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Friday, June 29, 2012

The War of Poses


By Swapan Dasgupta

In the world of Punjabi humour, Nattha Singh and Prem Singh may well be the same thing (or Singh), but it was a cruel joke that Islamabad inflicted last Tuesday night when it clarified that Sarabjit Singh had in fact been mistaken for Surjeet Singh. The sheer insensitivity of this wilful mix-up apart, the incident, however, served to confirm once again—as if further confirmation was needed—that when it comes to the bilateral relationship with India, the last word doesn’t belong to either the President or the Prime Minister.

This unfortunate reminder of the quirks of Pakistani democracy is, however, timely. For the past year or so, an influential section of India’s foreign policy establishment has made the strengthening of Islamabad’s civilian government one of its main objectives. More than that, they readily believed that the war-like situation along the Durand Line and growing frostiness in US-Pakistan relations had actually helped tilt the balance against the military. Last Tuesday’s midnight clarification should help to inject a much-needed dose of realism into the official Indian perception of Pakistan.

President Asif Ali Zardari may indeed be a jolly fellow, a man who genuinely believes that cross-border trade is better than costly trench warfare. Unfortunately, neither he nor the well-meaning cosmopolitan set that frequently travel to India to preach aman ki asha, count for too much in Pakistan’s power equations. True, a military establishment that has been shown to be quite helpless against the repeated violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty by US Special Forces, isn’t quite what it was in the heydays of General Zia-ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. It has shown itself to be quite ragged round the edges. Yet, in a country replete with multiple power centres—that include the US-hating, India-loathing Islamist radicals—the cantonments still have a nominal upper hand. And when the military combines with the Islamists—as they did on the Sarabjit Singh issue—they become all-powerful.

This is a fundamental truth that India has been trying to impress upon world leaders from the day Osama bin Laden’s suicide bombers destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon in September 2001. Last May, after the Abbottabad operation confirmed the presence of Osama in the heart of the Pakistan military establishment, the US has come round to the view that what India and, for that matter, President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, have been saying for so long is right. It is now recognised in Washington that far from being a part of the solution, Pakistan is central to the problem.

When President Barack Obama assumed power in 2008, there was nervousness in New Delhi that the cosy relationship established with President George W. Bush would be unsettled. Indeed, some of Obama’s early utterances triggered concern in India over the future direction of US policy in the region. Today, all those misgivings have been dispelled—at least as far as Pakistan is concerned. If President Bush, despite his long-term commitment to a rising India, was still willing to give Pakistan an extraordinary amount of leeway, President Obama has shown himself to be completely exasperated with Pakistan. The sheer ferocity of the drone attacks is, for all practical purposes, tantamount to a US declaration of war against Pakistan.

What has been witnessed in the past couple of years is the unravelling of a US-Pakistan alliance that had been forged in the early days of the Cold War. Having been made suckers for long, the US attitude towards Pakistan is distinctly vengeful. Washington, it would seem, is out to punish the Pakistan military for its duplicity and treachery. The quiet role played by the US in nudging Saudi Arabia to extradite Zabiuddin Ansari, alias Abu Jundal, to India earlier this week, would suggest that the pusillanimity evident in the A.Q. Khan controversy may be a thing of the past. The US now wants Pakistan’s dirty linen to be exposed to the world—even if that involves admitting the earlier gullibility of the State Department and CIA.

Even if it is bad form to gloat over the misfortunes of a neighbour, India can afford to take a we-told-you-so attitude. Yet, it is inexplicable that a section of the Indian establishment seems to be deeply embarrassed at Pakistan’s embarrassment. Having an independent foreign policy is always a noble goal. Keeping an arm’s length from the US and other NATO forces has earned India tremendous goodwill and secured some leverage in Afghanistan. Is there now an attempt to tell a worried Islamabad that India will keep its distance from the US-Pakistan divorce proceedings? That India will do its bit to prevent Pakistan from being engulfed in a siege mentality?

Obviously there is. Why else did the Cabinet Committee on Security feel obliged to repudiate yet another attempt to secure the demilitarisation of Siachen? What explains the concern in South Block that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s anxiety to visit Pakistan before 2014 with some grand gesture of reconciliation may result in some foreign policy missteps?

