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Monday, October 28, 2013

Rahul, emotion buys sympathy not votes

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are many Indians who are partial to conspiracy theories. For them, every major happening —from the Partition of India in 1947, a subversion crafted by Lord Mountbatten, to the results of the 2009 g can be attributed to sinister manipulations general election, a consequence of rigged Electronic Voting Machines.

A variation of the great belief in unending conspiracies is the ‘Who advised?’ question. This is premised on the touching belief that men and women in important positions can do wrong on their own. If they miscalculate, it is due to the proverbial ‘wrong advice’. Consequently, after every act of folly there is the inevitable search for the guilty adviser.

The temptation to point an accusing finger at someone else is laughable. Every leader and even ordinary individuals are beneficiaries of advice, some completely gratuitous and others seemingly professional. The head of a business asks for inputs from his company executives, the Finance Minister employs a Chief Economic Adviser and the Prime Minister has his entire Cabinet, apart from functionaries such as the National Security Advisers and the Economic Advisory Council comprising people who have domain knowledge.

The real test of leadership lies in knowing which advice to accept, which to modify and which to reject outright. That decision belongs to the person holding a leadership position and no one else. The consequences of good choice or a misjudgement are borne by the leader and not the person who proffered the advice. To suggest otherwise is to imply that a leader is not really a leader but a puppet that can be easily manipulated and remote controlled.

To be fair to him, I don’t think it can be seriously suggested that Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi is not his own man. From his self-confessed “game changer” speech during the Lokpal debate in the Lok Sabha to his imperious dismissal of his own government’s Cabinet decision as “nonsense”, Rahul has shown that he cares little for advisers—unless, of course, his advisers too have a bizarre sense of appropriateness. No, Rahul, it would seem has a strong sense of what is right and what is wrong and they seem to stem from a blend of impulse, convictions and his own life experiences.

It is indeed possible that his nameless advisers may have suggested that he should personalise his speeches to counter Narendra Modi’s anecdotal references to his own humble beginnings at a tea stall in Gujarat. But how Rahul chose to interpret this suggestion was his own doing.

The most important feature of Rahul’s sleeves-rolled-up, combative interventions at Congress rallies in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh was his fierce sense of family entitlement. For the Congress’ undeclared prime ministerial candidate, the history of India since 1947 is inextricably linked to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Thus, the discourse on communalism and terrorism is centred on the assertion that his own family has been the victim of murderous forces and that—despite the SPG cover—he too may be a casualty of such forces of hatred the Opposition and particularly the BJP are so anxious to promote.

That a person who experienced his grandmother’s tragic assassination at the hands of previously friendly bodyguards who played badminton with him, and who had to cremate his father’s bomb-torn body, deserves a large measure of personal sympathy is undeniable. People may also share his disappointment that his mother who contributed immeasurably to the enactment of the Food Security legislation was unable to press the Aye button in the Lok Sabha on account of illness.

If an election was to be decided through an Index of Family Suffering, there is little doubt that Rahul would be a strong contender. However, the governance of India isn’t or shouldn’t resemble the story line of a 1960s Bollywood movie where the good Nirupa Roy sheds fulsome tears, Pran is the bad Thakur casting leery looks at village belles, until he is thrashed by the orphaned son of a brave man who was killed by a conglomerate of villains.

Since the history of India can be capsuled into the history of the Gandhi family, it would be instructive for Rahul to consider the fact that the murders of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were the handiwork of forces that were nurtured by the two prime ministers themselves. The rise of Bhindranwale and the Khalistani movement were encouraged by Indira Gandhi to outflank the Akalis; and the training and arming of the LTTE was done at the behest of both Indira and Rajiv as part of a neighbourhood Great Game. They were both victims of a blowback.

India has witnessed the political use of hate. But the first family has not lagged behind in manipulating primordial sentiments for electoral advantage, including creating a scare on the strength of unofficial intelligence briefings. The history of India is far more complex and convoluted than the annals of one family as recounted over a family lunch.  

There is nothing improper for a political leader to attack opponents. That is part of democracy. Yet there are limits to popular gullibility. Rahul seems to believe that his family’s sacrifice entitles the family to a divine right to rule uninterruptedly and without regard to performance. India is not a family jagir. Nor is that jagir served by occasional stomach upsets and mosquito bites received from day trips to the boon docks.

