Friday, August 29, 2014
Monday, August 25, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In the coming weeks, both civilian and military policy-makers in Islamabad are certain to mull over one of the most astonishing by-products of its latest spat with New Delhi: the legitimisation of Pakistan’s involvement in the internal affairs of Jammu and Kashmir by a section of India’s public intellectuals.
Whether this extraordinary development points to Pakistan’s success in nurturing Track-2 dialogues or is symptomatic of deeper schisms within India are issues that will be dissected by an otherwise beleaguered Establishment across the Radcliffe Line. Pending a considered assessment, the editorial pages of Indian newspapers will, however, produce many smiling faces in Pakistan.
The outpourings of rage against the Narendra Modi government’s supposed ‘over-reaction’ to the High Commissioner’s meetings with separatist leaders may even convince Pakistani strategists of the need to persevere with the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir. The coming months will definitely witness a concerted Pakistani bid—backed by international do-gooders—to roll back the new red lines drawn by India, perhaps with the use of some explosive pressure points.
In Pakistan, there will even be an understandable temptation to interpret the criticism of the Modi government’s unilateral withdrawal from the Foreign Secretary-level talks as evidence of a weakening of India’s resolve to withstand the war of a “thousand cuts”. That would amount to a grave misreading of India’s internal dynamics.
For a start, it is important to recognise that the decision to withdraw from the dialogue in Islamabad was widely supported within India. The opposition parties had initially taunted the Prime Minister for not acting on his promise to not tolerate any Pakistani transgression. However, once Modi lived up to his image as a no-nonsense leader, the opposition guns fell strangely silent. Indeed, there was the bizarre spectacle of Congress leaders reacting to the event in different voices—one lot participating in the hand wringing and another lot demanding the expulsion of the Pakistan High Commissioner.
The desire to test Modi’s reaction was not confined to the opposition in India. There are indications that the Pakistani Establishment too was anxious to see how far it could push the envelope. It clearly never imagined Modi would react the way he did. There was awareness that Modi was different from Manmohan Singh. But how different? Most important, Pakistan needed to know whether Modi’s neighbourhood thrust would also translate into a variant of I.K. Gujral’s asymmetry doctrine. It’s now apparent it won’t.
Any understanding of a foreign country involves more than poring over press clippings. Presumably, those involved in monitoring India in Pakistan, even if it is for subversive ends, delve deeper. However, the influence of the media, particularly international media, in shaping perceptions can’t be discounted. On this count, the India desks in Islamabad may have been guilty of accepting the rash judgments of Delhi’s foreign media at face value.
The foreign media has traditionally based its assessments of India on received wisdom from the local media and interactions with the type of people who work for international agencies, patronise NGOs and attend literature festivals. During the general election, it demonstrated a deep hostility to the BJP and a partiality for AAP. More to the point, Modi was invariably painted as a deeply ‘polarising’ figure whose victory would put a question mark over India’s future as a plural and tolerant country.
After the election, and once the awkward business of explaining the ‘unexpected’ verdict was done with, there has been a rash of reports—particularly after India said no to the WTO—suggesting widespread disappointment with Modi. The suggestion was that the job of governing India was proving too daunting for the “outsider”. On August 12, for example, the venerable New York Times reported that “this early wave of disenchantment is a reminder that the man India elected this year is, in some ways, a cipher.”
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary ‘cipher’ means ‘zero’, hardly a description that fits a Prime Minister whose presence in public meetings still evoke frenzy. Yet, when reportage becomes an exercise in affirming prejudices, misjudgements are bound to be recurrent. But then, for some people, any stick to beat Modi will do—even if means giving a helping hand to the patrons of terror and Islamist terrorists.
Sunday Times of India, August 24, 2014
Friday, August 22, 2014
YBy Swapan Dasgupta
Engaging-with-Pakistan has been one of Delhi’s big growth industries over the past 15 years. Apart from domestic investment (both from the public and private sectors), it has attracted generous quantities of Foreign Direct Investment, despite not having much to show by way of tangible returns. As such, its many well-heeled stakeholders feel an understandable anxiety over the Narendra Modi government’s sharp decision to call off a proposed meeting of Foreign Secretaries in Islamabad. It is not that the lack of official cooperation shuts off investments in an illusionary scheme; it merely reduces the number of journeys on the proverbial gravy train.
