Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Age of Intolerance


By Swapan Dasgupta


There are many in the Government who are absolutely chuffed at the ease with which Operation Stop Rushdie was played out. First, the Rajasthan Police (or was it the Central authorities?) informed the organizers of the Jaipur Literature Festival that sundry assassins financed by the Mumbai underworld were on the prowl. That ensured Salman Rushdie didn't check-in for his flight to India. Secondly, once it was known that the organizers would use technology to circumvent the unofficial Congress ban on Rushdie, the local hotelier and the organizers were deftly arm-twisted into cancelling the video linkup for fear of violence and police indifference.
Yes, there were voices of liberal outrage at the subversion of democratic freedom. However, since the indignation was confined to a class that rarely bothers to vote, has no worthwhile electoral influence and, if the chairman of the Press Council is to believed, still harbours a colonial mindset, it could be safely ignored in favour of the satisfaction among those who, apart from being more authentic, also control powerful Muslim vote-banks.
What was witnessed last week was cynicism perfected into a fine art by a government that has excelled in the art of subterfuge. Where the regime wants to offset protests against free speech, it does so unapologetically. In Punjab, crowds at a public meeting to be addressed by Rahul Gandhi were compelled to leave their shoes and any black apparel outside the venue for fear that these could become either missiles or black flags. In Jaipur, however, the authorities chose to be cowed down by the threat of small groups of demonstrators. The champions of intolerance won in Jaipur because their victory was facilitated by the might of the state.
Yet, many apologists argue that the events of last week don't necessarily imply any waning commitment to democratic freedoms. Rushdie, it is said, was the exception because his mere mention sends many Muslims into an apoplectic tizzy. And, say the apologists, the timing of the celebrated author's visit was all wrong. If there had been no elections in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress regimes at the Centre and in Rajasthan may well have been more inclined to showcase India as a place where the bar of intolerance is generously high.
Recent trends suggest otherwise. It is becoming increasingly clear that the kerfuffle over Rushdie was no unfortunate aberration but part of a bid to replace an argumentative society with a regulated democracy where freedom is circumscribed by constant reminders of the limits to freedom.
The attempts to muzzle free speech in the social media and the cyber world can no longer be wished away as obsessive concerns of individual ministers with particularly thin skins. Since September 5 last year, the department of information technology has held five meetings with organizations such as Facebook, Google, Blogspot and Yahoo to force a code of conduct governing their content. It is not that the government is concerned with lewd pictures and pornography. It has demanded that the social media sites "scan and screen/filter the content hosted on their websites for objectionable content about Constitutional authorities, council of ministers in Centre/states, political leadership, public authorities and disable them on their own or as and when brought to their knowledge in writing by an authorized representative of such authorities." A public interest litigation protesting the "damage (to) the secular fabric of India" is also before the Delhi High Court.
In plain language, the government is demanding the right of pre-censorship of all potentially "objectionable content" relating to public life and politics--a demand that has striking resemblance to the censorship practiced by the authorities in China.
It is, of course, possible to dismiss these moves as trivial concerns that will affect a minority of internet loonies who are unaware of the niceties of parliamentary decorum. The only problem is that when the right to determine what is objectionable is given to people who are unaffected by the charms of pluralism, the consequences can be very dangerous. The Rushdie affair last week has vividly demonstrated that for a section of the political class, the right to offend does not count as a permissible freedom. India is being forced into a mental straitjacket.

Will BJP project Narendra Modi as PM?

