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Saturday, June 25, 2016

Brakes Hit: Rampaging globalisation gets a reality check

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times of India, June 25, 2016


Friday, June 17, 2016

In the echo chamber - India, Trump and the Brexiteers

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Telegraph, June 17, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

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

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Telegraph, June 3, 2016

Monday, May 30, 2016

Partisan poll coverage puts media in the dock

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Pioneer, May 22, 2016


Mamata's experiments with a khichdri coalition

By Swapan Dasgupta 

Mamata Banerjee was fully entitled to enjoy her spectacular second-term victory by organising a grand swearing-in ceremony on the grand Red Road in Kolkata on Friday. It was by all accounts a difficult election campaign with a wide array of forces ranged against her. That she defied pre-existing electoral arithmetic and a vicious campaign launched against her by not only the CPI (M)-Congress combine, the intelligentsia and the biggest media house of the State made her victory all the more creditable.

Yet, while basking in her triumph, the Chief Minister of West Bengal was guilty of over-reading the significance of her conclusive victory against her old foes. Within minutes of it becoming apparent that she was sweeping the polls on May 19, her Trinamool Congress spokesman Derek O’Brien said on TV that it was but a small two-hour aeroplane ride from Kolkata to Delhi. Her Finance Minister Amit Mitra who resurrected the idea of a Federal Front echoed this sentiment. On her part, Mamata has not been so explicit but it was clear that she revelled at the fact that Friday’s swearing-in was attended by, among others, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah. Apart from this, Arun Jaitley, Babul Supriyo and Ashok Gajapati Raju represented the Central Government.

True, there were important absentees. The Congress and Communists stayed away and even the Chief Ministers of neighbouring Orissa and Sikkim weren’t seen. And the formidable Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa was probably too busy with her own ministry-making in Chennai to make a short flying visit to Kolkata.

Notwithstanding those who weren’t present — and there may be innocent explanations — the galaxy of State leaders present in Kolkata has certainly fuelled speculation that following the elections in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal, something interesting may be happening in all-India politics to build a viable national alternative to the BJP.

Before rushing to conclusions, it is pertinent to note that there are at least three models that are being experimented with —and almost simultaneously.

Sunday Pioneer, May 29, 2016

The first, preferred by the Congress, is the old United Progressive Alliance model with the Congress as the dominant player and other regional parties, ranging from the DMK, the Left and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) playing a supporting role. This approach acknowledges the diminished stature of the Congress but still accords it a role as a distinctive pole of national politics.

The second model that seems to have caught the fascination of Nitish Kumar attaches primary importance to alliances at the regional level where the dominant partner varies depending on circumstances. Thus, the RJD and his Janata Dal (U) that were the joint senior partners in Bihar, with the Congress playing a clear subordinate role. Nitish hopes that the experiment will be successfully replicated in Uttar Pradesh with the Samajwadi Party as the senior partner and maybe even in Punjab with a Congress-Aaam Aadmi Party alliance. For Nitish, the important thing is to ensure that the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance are defeated in the State elections. This will set the stage for the 2019 elections that could see the aggregate of State elections defeating the Narendra Modi Government. The nature of the central coalition and the choice of a leader can be negotiated subsequently. But Nitish, whose hatred for the BJP has assumed a somewhat strident proportion, clearly sees himself as a future Prime Minister, a project endorsed by Lalu Prasad who would love to be the last word in Bihar.

Finally, there is the Mamata model of the Federal Front. According to this model, a national coalition of regional parties that excludes the Congress, BJP and Left is the way forward in national politics. For Mamata’s Federal Front, the point of inspiration is the 2014 general election results in West Bengal, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telengana where the regional parties prevailed and prevented the encroachment of the national parties. If 2019 results in the regional parties also prevailing in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi, there is a possibility of a patchwork coalition of regional parties prevailing at the Centre. Whereas Nitish sees the coalition being bound by secularism and anti-BJPism, Mamata sees the federal principle as the basis of unity.

On paper, each of these three alliances have a measure of electoral viability. However, there are two imponderables.

To begin with, their success depends on the Congress reconciling itself to the present 45 seats in the Lok Sabha and shedding all hopes of a national revival. It also presumes that all intra-regional rivalries being set aside for the sake of a larger national cause. However as the still-born Janata parivar unity demonstrated last year, this is easier said than done.

