Sunday, May 25, 2014

An Indian Revolutionary What is it about the Modi mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?

By Swapan Dasgupta
The excruciatingly long election campaign was bonanza time for speculators, brokers and the media. By contrast, counting day on 16 May, which had promised to be the grand finale for the merchants of uncertainty, turned out to be a roaring anti-climax. Exactly 63 minutes after the first Electronic Voting Machine poured out its data to the tellers, TV channels were in competition to declare that Narendra Modi would be the next Prime Minister of India with a clear majority for the National Democratic Alliance. It took just another hour or so for the even more dramatic announcement: that for the first time since the 1984 electoral verdict, the Indian voter had given a single party a clear majority of seats.
The arithmetic of the 2014 poll proved unexpectedly easy to compute. What the assembled ranks of the punditry found more daunting was to figure out the meaning of the historic mandate. What does Modi’s emphatic victory mean?
That the process of making sense of the mandate has proved to be a long-drawn work-in-progress isn’t entirely surprising. Comprehending the scale and magnitude of Modi’s victory first involved the arduous job of clearing the landscape of its intellectual debris. For the past three years or so, ever since the possibility of projecting the Gujarat Chief Minister as the BJP’s national face first began to be seriously discussed, the presiding deities of academia and media were near-unanimous on one count: the idea of Prime Minister Modi was a laughable absurdity.
Nor did Modi’s conclusive victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2012 prompt a measure of intellectual contrition. On the contrary, the India hands of the West, the social scientists at home and the English-language editorialists feverishly fed each other’s visceral hatred of the Modi Project. Beginning from the non-negotiable contention that centrist politics is imperative for any all-India appeal to the more recondite dissections of Modi’s incompatibility with the ‘idea of India’, the artillery assault on the perceived icon of the ‘Hindu Right’ was relentless.
First, it was presumed that Modi would find no takers outside Gujarat. Second, it was believed that an alliance of the Nagpur Brahmins and LK Advani would ensure that the BJP kept Modi away from Delhi. Third, it was broadcast that Modi wouldn’t secure RSS backing to be projected as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Fourth, it was felt that the presence of Modi at the helm would repel existing allies and deter future allies. Fifth, the conviction that the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party would emerge as a roadblock to both the Congress and BJP became conventional wisdom among editorialists and academics. Finally, the estimated number of MPs it would take Modi to form a half-viable coalition kept climbing upwards—from a BJP tally of 180 (‘Surely he can’t better Vajpayee’s record’) to 240 (a target thought impossible). There were self-serving reports of a ‘160 Club’ in the BJP with a clear anyone-but-Modi agenda.
What is particularly remarkable is that the more Modi cleared each successive hurdle, the more the Modi-haters went into denial. In the final stages of the campaign, when it became apparent that neither a disoriented Congress nor an over-stretched AAP was capable of halting a Modi who had occupied the centrestage of popular discourse, the punditry fell back on the Muslim and caste vote. A dissection of the ground analysis in the final stages of the campaign will reveal that the entire focus was on the creation of a Muslim human shield against Modi. Rather than asking how voters would behave, the thrust was on Muslim tactical voting. The staggering crowds Modi was drawing to his public meetings across India were dismissed as ‘manufactured hype’, the creation of corporate money and a slick publicity machine. The tell- tale signs of a spectacular Modi surge were all there. Yet, the punditry chose to look elsewhere.
The 2014 election was a resounding defeat for the Congress, AAP and the caste-based regional parties. Equally, the outcome amounted to a clear rebuff of those who had assumed for themselves the intellectual monopoly of interpreting India. On 16 May, garbage collectors accumulated a rich haul of tattered reputations and stereotypes of political India.
Just as a ‘wave’ is invariably discovered in hindsight, the future course of events will determine whether the 2014 election was a landmark event when old assumptions are discarded and new orthodoxies established. Rather than concede they misread India, Modi’s liberal and Left critics appear to be still in denial. The BJP victory is being attributed to a low 32 per cent popular vote and the vagaries of the country’s first-past-the-post system that exaggerates majorities. The overwhelming majority of India—an expedient combination of those who didn’t vote for the BJP/NDA and those who didn’t vote at all—it is being pompously asserted by some, haven’t endorsed Modi at all.
This attempt to deflate the euphoria surrounding Modi’s victory stems mainly from the churlish outrage at having been proved wrong. However, there is a deeper meaning. The fraternity of the vanquished are essentially suggesting that there is no mandate for change and that India would prefer to remain undisturbed by an individual who is desperate to carve out an alternative. The statistical jugglery is essentially a plea for the status quo to prevail. Modi, they have in effect implied, should settle down to a routine term at 7 Race Course Road, attend the annual UNGA meetings, inaugurate a few good works and then retire to Ahmedabad at the end of five years—in good time for the country’s natural rulers to resume where they left off. The ripples from a Modi victory, the grandees have pronounced, must leave the depths unmoved.
What is it about the mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?
The first is the style of Modi. Unlike the top leaders of the past, his approach is blunt and in-your-face. He may choose the august surroundings of the Central Hall of Parliament to deliver a speech that leaves lumps in the throats of party activists who have persevered since the Jan Sangh days when losing deposits was the norm. But when it comes to the hustings, and when the fire from opposition guns is directed at him, Modi is a pugilist who gives as good as he gets, and more often with compound interest.
Throughout the six month-long campaign he undertook from 15 September 2013 to the final rally in Ballia on 10 May 2014, Modi sought to devastate the opposition. Having restored the importance of the mass rally, Modi sought to inspire the hundreds of thousands who turned up to cheer him, a message that was both inspirational and fiercely combative. To him, parliamentary niceties were best kept for Parliament.