By Swapan Dasgupta


Opinion polls in India rarely tend to be definite: They are at best indicative of political trends. Even so, the latest round of the bi-annual Mood of the Nation poll sponsored by India Today must bring a measure of joy to the BJP and particularly those in the organisation who feel that the future belongs to a dispensation led by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The findings are no doubt much more encouraging to the BJP than to the Congress. In the event of a snap general election, the BJP is expected to win some 140 Lok Sabha seats, which is significantly more than the 110 seats the poll gives to the Congress. In the individual popularity stakes, it would seem that Modi has nearly doubled his claim to be considered as a future Prime Minister. Whereas he was the prime ministerial choice of only 12 per cent six months ago, his current acceptability is 24 per cent. More important, Modi is well ahead of Rahul Gandhi who is the choice of 17 per cent, a fall of four per cent from mid-2011.
However, before the BJP goes gaga celebrating its good showing in an opinion poll, it would be instructive to read the fine print which paints a potentially disturbing picture for the future stability of the country. The poll shows that the NDA (as it is presently constituted) would be only a whisker ahead of the UPA. Together, the two main alliances would account for two-thirds of the Lok Sabha seats. In other words, the Lok Sabha would be divided into three near-equal parts: The NDA, the UPA and members of the Left and regional parties who will hold the balance of power.
The next Government, in short, will be formed by the formation that is least unacceptable to the regional players. It will be the Naveen Patnaiks, the Jayalalithaas and the Chandrababu Naidus who will determine not only the composition of the Government but also the Prime Minister.
For the moment, that is not entirely good news for Modi. His candidature is likely to invite opposition from a section of the NDA and those outside the alliance that regard him as a polarising agent. This may exclude Jayalalithaa and, at a pinch, Patnaik, but will definitely include Nitish Kumar and Naidu.
There is another imponderable. The poll indicates that the BJP can get to 140 seats if it fights as a part of the NDA and without any clarity over its leadership. Will this tally improve or shrink if Modi is the candidate?
Conventional wisdom deems that elevating Modi to a prime ministerial candidate is fraught with risks. Modi is without doubt the most popular BJP leader in the country. His mere presence energises the committed and there is little doubt that he will be able to generate euphoria around himself. In a Modi-Rahul battle, the Gujarat Chief Minister will gain from the infectious enthusiasm of his youthful followers all over the country.
Yet, there is big question mark. Just as Modi will certainly galvanise any BJP campaign and attract an incremental vote from people who are looking forward to purposeful, no-nonsense governance, he will also help consolidate that section which sees Modi as an ogre and a personification of evil. The fact that this includes the dominant section of the media — miffed because Modi has no time for it — and the liberal intelligentsia will ensure that the attack on Modi will be shrill, alarmist and pitiless. Intellectual luminaries will be lined up to tell the country that a Modi administration will be a replica of Hitler’s Germany, with Muslims reduced to the status of non-citizens.
The purpose behind this shrill campaign will be to turn a general election into a referendum on Modi and divert attention from the pathetic quality of governance under the UPA. The Congress believes that with Modi as the BJP’s face, the entire non-BJP vote will rally behind it. Indeed, it has been suggested that the situation would resemble Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater was the darling of his party faithful but Johnson was more acceptable to the electorate.
It is impossible to know whether or not history will repeat itself but what is clear is that Project Modi has a greater chance of success if the enthusiasm for the undeniable leadership qualities of the man can be extended into a platform that brings a multitude of non-Congress parties under one roof. I don’t think any appeal based on highlighting Modi’s Hindu credentials can do the trick. Modi is already too much of a Hindu icon for this point to be emphasised and re-emphasised, especially by people who may end up making minorities and moderate Hindus jittery.
For the BJP, the future lies in fine-tuning and internalising the plank of federalism. Rolling back the frontiers of centralisation is the only plank that will unite the maximum number of regional parties. However, it would appear that many BJP leaders have not cottoned on to its potential appeal. To be fair, Modi has long acknowledged its potential. Now he needs to make many more strategic interventions on the same lines and complement his Sadbhavana Mission with a more tangible message for the rest of India.
Fielding Modi as the prime ministerial candidate constitutes an audacious step. The BJP has to calculate whether it wants the plodding approach or is willing to take risks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A victory for intolerance

