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Friday, February 28, 2014

Indian Stone: The Lure of a Roof in Lutyens' Delhi

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were two things going for Jawaharlal Nehru in his relatively trouble-free 17 years as Prime Minister of India. The first is that most Indians, but particularly the middle classes, were in awe of him. His demeanour, patrician style, easy familiarity with the white man (and woman) and Anglophone cosmopolitanism put him in a separate league from the rest of the political class. It accorded him the licence to meddle in things that were outside the scope of politics. Secondly, Nehru lived in a pre-media age when every action of the Prime Minister and his government wasn’t subject to exacting scrutiny. This information deficit proved very handy. 

Blessed with these advantages, Nehru could afford to take India for granted. He ran the Government of India in the manner of an enlightened autocrat, doing things which his successors could never dream of. I am not referring to his grand designs that involved both conceptual innovations and colossal misjudgements. Nehru left his mark on many of the little things that went unchallenged: the choice of the national dress, the marginalisation of Vande Mataram, the decision to take the Ashokan Bull Capital out of the Indian Museum in Kolkata and install it in Rashtrapati Bhavan, and above all the direction of post-Independence aesthetics.

I am not familiar with anything Nehru said or wrote about the architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens. My own suspicion is that Nehru, a man whose heart was firmly with the upper-class progressives of England, would have been a shade uneasy with the central assumptions that governed late-imperial architecture. Lutyens, a hugely accomplished architect who never fully imbibed Hindustan, felt that the ambiance of the Raj “makes one feel very Tory and pre-Tory feudal.”

Regardless of whether this was said in earnestness or jest, Lutyens was naturally concerned with giving full expression to both majesty and grandeur in his designs for the new Capital of India. In his own words, “To express modern India in stone, to represent her amazing sense of the supernatural, with its complement to profound fatalism and enduring patience, is no easy task.”

There are various assessments of Lutyens’ expressions of “Indiain stone.” What is, however, interesting is that the architect worked with a clear political brief that his designs must incorporate specifically Indian features. New Delhi, its imperial creators were clear in their minds, would be a symbol of the British-Indian Empire, and not an arrogant assertion of Englishness. Maybe this is the reason why, despite occasional populist rants against exaggerated grandeur and opulence, Lutyens’ creation remains iconic in Independent India. Those who have witnessed the Beating Retreat ceremony at Raisina Hill each January have invariably been overawed at the sight of the mounted camels on North and South Block silhouetted against the fading light.

The historian David Cannadine once suggested that Britain and India were bound by a common attachment to ‘Ornamentalism’. He was dead right and Lutyens’ Delhi remains its high point.

Yet, in many ways Lutyen’s Delhi remains an aberration. Under Nehru and his daughter, India undertook the creation of many more administrative centres for the states—Bhubaneshwar, Chandigarh and Gandhinagar come to mind. But whereas each of the new cities can claim different measures of spaciousness, the new architecture is unabashedly modernist in style. In the India of big dams, IITs and Five-year Plans—the “temples of modern India”, as Nehru put it so evocatively—relatively little importance was attached to the incorporation of a visibly Indian ethos.

This departure from Lutyens didn’t happen because, like good Hindus, the decision-makers lacked a sense of history. The enthusiastic endorsement of the contemporary was a consequence of Nehru’s own preferences. Never someone to smuggle his ideas through the backdoor—who, after all, would contest the mighty Jawaharlal?—Nehru outlined his approach at the opening of a public building in Chandigarh: “I am very happy that the people of Punjab did not make the mistake of putting some old city as their new Capital. It would have been a great mistake and foolishness. It is not merely a question of buildings. If you had chosen an old city as the Capital, Punjab would have become a mentally stagnant, backward state. It may have some progress, with great effort, but it could not have taken a grand step forward.”

Such an assertion, if made today, would have invited fierce controversy and the Prime Minister would have been sharply criticised for letting his preference for newness ride roughshod over the Indian inheritance. But in the India of the mid-1950s, Nehru could easily get away by allowing his personal aesthetic preferences to be equated with the supposed wishes of the “people of Punjab.”

As things have turned out, the decision to let Le Corbusier’s avant garde prevail in an alien setting didn’t result in a revolution of free spiritedness. Punjab or, for that matter, Haryana may not have fully overcome Nehru’s fears of becoming “mentally stagnant” and “backward” but the architecture of Chandigarh has not contributed significantly either way. In many ways, the city remains an oddity.

This is so markedly different from the small enclave created by Lutyens within the now-sprawling metropolis of Delhi. The blend of green space, gracious living and political power has made Lutyens’ Delhi a symbol of both privilege and authority. India is a far cry from being an Imperial Republic but Lutyen’s Delhi comes closest to being the country’s only Imperial City.

The implications of this are far-reaching. The perquisites of a spacious, rent-free government-cared bungalow for babus, netas and even a few hangers-on exercise a macabre attraction for those who are granted the privilege and those who aspire to it. With rare exceptions, those who check into an independent bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi are reluctant to return their keys and check out at the end of their tenure. They invariably aspire to transform temporary occupancy into a permanent allotment and, like a membership of the Delhi Gymkhana Club, to bequeath it to their heirs. So brazen is this sense of entitlement that one family which has had an uninterrupted presence in Parliament since 1971 has even named their alloted government bungalow after its princely state.

The historian Sir Lewis Namier had suggested in his studies of early-19th century Britain that lofty causes espoused by politicians are often a cloak for very trivial and selfish concerns. The extent to which posturing in India’s national affairs is dictated by the simple desire to retain a Lutyens’ bungalow isn’t often fully appreciated in the outside world. Politicians and officials, it would seem, have a mortal dread of retirement or defeat because that necessarily involves vacating official accommodation. In today’s Delhi, a large number of public servants, it would seem, would want the mandatory re-housing of former Presidents and Prime Ministers (and their spouses, if deceased) to be drastically enlarged. One day, if the relevant papers are transferred to the archives, historians may be able to document how many shoddy compromises and rebellions have been dictated by the lure of a roof in Lutyens’ Delhi.  


Architecturally, the style evolved by Lutyens in the building of New Delhi is the subject of legitimate study. Yet, the legacy of Lutyens is more than bricks and mortar. In trying to capture India in stone, this great architect also shaped the mentality of power. More than his creation being influenced by India, the country has been shaped by the city he built. Compared to him, the legacy of Nehruvian aesthetics has been nominal. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Doniger debate symbolizes turbulence in the air

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1983, prior to a British general election which was easily won by Margaret Thatcher, I attended a conference on ‘Victorian values’ at Ruskin College, a Labour movement institution located in Oxford but detached from the university. The conference, dominated by those who believed that Thatcher posed a threat to civilisation as we know it, was unmemorable. Yet, one incident stood out.

