By Swapan Dasgupta
Saturday, March 8, 2014
Friday, March 7, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many Indians who take every word written or said about the country in media overseas a shade too seriously. The same lot that peers at the global media through a microscope is equally inclined to treat every positive remark as a testimonial and every unfavourable review as a conspiracy of hate. Just as Mahatma Gandhi over-reacted to Katherine Mayo’s infamous Mother India, and Indira Gandhi went apoplectic over an episode of Louis Malle’s documentary Phantom India, Indian nationalists in particular tend to confer an extra touch of authenticity to foreign writers on the motherland. At the grave risk of sounding flippant, I would argue that had the now-controversial Wendy Doniger written under a suitably Indian pseudonym, her pronouncements on Hindu traditions would not have generated the same amount of heat. It was her foreign-ness that acted like a magnet, inviting the exacting scrutiny of all those who see themselves as custodians of the faith.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this overall lack of equilibrium has a great deal to do with a larger sense of national inadequacy. This is most marked among those who use national sovereignty and, by implication, the defences of Fortress India to shore up a measure of astonishing mediocrity. When it comes to prickliness—an attribute that was elevated to the level of a foreign policy principle by, first, the irascible V.K. Krishna Menon and then, with greater effect by Indira Gandhi—there are few who can equal either the lesser bureaucracy or Indian academia. The biggest threat to their assured positions stem from the imposition of exacting global standards to measure performance. Consequently, they invariably fall back on a form of protectionism that involves acceptance of venal shoddiness.
For example, I was slightly taken aback at the venom that was recently poured on the writer William Dalrymple, who I like to describe as Delhi’s ‘White Moghul’. Apart from the familiar charges of racism—an occupational hazard for anyone who is a co-organiser of the Jaipur literary jamborree—and being anti-Hindu, which too is becoming distressingly routine, Dalrymple’s histories have been debunked by those Arun Shourie taunted as the “eminent historians.” The reasons for their hatred of this genial Scot are three-fold: Dalrymple writes readable narrative history; his books sell and has made him a celebrity; and in burrowing through dusty archives for untapped sources, he has exposed the inadequacies of the tenured cretins.
This is not to suggest that everything that originates from outside the national boundaries of India is necessarily more robust and virtuous than the home-grown variety. Over the past year, as the UPA-2 government increasingly ran out of steam, there was an exaggerated attention paid to the coverage of India overseas. It began with a local edition of Time magazine, a publication whose best days are behind it, putting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on its cover. The scrutiny continued as more serious publications such as Economist proceeded to dissect the BJP prime ministerial candidate. In an editorial that seemed comically pompous to the uninitiated but seemed a matter of course to its editors, Economist wrote in December last year: “In the next five months Mr Modi needs to show that his idea of a pure India is no longer a wholly Hindu one…, that he abhors violence and discrimination against Muslims… Otherwise, this newspaper will not back him.”
With barely 70 days to go before the verdict of the electorate is known, Modi hasn’t demanded that the Constitution be changed to make India a Hindu Republic. Nor for that matter has he even mentioned pre-existing religious faultlines in his many, widely publicised speeches. Will the editors of Economist now do the unthinkable and ask its readers—at least those who have a vote in India—to vote for the BJP?
Not only is that unlikely but it is not even expected. For a start, the foreign media in India—like foreign correspondents in most parts of the world—live in a ghetto. The Embassy or High Commission, the Foreign Correspondents Club and, in January, the Jaipur Literature Festival constitute their happy hunting ground. Their information on India is principally culled from three sources—the local English-language media, the expatriates working outside government and a small handful of well-connected individuals in Delhi and Mumbai who are inclined to apply the liberal parameters set by The Guardian and New York Times to India. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous taxi driver without whose earthy wisdom no despatch from the native quarters is ever complete. No wonder they very often fail to grasp emerging trends.
True, there are the exceptions. The business and financial journalists do end up meeting people beyond Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and often have a good feel of what is either driving or stalling India. And, of course, there are those who have gone ‘native’ like Sir Mark Tully of Nizamuddin, Ian Jack and John Elliot.
