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Sunday, November 23, 2014

My letter to the Times Life Fest

Dear Bachi, 

I am sorry that you didn't reply to my sms query or to my earlier requests for a programme schedule. 

It is your Life Fest and the guest list is your undeniable prerogative. I can only choose to voice a small ethical concern by choosing to stay away. Thank you for inviting me to Mumbai but I feel I will be a misfit in such a Festival. 

My apologies for accepting the invitation and then changing my mind. 

With regards.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

We are more French than British in our Nehru jacketing

O         By Swapan Dasgupta

Last month, Royal Mail issued eight postage stamps commemorating Britain’s Prime Ministers. Of the five more recent leaders portrayed, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were Conservatives, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson represented the Labour Party and William Gladstone was a Liberal. 


Those with an interest in British history can justifiably debate the selection. To my mind, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, both Conservatives, also deserved inclusion. Tony Blair was also missing—maybe because he lacks vintage. However, what is important is that the selection was bi-partisan and reflected a slice of Britain’s past. It was also interesting that the First Day Cover postmark had a quote from Harold Wilson—“The main essentials of a successful Prime Minister…are sleep and a sense of history”—that captured the essence of laid-back Britishness. 


A reason why Britain produces the best—and certainly the most readable—works of history may lie in the national appropriation of the past. In his lifetime, except during World War II, Churchill was both admired and reviled at the same time. In the 1930s, the mainstream Conservative Party regarded him as a wilfully awkward customer, not least for his views on Germany and India; and as the Prime Minister in the early-1950s, there was widespread exasperation over his insistence on remaining at the crease. Yet, he was given a state funeral by a Labour government in 1965 and one the best biographies of Churchill has been penned by Roy Jenkins, a man who was politically always on the other side. 


Unfortunately, this generosity of didn’t manifest itself when Thatcher died in 2013. Although she too received a state funeral, the news of her death was greeted by unseemly celebrations and chants of “the witch is dead” by those who intent on reducing history to political slogans and, worse, blood feuds that endure across generations. 


This unending partisanship over history is a French import. Maybe it was the unending turbulence from 1789 that made French politics more contested that explains the difference with Britain’s more gentlemanly view of posterity. The schism between the Napoleon-ists and the Royalists endured till the early-20th century; the Dreyfus affair institutionalised a schism between the progressives and traditionalists till 1944; and the divide between the Gaullists and the Petainists persist in different ways even to this day. 


A few years ago, for example, the Mayor of a French hamlet was prosecuted when it was discovered that the Town Hall hung a photograph of Marshal Petain along with other past heads of state. The French view of its past, as the novelist Allan Massie movingly captured in A Question of Loyalties, is governed by both denial and self-censorship. What is awkward is either left unaddressed or hideously caricatured. 


In India, unfortunately, and perhaps again due to past turbulence, there has been a tendency to emulate the French model and construct an idyllic past. These tendencies have come to the fore in the controversies centred on the commemorations of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary. 


No one can take away from Nehru’s role in shaping the contours of post-Independence. Whether in the economy, foreign policy and political institutions, the country is still grappling with the Nehruvian inheritance and debating it with laudable passion. Even his blunders and missteps—and there were many—continue to haunt India. No wonder the what-if questions have become a national obsession. Unfortunately, the discourse isn’t limited to good-natured debates where people disagree and thereafter exchange namastes. 


There is an inclination to view Nehru as the fountainhead of all post-1947 wisdom and a corresponding political determination to enshrine India’s first Prime Minister as an ideological role model for all times. The deification isn’t limited to the man himself: Nehru worship has been extended to the endorsement of Nehru’s progenies and self-professed Nehruvians. A legacy has become an entitlement. This explains why the backlash, often articulated in crudely visceral terms, is so fierce. 


India can countenance both sets of distortions if, at the end of the day, the collective appreciation of a disputed past comes to be better informed. To hope for agreement is neither possible nor desirable. The 17 years of Prime Minister Nehru doesn’t lend itself to a single narrative forged through a show of “scientific temper.”