A BBC crew chose to film one of the sessions, perhaps as an input for its larger election coverage. No one was particularly bothered until an earnest activist stood up and protested against what he imagined was political surveillance. Encouraged by this prickliness, others also joined the protest and made passionate speeches about BBC’s fierce anti-Left bias. There were a few voices of restraint but the gathering voted quite overwhelmingly to exclude the TV crew from the meeting.

Looking back on this footnote of footnotes in contemporary British history, two broad conclusions are warranted. First, despite the show of ideological bravado, the activists who saw the conference as an occasion to debunk Thatcher’s “reactionary” celebration of the Victorian ethos were also aware that they were fighting a losing political battle. In the Britain of 1983, Thatcher’s appeal to put the “Great” back into Britain had the support of not merely the middle classes but a large section of the ‘proletariat’. The anger at the BBC—seemingly representative of the Establishment—was also an admission of defeat.

Secondly, the visceral anger at the media was also a protest against intellectual marginalisation. Unlike today when the BBC flaunts an obvious Left-wing tilt, the institution tried to be more ‘balanced’ those days. A staid middle-of-the-road consensus set the editorial tone. This implied that other voices—whether of the Right or Left—were often ignored. It was this relegation to the fringes that the lefty activists were protesting against that afternoon in Oxford.

Even a casual overview of the chattering class storm over Wendy Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus points to similarities in reactions. For a start, despite the ridiculous assertion by the publishers that their decision to reach an out-of-court settlement was driven by concerns over the safety of staff members, this was a battle that was not taken to the streets—unlike the disputes over Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasreen and M.F. Husain’s paintings. The conduct of the aggrieved Dina Nath Batra was never constitutionally unbecoming: he went through a court of law and got Penguin to admit that the book, in effect, violated section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.

Penguin’s contention that India’s laws are inherently illiberal may well have a basis but it is curious that liberals have on other occasions been very forthright in their support for harsher laws against what they perceive is “hate speech”—witness the still-born Communal Violence Bill.

What seems to unite the Left outrage I witnessed 30 years ago and Batra’s litigation is the shared sense of intellectual dispossession. The free flow of ideas in a democracy is invariably tempered by value judgments over what is ‘respectable’ and what is not. Those who rubbish Doniger feel, and quite legitimately so, feel that academia disregards those analyse faith from the perspective of believers. They believe that studies of Hindu faiths have been taken over, particularly in the US, by those who inherently sceptical of the larger Indian inheritance. This conviction is bolstered by the apparent arrogance of dominant intellectuals who refuse to concede space to those who have a more sympathetic perspective of Hindu theology.

What adds to the muddle is that despite their academic dominance those who are happy with a less reverential assessment of faith find themselves politically beleaguered. Just as the British Left of the 1980s found itself unable to counter the appeal of Thatcher, those defending Doniger are inclined to attribute Penguin’s surrender to what is colourfully called “creeping fascism”—a code for the rising support for Narendra Modi. Yet, rather than comprehend the reasons for Modi’s popularity, they would rather retreat into their bunkers and uphold their own certitudes while waiting for the proverbial hard rain to fall.  


India is on the cusp of a consensus-breaking transformation and the reactions to Doniger’s woes symbolise the turbulence in the air. 

INTELLECTUAL ELITE FEARS MODI SURGE

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, I met a German writer who is studying the Indian general election. During the course of an enjoyable conversation, he expressed his deep unease at the casual way in which his liberal friends in India bandied expressions such as “fascism” and “Holocaust”. Hitler, he explained to me, was one of the most extraordinary aberrations in human history. It was extremely unlikely that such a phenomenon would recur, and certainly not in the 21st century.

Tragically, those who are urging a measure of intellectual restraint are in danger of being overwhelmed by the din created by a small but extremely well-connected minusculity. For them, the India of today is a mirror image of inter-War Europe.

Although he is too nuanced to fall for such claptrap, even my friend historian Ram Guha appears to have caught the bug somewhere. After a walking tour of North Kolkata—the old ‘black town’—a few days before Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rally in the city, he tweeted his appreciation of “Hindu/ Muslim/ Jain/ Christian influences, across the centuries, buried and alive”. The only “jarring note” he detected, “was that there were large photos of The Leader on every post, building, tree and turn, obscuring the stories of the past.”

The choice of the term “The Leader” was revealing. Although Guha doesn’t fall for the Modi equals Hitler slogan (he believes the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is more akin to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), he fuels the liberal elite argument that the rise of Modi signals a drift towards authoritarian politics.

Curiously, such an argument was used in 1921by Rabindranath Tagore to express his misgivings over the mass adulation of “Gandhi Maharaj.” The poet, an extremely sensitive individual, detected “in the atmosphere of the country…a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…What I heard on every side was that reason and culture…must be closured. It was only necessary to cling to an unquestioning obedience. Obedience to whom? To some mantra, some unreasoned creed.” Tagore, needless to say, horribly misread the mood of the country and the appeal of Gandhi. He later made amends by anointing the man from Gujarat the Mahatma.

Nor was Tagore the only one who detected the Mahatma’s contribution to the intellectual truncation of India. In Verdict on India, a now-forgotten book that was enormously influential when it was first published in 1944, the popular British writer and journalist Beverly Nichols saw in Gandhi, Congress and Hinduism the living incarnations of evil. Taunting the “warm-hearted Western liberals” who were bowled over by India’s freedom movement, he asserted that “Congress is the only 100 per cent, full blooded, uncompromising example of undiluted Fascism in the modern world.”

Compare this with a recent article by Professor Martha Nussbaum, a colleague of Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago in Indian Express. Arguing that Penguin was guilty of “cowardly capitulation” for compromising on an “eminently winnable” case, she went on to claim: “Fear of violence has won; the conglomerate caves before a vague (or perhaps not-so-vague) threat. Such things have, deplorably, happened before. This time, however, there is the prospect that the RSS will soon have the power to suppress all the books it doesn’t like.” Her message is clear and unequivocal: elect Modi and India will enter an era of book bans and persecution of dissenters.

This is a theme that is resonating in the liberal enclaves. Former Governor Gopal Gandhi drove home the point with a uncharacteristic measure of intemperate rhetorical flourish in an article on the Doniger kerfuffle: “(C)ommunal rhetoric has turned ‘positive’—forget all the others, they do not count. India is Hindu, we are Hindu, we are India. And now we have a leader of leaders who is what we are: Hindu, Hindu Indian…To the jargon of ‘Bharat Mata in danger’ is now added a fatherland vocabulary, where a leader is being fantasized in the shape of all that Nehru was not, his Congress successors have not, and never can be.”