By Swapan Dasgupta


Those writers who indulged in a bout of needless grandstanding by reading out passages from Salman Rushdie’s contentious The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival last Friday did the cause they were ostensibly espousing very little good.
On the contrary, their symbolic defiance of the 1988 ban on the book merely served to confirm in the eyes of those baying for Rushdie’s blood that the main purpose behind the invitation to the British-Indian author was to resurrect a controversy that, mercifully, has passed its sell by date. The sundry clerics and ghetto politicians who clamoured for Rushdie’s permanent exclusion from India can now feel vindicated that they managed to contain a sinister assault on the fundamental tenets of Islam.
However, if there is one thing that is clear about last fortnight’s kerfuffle, it is that the fuss was only tangentially connected to the Satanic Verses — a book that is not openly sold in India. Since he re-established his right to visit India in 1998, courtesy the NDA Government, and then wisely procured a PIO card that assures him visa-less travel for life, Rushdie has been in India on more than six occasions and maybe more. He has delivered lectures, graced literary festivals and celebrity parties and even reclaimed his grandfather’s house in Solan. On each occasion some fringe group or other has issued statements opposing the visit and on each occasion the Government chose to ignore them. On his part, Rushdie has done nothing to either resurrect the Satanic Verses issue in India or trigger any new controversy. His behaviour in India has been careful and restrained. After all, he, more than anyone else, is aware of the huge personal costs of living undercover for at least a decade after Ayatollah Khomeini pronounced his death sentence through a fatwa.
So, what was so different this time? The difference lies not so much in the fact that the Deoband seminary asked for his visa to be cancelled and that some shadowy organisation promised to reward anyone who threw a slipper at Rushdie with a prize of Rs 1 lakh. There are some bodies that exist to take sectarian positions on matters and routinely proclaim that Islam is in danger. They do it when a US President comes visiting, when Indo-Israeli ties improve, when Taslima Nasreen asks for the right of residence in India and they do it at the whiff of Rushdie. The best way for the Government to have reacted was by ignoring them. Indeed, it seemed that was precisely what was going to happen until Rushdie tweeted and the Rajasthan Government stepped into the fray.
It is difficult to accept the Rajasthan Government’s plea that it would have a hard time guaranteeing Rushdie’s safety. Equally, it is impossible to respond to the Centre’s plea that either the outlawed SIMI or a section of the Mumbai underworld was plotting to send an assassin to accomplish what Ayatollah Khomeini had desired 24 years earlier, with a straight face. What gave the game away was the fact that no one in the Government and the Congress (with the honourable exception of Manish Tewari) deemed it necessary to express a single word of condemnation for those who wanted the ban on Satanic Verses to be coupled with a ban on Rushdie the person.  Notables in India are fond of tirelessly repeating that “we will not be cowed down by terrorism”. But isn’t that what precisely happened in the case of Rushdie?
The forces of intolerance scored a famous victory last week. They won because the match was fixed in their favour by the UPA Government and the Congress. And the outcome was pre-determined because with the Uttar Pradesh election round the corner, the Congress wanted to show a gesture of goodwill towards those who claim to influence the vote-banks. Rushdie lost out because the Congress was loath to have any influential Muslim body point an accusing finger at it. Those who felt offended and let down by Rushdie’s absence from Jaipur were regarded as inconsequential members of the non-voting classes. Their protests could safely be disregarded.
The monotonous regularity with which the bar of artistic freedom is being lowered should alarm all Indians. Yet, under the guise of secularism and the principle of equal respect for all religions, it has become possible for all groups with an imaginary grievance to exercise a veto power. This is a travesty but what compounds the offence is the fact that retrograde decisions are being routinely taken by people who know better, are not personally narrow-minded and pay lip service to India as an argumentative society.
The argument that compromises with democracy have to be made for the larger interests of democracy is specious. Over the years, intolerance is fast turning into the new normal with every group and religious denomination jumping into the fray. From a historical work on Shivaji, the title of a film and the morality of women to theological disputations, the agenda is being set by those resourceful enough to command a mob.
The ‘sab chalta hai’ attitude is no answer. Nor does it do to shower the barbarians with disdain and feign a sense of superiority. What is required is for a plural culture and mindset to take deep roots in society. Moral relativism has become an excuse to relegate decency to the backburner. As a state, India has eschewed dharma.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Reign of Terror: Mamata Banerjee as Bengal's new ogre


By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since the time a CPI membership or connection was the best passport for entry into journalism, the Indian media has been excessively charitable to the Left. A loosely Left-liberal set of assumptions including anti-Americanism, a distaste for the private sector and a loathing of ritualised religion were hallmarks of the English-language media—at least until aggressive TV news channels with sharply divergent value systems re-established balance.

The most important consequence of this slanted politics was that the Communist parties (and their fellow-travellers) were able to punch much above their weight. In its 34 years of government, the Left Front in West Bengal benefitted considerably from the goodwill and generosity showered on it by a national media enamoured of its progressive credentials. Copious tears, for example, were shed when the CPI(M) Politburo turned down the United Front’s invitation to Jyoti Basu to become Prime Minister of India in 1998. However, very few column inches were devoted to examining the realities behind Basu’s reputation as a capable administrator. For an influential section of the editorial classes that had once fought battles on behalf of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, the Communist parties were the holy cows and West Bengal their sacred pasture.

Mamata Banerjee by contrast was always an object of intense suspicion. Ever since she emerged to occupy the main anti-Left space in West Bengal she was portrayed as a maverick, an incorrigible populist and an utterly irresponsible individual. This reckless image persisted through the 2009 general election when it was lamented that Prakash Karat had facilitated his own party’s downfall by his decision to withdraw support to the Manmohan Singh Government over the Indo-US nuclear agreement. Indeed, a section of the fourth estate clung on to the belief that her Lok Sabha success was a fluke and that she would be stopped at the gates of Writers’ Buildings by a determined Left. Even as late as a month before the May 2011 Assembly poll, the media watering holes in Delhi were full of tales of how there was a ‘late swing’ to the Left resulting from a popular realisation that Mamata would be too costly a burden for West Bengal. The results told another story.

The Congress which had entered into a grudging ‘mahajot’ with the Trinamool Congress after the Left withdrew support to the UPA Government was both a producer and a willing consumer of the negative perceptions of West Bengal’s most famous Didi. Sonia Gandhi and the Prime Minister were no doubt grateful to Mamata for teaching Karat a lesson he wouldn’t forget in a hurry, but this was coupled with concern over the consequences of the gentlemanly Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee being replaced by an unguided missile. In 2011, the Congress wanted the Left Front to lose but it hoped that the TMC would fall short of an outright majority and enable it to play a balancing role—a euphemism for insisting Mamata dance to its tune for the next five years.  

These calculations were upset by last summer’s resounding and categorical endorsement of Mamata by the West Bengal electorate. Mamata was now her own boss with very clear ideas of how she would manage relations with her national ally.

