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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Getting past the past (November 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A good wine improves with age and good cellarage. To understand why 17 years of official patronage transformed a rich harvest of frenzy in Ayodhya into Justice Liberhan’s rancid pickle, it is instructive to look at the demographic realities of today’s India.

Assuming that the political consciousness of an average individual begins at 18, it is revealing that the traumatic events of December 6, 1992, constituted a lived experience for only those Indians who are 35 years of age and older. For the remainder who make up some 60 per cent of the population, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid battle was the obsession of an earlier generation. In a country where a sense of history is in any case feeble, the emotive fervour of the past has not been passed on to another generation.

The furore over the Liberhan report is likely to prove a five-day wonder for a number of reasons.

First, the credibility of the exercise has been sullied by Justice Liberhan inveigling for himself the longest deadline in officialdom.

Secondly, its conclusions have not added to the pre-existing knowledge of the involvement of the RSS in the demolition of the 16th century structure.

Thirdly, its strictures against the usual suspects have been rendered farcical by the needless inclusion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee among the 68 persons responsible for sullying communal relations.

Fourthly, by exonerating the P.V. Narasimha Rao government of any responsibility, it has given the impression of political bias. If, as Liberhan claims, there was a widespread conspiracy involving the entire Sangh Parivar to bring down the Babri structure, the Centre must have been a repository of either high-level ineptitude or complicity to believe Kalyan Singh’s assurance of good conduct.

Finally, by choosing caution over grandstanding in its Action Taken Report, the Centre has negated the possibility of renewed mobilisation over a dormant dispute.

The Centre’s refusal to extend the accusing finger pointed at the RSS and BJP to a punitive political conclusion may be the object of initial ridicule. In the short run it may even embolden hotheads into imagining that the fear of a Hindu backlash has thwarted a fresh bout of prosecutions and bans — the RSS was banned by the Rao government immediately after the demolition but this was lifted by the Bahri Commission review six months later. In the coming days we are certainly going to hear a lot of unrepentant noises from a section of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP.

However, while the Centre may have based its passivity on the need to prevent Hindu nationalism from re-acquiring a united face, there is a more awkward reality the BJP and RSS must come to acknowledge.

In hindsight, L.K. Advani’s famous assertion in 1990 that the Ayodhya movement will be the “biggest mass mobilisation” of independent India turned out to be almost prescient. The movement to right a historical wrong shook India, redrew the contours of electoral politics and destroyed the Congress’ monopoly over political power. Yet, this spectacular Hindu upsurge had a definite context. To many, particularly in the rural Hindi heartland, it was an outpouring of simple religiosity — the need to give back to Lord Ram his imagined janmasthan in Ayodhya — tempered by the clever symbolism of Ram shilan, rath yatra and kar seva. To others, it was a simple expression of Hindu pride — “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” To a third group, the so-called “political Hindus”, it was a movement to roll back the frontiers of the Nehruvian consensus. Its Hindutva — the first time this term acquired a meaningful political currency — lay in forcing agnostic secularism into acknowledging the Hindu basis of nationhood.

Individually, none of these diverse currents had the ability to shape the political agenda. It was the grand (and expedient) coalition of the three that made Ayodhya the dominant theme of Indian politics for a decade.

It is, however, equally important to remember the wider social and political environment that nurtured the Ayodhya movement. The late 1980s were marked by the growing realisation that India’s experiments in socialism had reached a crisis point. The domestic economy was in crisis and riddled with corruption, nepotism, shortages and over-regulation; opportunities for individual and collective self-improvement were hard to come by; and the new age promised by Rajiv Gandhi was soured by Shah Bano, Bofors and Quattrocchi. It was this wider existential dejection that gave the Ayodhya movement its fillip. It encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof; simultaneously, it was an upsurge born of the frustrations of prolonged defeat.

Now, 17 years later, India is a changed place. The sense of defeat has given way to a new optimism centred on expanding opportunities. The beleaguered Hindu of 1992 is now the self-confident Hindu of 2007, confident that India can make a mark in the world. The root causes of the Ayodhya explosion no longer exists. It has been replaced by a new headiness, a new brashness, a new impatience and even a new nationalism. The sons and daughters of the very Hindus who celebrated December 6, 1992, by distributing mithai and then voting the BJP into power in 1998 today recoil in horror at the images of frenzied kar sevaks tearing down an old monument. A generational change has witnessed a shift in mentalities brought about by concentrated economic growth, sustained global exposure and the slow disintegration of the joint family. The slogans which inspired an earlier generation don’t gel with those who reached political maturity after 1992.

In their own way both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani recognised this and attempted to reinvent the BJP. Two general election defeats have, however, rekindled the ambitions of those who are unfamiliar with the 21st century and most at home in their own little ghettos. There is a tussle in the BJP between those who want to leave Ayodhya to history and those who want to relive the past in the present. Liberhan’s report may force a decision. Let us hope it will be a choice grounded in reality.

Indian Express, November 25, 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

A shift in position (November 13, 2009)

The RSS needs to rediscover the India of the 21st century

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, eyebrows were raised over yet another media appearance by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Rao Bhagwat. This time, the fuss centred on his categorical public announcement that the next national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party would not be a Delhi-based leader, and that L.K. Advani would soon relinquish his post as leader of the Opposition. Fortuitously for the Indian foreign policy establishment, his prognosis that Pakistan and Afghanistan “are a part of us and will return one day” did not arouse corresponding attention.

