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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2016 presents opportunity for PM Modi to retrieve lost momentum

By Swapan Dasgupta

If there is indeed a tide in the affairs of man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its shining manifestation in 2015. In the preceding year, he had demonstrated his golden touch by captivating the national imagination, breaking a 21-year jinx and winning a single-party majority in the Lok Sabha, and setting the stage for a remoulding of India.

The dream run, however, ended in 2015. Beginning with the devastating defeat in the Delhi assembly election and culminating in the pre-Diwali decimation in Bihar, Modi was shown up to be politically vulnerable. Sustained Opposition pressure and misgivings within his own coalition ensured that the Land Acquisition Bill was abandoned. And it was an unrelenting Congress, determined to make life as harrowing as possible for the government, which stalled the passage of the goods and services tax legislation through the Rajya Sabha. In between, the administration was wrong footed by a revolt of the intellectuals centred on fears of growing intolerance. A polarised political climate also ensured that the goodwill for India generated by the punishing pace of his overseas visits was insufficiently reflected at home. In 2015, the Modi government was contested every inch of the way, including in spheres where it should have earned rich accolades. Until the surprise Christmas visit to Lahore re-established his audacious streak, it almost seemed that with more than three years of his term remaining, the Modi government was inflicted with a debilitating limp.

The largely favourable response to his brief stopover in Lahore to bond with Nawaz Sharif carries two important lessons.

First, it is apparent that the belief — widespread in some ‘liberal’ circles — that Modi has exhausted his reserves of popular goodwill is both rash and premature. There may be disquiet that the flowering of India’s unrealised potential people expected after the 2014 outcome hasn’t become visible, but there is no indication that the impatience has led to the government and the prime minister being written off. India still wants Modi to succeed and even usher something resembling the promised achche din. The aspirational urge that Modi successfully tapped into in 2014 is still intact and hasn’t been subsumed by despondency.

Second, it would seem that the Modi government experiences popular traction the most when it demonstrates out-of-the-box audacity in both domestic and international affairs. Whether it is the voluntary surrender of the LPG subsidy, which may have released some Rs 12,000 crore for other productive uses, the announcement of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train or even the Swachch Bharat programme, which has so far yielded patchy returns, Modi has always been seen to be inspirational when he thinks big and seeks to propel India into the 21st century. This has less to do with the incrementalism versus radicalism debate that agitates policy analysts than with the popular expectations from Modi. There are moments in history when a country is inclined towards charting a safe course. However, the 2014 excitement over Modi was not based on expectations of stodgy governance. On the contrary, the verdict was for a disruptive shift in politics and governance. When Modi feeds those impulses, he wins endorsement. Caution fuels disappointment.

If this assessment of the national mood is true, it would follow that the Modi government’s setbacks in 2015 stemmed from a flawed political management. Discounting tactical miscalculations — such as positing the national Modi, rather than the local Modi, against Nitish Kumar in Bihar — which can be rectified, the larger problem stems from a mismatch of expectations between the BJP’s activist base and the floating voters that determine political outcomes.

It is by now clear that Modi’s passion is rapid development and the transformation of India into a developed economy. If there is a conscious cultural agenda, it lies in creating a nationalist consensus around symbols that may be either secular modern or rooted in heritage. The Congress sought to instil a form of ‘constitutional patriotism’ whereas Modi is partial to a more organic nationalism. However, this cultural agenda, while important to the voter base that is in constant search of bhavnatmak (emotional) themes, is secondary to the bigger project of the material transformation of India. Over much of the past year, there has been a tussle (so vividly captured in the social media battleground) between activists who seek to push through rapid cultural change and a government that is travelling down a very different road. This has produced a political incoherence that has been gleefully exploited by those whose image of Modi was frozen in 2002. The Prime Minister has tried to change the culture of governance but hasn’t addressed the fact that his political support systems are often singing a different tune altogether. His refusal to negotiate the contradictions head-on has served to create an erroneous impression that he has a collusive relationship with the hotheads.