At the local level she moved fast. First, she gave inconsequential portfolios to the Congress ministers she inducted into her ministry. Second, she sought to undercut the remaining Congress bases in North Bengal.

The Congress High Command didn’t respond to these provocations too adversely. Traditionally, the Congress has always viewed its local units as subordinate to the national party. As long as Mamata played ball in the Centre, the Congress was willing to turn a blind eye to her local transgressions.

Unfortunately for the Congress, Mamata had her own ideas. Angry at being fobbed off with mere lollipops instead of the grand Bengal package she had banked on, she did what most non-Congress chief ministers from Jayalalithaa and Narendra Modi to Nitish Kumar have done: elevate the battle to a principled tussle over federal relations. It is federalism that has governed Mamata’s prickliness over matters as diverse as the Teesta Waters Treaty with Bangladesh, the Communal Violence Bill, the Lokpal Bill and the Food Security Bill. In addition, she used her representation in the Cabinet to raise awkward questions on fuel price hikes and the decontrol of retail trade. More to the point, she used her numbers in Parliament to join hands with the Opposition and embarrass the Government.

The CPI(M) had a position similar to Mamata’s in the four years it provided ‘outside support’ to the UPA between 2004 and 2008. It used its strategic clout far more discerningly and in characteristic Communist style: to support the ‘progressive’ initiatives by Sonia Gandhi and oppose the ‘neo-liberal’ policy moves of the Prime Minister. In addition, it used it good offices to secure the appointments of ‘progressives’ in positions of influence and authority, particularly in the realms of higher education. The CPI(M) more or less replicated the approach of the CPI between 1969 and 1977 when it upheld the ‘progressive’ regime of Indira Gandhi, particularly in her fight against the ‘reactionary’ Syndicate.

Mamata, on her part, has not been so calibrated in her approach as the Comrades. She has been principled insofar as she has focussed on the big questions and not bothered at all with trivial issues of appointments to governorships and quangos—something the Congress is innately more comfortable with. The result is that Mamata does not have backers among either those who look to 10 Janpath or those with one eye to the wisdom emanating from Race Course Road. After she embarrassed the government in the Rajya Sabha over the Lokpal Bill, the exasperation of the Congress with her scaled new heights—to the point where senior ministers are now singing praises of the sweet reasonableness of the Left. As of today, Mamata is regarded as the joker in the UPA pack and the Congress is itching to be rid of her.

For the Congress, the way out of West Bengal lies in Uttar Pradesh. For the past month, relevant circles in Lutyens’ Delhi have been abuzz with talk of ‘secret’ negotiations between the Congress and Samajwadi Party. According to those who make it their business to fish in troubled waters, the ‘deal’ involves a post-poll coalition between the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Congress in UP and the SP joining the UPA at the Centre in return for Cabinet berths. The Congress, it would seem, has made up its mind to swap the TMC with the SP. This may explain why Mamata has sharpened the intensity of her attacks on the Congress.

There is still one imponderable. The Congress needs both the TMC and either the SP or the Bahujan Samaj Party to get its candidate into Rashtrapati Bhavan later in the year. It would be in difficulty if a discarded Mamata decides to back a united opposition candidate. The possible way out, which is being explored courtesy a Politburo member of the CPI(M) is for the Left to bail the Congress out in return for an agreement on the candidature of the present Vice President.

The Left has been playing a quiet role in accentuating the differences between the Congress and Mamata. Having been severely battered in the Assembly election, its only hope of a recovery lies in Mamata self-destructing and a split in the anti-Left votes in West Bengal.

No wonder the stage is being set to portray Mamata as Bengal’s new ogre.


Telegraph, January 20, 2012 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Meddling With Nationhood