That all those I have named are nominally British isn’t exactly a coincidence. Call it a colonial hangover or Anglophilia but, as a rule, I have found Britons better able to get under the Indian skin far better than continental Europeans and Americans. Last week, for example, I read Delhi: Mostly Harmless, a vastly amusing account of life in Delhi by a young Oxford academic Elizabeth Chatterjee. Many Indians, however, are likely to find her cruel irreverence very patronising. But that would be missing the point. When we read an outsider’s account of India, we don’t necessarily expect to see the country as we see it. We seek to understand how India appears to people with a different set of cultural assumptions. A legitimate point of exasperation would be if the account was uninformed, superficial and needlessly judgmental.
There are many silly accounts of Indian happenings and Indian life. Like most things, the insightful blends with the banal and the jaundiced. But it prompts a very different set of questions. Why don’t Indians write about other lands and other societies, as Pallavi Aiyar has done on China? Is it because we are incapable of transcending India? Or is it because we too are incapable of understanding the foreigner?
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 1:19 PM
Sunday, March 2, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
A sting operation by a TV channel is said to have exposed some of the more dodgy players in one of the few growth sectors in an otherwise declining India: the opinion poll industry. The ‘exposure’ is absolutely warranted and may even contribute to a process whereby professionally designed and executed polls are distinguished from their made-to-order counterparts.
Not that opinion polls have determined the Establishment’s pre-election verdict as to which side will prevail in a general election. In my experience, there were only two occasions when the otherwise sharp instincts of the Delhi Establishment have been proved wrong. The first was in 1977 when there was general disbelief that Indira Gandhi could actually be defeated; and the second was in 2004 when a smug and over-confident BJP failed to gauge the devastation resulting from imperfect alliances in southern India. And yes, in 1996, there was genuine uncertainty—a fear that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With less than three months to go before the next Lok Sabha is formally notified, the belief in the governing circles of Delhi is that Narendra Modi is likely to be the next Prime Minister of India. From the speculation over numbers which dominated conversations a month ago, the interest these days is over the composition of a Modi Cabinet. In a cruel world where there is a rush to climb on to the bandwagon of the RPI (Ruling Party of India), the dynasty and the Congress have been unceremoniously relegated to the opposition benches—not least by Congress supporters themselves. As a former editor with Congress sympathies admitted to me last week: “The Congress is working towards ensuring a respectable defeat for itself.”
Of course, there are those who are still clutching at straws. A section of the “activist” brigade still believe that the Aam Aadmi Party will spring a national surprise and prevent Modi’s shift of residence from Gandhinagar to Delhi. And there are those who cling to the belief that the BJP itself—egged on by regional parties—will stage a palace coup in May and install a more “pliable” PM.
I am among the tiny handful with access to Delhi’s charmed circle that believes that no election is really won till the counting of votes end. Modi may well enjoy the initial advantage but it is only after the candidates have been announced and the campaign enters its final lap that a meaningful call can be taken. More to the point, I don’t underestimate the ability of the Congress to put up a fierce fight till the very last day. When it comes to political ruthlessness—as we witnessed during the passage of the Telengana Bill—the Congress is miles ahead of the BJP.
Indeed, the past few weeks have clearly indicated that the Congress is engaged in making contingency plans. Its first priority is, of course, to stop Modi at all costs, using every weapon at its disposal. However, after Ram Vilas Paswan’s U-turn and re-entry into the NDA, there is a feeling in Congress circles that this may not be possible. Indeed, the whisper is that things may actually get worse.
This leads to the second fall-back option: to make life as difficult as possible for a new Modi Government. Eyebrows have been raised at the peremptory transfer of the Health Secretary, the attempt to give the head of a major public sector undertaking an undeserved extension and even the last-minute nomination of a Rajya Sabha MP. Less publicised has been the frenzied activity to ensure that every vacancy for bureaucratic posts, committees, governing bodies and other posts where the Centre or its Governors in the states can use their discretionary powers are filled with individuals who, even if they are not pro-Congress are at least anti-Modi. So great has been the rush to clear names that intelligence agencies are believed to have complained that they have not been given the time to undertake due diligence. In the Ministry of External Affairs, it is said that appointments that are due six months or more later are being settled before the Code of Conduct comes into force.
