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Sunday, September 22, 2013

SPIRIT OF MODI IS DETECTED EVERYWHERE

By Swapan Dasgupta

If my good friend and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tiwari who is showering media organisations with the full generosity of Bharat Nirman was to make himself even more popular, he should initiate a six-figure, tax free award for the most ‘supportive’ newspaper headline of the day. That he hasn’t done so as yet is unfortunate but he should be inspired by a headline on page four of the Delhi edition of Indian Express which may have displayed devastating political prescience: “No Modi effect, BJD sweeps civic polls.”

That the people living in the small urban clusters of Odisha are voting along traditional lines for municipal polls and not being swayed by pictures of NaMo pasted on walls by a BJP that still remains a poor third party in the state should, perhaps, be giving sleepless nights to someone in distant Gandhinagar. Indeed, by this logic, some of those BJP leaders who felt left out and eclipsed by the Parliamentary Board resolution of September 13 may still be fancying their chances as today’s Lazarus. Who knows, the ripples from small town Odisha may even persuade the BJP that putting up umpteen hoardings of the Man from Gujarat may not help divert the attention of the voters of Delhi state from the shortcomings of its local leadership.

In the whodunits of the pre-1945 era, the invariable refrain was that the butler did it. In the pre-election scenario of India 2013, the spirit of Modi is detected everywhere. According to this ‘narrative’ (a good word jargonised by a tribe of academic mystics across the Atlantic), good and ‘secular’ Indians are busy  exorcising the evil spirit from their lives—as the Indian Express detected they successfully did in 65 of the 66 urban bodies that polled last week in Odisha. Likewise, the bad, communal people who don’t share the prescribed “idea of India” are apparently busy invoking the evil asura at mahapanchayats and sending forth the fanatics to either butcher innocent minorities or destroy their homes.

Who says “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was a well-crafted but macabre Hollywood fantasy? According to the “narrative” we hear from alarmed intellectuals who are reading and re-reading their dusty copies of William Shirer, Ian Kershaw and Richard Evans, India in 2013 is exactly where a European country was in 1933. The only difference is that in 80 years a black paintbrush moustache has evolved into a white beard.

Like the ‘foreign hand’ which Indira Gandhi used to warn the country about from the months preceding the Emergency, sections of India have been engulfed by something resembling a ‘great fear’. For intellectuals, it is the great fear of a ‘narrative’ change and attendant losses of privileges that came from being part of the larger Nehruvian consensus; for a minusculity of aesthetes who are uncomfortable with people they didn’t go to school and college with, there are contrived fears of being forced to drink gau-mutra as a sun-downer; and for yet others, it is a fear of the very ‘idea of Modi’ that is disorienting.

Whether or not all these diverse fears will coalesce in 2014 to give the thumbs-down to the challenger is best left for assessment in the coming months, particularly after the December elections to the state Assemblies. Frankly speaking, it doesn’t matter very much if the intellectuals and the aesthetes treat the electoral outcome as a wake or a memorial meeting for a dispensation that has outlived its national utility. What is more relevant is whether the unending alarmist propaganda  has a more sinister objective: to create panic among India’s Muslim minority.

Indeed, this is what appears to be happening. The reason why a small incident in Muzaffarnagar escalated into a serious communal riot had everything to do with the cynical politics of the Samajwadi Party-led government of Uttar Pradesh. What some people hoped would be a ‘controlled’ conflagration to reinforce a ghetto mentality abruptly went out of control and led to some deaths and large-scale dispossession. Ideally, the anger of those who saw their belligerence backfire horribly as the clashes spread to the countryside should have been directed at the political leaders who cynically used them as cannon fodder. Unfortunately, they have been encouraged by the entire secular establishment to view the Muzaffarnagar riots as a trailer of what is to come if Modi becomes PM. Cabinet Minister and Congress ‘strategist’ Jairam Ramesh said this quite explicitly, and this inflammatory formulation was greeted without any sense of outrage by the professional secularists. Indeed, the tensions in UP have become the occasion to press for the grotesque Communal Violence Bill which aims at the permanent compartmentalisation of India into a majority and minorities.

