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Friday, July 3, 2015

Least resistance - A question about the Emergency left unaddressed

By Swapan Dasgupta


At a function in New Delhi to mark the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley recounted a conversation he had with the former Supreme Court judge H.R. Khanna—the dissenting judge in the infamous Habeas Corpus case—during the course of a leisurely morning walk sometime in the late-1990s. Justice Khanna apparently told him that Attorney General Niren De’s astonishing admission that the Emergency regulations meant that the right to life was at the mercy of the state was prompted by a leading question he asked from the bench. 


To drive home the point that natural justice was above the suspension of Fundamental Rights, Justice Khanna asked the government counsel whether the Emergency could deny someone the right to life as also mentioned in Article 21. The question was as much aimed at the Attorney General as the brother judges. However, as Justice Khanna lamented, the rest of the bench headed by the then Chief Justice A.N. Ray, sat there stony-faced and expressionless. “It was at that point I knew which way the verdict would go.” 


The 4-1 judgment of the Supreme Court in 1976 legitimising the suspension of all human rights during the term of the Emergency has often been described as the “darkest chapter” of India’s judicial history. The alacrity with which the Supreme Court went out of its way to ingratiate itself to the political executive was shameful, and may explain why the institution has subsequently been so anxious to bend the stick in the other direction as an act of atonement. That this was a bespoke judgment has been confirmed by the subsequent, post-retirement admissions of grave error by formers Justices Y.V. Chandrachud and P.N. Bhagwati, the luminaries from whom a show of spinelessness was not expected. 


The question that inevitably arises from the conduct of the judges in the Habeas Corpus case has often been asked in the context of the larger national experience with the Emergency. Why did India cave in so easily? Why was there no meaningful resistance to the complete subversion of democracy for 20 months? 


The admirers of Indira Gandhi believe that the overall experience with the Emergency wasn’t entirely negative. Apart from the trains-ran-on-time and era-of-discipline arguments that were translated into slogans, the sweeping victory of the Congress in the southern states and a mixed performance in western India in the 1977 election are cited as evidence that the Emergency wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, as is now made out to be. The electoral rout of the Congress in northern and eastern India is sought to be explained by a combination of two factors: the en masse desertion of the Muslims and Dalit voters as a result of the excesses of the sterilisation programme and the consolidation of non-Congress votes. The moment the non-Congress votes fractured once again in 1980, Indira Gandhi was back in power with a conclusive majority. 


There is an associated belief, internalised by the ‘progressive’ intellectuals in the pro-Soviet ecosystem that still feel that India was in the cusp of a counter-revolution led by the forces of “right reaction.” The political and social turbulence in India between 1974 and the declaration of Emergency on June 26, 1975 has been linked to a global offensive that led to the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman in August 1975. The Emergency, by this logic, was a pre-emptive strike to safeguard the gains of Indira Gandhi’s post-1969 socialist turn. Debunking the Jayaprash Narayan-led movement’s “rhetoric of revolution and of extra-legal and extra-constitutional and often violent agitational methods”, the Left historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee in India After Independence (1999), for example, have concluded that “Historically, such a mix has been the hallmark… of a counter-revolution, as the history of the rise of fascism in Europe and dictatorial regimes in Latin America indicates.”  


Yet, for the moment and convoluted Marxism notwithstanding, the Emergency apologists have few takers. The Janata Party may have squandered the mandate it received in 1977 in a remarkably short time through internal feuding but the euphoria that was evident when the election results were declared in March 1977 still persists in the public memory. Despite the somewhat inchoate fears expressed by the BJP veteran L.K. Advani, Emergency has been deemed a ‘Never Again’ moment for India. With time and India’s overall disinclination to imbibe history, the details of the tyranny has receded from public memory but, like ‘British rule’, ‘Emergency’ has come to be equated with the unpalatable. 


There is, however, a question that is tantalisingly left unaddressed. Why was the public mood marked by either acquiescence or passivity? Why, for that matter, did the entire Indian Establishment (with few exceptions) genuflect at the altar of what has now come to be recognised as tyranny? 