With its long experience of governance the Congress knows that many of these last-minute decisions can easily be reversed by a new government. At the same time, it is aware that it may be many months (sometimes even years) before the proverbial attention of any minister is brought to the hidden minefields. There will be enough opportunities to trip up a new government in unexpected areas and create an impression of mal-governance.
Those with a political memory may recall that the first government of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998 was seriously hamstrung in its initial days by bureaucratic subterfuge. For example, the onion crisis that led to the ignominious defeat of the BJP in the 1998 Delhi Assembly election was a man-made creation of NAFED, controlled by a Congress appointee. Likewise, the diplomatic counter-offensive after the Pokhran-II blasts was hamstrung by the non-cooperation of envoys with an agenda of hostility to the Vajpayee government.
If Modi is able to translate his early lead in the 2014 race into a decisive last-mile surge, he will undoubtedly become the next Prime Minister. However, the belief that a new man at the helm will instantly translate into a new dawn for India may well be premature. The outgoing regime has left booby traps for the new regime in the most unlikely of places. The new PM has a challenging job ahead of him (or her).
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 12:10 PM
Friday, February 28, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
There were two things going for Jawaharlal Nehru in his relatively trouble-free 17 years as Prime Minister of India. The first is that most Indians, but particularly the middle classes, were in awe of him. His demeanour, patrician style, easy familiarity with the white man (and woman) and Anglophone cosmopolitanism put him in a separate league from the rest of the political class. It accorded him the licence to meddle in things that were outside the scope of politics. Secondly, Nehru lived in a pre-media age when every action of the Prime Minister and his government wasn’t subject to exacting scrutiny. This information deficit proved very handy.
Blessed with these advantages, Nehru could afford to take India for granted. He ran the Government of India in the manner of an enlightened autocrat, doing things which his successors could never dream of. I am not referring to his grand designs that involved both conceptual innovations and colossal misjudgements. Nehru left his mark on many of the little things that went unchallenged: the choice of the national dress, the marginalisation of Vande Mataram, the decision to take the Ashokan Bull Capital out of the Indian Museum in Kolkata and install it in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and above all the direction of post-Independence aesthetics.
I am not familiar with anything Nehru said or wrote about the architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens. My own suspicion is that Nehru, a man whose heart was firmly with the upper-class progressives of England, would have been a shade uneasy with the central assumptions that governed late-imperial architecture. Lutyens, a hugely accomplished architect who never fully imbibed Hindustan, felt that the ambiance of the Raj “makes one feel very Tory and pre-Tory feudal.”
Regardless of whether this was said in earnestness or jest, Lutyens was naturally concerned with giving full expression to both majesty and grandeur in his designs for the new Capital of India. In his own words, “To express modern India in stone, to represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its complement to profound fatalism and enduring patience, is no easy task.”
There are various assessments of Lutyens’ expressions of “Indiain stone.” What is, however, interesting is that the architect worked with a clear political brief that his designs must incorporate specifically Indian features. New Delhi, its imperial creators were clear in their minds, would be a symbol of the British-Indian Empire, and not an arrogant assertion of Englishness. Maybe this is the reason why, despite occasional populist rants against exaggerated grandeur and opulence, Lutyens’ creation remains iconic in Independent India. Those who have witnessed the Beating Retreat ceremony at Raisina Hill each January have invariably been overawed at the sight of the mounted camels on North and South Block silhouetted against the fading light.
The historian David Cannadine once suggested that Britain and India were bound by a common attachment to ‘Ornamentalism’. He was dead right and Lutyens’ Delhi remains its high point.
Yet, in many ways Lutyen’s Delhi remains an aberration. Under Nehru and his daughter, India undertook the creation of many more administrative centres for the states—Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh and Gandhinagar come to mind. But whereas each of the new cities can claim different measures of spaciousness, the new architecture is unabashedly modernist in style. In the India of big dams, IITs and Five-year Plans—the “temples of modern India”, as Nehru put it so evocatively—relatively little importance was attached to the incorporation of a visibly Indian ethos.