The reason should be quite obvious. There is a desperate attempt to shift the focus of the general election from the UPA’s governance deficit, its patronage of corruption, its failure to harness India’s potential and its lacklustre leadership to identity issues. The calculation is that a sustained policy of selective indignation—no tears were shed for the Dalits who too suffered grievously from the riots—and the arousal of minority anger will in turn trigger a counter-reaction and shift the focus away from bread and butter issues. Behind the lofty concern for the “idea of India” lies a willful desire to blind voters from the most pressing issue: the future of India. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 22, 2013

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Delhi's Rewari Moment

By Swapan Dasgupta

Within the media, there is always a fierce debate on what constitutes ‘news’. More to the point, the discussions invariably centre on the hierarchy of news. The events in Syria and the tizzy over a possible US intervention in some form or the other is big, front page news in the ‘quality’ newspapers of the West, and quite understandably so. However, with the exception of one Chennai-based newspaper that pursues an ‘anti-imperialist’ editorial stance, the diplomatic and other turbulence over the future of Prasident Bashar al-Assad is inevitably relegated to the ‘foreign page’.  

Some people may argue that this disdain for ‘world news’ is a commentary on India’s insular ways. That may well be the case but India is not alone is putting itself at the centre of the world. How many column inches were devoted in the western media to the devastation in Uttarakhand that led more than 4,000 deaths earlier this summer? As the hardnosed-cynical news editors used to say: ‘a dead dog on your doorstep is more important than 400 dead in China.”

In India, there is a further complication when attempting to define what constitutes ‘national’ news and what is ‘regional’ tittle-tattle. This came to the fore last week in a curious sort of way. The anointment of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was preceded by the great sulk of some of the party’s patriarchs. This initial reluctance to toe the majority line was minutely followed in the ‘national’ media and was the subject matter of umpteen TV talk shows. To the Delhi Establishment, this last-ditch revolt of the veterans provided confirmation that while Modi had many energetic supporters, his climb to the top was not going to be uncontested. If Modi can’t prevail inside his own party, it was argued by those whose fascination for the Gujarat Chief Minister is less than lukewarm, how can he not end up being a fringe phenomenon in the 2014 general election?

Ideally, such scepticism would have carried little weight had the descriptions of Modi’s public meetings in Hyderabad last month and Jaipur earlier this month been fully digested. But, like the sectarian clashes involving Bodos and Muslims in Assam last year which got relatively less play in the national media compared to the Muzaffarnagar riots which happened barely two hours motoring distance from the National Capital, the experiences of Hyderabad and Jaipur were seriously discounted.

Last Sunday Modi spoke at an ex-servicemen’s rally in Rewari in Haryana which, again, is within close proximity of Delhi. Actually, it was more than just a gathering of ex-servicemen where a former army chief was also on the dais: it became a mass rally where villagers from the neighbourhood also turned up in their tractor trailers. And the attendance, said to be anywhere in the region of two lakh people and above, exceeded the most optimistic expectations of everyone. This was more so because the BJP does not count that region of Haryana as a stronghold: it won one of the 10 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha election and failed to open its account in 2009. More important, unlike political rallies in Haryana which are dominated by the wizened village Taus, the composition of the crowd was mainly youth who didn’t come to hear him but to cheer him on. Judging from the ‘Modi, Modi” chants they kept up, they were there not be convinced but display their conviction.

More than anything else the Rewari meeting has transformed the ‘national’ news buzz. Delhi’s political establishment which believes it has its finger firmly on the pulse of the nation has abruptly changed its attitude towards this pesky interloper from Gujarat who imagined he was capable of dislodging the modern-day Delhi Sultanate. Eminent notables who, until the other day, were making weighty pronouncements such as ‘India is not Gujarat’ changed their tone dramatically. They commented favourably on the attendance, Modi’s eloquence and the fact that he made a ‘responsible’ speech on defence that didn’t involve demanding that the local Jats and Ahirs prepare themselves for a proverbial final war with Pakistan. Quite miraculously, the stereotypes built around Modi were dismantled and drastically remoulded.  

In the prologue to The American Future, historian Simon Schama wrote: “I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7.15 pm, Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodre Roosevelt High.” With these dramatic opening lines, Schama described the grassroots spontaneity that led to (the then) Senator Barack Obama scoring an upset in the Iowa primary.

I can’t be so lyrical but elections, I once read, is best charted “in flight”. By that process, ‘national’ India experienced its Rewari moment last Sunday afternoon when it felt the pulse of excitement over a candidate who is well and truly an outsider to Lutyens’ Delhi.