By Swapan Dasgupta


The extent to which the discourse on the vexed issue of reservations has changed over the years is quite remarkable. When the Constitution was being framed, the remnants of the Muslim League argued that independent India should persist with the reservation of seats in legislatures for Muslims and other religious minorities. Predictably, in the aftermath of a Partition that many attributed to the system of separate electorates and the notorious Communal Award, the demand drew a sharp response from the Congress benches.
Intervening in the debate on August 28, 1947, the then home minister Sardar Patel had some harsh words for the proponents of minority reservation: "I once more appeal to you to forget the past…You have got what you wanted. You have got a separate state and, remember, you are the people who were responsible for it, and not those who remain in Pakistan…What is it that you want now? In the majority Hindu provinces you, the minorities, you led the agitation…Now again you tell me and ask me to say for the purpose of securing the affection of the younger brother I must agree to the same thing again, to divide the country again in the divided part. For God's sake understand that we have also got some sense..."
Had a politician of standing delivered a similar speech today, it is certain that the liberal media and the assembled army of secularists would have construed it as a textbook example of ahate speech. Over the years, thanks to changing political fashion, the sharpness of political discourse which was a feature of the national movement, has been blunted and replaced by squeamish angst. This is particularly evident in the debate over the proposal of the Congress to introduce a 4.5% quota-to be raised to 9% if the party wins Uttar Pradesh-for religious minorities in government jobs and higher education.
In line with the recommendations of the Rajinder Sachar committee report, the issue has been presented as an aspect of India's quest for social justice. Since many Muslim communities are understood to be even worse placed than dalits in their socio-economic status, the imperatives of social justice, it is argued, demand they be given a helping hand to help them enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. If the politically consequential Other Backward Classes can enjoy the benefits of reservations, or so the argument goes, it is against natural justice to deny similar benefits to people just because they follow a different faith.
It is a compelling argument and one which has moved the liberal elite. Against this is the letter and spirit of a Constitution that is quite clear that special privileges for minorities must be limited to their absolute right to manage their own religious, cultural and educational institutions-a privilege denied to non-minorities. The Constitution is also categorical that religionbased reservations in government jobs and political representation constitute a big No. Small wonder there is subterfuge involved in concealing the real motives behind the proposal.
For the Constitution-makers, the status of minorities posed a dilemma. There was a consensus on postponing a common civil code to help Muslims get over their post-Partition disorientation. Yet, the Constituent Assembly was not at ease with the principle of differentiated citizenship. In a landmark intervention, B R Ambedkar, for example, confessed that "I personally do not understand why religion should be given this vast expansive jurisdiction so as to cover the whole of life and to prevent the legislature from encroaching upon that field."
The extension of job reservation to Muslims threatens to add a new dimension to differentiated citizenship. From separate personal laws and full cultural and educational autonomy, minority rights are sought to be extended to other arenas including the handling of sectarian conflict. The road is being readied for political reservations at a future date.
There may be strong electoral compulsions governing the move to institutionalise a separate Muslim identity. But before jumping headlong into legislation, the political class must enter into wider public consultations. The issue is not who is 'secular' and who is 'communal'. The stakes are higher: the very character of the Constitution and the meaning of nationhood.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Outrage will not influence Uttar Pradesh polls

By Swapan Dasgupta


Having been at the receiving end of metropolitan derision for more than a year, the Congress has reason to believe the tide is finally turning. If its Christmas celebrations were not entirely joyous thanks to the “fleedom at midnight” saga in the Rajya Sabha over the Lokpal Bill, 2012 has begun on a happier note for three reasons.
First, the party’s bush telegraph has successfully disseminated the impression that it is on a spectacular comeback trail in Uttar Pradesh. Whereas it was earlier expected to come fourth in a four-cornered contest in India’s largest State, optimists now reckon it is in second place after Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party and much ahead of both Mayawati and the BJP. To what extent this perception is real or simply based on irrational exuberance is something which will be known on March 4. But there is no doubt there is an extra bounce in the step of the average Congress activist.
Second, the tension between the Congress and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal hasn’t renewed speculation about an imminent collapse of the UPA Government at the Centre. Instead, it has been an occasion to demonstrate that India’s oldest political party remains wonderfully nimble-footed for its age. There is talk that there will be a swap in coalition partners, with the Samajwadi Party replacing the Trinamool Congress. If the grapevine is to be believed, it has already been decided that the next Railway Minister will be either Mulayam Singh Yadav or his son Akhilesh. The associated presumption is that there will be a SP Government in UP propped up by the Congress, either in coalition or through outside support.
Finally, Congress publicists, aided by an obliging media desperate to prove its even-handedness, have made much of the BJP’s hypocrisy in crusading against corruption and simultaneously embracing the tainted BSP discard Babu Singh Kushwaha in UP. Ideally the BJP should either have spurned Kushwaha or been brazen about his induction. Instead, it got the worst of both worlds by first welcoming Kushwaha and then allowing internal democracy to become public democracy. What was essentially a one-day headline has dominated the news space for three days because Kushwaha became the fig leaf for different factions of the party to play out their rivalries over the distribution of tickets. True, there were individuals who were guided by ethical imperatives. In the main, however, the respective positions on Kushwaha were guided by factional (and, by implication, caste) considerations. The sub-text of the turbulence was a tug-of-war between the upper caste and OBC lobbies of the party.
For the Congress, the Kushwaha affair has been a godsend. It has allowed it to establish the principle of moral equivalence. This is important for the Congress. As a practitioner of the most cynical form of statecraft, the Congress has tended to be expedient and flexible on the issue of corruption. The BJP, unfortunately for it, is a party whose ethos is governed by middle-class values. Thanks to its RSS pedigree, it has traditionally cherished uprightness more fanatically than the party which claims descent from Mahatma Gandhi. In electoral terms this implies that the Congress can live with a YS Rajasekhara Reddy more easily than the BJP can digest a BS Yeddyurappa. For the Congress, doling out patronage is a part of normal politics; for the BJP, innocence is still cherished. The Congress will play the caste game with vigour and yet pretend it is above casteism; the BJP will play the caste game surreptitiously because it always has one eye on a homogenised nationalism.
There is another big difference. Last month, the Congress effortlessly accommodated Ajit Singh and his Rashtriya Lok Dal in the UPA. This was despite the fact that the RLD contested the 2009 general election as an ally of the BJP. There were Congressmen who didn’t like the arrangement. But they kept quiet because the party operates on the principle that the High Command — a euphemism for the first family — has the last word. The BJP, on the other hand, is relatively more democratic. The alacrity with which Yogi Adityanath, Maneka Gandhi and others expressed their opposition to Kushwaha’s entry is in sharp contrast to the silence which greets controversial decisions by the Congress High Command.
The question is: Which of the two approaches is preferable? Middle-class opinion is remarkably schizoid on this point. On the one hand, the lack of internal democracy inside the Congress is lamented. Simultaneously, the middle-class (which is also reflected in the media) shows a great deal of impatience with inner-party strife which is equated with indiscipline. An argumentative democracy is celebrated with the same enthusiasm as regimented democracy.
It is quite apparent that this middle-class sentiment doesn’t always percolate down to the grassroots. Mayawati’s grand birthday celebrations and her majestic monuments to Kanshi Ram are mocked by the middle-classes. Yet, it is quite apparent that Mayawati’s ostentatious flamboyance carries a large measure of approval of ordinary, poor Dalits who view her wealth and success as symbols of community pride. Flashiness, in other words, isn’t universally loathed. Its perceptions are socially determined. This may explain why politicians tend to be far more accommodative towards cutting corners than do the supporters of Anna Hazare. This may also explain why the outburst of moral indignation against the BJP on Kushwaha may not be a determining factor in the UP election.