It is also a communications mishap. The government has failed to make its performance the central agenda of discourse. Many of the more people-centric initiatives such as financial inclusion, the MUDRA scheme and the creation of self-contributory-cum-government-subsidised welfare schemes are important measures that have suffered from a publicity deficit — particularly when compared to initiatives to improve the ease of doing business. This has meant that the government has had to do battle on agendas determined by either its opponents or a headline-seeking media. And even when development has been in the public gaze, the focus areas have been rarefied. Was this a factor behind the inability of the BJP to retain the support of poorer voters in Delhi and Bihar?

From Modi’s perspective, it is fortuitous that the alarm bells have been sounded even before the government is halfway through its term. 2016 presents an opportunity to retrieve the momentum.


Hindustan Times, December 30, 2015

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas is for everyone

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Having spent the first 16 years of my life in Calcutta—as it was then called—Christmas has always been burra din to me. It was (and probably still is) the best time for visiting the city that has been marginalised by history. It’s the time when, traditionally, the old ‘white town’ around Park Street assumes a joyous character, when the clubs resurrect their long-forgotten specialities such as suckling pig and when gentlemen dress their part. 

 

For the small Christian community in the city, there is a special religious character to Christmas. Some of us have even witnessed this in the midnight mass at the grand St Paul’s Cathedral—an imposing monument to the time when our rulers nominally paid allegiance to the Church of England. In my childhood, the Christian service was conducted in English, and I have extremely happy memories singing robust Anglican hymns at the morning assembly in school. I still chuckle recalling the Friday sermon of the erudite Reverend Subir Biswas, then Bishop of St Paul’s, not least because of his measured, halting delivery and his unending use of the line “when I was in Durgapore”—he always pronounced it as Durgapore, never Durgapur. 

 

In my personal experience, Christianity wasn’t much of an evangelical religion. Yes, there were odd occasions when some visiting padre—they mostly happened to be American for some strange reason—would try to impress us with sermons explaining why Jesus Christ offered the only salvation. But these were stray distractions. In the main, La Martiniere, despite being nominally Christian, was really not very religious. The morning assembly had a Christian dimension and the Lord’s Prayer was dutifully recited but the ethos was unmistakably non-religious and aimed at inculcating a collegiate spirit. It didn’t really matter—unless there was a pronunciation mishap—what the lesson of the day was about. The more important announcements were yesterday’s cricket match or the forthcoming ‘social’ with the girl’s school across the road. 

 

For many years after leaving school, I could never fathom the place of Christianity in my school education. Yes, I knew Book of Common Prayer, had my selection of favourite English hymns and was broadly familiar with the King James version of the Bible, but these seemed to me to be facets of English culture which, while peppered with religion, was also both secular and national. Decades later, I read a book on Englishness by the journalist Jeremy Paxman. He too appreciated the casual and laid back attitude of the Church of England—and described it as the “God is a good chap” approach. It encapsulated my encounters with Christianity in Calcutta and subsequently at St Stephen’s College, Delhi (another institution established by the Church of England) and colleges in London and Oxford. 

 

I am told and that this unobtrusive approach has been long discarded, in India at least, and replaced by a more in-your-face Christianity—the hallmark of the evangelical churches in the American Bible belt. By this logic, Christmas is automatically transformed into a festival for believing Christians only, with no role for those who observe December 25 as a cultural festival, celebrating a facet of Western life. 

 

Not that this truncation of Christmas into an occasion for true believers alone is something that I have observed in the United Kingdom—the place from which burra din travelled to India. 

 

This year, I spent much of October and November in London that gave me an opportunity to spend a lot of time with old friends. Invariably our conversations veered to Christmas and the traditional family lunch that accompanied it. One college friend, a Barrister, explained at length a recipe for Christmas pudding she had been bequeathed by an eccentric great uncle that involved using suet—which she collected from her local butcher—but no flour. Another friend, now a professor at my alma mater, narrated the elaborate steps she had taken to ensure that the turkey would be delivered to a neighbour, awaiting her return to London on December 23 from a lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand. She had already prepared many Christmas puddings for her own use and for distribution to her friends. I look forward to having it on Christmas Eve, along with the mince pies I picked up at the duty-free shop in Heathrow. 