Of course there are still outstanding questions over Modi’s ability to attract some coalition partners in states where the BJP can at best be a spoiler and not a winner. But when the intellectual classes deftly move away from questioning Modi popularity to articulating their wariness of his alleged challenge to the “idea of India”, you can smell the change in the political air of Delhi. Maybe Indian democracy is liberating itself from the condescension of those who imagined they were born to rule. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age

Monday, September 16, 2013

UPA HOPED BJP ITSELF WILL NIP MODI

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the realms of belief or even superstition, Friday the 13th is regarded as either hugely unlucky by some or just another day by others. That the BJP leadership chose this day to push through the formal anointment of Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate suggests that their court astrologers didn’t attach negative consequences to a major decision taken on that day.

The same can hardly be said for those who were determined to prevent Modi’s elevation to a position that has hitherto been occupied by only Atal Behari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. They seemed hell-bent on preventing any categorical announcement till after the Assembly election. The calculation was two-fold. First, it would be argued that there were other chief ministers who equally deserved the post of shadow prime minister. The tussle between the Chief Ministers in turn would give the requisite space for Advani to emerge as a compromise choice by virtue of his standing as the “tallest leader” of the party. Secondly, and I am not making this suggestion casually, there was a plot to use the intervening months, to implicate Modi in a judicial tangle, with some discreet help from those whose business it is to blend politics with skulduggery.

By persisting with the Parliamentary Board meeting last Friday evening, the BJP, in effect, pre-empted the possibility of an unending bout of machinations that would have left the wider world believing that the main opposition party was in the throes of a civil war and unfit for a role in government. The likelihood of some dissenting voices to Modi’s anointment always existed from those who feared their own marginalisation from the centre-stage of politics. That the BJP leadership heard them out and then proceeded to do what had to be done hasn’t compromised the larger project to win power in 2014. If anything, it has certainly reinforced the party’s democratic credentials. That the patriarch chose to wallow in petulant isolation didn’t enhance his image as a ‘selfless politician’ (as his former aide claimed on TV); it made him an object of pity, if not outright ridicule—a man who was out of tune with the contemporary world. To put it bluntly, Advani demanded a veto and threw a tantrum when this was politely rejected.

To those who familiar with the inner life of the BJP and its wider ‘parivar’, Advani’s dogged resistance to an onrush of sentiment was doomed to failure. However, there are reasons to believe that many people, not least the Congress, felt otherwise. At a time when the regime has been starved of good news, the curious projection of RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan as India’s newest sex symbol and the prospect of a civil war in the BJP were developments the clever Congress looked forward to.

Indeed, the Congress strategy for the past two months, since Modi was appointed head of the BJP campaign committee, was to underplay its significance by painting the Gujarat CM as a small-time local leader. It was no accident that over the past few weeks the Congress has fielded a disproportionate number of its Gujarat state leaders on TV shows where the discussions centred on Modi. The plan was always clear: paint Modi as a small-town upstart, at best a regional chieftan, and puncture his standing in that way. The Congress strategy was designed to pin Modi down on the so-called human development parameters of Gujarat. The ruling party strategists reposed enormous faith in the ability of Advani to check the Modi advance.

In public pronouncements, the Congress has feigned complete disinterest in the internal affairs of the BJP. Its more supercilious ministers (most of them, unfortunately, alumni of my old college, St Stephen’s) have barely been able to conceal their social contempt of a leader who didn’t share a privileged upbringing. However, behind this apparent unconcern has lurked a great fear which in turn bred tactical confusion. The Congress believes that Modi is generating a euphoric response and they believed that the most appropriate way to stop the challenger was to either rule him out of the race or create sufficient controversy within the BJP to muddy the waters. In short, the Congress banked on extraneous issues such as the well-crafted Vanzara letter and the Advani revolt to be its containment strategy.

Now that this strategy has failed and Modi is indeed trying to convert Election 2014 into a quasi-presidential race, the Congress has to rethink its strategy. The Trojan Horse approach has to yield to a more frontal confrontation. For the Congress, the coming days pose an intellectual challenge. Should it try to convert the whole battle into an anti-Modi jihad? Wouldn’t that, however, involve playing by the rules set by the other side? Should it pretend Modi doesn’t exist and merely highlight Sonia Gandhi’s Lady Bountiful acts? That is a possibility but somehow a Bharat Nirman-centric approach may end up being a crashing bore. Should it emphasise its lofty “idea of India” and leave the demolition of Modi to intellectuals such as a TV anchor who suggested to her Facebook friends that with Modi as PM, Indians would be encouraged to drink their own urine for dessert?

Facetiousness apart, the Congress is still coming to terms with a viable strategy to counter Modi. Rahul Gandhi’s dilettantism isn’t helping matters. Actually, the heir-apparent could even pose a problem for the BJP: how do you defeat an opponent who refuses to join the fight?