Sunday Times of India, November 16, 2014

Internationalism's cursed legacy

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is unlikely that too many Nehruvians or even those that view India’s former Prime Minister with a sceptical eye will, during the year-long commemoration of his 125th year of birth, care to stress the colossal importance of the Spanish Civil War in the making of the man. As someone who had an insatiable appetite for contemporary fashion—be it political, sartorial and aesthetic—Jawaharlal Nehru was totally sold on the entire romanticism surrounding the battle of the Republicans against General Franco. 


In the heady atmosphere of the 1930s where the quest for defining ideologies that would reshape the world was unceasing, the Spanish Civil War became the stuff of both politics and poetry. It was more than just a battle against the Falangists and the traditional order. To the trend-setting arbiters of political fashion, which included a disproportionate number of British intellectuals (but not British voters), Spain became a metaphor for radicalism. George Orwell’s writings have disabused us of the so-called idealism behind the Republican side. It now transpires that both sides were equally guilty of being manipulated and used as proxies by other European powers: Stalin shamelessly (and quite brutally) moulded the priorities of the Republican army and Hitler used support for covert as a laboratory for his weapons of war. 


To be fair, Nehru may not have been aware of the ugly underside of this great romantic struggle—his ability to cull information and his indignation was always selective. What inspired him to join hands with Stalinists in the League against Imperialism and other dodgy bodies was the example of the International Brigade—the volunteer army of concerned citizens from other European countries that fought alongside their Spanish comrades. 


In the mythology of the European Left, a decisive influence on Nehru, there was a halo over the International Brigade. It is estimated that somewhere close to 35,000 non-Spaniards were initiated into the International Brigades and about as much as one-fifth of the volunteers died in the Civil War. The high casualties were on account of the complete lack of training and poor military strategies. When Franco finally prevailed, the surviving foreign volunteers returned to their homes. Some ended up dispirited, others became hardened Communist cadres and a third lot became the “useful idiots” that Lenin believed were so important in the spread of his ideas. 


Some eight decades later, the Spanish Civil War is distant memory and with the deaths of Franco and Salazar, democracy has returned to the Iberian Peninsula. However, there is one facet of the Spanish legacy that has endured: the belief that national boundaries are no barriers in fighting the good fight. Internationalism was always a catchword of the Marxist Left, to be used expediently: Fidel Castro used it to despatch an inconvenient Che Guevara to Bolivia to spread the revolution. But it wasn’t confined to the Left alone. In recent times, the principle of internationalism was resurrected by Pakistan, with financial backing from the United States, to create an Islamic mujahedeen to wage jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan for a decade. It was a classic case of ideological blowback. 


A momentum, especially one laced with adventure, romance and a touch of fanaticism, once created cannot be plugged by command. Pakistan deliberately allowed the ‘international’ remnants of the Afghan jihad to spill over into Kashmir. Throughout the mid-1990s, it was fairly routine for India’s forces to discover an international community of jihadis waging war for Kashmir’s “liberation”. Apart from Pakistanis, they included Arabs, Sudanese and Asian Britons. 


Today, this perverse legacy of the Spanish Civil War has come to haunt the whole world. I am, of course, referring to the international warriors that buy one-way tickets to Turkey and then disappear from the gaze of their families to become both cannon fodder and valuable operatives for the grandiose Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to one estimate, foreigners make up as much as 20 per cent of the ISIS army and they are drawn from more than 100 countries. 


The cases of bored, football-loving Muslim teenagers living in some nondescript town of northern England suddenly upping and joining the ISIS and, in many cases, getting themselves killed have received widespread media attention. The cases of their Indian counterparts have been relatively less documented—perhaps understandably. What they add to is the undeniable reality of ISIS exercising a perverted but at the same time emotional appeal to a section of Muslim youth. 


It is an international phenomenon—a reason why the East Asian leaders meeting in Myanmar have devoted so much attention to it. However, what remains understated are the two contributory factors for ISIS’s macabre appeal—and it has nothing to do with either Palestine or national boundaries of the Levant. 


First, the radicalisation of Muslim youth is being organised by a set of very determined and motivated religious preachers. Their efforts are being complemented by internet networks reminiscent of a Fredrick Forsyth novel. Both these have to be tackled with relentless vigour and even mercilessly. 