This departure from Lutyens didn’t happen because, like good Hindus, the decision-makers lacked a sense of history. The enthusiastic endorsement of the contemporary was a consequence of Nehru’s own preferences. Never someone to smuggle his ideas through the backdoor—who, after all, would contest the mighty Jawaharlal?—Nehru outlined his approach at the opening of a public building in Chandigarh: “I am very happy that the people of Punjab did not make the mistake of putting some old city as their new Capital. It would have been a great mistake and foolishness. It is not merely a question of buildings. If you had chosen an old city as the Capital, Punjab would have become a mentally stagnant, backward state. It may have some progress, with great effort, but it could not have taken a grand step forward.”
Such an assertion, if made today, would have invited fierce controversy and the Prime Minister would have been sharply criticised for letting his preference for newness ride roughshod over the Indian inheritance. But in the India of the mid-1950s, Nehru could easily get away by allowing his personal aesthetic preferences to be equated with the supposed wishes of the “people of Punjab.”
As things have turned out, the decision to let Le Corbusier’s avant garde prevail in an alien setting didn’t result in a revolution of free spiritedness. Punjab or, for that matter, Haryana may not have fully overcome Nehru’s fears of becoming “mentally stagnant” and “backward” but the architecture of Chandigarh has not contributed significantly either way. In many ways, the city remains an oddity.
This is so markedly different from the small enclave created by Lutyens within the now-sprawling metropolis of Delhi. The blend of green space, gracious living and political power has made Lutyens’ Delhi a symbol of both privilege and authority. India is a far cry from being an Imperial Republic but Lutyen’s Delhi comes closest to being the country’s only Imperial City.
The implications of this are far-reaching. The perquisites of a spacious, rent-free government-cared bungalow for babus, netas and even a few hangers-on exercise a macabre attraction for those who are granted the privilege and those who aspire to it. With rare exceptions, those who check into an independent bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi are reluctant to return their keys and check out at the end of their tenure. They invariably aspire to transform temporary occupancy into a permanent allotment and, like a membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, to bequeath it to their heirs. So brazen is this sense of entitlement that one family which has had an uninterrupted presence in Parliament since 1971 has even named their alloted government bungalow after its princely state.
The historian Sir Lewis Namier had suggested in his studies of early-19th century Britain that lofty causes espoused by politicians are often a cloak for very trivial and selfish concerns. The extent to which posturing in India’s national affairs is dictated by the simple desire to retain a Lutyens’ bungalow isn’t often fully appreciated in the outside world. Politicians and officials, it would seem, have a mortal dread of retirement or defeat because that necessarily involves vacating official accommodation. In today’s Delhi, a large number of public servants, it would seem, would want the mandatory re-housing of former Presidents and Prime Ministers (and their spouses, if deceased) to be drastically enlarged. One day, if the relevant papers are transferred to the archives, historians may be able to document how many shoddy compromises and rebellions have been dictated by the lure of a roof in Lutyens’ Delhi.
Architecturally, the style evolved by Lutyens in the building of New Delhi is the subject of legitimate study. Yet, the legacy of Lutyens is more than bricks and mortar. In trying to capture India in stone, this great architect also shaped the mentality of power. More than his creation being influenced by India, the country has been shaped by the city he built. Compared to him, the legacy of Nehruvian aesthetics has been nominal.
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 5:57 PM
Sunday, February 23, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In 1983, prior to a British general election which was easily won by Margaret Thatcher, I attended a conference on ‘Victorian values’ at Ruskin College, a Labour movement institution located in Oxford but detached from the university. The conference, dominated by those who believed that Thatcher posed a threat to civilisation as we know it, was unmemorable. Yet, one incident stood out.
A BBC crew chose to film one of the sessions, perhaps as an input for its larger election coverage. No one was particularly bothered until an earnest activist stood up and protested against what he imagined was political surveillance. Encouraged by this prickliness, others also joined the protest and made passionate speeches about BBC’s fierce anti-Left bias. There were a few voices of restraint but the gathering voted quite overwhelmingly to exclude the TV crew from the meeting.
