the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976, and which ingloriously remain in the statutes. 


There is a prevailing debate on the origins of the controlled economy that the P.V. Narasimha Rao Government began demolishing in 1991. Some trace the disfigurement of the post-Independence economy to Jawaharlal Nehru’s genuflections before the Soviet Union; and others trace it to Indira Gandhi’s radical posturing after the Congress split of 1969. 


Whatever the point of embarkation, there is little that can contest the horrible outcome: perennial shortages, public sector incompetence, the smugness of cronyism and soaring sales of one-way tickets out of India. Those who haven’t experienced the realities of India prior to the mid-Nineties can scarcely believe the gloominess created by the feeling of stagnation and zero hope. The only relief was the fantasy world of a film industry that provided the voyeuristic delights of romance, tourism and adventure. The socialism India experienced scarred the mind of a country as crippling taxation (which, in some cases, touched 98 per cent) and shortages—imagine travelling abroad with just the permissible eight dollars in your pocket—created a culture centred on shortcuts and plain deceit. 


In an ideal world, the process of deregulation that began in the Budget of 1991 should have happened much earlier. By 1980, it was clear to Indira Gandhi that the state was severely overstretched and becoming dysfunctional. It was also evident that the wave of nationalisations and controls over organised manufacturing industry was costing India dearly. Alas, the Congress believed that the poetry of deprivation was a vote-winning formula that Indira Gandhi had turned into a fine art. There could be the occasional deviations—usually favours doled out to notables that enjoyed a special relationship with either the first family or the political Establishment. However, the idea of a rule-based regime where discretionary powers were kept to a bare minimum never struck a responsive chord with a dynastic Establishment that believed it was there to rule India permanently. 


Rajiv Gandhi saw himself as a modernist and was slightly impatient with the political culture of his mother—just as Indira Gandhi felt hamstrung by the Syndicate. Yet, neither Rajiv nor his group of English-speaking inheritors were inclined to deviate from the socialist paternalism of the past. For Rajiv, technology was just an instrument of guided efficiency. 


The extent to which this socialist culture and the glorification of both poverty and austerity—one of the less attractive facets of Mahatma Gandhi’s worldview—became part of the Great Indian consensus, infecting all parties. Apart from the Swatantra Party that combined its distaste for the pro-Soviet foreign policy tilt of the Nehru-Gandhi family with a partiality for liberal, pro-market economics, all the other parties were committed to variants of state controls. 


The Jana Sangh and, subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party was no exception. Although its social base was, in the early days, made up disproportionately of traders and small businessmen who wanted relief from high taxes and the Inspector Raj, its defining identity was provided by its distinctive views of nationhood. The BJP, which injected Gandhian socialism as a core belief in its founding document in 1980, had grave doubts over putting any great emphasis on economic policy. ‘Neither Left nor Right, but nation’ has been the slightly ambiguous but preferred mantra of the saffron parivar for long. 


This ambiguity, however, has underemphasised a few features of the BJP’s economic thinking. First, stemming from the distaste of its social bases for high taxes and state intrusiveness, the BJP has consistently favoured deregulation. It is worth remembering that there was an informal understanding between Prime Minister Rao and the BJP leadership over ensuring a smooth passage for the 1991 Budget. Had the BJP teamed up with the Left and its fellow travellers to try and turn the clock back, the liberalisation process would have ended up as the proverbial turning point when history refused to turn. Indeed, the most significant opposition to the 1991 Budget came from the so-called Bombay Club—a clutch of industrialists fearful of competition—and Left intellectuals. Nikhil Chakravartty, a widely-read columnist enjoying a very special relationship with the erstwhile Soviet Union, even described Manmohan Singh as a Quisling—after the Norwegian politician who collaborated with the Nazis—for his repudiation of India’s socialist high church. 


Secondly, there was (and probably is) a large chunk of the BJP that wanted the deregulatory process limited to Indian capital. Murli Manohar Joshi’s famous distinction between computer chips and potato chips, personified the BJP’s partiality for swadeshi entrepreneurs against videshi capital. In the mid-1990’s the BJP mounted an against India’s membership of the World Trade Organisation that would make international trade less subject to the vicissitudes of national politics; and even as late as 2011-12, it stubbornly opposed the opening-up of the retail sector to the Wallmarts and Ikeas. 