 

Neither of my friends is a church-going Christian. One is married to a cartoonist who is a leading light of a movement for a secular Britain. The other, also nominally a Church of England Anglican, is married to a non-practicing Roman Catholic. For them, as I observed, Christmas is both a public occasion—witness the endless rounds of office parties and pre-Christmas gatherings where vast quantities of alcohol is consumed—and a family gathering where presents are exchanged and where it is customary for the inebriated to listen to the Queen’s speech in the late afternoon. It so reminded me of the Bijoya celebrations on the last day of Durga Puja that is so important to Bengalis. And it reminded me of the family reunions that mark the week around Diwali. 

 

Over the years, particularly with the explosion of consumerism around Durga Puja, Diwali and Christmas, the religious underpinnings of the festivals has been sharply eroded. In Bengal I have also noticed how the ‘Durgotsav’ has been secularised by called it ‘Sharadutsov’ (autumn festival). 

 

I am sure that there are similar attempts in the UK too. The number of nativity tableaux has shrunk and the odd Christmas card now says ‘Season’s Greetings’ rather than ‘Merry Christmas.’ It has been suggested that this shift is propelled by multicultural impulses—why assume everyone is a Christian in UK? The point is well taken but the underlying assumption is flawed. Why should we assume that my festival is a closed shop for believers alone? In the case of Christmas and, for that matter, Diwali or the four days of Durga Puja, the celebration is both of a faith and a culture. 

 

In most societies, religion and culture are intertwined. By confining it to narrow, exclusive compartments, we lose out on the richness of human experience. 

Asian Age, December 25, 2015


Friday, December 18, 2015

After Bihar: Even in decline the Congress wants the biggest anti-BJP space

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

If a wave of intolerance was indeed sweeping through India, making a mockery of the cherished ‘idea of India’ and putting our democracy at risk, why has the threat evaporated so abruptly since Diwali? 

 

This is a question that has intrigued me ever since ‘intolerance’ disappeared from the front pages of newspapers and was no longer the subject of shrill television debates. It can hardly be the case that such a grave threat is purely seasonal and that the fascists in khaki shorts have decided to take a winter break from intellectual bashing. If the threat was as fundamental as it was made out to be, would it have dissipated after the overdue meeting of the Sahitya Akademi and a lively (and undisturbed) debate in Parliament, not to mention angry editorial comments in the New York Times, Guardian and Economist? If Narendra Modi is indeed the Hitler he is made out to be, he must be a papier-mâché replica. A more authentic Fuhrer would certainly have bared his fangs menacingly. 

 

Maybe the answer lies in the conclusive outcome of the Bihar Assembly election—which one extremely ridiculous commentary compared with the unequivocal anti-Emergency verdict in 1977. At the risk of sounding conspiratorial, let me suggest that the entire kerfuffle over beef and intolerance was aimed at elevating the political opposition to the regime and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party into a more fundamental question of civil liberties and minority vulnerability. If that indeed was the purpose—and the implication is that a large number of those who made up the award wyapsigang were what Lenin called “useful idiots”—it succeeded beyond all expectations. The BJP was forced on to the back foot confronting an agenda over which it had no control, and a spectacular degree of opposition unity was achieved—with even the doughty anti-corruption crusader Arvind Kejriwal embracing Lalu Yadav. 