Sunday Pioneer, September 15, 2013 

The surge from below

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the history of the Sixties’ counter-culture, the anti-Vietnam War protests of 1968 occupy a very special place. The ageing radicals I encounter at various reunions in the pubs of London often recall the 100,000-strong demonstration chanting ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square one overcast October 44 years ago. The more impish among them also recall how some contrarians with an exaggerated sense of self-worth even made the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous: the earnest activists of a Trotskyist sect distributed leaflets explaining “Why we are not marching!”

It would be cruel to equate L.K. Advani’s missive explaining his non-attendance at the BJP Parliamentary Board meeting last Friday with those who missed the bus in 1968. But it may not be entirely inaccurate to suggest that in 2013 India, Advani is probably as representative of the ‘parivar’ mood as the Socialist Labour League was of British radicalism in 1968. By sitting morosely in Prithviraj Road while BJP workers celebrated, Advani wilfully reduced himself to a petulant footnote. However, he has also ensured that even if coalition vagaries deprive Narendra Modi of a Race Course Road tenancy next year, the BJP will not turn fall back on its ponderous nostalgia machine.  

Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj were cleverer: they advertised their dissent but didn’t sour the party spirit. They, along with Rajnath Singh, can still aspire to be the second choice of the first party after the 2014 polls.

It is pertinent to highlight the sub-agendas that were temporarily put on hold amid the intense the emotional upheaval that greeted the declaration of Modi as the NDA’s PM-in-waiting. The euphoria was warranted. The transition of Modi from a strong regional leader to the PM-in-waiting didn’t happen as a consequence of his success in playing the committee game. On the contrary, Modi’s dogged sense of right and wrong and his unwillingness to make short-term compromises cut him off from the rest of the political pack. At the time of his second victory in 2007, Modi was very much a political loner—hounded by the all-powerful secular establishment, detached from the BJP national leadership and alienated from the apparatchiks of the RSS.

So, what happened in the intervening six years to allow the entire Parliamentary Board (from which he had been unceremonious dumped by the same Rajnath Singh in 2006) to pose for photographs with him last Friday?

The suggestion that it was the change of guard in RSS from the outspoken and indiscreet K.S. Sudarshan to the more quietly determined Mohan Bhagwat that did the trick, is over-simplistic. No doubt the RSS threw its entire moral weight behind the decision to declare Modi primus inter pares. But this was a considered collegiate decision, not the personal choice of the sarsanghchalak. And this decision in turn was forced on the RSS by a groundswell, the likes of which the country has not experienced in recent times. It may sound hyperbolic but the reality is that Modi’s elevation to the national stage was almost entirely a result of overwhelming and irresistible pressure from below.

The seemingly nail-biting sequence of events that led to the formal recognition of Modi as the BJP’s face for 2014 was actually only a formality. For the thousands of ordinary BJP workers and lakhs of the party’s well-wishers, Modi was the only national leader who counted ever since his third-term victory in Gujarat last December. The writing was always on the wall for everyone to see.

It wasn’t merely Advani who failed to decipher the script. India’s intellectual establishment, whose dislike of Modi had turned visceral, interpreted the Gujarat Chief Minister’s growing cult status among a section of the population as evidence of what Marxists call ‘false consciousness’—the inability to realise their own self and class interests. This resulted in the simple assertion ‘Modi is popular’ being turned into a more philosophical question ‘Why should Modi be popular?’ This in turn prompted a contrived conclusion: ‘Modi is unelectable’.

This expedient sleight of hand is a common mistake of politicians and public intellectuals: the equation of personal preference with the larger mood. Ronald Reagan was, for example, denied the Republican nomination in 1976 because the party establishment also deemed him unelectable and a deeply polarising figure. Most of the old guard of the Conservative Party had similar misgivings of Margaret Thatcher.

In the case of Modi, the BJP leadership has certainly gambled on his vote maximising potential. The newly-appointed PM candidate may not wipe the slate clean but compared to him, the rest of the BJP leaderboard lacks the inspirational thrust that alone can counter dodgy electoral arithmetic with positive chemistry. In 1995, Advani rightly calculated that only Atal Behari Vajpayee had the potential to add to the BJP’s committed and exuberant Hindu vote with incremental additions from the fence-sitters. Today, Modi’s great strength lies in his phenomenal appeal to a section that has little time for party politics but recognises the importance of a clear-sighted, charismatic leader with unquestionable personal integrity. If the BJP is experiencing a surge in the Ganga belt, it is almost exclusively due to Modi’s rock star appeal, particularly among the restless youth bubbling with raw energy. This is the incremental vote that Modi promises to bring into the NDA kitty. Countering this surge with invocations to a Nehruvian “idea of India” and dynastic paternalism is touching.

