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Monday, December 28, 2009

The fall in Jharkhand

I was quite nauseated by the photograph in some Sunday papers showing a beaming Rajnath Singh, flanked by Raghubar Das (the Jharkhand BJP president) and Arjun Munda departing from their meeting with the Governor. They had called on the Governor to communicate the BJP's support to a coalition government led by Shibu Soren.

Consider the sheer outrageousness of their victory smiles. The BJP had 31 seats in the previous Assembly; in the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the NDA (BJP + JD-U) led in 50 segments; in the Assembly election of this month, the BJP won 18 seats and the JD-U another two. In short, the BJP was roundly rejected by even those who had earlier reposed their faith in it. It was squeezed between the JMM and the Congress-JVM alliance. Babu

These leaders who were in charge of the state should have been doing some soul-searching, asking where they went wrong. Instead, they are celebrating because they have still got a foothold in government.

Rajnath Singh is elated that after his irrelevance in Uttar Pradesh and at the BJP national HQ, he becomes a puppeteer in Jharkhand. He has specialised in transactional politics and Jharkhand is the centre of it--witness the glorious career of Madhu Koda.

Arjun Munda is elated that he too will count with his mentor Rajnath. And they are doubly happy that the alliance with Shibu Soren ends all possibility of Babulal Marandi's return to the BJP. That, after all, was their main worry throughout this year.

The celebration of a few individuals apart, what impact is the decision to team up with the JMM likely to have on the party?

BJP leaders maintain that the arithmetic of the verdict made this coalition inevitable. The party, it is claimed, had to upstage the Congress and prevent a UPA Government in Jharkhand.

The irony is that the Congress wasn't at all desperate to form a government. As the largest pre-poll alliance it wanted the Chief Minister's post either for its own nominee or for Babulal Marandi. The Congress believes that the fractured verdict makes it difficult for any government to survive for long. When the state is confronted with another election, the Congress feels it will be ideally placed to be in a commanding role. Its alliance with Babulal has fetched good dividends. The JVM may now emerge as a wholesome adivasi party and a long-term alternative to the JMM.

The BJP's support base is unlikely to accept its alliance with the JMM and more so given the demonology around Shibu Soren. The BJP made a huge fuss over 'tainted' ministers, using Lalu and Shibu Soren as examples. Now they are gleefully supping with the devil--a devil who had no inhibitions over taking Maoist help in the elections.

My guess is that this government won't last beyond three years. It is certain to become embroiled in scandals and competitive extortion.

After the involvement of the Reddy brothers in Bellary, the integrity quotient of the BJP has been affected. With Jharkhand it is likely to hit rock bottom.

The fate of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh is likely to be re-visited in Jharkhand.

It's sad to see racketeers get the upper hand in a national party.

With this depressing thought, HAPPY NEW YEAR

Thursday, December 24, 2009

How long will the denial continue?

There have been many who have written into this blogsite suggesting that I have been beguiled by the "pseudo-secular" media and have lost sight of political realities. It has been claimed that my misgivings over the Rajnath presidency and the "takeover" of the BJP by the RSS are based on a growing proximity to the Congress.

I have so far desisted from responding to the charges. However, I have made it a point to ensure that every piece of criticism has been duly posted, without any editing.

Now that the inglorious four-year term of Rajnath Singh has ended and a new president has assumed charge, let me re-visit the debate.

The pathetic showing of the BJP in Jharkhand, where it ended the day on par with the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha at 18 out of 81 seats, is no freak result. From May 2009, the BJP performance in election after election has been pathetic. It could not break fresh ground in Maharashtra, faced a wipe-out in Arunachal Pradesh, sold its soul to the highest bidder in Haryana and was squeezed by the Congress and JMM in Jharkhand.

Apart from the by-elections in Gujarat, BJP has had nothing to cheer about since December 2008.

The voters are slowly deserting the party.

And yet some people maintain that nothing has happened to warrant some very fundamental questions being asked. Are they being wilfully obtuse?