Rahul Gandhi must learn to realise that the Indian voter should be accorded a measure of respect. They can’t be patronised. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 28, 2013

Friday, October 25, 2013

DANGERS OF BURIED STORIES - Forgetting history may harm India’s insight into the present

By Swapan Dasgupta

The extent to which India as a nation lacks a sense of history was driven home to me recently by an account of the Bangladesh Government’s commemoration of the liberation war of 1971.

Anxious to honour those Indians who had contributed the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation four decades ago, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina organised a series of events in Dhaka over the past two years. Since most of those who contributed, either publicly or under a cover of anonymity, to the liberation struggle had died, Bangladesh graciously invited their family members to accept the awards on their behalf. Predictably, since most of the non-Bangladeshis who played a role in ensuring the defeat of the brutal Pakistani regime between March and December of 1971 were Indians, the authorities in Dhaka were compelled to seek the assistance of the Government of India to locate the individuals or their families.

According to the officials in Bangladesh handling the commemoration, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm in Delhi over Sheikh Hasina’s gracious gesture. In particular, Bangladeshi officials were stumped over the complete blank that greeted their inquiries of two individuals. One was an Indian Foreign Service officer managing the Pakistan desk in South Block, the only non-military Indian official present at the surrender of the Pakistan army in Dacca; and the other was a more shadowy figure, the right-hand man of R&AW chief R.N. Kao, operating from Calcutta. Inquiries about the first gentleman produced no results from the Ministry of External Affairs and the intelligence community in Delhi were unaware of the existence of one of the early stalwarts of R&AW.

At one level, the entire episode reeked of official indifference to anything that was not in the normal line of duty. Far more important, it seems to me, was the confirmation of a huge lacuna in ‘official’ India: the complete absence of institutional memory. The collapse of East Pakistan and the formation of Bangladesh was one of the most important chapters of India’s post-Independence history. It continues to define Pakistan’s attitude towards India and, as such, has a direct contemporary bearing. Yet, it is astonishing that absolutely no organised attempt is made to disseminate the history of that crisis to a new generation of diplomats who will be managing India’s relations with its neighbours in the future. This wilful disregard of history can be contrasted to the exacting importance the Pakistan Foreign Service and, for that matter, the Pakistani military establishment attaches to learning the lessons of its greatest national humiliation.

The publication of Gary J. Bass’s eminently readable The Blood Telegram: India’s Secret War in East Pakistan is as good an occasion as any to revisit the events of 1971. Based almost entirely on official US Government documents, the White House tapes pertaining to the presidency of Richard Nixon and the papers of Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary P.N. Haksar and the then Foreign Secretary T.N. Kaul, the book provides a gripping insight into the calculations of policy makers in Washington D.C, New Delhi and Islamabad. Although much of the narrative now belongs to the realms of history, there are important strands that have a direct bearing on the contemporary relations between India and Pakistan.

Bass’s most crucial revelation is one that was well known in official circles in India but was quite consciously hidden from public view and, consequently, is insufficiently factored in contemporary Indian assessments of Pakistan. The Pakistan army’s crackdown in erstwhile East Pakistan began as an offensive against Bangladeshi nationalism and the Awami League. This involved murderous action against students, political activists and the paramilitary forces staffed by Bengali speakers. However, once the Pakistan army entrenched itself in the towns it initiated a parallel campaign of ethnic cleansing of the minority Hindu population. So much so that by the time the Indian army began its military offensive against Pakistan in December 1971, nearly 80 per cent of the 8.5 million refugees who were camped in India were Hindus.

This attempt to ‘purify’ Pakistan of non-Muslims was well known to both India and the West, particularly the US. On July 19, 1971, Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s amoral Secretary of State, had remarked that President Yahya Khan of Pakistan had loved the cloak and dagger arrangements surrounding his ‘secret’ visit to China, adding: “Yahya hasn’t had such fun since the last Hindu massacre.”

The remark may have been characteristically tasteless—and the White House tapes resonate with Nixon and Kissinger outdoing each other in showering profanities on Indians and Bengalis—but it indicates that the viciously sectarian character of the Pakistan military regime was well known. It is a different matter that India deliberately underplayed the denominational details of the refugee problem to avoid any diversion from the fact that the crisis had stemmed from a Bengali uprising against Pakistani domination. However, in allowing the real story to remain buried for more than 40 years, India lost sight of a larger reality. It also glossed over the fact that Pakistan was not normal. A state that couldn’t countenance any deviation from its Islamic identity and, in fact, was fanatical enough to lose more than half the country on this count, cannot be judged by the accepted standards of international statecraft.