Fear, quite obviously, is one explanation. When he courted arrest in the Delhi University campus on June 26, 1975, Jaitley felt that it was one of those routine arrests. No one had a clue as to what Emergency implied. Once this was clear, many of the Opposition activists either retreated carefully into private life or even signed the 20-point programme as a declaration of surrender. Others, less political, chose to stay away from trouble. Aware of the high-handedness of Congress activists who now walked the streets with a swagger, individuals devised their own strategies of survival. IAS officers expediently forgot the rule book and signed blank forms to be used for arrests under the draconian Maintenance of Internal Security Act, editors forgot their dharma and meekly adhered to the censorship guidelines and the more artistic took refuge in the self-serving conviction that high-minded devotion to culture implied a detachment from low-brow politics. Most people just looked the other way. 


The phenomenon wasn’t specifically Indians although, historically, India has a richer experience of surviving in the face of awkward statecraft. Any honest history of the German occupation of France between 1940 and 1944 will reveal that the Resistance was a fringe phenomenon and that most French citizens accorded a grudging welcome to Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, at least till mid-1943 when it was increasingly clear that German defeat was only a matter of time. The options exercised by ordinary citizens—many of whom looked the other way as the deportation of Jews got underway—were determined by the choices available: active collaboration with Vichy, passivity and resistance. Only the very brave, the very motivated and those personally singed by a venal regime could afford the last. 


There is a disconcerting conclusion that flows from experiences with authoritarian or illegitimate regimes: the people in general are respectful to authority. Occasionally, and only occasionally, there is a tipping point when inhibitions are shed. In democratic societies, elections are an in-built safety valve that allows for pent-up feelings to be expressed with a measure of passion. However, it is not automatic. Most of those released from jail when Indira Gandhi announced elections in January 1977 believed that the Congress would be defeated. At best they wanted to put up a fight. It was only after Jagjivan Ram’s defection that simmering discontent over petty, institutionalised tyranny became a surge of anger. 


The people, it is romanticised, saved Indian democracy. But it was by no means pre-determined. Had it not been for a few missteps of those intoxicated by unchallenged power, the voters may well have legitimised authoritarian governance. In the end, politics is less about heroism than human frailties. 

The Telegraph, July 3, 2015

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Yoga Modified: From soft power to nationhood

By Swapan Dasgupta


There is always a danger in trying to anticipate the manner in which an event that seems terribly significant today comes to be viewed by posterity. Matters are further complicated by a made-in-media society that is often inclined to attach more breathless significance to a 140-character tweet than it did to the abolition of the Planning Commission. 


The significance of last Sunday’s World Yoga Day was to a large extent overshadowed in India by the lavish media attention showered on the controversies surrounding the help given by two important politicians to Lalit Modi, the cricket impresario now embroiled in controversy. While this controversy has an undeniable significance in terms of its possible impact on public perceptions of the Narendra Modi government, its historical significance may well prove to be more short-lived than the yogic callisthenics on Rajpath. However, this in turn is again dependant on two factors: first, the ability of governments to endure energetically with the occasion and, secondly, the social penetration of yoga as a national virtue. 


Even if the media was rather casual in recognising the potential significance of the Yoga Day—now sanctified as an annual summer solstice event by the UN—the same can hardly be said of those who spiritedly opposed participation for a number of reasons. 


There was, first, the religious objection of a number of Christian churches and the Muslim Personal Law Board. This objection was grounded in apparently theological reasons. Since the ultimate objective of yoga is to strive for the oneness of the mind and body of an individual with the Supreme Being—by whichever name it is described—it was seen as obliteration the distinction between man and God. It was debunked as a possible invitation to what Marxists call ‘false consciousness.’ Secondly, there were misgivings over the implied sun worship that was met by dropping the surya namaskar from the official event. 


Far more commonplace were, however, the secular objections, including those raised by individuals claiming to be yoga practitioners. Their argument ran something like this: yoga has been around for thousands of years and being a deeply personal endeavour, doesn’t warrant state sponsorship. This disdain for congregational yoga was complemented by the hostility of those who detected an underlying Hindu agenda in the proceedings. Yoga’s historical association with a larger Hindu inheritance could well be one reason why there was a de-facto boycott of the June 21 events by the Congress Party. Presumably, Yoga Day ran counter to its “idea of India.” 


The issue isn’t frivolous. Since the later part of the 20th century, there is a multicultural view of nationality that has gained currency. According to this view, India is akin to a vast supermarket where an array of goods is on display and it is up to both individuals and communities to pick and choose what they want. Everyone does his or her own thing, regardless of the larger consequences. 


