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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Trump's angry Whites versus Hilary's elites, Blacks and Hispanics

By Swapan Dasgupta


Among the biggest pitfalls of political analysis is the belief—sometimes not altogether self-conscious—that what we believe is desirable will translate into reality. All of us have, at some time or another, been guilty of such a misreading of the situation, and not necessarily because of ideological convictions. 


Last week, contrary to all the wisdom of punditry, the flamboyant billionaire businessman Donald Trump decimated all his remaining Republican opponents and emerged, for all practical purposes, as the Republican Party’s nominee for the US presidential election in November 2016. When he entered the race many months earlier, the pollsters gave Trump only a two per cent chance of negotiating the primaries successfully. He defied the collective wisdom of the punditry and the organised might of the Republican Establishment to prevail. The next few weeks before the Republican convention may witness another last minute attempt by the grandees to deprive him of the nomination. But with the party faithful rallying behind him, any last minute bid to foist a more ‘respectable’ candidate is doomed to failure. In democracies, manipulative politics is powerless in the face of popular fury. 


The Trump nomination has also set in motion a parallel explosion of conventional wisdom: the firm belief that November will witness the easy victory of Hilary Clinton. This confidence stems not so much from a larger international confidence in the wife of the former charismatic US President. The Democratic Party primaries have revealed the extent of Hilary’s vulnerability in the face of a popular onslaught. If a poorly funded, slightly maverick, self-professed socialist such as Senator Bernie Sanders could the well-oiled Clinton many nervous moments, imagine what Trump can do? 


Hilary may well end up as the first woman President of the US. But her victory against Trump isn’t by any means assured, as yet. 


It is tempting to portray Trump as a loose cannon blessed with a foul tongue and a repertoire of crazy conspiracy theories. The belief that such a man could only go so far and no further has been unendingly disproved over the past few months. Obviously, Trump’s wild politics strikes a chord among many Americans. While debunking those beliefs is easy, it is far more instructive to identify the basis of his undoubted appeal. Just as Indian politics isn’t determined by the Left-Liberal consensus of the newsrooms in Delhi or even the preferences of the insiders in Lutyens’ Delhi, the mood of America isn’t always gleamed from the self-comforting echo chambers of the campuses and financial wheeler-dealers. While their inputs should always be factored, they don’t constitute the whole story. 


To my mind, what makes the Trump campaign very potent is the fact that it has been able to tap the vast reservoirs of accumulated anger. When combined with fear, the cocktail is both hateful and explosive. 


At the top of the anger-filled agenda is the belief that the US has slipped from its divinely-ordained position as the world’s top dog. The Trump supporters believe that the once-mighty US of A is being kicked around by Islamic terrorists on the one hand, and an unscrupulous China on the other. American workers, they feel, are losing jobs and being reduced to impoverishment because they are hostages to transnational capitalism. Moreover, the demographic shift that has accompanied a permissive immigration policy has resulted in a huge mass of people who are no longer attached to the fundamental Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of the US. 


Most of these beliefs aren’t unique. Over the past two decades, the facets of American ‘declinology’ have been articulated by well-heeled think tanks. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan articulated the resentment against multilateral trading systems and the Harvard academic Samuel Huntington (better known for his Clash of Civilisations) wrote tellingly of immigration destroying the American ethos. 


Trump’s achievement has been in tying all these different strands of resentment into a single, angry narrative and a single slogan. For a man whose campaign has so far been largely self-funded and without the benefit of a large army of pollsters, speech writers and researchers, the achievement has been colossal. As a canny businessman Trump instinctively detected political openings and rushed to fill the void. Whereas his Republican opponents in the primaries focussed on their Christian credentials, Trump’s appeal was more wide ranging. Trump appealed to angry New Yorkers as well as those who felt short-changed by the ‘system.’ 