What emerges from the Nixon-Kissinger private exchanges is that Pakistan’s foremost ally was clear in its mind that Yahya had embarked on a path of self-destruction. Pakistan, they knew, couldn’t win a war against India in the East. At various point they even tried telling this to the “big, honourable, stupid man” that was the Pakistani President. However, as Kissinger was to confess later, Yahya “was oblivious to his perils and unprepared to face necessities. He and his colleagues did not feel India was planning war; if so, they were convinced that they would win. When I asked tactfully as I could about the Indian advantage in numbers and equipment, Yahya and his colleagues answered with bravado about the historic superiority of Moslem fighters.”

Ayub Khan too had believes that one Pakistani soldier was equal in worth to 20 Hindu fighters. This was the basis of his war to occupy Kashmir and even reach Delhi in 1965. In both 1965 and 1971, Pakistan failed to live up its exalted self-esteem. Yet the belief in its superior national character has never waned. There is a big section of the Pakistan establishment that believes that the country was “betrayed” in all its wars against India. Consequently, the belief that unflinching Islamic nationalism is the only way to realise Pakistan’s manifest destiny (in Kashmir or elsewhere) is deep-rooted and widespread.

For India this implies permanent danger on the frontiers. The threat is doubled by Pakistan’s nuclear doctrine that is premised on the understanding that the adversary in India is somehow a sub-human whose elimination is also a religious duty.

Beginning with Indira Gandhi and P.N. Haksar who felt that Pakistan must be allowed to recover from Dacca debacle with an iota of self-respect, to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh whose perception of the Pakistani national character is coloured by pre-Partition nostalgia, India has tried its best to couch neighbourly relations with civility and the lure of good economics. After each disappointment, India has tried to begin afresh, believing that pragmatism will mark every new generation in Pakistan. Each time history has hit back. 

In dealing with Pakistan, India cannot eschew institutional memory. We may have changed, become more cosmopolitan, more global and more post-national. Across the Radcliffe Line, however, the mindset of 1971 is alive and dreaming of revenge. 

The Telegraph, October 25, 2013

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rot stems from ill-conceived coal nationalization plan

By Swapan Dasgupta

Subhash Chakravarti, a legendary Chief of Bureau of Times of India, recently recounted an encounter between Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and the West Bengal Congress supremo Atulya Ghosh in the early-1960s.  

“I have heard”, Nehru told Ghosh accusingly, “that you are a bit too friendly with Calcutta’s Marwari businessmen”. Never inclined to kowtow to someone he regarded as a poseur, Ghosh’s reply was characteristically blunt: “What you have heard is right. Our party needs money, not merely for Bengal but for UP and Bihar too. Who do you think funds us? Without that money you wouldn’t be wearing that rose on your lapel.”

Nehru was taken aback by this insolence and complained to his old friend Dr B.C. Roy who was Chief Minister of West Bengal. Dr Roy laughed it off but delighted in repeating the story to others. These probably included S.K. Patil, the Bombay Congress boss with a reputation for being pro-business and pro-US.  Patil used to rue that he was the target of unending radical derision except before elections and when it was time to lobby Washington for food aid.  

The tendency to look upon India’s corporate sector as the proverbial ‘kept’ woman who could only be visited stealthily and in the dead of night (I thank the late Pramod Mahajan for this imagery) has been an undesirable Nehruvian legacy. If Nehru shared the upper-class English socialist disdain for ‘trade’ and new money, Indira Gandhi was positively vengeful towards Indian business following her battle with the Syndicate, and Rajiv Gandhi was plain confused over how much elbow room should be given to the private sector. However, there was one common dynastic consensus: business must pick up the tab for political expenses. A highly regulated capitalism, it was decreed, must underwrite India’s experiments with socialism.

It was an expedient arrangement that allowed patrician socialists to serve the poor without being preoccupied with where the money was coming from. One Nehru sibling who enjoyed global fame was, for example, particularly forgetful about settling shopping and hotel bills.