Second, the ISIS army depends substantially on kidnapping, extortion and oil for finances. But there are whispers emanating from intelligence communities of the covert involvement of at least one state in the Gulf. Choking off this financial lifeline is a must and can only happen if all the big powers act in concert. 


The importance of the ISIS is not confined to a corner of West Asia. It has the potential of having a multiplier effect throughout the world, including India. 


No wonder it is prudent to realise which facets of any great life is worth de-romanticising. 

Sunday Pioneer, November 16, 2014

Friday, November 14, 2014

The clever Panditji and the emotional Netaji

Review article

Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives by Rudrangshu Mukherjee (Penguin Viking, 265 pages, Rs 599)

It is by now a cardinal rule that wars over India’s history invariably erupt whenever a non-Congress dispensation assumes charge in Delhi. This was first evident during the short-lived Janata Party dispensation after the Emergency; it resurfaced during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s otherwise benign six-year rule; and in the run-up to the advent of the Modi sarkar, it has smuggled itself into the intellectual discourse through an abstruse debate on the Idea of India.

At the heart of the dispute are two pieces of conventional wisdom. The first, nurtured through decades of the Congress’ monopoly over political power, is the belief that the future of India must be shaped through adherence to what is loosely called the ‘Nehruvian consensus.’ By implication, this conviction attaches disproportionate importance to the legacy of India’s first Prime Minister and his contribution to the creation of the post-Independence nation-state. If Mahatma Gandhi is viewed as the ‘Father of the Nation’—the presumption is that India didn’t really exist prior to the Gandhian phase of the national movement— Jawaharlal Nehru is deemed to be the Father of the Republic.

The second belief is that those who opposed the Nehruvian project were either representatives of a feudal order or groups espousing crude xenophobia. In a recent article, Pankaj Mishra went a step further and endorsed a view that after Modi’s electoral victory India’s public life seems dominated by ‘sociopaths and criminally insane persons… whose lust for power poisons the very air we breathe.’ Mishra, of course, inhales the Indian air seasonally, but his intemperate rant is indicative. India’s dominant intellectuals—well ensconced in the social science departments of universities—are willing to seriously debate the critique of Gandhi and Nehru proffered by the Communist movement but they are unwilling to accord respectability to alternatives that were offshoots of more indigenous traditions. Thanks to this policy of intellectual exclusion, Indian conservatism was nurtured after 1947 as a protest movement.

Now that the anti-Nehruvians have found themselves in a parliamentary majority, their ranks replenished by those committed to non-statist economic policies, there is a sudden rush to re-discover and even appropriate political stalwarts whose views were at variance with those of Nehru. The old icons of Hindu nationalism such as Swami Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Madan Mohan Malaviya and VD Savarkar have been bolstered by the inclusion of the likes of Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh. The long-standing complaint that the Congress’ political dominance led to India’s past being seen only through the prism of Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi family has been sought to be addressed—to begin with, symbolically.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s study of the parallel lives of Nehru and Bose—Nehru and Bose: Parallel Lives—was probably conceived without an eye to the larger political changes that engulfed India in May 2014. For the past two decades, Mukherjee has worn two hats: as the opinions editor of The Telegraph and as a historian. Few have managed to successfully straddle the two divergent worlds of history and contemporary politics. Mukherjee is a rare individual who has— perhaps by maintaining a detachment from the partisan pulls and pressures of ‘breaking news’. As such, despite his disclosure of inherited partiality for Nehru, he has approached the subject with good, old-fashioned empirical rigour, allowing the documentary evidence to do the talking.

The results are heartening. First, Mukherjee has written an eminently readable narrative history that should please both generalists and specialists. It is necessary to emphasise the smooth flow of his prose for the simple reason that India’s historians have recently been disinclined to place any premium on readability. The Marxists, neo-Marxists and post-modernists are most guilty. Together, they have reduced riveting tales of the past to jargon that can at best be understood by a small clutch of those Alan Bloom once described as ‘tenured cretins’. Mukherjee offers a refreshing break from the tendency of modern social scientists to massacre the English language.