The issue is not whether Modi’s charisma can lead to a radical realignment that will see the BJP scoring unexpected victories in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, Modi alone among the BJP leaders has the appeal to maximise BJP’s yield in states where the party has a meaningful presence. And his pan-India appeal is such as to force other non-Congress parties to seriously explore the advantages of a pre-election understanding with the NDA.

At this stage, before the election campaign has even begun, an outright victory for the NDA looks a tall order. Indeed, the fear of a horribly fractured verdict is widespread. However, an imaginatively run, quasi-presidential campaign could alter equations dramatically. For the BJP, the Modi ‘gamble’ is not premised on the power of will alone.

Indian Express, September 13, 2013 

Monday, September 9, 2013

AMORPHOUS AAP EASY TO MANIPULATE

By Swapan Dasgupta

The ABP News-Nielsen survey—one of the handful of opinion polls that actually undertakes fieldwork, as opposed to the ones which are based on suspect methodology—has suggested that, as things stand, the BJP will emerge as the single largest party in the forthcoming elections to the Delhi Assembly. However, its survey has also indicated that it will not secure an outright majority thanks to the Aam Aadmi Party of Arvind Kejriwal which will hold the balance of power in the Assembly by securing eight of the 70 seats.

For a party that was formed less than a year ago, the AAP’s projected performance is very impressive, particularly since it is suggested that it will secure the support of people who in normal circumstances would have voted for either the BJP or Congress. And although cynics may say that a projected win in 8 seats is way below the levels of euphoria witnessed during the anti-corruption festivals of Anna Hazare two years ago, there is little doubt that both the national parties fear that the AAP’s role as a spoiler is certain to be considerable. The question on the lips of Delhi’s local politicians is: who will the AAP damage more?

There are still some three months left for the elections and it will take all the ingenuity of the AAP to either maintain or increase its levels of support in the face of a twin offensive. Those who are inclined to support the AAP as an expression of disgust with conventional politics may, on voting day, prefer to vote for a party that can secure a majority rather than register a protest vote. Kejriwal may well succeed in pinning Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit to her constituency but its other candidates could well suffer the disappointments experienced by well-meaning candidates of the Loksatta Party in Bangalore in the Assembly elections earlier this year. Past experience suggests that fringe players are mostly unable to translate the tacit endorsements by the English-language media into winning performances.

As things stand, the AAP has projected itself as a protest movement that is intent on evolving what its more articulate faces have grandly described as “alternative politics”. In actual practice this has involved publicising scams and expressing popular anger against civic shortcomings, notably the exorbitant hikes in electricity user charges. These activities, often accompanied by some drama, has earned the AAP a justified reputation as a crusader against the cosy consensus that has defined politicians of both the ruling Congress and the BJP.

The AAP has by and large steered clear of national issues. However, where its spokespersons have intervened on loftier issues than the potholes of Delhi, they have come out as variants of the so-called “people’s movements” that are in the forefront of agitations against, say, the nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, the POSCO steel project in Orissa and the bid to raise the height of the Narmada dam. AAP spokespersons have described the Land Acquisition Bill as a capitulation to corporate interests and Yogendra Yadav, one of its leading intellectuals, went so far as to describe the performance of Narendra Modi in Gujarat as a monumental ‘con job’. In pure ideological terms, some stalwarts of the AAP have shown themselves to be in sympathy with the so-called “idea of India” as articulated by the Congress. Yadav may well protest against the attempt to exclude him from the UGC on account of his AAP membership. But if political preference is what defines an individual’s membership of government-controlled ‘autonomous’ bodies, the fact that Yadav was included by the UPA Government in the first place suggests that there was a broad convergence of political views to begin with.

Whether the radical positions taken by individual AAP stalwarts indicate a party ‘line’ or personal views is a matter of conjecture. We certainly know that the group which broke away from Anna’s movement had differences with the old Gandhian on issues such as the participation of Baba Ramdev and the governance record of Modi. It is also know that many of those who were founder-members of the AAP ranged from orphaned Lohia-ites, disoriented Maoists and erstwhile practitioners of identity politics. Whether people from such diverse backgrounds can suddenly sink their different orientations and forge a coherent political party is not known. At this stage it is impossible to escape the conclusion that there is a clutch of motivated activists who have banded together to try and shape a protest movement in their own image.

