Sunday Times of India, May 5, 2013
Monday, May 06, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
Many years ago, one of India’s most distinguished historians who, alas, has now been lost to the Indian system, narrated his experience of a Central university in India. Having joined the faculty after a long stint in the UK, he was somewhat bewildered when some of his colleagues objected to his presence at a departmental meeting: “He can’t be here; he doesn’t even have an MA.”
The dissenter may have been unaware of the Oxbridge tradition where a good BA degree was sufficient to allow a student to read for a doctorate. Alternatively, he was being plain bloody-minded and using nativism to express his distaste for a Oxford-educated interloper. My suspicion that it was probably the latter was confirmed some years later by one of India’s foremost authorities on political thought—a gentleman with an Oxford and Harvard pedigree.
Like my historian friend, he too had returned to India after a long absence and joined one of India’s most generously endowed universities. His tenure, tragically, proved to be tragically short. He resigned following disagreements over an unstated departmental policy of positive discrimination in favour of the university’s alumni in faculty appointments.
Last week, in an intervention that could be interpreted as an attack on the restrictive practices that have made many universities breeding grounds of cronysism, the junior minister of the grandly-named Human Resource Development Ministry Shashi Tharoor proclaimed his support for the four-year degree course Delhi University is set to introduce from July. Tharoor’s logic was simple: the American 12 + 4 pattern has become the norm. “Indian students with 10+2+3 were made to do an extra year in the US. It was frustrating for many.”
Indeed it was. But the logic of Tharoor’s argument is intriguing. It suggests that the primary purpose of Delhi University is to prepare students to adjust seamlessly into the US campuses. Indian higher education, it would seem, exists to facilitate the inevitable Atlantic crossing.
If the main intention behind adding an extra year to undergraduate courses was to facilitate India’s globalisation, it can be said to involve a grudging acceptance of a new world order. Certainly there is ample scope to make the undergraduate curriculum more rigorous and exacting, and better prepare the minority of students who choose to pursue post-graduate studies in US. The changes may even reek of pragmatism: Indian universities reinventing themselves as variants of Rau’s Study Circle, the well-known crammer for the civil services examinations.
And why not? For many decades, under the pretence of modernity and post-colonialism, the definition of a university has witnessed dramatic changes. The notion of institutions of learning pursuing knowledge for its own sake has long been discarded. Equally, inculcating “the code of a gentleman and sportsman”—General Smuts’ evocative description of an ideal Rhodes scholar in Oxford—no longer counts as a priority. Instead, India has enthusiastically embraced the virtues of ‘really useful knowledge’, a euphemism for skills appropriate for the white-collar job market.
Yet, there is a fundamental mismatch between preparing students for a US Graduate School, an approach that demands building sound scholastic foundations, and supplying the market with mid-level functionaries. In addition, there are social objectives that the Indian university has to be mindful of. This involves making the curriculum less intimidating to those who were disadvantaged by indifferent schooling. In short, there is a mismatch between what Tharoor hopes and what the human and infrastructural deficiencies will allow the university to achieve. The conflict between quality education and mass education is inescapable. It can be better handled by improving our schools, not by transferring the problem to higher education.
In trying to blend the functions of high school and polytechnic with that of a traditional university, Delhi University may end up falling between two stools. Whereas the façade of the new four-year degree may correspond to the US pattern, the software could well be vastly inferior and, possibly, virus infested.
Sunday Times of India, May 5, 2013
Saturday, May 04, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
The collapse of the Saradha Group, said to be a ‘Ponzi’ scheme, has created political ripples in West Bengal. Accusations have been levelled against MPs and other functionaries of the Trinamool Congress for both patronising and providing political cover to a flamboyant entrepreneur who ended up either short-changing or cheating many thousands of people of modest means their limited life savings. The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, unaccustomed to handling charges of financial impropriety, has reacted in the only way she knows: by levelling shrill and sometimes outlandish charges against her political opponents, particularly the CPI(M) and Congress. She has also raised hackles by suggesting that “what is lost is lost.”
That the Chief Minister and the TMC would bear the brunt of the outrage over the Saradha collapse was only to be expected. The so-called “suicide note” that Saradha’s founder chairman Sudipta Sen sent to the CBI before his arrest in a Kashmir resort make it quite clear that he indulged some people close to the TMC because it provided him a measure of protection. He also said that that he paid a whopping Rs 40 crores to two Marwari businessmen and the office-bearer of a prominent football club for the sole purpose of “managing the SEBI” officers in Mumbai. These businessmen claimed proximity to a Congress politician who has risen to a very high Constitutional post. In addition, he paid consultancy fees of approximately Rs one crore and took care of the hotel bills of the wife of a senior Cabinet minister because he was told that “if this…family slightly stand by me then I will be (sic) great clout in India.”
Since a man who is charged with grave offences may well level grave charges against prominent individuals to deflect attention and, indeed, politicise a straight-forward financial scam, it may well be improper to repeat the names of prominent people whose palms Sen claims to have generously greased. In any event, most of these names are now in the public domain and their identities are no longer a well-guarded secret or a subject of speculation. However, since the moral credentials of a man who presents himself as a sincere entrepreneur who was ignorant of SEBI guidelines on accepting deposits from the public and who in turn was both blackmailed and duped by others more unscrupulous than him, hasn’t yet been fully established, it is best to view the contents of his “suicide note” with a large measure of caution.
Yet, while the political aspects of Sen’s defence of his misconduct have got full play in the media, there is another facet of his protestations of innocence that have been glossed over. In the concluding part of his 18-page dying declaration, Sen wrote: “My over all business fall down is due to the media entry, extortion from the above named persons and blackmailed by my own staffs and executives.”
