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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Repeating a folly

As someone who has been a longtime admirer of LK Advani (even if he regards me as a trenchant critic), I am dismayed and horrified by his recent miscalculations.

In the past six weeks, Advani has been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

First, there was all the fuss over his disclaimer over Jaswant Singh's controversial Kandahar trip in December 1999. Brajesh Mishra, Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha have said that Advani was fully in the know. Advani has not clarified matters and it has has been suggested in the media that his memory is playing tricks with him. Most people (even BJP loyalists) are sceptical of Advani's I-didn't-know claim.

Second, he now says that he was opposed to the silly decision to expel Jaswant from the party. The clarification comes weeks after Jaswant's tirades against him.

On both these controversies, Advani has given the impression that he is ill at ease with the principle of collective responsibility. This is not a happy position for someone who is still Leader of Opposition and the face of the BJP.

There were others who too were opposed to the expulsion. They have maintained silence because, at the end of the day, the principle of collective responsibility is applicable to them.

If Advani was opposed to Jaswant's expulsion--and I have no doubt that he was ill at ease with the decision--he should have used his authority to prevent such a precipitate action. He remained silent and, worse, didn't try to talk things over with Jaswant.

Many people have forgotten that Jaswant was one of the most ardent defenders of Advani during the first Jinnah crisis of 2005. Jaswant cut short a visit to Israel and flew back to Delhi to be by Advani's side. At that time Jaswant let it be known that if action was taken against Advani he would resign from the BJP.

Surely it was obligatory for Advani to do his utmost to prevent Jaswant's humiliation in Shimla. By remaining silent for so long and then choosing to speak up after public opinion tilted quite decisively against the expulsion, Advani has demeaned himself.

His disclaimer now seems like a belated act of self-preservation rather a principled stand.

Advani does not also realise that it is also a tacit admission that his opinions count for very little in the BJP.

Advani has not made any political interventions since the end of the Parliament session. His priorities seem centred on himself.

This was the miscalculation he (and many of us) made during the general election--believing that his individual stature would prevail in the minds of voters. The results showed that the assumption was wrong.

It's best to heed that message than repeat a folly.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gandhiji read and re-read

Newspaper readers have of late been barraged with extensive passages from Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works, and in many instalments.

It reminds me of former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s aside on the publication of yet another book by Winston Churchill: “I hear that Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis.”*

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* quoted in Burying Caesar: The Churchill-Chamberlain Rivalry by Graham Stewart. The Overlook Press, Woodstock and New York, 2001, page 40.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Insiders as outsiders

First, a clarification.

There was an understanding between the organisers and the participants of the Thinkers Meet held at the Rambhau Mhlagi Prabodhini last week that the exchanges would remain private. This was not a decision-making meet but one that would facilitate an exchange of ideas and positions. The speculation that the meet debated the succession issue in the BJP and even came to a decision is entirely fanciful. As a participant, I can say without any fear of contradiction that we discussed ideas and philosophy. The BJP was not the subject of discussion, although it did feature tangentially.

Second, a diatribe.

I read in the Sunday editions of Pioneer and Tribune about an attack mounted by an editorial in the BJP's Kamal Sandesh on hitherto "friendly journalists" who have of late been critical of various aspects of the party. The Tribune feels this is a reference to Arun Shourie and me, and I have received numerous phone calls from fellow journalists and BJP activists saying "you have been attacked by Prabhat Jha".

Whether Prabhat Jha, Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh, is responsible for the editorial is irrelevant. It's the ideas that matter, not who penned the original article (which, being in Hindi, I confess to not having read). Even if Jha did write the piece doesn't sour my personal relations with him, just as my sharply critical articles doesn't alter my perception that RSS is a key factor in modern Indian nationalism.

Open polemics and debate are a good idea and must be encouraged in public life.

To get back to the issue under debate. I have been viewed as a sympathiser of the BJP, what the liberal media calls a "saffron journalist". That perception is real and I have never made any secret of my voting preferences. In addition, I have helped the BJP in many ways. These include helping some leaders with their speeches and statements, giving inputs during election campaigns and sharing ideas with individuals.