The hand wringing by Track-II travellers on English-language TV channels and the finger-wagging articles by members of the so-called strategic community should, ideally, not worry the government unduly. A reading of political history suggests that diplomacy often acquires a life of its own, detached from political realities. A jolt is often necessary to bring the players crashing back to earth.
In his magisterial book The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Unionpublished earlier this year, Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University has documented a surprising facet of US policy. Contrary to the gung-ho, ‘we won the Cold War’ proclamations that emanated after the red flag was lowered for the last time in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991, the reality was that the George Bush Administration tried quite hard to preserve the Soviet Union in the face of the pro-independence impulses of the Soviet Republics, notably Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. Apart from Defence Secretary Dick Cheney (later Vice President in the George W. Bush dispensation), the senior members of the Bush Administration now saw their old adversary as the only guarantor of stability in the face of an uncertain future.
Ostensibly, the US policy-makers may have been prompted by their concern over the Soviet Union’s nuclear assets. But their conservatism and the reluctance to explore emerging alternatives to an over-centralised Soviet empire crafted by Stalin somehow seems a little more basic: a refusal to liquidate a Cold War-centric business that had been running successfully since 1945. The idea that the US would have to re-orient its diplomacy to factor in the particularities of a dozen or more independent republics seemed too daunting and troublesome. Dealing with a single command centre in Moscow seemed safer and more reassuring. After all, US-Soviet relations had entered a phase of dreary predictability.
Needless to say, these were academic discussions since Washington’s capacity to shape the eventual outcome in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk and the Asian capitals was negligible. The pro-independence feeling were just too strong (particularly in Russia) and the hatred for the Soviet system too deep for any patchwork solutions to take shape. Washington won the Cold War decisively but its role in securing that victory was entirely reactive. The Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Are there lessons for India’s diplomats and policy-makers from this this, relatively unknown chapter of one of the most momentous events of the 20thcentury?
Since last Monday’s decision to call off the visit of the Foreign Secretary to Islamabad, the Modi government has been severely criticised by the ‘strategic community’ for allowing its Pakistan policy to be guided by base populist considerations. The votaries of “uninterrupted and uninterruptible” dialogue are, quite predictably, livid. For them, Pakistan is more than a neighbour: it is an infatuation. On a more serious plane, the diplomatic historian Srinath Raghavan has articulated a concern that has also found an echo among ‘pro-democracy’ elements inside Pakistan. “At a time”, wrote Raghavan in an article in The Hindu, “when the civilian government in Pakistan is on the back foot, New Delhi’s digging of its heels will only comfort the military.”
The belief that Pakistan is witnessing another phase of the never-ending tussle between the elected civilian government and the military is, by now, conventional wisdom. The accompanying conviction that New Delhi must do its bit to bolster Pakistan’s democracy and edge out the military that nurtures visceral anti-India sentiments is also deeply ingrained in Delhi’s strategic thinking. Judged from these perspectives, India’s redrawing of the red lines of engagement at a time when the Imran Khan-Tahirul Qadri combine is questioning Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s legitimacy is inopportune.
Even if, for the sake of argument the dubious assumption of a Pakistani civilian government conducting its India policy without military oversight is accepted, a question arises: what is India’s capacity to modify the power equations in Islamabad? The answer is obvious: zero. Whether it was the Lahore bus ride of Atal Behari Vajpayee or Manmohan Singh’s Sharm-el-Sheikh capitulation, Pakistan hasn’t moved an inch from its determination to both view bilateral relations through the Kashmir prism and to inflict pain on India wherever possible. Bending over backwards to accommodate a civilian government sounds noble but the returns from such an approach are either negligible or negative. India’s Pakistan policy has to be detached from seasonal variations in Islamabad.
Secondly, all the evidence suggests that Pakistan is experiencing a profound existential crisis. Apart from normal democratic turbulence, it has been affected by different schisms: Shia versus Sunni, state versus jihadi Islam and Centre versus states. The very “idea of Pakistan” has been changing over time and the existing elites are being constantly challenged by elements that draw inspiration from wild, antediluvian ideas. Despite the all-pervasive fear of the shadowy ISI, the writ of the Pakistan state does not run uniformly.
For India to cling on to an idea of Pakistan as a member of a once undivided family is exhilarating for those for whom life is one big mushaira with generous helping of kebab. The reality may less appetising. Since geography can’t be altered India will have to engage with Pakistan. But let’s do so with eyes wide open and without any illusion that our magnanimity will lead to an onrush of brotherhood. An approach centred on benign neglect may be in order till the time Pakistan sorts itself out first.