Was the ‘crudeness’ of Modi, therefore, the issue? Was the fear he generated among the la-di-da crowd in the metros and among the intelligentsia that flocked to sign petitions warning against his rise, purely a matter of aesthetics?
Alternatively, was there a subliminal class bias to the fears he aroused? Mani Shankar Aiyar may have overstated the case and scored an avoidable self-goal when he invited Modi to be content with selling tea at the AICC premises. But The Doon School, St Stephen’s and Cambridge alumnus was mirroring a prejudice of the metropolitan elite towards a man who spoke English with a pronounced Gujarati accent. A durbar that had been nurtured on the Anglicised pronunciation of ‘Jawaharlal’ and the old-style RP (Received Pronunciation) of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Rahul baba, couldn’t countenance the idea of India being governed by a man with an unmistakably desi accent. In their mind, he was, as a fiercely anti- Modi columnist put it uninhibitedly, going to be India’s first ‘uneducated’ Prime Minister.
To Modi’s credit, he took this show of snobbery head on. The aesthetes may well have exercised control over intellectual capital, but this was a battle that was going to be settled by the numbers game. And in this, Modi’s vernacular populism proved unbeatable. In speech after speech, the BJP leader taunted the repugnance of the durbar towards achaiwala, the son of a man whose father was not even the head of a panchayat and who, to top it all, came from a ‘backward caste’.
The effect of Modi turning class disadvantage on its head was absolutely electrifying. At one stroke, he got ‘backward caste’ voters, Dalit voters and those who resented the sense of entitlement of the Gandhi parivar to pay him heed. He broke the back of the three caste-based parties of the Hindi heartland and got people to transcend identity politics, even if only for one national election. They were presented with a moral choice: to vote or reject one of their very own. Modi brought to the political table the moral authority of the self-made individual. It will now be very difficult for his detractors to counter him with snobbery and social disdain.
What compounds the problem for Modi’s elitist detractors is their belated realisation that the sharpness, aggression and phenomenal energy of the Modi campaign had a definite social sanction. Part of it stemmed, quite naturally, from the sheer scale of anger directed at the UPA Government for its relative non-performance and mismanagement of the economy. But anti-incumbency cannot explain the scale of the positive vote for Modi.
Throughout the campaign, Congress stalwarts recoiled in horror at the sheer intensity of Modi’s attacks on the UPA Government. They mistakenly concluded that a traditionally placid country like India would be averse to ‘lowering’ the tone and tenor of an election campaign to that of a T20 encounter. They failed to take into account that the principal appeal of Modi was to the 100-125 million first-time voters and the 35 per cent or so share of the electorate that was below the age of 35. In his post-election speeches, Modi repeatedly emphasised the fact that for the first time India would have a Prime Minister who was born after Independence. What he could have added is that his victory owed primarily to those who were born after the Emergency, voters for whom Jawaharlal Nehru is a distant historical figure.
The complete breakdown of the Nehruvian consensus in the 2014 election is something the pundits never anticipated. The Congress believed that dollops of State- sponsored welfare schemes and a direct cash transfer arrangement would be the magic wand that would transform political disadvantage into triumph. In reposing their entire faith in monetised paternalism, the Gandhis and their National Advisory Council advisors completely misread the mood. In repeating that “Gujarat isn’t India” to the point of exasperation, the Congress presumed that the neo-middle-class impulses that motivated Gujaratis to support Modi for three consecutive Assembly elections would somehow deter the rest of India, particularly the so-called BIMARU states.
Whether Modi’s faith in the politics of aspiration stemmed from political instinct or was a consequence of focus group surveys is best left to the chroniclers. What is important is that he never wavered from his belief that the key to electoral success lay in selling a dream of a better future.
There were different perceptions of Modi among different social and political groups. For some he was a modern- day Chhatrapati Shivaji who would finally make Hindus come into their own; to others he was the poor boy next door who had made it big in the ugly and cruel world of Delhi, and to still yet others he was the great liberator of the economy from sloth and socialist incompetence. What united these divergent strands was the belief that his victory would usher in the proverbial happy days.
Those who needlessly internalised the great conspiracy theory of a corporate-communalist alliance to capture India were taken aback when Modi told the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting on 20 May that his would be a government for the poor. They assumed that commitment to serving the poor was at odds with the professed commitment to deregulation and entrepreneurship.
In the election campaign, Modi proceeded from a different understanding. To him, what motivated youth voters cutting across classes, castes and region were education (particularly skills), opportunity and the removal of glass ceilings. Add to this his complete and unequivocal endorsement of technology. In these respects, Modi differed significantly from traditional RSS thinking, which tends to be neo-Gandhian.
Indeed, comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are appropriate. Thatcher too sought to effect a social revolution through the creation of an opportunity society. And Thatcher too broke new political ground by securing the endorsement of a large section of those who were earlier associated with the gradualist socialism of the Labour Party. Tony Blair, in fact, had to reinvent the Labour Party completely and embrace the newly-forged Thatcherite consensus to regain support for Labour.
In time to come, it is entirely possible that India’s 2014 General Election will be regarded as a political watershed. If Modi is able to complement his electoral success with a government that unleashes India’s full potential, he will have forged a new Modi consensus that is more in tune with the 21st century. The BJP has not reached saturation point: there are large geographical tracts left to conquer. However, this conquest will only be possible if the BJP is itself reinvented to fit the goals of what may well be described by future historians as the Modi Revolution.
For India, the next decade may turn out to be momentous. And all because one leader dared to challenge orthodoxy, conventional wisdom and social assumptions.
OPEN magazine, May 23, 2014