Secondly, in the case of Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, it can hardly be said that the BJP ignored the Sangh. In all the three states, the campaign was managed by those who are primarily accountable to the RSS. In Jharkhand, the whole responsibility was handed over to the various sangathan mantris. They were promising party HQ that Babulal Marandi was a non-starter. Obviously they saw nothing and learnt nothing.

Yet, the same people say that RSS-inspired organisational skills is the answer to BJP's problems. If only politics was as simple as marching on parade...

Thirdly, the famed belief in the high integrity quotient of a Sangh-inspired regime has crumbled. In Haryana, the BJP wilfully sabotaged the NDA to help Bhupinder Singh Hooda and a real estate company. The same rascals gave tickets to their moneybags in Jharkhand. Just look at the BJP collapse in the Santhal Parganas.

So much for the takeover by the RSS promoting integrity. Some of those who have been entrusted to "correct" and "guide" the BJP feel they have no accountability to anyone.

Finally, the tyranny of the pracharaks is causing a slow exodus from the party. Good people are leaving in dribs and drabs. In the past few months, two of the best Lok Sabha MPs from 2004-2009 have left the party: Kiran Rijiju and Kharabela Swain. Swain, in fact, was hounded by the pracharaks for exposing moral turpitude. He was told "we don't want intellectuals in the party".

Now they want Vasundhara Raje out.

When will this stop?

Nitin Gadkari was thrust upon the BJP for all the wrong reasons. The manner of his nomination was controversial.

But he is a man who understands practical politics. He doesn't suffer from the personality flaws of his predecessor. And he is not a racketeer.

He deserves a chance.

Yet, he too cannot make progress unless there is acknowledgement that the BJP is in ICU and is being treated by the village ojha.

We all want the BJP to prosper. This can only happen if the magnitude of the crisis is acknowledged.

Monday, December 21, 2009

To succeed, the BJP must look to the future

Swapan Dasgupta

On Saturday evening, the Breaking News brigade had to take a difficult and unenviable call: Either to prioritise the shenanigans at the Copenhagen conference on climate change or the scripted finale of a melodrama that began with the BJP’s defeat on May 16. Most channels ended up doing a balancing act that left no one entirely happy. The bleeding hearts lamented the casual treatment of a conference ostensibly aimed at saving the planet from ecological disaster. The desi political animal on the other hand thought it unworthy that air time should be expended on a useless jamboree that interested only the jholawallah minusculity. Far better, they believed, to concentrate on the drama in India’s main Opposition party.


It is not my business to ascertain who was right. Sitting in TV studios that evening, what struck me was the remarkable similarities between the frenzied search of a declaration in Copenhagen and the quest for a political settlement in the BJP. True, the climate change conference produced more drama because the end-game was capsuled into 10 days of hyper-activity. By contrast, the BJP drama has stretched for nearly seven months but there have been no unseemly though colourful street protests to celebrate the confusion. Compared to the Copenhagen bacchanalia, the BJP drama was as sedate as a 1960s love duet in a Hindi film.


And yet, there were marked similarities in the end-games. In Copenhagen, the outcome was a face-saving, non-enforceable declaration that didn’t even satisfy the signatories. The West didn’t succeed in getting the developing countries, but particularly China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BASIC group), to agree on international monitoring of its carbon emissions. The developing countries didn’t get the generous compensation package from a recession-hit West. And the clowns outside the conference venue were left convinced that the end of the world was imminent.


It was a similar situation in the BJP. The RSS was forced to accept the principle of an honourable exit route for LK Advani. The post of chairman which was given to the veteran leader fits uneasily into any organisational chart. If he plays his cards well, Advani could emerge as the primary moral authority in the BJP, almost rivaling the ideological ombudsmen in Nagpur. The belief entertained by those adept in the art of remote control, that Advani would retire and devote his energies reading books, watching cricket and enjoying Hindi films, have been dashed. The inventor of the modern rath yatra has publicly said that he is still in the game of politics, although he carefully avoided any mention of the Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew precedent. In recent years, the management of the BJP has certainly come to resemble a dyarchy; Saturday’s agreement formalised it.