Asian Age, August 22, 2014
Sunday, August 17, 2014
Friday, August 15, 2014
Last month saw the publication of the English translation of the diaries of the French writer, Jean Guéhenno, among the most authentic accounts of Paris under German occupation. It is easy to understand why Diary of the Dark Years, 1940-1944, enjoys cult status in France. Guéhenno was one of the towering figures of the quiet intellectual resistance to the new dispensation. He didn’t pick up a gun and join the Resistance but he refused to publish as long as the army of occupation was in place. “I am going to bury myself in silence,” he wrote in his private journal. “I will take refuge in my real country. My country, my France, is a France that cannot be invaded.”
Guéhenno’s private resistance is unquestionably important in demonstrating that the national will cannot be broken by a catastrophic military defeat. It bolsters the mythology that built up around Charles De Gaulle and the Resistance and serves to negate the alternative National Revolution of Marshal Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime.
Yet, Guéhenno’s diaries don’t quite live up to the larger political project. The writer no doubt filled his diary with his voyages of intellectual discovery and re-discovery that lifted his spirits in gloomy times. However, what may strike the reader is the vitriol poured on fellow intellectuals and “mediocre” journalists engaged in ‘collaboration’. Guéhenno seems obsessed with debunking the Vichy regime.
By contrast, the Germans get a perfunctory look in, and are mentioned in passing as the overbearing “guests”. They are about as remote as individual Britons were in Nirad Chaudhury’s Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, a life-tale centred on undivided Bengal. As an idea, Nazism dominated Guéhenno’s consciousness, just as an interest in Western civilization never left Chaudhury. But in the end, occupation — minus some of the lived irritants, such as food shortages, lack of heating and the despair over the unending execution of “communists” — comes across as an abstraction.
This blurred image of the real adversary seems significant. Whether in occupied France or colonial India, the day-to-day dealings and confrontations (both real and symbolic) were with the forces of collaboration. It would seem that those who believed that France suffered a humiliation in 1940 on account of the moral decay of the Third Republic were far more numerous and influential than is admitted. In hindsight, Pétain and Laval may seem pathetic and despicable boot-lickers. However, as a re-look at the film clips of the time suggests, their popular acceptance after the reality of military defeat had sunk in was far more widespread than the history books would have us believe.
On February 24, 1941, for example, Guéhenno went with a friend to see the inaugural rally of Rassemblement National Populaire, a body claiming to be both ‘European’ and ‘socialist’ and urging even greater collaboration between France and Germany. The gathering, the diarist was forced to admit, wasn’t exclusively from the “particularly low order”: “There were five or six thousand people in Salle Wagram. Not one worker. The great majority was composed of shopkeepers, clerks, office-workers, and pseudo-intellectuals… The common species of frenzied petty bourgeois in shiny cotton oversleeves was the only species represented.”
What is relevant is not Guéhenno’s distaste for the collaborators but his observation that the treacherous lot actually represented a definite social constituency. This grudging admission is at odds with the stereotype — particularly in films — of the typical collaborator being either a sadistic policeman or someone from the dregs of society. Indeed, what really angered the likes of Guéhenno was the extent of intellectual support for the Vichy regime. This is something that France has never been able to come to terms with since it violated a notion of French enlightenment.
The reason for dwelling at length on the four-year experience of France on the day India celebrates its 67th Independence Day is actually a little perverse. Every nation, particularly one that achieved self-government after a prolonged struggle, needs an ‘official’ history that is bequeathed to future generations. For India, the discourse is one of sporadic but unending struggles against British rule that reached its culmination with the mass movements under Mahatma Gandhi. Earlier, the script permitted little deviation. Today, however, the Gandhian movements are seen to be complemented by other struggles, notably the revolutionary nationalism of the likes of Bhagat Singh, the endeavours of Subhas Chandra Bose and the INA, and lesser-known ‘subaltern’ insurrections. From Siraj-ud-Daula, Tipu Sultan and Nana Saheb to Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, Independence Day is dedicated to their collective memory.
This is exactly as it should be. Nations live by stories that are handed down through the generations. These permit embellishments and even exaggerations. But, even in a land exposed to the myriad convoluted plots of the Mahabharat, caveats and awkward details are often seen to be needless and unduly confusing. This search for twitter-like simplicity and certitudes may explain why one facet of history has been blotted out: the phenomenon of loyalism.