Yet, I have always maintained a functional autonomy from the BJP. I will not support it blindly. Neither will I be hamstrung by my apparent "insider" status. The fact that I have privileged information (which I don't use indiscriminately) is neither here nor there. My sense of what is right or wrong isn't determined by the preferences of either Ashoka Road or Nagpur.

I am sorry that the editor of Kamal Sandesh has been disoriented by the criticisms of those he regarded as "insiders". His priority is, understandably, the party; I am driven by my sense of what is good for India. The ideas may often converge but he should not presume it will always be the same.

What is revealing is that an official BJP organ now feels it imperative to announce to party members that sympathisers should not be treated as insiders and be elevated on a pedestal. This suggests a closing of mind and an inability to deal with contrarian views. It is the nearest thing to an expulsion order for those who don't come under the disciplinary purview of the BJP.

I presume Kamal Sandesh has implicitly advised BJP members to neither read nor be influenced by what the neo-heretics say.

Thank you Mr Kamal Sandesh editor for showing us our place and pointing to the door. You have freed me from the inner pressure to treat the BJP as a body I identified with and felt for--a part of my intellectual parivar. Whether I do so or not is another matter altogether.

My best wishes to you for the future but I promise to remain a nuisance and disturb all your pathetic certitudes.

With loyalists like you, the BJP doesn't need enemies.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Autonomy of politics

I am reproducing an article of mine published in The Telegraph (Sept 4, 2009) where some issues arising from the latest developments in the BJP are probed. I would be happy to receive feedback that comments on the song rather the imaginary conspiratorial motives of the singer.

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a BJP-watcher in the media proffered the novel suggestion in a web article that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, should hold concurrent charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “I would go a step further,” she wrote, “and state that since he is so clearly the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh of the BJP/RSS he should also take-over the constitutional post of Leader of the Opposition … In fact, Bhagwat should eventually consider being Leader in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha but since that would involve amending the Constitution of India he should first focus on fixing the BJP Constitution to ensure him unlimited power and authority that he seems to enjoy anyway.”

Since irony and sarcasm in the English language tend to go largely undetected, this plea for one-man-all-posts could well be interpreted as a logical extension of Arun Shourie’s theatrical pronouncement that the RSS should “take over” the Bharatiya Janata Party. Conversely, since Bhagwat has affirmed many times over in his media interactions that the RSS is merely a “cultural organization” that doesn’t give gratuitous advice to the BJP, many will view the suggestion as simply insolent.

It is difficult to anticipate how the RSS will react to the suggestion that it shed all pretence and assume a formal political role. It is said that Sardar Vallabbhai Patel once suggested precisely such a course to “Guruji” M.S. Golwalkar, the iconic, second RSS chief. It was rejected because Golwalkar believed that politics is a “cesspool” and jumping into it would contaminate the RSS’ s larger “nation building” project. Since then, keeping an arm’s length from politics has defined RSS orthodoxy. This detachment, however, has never negated the discreet advice of the organization to its swayamsevaks in public life. Occasionally, as happened during the tenure of K.S. Sudarshan, the distinction between advice and instruction was almost obliterated.

Despite Bhagwat’s denial that the RSS was assuming charge of the BJP, there is an impression that last week’s crisis management sessions in Delhi resulted in a coup and the quiet transfer of control of the BJP from the politicians to the RSS. L.K. Advani’s resignation from the post of leader of the Opposition — a post he unwisely held on to after the May 16 defeat — is now a foregone conclusion, as is the non-renewal of Rajnath Singh’s term as party president. More to the point, the RSS appears to have indicated that it has no confidence in the ability of the BJP’s second-rung leadership to steer the party out of its present disarray.