Durbar to raise India's stature

By Swapan Dasgupta

The UPA Government, it is now grudgingly admitted by its best friends and most avid supporters, suffered grievously on account of its failure to communicate. For nearly three days, or at least until a senior BJP leader stepped in to counter a wave of needless speculation and misconceptions, was in serious danger of allowing Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26 to be hijacked by those who had their own version of what the change of government meant.

Let us be clear on one point. The objective behind the invitation to leaders of the neighbouring SAARC countries (and to Mauritius) was two-fold. First and most important, the invitation to neighbours was primarily to showcase a stupendous democratic achievement. India has reason to be proud that the world’s largest festival of democracy, involving nearly 700 million voters, was successfully conducted. The election may have been bitterly contested but its outcome, leading to a change of government, was accepted with grace. Yes, there were some notables who seek to shift the goalposts with retrospective effect. But their churlishness tells us more about them than the efficacy of a system that has endured since 1952. India’s bi-partisan commitment to democracy warrants broadcasting to the entire world, and especially the troubled neighbourhood. The Americans celebrate the inauguration of their Presidents. India too is well deserving of a more austere celebration.

In India, the custom is for an auspicious event to be celebrated by not merely the family but with the entire neighbourhood. The logic of the swearing-in follows the same custom: neighbours must also join in.

Secondly, there is an overtly political message that Prime Minister-designate Modi has sought to send both internally and externally. It is that India is witnessing more than a mere shift from the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led NDA. What is being heralded is a completely new style of politics whose contours will become more and more evident in the coming days. For the moment, Modi is merely setting the first of the many new precedents he will set.

There is a third dimension of Modi’s swearing-in ceremony which is being wilfully understated but is at the same time clearly understood: that India is at the very centre of South Asia. Critics may call it imperial assertion and suggest that this is Modi’s recreation of the Imperial Durbar of 1911 but no one deny that, modified to 21st century realities, the suggestion isn’t entirely untrue. Indeed, the more enlightened among India’s neighbours are mindful that an economic resurgence of India will impact their countries positively. India has always been the elder brother of the region and the successor regime of the mighty British Empire. Unfortunately, overcome by its internal incoherence, the Manmohan Singh Government shied away from the karta’s role and conceded valuable political space to a large eastern neighbour. To reclaim our inheritance will naturally involve building domestic capacity and reinforcing India’s civilizational reach—something that won’t and can’t happen overnight. But at least Modi has issued a clear statement of intent.

It is important to bear in mind that the importance of the swearing-in ceremony is potentially rich in symbolism. However, this is not to suggest that Modi will live up to the journalistic cliché of ‘hitting the ground running’ and use the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to engage Nawaz Sharif in a discussion on the Siachen heights. Many of India’s diplomatic correspondents and, for that matter, diplomat-politicians, have been terribly underworked in the course of an election campaign where neither foreign policy nor the commodity that passes of as ‘strategic vision’ got even a casual mention. Their irrelevance in the cut-throat world of democracy is, perhaps, lamentable. But that is no reason why they should now proclaim their own relevance by discovering hidden ‘nuanced’ meanings in the invite to SAARC leaders.

Narendra Modi wasn’t elected by the people of India to devote the energies of his government in the thankless and perhaps unrealisable task of rediscovering lost brothers on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. That could well be the agenda of some English language TV channels who were dreading their loss of influence but Indians elected Modi to improve their lives and create more opportunities for Young India. In the cloistered world of Delhi it is often easy to live in a bubble and lose the central political plot. The Vajpayee Government devoted disproportionate time and energy in trying to effect an enduring peace with Pakistan, with disastrous consequences in Kargil.

It is definitely a priority to strive for a tension-free neighbourhood. But expectations in that direction have to be tempered by the realisation that Pakistan must first resolve a larger existential dilemma that confronts it. India can merely wait for its resolution and, at best, do nothing to jeopardise the process. For Modi, economic diplomacy aimed at building domestic capacity must remain at the centre of its foreign policy. If India prospers and becomes an economic power centre, the neighbourhood will automatically benefit. That is something the present regimes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal understand. Pakistan, unfortunately, is confused about its priorities and its future course. That’s a situation India doesn’t have the capacity to alter.

On Monday, the focus will be on the team that Modi has chosen to help him transform India. The foreign leaders will be there to honour India’s democracy. But they are the embellishments. The real substance will be found elsewhere. 

Sunday Pioneer, May 25, 2014

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Boss, Not First Among Equals

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is bad form to torment the beleaguered. Last Saturday, however, Narendra Modi’s more committed supporters delighted over the understated fury of India’s secularist guardians at the elaborate welcome accorded to the Prime Minister-designate by the Hindu establishment of Varanasi. What the dejected upholders of the ancien regime found galling was not the puja at the Vishwanath temple and the Ganga aarti but the huge media coverage of the occasion. To them, the symbolism was ominous—an impression reinforced by those who interpreted last week’s unequivocal mandate as the restoration of Hindu pride after centuries of self-effacement.

Both sides appear to be overstating their version of the change they anticipate. While sectarian faultlines were clearly visible in some parts of India, notably in western Uttar Pradesh and Assam, during the campaign, this election was not centred on a Hindu cultural renaissance. While the disaggregated data from the opinion and exit polls do suggest a large measure of ‘Hindu consolidation’, cutting across caste, language and class, it would erroneous to conclude that this was a religious Hindu vote. On the contrary, the slogan that gave the BJP its decisive edge was achcha din aane wale hain which was about the future, not the past. Indeed, by trying to make secularism and the so-called ‘idea of India’ the theme song of the election, it was Modi’s ‘secular’ opponents who tried to inject identity politics into the arena. That they failed miserably tells a story.

It is necessary to emphasis what this mandate was not about in order to dispel fears, particularly among the global fraternity of well-connected liberals, that India 2014 is witnessing a re-run of Germany 1933. Modi may not have secured the support of Muslim voters but that owed to entirely to a received version of what he stood for rather than what he said in his 450 odd speeches and how the campaign was run. In effect, there were two very divergent perceptions of what this election was about but the final choice was only nominally influenced by inter-community tensions on the ground.

This isn’t to suggest that Prime Minister Modi will be a sterner version of Atal Behari Vajpayee. Apart from the differences in temperament and personality, the nature of the mandate secured by Modi and Vajpayee are dramatically different. Under Modi, the BJP has secured a clear majority on its own. This implies that although he will head a NDA Government, he cannot fall back on either ‘coalition dharma’ or ‘coalition compulsions’ to explain either under-performance or retreat into expediency. The electorate has given Modi a stark choice: perform or perish. The ambivalent nature of Vajpayee’s mandate, ironically, allowed him the luxury of a more easy going approach.

The sheer weight of expectation and the enormous hunger for self-betterment makes it virtually impossible for Modi to engage in either consensus-building or get derailed by extraneous agendas. Ironically, this suits Modi admirably. Before the verdict, the concern was expressed that a Chief Minister who led a one-party government and distinguished himself by his no-nonsense decisiveness would find it difficult to manage a multi-party coalition where compromises are the order of the day. Nominally, Modi will head a coalition but it is amply clear that India has reposed its faith in ‘President’ Modi. The Gujarat leader isn’t a first among equals; he is clearly the boss.