I do not begrudge either Nussbaum or Gopal Gandhi their political preference. I cannot but sympathise with their horrible disappointment that the alternative leader with a five-day stubble whose face stares at us from billboards is increasingly becoming an object of mockery. However, it is extremely galling that through their espousal of Enlightenment values they are trying to forcibly inject into an election campaign issues that Modi has ignored. A man who is forever going on about how development unites, how tourism brings people together and how connectivity enhances national unity is being charged with imaginary offences.  

The problem, it seems to me, stems from wilful misreading. When Modi was catapulted to the national stage, his detractors gleefully expected him to raise the communal temperature, engage in Muslim-bashing and threaten Pakistan with nuclear annihilation. He has let down the critics who came with a pre-determined script aimed at scaring minorities. Modi has not deviated from his central theme: that India has not lived up to its potential and that the future lies in economic development for every Indian. He has not lived up to the liberal caricature of what he represents.

For an entrenched elite accustomed to defining what is ‘respectable’, Modi is a threat because he is not from their charmed circle. Modi’s intellectual critics don’t fear for India’s democracy because it is democracy that has heralded a viable non-dynastic alternative; they fear their own irrelevance.  



Friday, February 21, 2014

A nuts and bolts race

By Swapan Dasgupta

Opinion polls in India, quite understandably, have a very mixed record. Part of the unevenness stems from the cost factor: it is hideously expensive to conduct an opinion poll with a truly randomised and yet socially representative sample. Secondly, the conversion of votes into seats in a country that witnesses straight fights, three-cornered and four-cornered contests and the emergence of new parties is a nightmare exercise. When pollsters get their seat projections broadly right, it is due as much to skill as to luck.

Given the uncertainties of poll projections it is hardly surprising that the opinion polls on TV channels and publications are increasingly being treated as exercises in political entertainment. The possible losers believe the findings are motivated and the parties that should be smiling are uncertain as to whether the projections are real and correspond to anecdotal evidence or mere hype.

In the past few weeks, the opinion polls are beginning to suggest that the BJP-led National Democratic Front has broken the 200 seat barrier and is hovering around the 220-225 seat mark. The polls appear to be indicating that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate has paid off handsomely and that the BJP’s own tally will exceed its previous best of 181 seats in 1999. The quantum of the BJP’s surge may well be debated but there is no doubt about two trends: the rise of the BJP and the corresponding shrinkage of the Congress.

For the BJP the trends are very encouraging. But they also indicate that the party still has a lot of ground to cover before it can be certain that Modi will definitely move into the house of Race Course Road that will be vacated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in May this year.  The party has no doubt been able to consolidate itself in states such as Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Gujarat where it controls the state government. In addition, it has also managed to make considerable headway in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where it is the principal opposition party. However, it still needs to cover a lot of ground in Uttar Pradesh , Assam and Maharashtra. Plus there is the threat from the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi and the National Capital Region, and the regional party challenge in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and states such as West Bengal and Tamil Nadu where it must hunt for incremental support. Modi may be the frontrunner in an increasingly presidentialised race but he is by no means home and dry.

From the BJP’s point of view there are many things going for the BJP campaign. For the first time since the campaign of 1999, the committed party workers are enthused, even sensing a possible victory after nearly a decade in opposition at the Centre. In addition, the RSS which has a large body of committed volunteers at its disposal has thrown in its full weight behind the campaign—perhaps for the first time since the Ayodhya-centric campaign of 1991. More to the point, Modi has been able to attract a large number of otherwise unattached voters—mainly the youth—into the campaign. The huge attendance at Modi rallies all over the country, including in places like Imphal, Chennai and Kolkata where the BJP has very little footfall, suggests that these efforts are beginning to yield returns.

Ironically, what is pulling the BJP down and preventing the raw enthusiasm of Modi’s supporters from deriving full mileage is the BJP organisation itself. It is worth remembering that despite many victories (and defeats) in the state Assembly elections, the organisational apparatus of the BJP has been quite creaky since about 2000. In particular, the period after 2004 witnessed a prolonged crisis in the party over leadership and organisational dominance. Despite the appearance of seeming purposefulness the first tenure of Rajnath Singh and the three-year term of Nitin Gadkari were wasted years for the party. The party singularly failed in injecting new blood and new talent into the party and persisted with many functionaries who had either lost the will to be energetic or whose public image was less than wholesome. The last occasion when the BJP injected new blood into the party was during the Ayodhya agitation of 1990-93. Since then, the odd individual apart, there has been no real new blood in the party.

This organisational stagnation has resulted in the party often operating as rival factions, a phenomenon that has prevented it from being nimble-footed in its approach to changing situations.

Delhi is probably the most glaring example of this institutionalised paralysis. Recall the inordinate delay in announcing Harsh Vardhan as the chief ministerial candidate and the slowness in finding a replacement to the incumbent state president Vijay Goel. This incompetence has led to the BJP yielding political space to the AAP.  

Likewise, whereas the groundswell surge in UP in favour of BJP has been noticeable, it is significant that the party organisation remains divided into antagonistic factions. The tired and often discredited faces of yesteryear have suddenly smelt a last opportunity to become relevant once again, little realising that their very presence on the stage at Modi’s rallies puts off people. A similar situation prevails in Maharashtra where corruption is an additional complication.

Curiously, Modi who otherwise has an undeserved reputation for micro-managing has not devoted any personal attention to fixing the organisation. He has focussed almost entirely on his public rallies and in promoting groups that are supplementing the campaign from outside the formal party structure. But this approach may falter if the BJP list of candidates is dominated by individuals whose public image is at variance with the energetic change that Modi is promising.


The final phase of any election campaign is very important. It can determine whether the initial momentum can be translated into a winning margin through sheer momentum. A failure to do so results in slippage as traditional voting patterns are reasserted. For his own sake, Modi cannot afford to be detached from the nuts and bolts of a battle to make him Prime Minister. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

KEJRIWAL HAD BEEN SCOUTING EXIT ROUTE

By Swapan Dasgupta

“Body language” is a term that is recklessly over-used by the media when it seeks to impose a conclusion without too much supporting evidence. At the risk of being guilty of the same offence, I would like to suggest that the “body language” of the Aam Aadmi Party leaders and supporters last Friday evening suggested a monumental sense of relief.

It is doubtful whether too many people will contest this assessment. Ever since he was sworn in at a state-funded political rally in the Ramlila Maidan some 48 or 49 days ago, Arvind Kejriwal has been looking for the most dramatic exit route—one that would yield him the maximum political advantage. Governance was never a priority for Kejriwal when he assumed the Chief Ministership, thanks to an injudicious Congress diktat from the bachelor boy. He merely wanted to milk a brief tenure for all its grandstanding potential and then move on to newer pastures.