 

Both the BJP and the parties decimated in the 2014 poll attached a great deal of importance to the Bihar election. For the BJP, a victory or at least a creditable showing was absolutely essential for two reasons. First, it was necessary to establish that the momentum of 2014 centred on Modi—so much in evidence in Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir—hadn’t entirely dissipated. Secondly, like in 2014, the BJP set out to establish that political chemistry could prevail over electoral arithmetic. BJP strategists proceeded on the assumption that the votes of the Janata Dal (United), Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress wouldn’t transfer in its entirety to the Mahagathbandhan

 

The two assumptions turned out to be flawed. Modi is still an extremely popular figure—as the huge crowds in his public meetings so vividly demonstrated—but an Assembly election isn’t a Lok Sabha election and the Prime Minister’s national standing couldn’t prevail over the respect Nitish Kumar commanded for providing Bihar with a half-decent administration over a decade. Strangely, the BJP, which too had a seminal role in the recovery of Bihar from Lalu’s ‘jungle raj’, chose not to demand a share of the credit. On the contrary, the incessant invocation of the possibility of Bihar being again overwhelmed by whimsical governance led to a spectacular consolidation of Lalu’s dedicated bank behind the three-party alliance. With the chemistry going wrong, the high index of anti-BJP unity was reflected in the results. 

 

For the combined opposition, the biggest take-away from Bihar was the proof that the BJP was most vulnerable when it was confronted with a united challenge. The Bihar Chief Minister whose long-term national ambitions are no great secret appears to be the most active in fostering anti-BJP unity at all levels. He is understood to be particularly active in Assam, trying to forge some form of tactical understanding between a beleaguered Congress, an increasingly marginalised Asom Gana Parishad and Badruddin Ajmal’s UMFA that wants an overt Muslim role in the governance of the state. The project is challenging and may not ultimately fructify, given the conflicting impulses at play. But what is significant is that a serious attempt is being made to extend the logic of the Mahagathbandan to every state where the BJP has a meaningful presence. 

 

What is significant about these backroom parleys to create a united challenge to the BJP in 2019 is that the driving force is the non-Congress. In a revealing interview during the campaign, Nitish Kumar was asked to explain his sudden fondness for the Congress that had been the historic enemy of the followers of Ram Manohar Lohia. His answer—“But where is the Congress?”—may have underestimated the potential of the principal opposition party but it does indicate his belief that the long-term decline of the Congress is an inescapable reality. Yet, there is the realisation that without the Congress no strong anti-BJP is possible.  

 

If Nitish’s calculation is valid, has the Congress grasped its predicament? Can the Congress—which still has a presence all over India—be reconciled to a national coalition where it is not the senior partner and which does not project Rahul Gandhi as the leader? There are indications that the Congress does not want to address this question as yet, at least not before the results of the Assembly elections in Assam and Punjab. However, quite instinctively, the Congress will not be very happy with any arrangement that doesn’t acknowledge the primacy of the Gandhis, if not the party. 

 

It is primarily to secure the lion’s share of the anti-BJP space that the Congress has opted for its total war strategy in Parliament. In making it abundantly clear that it will not allow any legislation to be cleared (or even debated) in the Rajya Sabha where it is still the largest party, the Gandhis are conducting a classic asymmetric war. All it needs is the mobilisation of some 40 or so MPs and indulgence of the chair to create a Constitutional crisis and, by implication, make the Modi government appear dysfunctional. 

 

There is another unstated purpose. By ensuring uninterrupted disruption of the Upper House, the Congress is trying to ensure its own leadership of in the opposition. On the Goods and Services Tax issue, for example, the regional parties are broadly in favour of the measure—Nitish, Mamata, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Naveen Patnaik have said so clearly. Its disruption is aimed at preventing a vote at all costs and making the Modi government look ineffective—thereby puncturing the Prime Minister’s image as a no-nonsense, decisive leader. 

 

Rahul Gandhi’s approach is out and out adventurist. However, he has been able to get away for two reasons. First, the other opposition parties are still unwilling to allow the internal cracks in the anti-BJP ranks to emerge. They are happy to see Modi brought down a notch or two. Secondly, despite all the post-Bihar attempts, the agenda is still not being set by the Prime Minister, and certainly not in a media that has turned spectacularly hostile. The lingering after-effects of the contrived debate on intolerance and majoritarianism still persist. The ominous implications of a non-functioning Parliament does not seem to concern the liberal classes, still nursing a deep resentment over exclusion from the power structure.