Above all, however, there is the vexed question of arithmetic and chemistry. The patchwork coalition works best in national politics when the dominant party is in decline and another national alternative hasn’t acquired sufficient momentum. This happened in 1996 and witnessed two fragile governments led by HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral. By 1998, the pendulum had started swinging once again in favour of national parties. Experience suggests that federal and unitary impulses go hand in hand in India. While the region is all-important in Assembly polls, the nation becomes the point of concern during parliamentary polls.

Whether India will want a khichdi sarkar in 2019 is a moot point. Instead of focussing her energies on such a pipedream, Mamata should be better advised to address the pressing issues of West Bengal first and look to Delhi later. That is also an advice that should serve Nitish too.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The makeover of Modi and the remaking of India

By Swapan Dasgupta 

Maybe it was the resounding win in Assam just a week earlier or even the equally conclusive rejection of the principal opposition party in the same set of elections, but the commemoration of the second year of the Narendra Modi government has been significantly less tentative than the first.

The first year of any administration, especially one where the ministers are new to the job, invariably involves on-the-job learning and blending discovery with disappointments. For the Modi government, elected with the dizzying promise of ushering achhe din, there was first the discovery that its inheritance was dire. The belief that the return of political stability and decisiveness would automatically kickstart a listless economy was quickly shattered. The economy, it was quickly realized, would require prolonged healing. Equally, it was realized that radical prescriptions of change would have to be tempered because the country was loath to digest shock therapy. In short, effective governance would have to involve intelligent innovation, unending application and perseverance.

The government can boast tangible achievements that include a significant enhancement of India’s competitive edge, the upgradation of infrastructure, a focused foreign policy, devolution of resources to the states and, above all, a sharp reduction of corruption in official decision-making. Most important, the past two years have witnessed a steep rise in the energy levels of government. There was scarcely a month that went by without the launch of a significant initiative that touched some area of the citizen’s interaction with the government. These included lofty programmes such as the Swachh Bharat initiative that involved the daunting task of altering the popular mindset. By way of early returns, many of India’s railway stations are today cleaner than they have ever been in living memory.

In 2014, it was Modi’s perceived qualities of leadership that motivated voters — even in places where the BJP had only a nominal presence — to turn a parliamentary election into a quasi-presidential one. The two years of Modi is, therefore, equally an occasion to assess the evolution of a prime ministerial style.

The most striking difference between the Modi who was chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years and the man who is now Prime Minister is the extent to which he has tempered his aggression. True, Modi remains pugnacious at election rallies but in matters of state, his combativeness has been replaced by an eloquence that seeks to bring the disparate strands of India together. The passion that made him one of India’s foremost orators is intact, but has been replenished by a broadening of national concerns. In his Mann ki Baat, for example, there is a conscious desire to move beyond partisan political concerns and address societal themes that touch people’s daily lives. As Prime Minister, Modi is attempting to position himself above the daily bickering of politics. While this exposes him to charges of wilful silence on awkward subjects, it has also raised his profile to beyond that of a humdrum politician.

In line with his status as the unquestioned head of the government, Modi has tried to position himself above political dogma. Nominally, he may be rightwing but this is coupled with an astonishing show of flexibility that comes from doing what is necessary and what is effective. Thus, in view of the private sector’s inability to invest adequately in India’s growth, Modi has undertaken an expansionist approach that is best described as Keynesian.


Modified: As Prime Minister, Modi has tried to position himself above political dogma, showing flexibility to do what is necessary and effective

Schemes such as Aadhar and MNREGA that had been debunked by the BJP while in opposition have been revived because they have a contextual utility. And privatization, which the BJP favoured during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years, has been put in cold storage because it is deemed politically hazardous. For Modi, dogmatic absolutes have been substituted by managerial flexibility.

Finally, Modi has injected a sense of no-nonsense austerity into the lives and political styles of the political class. Whether it is the crackdown on needless foreign junkets or ministerial opulence, he has challenged the penchant for the easygoing and the shortcuts. Modi is governing by example and its impact is still skin-deep and the possibility of regression is still high. But if he has made a mark in just two years, the possibility of him reshaping India is enormous.

If Modi gets 10 years and doesn’t trip on his sword, the India of 2024 will be a vibrant country. More important, the Indian may be a very different being. We could be on the cusp of an exciting Modi Revolution. Only the ranks of the entitled and the chalta hai brigade need to be very afraid.

Sunday Times of India, May 29, 2016

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