Judged by the standards he set for himself, Kejriwal has been more successful than he initially calculated. First, he has managed to secure all-India recognition and even a measure of goodwill from the 48-day experiment thanks in no small measure to the oxygen of publicity provided by the media. In a country where popularising the election symbol is a hugely challenging project, the AAP has achieved in three months what others take years to manage. Today, AAP is a national reality, even if it takes longer for the brand recognition to translate into active electoral endorsement.

Equally, Kejriwal’s grandstanding was focussed. He carefully targeted the AAP’s supporters in the poorer sections of Delhi and provided them the hope that he was best suited to take on the “vested interests” and “money bags” which had captured the Congress and BJP. The FIR against Mukesh Ambani may not get too far but its intention was purely symbolic: to impress upon the disadvantaged that only AAP had the guts to take on the high and mighty.

True, this grandstanding and over-reliance on symbolism may have exasperated a section of the middle classes who were gullible enough to vote for a supposed vision of “alternative politics”. But Kejriwal appears to have calculated that it is more rewarding to lose the middle class vote and gain additional support of the poorer citizens. In crafting a vote bank of the urban poor in Delhi with seemingly radical politics, Kejriwal appears to have succeeded where the Communists failed for 60 years.

Last week, I spoke to a prominent CPI(M) leader and he frankly admitted that AAP has successfully decimated the party in its pockets of influence outside West Bengal, Kerala, Tripura and Tamil Nadu. The Comrades who had been struggling for long without making any breakthrough have, it would seem, deserted the red flag for the jharu because it promises more immediate returns. The same is the case with the BSP support in urban pockets of North India.

The greatest loser, however, is undoubtedly the Congress. All opinion polls suggest that AAP has hit the Congress the hardest, depriving it of the potential of taking on the BJP in a triangular contest. In a situation where the Congress is staring at certain defeat in the general election, AAP offers the demoralised Congress voters a glimmer of hope. In states such as Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat, where AAP has had a limited impact, the consequences are likely to be felt by the Congress. The unintended consequence is that the AAP electoral intervention will ensure a clean BJP sweep.

The extent to which the AAP effect will be felt in the general election will, of course, depend almost entirely on the media. More than any other party, AAP is disproportionately dependant on the media for producing a multiplier effect. This may explain the party’s intense anger at the media when, after the vigilantism against the African residents of Khirkee village, the coverage turned more critical. Intemperate AAP spokespersons showed a measure of fascist intolerance, that included vilification of all those in the media who dared to be critical of it.

The AAP will be hoping that this will change now that it is no longer answerable for the administration of Delhi. Certainly on Friday night, the closet supporters of AAP were jubilant and were flattering the smooth-talking Yogendra Yadav into thinking that the jump from the Delhi Secretariat to the South Block would be logical. With the Congress demonstrating an astonishing ineptitude in confronting the formidable Narendra Modi challenge, the only hope of those threatened by imminent marginalisation seems to be AAP. The media is much more divided today than it was 49 days ago when it was ready to embrace Kejriwal as the new messiah. However, there is enough AAP influence in the media to give the party and its over-exuberant supporters a leg up.

Kejriwal abandoned his mission to cut water rates and electricity rates in Delhi because he saw the city-state as a mere launching pad for his national ambitions. These ambitions will now come into full play and there is no question that AAP will become an alternative point of attraction for disgruntled Congress, BSP and Communist voters in North India, particularly in the National Capital Region. Its appeal will be based on two factors. First, it will always be a party of protest and disruption. These themes will resonate among a section of the urban poor, particularly that section which is insufficiently rooted in a new environment. Secondly, it will invoke fear—a theme that will appeal to disoriented liberals (too small a number to count electorally) and to those Muslims who no longer have faith in the Congress’ ability to stop Modi.


Where AAP will be most vulnerable will be its inability to move from protest to change. Expressed over-simplistically, the coming fight could be one between anger and aspiration. My vote is unequivocally for the latter.

Friday, February 14, 2014

TRUTHS OF DEMOCRACY - The US accepts that a democratic decision must be respected

By Swapan Dasgupta

The minister of external affairs, Salman Khurshid, is believed to be the most educated member of the cabinet after the prime minister, Manmohan Singh. A former law don at Oxford, Khurshid was expected to be sensitive to the broadly bi-partisan nature of foreign policy and the importance of national sovereignty in the conduct of international relations. It is, therefore, deeply unfortunate that the minister allowed the heat and dust of a general election campaign and his partisan preference to determine his response to the scheduled meeting of the American ambassador, Nancy Powell, with the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, a man who is the principal challenger to the Congress.

That the scheduled meeting in Gandhinagar is of considerable significance is undeniable. Since the United States of America administration unilaterally rescinded Modi’s US visa in 2005 citing concerns over “human rights”, the American embassy broke off all engagements with the Gujarat government, a step that was in turn emulated by the countries of the European Union. At that time, India’s ambassador to the US had registered his protest to the US at a move against an individual who had been democratically elected to a constitutional position. The protest went unheeded in Washington DC because it was accompanied by signals emanating from Delhi that suggested the ruling Congress was delighted that Modi had been cast in the role of an international pariah. During the 2009 Gujarat assembly election campaign, a Congress spokesperson who also happened to be a lawyer of some distinction, also suggested that Modi be tried in the International Court of Justice for mass murder.

The desire of Modi’s opponents, which included a significant section of the Indian intelligentsia and the editorial classes, to punish him for his failure to contain the horrible riots of 2002 was understandable. Yet, this push for political retribution was bound by the principles of national sovereignty. It was understood that any action against Modi had to pass the test of judicial scrutiny inside India. International outrage may have played a role but there was never any question that the ultimate assessment of Modi’s alleged culpability had to done by the Indian judicial system. Indeed, Washington’s implicit pre-judgment of Modi’s guilt was felt to be gratuitous. After all, even if the US had the right to determine who could or could not arrive on its shores, its self-professed role as India’s conscience keeper was presumptuous.

The US decision to resume contact with Modi at the level of the ambassador — its consul general in Mumbai had met the chief minister infrequently — was a combination of two factors. Since early 2013, soon after Modi’s third successive electoral victory in Gujarat in 2012, many EU countries decided to resume normal links with Modi. The United Kingdom was first off the block and it was followed by other EU countries, with one significant exception. Apart from Modi’s growing political importance, the economic importance of Gujarat as a fast-growing economy had much to do with the about turn. Politics spoke, but economics showed the way.