Second, this study is focused on two individuals, their mental make-up and the choices they exercised in complex situations. Of course, their actions can’t be separated from the larger historical backdrop, but at least Mukherjee has refrained from delivering pompous sermons on imperialism and the so-called ‘final’ crisis of capitalism that has been upon the world since the time Communist agitators started penning manifestoes and political resolutions. The only criticism that can be made is that Mukherjee is over-reliant on the public speeches and private correspondence of both Nehru and Gandhi. A little more focus on how the two were viewed by contemporaries—and how these varied regionally—may have made the narrative even richer.

What emerges from Mukherjee’s exploration of the parallel lives is the paramount importance of Gandhi in making or breaking political careers. Nehru was fascinated by the mass appeal of the Mahatma and his ability to almost instinctively understand popular impulses and aspirations. Gandhi’s larger worldview, particularly his trenchant disavowal of modernity and Western civilisation, left him unmoved. But he sublimated these doubts cleverly and generously reciprocated Gandhi’s indulgence of him.

Bose, on the other hand, while appreciative of Gandhi’s mass following, viewed the leader as a drag on what he felt should be an uncompromising war against British rule. Influenced in large measure by the emotive anti-British strand among Bengal’s militant nationalists, Bose often overestimated the willingness of Indians to fight a no-holds-barred struggle against imperial rule. However, whereas Gandhi was indulgent towards Nehru’s flirtations with trendy socialist thought, he was less approving of Bose’s desire to develop an alternative radical current. Bose felt that Gandhi deliberately favoured Nehru as a clever ploy to split the radicals and he could never digest the Mahatma’s cunning. His natural impulsiveness led him to write many premature obituaries of Gandhi, something Nehru always refrained from doing despite expressing his private anguish in personal correspondence. In time, Bose began to see Nehru as someone who was willing to shed all beliefs and cosy up to the Mahatma to further his own standing within the Congress. Interestingly, even Patel and Rajendra Prasad—committed followers of the Mahatma with no socialist pretensions—shared these feelings.

In Mukherjee’s study, Nehru comes across as a cleverer politician. In identifying himself with the ‘left wing’ of the Congress, Nehru was very vocal—he even addressed Congress delegates as ‘Comrades’ and was (like most Communists) forever going on about the international crisis of imperialism. Bose, on the other hand, devoted as much energy to faction fights within the Bengal Congress as he did to positioning himself as an intransigent, pan-Indian, anti-imperialist. Despite radical posturing, he was quite firmly rooted to the regional base of the Congress. Indeed, Malcolm Muggeridge, employed as a leader writer in The Statesman in Calcutta, remarked on the curious mismatch between the radical pretensions of the anglicised Bengali Congressmen and their social preferences. ‘Our parts in history are allotted, not chosen,’ he wrote, ‘and their belonged to the Raj, which they hated, rather than to the Swaraj, whose coming to pass they sought.’ The same, arguably, could have been said of Nehru with one difference: Nehru never developed local roots.

The Cambridge historian John Gallagher argued that Bengal’s Congress leaders that included the Bose brothers, Sarat and Subhas, could never transcend their social status and were victims of it. It is doubtful if he would have extended the argument to Allahabad’s Jawaharlal. Nehru was the epitome of the deracinated and, ironically, this has come to be celebrated by Nehruvians as a virtue. Whatever rootedness he possessed was courtesy his status as Gandhi’s favourite son.

In hindsight, the simmering Nehru- Bose tensions have come to be located in Nehru’s distaste for Bose’s soft corner for the fascist regimes in Europe. It is true that Bose believed that Germany (and, subsequently, Japan) was India’s natural ally against the British Empire. It is also likely that Bose’s relationship with the Austrian Emilie Schenkl may have blinded him to the jagged edges of Hitler’s regime. However, in hoping for a confused synthesis between Communism and Fascism, Bose was merely articulating contemporary concerns. Nehru may have embraced Stalin’s Soviet Union uncritically—as many of his upper-class English contemporaries did. However, rather than view Bose as a closet fascist, it may be more instructive to view him among the many leaders from Europe and Asia who sincerely believed that the Axis powers were going to create a more equitable world order. It is worth remembering that the horrors of Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ were not widely known until the end of World War II in 1945. Bose’s my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend approach was characteristic of his desire to put emotion above calculation.