When the private sector proved unable to deliver the full booty—and this began to happen as the license-permit raj began to be excessively suffocating for business—the necessary surplus was creamed off from state funds. A breed of politically loyal but parasitic contractor class was created by Indira Gandhi to offset the influence of old money. Additionally, exceptional discretionary favours were doled out to business houses which were considered ‘reliable’. Business, as Dhirbuhai Ambani famously said, became a matter of “managing the environment.”

What we are today witnessing are big cracks in a system whose principal objective was income generation for the ruling dispensation rather than the economic growth of the country. The CBI clearly erred if its reason for wishing to prosecute a former Coal Secretary and industrialist Kumaramangalam Birla was the fact that Hindalco ate into a coal allotment initially been made to a public sector unit. To treat the private sector as a poor cousin or, indeed, a predator, makes no sense. However, the real reason for widespread suspicion of influence-peddling and corruption is that the coal block allotments were governed by discretion, the Prime Minister’s Office having earlier rejected the more transparent process of auctions. It was this flawed selection system which resulted in a large chunk of India’s coal reserves being parcelled out to those who were either linked to the ruling party or were willing to pay a political cess for every ton of coal extracted.

However, it is reassuring that the CBI’s peremptoriness has generated a sense of outrage. In part the issue is all about a senior bureaucrat being punished for following a political order and an industrialist pulling strings to further his very legitimate business interests—there was no other option. But the real rot stemmed from an ill-conceived coal nationalisation that has proved an unmitigated disaster and which has cost India dearly.


It is curious that the Hindalco chairman was named after Mohan Kumaramangalam, the charismatic Communist-turned-Congressman who presided over coal nationalisation and other socialist excesses. Today, to take liberties with Karl Marx, the fawning of an earlier generation must be weighing “like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

Sunday Times of India, October 20, 2013 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Road to regression