That a person who is not a primary member of the BJP could presume to lay down the line and blackball the party’s four prominent second-rung faces has profound ramifications. It suggests that the RSS has not merely acquired control over the decision-making of the BJP but is no longer squeamish about saying so openly. The niceties and the elaborate protocol that earlier marked the RSS’s expression of interest in specific decisions of the BJP have been replaced by an in-your-face flaunting of the political role of a so-called “socio-cultural organization”. The whispered “request from the Sangh” that earlier influenced the odd selection of candidates and office-bearers has been replaced by a command-and-control regime.

Nor does the exercise of control depend on a three-line whip to professional politicians. Since the advent of Rajnath Singh in 2005, the RSS has strategically placed its full-timers in crucial organizational posts in the belief that politicians with an eye on electoral politics are incapable of institution-building. Whereas in the 1990s the RSS despatched only a dozen or so full-timers on deputation to the BJP, their numbers are in the region of 350 today. Apart from the state organizing secretaries whose identities are prominently displayed on the BJP website, these include large numbers of district sangathan mantri who form the nucleus of a parallel party organization in the localities. In the words of a BJP leader, many of those entrusted with organizational responsibilities are “unfit to be employed as primary school teachers.”

In the past, the RSS was very wary of involvement in the political arena, seeing it as a corrupting influence and a diversion from the organization’s priority of injecting nationalism into civil society. RSS old-timers were fond of comparing the role of politics in society to the toilet in a household: a necessity but hardly something to be showcased. Today, these inhibitions have been set aside and there now appears to be a marked enthusiasm among full-timers to be deputed to the BJP. Compared to the other ‘fraternal’ organizations of the RSS, such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, there is glamour and self-importance attached to rubbing shoulders with the political class. Predictably, some of the lifestyle distortions that come with exercising authority and hobnobbing with political power are evident among the full-timers. The joke in political circles is that the RSS full-timer is extremely malleable and is easily won over by modest ‘gifts’ that range from mobile phones, stitched kurta-pyjamas, air conditioners and a good, home cooked, vegetarian meal — a case, as one ‘fixer’ called it, of “low investments and high returns”.

What has compounded the problem is the RSS’s brazen non-accountability to the party. It is remarkable that despite holding positions of authority in the BJP, the pracharaks on deputation are neither appointed nor can they be removed by the BJP state and national presidents. A few months ago, the president of the West Bengal BJP did something inconceivable: he issued a show-cause to the local RSS-appointed sangathan mantri. The outcome was predictable: the state president was peremptorily sacked by the national president for his audacity. Likewise in Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje successfully secured the removal of a disruptive organizing secretary. But, as a quid pro quo, the RSS demanded Raje’s removal as leader of the Opposition, despite the fact that a majority of the members of the legislative assembly was backing her. She resisted her removal for nearly three months, but ultimately had to succumb. Once again, Rajnath Singh played the part of an obliging executioner.

RSS full-timers in the BJP are spared the obligations of ordinary members. A 2005 amendment to the BJP constitution stipulated that a sangathan mantri was ineligible to contest elections. Since endorsement by the electorate is the basis of politics, the RSS appears to have insulated itself from the principle of popular endorsement. It is this detachment from the numbers game, without which democracy is meaningless, that explains the RSS’s obsession with ‘ideology’, the shorthand for the pursuit of abstruse and cranky themes. It may also explain why mass leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Narendra Modi, Vasundhara Raje and B.C. Khanduri have been at loggerheads with the RSS.

A small example may illustrate the distance that separates the RSS from the mass politician. In its manifesto for the Haryana assembly election held last month, the BJP included an assurance to ban “Western music and vulgarity” in the unlikely event it was voted to power. The manifesto, which had apparently been drafted by a local RSS ‘intellectual’, took the BJP completely by surprise. Confronted by the ridiculous imagery of motorists switching off alien sounds the moment their cars crossed the Gurgaon toll bridge from Delhi, a red-faced BJP had to issue clarifications and denials. Later, when some national leaders enquired from the state unit why the absurd promise had been inserted in the first place, they were given an ingenuous explanation. The production of milk in Haryana, it was claimed, had suffered because cows were disturbed by loud disco music in villages!

There is a huge gulf that separates the RSS’s priorities and the BJP’s perception of politics — though there are moments of convergence. The world view of the RSS leadership is shaped primarily by interactions with its own full-timers and lay swayamsevaks. It’s a relationship shaped by two factors: unflinching faith in the sangh’s role as the vanguard of Hindu resurgence and timeless certitudes. A remarkable degree of group solidarity— including a very distinctive use of language — has contributed to a ‘groupthink’ and discouraged scepticism and inquiry in the sangh. The RSS has nurtured an enviable degree of loyalty and dedication among its followers but its efficacy has been tempered by an inability to engage with ‘non-believers’. From being an instrument of Hindu re-awakening, it has become a variant of the Freemasons, a self-aggrandizing brotherhood.

This distortion is at the heart of the RSS’s desperation to control the BJP. In the past 15 years, the BJP has outgrown the RSS. It is the country’s premier Opposition party with a stake in at least eight state governments and umpteen district bodies and municipalities. Its social reach far exceeds that of the RSS’s. More important, the BJP has acquired relevance at a time the RSS is declining in its traditional catchment areas. Lifestyle shifts fuelled by prosperity, cosmopolitanism and leisure have made the daily bout of callisthenics less appealing to pre-pubescent Hindu boys. And yet, there is no direct correlation between the RSS’s diminishing appeal and the fortunes of the BJP. It’s only after the RSS decided the BJP was its exclusive charge that both graphs showed a southward incline.

It takes decades of good politics and sensible leadership to build a national party; it takes a few well-publicized acts of misguided zeal to demolish it. Bhagwat has got his diagnosis wrong. It’s not the BJP that needs either chemotherapy or surgery; plain detoxification will be sufficient. It’s the RSS that needs to discover the India of the 21st century.

The Telegraph, November 13, 2009