This view runs counter to the nation as an historical community that is bound both by inheritance and a shared public culture. India, most of us agree, is by no means homogeneous. And neither should it be. It is defined by a multilingualism that is not confined to languages alone. There is one language we speak when addressing the largest community we call the nation, another which we address as members of smaller communities—be it of regions, communities, faiths or even people of shared background, and yet another we reserve for a global interaction that is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. For nationhood to endure it needs constant renewal and the creation of symbols that most people can identify with. These can be modern as, say, cricket, or grounded in both history and modernity—a role performed admirably by yoga, a discipline whose origins are historical but whose growing popularity is grounded in contemporary lifestyles. 


The importance of yoga as a symbol of India’s soft power—along with Bollywood and curry—has long been recognised. Modi has deftly tried to link it to our sense of Indian nationhood—another thread that binds people together. Yes, it is an invented symbol. But so for that matter are the Ashokan lions, the tricolour and Jana Gana Mana—all ‘inventions’ of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government. 

Sunday Times of India, June 28, 2015

Revisiting unsung heroes who defied Emergency

By Swapan Dasgupta


Watching clips from an old documentary on the Emergency on the occasion of its 40th anniversary, my wife pointed to a rotund man with long sideburns standing next to the unmistakable figure of Raj Narain—the socialist troublemaker whose election petition triggered the landslide. “Who is he?” she asked. 


For a moment I was irritated. “How can you not know him?” I asked incredulously before realising that she was barely 10 when Indira Gandhi undertook her tryst with authoritarianism. To my generation—college students in the heyday of the JP movement—that fat man was not only familiar, he was a figure of endearment. In my three years at St Stephen’s College, he addressed students in the auditorium at least twice, and on both occasions there was standing room only. 


He was witty—made fun of his own bulk—and, most important, he took devastating potshots at the socialist consensus that was the fashion those days. For my generation, Piloo Mody was one of those colourful figures that made politics interesting. A leading figure of the Swatantra Party, he was the man who arrived in Parliament with a badge proclaiming, “I am a CIA agent.” This was in response to Indira Gandhi’s shrill charge that the troubles in India were at the behest of subversives sponsored by the CIA. 


And yet today only a handful of pensioners remember this colourful man who too was jailed during the Emergency. It is said that what he missed most in jail were his beloved pet dogs. On some visiting days, a considerate jail superintendent allowed his family to bring the dogs to the prison. 


Piloo Mody was just one of those characters who defined Indian politics of the post-Independence era. There were so many others, cutting across the political divide who were stalwarts in their days and who are today not even footnotes in the popular memory of contemporary India. 


Last week some of us commemorated the 40th anniversary of Emergency because it was the proverbial tipping point that defined our political consciousness for the rest of our adult lives. Earlier in the year there were functions to mark the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru. For many this was important because Nehru defined their politics and their ‘idea of India’. To my mind both anniversaries are important. The tragedy is that these occasions are observed in terms of the lives of great mean. What is often overlooked is the fact that neither Jayaprakash Narayan nor Nehru played solo roles: there was a supporting cast of those we can choose to call either heroes or villains. The story is incomplete without them and yet these are precisely the figures whose importance has been overlooked. Consequently, they are barely recognisable to a later generation. 


Thanks to some interest in the Emergency and the publication of books such as the one by journalist Coomi Kapoor, some of the stories around the Emergency have been revisited. Yet, as someone remarked to me at the end of an event where Arun Jaitley, Kuldip Nayar and Anil Divan shared some of their memories of the traumatic 20 months, “its remarkable how much we have forgotten.” Last week, I retrieved my well-thumbed copy of David Selbourne’s “An Eye to India” to refresh some memories. More than the stories of the anti-Emergency movement, it lavishly documents the culture of craven submission that accompanied Indira Gandhi’s attempt to impose dynastic authoritarianism. 


Selbourne’s book is a must-read for those who seek to know how and why it was possible for the government to get away with this sinister subversion of democracy for so long. It lists the villains of the game—the opportunistic 20-pointers, the careerist academics and Vice Chancellors and the sly ‘progressives’ who pretended they were battling an imaginary counter-revolution. This documentation was important. Over the years and thanks to the collective Hindu failure to develop a historical consciousness, the past has been expediently moulded to suit contemporary tastes. The historian Patrick French who was present at the release of Coomi Kapoor’s book put it succinctly: “You will never meet an Indian whose family was a loyalist during the Raj; and you’ll never meet someone who supported the Emergency.” 