It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the British Empire in India would not have lasted for as long as it did without the active — and sometimes enthusiastic — collaboration of Indians. There were never enough Europeans to maintain control over far-flung areas. French citizens who remained in their posts as policemen, magistrates, tax collectors and teachers, serviced Germany’s occupation of France. Likewise, Indians serviced the Britishraj, including its formidable army. Indeed, until the late-1930s, the larger belief in the endurance of British rule remained intact in the minds of most Indians. All attempts by the Congress to create a parallel authority came to nought. The structures of administrative control, including the loyalty of the army, remained firmly intact till 1947 and were inherited in totality by the successor regime.
This phenomenon demands explanation. The loyalty of Indians wasn’t secured by coercion alone. Had force been the only motivation for adherence to British rule, the character of India’s freedom struggle would have been very different and may even have resembled the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya or the armed struggle in Southern Africa. A Gandhi would have been irrelevant had India experienced, say, Portugese rule.
There was a large measure of ideological acceptance of British rule in India, especially after 1858, when the rulers chose to insulate indigenous society from experiments with Western modernity. For Hindu communities accustomed to varying degrees of subordination under the Sultanate, the Moghuls and their successors, self-government seemed too abstract and unrealizable. Unlike many Muslim communities that saw in British rule a loss of power, ‘Hindu’ India didn’t attach a premium to political power. Many prominent Hindus, particularly in Bengal, even saw British rule as liberation from the dark ages. Demolishing this political fatalism, in fact, made Gandhi’s achievements all the more significant. He was more than a Hindu leader but he motivated Hindus to break out of their defensive social ghettos, encounter public life and challenge authority. Most important, he did it without mounting a military challenge.
Political choice is born of circumstances. In France, collaboration remained intact from the armistice of June 1940 till the D-Day landings four years later when Germany’s final defeat seemed inevitable. France was liberated by a military re-conquest and loyalties were again re-negotiated. The French who cheered Pétain in 1940 embraced De Gaulle in 1944. Subsequently, the unhappy Vichy chapter became a subject of national denial.
National histories don’t permit awkward moments. This is as true of India as it is for France. After all, in similar situations, how many Frenchmen could honestly say they would have resisted Vichy? And how many Indians would have disavowed Queen Victoria for an uncertain future?
Independence and freedom are never inherent. They always need a context.
The Telegraph, August 15, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
A glance at the writings of India’s public intellectuals may well reveal a curious phenomenon. Whereas many are likely to view 1947 as point of departure between ‘history’ and ‘modern’ India, there are others who prefer to distinguish between the Raj and the Republic. Some of the usage may well be stylistic but the choice also suggests a hierarchy of values—between nationalism and republican values.
To the irreverent cosmopolitan, January 26 easily prevails over August 15. Republic Day always seems more glamorous: the weather is more agreeable, the pageantry is spectacular and the announcement of the Padma awards invariably adds an extra zing to the President’s ‘At home’. By contrast, the a humid Independence Day is excessively focussed on the Prime Minister’s Red Fort speech that, judging by the past, has usually left the nation underwhelmed. If the parade on Rajpath on an overcast winter morning is obligatory viewing, the Red Fort speech is often eminently worth a miss.
It is not merely the choreography of ‘official’ Independence Day that needs repair. What could be far more consequential are the reasons why, in the mind of an influential section of India, the Republic is a notch above the nation.
For a start, it is intriguing why the Republic should be shorthand for post-Independence India. After all, Britain isn’t always described as ‘monarchical’ Britain for added emphasis and neither is any political prefix used before the US. In the old days, it was always “Nazi” Germany, “Communist” China and, more recently, “Islamic” Iran. In highlighting its republican credentials, some of the chroniclers of the ‘idea of India’ are certainly placing the country in dodgy company of states that flaunt official ideologies.
Some parallels are, of course, not so toxic. Germany has discovered something called “constitutional patriotism”—a conceptual jugglery that seeks to separate the present from a troubled past. The idea appeals to post-national Indians.
These are asides. In the Indian context, the over-emphasis on the Constitution as the arbiter of national identity hints at the importance attached to state and authority. For the custodians of the Republic, a plasticine Constitution isn’t what symbolises Republic Day. The object of worship is state power.