 

The Winter session of Parliament seems headed for a complete washout. How long will this paralysis of the legislature continue? By going for the kill even before the government has completed two years, Rahul Gandhi has left himself little room for manoeuvre. Has his recklessness, in the process, also facilitated a shift in the national agenda, on terms more to the liking of the Prime Minister? 

The Telegraph, December 18, 2015


Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sonia's swagger

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

Unlike many political leaders who are inclined to shoot from the hip, Congress President Sonia Gandhi takes caution to an extreme. Whether this is born out of her own tentativeness in matters of public policy or stems from a very European penchant for rigour over impulsiveness is something best left to professional Sonia-watchers to assess. What, however, is undeniable that the Congress matriarch very rarely deviates from a carefully considered script—at least as far as public utterances are concerned. She leaves very little to either chance. 

 

There is now emerging evidence to suggest that Mrs Gandhi’s public response to the Delhi High Court decision summoning her and all the other respondents to make a personal appearance on December 19 in connection with the National Herald case wasn’t spontaneous. Her seemingly defiant assertion—“I am the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi. I am not scared of anyone.”— was crafted after exhaustive consultations with lawyers and other senior leaders of the Congress. It was, in short, a carefully considered response to an event few in her charmed circle had even anticipated. 

 

The scripted response is very significant for what it reveals about both the Congress President and the political impulses of the party. That the daughter-in-law was quite consciously drawing a parallel between her predicament and that of Indira Gandhi during the Janata Party interregnum between 1977 and 1979 is obvious. For many in the Congress, the manner in which the imperious Indira challenged the attempts of the Janata government to prosecute her for the Emergency ‘excesses’ is the stuff of legends. In the Congress mythology the horrors of the Emergency and the electoral debacle of 1975 has been seamlessly merged with the post-Emergency revival of the party by the supreme leader. Far from being contrite over the 19-month suspension of democracy, the Congress remains completely unapologetic about its record. Indeed, Indira Gandhi’s dramatized arrest and the contempt she showered on the Shah Commission have come to be regarded as model responses to political adversity. The intellectual origins of the Congress Party’s disruption of Parliament and its determination to prevent all legislative business in the Rajya Sabha where it still has a commanding presence can be traced back to Indira Gandhi’s bellicosity between 1977 and 1979. 

 

Secondly, by reaffirming her political pedigree, the Congress President was driving home the point that the dynastic principle remains the defining creed of the Congress. The Congress may well have slumped to its worst electoral performance in 2014, but what is noteworthy is that no accusing finger was pointed at either the Congress President or Vice President Rahul Gandhi—at least not publicly. By invoking her mother-in-law, Sonia Gandhi was also informing her party supporters that the Congress will not exist as a cohesive body without the dynastic cement. Not that there is any immediate danger of the Congress falling apart or undergoing a split along the lines of the one experienced in 1977 when stalwarts such as Brahmananda Reddy, Devraj Urs, Siddharth Shankar Ray, Y.B. Chavan and Sharad Pawar expelled Indira Gandhi from the party. But Sonia Gandhi was merely issuing a reminder that the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi are joined at the hip. 

 

Sonia Gandhi’s defiant invocation of Indira Gandhi was directed principally at her own party and aimed at bolstering the argument that the attitude towards the Narendra Modi government must not stop short of total and uncompromising war. The Congress has been at pains to suggest that accusations of corruptions—whether levelled by government agencies against former ministers or private individuals such as Subramanian Swamy against the Gandhi family—are imaginary, spiteful and politically motivated.  For the purposes of this argument, even the important distinction between executive action and judicial scrutiny has been obliterated. Thus, the tax raids on Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh and Karti Chidambaram (son of P. Chidambaram) has been put on par with a High Court notice to the Gandhi family and its close associates to make a personal appearance. 