At the same time, it is important to recognise that the BJP’s opposition to globalisation has undergone a significant dilution. After the 1998 nuclear tests in Pokhran and the imposition of sanctions by the Bill Clinton Administration, the Atal Behari Vajpayee decided to turn crisis into opportunity by opening the doors wide open to both Foreign Direct Investment and Foreign Institutional Investment. Under the first NDA Government of Vajpayee, a large number of holy cows were put out to pasture. These included the unhindered entry of foreign capital in the entertainment media and a more qualified entry in news media. Under the Modi government, the defence sector—one of the holiest of the holy cows—has been opened for 49 per cent foreign investment. Foreign capital has secured a backdoor entry in the retailing of agricultural produce and, in time, we may witness the opening up of legal services and higher education to overseas participation. In a footnote of this year’s Budget, automatic residence rights have been granted to foreign (non-OCI) passport holders with significant investments in India. 


In the past 25 years, India has inched forward in the direction of both internal liberalisation and globalisation. Yet, it is worth noting that the breakthroughs have resulted, not from a sense of political necessity, but as a grudging response to crises. The process began in 1991 following a severe balance of payments crisis and the mortgage of a part of India’s gold reserves; and the second wave, during the Vajpayee years, was a considered attempt to negate the damaging effects of the post-Pokhran sanctions. India has lowered its protectionist impulses whenever the gun has been pointed at its head. 


In the past 20 months, the Modi Government has taken the process many more steps further. Part of the reform initiatives that involve improving the ease of doing business in India has been the result of the Prime Minister’s own experiences in Gujarat and the overall revulsion against the earlier government’s ‘tax terrorism.’ However, there is another dimension that has remained understated. 


Within a few months in power, the Modi government came to the conclusion that its faith in the ability of Indian industry to revive the investment cycle had been based on over-optimism. Its stringent measures against the reckless cronyism of the UPA, not least of which was the pressure on banks to target defaulters and lower the quantum of non-performing assets, had offended a big chunk of Indian corporates seeking special favours. Rather than succumb to these pressures and expose itself to charges of cronyism, the government chose to look outwards for foreign investors. An aggressive overseas outreach programme aimed at improving India’s global image, a Make in India programme that offered the bait of a vast domestic market in India and a relatively stable fiscal regime are facets of a determination to not be cowed down by sullen domestic fat cats. 


The NDA government’s reform initiatives predated the crash in commodity prices, the economic turbulence in China and the slowdown in the Arab world. But the unintended consequence is that India’s economy now appears more stable, more enduring and more wholesome—despite some outstanding muddles in tax administration—than what many other emerging markets can offer. After his first two Budgets, Jaitley was widely berated by the commentariat for being too conservative and needless incremental. In hindsight, he appears to have been proved more correct than his critics. His non-ideological approach has prevailed. 


One of the lessons that the Modi Government has learnt is to avoid selling the virtues of a deregulated market economy too much. ‘Rolling back the frontiers of the state’ was Thatcher’s mantra against the post-War consensus in Britain. The BJP has cut down the state’s involvement in economic management but it has desisted from flaunting it as an achievement. Instead, it has retained the flexibility to fall back on state intervention when the situation warranted. In fact, its intervention to uprade India’s creaking infrastructure and improve the quality of its welfare schemes has been based enlightened Keynesianism. In the Budgets of both 2015 and 2016, Jaitley has spoken of the need to construct a modern welfare state—not an approach usually associated with the Right wing in Europe and North America. 


There is an obvious message that politicians have grasped better than better than the ideologues who supported Modi in the belief that he is another Thatcher and Lee Kwan Yew put together. In India, as the EPF controversy demonstrates, the faith in the state over an uncertain market is widespread. The assertion that the state should occupy the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy was based on dogma and, quite predictably, landed India in an almighty mess. Likewise, a purely market-centric position, apart from putting decision-making in a straitjacket, suffers from an absence of popular legitimacy. Indians want a state, but a state as a protector and watchdog. The debates of the next 25 years will probably be centred on the necessary balance between an enlightened state and a less skewed market that offers opportunities for a fiercely aspirational Young India. 

OPEN magazine, March 4, 2016


Monday, March 14, 2016


By Swapan Dasgupta


Late afternoon last Friday, I switched on the TV to a ‘national’ channel, hoping to catch up on what has been happening in India, if not the world, before stepping out for dinner. Imagine my utter astonishment when I found the entire focus of nearly all the English-language channels on the traffic in Delhi. 