The US, however, continued to prevaricate, perhaps hoping against hope that the United Progressive Alliance’s political fortunes would improve and that Modi would be upstaged by his rivals in the Bharatiya Janata Party. After the September 13 announcement by the BJP declaring Modi as its prime ministerial candidate and the Ahmedabad magistrate court’s exoneration of the chief minister in a case where he was sought to be implicated for ‘conspiracy’ in the killing of a former Congress member of parliament, there was no real reason for the US to cling to its 2005 decision. The state department in Washington was confronted with a choice: to be on the wrong side of the person who could well end up as prime minister in May 2014 or grudgingly admit its miscalculation and buy insurance.
When Modi and Powell meet in Gandhinagar, it is highly unlikely that either of them will utter the word ‘visa’. That issue will remain unaddressed but the larger message would have been clear: Modi will be treated as a ‘normal’ chief minister. And ‘normal’ chief ministers often have a habit of travelling abroad to ostensibly promote investments or, more likely, to interact with the large Indian diaspora.

Ideally, the UPA government should have reacted to the US initiative with a deadpan reaction. The visa issue and the unstated US boycott of Modi was, strictly speaking, an American problem, and Delhi had no role in the matter. Yet, Khurshid reacted to the Powell visit to Gujarat in a churlish and petulant way, quite unbecoming of India’s external affairs minister. According to a PTI report in a Mumbai newspaper, Khurshid said that “we are a country that believes in a Gandhian way of life, compassion (and) service without recognition, and none of these terms applies to Modi”. Barely concealing his intense disappointment at US overtures to Modi, he went on to say: “There are lot of things that they will not and we should not put behind. The holocaust is not put behind and if (the) holocaust is not put behind who are we to lecture them to say you put (the) holocaust behind?”

Apart from the sheer effrontery of comparing what happened in Gujarat in March 2002 to the mass murder of nearly six million Jews by the Nazis, Khurshid’s petulance was very revealing. It certainly appeared to confirm the suspicion that the US strictures against Modi had the tacit blessings of India’s own government — an astonishing case of seeking foreign help for an internal political battle. Secondly, Khurshid’s outburst has underlined the fact that the Congress loyalists don’t see the forthcoming general election as yet another democratic encounter where there will a winner and many losers. To them, a war against Modi is a no-holds-barred contest where normal rules of encounter don’t apply. In short, and this is becoming apparent in the last-ditch populist spending spree of the government: fearful of defeat, the Congress appears to be following a scorched earth policy. The aim is clear: deny Modi any worthwhile inheritance in May.

The irony is that the more the likes of Khurshid up the ante, the more is the yearning for a strong, decisive and no-nonsense leader. In the past fortnight, the Modi campaign is generating more and more momentum. His public meetings all over the country, including in places such as Calcutta, Imphal, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram, where the BJP has nominal presence, are attracting huge crowds — so much so that they no longer make news. The bureaucracy, blessed with extra-sensitive antennae, has decided that change is in the offing and there is no point processing files and taking decisions. The arrival lobby of Ahmedabad airport has become a gathering point of notables awaiting a darshan of the man they think is going to be the next prime minister.

The change may or may not happen in the way the chattering classes of Delhi and the diplomatic circles are predicting. The final decision rests with the voters who have their own priorities. This is exactly as it should be in a healthy, competitive democracy. But the democratic traditions of India aren’t going to be strengthened if the incumbent administration acts on the assumption that all means — both fair and foul — are legitimate in the bid to stop Modi at all costs. The US volte face on Modi may well have been governed by cynical calculations and even business considerations. But it was also governed by the belief that a democratic decision has to be respected. Sadly, Western-educated intellectuals such as Khurshid lack that spirit of generosity and enlightenment.

The Telegraph, February 14, 2014

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Loser's Front

By Swapan Dasgupta
The term “Third Front” has been so discredited and arouses so much fear among those who have a stake in the future of India that even its most avowed protagonists are loath to use it in a public forum.
Nevertheless, in the run-up to every election since 1998, some variant of the Third Front usually emerges and equally abruptly disappears after counting day.
In 1998, it was the United Front that fought the general election with I.K. Gujral as the incumbent Prime Minister. Yet, immediately after the votes were counted, its convenor N. Chandrababu Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party broke ranks and extended “outside” support to a government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee.
In 1999 and 2004, there was no meaningful attempt to forge a third alternative. At best, it was the Left Front, with strong bases in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, that sought localised alliances with either the Samajwadi Party and even the Congress to replenish its numbers. In 2009, having won the state Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh, Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati thrust herself as the leader of the third path. And although the Left Front made noises about being half in sympathy and half sceptical of her candidature, the fear of a maverick regime assuming charge in Delhi proved sufficient for a significant section of the electorate to support the Congress pitch for stable continuity.
In the past week, a Third Front of sorts has once again made a reappearance. It began with a beleaguered Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, himself pushed into a possible third place in his home state, trying to give some substance to his national positioning. He found two immediate supporters in the Janata Dal (Secular) of H.D. Deve Gowda and, more important, in Mulayam Singh Yadav who is also fearful of being squeezed by a resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party and a vengeful BSP. From all accounts, the core of the Third Front could just as well be dubbed the Loser’s Front.
Arguably, Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s electoral understanding with the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Tamil Nadu has given a fillip to the idea that Narendra Modi can yet be deprived of his possible occupancy of Race Course Road if everyone else, from the Congress to the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party, joins hands. There are expectations that the YSR Congress’ Jaganmohan Reddy, who has kept alive his connections with Ms Jayalalithaa, will join and give the notion of a Federal Front some real meaning.
In itself, a grand anti-Modi alliance is an idea that appeals to the minusculity that believes that zero growth and transformation of the Indian dream into a nightmare is an acceptable consequence as long as the man from Gujarat is somehow kept out. It is an idea that, at least in this election, also appeals to a Congress that believes its only hope lies in making the 2014 election a curtain raiser to another election in some 18 months time. The Congress, after all, is not fighting the 2014 election to win; its best hope is to prevent Mr Modi from winning.
Needless to say, the idea that everyone can join hands to roll back the Modi tide is fraught with imponderables. Mamata Banerjee, whose Trinamul Congress is likely to do extremely well in West Bengal, is not attracted by the idea of having any direct or indirect association with the Left. Nor for that matter does Ms Mayawati like to consider supping at the same table as Mr Yadav.
True, these are not insurmountable problems. Ms Banerjee’s party was in the United Progressive Alliance-2 government at a time it was supported by the Left. And the BSP and SP did together provide critical support to the UPA, although cynics would suggest that this management of contradictions had more to do with the Central Bureau of Investigation than the Congress’ political managers. As the V.P. Singh government clearly demonstrated between 1989 and 1990, it is possible to even have the Left and the BJP on the same table if the situation so warrants.
The question is: what will warrant a replay of the unhappy 1989 and 1996 experiments?
The answer is relatively simple: the numbers will dictate the final strategy. If the BJP performs below expectations — that is if the combined National Democratic Alliance tally stops below 200 —Mr Modi can say goodbye to any hope of becoming Prime Minister in 2014. He will either have to eschew national politics or, like Rahul Gandhi, hope for better luck next time. If the opinion polls are any indication, this is an unlikely possibility. A combination of the poll arithmetic and public meeting chemistry suggests that Mr Modi has been quite successful in transforming the Lok Sabha election into a presidential contest. But he still has a few laps to go. In particular, Mr Modi has to ensure that he is able to transform the support for him into a vote for the BJP in eastern and southern India.
The BJP suffers from an over-dependence on Mr Modi in places where it does not have strong chief ministers. The other so-called national leaders of the BJP don’t have the clout or the necessary appeal to complement Mr Modi. And, to make matters worse, the BJP organisation has been in a state of disrepair, except in the states where it is in power.
Yet, Mr Modi is fortunate that he has been successful in transforming his personal appeal into an idea. Mr Modi today represents something tangible: the yearning for decisiveness, high growth and, not the least, anti-Congressism. The first two attributes have no other challengers. However, he has competitors in the anti-Congress space.
Whether India succumbs to another Third Front muddle or experiences a 60-month respite from over-politicisation and dodgy governance will depend on whether all the three elements of the Modi appeal coalesce with the one issue that will matter more and more as voting day approaches: a yearning for stability. Before the numbers game begins, this election will be fought in the mind of India.