If the “politicians” in the BJP scored a modest success by ensuring Advani’s exceptional status, they failed to establish the inviolability of the principle that ‘the BJP should be run by the BJP’. It is no great secret that Nitin Gadkari, like his predecessor Rajnath Singh, has been appointed by the Sangh and the “politicians” have merely endorsed a decision taken elsewhere. But unlike the transition in 2005 which was based on tacit understanding, the latest arrangement is based on the bizarre separation between ‘politics’ and ‘organisation’. The BJP will control its own politics but the RSS (through its full-time pracharaks) will run the organisation. Whether this curious separation — reminiscent, in a strange sort of way, of the separation between ‘mass struggles’ and parliamentary interventions in the Communist parties — will work or become the recipe for incoherence is something that bears close monitoring.


The affable and well-liked Gadkari has his work cut out for him. His ability to be an effective president will depend on his success in bridging this divide. The new president will be conscious that he owes his appointment to the RSS, not to speak of Mohanrao Bhagwat’s public veto of the so-called ‘Dilli 4’, but he has to realise that his appointing authority is increasingly being perceived as a self-serving faction in the BJP. The manipulative conduct of the ongoing organisational elections has left a bitter taste in many mouths and it will take an exemplary show of fairness by the new president to restore confidence in the BJP’s political processes. If Gadkari is seen to be controlled by a cabal of pracharaks, it will lessen his effectiveness and in due course lead to desertions from the party. If the impression gains ground that RSS membership is a prerequisite to a meaningful political career in the BJP, the party will lose its appeal as the principal opposition to the Congress.


Like Copenhagen, it has all boiled down to a simple question of how to save the world. The RSS believes that the BJP has strayed from its mission and has lost sight of its core beliefs. The RSS wants to focus on identity issues and conduct campaigns to uphold Indian heritage. The pragmatists in the BJP feel that India has changed in the past two decades and that a national campaign to save the cow and the village — the scarcely noticed Gau-Gram Yatra — leave a new generation bewildered rather than moved. They want to focus on bread-and-butter themes and want the party to make a special bid to connect with a new generation that is more cosmopolitan, more culturally adaptive and more impatient to get on in the world than their parents or grandparents were. They want to focus on contemporary issues and leave religiosity to the sadhus and sants. In short, the tussle is over the very identity of the BJP in the 21st century: A party preoccupied with the past or a party looking to the future.


As of today, the BJP is dangerously close to merely occupying the historical space.

Sunday Pioneer, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is there a Right space in Indian politics? (December 5, 2009)

Or, have the BJP’s successive electoral setbacks dashed hopes forever? Swapan Dasgupta searches for answers