The choice of the Asokan lions by Jawaharlal Nehru to epitomise sovereign authority was inspired. The resurrected icon conveyed an imperial-like authority and blessed the Indian state with gravitas. A powerful symbol of the Mauryas was an appropriate replacement for the Crown over the King-Emperor’s head.
A facet of British rule that appealed to Indians was its ‘ornamentalism’. The more imperial-minded of Britain’s representatives in India—Lord Wellesley and Lord Curzon in particular—took exceptional care to create monuments to power and authority. Even Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy entrusted with the job of unravelling the Empire, purposely made his first public appearance in full ceremonial regalia, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Republic Day is centred on this celebration of the spectacular. It is above all a celebration of the state by the state.
The contrast with August 15 couldn’t have been starker. Going by the calendar of the freedom movement, Independence Day should have fallen on January 26, not August 15. It was on that day in 1930 that the Congress adopted the Purna Swaraj resolution and put an end to all British hopes of retaining India as a self-governing dominion. Unfortunately, Mountbatten’s haste and Clement Atlee’s helplessness ruined old calculations. Nevertheless, despite this seasonal departures, August 15 has turned out the way January 26 was originally conceived—an occasion that commemorates democratic vibrancy, historical memory and the functioning anarchy of politics.
Not everything, however, has turned out the way it was conceived in 1930. The nationalist leaders chanted Vande Mataram while unfurling the tricolour; today, perhaps as an unspoken tribute to Subhas Bose’s INA, we chant Jai Hind. For a few, Vande Mataram’s associations are insufficiently secular. In 1930, even Jawaharlal Nehru wore the ubiquitous dhoti. He discarded it altogether after Independence and ‘modern’ India took that as the cue to mock the dhotiwallah. Nehru’s sartorial preferences became the ‘national dress.’ Finally, unlike the past when I-Day was spontaneous and improvised, Nehru made the ramparts of the Red Fort the permanent venue for the big speech. He was again prompted by symbolism. Red Fort stood for the sovereign authority of the Mughal badshah, even when actual control of the territories had passed to others. For independent India, the Red Fort came to epitomise the sovereignty of Delhi and, by extension, the unity of India.
Yet, there was one facet of national life that was defied the intrusions of the new Republic: popular memory. Despite many attempts to impose some order into India’s myriad past, there remains a fundamental gulf between ‘history’ and memory. The sanitised version sees Independence as a seamless journey from darkness to light. But that’s not how most Indians recall narrations of the past by grandparents and elders.
These stories are a mixed bag. There are tales of heroism peppered with the exaggerations of time; some are curious stories of, say, a kindly zamindar or a benevolent English District Magistrate, that defy stereotypes; and others are tales dotted with chronological silences. The past, as seen through the prism of August 15, is about all these experiences--family experiences that zigzag across political faultlines.
That is why there is something very special about August 15 that goes well beyond the Red Fort speech and the Manoj Kumar films on TV. This was the day the disparate expressions of hope and even despondency coalesced into an expression of nationhood. Independence was (and is) about the people’s own visions of the achche din. Together they add up something more potent and substantive than the philosophy of the Republic.
Hindustan Times, August 15, 2014
Thursday, August 14, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
There is something monotonously ritualistic about an Indian Budget and the reactions to it. The Opposition invariably attacks it for being ‘anti-people’, ‘inflationary’ and lacking originality; the government side gushes over the schemes the Finance Minister has commended; and the ever-cautious captains of industry are characteristically mealy-mouthed in their responses, underplaying the negative aspects and gushing over the positives.
The 2014 Union Budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley after barely 45 days in office evoked the familiar template reactions.
However, there was one thing that was dramatically different.
There was a substantial section of what the minister described as “studio pundits” comprising economists, political analysts and general busybodies who expressed disappointment with the budget for not being a radical departure from the past. They felt that the first budget of the Narendra Modi government should have set the political markers for India’s enthusiastic embrace of what, in shorthand, is called right-wing politics.
That there would be a body of opinion, supportive of the new dispensation, that calls a government’s judgment into question on account of not being adequately Right is itself a novelty in a country that remains, as per the Constitution, a ‘socialist’ republic. This mood change demands an examination.
About four years or so ago, when the then Congress minister Salman Khurshid was asked by a reporter why a particular budget presented by the UPA government hadn’t addressed ‘reforms’, he had replied (and I am quoting from memory): “We weren’t elected to bring in economic reforms.”