 

To the untrained eye, the fuss over a mere personal appearance may seem a trifle excessive and over the top. Sonia Gandhi’s carefully considered response may have been dripping with political meanings that the loyal Congress worker would have grasped. To the outsider, the response seems eerily similar to the question that many petty officials and ordinary citizens have often been asked by people walking with a swagger: Jaantey nehin main kaun hoon? (Don’t you know who I am?) 

 

That Sonia Gandhi responded to a High Court summons with the ultimate Delhi swagger statement is revealing and points to the possible disconnect between those who think politically and those who live life normally. 

 

But maybe this very Indian mantra of arrogance was necessitated by an associated compulsion: to ensure the special status of the Gandhi family in a Republic that is ostensibly committed to the principle of equality before the law. The creation of a royal mystique around the proverbial first family is an important facet of the Congress Party’s projection of itself as the natural party of government and its more exalted members as special citizens. The presence of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi inside a crowded courtroom of the Delhi High Court is by no means a colossal inconvenience. Its importance is purely symbolic: to indicate that there is nominal equality before the law. Yet it is that symbolism that the custodians of the Congress find so utterly repugnant. 

 

If, on December 19, the “first family” stands up before the presiding judge, as all respondents in a court case routinely do, it will diminish its lofty standing in the eyes of the people. It will establish a principle that, perhaps, wasn’t meant for universal application. In Britain, the only remaining country (along with Japan) with a highly evolved sense of royalty, there is a Constitutional principle: “The Queen (or King) can do no wrong.” The state is represented in the person of the monarch and it implies that the Queen in person cannot be dragged to court. 

 

That’s a principle some devotees ideally would want to literally extend to the monarch of the Congress. “A subject and a sovereign” King Charles I maintained, even as he faced his executioner, “are clean different things.” The Congress loyalists would agree. 


Asian Age, December 10, 2015

Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen: This is the grassroots revolt against condescension

By Swapan Dasgupta

Donald Trump was being wilfully outrageous when he said last week that the United States should shut its doors on all Muslims—his response to the equally outrageous gunning down of civilians in California by a couple with a commitment to ISIS. Yet his approach was by no means unique. In falling back on polemical exaggeration, he was merely following a time-tested technique of protest: using drama to force attention on an issue. In effect, he was doing with words what the terrorists he so loathes do with guns or bombs. 

To locate the billionaire aspirant for the Republican nomination in a familiar mould does not amount to condoning his shock and awe approach to conventional politics. Trump believes in showering all those who disagree with him or whose priorities are different with abuse. In that sense he is no different from the profane trolls who have brought social media into disrepute. 

However, it is insufficient to be smug pillorying merely Trump for his abrasive articulation of issues—as many liberals are prone to doing.  Despite the earlier predictions of the pundits that Trump will sooner or later shoot himself in the foot, there is now a creeping realisation that his outrageous remarks are having absolutely no impact on his popularity among a section of voters. He is, for the moment, maintaining his lead over other Republican hopefuls for the White House. And while his chances of winning the presidential election in November 2106 are not rated highly, some polls indicate he may secure as much as 40 per cent of the popular vote. 

A Trump presidency is extremely unlikely but what is far more noteworthy is the fact that the protest he articulates so crudely is resonating in many other societies. Last week, the Front National led by the persuasive Marine Le Pen won major victories in the French provincial elections and outshone the traditional centre-right party. Le Pen, with her robust but more soberly articulated anti-immigration and anti-European Union message was the direct beneficiary of the public disquiet over the November 12 Paris massacre. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel who is seen as the personification of a new, cosmopolitan, (some would say) post-Christian Enlightenment has suddenly found that a significant section of ordinary Germans are not reacting too kindly to the sudden influx of a wave of refugees from Syria. A similar mood is also discernible even in Sweden, hitherto regarded as the citadel of uber-liberalism. 