By Swapan Dasgupta
It is inconceivable to imagine a place 100 km from a metropolis but cut off from what is happening in the rest of the country and, indeed, the whole world. Curiously, that was my experience when I spent three days of the Durga Puja celebrations in my mother’s ancestral village.
Actually Guptipara is more of a market town that boasts a railway station, two ATMs, an engineering college and an ASI-protected temple.
In ordinary times the village is served by both newspapers and local cable TV. But last week wasn’t ordinary. First, the outer perimeter of the Cyclone Phailin resulted in incessant rain and strong winds. This ensured that the TV in my cousin’s bedroom was unable to receive signals — not that anyone watches news channels during a grand family reunion.
But what about newspapers, at least the Bengali ones which are avidly read, digested and discussed in rural Bengal? Strange as it may seem, there were no newspapers in West Bengal for four days.
The journalists were willing to work and the workers were ready to keep the printing presses rolling. Unfortunately, the highly unionised newspaper hawkers decided that it was inappropriate to distribute newspapers on the days Ma Durga was coming home.
Most states in India have local holidays when no newspapers are published. But whatever the local variations, the four-day holiday was unique. Yes, that used to be the practice with Bengali newspapers once upon a time.
But the practice had been abandoned during the latter part of Left Front rule when the communists belatedly recognised that for West Bengal to revive, capitalist values — managed by a Marxist party — must stage a comeback. Now, with the reds in full retreat, regression appears to have set in.
Nor is the four-day Durga Puja an aberration. Driving along the Old Delhi Road, parts of which were also the Grand Trunk Road, I was struck by two things. First, that this road had not been re-surfaced for years, so much so that it took nearly two hours to travel the first 45 km towards Kolkata.
Some­time ago a Trinamul Congress legislator suggested that the old Jessore Road should be renamed Uday Shankar Sarani because going through it involved unending body movement. The Old Delhi Road could do with a similar name change.
I read recently that Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh, the man with clever answers to questions, had promised Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee the necessary funds for the maintenance of roads in West Bengal.
The question then is: Was funding of schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana withdrawn after the Trinamul Congress withdrew support to the UPA-2 government? Alternatively, does West Bengal secure a “developed” state label in the Raghuram Rajan Index? The Centre spends a lot of money on all sorts of things, including underwriting the media with advertisements for Bharat Nirman. Yet, it doesn’t have money to maintain important link roads.
The second feature of the bone-shaking drive along the Old Delhi Road was the cruel sight of acres and acres of land, behind high boundary walls, occupied by factories that had closed down. The term “rust belt” has a particularly resonance in this part of West Bengal that happens to be not too far from Singur where rust set in even before the machines had been fully installed.
That many, if not most, of these industries shut down owing to irresponsible trade unionism by the comrades with red flags is undeniable. That most of these units will never reopen under their existing managements is also an unfortunate reality — some were actually bought over by ponzi schemes to showcase mythical investments.
It is also a fact that a number of erstwhile manufacturing units have been converted into warehouses for cars and chemical fertilisers. But by and large, there is a vast stretch in the heart of West Bengal that has been turned into ghostly relics of a once-grand industrial age.
It is such a colossal waste. The process of re-industrialisation of West Bengal came to a halt on the issue of land acquisition from small and marginal farmers. Ms Banerjee champ­ioned the cause of the marginal peasants, drove out the Tata Nano plant from Singur and created the conditions for the electoral defeat of the well-entrenched Left Front.
The Singur experience frightened industry and reinforced the perception of West Bengal as an inhospitable place. Since Singur there has been no large scale investment in manufac­turing in a state that was till the mid-1960s second only to Maharashtra. West Ben­gal has, in effect, become a trading hub and a permanent branch office.
To turn adversity into opportunity requires more than just inspired political leadership. It also necessitates a disavowal of the mindset of envy and cussedness that bred Bengali Marx­ism. Tragically, there is little evidence of any mental transformation.
Bengalis, it is said, are productive outside their homeland. That may well be a reality rather than a racial stereotype, but is it always destined to be so? In the aftermath of the UPA’s Land Acquisition Act, industry is sullen on account of not merely the costs but the complex process of bureaucracy monitored rehabilitation of the dispossessed.
There are sniggers that far from preventing farmers being short-changed by real estate sharks, the act will promote an underground Land Use Change industry.
The fears are yet to be tested. However, the many thousands of acres earmarked for industry lying non-utlised is a national waste. There is a compelling case for the state compulsorily re-acquiring land occupied by closed industries and auctioning these to investors who are anxious to secure land to establish manufacturing units.
Had the Tatas been given lands occupied by closed industries along the Old Delhi Road, the Singur kerfuffle may never even have happened. Instead, we may have seen a resurfaced road linked to the Durgapur expressway, existing space for smaller ancillaries and, perhaps, even a workforce willing to wipe away a past history of disruption.
It didn’t happen that way. But it doesn’t mean it can’t ever happen.
Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, October 18, 2013

Friday, October 11, 2013

PERMANENT CUSSEDNESS - An old-fashioned battle for loaves and fishes

By Swapan Dasgupta

Readers of Agatha Christie’s Man in a Brown Suit will no doubt be familiar with the popular mortification of any political force that was perceived to be Communist. This Red fear persisted during the 1950s and early-1960s when the disavowal of fascism was replaced by the fear of the global designs of international Communism controlled by sinister men in Moscow.

The degree to which the tables have been upturned in the world that came into existence in the aftermath of the anti-Vietnam war protests is remarkable. With the passing away of the age of deference, the intellectual consensus has shifted quite dramatically to the Left. While there may still be American segregationists and doddering British colonels in the Shires who persist with labelling everything they dislike as ‘Communist’, in the more beautiful world of the arts, academia and media, the curling of the lips and the inevitable sneer is reserved for the “Right wing”. It is not merely that the “right” is considered to be authoritarian, anti-democratic and defenders of inequality and privilege, the crucial distinction between democratic conservatism and fascism is often conveniently obliterated.

The number of governments with a self-perception of being socialist may be insignificant: the prefix ‘liberal’ is more often than not favoured by those who try to maintain an intellectual distance from market economics. Yet, throughout much of the democratic world, not least the Anglosphere, the intellectual discourse is dominated by the same types who boisterously celebrated the death of Margaret Thatcher and who seek to exclude Israel from the civilised world. The cocktail of incomprehensible post-modernism, radical feminism, alternative sexuality and state-funded welfarism has proved both heady and addictive. It has contributed immeasurably in edging out traditional values and common decencies from the centre of the frame.