The RSS has mounted a global search for a new face who can undertake the party re-building project. The choice may well be a politician (even one with a mass base), but real decision-making will be vested in the hands of full-time RSS pracharaks on deputation from Nagpur. As things stand, the organization secretaries (deployed at all levels) undertake party responsibilities, but are not subject to the political control of the party. Their appointments and removal are the sole responsibility of the RSS.

It is undeniable that many despondent BJP workers, perhaps a majority of them, have reacted favourably to the RSS chief assuming a pro-active role. The impression that a fractious and ambitious bunch of politicians were incapable of extricating the BJP from the depths to which it has sunk may be over-simplistic, but at the same time it was very real. Since the RSS chief wields both moral and organizational authority within the larger sangh parivar, his no-nonsense intervention has been heartily welcomed, even if it involves replacing dual control with just one power centre.

A comparison of the RSS “takeover” with a military coup ostensibly aimed at saving “the nation” from democratic turbulence is irresistible.

The problem with authoritarian solutions in argumentative societies is that the immediate exhilaration at the restoration of order is invariably replaced by long-term disappointment. Apart from a mismatch between the Sergeant-Major mentality and competitive politics, the honest brokers soon find themselves sucked into the role of participants. The RSS should know the feeling. In 2006, after Advani was removed as party president following his controversial remarks on Jinnah, the RSS sent some 250 pracharaks into the BJP to bolster the organization. They were appointed organizing secretaries at the Central and state levels and the 2008 Uttar Pradesh election was managed almost entirely by pracharaks on special deputation.

The overall experience wasn’t happy. Apart from the uneven quality of personnel deployed, the image of the RSS as a distant moral authority was subsumed by the emergence of the RSS as a faction, often at loggerheads with mass politicians. The factionalism in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan were a consequence of troubles fermented by those who claimed to speak in the name of the sangh. If the process of pracharak implantation is speeded up without a thorough assessment of the past experience, there is a possibility that the BJP could witness even more strife and major desertions. Bhagwat needs to be mindful that greater RSS control of the BJP is a high-risk strategy.

Secondly, an unstated feature of the RSS intervention is the belief in the vanguard role of the RSS and the superior qualities of those who have dedicated themselves full-time to the sangh. Compared to the “lateral entry” politician who is in the BJP because it is the most meaningful non-Congress formation, the swayamsevak is projected as something akin to a chosen people. Apart from the sheer arrogance of a belief that casts all those who didn’t attend shakhas as lesser beings — and this includes every woman — this caste system runs counter to the very purpose of a political party — to win the support of the majority and create a representative leadership profile. The cultivation of enhanced self-worth may be necessary to nurture commitment to a religious order or a brotherhood, but political leadership cannot be settled on the strength of Indic versions of the old school tie and membership of a Masonic Lodge — at least not in a 21st century where hierarchies are constantly being unsettled.

The fundamental question the BJP has to address is: why is it in existence in the first place? If upholding Hindu interests is its main leitmotif, it is not dissimilar to a grander version of the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Musalmeen, which controls the Muslim ghettos of Hyderabad and routinely wins a Lok Sabha seat. The MIM, an offshoot of the original Razakars, resonates with nostalgia for a lost sovereignty and an eroding high culture. It will always be a factor in Muslim politics of the Deccan but a non-starter in all calculations of governance.

If the BJP wishes to be a party aspiring to some 80 Lok Sabha seats, with a presence in the Hindi-speaking states, it can persist with the cohesiveness of the erstwhile Jana Sangh. If its ambitions are greater and it seeks to challenge the Congress’s all-India presence, it has to open its doors wider to diverse currents and interests. The RSS is an important input into the BJP, but it is not the only input. If the BJP wishes to mirror the richness of the nationalist experience, it must become a Kumbh Mela of diverse tendencies. With his stature and goodwill, Bhagwat can play a constructive facilitator of such a process. However, the creation of “structures and procedures” he has repeatedly stressed must be premised on the principles of inclusiveness, accommodation and, above all, competence. A one-size-fits-all approach based on loyalty is too eerily reminiscent of the failed ideologies of the 20th century.

The Telegraph, September 4, 2009

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