Khurshid implied that since equity and redistribution were the Congress’ priorities, the party should not be judged for a failure to undertake what it was never really committed to.
By the same logic, Modi will be judged by the popular expectation of the big change he brings to India in the next five years. In ideological terms, he will also be measured by the extent to which he can dismantle the Nehruvian consensus in both economic policy and political thinking.
To the community of the faithful that backed him enthusiastically for the top job in the face of liberal derision, Modi will not be examined by the lax standards reserved for the genial and over-consensual Atal Behari Vajpayee. Purely in terms of expectations, Modi’s will be juxtaposed with the iconic figures of the modern Right: Margaret Thatcher, Lee Kuan Yew, et al.
British Prime Minister David Cameron put it in perspective when he said that no other democratically-elected leader in today’s world has secured more votes than Prime Minister Modi. In the informal global community of the Right, the famous victory of May 2014 has already given Modi an exceptional status.
The challenge seems exceptionally daunting on account of the jumble of ideological baggage that Modi brings to the table.
Conventional wisdom has identified the Right in developing countries with authoritarianism and anti-democratic sentiment. The military coup against the romantic but thoroughly incompetent Left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile was organised by a Right alliance of the military and multinational corporations. Likewise, the junta that ran Greece briefly and the regimes of President Salazar in Portugal and General Franco in Spain have been clearly identified as ‘Right-wing’.
Our contemporary understanding of Right and Left evolved during the Cold War and the identification of the US and Soviet Union with democracy and one-party rule respectively. Yet, this line of distinction was continuously blurred and modified by realpolitik. The US unendingly supported military dictatorships that were avowedly anti-Communist and the erstwhile Soviet Union rarely hesitated to support national liberation movements - both democratic and authoritarian - that had an anti-West tilt.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s experiment with Communist Party-directed capitalism, the Left-Right lines have been further blurred. The US and the European Union have selectively embraced the cause of human rights and the so-called civil society movements have developed associations with the intellectual, post-Leninist Left.
Where does Modi, and, for that matter, the Bharatiya Janata Party, fit into this new polarisation?
For a start, it is important to remember that the BJP has consciously shunned the ‘Right’ label, preferring to be viewed in terms of its nationalist credentials. As a self-professed India First party, the BJP has traditionally focused its attacks on the ‘secular’ underpinnings of the Nehruvian consensus.
Its most dramatic surge happened in the elections of 1989 and 1991 when it mounted a vigorous attack on ‘pseudo-secularism’ using the disputed shrine in Ayodhya as the symbol. Between 1991 and 1998, the BJP wallowed in its “majestic isolation” and devoted its energies towards creating a community of Hindus that would vote as Hindus.
The project was partially successful but to make that extra leap into power at the Centre, the BJP had to forge alliances with other non-Congress regional parties and this in turn led to a dilution of its larger Hindutva project.
On paper the BJP remains committed to Hindutva as a basis of nationhood.
However, like socialism, a term prone to a multiplicity of definitions - some doctrinaire, others expedient - the importance of Hindutva in shaping the contours of practical politics has varied according to situations and individual inclinations. There was very little explicit cultural nationalism in the elections of 2004 and 2009, both of which were lost by the party.
On his part, throughout the 2014 election campaign Modi took exceptional care to keep all identity politics out of his speeches. The promise of achche din that won the BJP its most decisive national victory was entirely centred on jobs, opportunities, efficient government and better facilities for the citizen. There was nothing remotely metaphysical about the promised good times.
There was another dimension to the campaign: the hard selling of the Gujarat model of development. But whereas Modi’s detractors equated the Gujarat model with sectarian strife and the apparent neglect of the poor and the marginalised communities, the BJP twinned the relative success of Gujarat in the growth league with the aspirations of Young India. Modi quite consciously conjured a national dream built on both personal and collective aspirations - the desire to make a mark in the fiercely competitive world.
It was apparently clear from the aggressive campaign of Modi that the rapid economic growth of India was his one and only priority. It was also apparent that, unlike the UPA, he would not let doctrinaire consideration derail his project. He seemed to be echoing Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying about cats: “black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
In political terms, this refusal to echo the socialist consensus, paint the government as the proverbial ma-baap sarkar and uphold a decrepit welfare system that had a massive in-built transmission loss, were significant departures. Not since the Swatantra Party of CRajagopalachari bowed out of the political arena had any party campaigned on a plank that was so identifiably Right.