Modi’s willingness to follow the mandate would imply that many of the old rules of governance will have to be made fit for purpose. This doesn’t imply that the over-cautious and somewhat obstructionist bureaucracy will be marginalised and replaced by impetuous technocrats who will bring a more purposeful work ethic into government. In Gujarat, Modi worked wonders with the existing bureaucracy, applying the principles of functional autonomy, accountability and motivation. It is likely that he will operate with the same template taking care to appoint the right people in the right job and backing them politically. More than the bureaucrat with integrity it is a political class accustomed to doling out patronage and freebies that is likely to be unsettled by Modi’s style. But since the votes were secured in his name, Modi now has the political authority to redefine the rules of politics.

Where the Modi government could encounter the resistance of babudom is in the implementation of his promise of “minimum government and maximum government.” The Congress has left behind a legacy of over-regulation and discretionary powers that are in urgent need of dilution. Manmohan Singh promised administrative reforms when he took over but forgot about it thereafter. If Modi has to let the entrepreneurial spirit prevail and create opportunities for the Young India that voted for him with such enthusiasm, he has to make government less bothersome to the citizen. This is what his mandate has decreed and from which he cannot afford to renege.

Finally, although Modi is confronted with dizzying expectations, his ability to effect real change on the ground will depend disproportionately on the willingness of state governments to play ball. Replacing Centre-State resentment of each other with federal harmony and partnership will demand discarding the Congress’ one-size-fits-all approach with guaranteed, non-discretionary grants to the states and affirming the right of states to control their own architecture of development. The presence of strong regional parties in Parliament, far from being a hindrance, can actually speed up the greater empowerment of the Finance Commission and the eventual irrelevance of the Planning Commission.

If Modi fails to deliver, the argument of non-cooperation by the state government will not wash with voters. Modi won because he inspired belief in a strong and vibrant India led by a gutsy leader. To realise that goal, he has to become the patron saint of regional development, a leader above politics. Last week, the BJP won on the strength of a national vote. It has to ensure that regardless of which party runs state governments, Modi will become a cross-party consensus. This is impossible without the new Prime Minister taking ownership of a federal makeover.  

Hindustan Times, May 20, 2014  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Modi understood Young India better

By Swapan Dasgupta

Under normal circumstances, the declaration of results at the end of a long and bitterly contested election is followed by an onrush of platitudes affirming the “maturity of the voters”, the reinforcement of “democratic values” and the opening of a “new chapter” of parliamentary politics. It is not that such ritualistic self-praise was completely absent last Friday morning as the Electronic Voting Machines began revealing the preferences of India’s many millions of voters. However, the usual quota of anodyne remarks and self-satisfied we-told-you-so comments were replaced by two developments that happened in rapid succession. First, by 9.30 am—barely 90 minutes after counting began—it was sufficiently clear that Narendra Modi was going to be India’s next Prime Minister. The NDA, it was evident, was coasting to a majority. Secondly, around 11am or thereabouts, another far more dramatic trend became visible: the BJP was on its way to crossing the magic 272 mark on its own.

That Indian voters had got over their infatuation with fractious coalition politics and were ready to repose full faith in one side should have been greeted with whoops of delight. After all, there is nothing like an unambiguous verdict to facilitate decision-making and political accountability. Unfortunately, the quantum of excitement that this development should have produced was felt more in the outside world than among the assembled punditry in the TV studios. Where the cameras and bright lights were positioned, the mood was one of nervous tension. In one channel the mood, it was reported, was distinctly funereal. Democracy, it somehow seemed, was good only if the outcome was along predictable lines. On May 16, Narendra Modi played the role of party pooper. He spoiled what was planned as a long day and possibly long night of speculation and posturing.

That Modi was, well, a politician cut from a very different cloth was always known. That he played by his own set of rules that often appeared incomprehensible or even outlandish was also known. His relationship with the fourth pillar of democracy had also been awkward: he was the man who was hated, feared and yet never out of gaze. For years on end, viewers and readers had grown accustomed to Breaking News scrolls that began with the mandatory “In a big blow to Modi…” When he won the 2002 election and came to Delhi, self-righteous reporters boycotted his lunch and boasted about their walkout for months thereafter. Lofty editors with a sense of social superiority used to routinely dub him “mass murderer” with the same condescending sneer that Mani Shankar Aiyar reserved for his infamous “chaiwala” expression. Yes, Modi was every cub reporter’s punching bag, the man who was not merely the outsider but even an outlander.

The prospect of such a man becoming the presiding political deity of Lutyens’ Delhi and living in the same bungalow that once housed Rajiv Gandhi filled the beautiful people with the same disgust that Indira Gandhi felt on realising that the palatial residence of her iconic father would now be occupied by Lal Bahadur Shastri. In 1964, the Nehru-Gandhi family ensured that Teen Murti House was unilaterally declared a monument to the late Jawaharlal. In the more egalitarian 2014, plotting a backdoor coup was out of the question. So the entire Congress Lok Sabha contingent from Uttar Pradesh—basically the mother-son duo—admitted to their party’s ignominious defeat but refused to utter the dreaded chaiwala’s name in their perfunctory congratulation to the “new government”.

The erstwhile first family set the tone. By the late afternoon, as the enormity of the change effected by the hoi-polloi began to sink in, the derisiveness began in right earnest. From “you will have to speak in Gujarati now” and “let’s write the final uncensored article” to “enjoy the last drink”, snobbish black humour took over. By the evening, huddled groups were shedding copious tears over what they visualised as the lifeless body of secularism.

Ok, I may be exaggerating the state of disorientation at not merely Modi’s victory but the complete decimation of the Congress. But not entirely. Around midnight, I went to the BBC studios for a recording of a programme on India’s elections for Newsnight. Over the long-distance link I heard the lament of artist Sir Anish Kapoor over the results. He despaired over the fact that India was now going to be led by a “mass murderer”. “This is not the India I grew up in”, he said.

He’s damn right. This was not the entitled world of the Doon School alumnus. Somewhere along the way democracy has finally kicked in. The age of deference is well and truly over. And it has been replaced by an India bursting with raw energy, demanding the standards of life Sir Anish takes for granted and proclaiming ‘dil mange more’.