Asian Age. February 7, 2014

CPI(M) sinking, but is Bengal rising?

By Swapan Dasgupta

A  casual visitor to West Bengal will be forgiven for not being mindful that this is the same State where the CPI(M)-led Left Front exercised a stranglehold over political power for an inordinately long period from 1977 to 2011. 
Although there are wall writings announcing a mass rally at the Brigade Parade Ground on Sunday afternoon, and there are rows of red flags fluttering lazily at important road junctions, the hyper over-presence of the Left that was a feature of the State until barely three years ago is noticeably absent. The names of Left leaders are absent from people’s lips and there are no whispers of the activities of the Local Committees of the CPI(M). It almost seems that all that belonged to a very distant past.
The extent to which the Left has been decimated in West Bengal seems unbelievable. Last Friday, three MLAs belonging to the smaller allies of the CPI(M) defied the party whip and voted for a Trinamool Congress candidate in the Rajya Sabha elections. This would have been inconceivable a few years ago. To compound the problems, former Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee admitted at a public meeting in South Midnapore district that the CPI(M) had erred grievously in allowing their supporters to open fire at protesting villagers during the Nandigram agitation of 2010. Although Bhattacharjee is too important a leader to have been censured by the leadership, the media reported that the State CPI(M) was very unhappy over this self-criticism. It would serve, they muttered privately, to further demoralise an already demoralised party.
The concerns of the leadership are understandable. In the past, the Left banked disproportionately on its hold over rural Bengal. Even after the 2011 rout, there was a belief that the deep roots of the party in the countryside would serve as a springboard for the re-conquest of Bengal once the Mamata Banerjee Government had run out of steam. Last year’s panchayat election put paid to the strategy of patient waiting. Mamata may have become controversial in the urban areas after her insensitive approach to assaults on women, but she has used the three years in power to make significant advances in rural areas.
The political transformation was managed through a combination of patronage and coercion. In many ways it was a textbook replica of the approach followed by the Left after 1977. The Left still retains its hold in many of the outlying areas of the State but in the heartland of Bengal red flags have been replaced by the Trinamool Congress tricolour. Often, the very same people who provided muscle to the Left have simply changed sides effortlessly. The CPI(M) is justified in pointing to the vast numbers of their supporters who have been forced to leave their homes in fear of retribution. But let us not forget that this spiral of political violence was begun by the Left itself when it was dominant. This does not justify the methods used by the TMC but it underlines the underlying violence of competitive politics in Bengal.
For Mamata, the task of establishing her dominance has been made easier by the significant support she has received from the Muslim community, a process that began in the last years of Left Front rule. The presence of the firebrand Imam of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan mosque at the TMC rally on January 31 only served to underline the Muslim consolidation behind the Chief Minister. At one time, the Congress too had a hold over the Muslim community in the border districts, particularly in North Bengal. But over the years this too has weakened, as evident from the defection of many members of ABA Ghani Khan Choudhury’s family to the TMC.
The overall impact of these developments is that Mamata is no longer afraid of multi-cornered contests as she was in 2009 and 2011. In the past, the fear was of anti-Left votes being divided between the TMC, Congress and, to a lesser extent, the BJP. However, since 2011 the Left is no longer the dominant party and politics is no longer a tussle between the Left and the anti-Left. It is now a dominant TMC versus a splintered anti-TMC. No wonder the political pundits in Bengal are talking of Mamata sending a contingent of some 35 MPs to the next Lok Sabha — a tally that is certain to acquire monumental significance in the event the country returns a fractured mandate.
For the Left, this is a distressing prospect. For very long, the CPI(M) has used its tally from West Bengal to box above its weight in national politics and, occasionally, to even set the terms of the political discourse. It is once again playing the same game with yet another bid to reforge a Third Front, riding piggyback on the shoulders of J Jayalalithaa and Mulayam Singh Yadav. However, this time the enterprise carries even less conviction than before because the Left will not be in a position to take advantage of a rapidly shrinking Congress. If nothing else, Mamata — whose politics is based on a visceral antipathy to the Left — will ensure that the Comrades are back to where they should all along have remained: on the fringes.
Yet, what should worry West Bengal is not that Mamata is a rising force in national politics. The concerns stem from the fact that her social base makes it almost impossible for West Bengal to use its regional clout to play a meaningful role in national affairs. Mamata is caught in a sectarian bind from which she can’t get out of.  

What Modi campaign needs is a mindset poriborton

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the 1950s, an angry Jawaharlal Nehru described Kolkata as a “city of processions” , an image that still persists in the national imagination . The former capital of British India may have lost its economic importance and been bypassed by the cutting edge of market-inspired modernity, but it has stubbornly refused to shed its voluble preoccupation with politics. 

On January 31, Mamata Banerjee organised a massive show of strength at the Maidan where she signalled her prime ministerial ambitions. From all accounts, there were some seven lakh or more people who turned up to cheer her. On Sunday, the now-beleaguered Left Front is to have its own rally at the same venue when it can look back with nostalgia at the days when the Brigade Parade Ground was covered in a sea of red flags. Nostalgia is probably the only remaining solace for a Left that, having lost power in 2011, is desperately (and somewhat unsuccessfully) trying to hold on to its remaining pockets of influence. According to roadside wisdom , never mind matching Mamata, the Left should focus on outperforming the Narendra Modi rally last Wednesday. 