Sir Julian Critchley, who served as a Conservative MP through the tenure of five British Prime Ministers without achieving anything remotely memorable, once narrated an incident in what used to be the Smoking Room of the House of Commons. Relaxing with a book after, presumably, a leisurely lunch, he was spotted by a party venerable. “Young man”, said the grandee sternly, “it does not do to appear clever: advancement in this man’s party is due entirely to alcoholic stupidity.”
For a long time, and this was certainly the case till Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged the “counter-establishment”, the Right was equated with stupidity. The Conservative Party, which governed Britain through most of the 20th century, was, for example, treated as the Stupid Party by the intelligentsia. Conservatives were seen as mindless defenders of privilege, unthinking status quo-ists—in short, caricatured versions of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits. Conservative women were likewise dismissed as tweedy, giggly Sloane Rangers who cared more about their horses and Labradors than public life.
The image of anti-intellectualism—such a contrast to the earnest, liberated, Left Bank intellectuals who dominated the Left—was, ironically, something the Right revelled in. Echoing (quite unwittingly) George Orwell’s observations on Englishness, Lord Hailsham, a man who occupied some of the highest posts in government, once wrote that “Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life, the simplest among them prefer fox hunting—the wisest, religion.” No wonder London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is such a darling of Tory party conferences. Despite his formidable scholastic achievements, Johnson has wilfully cultivated an endearing flippancy that distinguishes him from earnest busybodies.
As someone whose political attitudes originated, not in Harrow but further south, down the Finchley Road, in trendy Hampstead, Jawaharlal Nehru mirrored this frightful image of the Right. Transposed into the dust bowls of Hindustan, the Right meant the over-dressed occupants of the Chamber of Princes, it meant arrogant Brahminism, it meant compador capitalists lusting after knighthoods and it meant indolent zamindars and taluqdars who spent their countless leisure hours frolicking with nautch girls and impressing the local district magistrate. To Nehru, the Indian Right was invariably prefaced with another loaded term: reactionary.
Unlike the Left which could boast 57 varieties of doctrinaire nlightenment, the Right has always defied coherent definition. There were the Tories in the Anglo-Saxon mould that brought together land and industry in a framework of common sense; there were the Fascists who combined their loathing of the Reds with fearful xenophobia and authoritarianism; and, finally, there was what the philosopher Roger Scruton described as “a natural instinct in the unthinking man—to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” To add to this mixed bag, there emerged, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the economic Right which deified free enterprise, individualism and minimal government interference.
In the India of Nehru and his daughter, India had its share of all these different tendencies. The feudal spirit, marked by deference and noblesse oblige, outlived the abolition of zamindari and uneven land reforms; Hindu resistance to the secularisation of society and the pampering of minorities flowered in small towns, among the dispossessed from Pakistan and followers of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar; and Nehru’s drive to enlarge government and the public sector to the detriment of private initiative encountered pockets of resistance from the notables of another era. Politically, the Right occupied fringe status. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was driven by the RSS but embraced other representatives of the cultural Right including the likes of Raghu Vira and R.C. Majumdar. It was ambivalent in its opposition to Nehruvian economics but was unambiguous in its pro-Hindi, anti-cow slaughter and anti-Pakistan thrust.
On its part, the Swatantra Party, founded by C.Rajagopalachari, was more akin to a traditional Conservative Party. It was unequivocal in its denunciation of Nehru “prosperophobia” and espousal of free enterprise. Its ranks included the glamorous Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, farmer’s leader N.G. Ranga, former ICS officials such as the legendary V.P. Menon and pillars of industry like Sir Homi Modi. Its fellow-travellers included constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhivala.
The Indian Right got a fillip in 1969 when the Congress split. The breakaway Congress(O), derisively dubbed the Syndicate, trained its guns on Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her marked pro-Soviet tilt but, in essence, it encapsulated the urges of earlier pragmatists such as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad who had been thwarted by Nehru. In alliance with the Jan Sangh and Swatantra, the Congress(O) forged the Grand Alliance to take on Indira.
The enterprise proved an unmitigated disaster. Indira was able to paint the Grand Alliance as a front for the princes, the capitalists and Hindu communalists—hence the injection of “vested interests” into the political vocabulary. Her promise to eradicate poverty won the day handsomely.
The 1971 defeat was a body blow to the very idea of an Indian Right opposed to socialism. State-sponsored development and curbs on the private sector became the basis of a new political consensus. Even the Janata Party, made up of the earlier Grand Alliance plus a clutch of additional defectors from the Congress ranks, didn’t dare depart from this path when it won the referendum on the Emergency in 1977. In the three years it was in power, it persisted with Indira’s regressive populism.