India has been changing with the same intensity as the flag-waving T20 game. Economists have often invoked the potential of India’s demographic dividend but they have always shied away from addressing its socio-political ramifications. Modi is no trained sociologist but he understood what Young India meant far better than the dynasts who dominate the top echelons of the Congress hierarchy. To the entitled world he appeared brash, crude and outlandish and hardly prime ministerial. To the youngsters in the dusty small towns bursting with aimless energy, he was an icon who spoke their language and articulated their anger. On Friday, he did what the punditry thought was unimaginable: he encashed the demographic dividend politically.  

Sunday Pioneer, May 18, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

PM Modi Must Remain True To His Instincts: He should not yield to the merchants of caution

By Swapan Dasgupta

On Friday, India didn’t merely elect a government with a resounding mandate, it categorically entrusted the responsibility for running the show to Narendra Modi. The extent to which the credit for the victory belongs to the BJP-led alliance and to the man who campaigned relentlessly for a Congress-free India will be the subject of debate in the coming days. To the average voter, however, this is no subject for hair-splitting. The vote was essentially for Modi, for his combative style of leadership and for the dream of a better future he proffered.

The opinion polls and the exit polls are quite clear on this score. The booster dose that carried the BJP beyond the 272 mark and which gave the NDA more than 330 seats was essentially a result of the massive support its candidates received from India’s youthful voters, those under the age of 35. It was this section that gave the Modi campaign its T-20 energy, allowed it to spread throughout India and break the seemingly impregnable bastions of caste and community. The credit for Modi’s spectacular victory belonged to those who demanded a better future for themselves, their families and their country. It was a vote both for self and nation.

The sheer boldness of the mandate may well be lost on a political class that still thinks in very conventional terms about what is possible and what is not on. Modi doesn’t. Having for long successfully defied the collective wisdom of the commentariat and the entrenched Establishment he would know that this was not a mandate for consensus but for audacity. After a long spell of experimenting with the staid and the conventional (that also included dollops of venality), India has preferred a ‘dil mange more’ impetuosity.

It is imperative to grasp the full meaning of Friday’s momentous mandate because the next few weeks will witness a concerted attempt to blunt the sharp edges of the voter restlessness. There will be a bid to suggest that the excitement of the past three months should be firmly buried and replaced by a business-as-usual spirit. There will be the usual jockeying for posts and ministerships by those who were left out in the past decade. And there will be gratuitous advice showered on the new Prime Minister to shed his combativeness and be socialised into a new role.

Some of these suggestions are no doubt well-meaning but Modi must resist the temptations of yielding to the merchants of caution. The vote is for a radical rupture with the fundamental assumptions of governance that, in today’s India, has come to mean institutionalised inefficiency and lack of transparency. Just as he redefined the rules of campaigning during the course of his 450 plus public meetings since September 2013, Modi must be true to his instincts and his partiality for a national resurgence.

Such a lofty project will no doubt need relentless application but equally it will need a revitalised political culture. Hitherto, governments have proceeded top-down to manage change. Modi will need to harness the wave of adulation for him for a larger mission to revitalise a creaky system and make it fit for purpose. This could offend the status-quoists. But he needn’t fear. If India wanted to merely plod along, it wouldn’t have elected a man like him. 

Times of India, May 17, 2014

Friday, April 11, 2014

Family for all seasons: - Congress culture is likely to stay the same whatever happens

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are occasions when a seemingly irrelevant piece of tittle-tattle assumes greater relevance than a thousand words of weighty commentary. An innocuous piece of news on the first page of last Wednesday’s Times of India on the selection of the Congress candidate to contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi was such an occasion.

The importance lay not so much in the fact that a local MLA who had unsuccessfully tried his hand in a Lok Sabha election on a previous occasion had been given the Congress ticket—thereby ending a fortnight of purposeless speculation over who would be Modi’s principal rival in Varanasi. For the beat reporter, the significance of Ajay Rai’s nomination was that he had been personally blessed by the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Vadra. Not only that, Priyanka had given Rai her personal mobile phone number and asked to get in touch directly with her if he needed help and facilitation. The reporter’s breathless conclusion was that Priyanka was increasingly calling the shots in the Congress.

Although purists may balk at the prominence given to this additional evidence that the brother-sister duo was now in control of the final leg of the Congress campaign, this piece of trivia was not inconsequential. Ever since opinion polls and anecdotal reports from the battleground pointed to the Congress performing far worse than even the party pessimists imagined was possible, Congress loyalists have been praying and hoping for a “secret weapon” which would improve the final tally that in turn would ensure that a future BJP-led government would be inherently fragile. In the past week, ever since Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi let the media in one of the party’s greatest secrets—that in 1990 Rajiv Gandhi had detected Priyanka’s instinctive feel for politics—the demoralised party had been hoping that Rahul’s leadership would be bolstered by the involvement of his sister. Indeed, there were Congress supporters who felt that Priyanka would be declared as the challenger to Modi in Varanasi. Such a symbolic move, they felt, would electrify Uttar Pradesh and reopen what was increasingly looking like a one-sided encounter.

The value addition that Priyanka might possibly bring to the Congress table need not concern us excessively. In a star-obsessed campaign, the injection of a lady who, it is said in some quarters, has the mass touch of her illustrious grandmother, would inevitably shift some focus from an over-exposed Modi and his insolent rival Arvind Kejriwal. In terms of dividing the media space a little more equitably, Priyanka’s entry into the 2014 campaign would certainly be of short-term benefit to the Congress. In 1998, when Sonia Gandhi made her political debut, she certainly did shift the spotlight a little away from Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indeed, Congress supporters were so buoyant that when I mentioned a particular rally where Vajpayee had drawn big crowds, a Congress groupie asked me incredulously: “Is anyone even listening to him any longer?”