In sum, Mukherjee’s study reveals that both Bose and Nehru were out of tune with the main body of Congress thinking that was personified by Gandhi’s gradualism. Perhaps it is because the battle against British rule was not totally uninhibited that India survived as a democracy after 1947. Bose rebelled against the mainstream and found himself as an unsuccessful De Gaulle in Japan. Nehru merely bided his time and came out trumps. However, once the checks were removed after the deaths of Gandhi and Patel and the marginalisation of Prasad, Nehru’s confusions became India’s long-standing national consensus.

Swapan Dasgupta
Open magazine, November 14, 2014

Regrets only

By Swapan Dasgupta

Hosts of a function whether a private individuals or a non-official body have the complete and inalienable right to invite whosoever they choose. By implication, they also have a right to disregard the elaborate sarkari rules of protocol and go by individual or institutional preferences. In normal circumstances, these standard operating procedures of civil society should hardly warrant reiteration.

In recent times, however, civility has come to be rationed. First it was Delhi’s self-important Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid who chose the occasion of the forthcoming anointment of his son as the Naib Imam to needlessly make a political point: that he was not inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi but, at the same time, inviting Pakistan’s Prime Minister who, of course, is unlikely to attend. I don’t think Mr Modi expected an invitation just as he is unlikely to expect an invitation from my local Resident’s Welfare Association for the inauguration of the new Senior Citizens’ Park. But for the Shahi Imam to state explicitly that he was snubbing the Prime Minister with a non-invitation was gratuitous.

Now, the Indian National Congress has chosen to emulate the grandstanding of the Shahi Imam. For the beleaguered party, the celebration of the 125th birth anniversary of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is an important occasion. There are suggestions that the party would like to use the occasion as a first step in its overdue rejuvenation programme. Whatever its intention, the right of the Congress leadership to use the occasion in the best way it deems fit by either re-reading history or charting out the future is undeniable. This is more so because in its own version of its 129-year-old history, Jawaharlal Nehru was more than a Prime Minister: he was the founder of a dynasty that continues to rule the roost in the party.

The Bharatiya Janata Party would not expect Sonia Gandhi to grace the occasion when it celebrates the 2014 general election victory at a future National Council meeting. Such an invitation would be singularly inappropriate and, to be fair, the Congress president wouldn’t feel disappointed by the non-invitation. Likewise, I don’t think that Prime Minister Modi was cut up at not being able to go to Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium to address the assembled Congress members.

However, it is one thing for the Congress to laugh off any suggestion that Mr Modi should have been invited just because there are some foreign dignitaries likely to be present. It is an act of willful discourtesy for the long-winded Anand Sharma to add some needlessly gratuitous remarks to his assertion that Mr Modi hadn’t been invited. According to one media report, Mr Sharma said: “We can discuss Nehru with those who are either informed or have the capacity to understand Nehru’s vision. We have invited those who respect Nehru’s philosophy and acknowledge his contribution.”

In the course of a few sentences, Mr Sharma encapsulated exactly why the Congress finds itself on the back foot and why its claim to have a monopoly of all intellectual wisdom is today the object of so much derision. Just as Marxists, particularly those in academia, are inclined to sneer at those who disinclined to share their so-called “scientific” analysis of human societies, self-professed Nehruvians have a tendency to juxtapose their own lofty “enlightenment” and “cosmopolitanism” against the apparent “insularity” and “Right-wing” proclivities of opponents.

To what extent this elevated self-esteem stemmed from Nehru is a matter of conjecture. In one of the early studies of Nehru, Walter Crocker, who served as Australia’s high commissioner to India in the 1950s, experienced a sense of camaraderie with “Nehru and the upper class Indian nationalists of English education”. But he felt disconnected from Nehru’s ministerial colleagues and other Congress functionaries. Members of this non-U group, he wrote bluntly, “were provincial mediocrities, untravelled, ill-educated, narrow-minded; not a few were lazy; some were cow worshippers and devotees of ayurvedic medicine and astrology” and, to cap it all, “some were dishonest”.

The similarities between Crocker’s understanding of those Nehru had kept at an arm’s length and Mr Sharma’s criterion for membership into the Nehru Club are quite eerie, considering the 50-year gap between the two pronouncements.