Fortunately for India, the scope for unilateral action on the part of a beleaguered Government is very limited. The UPA Government no longer has the capacity to take bold initiatives. Pragmatism should deem that India should confine itself to modest, baby steps in its Pakistan policy. Bold initiatives necessitate a Pakistan at peace with itself. That, tragically, is a distant hope. 

Monday, June 4, 2012

Kolkata battles with its schizophrenia


By Swapan Dasgupta

There were two stereotypes of Kolkata that jostled for primacy amid the huffing and puffing over the midsummer euphoria surrounding the victory of the Shah Rukh Khan-owned Kolkata Knight Riders in this year’s IPL.

The first were the voices of dismay from intellectuals and Leftists disgusted by the show of frivolity at Eden Gardens last Tuesday. What compounded the offence in their eyes was the enthusiastic participation of a Chief Minister in a party dominated by Bollywood and Tollywood stars. For those appreciative of a Jyoti Basu who rationed laughter and a Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who found inspiration in revolutionary verse and subtitled films, a leader at one with popular culture was more than a departure: it was heresy. By facilitating a carnival on a humid May afternoon, Mamata Banerjee struck a devastating blow at the over-refined self-image of Bengalis. As one angry Communist MP spluttered on TV that evening, the celebrations had nothing to do with either cricket or Bengal.

Yet, the seemingly irrational over-exuberance also corresponded to a parallel stereotype: that of the excitable Bengali. In the rush to deify the effete Bong, the outsider’s perception of those who inspired Rudyard Kipling’s ‘banderlog’ (in Jungle Book) is often glossed over.

The cruel truth is that Bengalis have preferred collective assertion to individualism. The first Test match in India to experience a full-blown riot happened in Eden Gardens on New Year’s Day in 1967, and was marked—or so legend has it—by West Indian players making a mad dash from a tear-gas filled stadium to the Grand Hotel. In his day, Jawaharalal Nehru called it a “city of processions” and by the time his grandson ruled the roost, it was dying from enforced holidays, when traffic stopped and street cricket took over.

It is tempting to relate last week’s spectacle of a lakh of people gyrating to the rhythm of rock groups Bhoomi and Chandrabindu and celebrating KKR’s success to the Bengali penchant for hujuk—an evocative term that signifies infectious craziness. In the past, Kolkata has gone berserk over Pele, Nelson Mandela and—for those with longer memories—Nikita Krushchev and Fidel Castro. Was the spontaneous frenzy over Shah Rukh and his team in keeping with a tradition of excitability?

The answer is self-evident. From the five days of worship and gluttony during Durga Puja to Shah Rukh’s number with Juhi Chawla, Kolkata has loved street parties and carnivals. Why, even the annual Book Fair sees more food consumed than books sold. There is an inverse correlation between economic activity and collective frenzy, and Kolkata is living proof of that. Why then the feigned outrage over Mamata’s party for Shah Rukh?

The answer, it would seem, can be located in Kolkata’s institutionalised schizophrenia. Like Ireland, middle-class Kolkata is blessed with a diaspora larger than the resident population. The exiles, who look back wistfully at the city they grudgingly abandoned, have nurtured an image of a Kolkata that corresponds to their own self-image: gentle, cultured, idealistic, romantic and blessed with an innate sense of decency. It is not that such a Kolkata has ceased to exist, but that this constitutes a fragment of the many enclaves that make up the city.

In a wonderful novel Calcutta Exile set in the 1950s, Bunny Suraiya narrated the touching story of the intersection between the Anglo-Indian community of Ripon Street and the upper-class Bengali of Ballygunge. It was set in a city that was marked for its creativity, commerce and the good life. That Kolkata disappeared with the advent of the Reds. In its place are multiple ghettos of despondency, each bound by the feeling of having been left behind. For today’s Ryan family, the grand-daughters are in Melbourne and the Mookerjee heir is comfortably placed in a Manhattan job. An unchanging Kolkata is just a memory they want to cling on to.

No city in India has been the object of so much pitiable condescension as Kolkata, a city that has forgotten the taste of success. In the KKR victory the city finally had something to celebrate. For India’s other metros, preoccupied with life and business, T-20 victory would have been just one of those things.