However, what strikes me about the excitement over Priyanka is that even as the Congress stares at the possibility of winning less than 100 Lok Sabha seats, the only magic wand the party can think of is firmly located within the dynastic mould. Yes, Congress supporters grudgingly concede, Rahul Gandhi has proved a political disappointment. He may exude sincerity and even boast of an unwillingness to be derailed by narrow, tactical considerations but there is no getting away from his inability to connect. In the past, a presidential style campaign had always suited the Congress against a fractured opposition. Indeed, even for the 2014 campaign the Congress publicity campaign had been planned to project Rahul as the great white hope. Unfortunately for the Congress, the Modi juggernaut proved too formidable for those who felt that Rahul would encapsulate the necessary measure of change to offset anti-incumbency. In the direct Modi versus Rahul battle, the man from Gujarat was miles ahead. Rahul’s famed sincerity and earnestness came to be equated with naiveté. Rahul was not disliked; he became an object of mockery, particularly after his disastrous Times Now interview. With just a month left of the campaign, the only people who think that a Rahul-led dispensation can govern India with a measure of enlightenment are the editors of The Economist.

The widespread acknowledgment of Rahul’s inadequacies by the Congress hasn’t, however, triggered preparations for an upheaval in the party in the event of grim news on May 16. Past experience, especially of the years the party wasn’t in power at the Centre, has convinced the average Congress supporter that the leadership of the Gandhi family is a precondition for both survival and growth. There was a time, particularly after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term as Prime Minister, when it seemed that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had run out of steam. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to plunge into politics in 1998 was, for example, greeted with some scepticism and led to Sharad Pawar’s revolt. But the unexpectedly good performance in 2004 and the victory in 2009 established Sonia as a leader in her own right and set her up as the glue that binds the disparate Congress family.

A Congress failure in 2014 isn’t likely to shake that fundamental assumption and faith in the leadership of the dynasty is likely to persist. The belief that Rahul isn’t a natural politician isn’t going to disappear abruptly and neither will the culture of sycophancy. The indifferent 2014 results are certain to be blamed on the “non-communicative” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—Jairam Ramesh has already given an early indication of the post-mortem findings. On his part, Rahul will be applauded for selflessly leading a losing battle and persisting with management systems that should, hopefully, re-energise the party once the country’s honeymoon with Modi ends. Most important, the addition of Priyanka into the dynastic pantheon will definitely placate those Congress leaders who have doubts over Rahul’s ability to engage in combative politics. Far from breeding a sense of disgust with the party’s inability to look and think beyond the dynasty, the helping hand Priyanka is likely to give Rahul seems calculated to retain the family’s stranglehold over the Congress after the likely defeat in 2014.

There are definite indications that the Gandhi family isn’t working towards a new political culture that will guarantee there are no glass ceilings in the path of ability and mass appeal. Reports emanating from the wider durbar of the first family seem to suggest that there is a fear in 10 Janpath that a Modi-led government will engage in recriminations in pursuit of its dream of a Congress-free India. Certainly, the businesses of Robert Vadra are certainly going to be the subject of some investigations. Whether these fears are real or contrived is not known. What is important is that the Gandhi court is readying itself for difficult times in the event of a Modi victory next month. Between 2000 and 2004, the top BJP leadership had negotiated a non-aggression pact with Sonia. More than an act of magnanimity, it was based on the belief that Sonia’s leadership would ensure that the Congress would remain in the Opposition. It was a horrible misreading of her potential and it is unlikely this error will be repeated by a new BJP dispensation.

The Congress top rung, it would seem, has psyched itself into believing that Modi will repay the viciousness that was directed at him from 2002. This fear may well explain why the Gandhi family will ensure that its proprietorship of the Congress will not be modified after the election. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

A mighty fall from a moral high ground

By Swapan Dasgupta

No election, and certainly not an Indian election, is ever won on the strength of diplomatic despatches. Like most other pundits in the forecasting business, diplomats often get it right and occasionally wrong.

This being the case, the most that can be read into the explanations in the media of US Ambassador Nancy Powell’s premature resignation is that Washington has concluded that the next Indian government belongs to Narendra Modi. Whether or not this piece of political astrology was a the heart of the change of guard in Roosevelt House will remain a matter of conjecture till another Snowden releases a clutch of diplomatic telegrams or some future Senate hearing throws greater light on the matter. However, if we accept the version that the US State Department was wrong-footed by Modi’s dramatic entry into the national stage and took remedial action to smoothen Washington’s response to the succession, one question remains: why did the US get itself into such an awkward situation in the first place?

Those who are inclined to trace the origin of the problem to the 2005 decision of the George W. Bush administration to deny Modi a visa for possible travel to the US aren’t far off the mark. The cancellation of Modi’s existing visa didn’t happen because the Gujarat Chief Minister planned a grand tour to interact with his innumerable fans located across the Atlantic. The visa cancellation was a gratuitous and unilateral measure aimed primarily, it is said, at placating the Christian evangelical lobby that had developed a distaste for Modi.

Whatever the reasons behind dubbing Modi an international pariah and the subject of a diplomatic boycott involving both the US and the European Union member states, one conclusion was inescapable: it was a brazen attempt to pronounce judgment on the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Modi, after all, hadn’t been held guilty by for “mass murder” by an Indian criminal court. Indeed, there were no charges against him then or subsequently. Yes, the Gujarat leader had been pilloried mercilessly by both his political opponents and the human rights lobby that has formidable international links. A political aversion to Modi was translated into the diplomatic censure of a man who held a Constitutional position. It was a step too far and one that didn’t lend itself to an easy U-turn.

This is not to suggest that the US was obliged to facilitate a visit by Modi. Every sovereign nation has the inalienable right to determine who is welcome and who is not. Diplomats are routinely accustomed to informing host countries that the visit of a particular dignitary would be inappropriate. Tough messages are often delivered with discretion. Had Modi sought to visit the US in 2005, his office could have been discreetly told that the journey would be injudicious. Indeed, I am told that an European country with a better grasp of diplomatic niceties did pass on such an unpleasant message to Modi—in the light of the controversies surrounding him. However, it was done without a whiff of publicity.

The US, however, made a public show of its visa refusal and made it out that the action was part of the sanctions against those held responsible for human rights violations. The US chose to make a political point based on the understanding that it would also set the agenda for a wider debate on Modi’s political untouchability.

Maybe the idea was also to lessen Indian Muslim hostility to the Bush Administration then engaged in its War on Terror. Maybe it was aimed at bolstering Congress support for the nuclear deal, then in the process of negotiation. Whatever the calculations, the Modi visa controversy came to acquire a life of its own.