Nehru was a patrician something that, curiously, endeared him to the earthy Mahatma Gandhi and he was blessed with a fierce sense of entitlement that he garnished with noblesse oblige. But he was also remarkably alert intellectually. This contributed to his keen sense of political pragmatism the most notable feature of which was his ability to put all his private reservations aside and ride piggyback on the Mahatma’s popularity. At the same time, he had a fascination for new ideas and new trends that set him apart from his more rooted Congress colleagues. Socialism, planning and grandstanding internationalism appealed instinctively to him because they were fashionable among a particular set at that time. He somehow saw India as a plasticine ball that could be moulded according to fashion and reshaped again. He underestimated the resilience of indigenous social institutions and allowed his prejudices to determine policy choices hence the disdain for native entrepreneurship. He was lucky that in the first flush of Independence, loyalty to the Congress allowed his personal will to prevail. On Indian politics becoming truly competitive after 1967, the hegemony of the Nehruvian consensus was challenged, culminating in the victory in 2014 of those he regarded as outlanders.

Arguably, had the intellectual alertness that characterised Nehru been carried over down the generations, the Congress could have persisted with its dominant party status. However, the injection of the dynastic principle ensured that Nehru’s legacy became a family trust. Even the private papers of Nehru, lovingly preserved at Teen Murti at state expense, are treated as family property, access being allowed to only those who have been vetted.

In many ways, the November 14 celebrations could well be reminiscent of the 12-day wedding celebrations of Jawan Bakht, the favourite son of Bahadur Shah Zafar, in 1852. It was the last public spectacle of the Moghuls and the event has barely registered in history.

Asian Age/ Deccan Cronicle, November 14, 2014

Saturday, November 8, 2014

An unlikely hero: Advani's influence in the BJP sprang from his moral authority

Swapan Dasgupta

Some two decades ago, the BBC released an audio collection of its Test Match Special. It contained John Arlott?s memorable description of Don Bradman?s final test innings at the Oval in 1948 ? the time when the crowd rose to greet England?s deadly opponent and the fielding side resumed play after raising three cheers to the batsman.


Tragically, the clip is all too brief. Bradman blocked the first ball from leg spinner Hollis but misread the next googly completely. I still get goose pimples hearing Arlott?s rolling voice exclaim ??and he is bowled!? Then, after a deathly pause, "What can I say. Bradman bowled Hollis, nought."


Journalists are meant to be hard-nosed and inhumanly detached, but last Wednesday in Mumbai I went through the same emotions as the most ardent Bradman fan 57 years ago. I was witnessing what is probably the last presidential address of L.K. Advani to the Bharatiya Janata Party. Advani will still be around in public life and, who knows, if the National Democratic Alliance returns to power in the foreseeable future, I might hear him in another, more lofty capacity. That day, however, I felt I was hearing him for the last time as a party functionary, before he joins Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the ranks of the elder statesmen.


As speeches go, it wasn't one of Advani's most outstanding. Always somewhat professorial, he satisfied the ideologically committed by restating the BJP's cherished beliefs of nationhood and dissatisfied the sloganeers by not providing enough talking points for the political Punch-and-Judy show. It wasn't exactly Bradman?s final innings but it wasn't the triumphant last bow of a maestro either. Having delivered a competent working speech, Advani casually moved on to the next phase of his political life.


Yet, just as you can?t judge Bradman by the 1948 Oval Test, it would be a travesty to pass a verdict on Advani on the strength of his last, and most troubled, stint at the crease. The image that flashed before my moist eyes that Wednesday morning was not the Advani of 2005, departing in controversial circumstances, but the Advani of 1990, the man who inspired a generation and the man whom history will recall as the most accomplished soldier of Hindu nationalism.


It was dusk in September 1990 as I drove from the Gujarat border, through the scenic ghatsen route to Udaipur. There were people lined up on both sides of the road but what caught my attention was a tiny adivasi hamlet in Salumber. There were nearly a dozen or so Bhil women in red saris clutching simple stainless steel thalis adorned with marigold garlands, coconuts smeared in red tilak and small oil lamps. They were eagerly awaiting the journey of Advani?s Ram rath-yatra through their village.