Looking back on this footnote of footnotes in contemporary British history, two broad conclusions are warranted. First, despite the show of ideological bravado, the activists who saw the conference as an occasion to debunk Thatcher’s “reactionary” celebration of the Victorian ethos were also aware that they were fighting a losing political battle. In the Britain of 1983, Thatcher’s appeal to put the “Great” back into Britain had the support of not merely the middle classes but a large section of the ‘proletariat’. The anger at the BBC—seemingly representative of the Establishment—was also an admission of defeat.
Secondly, the visceral anger at the media was also a protest against intellectual marginalisation. Unlike today when the BBC flaunts an obvious Left-wing tilt, the institution tried to be more ‘balanced’ those days. A staid middle-of-the-road consensus set the editorial tone. This implied that other voices—whether of the Right or Left—were often ignored. It was this relegation to the fringes that the lefty activists were protesting against that afternoon in Oxford.
Even a casual overview of the chattering class storm over Wendy Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus points to similarities in reactions. For a start, despite the ridiculous assertion by the publishers that their decision to reach an out-of-court settlement was driven by concerns over the safety of staff members, this was a battle that was not taken to the streets—unlike the disputes over Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasreen and M.F. Husain’s paintings. The conduct of the aggrieved Dina Nath Batra was never constitutionally unbecoming: he went through a court of law and got Penguin to admit that the book, in effect, violated section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
Penguin’s contention that India’s laws are inherently illiberal may well have a basis but it is curious that liberals have on other occasions been very forthright in their support for harsher laws against what they perceive is “hate speech”—witness the still-born Communal Violence Bill.
What seems to unite the Left outrage I witnessed 30 years ago and Batra’s litigation is the shared sense of intellectual dispossession. The free flow of ideas in a democracy is invariably tempered by value judgments over what is ‘respectable’ and what is not. Those who rubbish Doniger feel, and quite legitimately so, feel that academia disregards those analyse faith from the perspective of believers. They believe that studies of Hindu faiths have been taken over, particularly in the US, by those who inherently sceptical of the larger Indian inheritance. This conviction is bolstered by the apparent arrogance of dominant intellectuals who refuse to concede space to those who have a more sympathetic perspective of Hindu theology.
What adds to the muddle is that despite their academic dominance those who are happy with a less reverential assessment of faith find themselves politically beleaguered. Just as the British Left of the 1980s found itself unable to counter the appeal of Thatcher, those defending Doniger are inclined to attribute Penguin’s surrender to what is colourfully called “creeping fascism”—a code for the rising support for Narendra Modi. Yet, rather than comprehend the reasons for Modi’s popularity, they would rather retreat into their bunkers and uphold their own certitudes while waiting for the proverbial hard rain to fall.
India is on the cusp of a consensus-breaking transformation and the reactions to Doniger’s woes symbolise the turbulence in the air.
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 2:50 PM
By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week, I met a German writer who is studying the Indian general election. During the course of an enjoyable conversation, he expressed his deep unease at the casual way in which his liberal friends in India bandied expressions such as “fascism” and “Holocaust”. Hitler, he explained to me, was one of the most extraordinary aberrations in human history. It was extremely unlikely that such a phenomenon would recur, and certainly not in the 21st century.
Tragically, those who are urging a measure of intellectual restraint are in danger of being overwhelmed by the din created by a small but extremely well-connected minusculity. For them, the India of today is a mirror image of inter-War Europe.
Although he is too nuanced to fall for such claptrap, even my friend historian Ram Guha appears to have caught the bug somewhere. After a walking tour of North Kolkata—the old ‘black town’—a few days before Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rally in the city, he tweeted his appreciation of “Hindu/ Muslim/ Jain/ Christian influences, across the centuries, buried and alive”. The only “jarring note” he detected, “was that there were large photos of The Leader on every post, building, tree and turn, obscuring the stories of the past.”