For nearly eight years, the US and its friends broke off all diplomatic contact with the Gujarat Government. This over-reaction also involved many informal academic advisers who fed the US Embassy and the State Department with weighty assessments of why Modi was a non-starter in national politics. I have met US academics, mainly of Indian origin, who even proudly proclaimed that they had advised the US Embassy to go slow on opening a consular office in Ahmedabad. For them, flaunting an anti-Modi badge ensured privileged access into the corridors of UPA power. And there’s no denying that until at least a year ago, the US remained the flavour of the season for both Congress ministers and a supplicant media.

Yet, the blockade of Modi warranted a re-examination after he won his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat in December 2012. By the time of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2013, many European countries decided that the time was opportune to re-establish ties with a state whose economy looked extremely promising. Predictably, the British were the most demonstrative with their proclamation of bi-partisanship but other EU countries weren’t far behind. The only real resistance was put up by France which too had invested heavily in the Congress establishment and in the skewed advice of its so-called India experts.

Today, the countries that had kept up a civilised relationship with Modi despite the US’s strictures—these include Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia, Israel and even China—are happy with the knowledge that their transition to a new regime will be extra smooth. Nor will the others who changed their tune midway feel disadvantaged. It is only the US that invested politically in the witch-hunt against Modi that feels seriously threatened.

Making Ambassador Powell the fall guy may not entirely resolve the larger issues raised by the US’s needless interference in India’s domestic politics. Nor will bonhomie be instantly restored if a functionary of Gujarati origin is despatched as the new Ambassador. Having exposed its fangs publicly, Washington will not readily admit it miscalculated horribly. If Modi comes to power, a working relationship with the US Embassy will be established. But let us have no doubts that the repair job will also be accompanied by surreptitious attempts to undermine him.

The US hates having to admit it was ever wrong. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

THE LARGER BATTLE - At this time of change, the BJP represents a complex reality

By Swapan Dasgupta

In his uncharacteristically over-stated proclamation of separation from the organisation that had nurtured him, veteran leader Jaswant Singh said that it was now a fight between the ‘asli’ (real) and ‘nakli’ (counterfeit) Bharatiya Janata Party. Although his outburst was couched in anger at what he quite bizarrely described as the party’s assault on his “territorial integrity” –a convoluted way of saying that it had fielded another candidate in his “home” constituency—the commentariat has broadly agreed with the suggestion that Singh’s exit was a landmark event. Read with the diminution of the so-called “old guard” it certainly pointed to an ongoing generational shift. However, far more significant is the question: is the Narendra Modi-led BJP travelling down a very different political path?

For a start, despite the professed assertion of a section of the Sangh fraternity that the outlook of the BJP is non-negotiable and determined by an uncompromising faith in an undefined Hindutva, the reality is more complex.

The Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the organisational precursor of the BJP—was established in 1951 as an alliance between former Hindu Mahasabha-ites such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu volunteer body that had hitherto stayed out of politics. Mookerjee was the face of the new party and did his utmost to bring together all the pre-Independence critics of the Congress (in the Liberal Party, Unionist Party and Hindu Mahasabha) into a more relevant new organisation. Under Mookerjee, the RSS was an element of the broader Jana Sangh coalition and not the dominant player. However, after Mookerjee’s death in 1953, the RSS had to step in and assume control to prevent the Jana Sangh from disintegrating. Indeed, since 1953 the RSS has played the role of an organisational adhesive to both Jana Sangh and BJP.  

The Jana Sangh existed for 26 years, making a modest mark on the life of a Congress-dominated nation. It certainly had a distinctiveness of approach and even drew a sprinkling of notables who were not otherwise attached to the RSS but electorally its performance was patchy. It is worth keeping in mind the fact that Jana Sangh was unable to ever win a state election on its own throughout its existence. The nearest it came was winning the Delhi Metropolitan Council election (the Capital was then a Union Territory) in 1967.

Whether the decision to participate in Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement against the Congress signalled the movement’s breakthrough is a point of contention among scholars. There are those who believe that Jana Sangh basically ran the JP movement undercover and used the two years of the Janata Party Government to spread its tentacles. The alternative suggestion is that the Jana Sangh was always a low-key, junior partner in a movement whose direct benefits accrued to veteran Congress critics of Indira and the fractious Loha-ites. Whatever the reality, it is undeniable that in 1980 the BJP was only a part inheritor of the Jaya Prakash legacy. To prevail in the non-Congress space, it had to also upstage its other challengers who subsequently regrouped in V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal and its subsequent offshoots.

The point to note is that right from its conception in 1951and re-birth in 1980, the politics of the BJP has been marked by a combination of flexibility and discipline. The flexibility was dictated by the long-term, single-minded determination to emerge as what L.K. Advani liked to call the “alternative pole of politics.” The discipline was provided by a watchful RSS which played the role of both a mentor and, occasionally, a stern parent. At various point in post-1977 politics, alternative narratives have emerged in the non-Congress space. Yet, the BJP has never been completely overwhelmed partly because its organisational moorings are quite firm. The BJP always has a bunker it can retreat to in times of adversity.

This is not to suggest that the forward surge of the BJP has been dictated by ideological fixity. On the contrary, few organisations (with pretensions of being an ideological party) have demonstrated such a large measure of flexibility and innovation. In 1987-89, despite considerable internal misgivings, the BJP was broadly supportive of V.P. Singh’s anti-Rajiv Gandhi crusade. But this solidarity was also coupled by a dogged determination to steer the larger agenda into an issue of its choosing. When the BJP actually embraced the Ram temple movement in 1988, it had absolutely no clue of its potential. However, despite riding the crest of a Ram wave in large parts of India and emerging as the clear alternative to the Congress in 1991, the BJP was nimble-footed enough to effect a retreat after 1993. This shift of gear wasn’t compelling enough to secure Atal Behari Vajpayee a national mandate in 1996 but it set the stage for the National Democratic Alliance that was to emerge in 1998.

During the Janata Party phase, Advani had spoken of the politics of aggregation taking precedence over sharply defined ideological certitudes. In 1998, at the first BJP National Executive meeting after Vajpayee was installed as Prime Minister, Advani again spoke of a “New BJP” (those were the days of Tony Blair’s captivating New Labour) that would propel it into a ‘natural party of governance’. He didn’t elaborate too much but in 2004 there was the unique spectacle of the BJP contesting a general election on the strength of having achieved and bringing about an “India Shining.”