The ability of the ‘liberal’ fringe to punch above its weight is worthy of some respect. President Ronald Reagan, it hardly bears retelling, was one of the most popular and iconic American Presidents of the 20th century. The man who nudged an already crumbling ‘evil empire’ to its final doom, he, along with Thatcher in Britain, was the architect of radical conservatism—a force that reshaped ‘right wing’ politics and made it eminently electable. A formidable communicator who rekindled American pride and extricated the country from its post-Vietnam depression, Reagan will be richly honoured by posterity. What is striking, however, that throughout the most creative phases of his political career, he was relentlessly targeted by a smug, Liberal establishment. For those who care to remember, the admirers of Chairman Mao, Che Guevara and Noam Chomsky quite successfully caricatured Reagan as either something straight out of a Hollywood B-movie or a polarising figure. This depiction may not have cut ice with American voters but it did blot out Reagan’s legacy from succeeding generations of liberal arts graduates throughout the world.

Indeed, the temptation to view mainstream, non-doctrinaire politicians as inherently stupid has proved irresistible. The Conservative Party in Britain was invariably tagged as the ‘stupid party’ by a generation that pretended it would not fight for King and country. Figures such as Stanley Baldwin in Britain and Sir Robert Menzies in Australia were dull symbols of reassurance to their countrymen, but to the ‘progressive’ intellectuals they were stuffed shirts, unable to see beyond their own limited experience.

Menzies, in fact, is an interesting figure whose political career coincided with that of a flashy leader—Jawaharlal Nehru. The Australian was primarily responsible for shaping an Australian identity which, while linked to the values of the ‘mother country’, was also markedly different. In what has subsequently been described as the “The Forgotten People” speech of 1942, Menzies suggested that “the real life of the nation” was to “be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who…see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race.”

Reading the speech seven decades later, may indeed prompt a great yawn and unfavourable comparisons with the dashing style of India’s first Prime Minister. Nehruvians would, in fact, be absolutely horrified by the sheer gumption of putting the romantic socialist who spoke with as much passion on Egypt and Indonesia, as he did on Five Year Plans, besides a stodgy, non-cosmopolitan figure from the old Dominions. Yet, assessed in terms of their respective legacies, Menzies does not come out in an unflattering light. The unglamorous Australian laid the foundations of his country’s subsequent prosperity whereas Nehru’s was a case of lofty ideals, poor delivery and umpteen missed opportunities. Nehru, like many of his Third World contemporaries, imagined he was swimming with the tide of history and dismantling an old world centred on domination and iniquity. Menzies, on the other hand, was clearly on the side of a declining Empire and a brash America. But, unfortunately for Nehru, the flow of history didn’t turn out the way he imagined. Somewhere along the way, people tired of experiments and the new regimentation and fell back on time-tested themes: the nation, the community and the family. By the turn of the new century, Nehru was perceived as the founder of a political dynasty blessed with a fierce sense of entitlement while the less-remembered Menzies has earned a modest place in history as the man who forged the central pillar on which modern Australia rests.

The purpose of this comparison isn’t aimed at belittling Nehru or invoking a man who is barely commemorated in Australia today. If anything, the study of two very different leaders should induce a note of caution about both following political fashions blindly and accepting the judgments of ‘progressive’ and liberal intellectuals as gospel. In the passionate political debates that have gripped India since the 1980s, India’s ‘tenured’ intellectuals in academia have been forthright in their denunciation of ‘vulgar’ market forces and have barely concealed their aesthetic misgivings of a middle class that makes up with brashness what it lacks in polish. In recent months, this repudiation of what is quaintly called neo-liberal economics has been combined with a visceral targeting of the reinvented symbols of traditional—and particularly Hindu—culture. Like their preference for subtitled black and white movies and the austerities of the shortage economy that was conceived by all of India’s most brilliant economists, India’s beleaguered ‘progressives’ are in a state of permanent cussedness.

In recent months, they appear to have a new mission in opposing the swelling ranks of the belligerent Narendra Modi army. Reduced to bare essentials and shorn of rhetorical flourishes, the opposition is based on a twin set of fears. The first is the all-important fear of exclusion from an unfamiliar dispensation. The Congress took exceptional care to accommodate ‘progressive’ and ‘secular’ intellectuals in bodies that disseminated a quasi-official state ideology. A regime change promises potential relegation to the fringes.