To me, this was a defining moment in Indian politics. It was one thing for Udaipur to be lit up for an early Diwali celebration, with boisterous bikers heralding the passage of the chariot to Ayodhya. It was one thing for a two-hour long procession to wind its way through the pink colonnades of the Jaipur bazaar. The towns, after all, were the BJP?s natural constituency. But the adivasi women in Salumber were different. Advani, like the Mahatma before him, had touched a chord in the soul of another India.


Advani was always the unlikely hero. Before his secularist detractors blessed him with horns and vicious eyebrows, he was the archetypal Common Man of the Laxman cartoons. A little self-effacing, shy to the point of awkwardness, exceptionally courteous and generously open-minded, he wasn?t like any other politician I had ever encountered. He was raised in the sangh tradition but unlike the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh of an earlier age, he spoke in an idiom that was refreshingly contemporary. He invoked Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" in his Mumbai speech. I once even heard him mention Samuel Huntington's book on national identity to a bewildered rural audience in Orissa.


He had his failings too. Clarity in thought was his attribute but bluntness in speech was not. He was awkward in difficult situations and his hand-wringing was sometimes more than just a nervous twitch. I always felt that comparing him to Sardar Patel did him a grave injustice. Advani was not an Iron Man. He was temperamentally too generous, too much of a pessimist to be able to take very harsh decisions. He believed in conviction politics and the power of logic and argument. He was inspirational, not charismatic. He was always the grand strategist, the man who loved anticipating a trend. In the realms of partisan politics he was often a brilliant tactician but always an inept intriguer. Rarely could you equate wiliness with Advani. The charge, often levelled during the time the NDA was in government, that he was trying to upstage Vajpayee was simply outrageous. He was often in disagreement with Vajpayee ? mainly on points of detail, not anything involving principles ? but he knew the importance of having only one power centre in government. After all, it was he who unilaterally decided in early 1996 that Vajpayee was going to be the party?s prime ministerial choice because that would fetch the BJP an incremental vote.


In the aftermath of the Ayodhya movement and particularly after December 6, 1992, Advani was often painted as a sectarian fanatic. He always had a robust sense of what constitutes Indian nationhood but intolerant he definitely was not. He was blessed with strong moral certitudes which many attributed to the Jesuit influence in his formative life. In perceiving things in black and white, and not upholding Hindu ambiguity, he was, perhaps, guided more by Judaeo-Christian assumptions. This forever landed him in controversy. He stood firm on the Ram temple issue. He was unwavering in his decision to not seek elected office till he was exonerated of the preposterous Jain hawala charges. And, equally, he refused to believe he had done anything wrong in upholding Mohammed Ali Jinnah?s legacy in Pakistan. In the tussle between conviction and realpolitik, Advani was innately uncomfortable in tilting towards the latter, although in government he had to. His ?act of stupidity? speech in parliament last week was a strange aberration.


The question is often asked: is this the end of the road for Advani? It need not be so. Advani erred in attaching disproportionate importance to the presidency of the party. His influence in the BJP never stemmed from the post he held. It flowed from his moral authority. Unfortunately, it was that authority which was eroded after the Jinnah controversy and the spat with the RSS. He would, however, have recovered lost ground had he focussed on a viable succession plan for the organization. This did not happen because he went into a shell, ruing the unfairness of it all. His hand-picked second generation leaders, on the other hand, felt he was being unfair to them by converting a genuine disagreement into a loyalty test. Both sides felt aggrieved and the sense of hurt was compounded by a growing communication gap which, unfortunately, persists.


The gap may well narrow once the dust settles on the presidency. Advani remains and will remain the leader of the opposition. In this capacity he has the necessary detachment to position himself as the undisputed head of the NDA. If the pendulum of politics swings the other way in the next few years, before the BJP manages to create another mass leader with a pan-Indian appeal, we may see Advani returning to the crease for another last innings.

The Telegraph, December 30, 2005

Thursday, November 6, 2014

BJP membership drive shows that it is avoiding the ideological route

By Swapan Dasgupta


The reportage of the BJP’s membership drive on November 1 focussed principally on the party’s technological adroitness and its use of modern communication tools for political mobilisation. This is doubtless interesting. However, more significant was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the occasion. 