The choice of the term “The Leader” was revealing. Although Guha doesn’t fall for the Modi equals Hitler slogan (he believes the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is more akin to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), he fuels the liberal elite argument that the rise of Modi signals a drift towards authoritarian politics.
Curiously, such an argument was used in 1921by Rabindranath Tagore to express his misgivings over the mass adulation of “Gandhi Maharaj.” The poet, an extremely sensitive individual, detected “in the atmosphere of the country…a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…What I heard on every side was that reason and culture…must be closured. It was only necessary to cling to an unquestioning obedience. Obedience to whom? To some mantra, some unreasoned creed.” Tagore, needless to say, horribly misread the mood of the country and the appeal of Gandhi. He later made amends by anointing the man from Gujarat the Mahatma.
Nor was Tagore the only one who detected the Mahatma’s contribution to the intellectual truncation of India. In Verdict on India, a now-forgotten book that was enormously influential when it was first published in 1944, the popular British writer and journalist Beverly Nichols saw in Gandhi, Congress and Hinduism the living incarnations of evil. Taunting the “warm-hearted Western liberals” who were bowled over by India’s freedom movement, he asserted that “Congress is the only 100 per cent, full blooded, uncompromising example of undiluted Fascism in the modern world.”
Compare this with a recent article by Professor Martha Nussbaum, a colleague of Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago in Indian Express. Arguing that Penguin was guilty of “cowardly capitulation” for compromising on an “eminently winnable” case, she went on to claim: “Fear of violence has won; the conglomerate caves before a vague (or perhaps not-so-vague) threat. Such things have, deplorably, happened before. This time, however, there is the prospect that the RSS will soon have the power to suppress all the books it doesn’t like.” Her message is clear and unequivocal: elect Modi and India will enter an era of book bans and persecution of dissenters.
This is a theme that is resonating in the liberal enclaves. Former Governor Gopal Gandhi drove home the point with a uncharacteristic measure of intemperate rhetorical flourish in an article on the Doniger kerfuffle: “(C)ommunal rhetoric has turned ‘positive’—forget all the others, they do not count. India is Hindu, we are Hindu, we are India. And now we have a leader of leaders who is what we are: Hindu, Hindu Indian…To the jargon of ‘Bharat Mata in danger’ is now added a fatherland vocabulary, where a leader is being fantasized in the shape of all that Nehru was not, his Congress successors have not, and never can be.”
I do not begrudge either Nussbaum or Gopal Gandhi their political preference. I cannot but sympathise with their horrible disappointment that the alternative leader with a five-day stubble whose face stares at us from billboards is increasingly becoming an object of mockery. However, it is extremely galling that through their espousal of Enlightenment values they are trying to forcibly inject into an election campaign issues that Modi has ignored. A man who is forever going on about how development unites, how tourism brings people together and how connectivity enhances national unity is being charged with imaginary offences.
The problem, it seems to me, stems from wilful misreading. When Modi was catapulted to the national stage, his detractors gleefully expected him to raise the communal temperature, engage in Muslim-bashing and threaten Pakistan with nuclear annihilation. He has let down the critics who came with a pre-determined script aimed at scaring minorities. Modi has not deviated from his central theme: that India has not lived up to its potential and that the future lies in economic development for every Indian. He has not lived up to the liberal caricature of what he represents.
For an entrenched elite accustomed to defining what is ‘respectable’, Modi is a threat because he is not from their charmed circle. Modi’s intellectual critics don’t fear for India’s democracy because it is democracy that has heralded a viable non-dynastic alternative; they fear their own irrelevance.
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 2:46 PM
Friday, February 21, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
Opinion polls in India, quite understandably, have a very mixed record. Part of the unevenness stems from the cost factor: it is hideously expensive to conduct an opinion poll with a truly randomised and yet socially representative sample. Secondly, the conversion of votes into seats in a country that witnesses straight fights, three-cornered and four-cornered contests and the emergence of new parties is a nightmare exercise. When pollsters get their seat projections broadly right, it is due as much to skill as to luck.
Given the uncertainties of poll projections it is hardly surprising that the opinion polls on TV channels and publications are increasingly being treated as exercises in political entertainment. The possible losers believe the findings are motivated and the parties that should be smiling are uncertain as to whether the projections are real and correspond to anecdotal evidence or mere hype.