What binds these different expressions of unease and protest is the disturbing fact that they are being channelled through individuals or groups that were hitherto on the fringes or not even part of the political process. Trump, for example, is not a part of the traditional Republican establishment and a stranger to politics. Likewise, the Front National has traditionally been regarded as a neo-fascist, fringe group obsessed with archaic notions of French exceptionalism. 

The implications are ominous. They suggest that in their readiness to conform to a pre-determined agenda that combines liberal priorities with stifling political correctness, the traditional politicians are often inclined to overlook concerns that smack of prejudice. This doesn’t affect those who have the clout and the access to get themselves heard in the right quarters. However, the little guy, whose views are often forged through direct experiences or even fear, and who lacks articulation, finds himself ignored and subjected to changes he never wanted. “We weren’t asked” is a common refrain of rooted individuals and communities who have seen their neighbourhood landscapes changes unrecognisably in their own lifetime. As traditional politicians mouth platitudes, this section feel alienated and look to those willing to acknowledge they have a case.  The non-political Trump or the incessantly reviled Le Pen end up as unlikely heroes because the little guy with some genuine concerns for the future doesn’t like being patronised, talked down to and told by some member of the smart set that he is a bigot. 

Trump and Le Pen are refusing to go away because they have raised issues that conventional politicians and even the media fear to take seriously. What we are witnessing is also a grassroots revolt against condescension. What are debunked as prejudices also matter. 

Sunday Times of India, December 13, 2015
  

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The muddle over Syria - Destruction of the ISIS would make way for something worse

By Swapan Dasgupta

Any history of World War I is incomplete without a reference to the mass hysteria that greeted the declaration of war in August 1914. There were undoubtedly a few - like the British foreign secretary, Edward Grey - who recognized that the lights were going out all over Europe and signalling the death of the old Europe. However, for most people in both Great Britain and Germany, the beginning of the war -which most people expected to be over by Christmas - was the occasion for boisterous flag waving and displays of loyalty to the king or his cousin, the Kaiser.

Viewed in hindsight, the mass enthusiasm for war was completely misplaced. Even a hundred years later, the scars of the four year war are still visible, not so much in Germany which was to undergo yet another traumatic experience just two decades later. But in the United Kingdom, monuments of the Great War are all pervasive. There is no small town in either England or Scotland that doesn't have a war memorial commemorating the scores or even hundreds of young men who marched to war so enthusiastically and died horrible deaths in the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Gallipoli. The Armistice Day, commemorated each November 11, is inevitably tinged with sadness for a lost generation.

Historians may proffer their own analysis but I cling to the belief that the Great War ended the British enthusiasm for empire and war. Yes, there was the valiant fight back against Hitler just two decades later. But in spite of the Churchillian doughtiness that was so much in evidence amid adversity, the last vestiges of militarism had been squeezed out of Albion by 1918. Neville Chamberlain wasn't a coward. His 'appeasement' of Hitler to prevent war wasn't a simple accommodation of tyranny; it reflected the popular weariness of a war that everyone knew would be long and horrible.

I was reminded of Britain's melancholy past when confronted with the war noises that have emanated all over Europe following the massacre in Paris on the night of November 13. As I write, the BBC has just announced a unanimous cabinet resolution that will be presented to the House of Commons for endorsement. The resolution, if passed with a sufficient majority and cross-party support, will commit the UK to a war with the fledgling but bestial Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in West Asia. France's President François Hollande, stung by the Paris attacks, has declared that his country is at war. France has joined the United States of America and Russia in bombing ISIS bases located in both Iraq and Syria. Now, if the members of parliament resoundingly oblige, the Royal Air Force will join the bombing missions.