Secondly, the assault on the Nehruvian consensus held together by dynasty and cronyism, also threatens a significant shift in power equations from the regulators to the generators of wealth. The possible shift of the state from being the controller of people’s lives to becoming a facilitator of impulses generated by communities and society has the potential of breaking the mould of intellectualism in India. In Britain, Thatcher destroyed the clout of a trade union that had become an extra-constitutional veto on successive governments. On his part, Reagan undermined the east coast liberals by nurturing a counter-establishment that has created alternative institutions and, in effect, made the policy establishment more diverse. Both sets of changes were fiercely resisted and debunked with the same colourful phrases that are being mouthed in India.

Underneath the indignant intellectualism is actually an old fashioned battle for loaves and fishes. 

The Telegraph, October 11, 2013


Sunday, October 6, 2013

To win, captain NaMo needs a dream team

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is not merely the weather—the arrival of the brief autumn—that has changed in Lutyens’ Delhi: there has also been a discernible shift in the political environment over the past three weeks. The most important facet of this change has been the delayed recognition of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to be a force multiplier.

Following the public meetings in Rewari and Rohini (Delhi), the chattering classes discourse on Modi has shifted quite dramatically. The belief that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was a regional upstart who would fail to make a mark in national politics—the Gujarat-isn’t-India theory—has abruptly given way to a grudging recognition that Modi is a ‘phenomenon’, probably symptomatic of a new urban India that makes up with energy what it lacks in refinement. The size and sheer exuberance of the crowds at his rallies has left people wondering why they didn’t detect the trend earlier.

Additionally, the re-engagement of Telugu Desam Party chief N.Chandrababu Naidu and the supportive utterances of YSR Congress chief Jagan Mohan Reddy have blunted the still outstanding question: Modi is popular but will such a ‘polarising’ figure be able to secure allies and secure the allies to cross the 272 mark? Admittedly, the question will remain unanswered till counting day but the prophecies and back of the envelope calculations are no longer bound in negative certitudes. Earlier mainstream political punditry deemed that Modi would at best be a figure of fringe inspiration—another Barry Goldwater, for those enamoured of US parallels—and that in the age of coalitions he would lose all the battles but have the best songs. After Naidu’s apparent willingness to sup with him and Reddy’s cryptic observation that NaMo is a good administrator who must now build a grand secular platform, the sceptics have had to gulp a little.

What appears to be emerging is a two-fold pattern. At one level there is recognition and anecdotal evidence that Modi’s personal popularity is unrivalled and reaching cult status. Secondly, the belief that personal popularity would be offset by the BJP’s geographical reach of some 300 Lok Sabha seats has been supplemented by the realisation that regional parties in non-BJP areas see potential benefits in climbing on to the NaMo bandwagon. In other words, there is awareness small parties with localised influence have begun to feel that an association with Modi would give them a booster dose and facilitate the harvesting of incremental votes. Recall that in 1998 and 1999, it was the independent appeal of Atal Behari Vajpayee that contributed to the BJP—a political pariah from 1992 to 1996—shedding its isolation and emerging as the nucleus of a grand alliance that incorporated some 20 parties.

For Modi, the recognition by the Establishment (including the Prime Minister) that he is a formidable challenge to the Congress’ hold over the Centre is a significant achievement. But this advance in turn has thrown up new and interesting challenges that have to be met before the real campaign gets underway. A winning campaign necessitates that Modi complements his inspirational rallies with credible local faces of change. This is not going to be easy: the BJP has not experienced a process of self-renewal since the Ayodhya agitation catapulted the recruits gained from the JP movement into the second-rung of the leadership—and for which L.K. Advani deserves special credit.

Modi is the superstar of the 2014 campaign. But to turn a good film into a blockbuster he needs a competent supporting cast of new and energetic faces that inspire public confidence. Hitherto he has skirted the issue but Modi cannot indefinitely put off a parallel project to reshape the BJP in a modernist image. In his speeches, the Gujarat Chief Minister is promising a new approach to the problems of governance. He is tapping the restlessness of Indians who are impatient and who are not content to settle for the second-best. Having pitched his expectations high, he would falter in the event of any major disharmony between his ideas and his candidates. An inspirational captain cannot be burdened by a team that many would regard as being part of the problem and not the solution. 