Friday, January 6, 2012

SINGLE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL - To be united is not necessarily to be homogeneous


By Swapan Dasgupta

Many decades ago, during a Test match commentary on radio, I heard a broadcaster ask another a seemingly innocuous question: why does Bombay produce more Test cricketers than Calcutta? One of the proffered answers was quirky. The higher standard of cricket in western India was attributed to the Indian Standard Time.

The reasoning was faultless. In the winter months, when cricket is normally played, darkness comes to Calcutta far earlier than it does in Bombay. Consequently, young cricketers in Bombay have opportunities for longer game practice in the afternoons than they do in Calcutta where, ideally, the clocks should be one hour ahead of IST.

That a huge country like India should have multiple time zones may seem a no brainer. After all, the sun rises two hours before in the North-east than it does in parts of Gujarat. Yet, in the aftermath of Independence, when there was an understandable preoccupation with ‘national unity’, a political decision was taken to collapse the longitudinal variations in a unified time zone centred on  Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh. The decision was reiterated in 2004 when the Minister of Science and Technology Kapil Sibal told Parliament that the IST should persist because “the expanse of the Indian state was not large.”

That a breadth of more than 2,000 km covering 28 degrees of longitude should be regarded as “not large” by a Minister may appear astonishing. But like the so-called ‘national dress’ which emerged out of Jawaharlal Nehru’s own sartorial preferences, the IST is a relic of the early post-Independence years when ‘national unity’ was often equated with homogenisation.

The thrust towards homogenisation didn’t stop at symbolism. The 1950 Constitution was nominally federal in character. In reality, however, the antipathy for regionalism and the fear of secessionism made the Congress leadership retain the paramountcy clauses of the 1935 Government of India Act. Coupled with the establishment of the Planning Commission (a body that is outside the Constitution) which became the instrument of centralisation, the political system was weighed heavily against the states. The Centre had the powers to dismiss state governments, thwart state legislations and possessed overriding powers in subjects under the Concurrent List. And although the distribution of Central revenues was decided by the Finance Commission, the principle of a redistributive Centre meant that New Delhi retained enormous discretionary powers to either favour or discriminate against a state.

The over-centralised system proved functionally adequate as long as the Congress was the dominant party and held power in both the Centre and the states. Differences, when they arose, were resolved across the table through informal discussions between party colleagues. Yet, grievances persisted. Eastern India, for example, was miffed by the freight equalisation of coal and steel—a decision that negated the locational advantages of Jharkhand and West Bengal. In addition, the licence-permit-quota raj enabled powerful politicians and influential lobbies to defy the logic of the market.

Things have no doubt changed with the end of the Congress’ monopoly of power and the dismantling of an over-bearing regulatory regime after 1991. After a long and bitter political struggle that spanned some 25 years and some helpful interventions by the judiciary, the powers of the Centre to dismiss state governments have been regulated and codified. We are unlikely to see whimsical interventions that, for example, marked the dismissal of state governments in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. At the same time, the Centre remains an irritant in allowing political considerations to decide what state legislation to approve and which ones to keep in abeyance. In recent months, environment has emerged as a point of friction with the Centre choosing to become the final arbiter for clearances.