This expedient refashioning of history is facilitated by our collective refusal to take historical documentation seriously. But the evidence exists—and Kapoor’s book is likely to embarrass a few individuals who ratted on their friends during the Emergency. There are many more who need to be outed. This is not merely to expose the hollowness of their subsequent grandstanding for republican ideals but because it tells us that when confronted with difficult choices, people often choose the one that is most advantageous and painless in the short run rather than the one that is morally valid. This is what happened in France when Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime offered an expedient way out of confronting with the reality of Nazi occupation, and it is what happened in India during the Emergency. 


Yes, there was a spirited anti-Emergency struggle by a handful of people who should all be honoured and remembered. But in the main the real story is one of a people who effortlessly fell in line, snitched on their colleagues in the news rooms and even participated in government-sponsored foreign junkets to tell the world that trains were now running on time and the nation was on the move. 


Maybe it’s the fear of what will be unearthed that makes India reluctant to confine its historical consciousness to comic book accounts of great men. No wonder we have no time for the other players big or small, heroes or villains. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 28, 2015

Friday, June 26, 2015

To forget is costly

By Swapan Dasgupta

The CPI’s lyrical ecstasy over the Emergency was understandable. It saw the Emergency as the means of increasing ‘progressive’ influences over both policy making and the state.

At the best of times India is bad at commemorating the past. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the 40th anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s 20-month Emergency will be marked in a perfunctory way. Although even this patchy commemoration wouldn’t have happened had the Congress still been in power at the Centre, the casual way India approaches its history — both distant and recent — is quite galling. This makes it possible for the entire horrific experience that shaped the political outlook of a generation to be reduced to a set of slogans and catchy headlines.

Part of the distortion arises from the fact that the events between June 1975 and March 1977 are outside the personal experiences of the vast majority of a young country. In the absence of proper documentation, the Emergency often appears too distant for meaningful comprehension. Moreover, most of the chief actors of the period have died and the stray TV reminiscences of individuals who were relevant to the period, valuable as these are, can’t really substitute for India’s larger problem with consciously remembering. Even those who have a conscious stake in ensuring that India never forgets its experience with arbitrary and authoritarian government are often hamstrung by the profound embarrassment over the Janata Party fiasco between 1977 and 1979. And there is no getting away from the disconcerting reality that those who were most responsible for the derailment of democracy during the Emergency were subsequently rehabilitated politically. Some even made the seamless shift to the other side.

In a recent interview, veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani stressed the total lack of contrition of the Congress Party. The point is well made and needs to be addressed. However, it is useful to remember that the Emergency happened and was sustained not merely by the personal agendas of Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, D.K. Barooah, Bansi Lal, Ambika Soni, et al. It struck terror into the hearts of India and reduced a country to abject submission because it was backed up by a large number of functionaries who included second-rung politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, industrialists, judges and academics. Without their complementary support, constitutional authoritarianism may well have been more fragile and more short-lived.

The role played by a supine judiciary in legitimising the suspension of habeas corpus and even the right to life has been among the better-documented features of the Emergency. Equally, the remarkable ease with which the media — otherwise so conscious of its rights and entitlements — capitulated before the likes of Sanjay Gandhi and Vidya Charan Shukla (the then information and broadcasting minister) and crawled when asked to bend is now part of folk memory. However, what has been neatly obliterated from popular memory is the contribution of what was called “progressive forces” in constructing the intellectual scaffolding of the Emergency.

The term “progressive forces” needs a little explaining in the context of the times. After the Congress split of 1969, and Indira Gandhi’s expedient adoption of aggressive socialist rhetoric, a big chunk of the Communist movement, especially those tied to the apron strings of the Soviet Union, felt that an alliance with the Congress was imperative to push a “progressive” agenda. In this respect, the importance of the Communist Party of India (CPI) was paramount.

In the India of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, the CPI was far more important than its parliamentary representation suggested. It was the beacon of “progressive” thought and it showed the way to an influential Left body whose membership spanned the Congress, CPI and unattached individuals in academia, media, public sector units and even business (usually linked to trade with the Soviet bloc). The CPI’s formal alliance with the Congress in 1971 strengthened Indira Gandhi’s socialist credentials and made it a fight against the parties of “right reaction”. Communists and fellow travellers were generously rewarded with state patronage and in turn they were a big influence in the moves to secure a “committed bureaucracy” and “committed judiciary”. When the anti-corruption movement headed nominally by Jayaprakash Narayan shook Bihar and Gujarat in 1973-74, it was the CPI ecosystem that convened umpteen “anti-fascist” conventions and warned of the advancing tide of “counter-revolution”.