The failure of the Indian Right in the 1970s owed to a multitude of factors. First, at the international level, socialism appeared as the idea of the future. The defeat of American power in Vietnam and Cambodia and the youth rebellion in the West rendered any critique of the Left singularly unattractive. Indeed, the debate now centred on which particular variety of socialism was most appealing. Secondly, the association of the Right with the defenders of archaic rights of the erstwhile maharajas, the opponents of nationalisation and discredited political bosses stood in sharp contrast to the youth power Indira unleashed. Finally, state-sponsored development and the continuous expansion of the public sector created a constituency of new beneficiaries and aroused expectations of more populist lollipops. Indira’s aggressive socialist evangelism transformed the mindset of a very large chunk of the electorate. A tradition of individual and community initiative was subsumed by a culture of entitlements: the state gave and the people received. For those with enterprise, cronyism was the only way forward. The creative impulses of India were channelled in what Dhirubhai Ambani used to describe as “managing the environment.”
There were two pockets of resistance to this assault on India’s self-respect. The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, usually farmers belonging to intermediate castes, couldn’t reconcile themselves to the Congress’s patronage of those on the margins of society. They formed the backbone of opposition to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Secondly, the trading community rued the overdose of bureaucratic controls and shortages. Since this section already constituted the social base of Hindu nationalism, an economic grievance was complemented by exasperation with ‘secular’ politics. The early-1980s witnessed an epidemic of communal riots in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These in turn fuelled the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the leading party of the Indian Right. This time, and unlike the post-1967 phase, the opposition was not centred on economics. Cultural and religious symbols constituted the new Left-Right faultlines.
The long road to the demolition of the “disputed structure” in Ayodhya established the BJP as the primary party of the Indian Right. However, although the battle against the Nehruvian consensus was fought over religio-cultural symbols, the conflict had a strong economic underpinning.
By the time India entered the 1990s, the socialist experiment had visibly faltered. The economy was stagnant and unable to counter crippling shortages and deprivation. The labyrinthine maze of controls and regulations became an instrument of rampant corruption and by the time the Chandra Shekhar government sent out an SOS to the IMF, India seemed precariously close to becoming another failed state. Internationally too the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union punctured illusions of a socialist utopia. India was faced with an existential dilemma and the Ayodhya movement encapsulated a growing anger and frustration with a bankrupt order. The Hindu rage was also a revolt against socialism.
The course correction undertaken by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh proved too late to save the Congress from electoral rout in 1996. Yet, the liberalisation of the economy undercut the steady drift to extreme religious polarisation. The BJP didn’t junk Hindutva but it complemented it with a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development. In a span of some 15 years India witnessed a capsuled surge in economic growth, a feat unmatched in at least three centuries. The dismantling of the iniquitous license-permit-quota raj and a hesitant acceptance of globalisation produced newer opportunities and enlarged the mental horizon of the middle classes. With the breakdown of the joint family system and the atomisation of urban society, many of the older assumptions governing politics started disappearing.
For the Indian Right, this transformation was momentous. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the material base for the emergence of a non-statist model was lacking, 21st century has established the primacy of the private sector. High interest rates and punitive rates of personal taxation which deterred entrepreneurship under socialism are no longer viable in a country where the quest is for rapid growth and better standards of living.
Unfortunately, following two successive election defeats, the BJP has been engulfed by an unwarranted insularity. Rather than re-fashioning the party to take advantage of spectacular opportunities, it has abdicated the modernist agenda and fallen back on sectarian certitudes. Rather than allow pragmatic politics to determine its future course, the party has been hijacked by a small cabal whose understanding of contemporary realities is remarkably feeble. Any RSS takeover of the BJP is bad news for the Indian Right.
There is an emerging space for the Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency. The Congress has reinvented its paternalism in the guise of welfare—a wasteful endeavour that may drag India into a needless fiscal crisis; it has expanded the bureaucracy without making it more accountable and efficient; and it has lauded modernity without embracing meritocracy. The Congress has prospered electorally by preying on the sectarian vote banks which have viewed the Right as the proverbial Nasty Party.
The Indian Right has allowed the battle to be fought on terms set by the Congress. It must now redefine its political priorities to avail of an ever-expanding political space. The Swatantra Party failed because it was ahead of the times; the BJP may falter if it doesn’t move into the 21st century.

Times of India, The Crest Edition, December 5, 2009

or

Crest, December 5, 2009