This is not an unfamiliar tactic. The Labour Party in Britain was, for example, plagued from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s by the meance of ‘entryism’. In essence, this consisted of extreme Left groups, differentiated from each other by abstruse theoretical disputes, joining the Labour Party and trying to take it over from within. It was their pressure that facilitated a sharp turn to the Left and made Labour unelectable for nearly two decades.

My own sense is that we are witnessing something similar in the AAP: an attempted hijack of the rump of a genuine mass movement by various shades of radical politics. The AAP has lots of raw energy but its amorphousness has made it an easy target of manipulation. Don’t be surprised if in the coming weeks, as the requirements of finance acquire urgency, the AAP becomes an undercover wing of the dirty tricks department of the party that wants to cling on to power at any cost in the Delhi Government. 

Sunday Pioneer, September 8, 2013

We’re better off minding our own business, really

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a brief period in the mid-1990s when Indian newspapers suddenly began carrying front page reports of a conflict in the Balkans that few readers understood and fewer were interested in. The reason was quirky. Those were the days when cable TV enabled us to view CNN and BBC but domestic regulations prevented the entry of Indian TV channels—apart from DD. Consequently, impressionable chief subs imagined that the hierarchy of news that resonated among the editorial classes in Atlanta and White City, London, had to find reflection in India.

Mercifully, that era was short-lived and the G-20 summit with its preoccupation with the impasse over Syria attracts the inevitable yawn from a readership that is too preoccupied with domestic concerns. Mercifully too India is represented by a PM who is naturally taciturn. Imagine the plight of the global leaders if, in addition to the cold stares that Obama and Putin have exchanged, it was subjected to a moral sermon on global iniquities by a Jawaharlal Nehru who had an opinion on everything and never made a secret of them.

One of the more positive contributions to post-Cold War foreign policy by P.V. Narasimha Rao—a canny, old fox—was that India stopped being preachy and confined its focus to matters that directly affected it. Of course, an escalation of the civil war in Syria following possible US air attacks to punish President Bashar al-Assad for his alleged use of chemical weapons against the rebel army will have a direct bearing on India’s limping economy by driving up oil prices and unleashing another wave of jihad. Yes, India has a direct interest in keeping the conflict localised. But the more pertinent question is: are we in any position to influence the course of events? Do we have the capacity to wag a finger at either the US, France and Russia or, for that matter, the theocrats in Iran who are itching to take advantage of an enlarged conflict?

Earlier this week, during the Australian election campaign, Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott (who may well be PM next week) advised his country to exercise exemplary caution on the Syrian crisis. Australia shouldn’t, he said, “be getting ideas beyond our station.” This is probably the most pragmatic and wise thing any politician has said in recent times and it is one that, quite fortuitously, India must use as its guiding principle in foreign policy.

This is not to thereby imply that Damascus and Delhi are bound together by a ‘special relationship’ centred on dynastic rule. That there is huge internal dissatisfaction against the Assad regime is undeniable. The exasperation with one-party autocratic rule that began in Tunisia two years ago has proved extremely contagious. But the outpouring of resentment has also taken a direction that doesn’t correspond to enlightened values. Democracy and human rights are not absolute principles as some Western leaders seem to imagine; they are grounded in a political and cultural context that often defy those very ideals.  

The post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq had a greater measure of support throughout the world. But this tacit endorsement of intrusive and, very often, drone diplomacy, have today bred greater scepticism. Perhaps this has got a great deal to with what historian Niall Ferguson detected as America’s lack of an Empire mindset. Whatever the reasons, India’s western neighbourhood is in a state of turmoil. More important, the ‘baddies’ Washington sought to eradicate—partly as an extension of its own homeland security—have regrouped and are likely to create problems for India in the not-too-distant future. The only other country that is likely to face even more serious consequences of the West’s inability to cope with ‘foreign’ problems is Israel. But political correctness has deemed that it is ‘not done’ to be so forthright about the natural convergence of interests between India and Israel.

The sight of India as an inconsequential bystander in the G20 summit may offend national pride. But that is an incidental price to pay for our larger failure to live up to our allegedly awesome economic “fundamentals” and our wooliness over securing our immediate neighbourhood. The time to identify our national priorities couldn’t be more pressing. 

Sunday Times of India, September 8, 2013