Liberalisation of the economy too has helped the economic growth of the states. Before 1991, it would have been inconceivable for Ratan Tata to make a snap decision and shift the manufacturing unit for his low-price car from Singur in West Bengal to Gujarat. Indeed, the rapid development of Gujarat as a manufacturing centre under Narendra Modi would have been out of the question had the politicised licence-permit-quota raj been in place—a hostile Centre would never have given the necessary clearances. That foreign direct investment has taken place mainly in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Gujarat (and not in Rae Barely and Amethi) owes everything to the fact that decisions are being taken by corporates and not the Planning Commission.

India, it would seem, has blundered from over-centralisation to a position where states are accorded greater respect. However, this emerging equilibrium is in danger of being disturbed by trends within the Congress. In today’s India, with most state governments in the control of non-Congress parties, the Centre has found itself somewhat reduced in stature. To compensate for this loss of clout, the UPA Government has chosen to undertake Delhi-designed mega welfare schemes embodied in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the proposed Food Security Bill. Inspired by European welfarism, the schemes are premised on the one-size-fits-all philosophy, a trademark of the earlier Planning Commission.

Traditionally, critiques of Sonia Gandhi’s lady bountiful schemes have centred on their likely impact on the precarious fiscal deficit. There are also concerns that large sums of money may be diverted away from the real beneficiaries thanks to an incompetent and venal state machinery. However, beyond fiscal and delivery concerns, there is a larger issue that needs to be addressed. Is it appropriate that the Centre should apportion to itself the role of the principal welfare agency?

The answer should be in the negative. State Governments have a greater connection with localities and a greater accountability to the people than babus in the Ministry of Rural Welfare in Delhi. Why should the labour market in Punjab be distorted by a scheme that only serves to drive up agricultural prices? Why shouldn’t Gujarat be permitted to have welfare schemes for the poorer tribal districts, instead of having it imposed on the whole state? If Orissa and Chhattisgarh already have effective distribution of subsidised rice to poor families, why should a Food Security Act be imposed on it?

Mamata Banerjee raised some of these larger questions when she questioned the right of the Centre to design a Lokayukta scheme for the states. She had earlier raised similar questions over the imperious manner in which the Centre proceeded with the Teesta Waters Treaty with Bangladesh which affected West Bengal directly. For raising the federal issue, Mamata was dubbed petulant and difficult. But who was being difficult? Mamata for upholding the rights of states? Or a Centre that proceeded on the assumption that a ‘big democracy’ has the divine right to guide ‘little democracies’?

In six decades India has travelled a long way. The concerns over ‘national unity’ that seemed all too real in 1947 are no longer valid. Today, the feeling of Indian-ness is deep-rooted and complemented by a vibrant metropolitan culture. Secessionism doesn’t have the same emotional appeal it had in the past, except perhaps in the Kashmir Valley located in a state that, ironically, accords the greatest measure of autonomy to its people. What does have an appeal is the desire for economic growth and personal betterment. It is in this context that excessive centralisation and its associated inefficiencies become an impediment.

The debate on federalism is circumscribed by the uncritical acceptance of many of the national symbols of power. There is a need for greater scepticism and intellectual audacity. We could start by asking whether IST needlessly leads to the cricketing potential of eastern India remaining unfulfilled.