Predictably, the CPI was in the vanguard of the forces that cheered on the Emergency. In his speech on February 28, 1976, to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, CPI chairman S.A. Dange said, “The rightist and fascist forces made a diabolic bid for the seizure of power which was foiled by the bold pre-emptive actions taken in declaring a national emergency.” The party asserted that “a new stage of popular anti-fascist unity had been reached between the Congress and the CPI at all levels…” Exhibiting characteristic Communist sophistry, CPI ideologue Mohit Sen — who enjoyed a special relationship with the Nehru-Gandhi family — claimed that “the mantle of destiny” had “slipped over the broadening shoulders of our party”: it had “ceased to become the object of history and become its subject… not so much the product, as the producer of history”.

The CPI’s lyrical ecstasy over the Emergency was understandable. It saw the Emergency — particularly the ability to function without any political challenge — as the means of increasing “progressive” influences over both policy making and the state. It was seen as an important step in ensuring a permanent left and pro-Soviet domination of India. This onward march was particularly visible in the universities where fellow traveller, education minister S. Nurul Hasan, ensured the dominance of professed Marxists (who included out and out careerists) into positions of power and influence. It was an enduring legacy that outlived the Emergency and continues to plague contemporary India.

The CPI’s dream of becoming intertwined with the Congress was thwarted by Sanjay Gandhi, who hated all shades of Communists. However, as the only non-Congress party that could function openly during the Emergency, the CPI penetrated into different layers of society. Its fellow travellers maintained their close links with the Congress and, in time, became valuable allies in the Gandhi family’s larger political battles against, first, the Janata Party, and, subsequently, the BJP. The history of the ideological battles that the National Democratic Alliance governments of Atal Behari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi have had to encounter can be traced back to the dark days of the Emergency.

Forgetting the past, it would seem, also involves the inability to grasp the essence of contemporary political battles.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

War on words on Yoga hides positive fallout

By Swapan Dasgupta


Over the past month, and ever since the Union Government took energetic steps to make the observance of World Yoga Day on June 21 as widespread as possible, a furious controversy has erupted over the appropriateness of the move. As a rule, debates and controversies are often decried in India for two reasons: the shrillness of the exchanges (particularly when TV channels get into the act) and the social schisms that often ensue. 


Yet, not all bouts of fractiousness are necessarily counter-productive. I would hazard the opinion that, despite its unfortunate sectarian underpinnings, the impact of the verbal gunfire over World Yoga Day has been largely positive. More than anything else it has clearly exposed the sharp divide over approaches to Indian culture and traditional knowledge systems. This could even have a bearing on future policy initiatives.


Contemporary debates are often replays of earlier disputes, and it would be instructive to look at some of these. 


In 1824, the British government in India established a Sanskrit College in Kolkata. Unlike the only other government-funded Sanskrit College in Varanasi that was aimed at instructing both East India Company and Crown officials, Kolkata’s Sanskrit College was for the benefit of Indian students. Actually, ‘Indian students’ (or “Bengali” students as the official notings would have it) was a misnomer. In deference to what the administration perceived as prevailing local sensibilities, admission was limited to Hindu students of the Brahmin and Vaidya castes. 


In 1851, in response to a wider bhadralok pressure, the Government contemplated widening the admissions net to include Kayastha students. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Principal of the College, was asked his opinion. In his reply to the Council of Education, Vidyasagar stated that he had “no objection to the admission of other castes than Brahmanas and Vaidyas or in other words, different orders of Shudras, to the Sanskrit College.” Contesting the Manusmriti, Vidyasagar cited the Bhagvata Puran—“acknowledged to be a divine Revelation and to be the essence of all the Upanishads, the most sacred portion of the Vedas”—to show that there was “no direct prohibition in the Shastras against the Shudras studying Sanskrit literature.” 


An enlightened conservative who was in the forefront of moves to secure widow remarriage and combining Sanskrit learning with instruction in English, Vidyasagar, however, balked at the prospect of opening the Sanskrit College to all Hindus. The reason he cited was not theological but “expediency.” The admission of those castes “wanting in respectability” and “lower in the scale of social considerations” would, he feared, “prejudice the interests of the Institution.” In a subsequent letter in 1855, while turning down a Suvarnabanik (Vaishya) student, Vidyasagar regretted that “Admissions from that class will I am sure not only shock the prejudice of the orthodox Pundits of the Institution but materially injure …its popularity as well as respectability.” 