By the exacting standards he has set in his recent rallies in, say, Patna, Gorakhpur and Meerut, the Modi rally in Kolkata was modest. Yet, there was a difference. In northern and western India, the BJP has an organization capable of building on the reputation of its prime ministerial candidate. It has nothing of the sort in West Bengal, a state where BJP candidates are accustomed to forfeiting their security deposits. Under the circumstances, filling most of the massive Brigade Parade Ground was a stupendous achievement. It was more so because at least 40% of those who attended were walk-ins. 

The Kolkata rally indicated quite clearly that there is a groundswell of goodwill (and curiosity) for Modi that far exceeds the organized support for the BJP. Moreover, this support is national. Modi is likely to get big crowds in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal — states where the BJP does not figure in political calculations. Are people in these states going to cheer Modi at rallies and in front of their TV sets but on election day go out and endorse a candidate sponsored by Jayalalithaa or Mamata because a vote for BJP would be a wasted one? 

For the Modi campaign this is a formidable challenge: how does it extricate the voter in the east and south from local politics and persuade him/ her to think national? In his own way Modi tried to grapple with the issue in Kolkata when he suggested that Mamata’s ‘poriborton’ in West Bengal could be complemented by a Modi-led ‘poriborton’ in Delhi. His message was clear: support Mamata if you must in an Assembly election but vote BJP to bring about a national transformation that will also touch Bengal. 

In theory, people can vote differently at the state and national levels. They often have, especially when a tall leader such as Indira Gandhi made a pitch for the prime ministership. There is also evidence to indicate that party organization on the ground becomes largely irrelevant in a “wave” election — as happened in 1984, even in West Bengal. In a limited way, even the Aam Aadmi Party benefitted from such a phenomenon in Delhi last December: its campaign was based almost entirely on effective messaging. 

If Modi is to lessen his dependance on temperamental allies who join the bandwagon after the election, he has to ensure the BJP win a clutch of seats from areas outside its traditional spheres of influence. The possibility of this happening is greater if the BJP makes the election extra-presidential . Of course, a half-decent candidate is a must but greater returns are likely to accrue if the party makes it clear that in, say, the 42 seats of Bengal and 39 seats of Tamil Nadu, that there is one candidate: Narendra Modi. 

This is personality cultism no doubt. But in 2014, people will be voting for a PM.

Sunday Times of India, February 9, 2014


Sunday, February 2, 2014

AAP MEDIA GIMMICK STEALS DIDI’S THUNDER

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, Mamata Banerjee organised a mammoth political rally at the Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata. From all accounts, the crowd was bigger than anything witnessed in recent years: estimates ranged from seven lakhs to 12 lakh people. The rally had a larger political significance too. It suggested that the Trinamool Congress (AITC) would try to maximise its haul from West Bengal and leverage that with whichever political formation is closest to the 272 mark in the next Lok Sabha. Her strategy is not dissimilar to the one being pursued by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa.

Mamata’s rally and the unveiling of her strategy for the Lok Sabha polls was a major political development and certainly much more significant than the Nitish Kumar-led initiative to forge a Federal Front of those who were at one time or other associated with the old Janata Dal. Whereas Mamata and Jayalalithaa look like winners in their home turf of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, the trio of Nitish Kumar-Mulayam Singh Yadav-H.D. Deve Gowda give the impression of being a club of the left-behind. Indeed, given its illusory nature and waning fortunes the Left parties could just as well have joined this formation.

The irony is that the audacious move of Mamata to seek a greater role in the politics of the Centre was barely noticed by a media that calls itself “national”. Jawaharlal Nehru’s stereotype of Kolkata being a “city of processions” still plays a role in shaping the minds of the so-called opinion-makers. Maybe it wouldn’t have been the case if the Left was still dominant in what was once regarded as the Red Fort. Thanks to the intellectual patronage accorded by the Congress Establishment to anything that remotely smelt “progressive”, the Left could merrily punch above its weight. Its electoral insignificance (except in the period 2004-09) was always offset by its strategic role in the opinion-making industry. The Left became the certifying authority for determining good or evil.

The Left’s disdain for a gutsy street-fighter who ousted them from West Bengal is well known and understandable. However, the Left’s clout in the corridors of power and social influence has diminished considerably ever since Prakash Karat effected the rupture with the Congress over the Indo-US nuclear deal. If the significance of Mamata, Jayalalithaa or for that matter Naveen Patnaik is insufficiently understood in the “national” media it is because Kolkata, Chennai and Bhubaneshwar are outside the imagined world of the dominant intellectual elite which is incapable of thinking beyond the Hindi-speaking belt.

In the old days this used to be manifested in the exaggerated preoccupation with the likely voting patterns of the voters of Uttar Pradesh. Countless column inches—those were pre-TV days—were devoted to dissecting the intricacies of caste alliances, particularly the AJGAR or MAJGAR phenomenon. The more self-professedly ‘enlightened’ of the political pundits branched out into a fanatical obsession with which way the Muslims of UP would vote. We would be subjected to reams of narrative about the lost world of a community which once ruled India but rued the fact that it was now struggling to make itself heard in the Ganga belt.

Today, the residual effects of this bogus romanticism are still in place but in the main it has been overwhelmed by a further narrowing of horizons. Far from being concerned with the 542 Lok Sabha seats, the forthcoming elections have been reduced to one question: how will the Aam Aadmi Party do in 2014? If the opinion polls are any guide it seems that AAP is likely to be a factor in about 20 Lok Sabha, mainly in the National Capital Region. In other places they might play the role of spoiler. The point is that these 20 seats are well below the 42 seats where Mamata is a big player or the 39 seats in Tamil Nadu where the charm Jayalalithaa could work. But yet, AAP has hogged the media space, outpacing the regional parties by many miles. Is it only because AAP is unique or is it because it is a doorstep Hindi-speaking phenomenon? If a smooth-talking Yogendra Yadav was from the ‘provinces’ would the media have cared for him?

This obsession with what is in sight has proved a double-edged sword. The beautiful people who have flocked to the various committees set up by AAP (perusing the lists is very instructive) may have been embarrassed by the anti-African tirade let loose by a lout masquerading as a people’s representative. But by upholding his right to spread prejudice and hate, by mooting proposals to keep Delhi University only for ‘locals’ and by even endorsing KHAP panchayats, the AAP created the conditions whereby some shopkeepers in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar felt that thrashing a student from Arunachal Pradesh was all right? After all, like the Africans in Khirkee village of Delhi, this young student too was ‘different’.