Modi may not be a Thatcher who was quite self-consciously a champion of free enterprise and free markets. He always projected his decisions as pragmatic rather than ideological choices. But since most of those choices were exercised in the context of Gujarat, it was apparent that Modi’s natural instincts were Right-of-centre.
The new government’s budget may have been shoddy in its presentation and was further hamstrung by its grim inheritance, a possible drought and rise in petroleum prices following a spate of renewed troubles in West Asia.
However, despite the tentativeness, the indications of a shift in the strategic direction of the economy were visible.
The first was the establishment of the principle that - everything else being equal - the government must ensure that there is more money in the hands of individual taxpayers to spend on themselves and their families. To many, the lessening of the direct tax burden by the finance minister may seem unduly modest and barely in line with inflation and rising costs. However, the mere fact that it was announced despite huge pressures on the exchequer was meant to reinforce a political principle.
The second feature of the budget was to shore up entrepreneurship in India. What distinguishes the Right (in all political parties) from those wedded to the Nehru-Indira consensus is the conviction that rapid economic growth will only come about through a spurt in entrepreneurship. By focusing on the reform and simplification of procedures - the details of which leave most of the middle classes mystified - the government talking of the ease of doing business in India.
Modi is among the few Indian politicians who genuinely believe that India is over-administered and under-governed. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s attention to business details was in line with the larger desire to create an environment conducive to entrepreneurship. In the coming months we are likely to see the government move more rapidly in the direction of the rationalisation and simplification of India’s business laws.
The third, and consciously understated, feature of the budget was the move away from the UPA’s bid to create a culture of welfare entitlements.
Although there have been major budgetary cuts in Sonia Gandhi’s flagship schemes such as MNREGA and the Right to Food programmes on account of a possible drought, the Modi government is slowly moving towards modifying some of these schemes. The creation of assets and skills are likely to feature as parallel objectives of programmes created for welfare handouts. This is certain to bring the government into direct conflict with the NGOs that were pampered and funded by the former government. But this conflict is perceived by the BJP as unavoidable and, in some cases, even welcome.
Finally, the Modi government want to roll back the operational areas of the state. This is in line with the ‘minimum government’ principle enunciated by Modi during the campaign. The report of the Expenditure Management Commission will probably create the blueprint of the proposed retreat.
There was a belief in some quarters that the Modi government would pick up from where the Vajpayee government left and resume its audacious privatisation programme. However, this is one area where the move to an ideological principle of the Thatcherite Right has witnessed a U-turn. The Modi government seems to be extremely disinclined to transfer control and management of large and viable public sector units from the government to either the private sector or professional managers.
This unwillingness stems from two factors.
First, Modi is of the belief, based on his Gujarat experiences, that it is possible to dramatically improve the performance and profitability of public sector undertakings (PSUs) by lessening political interference and giving managerial autonomy. What Modi wants is that there should be professional management but that the government should be the majority stakeholder.
Secondly, the BJP concluded during the post-mortem of the 2004 defeat that privatisation through strategic sales did not meet with popular endorsement and, in fact, made the government vulnerable to charges of cronyism.
Likewise, there is no doctrinaire commitment of the Modi dispensation in globalisation and free trade. There will be a definite opening-up of India to foreign capital and to overseas manufacturers. But this acknowledgment of the inevitability of globalisation will also be tempered by a larger desire to create a self-confident, indigenous capitalist class with a large footprint outside India.
In its thinking the BJP mirrors Indian capitalism’s profound wariness of gigantic corporations that lack a sense of rootedness.
In sum, there has been a marked Rightward shift in the political centre of gravity after the election. However, the rash use of terms such as ‘Thatcherite’ and ‘neo-liberal’ may not suffice to describe the new phenomenon in India.
Unlike the Left that is defined by a huge measure of universalism, the Right has traditionally lacked a doctrinal basis. The mental outlook of the Modi regime has been shaped by a blend of experience and political sense.
That is why the contours of Right thinking are unlikely to stay rigid over the next five years. The ideological orientation of the Indian Right is forever a work in progress - as it is for the Right in any country.
This article was originally written as a part of Forbes India's Independence Day special.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
As the monsoon session of Parliament draws to a close, the Narendra Modi government appears to be coming to terms with one of its initial miscalculations: the belief that the Congress will not go out of its way to threaten the passage of legislation aimed at securing economic reforms.