Despite his better judgment, Vidyasagar was compelled to succumb to an insidious phenomenon that has plagued both Hindu society and India: the belief that access to traditional knowledge systems—and, indeed, knowledge itself—must be seriously limited. This was by no means an Indian phenomenon alone. In many parts of pre-Reformation Europe, access to classical learning was limited to the monastic orders. Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is a gripping tale of the devious prohibitions on inherited wisdom in Christendom. 


This exclusivist view of religion and culture is often marked by a certain measure of arrogance and loftiness, and all in the name of purity. The belief that there is one faith for the riff-raff and another for those who have earned the right to enlightenment—the tragic tale of Eklavya in the Mahabharata is an example—has been a source of national weakness. For a very long time—and maybe as a defensive response to unending foreign invasions—there has been attempts to curtail the public and congregational aspects of worship. 


The struggle against this Guild Hinduism has been long and arduous. It was only in the mid-19th century that community Durga Pujas came to be celebrated in Bengal. The earlier practice had limited the worship of the Goddess of Shakti to the private homes of the well-off. It was only at the turn of the 20th century that Lokmanya Tilak popularised the community Ganapati festivals in the Bombay Presidency. He had to encounter the disdain of those who felt that worship was an exclusive affair. In the 1920s, Mahatma Gandhi initiated the temple-entry movement that threw open worship to all Hindus. 


The World Yoga Day may well seem a tamasha to those who believe that its practice is private and personal. What this aloofness from anything congregational conveniently sidesteps is that for historical reasons, Yoga has not permeated deep into the entire society. It has been cherished and nurtured as a special preserve of those who had the luxury of access. A handful of them now express aesthetic outrage that Yoga awareness will throw open its doors to those who were hitherto outside the physical fitness ecosystem. It is so reminiscent of the indignation of the pedigreed few at the open access to the Gayatri Mantra as a result of technology. Just as the Gayatri Mantra was patented and handed down to only a few, they would rather sharp practitioners patented the yoga asanas and confined its reach to only a very few. 


Over the years India has witnessed many social revolutions that have broken down a series of artificial walls to the dissemination of our traditional knowledge systems. Sanskrit is no longer the preserve of the so-called “respectable castes”, as they were in Vidyasagar’s time; in many temples, priesthood is no longer denied to non-Brahmins; and, with time, Yoga will become a truly Indian heritage cutting across faiths and communities. 


Maybe that’s want the sceptics don’t want: for a wide swathe of Indians to embrace an inheritance that had been kept under lock and key for centuries. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 21, 2015

Friday, June 19, 2015

Impression management - Narendra Modi must ensure that the good news eclipses the taunts

By Swapan Dasgupta

As nations and societies get more and more interconnected, headline management has become a key feature of statecraft in democratic societies. The information overload and the mushrooming of media in all their forms have made it increasingly necessary for those involved in public life to try and influence the shape and form in which 'news' is disseminated to the wider world. Just as it was impossible in an earlier age to mould the bush telegraph - or its Indian variant, bazaar chatter - to suit 'national interests', political players of the early-21st century are discovering that the widespread empowerment of citizens that inevitably flows from easy and free access to information can lead to all sorts of complications, some entirely unwholesome.

Western societies, where 'information'- some real and others half-baked or entirely imaginary- is in over-abundance, have created a new breed of professional spin doctors who are now an indispensable part of any political establishment, perhaps as important as those who seek public office. Governments and political parties are often likely to devote more attention to headline management than to other, more crucial, aspects of statecraft. At the same time, the bid to mould public communications has become intertwined with image management. This blend has ensured that what is communicated is on a par or even less important than the perceived public image of the person who says it.

In the British general election, one of the main reasons why the major chunk of undecided voters chose to vote Conservative inside the polling booth was their lack of faith in Ed Miliband, the leader of the Opposition Labour Party. Despite the unrelenting anti-Conservative messaging of the intelligentsia, the BBC and the more articulate sections of metropolitan England, the Labour leader could not overcome the disability of an image that deemed he was too remote, too Left-wing, and too lacking in the common touch. While Labour had the upper hand in policy matters, the Conservatives prevailed on the question of leadership and, by implication, trust.