In the guise of protest and newness, the AAP is inflicting some of the most regressive social attitudes on Delhi and according it the legitimacy of a political party. And yet, the opinion-makers are either silent or quietly approving. Is it because a movement run by common friends in Delhi—and let’s have no doubts that AAP is phenomenally well-connected—is more important than a 10 lakh rally in Kolkata?

As the proprietor of a large media group once remarked while turning down a story on Manipur: “Who cares?”  Those entrusted with manufacturing opinon certainly don’t give a damn. 

  



ELDER STATESMAN - The president’s first Republic Day address to the nation

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those with a taste for historical fiction and counter-factual history may well find the British writer D.J. Taylor’s The Windsor Faction published last year, quite absorbing. Set in the England of the nine months or so of the “phoney war” of 1939-40, it probes the fantasies and amateurish conspiracies of the small set—with a larger measure of public support—that sought to prevent a repeat of the Great War of 1914-18 by facilitating a negotiated settlement with Germany.

Although much of Taylor’s brilliantly crafted exploration of the British upper-crust support for Hitler is based on actual events, there is a significant departure from the historical script. The Windsor Faction begins with the description of a quiet funeral in a village church in December 1936: the funeral of Wallis Simpson. “It is neither disloyal, nor merely callous” said an imaginary editorial in The Spectator, “to suggest that if Mrs Simpson’s unlooked-for passing has not saved a nation from disaster, then it has…saved His Majesty from himself.”

In an England where the abdication of 1936 was fortuitously averted by the death of the American divorcee, the declaration of war against Germany on September 3, 1939, saw Edward VIII still on the throne. The King isn’t too enthusiastic about a war to protect a distant Poland. To him, as with many Britons of his class, the real enemy is Bolshevism. Yet, the King is a constitutional monarch and must do what the Government tells him to do. There is precious little scope for the monarch to speak his mind publicly.

In Taylor’s story, the King detects a small window of opportunity: his traditional live Christmas broadcast to the Empire. With the aid of a dandyish journalist Beverly Nichols (who in real life wrote an astonishingly controversial repudiation of Indian nation in Verdict on India) the King plots to deviate from the script that had been vetted by his Palace minders and Whitehall. As the live broadcast from Windsor proceeds, Edward Windsor slyly inserts a paragraph into his speech: “This, we are told, is a war to defend the interests of those who cannot defend themselves. But might not those interests be better defended by war’s cessation?” The monarch says that he can’t answer these questions. “They are for governments, for the democratically elected representatives…to consider. But I put it to you that they should be considered, that the duties which lie before us may not be as straightforward as they seem to be…”

For history buffs, Taylor accurately anticipates the consequences had Edward VIII actually made such a Christmas broadcast. He crafts an imaginary Daily Telegraph editorial that confronts the issues with characteristic tact and circumspection. Did the King exceed his Constitutional brief? No, because “The King’s Speech is one of the few occasions on which the Sovereign is permitted—in fact encouraged—to express a personal opinion.” But, should the King have said what he did? “The gap between what a man may say in private and what may decently be uttered on a public platform is known…In supposing such a gap not to exist, the King has not only—albeit inadvertently—offered comfort to our enemies.”

The invocation of an imaginary royal indiscretion by a monarch who in real life put emotion above the call of duty may appear a self-indulgent diversion. But the controversies that arise as a result of a ceremonial Head of State deviating from both homilies and anodyne comments are real. Indeed, in the context of President Pranab Mukherjee first Republic Day address to the nation, it assumes a contemporary relevance.

To begin with, there is the vexed question as to whether the Republic Day address—as opposed to the speech he delivers at the opening of Parliament—is the President’s own or reflect the views of the Government. The Constitution deems that the Head of State is guided by the advice of his Council of Ministers. In practice, this does not imply that the President is entirely a rubber stamp, deprived entirely of his right of independent observation. By convention, a draft of the President’s speech on a national day is sent to the Cabinet Secretary. Yet, there is no known case of a government modifying the draft. As with the British monarch’s Christmas Day broadcast, the President speaks his mind with the necessary dose of circumspection and understatement. This is all the more relevant in the context of President Mukherjee. Along with Dr Rajendra Prasad and R.Venkatraman, he is the only person who came to Rashtrapati Bhavan after having occupied the most important political posts. There have been other politicians who became President but their experience of public life was nowhere as significant as that of the present incumbent. What President Mukherjee thinks bears the hallmark of both experience and erudition.

This Republic Day, some eyebrows were raised by two of the President’s more political observations. First, he suggested that “Elections do not give any person the licence to flirt with illusions. Those who seek the trust of voters must promise only what is possible. Government is not a charity shop. Populist governance cannot be a substitute for governance.”

Quite predictably and given the shenanigans of Arvind Kejriwal on the streets of Delhi just three days before, the warning against reckless populism was seen as an indictment of the Aam Aadmi Party. It was certainly viewed as such by the AAP leadership and by its supporters.

Secondly, the President spoke about the yearning of Young India for opportunities and a better life. However, he argued that “This chance will not come if India does not get a stable government…A fractured government hostage to whimsical opportunists, is always an unhappy eventuality. In 2014, it could be catastrophic. Each one of us is a voter; each one of us has a deep responsibility.”

This grave warning of the implications of a weak government was well-intentioned. Yet, coming as it did in the backdrop of opinion polls suggesting that the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance had clearly outpaced its Congress opponents, there were whispers that the President was arguing that the duty of the citizen lay in bolstering the front-runner and giving it an unequivocal mandate. In another context, it may have been read as an encouragement to the Congress but with anti-incumbency sweeping the country, the President’s message must have been music to the ears of the Modi camp.

Till a year ago, President Mukherjee was an over-active politician, well respected on all sides of the political divide. It is against his nature to fall back on meaningless platitudes and homilies. He wants to remain relevant, not perhaps in an intrusive way but as a wise elder statesman. His remarks were not calculated to offend but to counsel all those who have a stake in the future of India. Most important, the sentiments he expressed found a positive echo in much of India. At the same time, his observations were jarring to those who imagine they have given direct democracy a new meaning and those who believe that the only meaningful objective of the coming election is to stop Modi at all cost.

National consensus can only be achieved in a united country. At Christmas 1939, Britain was confronted by an existential dilemma: to fight or to maintain an Empire and a way of life. In 2014, India is troubled by indecision over whether to look back or move forward. The uncertainty imposes an additional obligation on the Head of State to speak his mind, albeit in code. 

The Telegraph, January 31, 2014