According to the Hindustan Times report, Modi suggested, “BJP should also come across as a diverse party. People from all strata of society should feel that we have a representative in this vase of flowers.” The geographical spread of the BJP, he felt, should be complemented by a vertical expansion to include all social and economic groups. 


This is not the first occasion a top BJP leader has implored the party to look beyond the faithful. Shortly after the NDA came to power in 1998, L.K. Advani proffered the idea of a “New BJP”—taking his cue from Tony Blair’s success with New Labour—at a BJP National Executive meet. Advani’s prescription stemmed from a belief that as a party grows it must blend core beliefs with ideological aggregation. He often said that the BJP must incorporate elements of the “idealism” that defined other political traditions. After all, the BJP was forged in 1980 as a more cohesive version of the Janata Party and not merely as a resurrection of the Jan Sangh. 


This experiment faltered on two counts. First, the relationship between those who saw the BJP as an ideological pole and the Atal Behari Vajpayee government suffered from a variety of strains. There were occasions when the disagreements went far beyond routine friendly fire that governments face. Secondly, the unexpected NDA defeat in 2004 was attributed to the detachment of BJP karyakartas from the government. Fearing growing incoherence, the RSS—at the request of many in the BJP—had to step in after Advani’s contentious utterances in Pakistan in 2005 to exercise its moral authority and steady the ship. Political experimentation was put in deep freeze. 


The challenge of attracting an incremental vote was met in 2014 by Modi transforming the general election into a presidential contest. The BJP’s 12 per cent increase in the popular vote and the absolute majority it secured in the Lok Sabha was a consequence of the party out-performing the Congress among all communities (barring Muslims) and classes. The BJP achieved an above-average support from upper castes, backward castes and Scheduled Tribes. Although it out-polled the Congress among Dalits, the extent of support was below its national average. Going by the CSDS-Lokniti survey findings, there was also a positive correlation between levels of economic prosperity and support for the BJP. Finally, there was a direct link between age and support for the BJP: the younger the voter the greater the support for Modi. 


The disaggregated data from the Assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana are still awaited. However, preliminary and anecdotal evidence suggested that broad voting pattern of the Lok Sabha election persisted. Particularly interesting was the ability of the BJP to overcome its local shortcomings and win a clear majority in Haryana. The party complemented its traditional support along the G.T. Road with categorical endorsements from non-Jat communities and—much to the surprise of the commentariat—Dalits. 


Empirical evidence would certainly suggest that the perception of BJP as a party of the rich, the Hindi speakers, the upper castes and the traders is now an invalid stereotype. The Jan Sangh started life from a narrow base but socially and geographically the Modi-led BJP has evolved into a truly representative of national party. 


Yet, there was an over-reliance on Modi for the Assembly election. Banking on the Prime Minister’s intact popularity, the BJP was spectacularly successful in equating a vote for the BJP in the Vidhan Sabhas with a vote for Modi. This approach may mark the party’s forthcoming campaigns in Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi—a pointer to both its strength and weakness. 


The decline of the Congress has presented the BJP with an opportunity to fill a void and consolidate groups that voted to make Modi the Prime Minister. As of now, the support is still fledgling and vulnerable to the arithmetic of a possible anti-BJP combination. The conversion of the 2014 support into a vote bank is still work in progress. 


It is interesting is that in bolstering its pan-Indian credentials, the BJP leadership appears to be avoiding the ideological route. The Modi government is rooted in the Sangh philosophy but it does not wear ideology on its sleeve. Rather than take the doctrinaire route to growth, its outreach appears to be centred on governance initiatives. 


The aggregation strategy of Vajpayee and Advani between 1998 and 2004 implied a bid to occupy the conventional Centre-Right ground and steer away from the assertive Hindu nationalism of 1988-94. The Modi-Amit Shah strategy involves rigorous consultations with the parivar and exercising caution in pursuing the radical economic agenda of the ‘globalised’ Right. However, this is coupled with an autonomy of approach as far as party building is concerned.  


To some, this may appear the Congress-isation of the BJP. It could also be read as ideological politics by other means. 

Hindustan Times, November 5, 2014