Sunday Times of India, June 4, 2012 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Advani has not moved with times


By Swapan Dasgupta

In politics, timing is everything. In more normal times, L.K. Advani’s blog, written partially in response to my column last week, could have been viewed as an intervention on inner-party democracy or, more specifically, the BJP’s ability to respond to adversity. Unfortunately, the blog was uploaded on May 31, in the immediate aftermath of the BJP National Executive in Mumbai and on the day that the NDA (of which he is the Chairman) organised a reasonably successful Bharat bandh to protest against the steep hike in petrol prices. In other words, while the party’s foot soldiers were out in the streets on an unbearably hot day, Advani diverted attention to navel gazing.

Admittedly, playing spoil-sport, even if it was only to contest my assessment of the Mumbai National Executive meeting, may not have been uppermost in the mind of the BJP patriarch. But his unequivocal assertion that there was widespread popular disappointment with the party and internal disenchantment with some of its recent moves ended up suggesting one of two things: either that the party was deeply divided or that Advani himself was out of tune with the organisation he has so lovingly built over the past three decades.

In a mass party of the size and diversity of the BJP, it is near-impossible to believe that every functionary will be on the same page. Even in the heady days of the Ayodhya movement, it was hardly a secret that Atal Behari Vajpayee harboured misgivings of the BJP’s hyper-involvement in the agitation. Yet, it was also true that Vajpayee’s scepticism was not shared by the overwhelming majority of the party, and this was a reason why Advani, strongly backed by the RSS, was preferred over Vajpayee for the Leader of Opposition post in 1991. Of course, Vajpayee’s dissent happened in the pre-Breaking News age.

In today’s BJP, there are many shades of opinion jostling for attention. Consensus-building is tortuous and often involves leaving issues unresolved for longer than is strictly necessary—as happened in the case of Uttarakhand and as is happening in Karnataka. More often than not it also produces patch-work compromises that fail the test of wider political acceptability.

For the BJP, the exercise in collective decision-making has not always yielded satisfactory results for two reasons. Since the Jinnah controversy and the retirement of Vajpayee from active politics, the BJP no longer has a pre-eminent leader who can take a final call, even if it involves offending colleagues. Advani was unquestionably the tallest leader and a person who enjoyed wide respect of all. However, following the BJP’s failure to make the grade in the presidential-style campaign of the 2009 general election, his ability to get his way on different issues is carrying diminishing returns.

One of the reasons for this is a mismatch of perception over the veteran leader’s role. Whereas most of the party views Advani as a mentor occupying the largely ceremonial role of Chairman of the NDA, Advani sees himself as an active player in the day-to-day affairs of the party and a person who still calls the shots. It is not that his views are disregarded or that he is kept out of the party’s important decision-making bodies, but that his word is no longer final. It is a human problem. The world around Advani has changed but he has not moved with the times.

The consequences have been tragic. Advani may imagine that he is expressing his heartfelt anguish and echoing the sentiments of those exasperated by the delay in creating a viable alternative to a discredited UPA. However, to the party faithful he is increasingly appearing in the garb of a faction leader and a pliant instrument of those who have scores to settle with colleagues. Advani may reflect on the fact that while his blog has aroused fierce media interest, it has generated very little sympathy from within the BJP.

In Mumbai, the BJP moved one step closer to finding a new equilibrium. First, it took the first tentative steps in anointing a leader who can step into the shoes of Vajpayee and Advani. On his part, former Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yeddyurappa has identified the man explicitly and this was echoed in the public meeting at Mumbai. Secondly, in keeping with the enhanced importance of states in the polity, the BJP chose to formally recognise the importance of regional leaders in national affairs. There were many things the National Executive left unaddressed. The most important of these is the policy orientation of the party which is increasingly looking very ad-hoc. But at least a beginning was made in recasting the party to suit contemporary realities.

The BJP is in the throes of a delicate transition to a new order. Like any new enterprise, there are grave risks and many uncertainties. There are also dangers that the removal of one set of problems could lead to the creation of new distortions, the most import of which is ideological insularity. With his long experience, Advani has a key role to play in the run-up to the next general election. Every organisation can do with a father figure who can iron out the creases, provide encouragement and caution, and inspire with his record of selflessness. Like his favourite A.K. Hangal contemplating a comeback, Advani can enrich a good story. He must leave the business of drawing in the crowds to someone else.


Sunday Pioneer, June 3, 2012