The news readers solemnly informed viewers—the few that have the TV on in the late afternoons—that a combination of some 25,000 marriages and a huge cultural festival being organised by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living would mean hideous traffic jams in Delhi. The tone was distinctly alarmist, as if to suggest that all decent folk should remain sane by remaining indoors. And then the focus shifted to the AOL event where the Prime Minister was due to speak. Here the suggestion was that the lifestyle guru’s cultural jamboree would result in the total destruction of Delhi’s already fragile environment. Reading between the lines, the impression was unmistakeable: the Hindu hordes were holding the Capital to ransom with their environmental vandalism and their opulent weddings. 


It’s not that I dislike local news or have joined the band of climate change sceptics who assault the sensibilities of Green fundamentalist. What seemed bizarre to me was the generous top billing accorded to the traffic situation in Delhi. While we may have definite views on what should or should not be done to maintain the health of our rivers, I find it hard to believe that the AOL lot are single-mindedly out to destroy what nature has bequeathed to India. More important, I find it curious that our TV producers believe that a small controversy in Delhi would be of paramount interest to the English-knowing viewers in India’s other cities and towns. 


Over the years and increasingly in the past six months, the important distinction between what is Delhi and what is nation is being effortlessly obliterated. 


As a rule, I like to glance at the morning newspapers in any city I am visiting, to gauge the local preoccupations. I was consequently astounded when, on a recent visit to Kolkata, I found the entire first page of editorial content (thanks to advertisements, that is alas no longer page one) of the city’s main English newspaper devoted to a slightly tendentious coverage of the events in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. True, there is a body of JNU alumnus resident in Kolkata who follow the happenings of their alma mater. But had anything so earth shattering happened that day to warrant the entire first page to be devoted to JNU? 


The distortion began for a purely economic reason. Cash-strapped news channels in particular began to increase their coverage of Delhi and the National Capital region because it was relatively cheaper. It is expensive, to say the least, to despatch Outside Broadcast vans and reporters to remote areas of India to chase an interesting story. It is far better to merely look at what is happening at the channel’s doorstep and project it as truly ‘national’. This incidentally also works to the benefit of the media savvy Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi that, apart from punching above its weight, also sees itself as the true ‘national’ alternative to the Narendra Modi government. An expedient combination of cost cutting and political partisanship has, therefore reshaped the hierarchy of news. Earlier, the belief was that all politics is local; now that principle is being rewritten to imply that Delhi is always national. 


The shift has led to unintended consequences. Earlier this month after the JNU student’s union president Kanhaiya Kumar was grudgingly granted bail by a Magistrate’s Court, he returned to JNU as an all-conquering hero. After the exhilarating bout of ‘revolutionary’ slogans and excitable speeches, shown live on TV, we had the comic spectacle of the student leader being interviewed by nearly all the channels. This by itself is unexceptionable but what was laughable was the depiction of the articulate, rabble rousing Kanhaiya Kumar as a political philosopher with a ranking next to Plato or even Lenin. I don’t know whether this rather excessive elevation of the young man with JNU as his near-permanent address will result in Modi getting frazzled, losing his political touch and securing the BJP’s return to the opposition benches in Parliament. However, it has secured the construction of a make-believe world where politics can be played in the safe zones of the campus and the TV studios. 


The centrality of Delhi in this political course has, quite predictably, led to the mainstreaming of ridiculous fringe tendencies. It has also led to the media believing it is now in the vanguard of change. A casual perusal of the social media reveals that anchors and reporters are less interested in covering news than in proffering their views in 140 characters. 


This was also the reason why Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s event took such a media beating. The AOL icon was portrayed as a dodgy godman because the battle had been elevated into a crusade against Hindu supporters of the PM. I daresay if the event on the Yamuna banks had been organised by an avowedly minority faith group, the media wouldn’t have turned Green guardians. They didn’t even turn guardians of the law when there was an assertion of religious power in Malda district earlier this year. Was that lapse merely a result of distance—Malda is located out of motorable distance from Delhi? Or was it because in today’s environment, all politics has to promote the desecration of an elected government? I guess asking such irritating questions just won’t do: it punctures the bubble in which some people are living. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 13, 2016