The belief that the Congress will wait for some more time before it turns belligerent in Parliament was actually based on two factors. First, it was felt that the Congress would not renege on its own commitment to reforms. The BJP felt that since the modifications in foreign direct investment in the insurance sector had also been favoured by the UPA, the Congress would keep its opposition nominal. Secondly, many Congress leaders appear to have struck private deals with the new government over personal privileges. The unstated assumption was that this was the price for the party’s good conduct, particularly in the Rajya Sabha where the Modi government is in a minority. Indeed, all through the initial months the NDA government had taken exceptional care to desist from everything that would be construed as vindictive.
The fragile understanding collapsed on account of the veto of the owners of the Congress Party. Whether this flat No by the Congress President was a consequence of her own commitment to flat earth economics or stemmed from a visceral anger at being denied the Leader of Opposition status will remain a matter of conjecture. However, the fact that being reduced to the ranks in protocol terms also coincided with the insolent questions being asked in the National Herald case and the rebellion in the Congress ranks may have influenced the decision to let slip the dogs of war. After an initial bout of disorientation the Congress appears to have woken up to a new reality. Its owners have gauged that unless the first family was seen to be in combat mode, the Congress would be torn apart by internal fissures.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was entirely right when he attributed Rahul Gandhi’s unexpected journey to the well of the Lok Sabha and his subsequent disparaging comments on the Speaker to the threat of a palace coup. Given half a chance many of his colleagues would have discerned a link between mounting speculation over Priyanka Gandhi’s future involvement in the Congress and the possible legal complications that may well engulf the most colourful member of the dynasty—one Robert Vadra.
However, what the BJP leadership needs to answer is why it allowed a beleaguered dynasty three months time to recover its composure. It is not the time that is consequential but the fact that the interregnum between the election results and Rahul’s Red Bull moment in the Lok Sabha has proved politically counter-productive to the BJP. In politics timing is all-important and the BJP let slip the moment to really turn the screws on its principal opponent. Today, not only does the Congress believe that the BJP is vulnerable—a bot of an over-optimistic prognosis—but that with the help of friendly English-language papers and TV channels it can shift the agenda to issues that suit it.
The linkages between, say, the Indian Express’ determination to make communal polarisation the principal issue affecting India and Rahul’s resurrection of the jholawala-communalist-sponsored Communal Violence Bill are obvious. The sensibilities of the Gandhis are formed by what the NGOs and Left-liberal media thinks. Thus, if the prevailing consensus of the beautiful people is that Hindu Rashtra has arrived in western Uttar Pradesh, the likes of Rahul and his court will parrot that one-sided version of reality.
In the normal course, the BJP would have challenged this narrative with characteristic robustness. However, since Modi assumed charge in late-May, the BJP as a party has been gripped by paralysis with its stalwarts looking increasingly at what positions they can get either in the government or the party. The three by-elections in Uttarakhand weren’t lost on account of any creeping disappointment with the Modi government—it is still too early for people to signal thumbs-down. The loss can be explained by over-confidence and endemic local factionalism—a problem that has also affected the BJP’s Delhi unit.
Finding the right balance between party and government is difficult in any democracy. It is more so in India where many political activists believe that they should be handsomely rewarded for past services to the cause. In the past three months, the BJP let slip a wonderful chance to send the Congress to the cleaners. Its misplaced faith in the politics of manipulation saw the party loses opportunities to unearth many of the misdeeds of the past.
Take a few recent examples. The supposed misdeeds of the Syndicate Bank chairman was linked to the Congress in many ways. The BJP should have used it as an opportunity to arouse popular anger against the misuse of nationalised banks for political wheeling-dealing. Unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. Congress embarrassment was met with BJP silence. Then there was the case of the nine government bungalows allotted to the national Treasurer of the Congress. It was a great opportunity to highlight the perverse mindset of the Congress, the same mentality that former Governor Beniwal used to good effect in Rajasthan. Once again the BJP failed to look a gift horse in the mouth. These examples can be replicated in the states.
As Amit Shah assumes the presidency, the BJP has to realise one thing: it is not the job of the Congress to maintain it in power. The Congress will try to claw back its influence and recover lost ground. Its survival as a party depends on their ability to ensure that BJP rule is short-lived. The puzzling question is: why should the BJP tacitly cooperate in this venture. It may be a stupid notion but in my book political rivals never declare peace on each other. If they do, the side that continues with the war through other means always wins.
Sunday Pioneer, August 10, 2014