This attempt to emerge as a classical right-wing party in the European mould had disastrous electoral consequences. In the post-mortem exercises, both in 2004 and 2009, the BJP concluded that it could not afford to alienate its traditional supporters who saw the party as a bulwark of Hindu nationalism. At the same time, it recognised that the elements of economic modernity injected by the economic liberalisation process couldn’t be ignored.

The emergence of Modi as the leader who combined a robust leadership style with an unwavering commitment to make India an economic powerhouse helped tie in the two strands. At one time it seemed that the organisational hegemony of the RSS would be at odds with Modi’s emphasis on economic growth and individual aspirations of a Young India. But it was the pragmatism of the RSS leadership which realised that political advance was only possible through Modi that ended the impasse. The misgivings of an Advani or a Jaswant Singh were not account of any major ideological ruptures but to the primacy of Modi in the projection of the BJP. In any other party, the personality clashes and generational wars would have created major convulsions. It was resolved relatively painlessly in the BJP because of the RSS insistence on coherence which naturally meant keeping scepticism on the back burner and fighting a larger political battle with a united face.

The extent to which Modi represents a sharp rupture between an ‘asli’ and ‘nakli’ BJP will be judged after the election, especially if the NDA is victorious. Certainly Modi’s appeal extends to far beyond the traditional Sangh appeal and many of the new adherents have joined the BJP both out of commitment and expediency. The process of enlarging the social and ideological base of the BJP is going to be a complex process and it would be hazardous to make any predictions. All that can be said is that with their sullenness and small rebellions, many veterans have lost their capacity to influence future developments. It is entirely possible that Jaswant Singh and his backers will emerge from this election cutting a sorry figure. 

The Telegraph, March 28, 2014


By Swapan Dasgupta

It is really not surprising that Aadhar cards have become a talking point in the election campaign of Bangalore South from where Nandan Nilekani, the former chairman of the UIDAI is contesting as a Congress candidate. Although Nilekani is otherwise very careful to focus exclusively on local issues and not allow the focus to shift to the fact that voters are not electing a local MP to fix their water and garbage problems but contributing to the formation of a government at the Centre, he has deviated from the script on the Aadhar card issue. He has flaunted the enrolment of 60 crore people in the Aadhar schema as a colossal achievement and made it a part of his “problem solving” credentials.

Nilekani has every right to flaunt his credentials as the architect of the famed “One Indian, one identity” scheme which the Congress counts among its significant achievements. However, in the light of a Supreme Court reaffirming that Aadhar cards are not mandatory for citizens to benefit from the government’s welfare schemes, it becomes necessary to ask whether a programme that involved a colossal amount of taxpayers’ money—the estimates vary wildly from the stated government estimate of Rs 37,182 crore for the entire project to other estimates of Rs 50,000 crore—was really money down the drain. More to the point, after the apex court’s strictures, the next government will have to ask whether the additional piece of plastic in people’s wallets can play any meaningful role in the future. In short, can Aadhar be salvaged?

Much of the problem associated with the Aadhar numbers stem from the constant shifting of goalposts. When it was first conceived, the card set out to facilitate direct cash transfers to beneficiaries of government schemes such as MNREGA, pensions, scholarships, etc. The idea was laudable and was aimed at reducing corruption and ensuring welfare benefits flowed to the beneficiaries in toto. Again, apart from the fact that each individual would have a unique number and get their biometric details registered to avoid duplication, it was a more evolved version of the direct-to-bank transfers thought up the Rajasthan Government during Vasundhara Raje’s first administration.

So what went wrong? To begin with, it must be stated that identity cards often end up with multiple uses, often far removed from their original purpose. A driving licence, for example, is a permission to drive motor vehicles. In reality, it becomes a proof of identity and even address, used for showing off to both bank managers and the CISF guards at airports. A PAN card too does more than facilitate money transactions and tax returns. It becomes a supporting document for passports, gas applications, et al.

From day one, as an official document, Aadhar was destined for multiple functions. The problem arose when its purpose was extended from receiving government benefits to establishing identity and permanent residence. In other words, what was a facilitating document for eligible citizens became an instrument for establishing the right to be in India and, by implication, citizenship. And this is precisely how it is being increasingly used by non-citizens as an additional documentation, along with ration cards and driving licences, to establish citizenship. Various sting operations have clearly indicated that it takes as little as Rs 500 to get a permanent Aadhar number for those not eligible to get it.

The point I am making is not unique. Throughout the debate leading up to the mass-scale issuance of Aadhar cards, various bodies including the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau had stated their grave doubts over the long-term security implications of the card. Those with an interest in civil liberties had also pointed to the possibility that this data could very easily be misused by a vindictive and intrusive state to invade the privacy of an individual. Finally, a parliamentary committee on finance had studied the scheme and pronounced it to be a bad idea.

The point is that what the Supreme Court pronounced last week had been said by various authorities before. However, so profound was the political backing for Nilekani that his hugely expensive application to join the political class was rushed through, brushing aside all objections. A scheme whose implications affected the very “idea” of Indian citizenship was put into operation without the sanction of Parliament and without the cast iron safeguards that were needed.

The reason for the rush was obvious: the Congress leadership believed that Aadhar would redefine the rules of electoral competition and establish it as a natural party of government for the near future. Nilekani was in a rush to meet a deadline and hence the speed.

From all accounts Nilekani has achieved a target of sorts—though even he is clueless as to how many “non-Indians” and illegal migrants have acquired a card to establish a proof of permanent residency. However, the Supreme Court has proved a party pooper.

Nilekani is a talented individual with a proven record of corporate governance. Why did he rush into a venture knowing fully well its pitfalls? My real complaint is not that Aadhar was flawed—some of the best ideas need to be tweaked. The more important question is: what does it tell us about Nilekani’s intellectual integrity? What does it tell us of a political culture that involves spending public money to advance an individual career?

Nilekani may or may not win the Lok Sabha election but he cannot avoid being grilled for walking into a disaster zone with his eyes wide open. “When a man of great intellect goes wrong”, Nirad Chaudhury once wrote about Lord Curzon, “his intellect only makes his wrongness incurable.”