For the past six months or, more particularly, since the Bharatiya Janata Party crashed to an ignominious defeat in the Delhi assembly election, the Narendra Modi government has been at the receiving end of unflattering headlines. From the outbursts of individual Hindu extremists ranting against 'love jihad' and threatening to celebrate the life of Nathuram Godse to opinionated gripes against expensive monogrammed suits, the frequency of foreign visits, the hidden agenda of World Yoga Day and the cross-border operation against Naga rebels, there is a growing impression that the Central government has lost control of the narrative. This impression may well be at odds with the opinion polls that revealed a wide level of satisfaction with the prime minister's performance over the past year, but it is nonetheless real. When ruling party functionaries complain that every trivial incident is being blown out of proportion by a cussed mainstream media, they are not entirely wrong. The old pre-September 2013 pattern of Modi-can-do-nothing-right, which, ironically, helped the then Gujarat chief minister to capture the national imagination as a doughty crusader against a venal establishment, has reappeared but with more damaging consequences for Modi.

The 'conflict of interests' charges levelled against the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and the Rajasthan chief minister, Vasundhara Raje, in connection with the travel documentation of the flamboyant cricket impresario, Lalit Modi, have brought pre-existing strands of negativity together to produce an almighty controversy.

There are facets of the kerfuffle that are worth considering. First, till the subtext of the hacked emails was packaged into a news bomb last Sunday morning, the headline projection of Swaraj was in sharp contrast to that of the prime minister: the 'good Sushma' was routinely juxtaposed against the 'imperious Modi.' A tribe of reporters with a nodding acquaintance with the internal dynamics of the BJP were, in fact, licking their chops in anticipation of a day when Swaraj would emerge as an alternative power centre to Modi, the inheritor of L.K. Advani's dissident mantle. Yet, the moment the controversy erupted, the potential embarrassment to the external affairs minister was equated with the possible first step in the unravelling of the Modi sarkar. Those baying for Swaraj's blood have intensified their attacks because they can detect the possibility of bringing Modi's overall ratings down a notch or two. The more ambitious dream of a government becoming prematurely dysfunctional is a development that greatly assists in boom time for those the prime minister described as "newstraders."

Secondly, it is an open secret that Modi's prescription for effective headline management is to bypass the mainstream media - more accurately, leave its handling to the Press Information Bureau and the ministry of information and broadcasting - and focus purposefully on connecting with individuals on the social media. Backed by wonderfully choreographed events - such as the Vibrant Gujarat summits - this approach worked remarkably well in selling the "Gujarat model" during the 10 years of UPA rule. It contributed in no small measure to the building up of an alternative narrative to the mainstream media's unrelenting focus on the riots of 2002. Why is this approach faltering today?

There are no easy answers but some possible explanations are in order. To begin with, Modi's hegemony over Gujarat was near-complete after his second election victory in 2007. He could focus on expanding his influence over the rest of India with the full awareness that his backyard was totally under his sway. At the Centre, however, Modi has to confront with an old, entrenched Establishment whose influence is both deep and far-reaching. This Establishment has grudgingly accepted his 2014 victory but has never really reconciled itself to a prolonged spell of Modi rule. After the BJP's Delhi defeat, it has seized the window of opportunity available to the opposition by establishing centres of messaging that, ironically, grabbed the space vacated by the pro-Modi forces after the campaign structures were dismantled post-May 2014. It is significant, for example, that most of the online news portals that have emerged in the recent past - some blessed with resources - are spiritedly opposed to Modi.

The adverse headlines the government has been attracting in recent times appear to stem from its failure to make the narrative correspond with the larger political shifts in India. There has been a failure of political messaging whose impact is also being felt in the markets. As of now, the fall-out is limited to the domestic markets but unless the trend is checked it will begin to affect international perceptions as well.

Of course, successful messaging is also dependent on the robustness of the message; pure hype rarely endures. Here, however, Modi is on a much better wicket. He will now have to focus on more effective and imaginative ways of getting the good news to overshadow the taunts and sniggers. He has to join the battle frontally and make the moulding of the public discourse a key facet of statecraft.

The Telegraph, June 19, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Berating Modi's truimphs

By Swapan Dasgupta


In any healthy and rumbustious democracy such as India, it is only natural that government decisions are contested. Some of the disagreements are entirely ritual and lacking both conviction and substance; others are entirely ideological and stem from divergent beliefs over what is appropriate; and still others are a curious blend of alternative aesthetics, personal agendas—what is popularly called ‘vested interests’—and plain spitefulness. 