Sunday Times of India, October 6, 2013

Congress' 2014 Aim Is To Prevent Stability

By Swapan Dasgupta

Putting up a brave front in the face of adversity is an understandable feature of competitive politics—and all parties have taken recourse to it at one time or another. However, a stiff upper lip, while playing a role in bolstering the spirits of the foot soldiers, cannot alter realities. And the reality that the Congress and the UPA-2 Government is confronted with today is grim, very grim.

Consider the facts. The election of the UPA for a second term in 2009 owed to three factors: a resounding win in Andhra Pradesh, an equally conclusive victory in Tamil Nadu and unexpected gains in urban India that added significantly to its overall tally. Today, the Congress is beleaguered on all three fronts.

In Andhra Pradesh, it is sandwiched between forces that are insisting on Telengana and those who feel betrayed by the imminent division of the united Telugu-speaking state. There may well be an intense rivalry between the breakaway YSR Congress of  Jaganmohan Reddy and the Telugu Desam Party of N.Chanrababu Naidu. But the point to note is that the Congress stands nowhere in this battle. Indeed, wearing the Congress badge has become a symbol of dishonour—the reason why most Congress ministers from Andhra Pradesh have thought it wise to quit the Manmohan Singh Government. Worse, this irrelevance in the Seemandhra region has not been offset by tangible gains in the Telengana region. The Cabinet may decide to fast-track the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh but even in the Telengana region the p[olitical benefits will accrue to the Telengana Rashtriya Samity. For the Congress, Andhra Pradesh seems a complete write-off. As things stand today, it is possible that the Congress may fail to win even a single seat from state that gave it such a shot in the arm in 2009.

The story may not be a grim in Tamil Nadu, especially because the Congress-DMK alliance will be resurrected in some form before the 2014 election. But a last-minute patch-up after a prolonged bout of bitterness is unlikely to recreate the chemistry of 2009. Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa may not win all the 40 or so seats but the AIADMK seems set to come to the next Lok Sabha as the third largest party.

Add to this the precarious position of the Congress throughout urban India which accounts for more than 50 parliamentary seats, and it is possible to appreciate the logic of those who say that the Congress will be lucky to secure more than 100 seats. Apart from Karnataka, it is difficult to see the Congress bettering or matching its 2009 tally in any state. The prospects of the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the 16th Lok Sabha looks, at present, to be remote.

Yet, like generals who have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, neither the Congress nor the UPA should be completely written off as yet. Every incumbent government has bags of tricks in reserve which, intelligently use and with a dose of luck, can nullify adversity. Moreover, it needs the BJP to score a few self-goals for the Congress to begin an aggressive retaliation.

It is in this context that the elections to the five state Assemblies acquire importance. If the Congress can somehow maintain the status quo, or compensate a possible loss in Rajasthan with an unexpected victory in either Madhya Pradesh or Chhattisgarh, it will go into the 2014 election with a measure of chance. A modestly good outcome will make it possible for parties such as the BSP to even consider an electoral understanding with the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. Such talks are at their very initial stages at present and both sides have adopted a wait-and-watch approach. Ideally, the BSP would like to deal with a weakened Congress that will be prepared to concede seats to it in places such as Madhya Pradesh and Punjab. On its part, a half-decent performance should create conditions for the Congress to demand a fair settlement.  

Either way, the Congress has begun the search for new allies in right earnest. It is not that the Congress seriously hopes to manage a UPA-3 Government. Its principal focus is to narrow the gap between it and the BJP to such an extent that it becomes impossible for any stable government to emerge in 2014. A short burst of instability and incoherent government, the Congress hopes, should  set the stage for a grand dynastic return in another two years. By this time the novelty of Narendra Modi would have worn off considerably.

There is little point in denouncing such cynical calculations as morally reprehensible. The more important thing is to be mindful that the Congress doesn’t appear to fighting the 2014 with an eye to victory but with the sole purpose of making life as hellish as possible for its opponents both in 2014 and beyond.

For the BJP this situation is both an opportunity and a challenge. Its opportunity stems from having to confront a dispirited government that knows that its natural life is ticking away fast. But it is also a challenge because to avail the most politically, it has no choice but to try for a bumper harvest of seats. Those who want to regulate the BJP’s seat tally in order to create internal checks on a Modi in full steam are essentially playing into the hands of the dynasty. 

Sunday Pioneer, August 6, 2013