In the past few weeks, the opinion polls are beginning to suggest that the BJP-led National Democratic Front has broken the 200 seat barrier and is hovering around the 220-225 seat mark. The polls appear to be indicating that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate has paid off handsomely and that the BJP’s own tally will exceed its previous best of 181 seats in 1999. The quantum of the BJP’s surge may well be debated but there is no doubt about two trends: the rise of the BJP and the corresponding shrinkage of the Congress.
For the BJP the trends are very encouraging. But they also indicate that the party still has a lot of ground to cover before it can be certain that Modi will definitely move into the house of Race Course Road that will be vacated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May this year. The party has no doubt been able to consolidate itself in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat where it controls the state government. In addition, it has also managed to make considerable headway in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where it is the principal opposition party. However, it still needs to cover a lot of ground in Uttar Pradesh , Assam and Maharashtra. Plus there is the threat from the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the National Capital Region, and the regional party challenge in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where it must hunt for incremental support. Modi may be the frontrunner in an increasingly presidentialised race but he is by no means home and dry.
From the BJP’s point of view there are many things going for the BJP campaign. For the first time since the campaign of 1999, the committed party workers are enthused, even sensing a possible victory after nearly a decade in opposition at the Centre. In addition, the RSS which has a large body of committed volunteers at its disposal has thrown in its full weight behind the campaign—perhaps for the first time since the Ayodhya-centric campaign of 1991. More to the point, Modi has been able to attract a large number of otherwise unattached voters—mainly the youth—into the campaign. The huge attendance at Modi rallies all over the country, including in places like Imphal, Chennai and Kolkata where the BJP has very little footfall, suggests that these efforts are beginning to yield returns.
Ironically, what is pulling the BJP down and preventing the raw enthusiasm of Modi’s supporters from deriving full mileage is the BJP organisation itself. It is worth remembering that despite many victories (and defeats) in the state Assembly elections, the organisational apparatus of the BJP has been quite creaky since about 2000. In particular, the period after 2004 witnessed a prolonged crisis in the party over leadership and organisational dominance. Despite the appearance of seeming purposefulness the first tenure of Rajnath Singh and the three-year term of Nitin Gadkari were wasted years for the party. The party singularly failed in injecting new blood and new talent into the party and persisted with many functionaries who had either lost the will to be energetic or whose public image was less than wholesome. The last occasion when the BJP injected new blood into the party was during the Ayodhya agitation of 1990-93. Since then, the odd individual apart, there has been no real new blood in the party.
This organisational stagnation has resulted in the party often operating as rival factions, a phenomenon that has prevented it from being nimble-footed in its approach to changing situations.
Delhi is probably the most glaring example of this institutionalised paralysis. Recall the inordinate delay in announcing Harsh Vardhan as the chief ministerial candidate and the slowness in finding a replacement to the incumbent state president Vijay Goel. This incompetence has led to the BJP yielding political space to the AAP.
Likewise, whereas the groundswell surge in UP in favour of BJP has been noticeable, it is significant that the party organisation remains divided into antagonistic factions. The tired and often discredited faces of yesteryear have suddenly smelt a last opportunity to become relevant once again, little realising that their very presence on the stage at Modi’s rallies puts off people. A similar situation prevails in Maharashtra where corruption is an additional complication.
Curiously, Modi who otherwise has an undeserved reputation for micro-managing has not devoted any personal attention to fixing the organisation. He has focussed almost entirely on his public rallies and in promoting groups that are supplementing the campaign from outside the formal party structure. But this approach may falter if the BJP list of candidates is dominated by individuals whose public image is at variance with the energetic change that Modi is promising.
The final phase of any election campaign is very important. It can determine whether the initial momentum can be translated into a winning margin through sheer momentum. A failure to do so results in slippage as traditional voting patterns are reasserted. For his own sake, Modi cannot afford to be detached from the nuts and bolts of a battle to make him Prime Minister.
Posted by Swapan Dasgupta at 11:42 AM