The fact that the British prime minister, David Cameron, has to go pleading to Parliament to join the solidarity offensive against ISIS is itself telling. Ever since Tony Blair committed British forces to a war against Saddam Hussein's yet undiscovered 'weapons of mass destruction', the right to wage war does not automatically vest with the executive. Constitutionally, this is a grey area and dependent on circumstances. However, following the non-productive outcome of interventions in both Afghanistan and Iraq, British prime ministers prefer the route of abundant caution. In 2013, Cameron tried to involve the UK in the war on ISIS but was rebuffed by Parliament - including Conservative MPs who were unconvinced of a direct British stake. This time there are indications that MPs will give a thumbs up but the prime minister has had to use every ounce of political persuasion to secure an approval - without which, he felt, Britain could not look France in the eye.

To some extent Cameron is right. The Mumbai-style attacks in Paris may have been masterminded from Belgium and involved young men and women of Algerian and Moroccan origin but it could just as well have happened in London or, for that matter, another European city. The UK, for example, has been absolutely horrified by the number of British Muslims - including women barely out of school - who have been motivated by ISIS evangelists into joining the struggle for a new Caliphate. The same set of people who were earlier inspired by al Qaida into bombing the London Underground and plotting (thwarted) attacks on Heathrow may well be now dreaming of waging the war for Islam and against Western 'sin' inside Europe.

In spite of its record of barbarity, ISIS has successfully linked itself to the wider narrative of Muslim victimhood. There may be some embarrassment over its record of decapitation and destruction of archaeological treasures, but the soft support for an assertion of Islam's power should not be underestimated. Certainly, there appears to be greater passive support for the Caliphate within Europe's Muslims than among Muslims in the areas where ISIS is either present or poses a threat to established regimes. The crowd hostility to a minute's silence in memory of the Paris victims at a football game in Turkey may well be an aberration, but it could also be indicative.

Yet, in a bout of collective heart bleeding, Europe has opened its doors to a human flood that carries both dreams of a better life and unfamiliarity with Europe's common decencies.

The unanswered question is: how will the bombing of ISIS-held Syria alter this mindset? To my mind, more horror stories of civilian casualties will only harden Muslim opinion and even galvanize 'lone wolf' attacks in Europe. ISIS, it is agreed, has to be militarily destroyed. Can that be achieved by bombing from the air? None of the international powers want their soldiers on the ground, fighting on unfamiliar terrain and being exposed to IED bombs and sniper attacks. But destruction of ISIS, without an alternative to replace it, will only pave the way for something even more barbarous.

If there are no credible answers to these questions, it lies in the naïve Western belief that the existing regimes in West Asia are all unworthy and should be uprooted. In private, I have heard Britons suggesting that the real target should be Iran and Saudi Arabia - the different 'roots' of the problem. Included in this chamber of horrors is President Bashar al-Assad, the original target of the West's derision whose destabilization created the ISIS problem.

Assad may well be a nasty piece of work whose track record is dodgy. However, in encouraging a civil war against his regime, the West was guilty of believing that liberal democracy can be exported and replicated the world over, from Burma to Syria. Only Russia has desisted from attacking Assad, seeing him as the only guarantor of stability in Syria. But then, the West doesn't expect any enlightenment from President Vladimir Putin.

At its loftiest, 'Western intervention' is premised on the belief that bad dictators will give way - with some Western help - to good democrats, like the lady in Yangon. In the popular imagery, all the Muslim rulers are suspect even if, like Turkey's Erdogan, they have used democracy to win power. Assad is just doubly bad. Of course, some of the baddies are great for business and for inward investment to Britain but, at the same time, they can't be too explicitly endorsed without alluding to human rights.

This squeamishness didn't exist in the past - neither with Gordon 'Pasha' nor with T.E. Lawrence. That is why they were good imperialists. Today's liberal imperialists are blessed with attitude and political correctness but they don't want to really get their hands grubby. In seeking the best of all worlds, minus any personal discomfiture, Europe is gradually becoming incapable of defining national interest. The muddle over Syria has brought history and hypocrisy together in an awkward coalition.

THIS PIECE WAS WRITTEN BEFORE THE
CABINET RESOLUTION WAS PASSED BY
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS ON
DECEMBER 3

The Telegraph, December 4, 2015