It is the fierce anti-Establishment thrust of the Trump campaign that should not be underestimated, and more so since Hilary is seen as the personification of everything that is rotten about a cosy consensus. But more than that, Trump scores by not accepting the neo-Conservative beliefs on the economy at face values. Indeed, at times the differences between Trump and Hilary’s Democratic rival Sanders is notional. It is this positioning that provides him the opening to appeal to traditional Democratic voters who are not driven by ethnicity. To put it starkly, against Hilary’s grand alliance of the educated, the Blacks and the Hispanics, Trump offers a grand alliance of angry white America. His only shortcoming is that he alienated women with a few incredibly stupid comments but he still has time to repair that damage. 


I believe that unless Trump scores a series of self-goals or unless Hilary somehow reinvents herself after securing the nomination, we are likely to see a riveting election whose outcome is not pre-determined. Decision makers in India should keep an open mind on developments in the US. 

Sunday Pioneer, May 8, 2016


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Forget Obama’s lecture. Brexit is good for India

By Swapan Dasgupta


Imagine, for the sake of argument, that India was facing a crucial election whose outcome would determine its future course. Then consider the likely public reaction if the leader of a mighty country with which we have a “special relationship” flying down to Delhi and telling the people which way to vote. Worse, informing us that if the vote went differently, India would be relegated to the “back of the queue.” 


This is precisely what happened in the United Kingdom last week. President Obama flew down to London, lunched merrily with the Queen, presented a lovely wooden rocking horse to the young Prince George and then lectured Britons on what was good for them, because it was in his national interest. 


Obama’s intervention—laced with characteristic charm and smooth talking—centred on the June 23 referendum that will determine Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union. The stakes are high. If Britain votes for Brexit, it is calculated to have a knock on effect all over Europe and, conceivably, trigger the unravelling of the EU. As it is, there is widespread scepticism of the EU in France over immigration. And in southern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, there is rage over what is perceived as a German-controlled EU. From economic austerity to unregulated immigration, almost every European country has a grudge against an emerging super-state. 


Yet, quite ironically, Obama’s gratuitous advice to British voters didn’t witness an uninhibited display of outrage and nationalistic flag waving—as it inevitably would have done in India. On the contrary, the Churchillian we-will-protect-our-sovereignty voices were (at least in the opinion polls) momentarily subsumed by the concerns of the risk-averse. There was jubilation in the City of London and among the so-called “Davos men” that Obama had successfully injected the profound fear of an uncertain future if Britain exited the EU. Yes, they asserted, the EU wasn’t perfect but the alternative was far more dreadful. If this trend persists for the next few weeks, the referendum outcome is likely to show that contemporary Britain has turned its back on history and embraced a new European identity. 


The forthcoming referendum may well suggest that, unlike emergent countries where nationalism has a profound emotional appeal, the more prosperous parts of the world are guided by economic pragmatism. To put its starkly, the Remain voters are more guided by a concern for their jobs, mortgages and pensions than the face of Britain changing with the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the EU countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. And, for the moment, the Remain brigade appears to be the less-shrill majority. 


On the face of it, apart from the sheer quaintness of the campaign, Brexit doesn’t appear to excite the Indian imagination. The conventional wisdom in the corporate boardrooms and among the strategic community is that India would prefer a UK inside the EU. After all, thanks to the English language, London has become the new gateway to Europe, one of India’s larger trading partners. 


To my mind, apart from reflecting the American consensus, this quiet preference for the status quo is a typical risk-averse approach grounded in intellectual laziness. There is little by way of preparation in the event a majority of Britons decide they prefer to be governed by politicians in Westminster than bureaucrats in Brussels. 


That the final decision is beyond the control of New Delhi is undeniable. At the same time, India should be heartened by the robust enthusiasm of the pro-Brexit camp for developing closer economic ties—leading to possible Free Trade Agreements—with the Emergent Asia that includes India and China. Brexit actually permits India to develop an economic outpost in a European country. The EU is governed by abstract principles and its preachiness is infuriating; the UK being a “nation of shopkeepers” is by contrast flexible and driven by commercial calculations. India and Britain understand each other far better than an amorphous EU comprehends the exotic Orient. India would rather do business bilaterally with European countries than be weighed down by a monolithic Europe. 


At this stage of our development, India should welcome a little churning in the West. After all, the collapse of the Soviet Union did us absolutely no harm. 

Sunday Times of India, May 1, 2016


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