The Telegraphh, January 6, 2012

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hope Back in Calcutta


By Swapan Dasgupta


There was a time, somewhere in my distant childhood, when the 'season', beginning with Christmas and culminating in the New Year, was centred, not on Goa, but on Calcutta. It was 'burra din', the time when Park Street (now renamed Mother Teresa Sarani) was lit up to resemble Oxford Street in the only other city the elite of Calcutta identified with. It was the time of the Test match at Eden Gardens and the races on New Year’s Day. And it was the time of roasts and plum puddings laced with a dollop of brandy butter. 
Alas, that was before the Reds stepped in and turned Kolkata into a city of gloom. By the time the Left Front was removed last year, the spirit had been squeezed out of the second city of the Empire. Instead, Kolkata became a city with a glorious past and an uncertain future. The reality was symbolized by the imposing buildings in varying stages of dereliction. 
Returning to the city for the ‘season’ this year after more than 15 years, what was striking was the revival of hope. The Tourism Department of the state government had organized a Christmas festival on Park Street which was brightly lit and the restaurants were crowded and buzzing with activity. There was a gaiety that had earlier been missing. On Christmas Day, the temperature was a degree below London. And while the sahibs took out their tweeds and ties, the wags were quick to comment that ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee had done one better than the city that she holds as the ideal for Kolkata. 
What came as a bigger eye-opener was how little the conversations in the clubs or ‘athome’ drinks parties focused on either Anna Hazare’s show in Mumbai or the Lokpal debates in Parliament. It is not that West Bengal doesn’t have its share of graft and bureaucratic sloth. It is just that a city that had got back a glimmer of hope was too busy celebrating the likelihood of a better future.
From the perspective of the metros, the elements of hope may be woefully modest and even flaunting in Kolkata is sober by the exacting standards of Delhi and Mumbai. But the point to note is that Kolkata didn’t feel the political acrimony and the gloom-and-doom story that has overwhelmed much of India. 
The young Indian Civil Service recruits were taught in Haileybury that “whatever is true of India the opposite is equally true.” The lesson was worth remembering. Only too often , generalizations are made about India on the strength of a partial reality in Delhi. If Delhi shivers, the rest of India is also thought to be in the midst of a cold wave. 
The more we gauge the Indian reality, the more we realize that the ‘idea of India’ — a phrase so favoured by over-concerned TV anchors — is just another of those expedient myths we love to bandy about. There is undoubtedly an India that exists during war and cricket matches, but the idea varies from place to place and from city to city. This diversity is something that neither the Planning Commission nor the architects of mega welfare schemes have been inclined to accept. 
For the Delhi-based pan-Indian elite, political power emanates from the national capital and filters downwards. The reality, however, is that the country is made up of clusters of regional elites whose aspirations and priorities are very different, and why not? 
A simple Christmas celebration in Kolkata , Navratra in Ahmedabad and Ganesh chaturthi in Mumbai tells us more about the different Indias than all the proceedings of the Delhi-centric National Advisory Council. It tells us that a dysfunctional India doesn’t become a reality when the Centre loses its way. It happens when a paralysed Centre prevents the regions from achieving their true potential by concentrating too much power in Delhi. 
These days the talk is about democratization and accountability. These lofty goals become far more meaningful when Indian federalism becomes what it was intended to be: a Union of states. When Kolkata smiles and Delhi is gloomy, not least because some Bengali politicians are flexing their muscles, you instinctively know that something right is happening, somewhere.Street (now renamed Mother Teresa Sarani) was lit up to resemble Oxford Street in the only other city the elite of Calcutta identified with. It was the time of the Test match at Eden Gardens and the races on New Year’s Day. And it was the time of roasts and plum puddings laced with a dollop of brandy butter. 
Alas, that was before the Reds stepped in and turned Kolkata into a city of gloom. By the time the Left Front was removed last year, the spirit had been squeezed out of the second city of the Empire. Instead, Kolkata became a city with a glorious past and an uncertain future. The reality was symbolized by the imposing buildings in varying stages of dereliction. 
Returning to the city for the ‘season’ this year after more than 15 years, what was striking was the revival of hope. The Tourism Department of the state government had organized a Christmas festival on Park Street which was brightly lit and the restaurants were crowded and buzzing with activity. There was a gaiety that had earlier been missing. On Christmas Day, the temperature was a degree below London. And while the sahibs took out their tweeds and ties, the wags were quick to comment that ‘Didi’ Mamata Banerjee had done one better than the city that she holds as the ideal for Kolkata. 
What came as a bigger eye-opener was how little the conversations in the clubs or ‘athome’ drinks parties focused on either Anna Hazare’s show in Mumbai or the Lokpal debates in Parliament. It is not that West Bengal doesn’t have its share of graft and bureaucratic sloth. It is just that a city that had got back a glimmer of hope was too busy celebrating the likelihood of a better future.
From the perspective of the metros, the elements of hope may be woefully modest and even flaunting in Kolkata is sober by the exacting standards of Delhi and Mumbai. But the point to note is that Kolkata didn’t feel the political acrimony and the gloom-and-doom story that has overwhelmed much of India. 
The young Indian Civil Service recruits were taught in Haileybury that “whatever is true of India the opposite is equally true.” The lesson was worth remembering. Only too often , generalizations are made about India on the strength of a partial reality in Delhi. If Delhi shivers, the rest of India is also thought to be in the midst of a cold wave. 
The more we gauge the Indian reality, the more we realize that the ‘idea of India’ — a phrase so favoured by over-concerned TV anchors — is just another of those expedient myths we love to bandy about. There is undoubtedly an India that exists during war and cricket matches, but the idea varies from place to place and from city to city. This diversity is something that neither the Planning Commission nor the architects of mega welfare schemes have been inclined to accept. 
For the Delhi-based pan-Indian elite, political power emanates from the national capital and filters downwards. The reality, however, is that the country is made up of clusters of regional elites whose aspirations and priorities are very different, and why not? 
A simple Christmas celebration in Kolkata , Navratra in Ahmedabad and Ganesh chaturthi in Mumbai tells us more about the different Indias than all the proceedings of the Delhi-centric National Advisory Council. It tells us that a dysfunctional India doesn’t become a reality when the Centre loses its way. It happens when a paralysed Centre prevents the regions from achieving their true potential by concentrating too much power in Delhi. 
These days the talk is about democratization and accountability. These lofty goals become far more meaningful when Indian federalism becomes what it was intended to be: a Union of states. When Kolkata smiles and Delhi is gloomy, not least because some Bengali politicians are flexing their muscles, you instinctively know that something right is happening, somewhere.