Over the past few months, the Narendra Modi government has encountered some vocal opposition to its initiatives. The Goods and Services Act has been questioned by businessmen wary of being included in the tax net; the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act have been contested by those intent on permanently preserving the legacy of Sonia Gandhi and those, like Mamata Banerjee, who gained prominence by championing farmer populism; and the Prime Minister’s overseas visits have been mocked by those who believe that India’s foreign policy should be all about peace with Pakistan and accommodation of China. The public airing of differences are part of the democratic game and despite the exaggerated shrillness that accompanies rival positions, provide evidence of the innate fractiousness of Indian politics. 


There are some disputes that are, however, a little more revealing than others. In the past few weeks, India has witnessed two slugfests that tell us something about alternative self-images of India, maybe even different ‘ideas of India’. 


The first kerfuffle was over the World Yoga Day that will be observed both in India and in umpteen other countries. The decision of the government to actively promote the event was immediately accompanied by a wave of sectarian anger. A section of the Muslim clergy debunked the official patronage of yoga as an attempt to promote the Hindu ethos. Yoga was denounced as un-Islamic and we were informed that Muslims must not perform surya namaskar because it meant genuflecting to an entity other than Allah. To avoid getting entangled in a purposeless theological controversy that could have inflamed passions, the government accommodated a slice of the objection by the Muslim clergy and dropped surya namaskar from the official event. Of course, there is nothing to stop yoga practitioners at non-official events from doing what they do each day without necessarily equating it with a Charlie Hebdo act. 


Once the apparently ‘non-secular’ dimension of Yoga Day was over and dealt with, the sceptics came up with an alternative indictment of the government. ‘We don’t need Modi’, they bleated, ‘to tell us about Yoga. He didn’t invent it. So why is he appropriating it?’ Variations of this theme can be found in articles in both the print and online media. 


This expression of outrage by the metro-based sniggerati is instructive. It is clear that the real objection is not to Yoga—which, after all, commands awesome respect in the centres of ‘alternative’ living, notably California. Their dissatisfaction arise on two counts. First, they loath the fact that Yoga Day is being promoted by Modi—the man who must be mocked, decried and spat on for everything he does. Second, the association of Modi with yoga implies that there is a link to a popular Hinduism which is so un-cool. It is one thing for yoga to be practiced in up-scale gyms and followed with a glass of nourishing carrot juice. But Modi wants yoga to be learnt in sarkari schools. The Prime Minister, they rightly fear, is going to take away the mystique of the ‘alternative’ away from yoga and restore it to the centre of India’s traditional knowledge systems. 


Now let’s look at the second controversy over the special operations carried out inside Myanmar against the rebels who ambushed and killed soldiers of the 6 Dogra Regiment in Manipur earlier this month. 


The first bout of objection was to the publicity that was given to the operation by both the army and political functionaries of the government. The immediate response of the sniggerati was: why brag? In normal circumstances they would cried foul over ‘human rights violations’ but the deaths of Indian jawans was just too fresh in public memory to permit this outlandishness. Sniggering over the 56-inch chest was therefore the next best thing. What was lost sight of was the fact that perhaps, just perhaps, the publicity was carefully pre-meditated and aimed at sending out a wider message. The intriguing fact that while the gunfire was in the east, while the smoke and fury emanated from the north-west suggested the message had indeed gone home. 


Now, of course, they are talking of a botched operation confirmed by unknown and unnamed ‘sources’. And journalists are quoting other journalists to demonstrate that the Modi government can’t even organise a proper covert operation. 


What can be concluded from the recent bouts of contrived outrage is an ‘idea of India’ that is charmingly eccentric. It basically consists of India remaining in a state of permanent defensiveness. We musn’t flaunt our traditional knowledge systems, even when they find ready acceptance globally; we musn’t acknowledge our Hindu heritage because it isn’t ‘secular’; we musn’t go beyond agonising over garbage heaps and child labour because that allows some people to feel superior; and, for heaven’s sake, we must never do anything that destroys the age-old belief in our meek passivity. In short, India must be permanently short of achievement and long on accepting sympathy. 


If Modi is doing something to unmake this grammar of politics and public life, he must be doing something right. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 14, 2015