Since the CBI, it has now emerged in the course of the Coalgate controversy that threatens to destroy the Mammohan Singh Government, is accustomed to consulting the executive to check the grammar of its depositions, it may not be too hard for them to have Sen’s “last statement” translated into English.
In a nutshell, Sen’s accusation is startling. Once people got wind of the fact that what the Saradha bosses and their agents were doing all over eastern India, they started viewing him as the proverbial milch cow. Leading this pack of predators were not politicians, but people who ostensibly claimed to be from the media. Thus, in order to save himself from attacks in the media, Sen decided to invest in the very people who were either conducting so-called investigative journalism or threatening to expose him. He bought Channel 10, a Bengali news channel, for some Rs 30 crore and engaged his erstwhile tormentors to provide him content for Rs 60 lakhs each month. The erstwhile tormentors gave him “assurance that (on) execution of this agreement they will protect my business from the government i.e. State Government and also Central Government and I will be able to get a smooth passage…” Blessed with this assurance, Sen sunk in Rs 50 crore into the channel and started three dailies.
Ironically, Sen’s entry into the media resulted in all the media hyenas rushing to his door with the same threats and blandishments. The estranged wife of a former Congress minister at the Centre used her political clout to pay Rs 25 crore to establish a channel for the North-east. Another Rs 28 crore was paid to the former minister himself for 50 per cent share of another channel beamed at the North-east. A Congress MLA from Assam sold him a printing press and a newspaper for Rs 6 crore. And one enterprising freelancer extracted Rs 50 lakh and more from Saradha to set up an English channel.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, May 3, 2013
Saturday, April 27, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
Since the Indian Parliament is lucky enough to have a quizmaster among its members, it would be instructive if he posed a perplexing question to a Government minister, preferably one whose answer is likely to be taken seriously. The question is this: If 19km of Chinese incursion into Indian territory leaves both the government and society completely unruffled, how much territory does Beijing have to occupy before the country feels well and truly shafted?
Maybe this question need not be confined to representatives of the UPA Government and the presiding deities of the so-called “strategic community” that are so visible in seminars and international airport lounges. This Saturday’s Delhi editions of the English language dailies were conspicuous by their perfunctory treatment of this official admission by the Defence Secretary to the parliamentary standing committee on defence. Only one publication chose to place this news on its front page; the rest chose to give greater play to the newest version of a mobile phone produced by Samsung.
Whether the relegation of the border tensions have anything to do with discreet suggestions from (what are quaintly described in media-speak as) ‘sources’, is a matter of conjecture. But as I have long maintained, the newshounds on the South Block beat have for long adjusted to their new role as stenographers to the Ministry of External Affairs. No wonder readers are compelled to digest a lot of gobble about “perceptional mismatch”, “calibrated” overtures and “nuanced” approaches to an opaque and inscrutable dispensation in Beijing. Thank God the TV channels are little less squeamish.
China, to its eternal credit, has very successfully created a mystique around itself. India’s China experts—with some honourable exceptions—have, by and large, devoured the piffle that is routinely dished out by its post-Confucian mandarins and, in fact, added their own sprinkling of soya sauce. Those who were exposed to China studies in the Indian Universities in the 1970s may recall the gush-gush endorsements of crazy schemes such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. The post-Mao U-turn should, ideally, have left them red-faced by the inclination to be Sinophiles, rather than Sinologists, had struck such deep roots that the shifting sands of China had little impact.
I recall attending a lecture by the notorious fellow-traveller Han Suyin at the London School of Economics sometime in the late-1970s where she held forth on the treachery of the Gang of Four, particularly Mao’s widow Jiang Quin. It was all very erudite and convincing until an insolent Briton stood up to remind her that barely a year or so ago she was singing praises of those very people she was now denouncing with gusto.
Actually, for the China-watchers, it is a simple case of access. Their profession demands frequent visits to China and it just doesn’t do to get on the wrong side of the present dispensation. And remember, China isn’t just another country: it is the most powerful nation of Asia blessed with an unflinching determination to restore its place as the Middle Kingdom. To many of China’s policy makers, India is a upstart that must periodically be shown its place. Certainly, Zhou Enlai was miffed by Jawaharlal Nehru’s condescension and waited for an opportune moment to deliver a tight slap in 1962.
The irony is that the greater the rebuff, the more India seems to come crawling. Nehru was probably the intellectual originator of the silly ‘Chindia’ thesis that subsequent fellow travellers such as Jairam Ramesh have taken such pains to propagate. Nehru’s anodyne Panchshila was located in a romantic version of post-colonial Asian resurgence. The tragedy was that lesser Nehruvians who were involved in Sino-Indian relations took exceptional care to ensure that ground realities were presented in such a way as to fit a grand theory. Sardar K.M. Panikkar who served as India’s Ambassador to China at a critical juncture may have been an erudite scholar but his total misreading of the fledgling Maoist regime owed a great deal to dissimulation. He presented a picture of China that Nehru wanted to hear.
This tradition of tailoring the message to suit the recipient appears to be continuing and, as usual, being packaged within a so-called strategic doctrine. Some of those entrusted with safeguarding India’s national security appear to be more concerned with getting their Mandarin pronunciation right when ordering Shark’s Fin soup than in penetrating the political fog that is allowed to engulf the Chinese establishment.
Yes, India cannot afford a military misadventure against a country that has larger capacity and depth. Ideally, it should avoid a second front. But that is no excuse to turn a blind eye to the demographic transformation of Tibet, the cyber terrorism that is periodically unleashed and China’s encouragement of Pakistan. Worse, in today’s context, there is no logic to replicating Nehru’s casual dismissal of the loss of Aksai Chin on the ground that “not a blade of grass” grows there.
Sunday Pioneer, April 28, 2013
Modi under modificationMost analyses of Modi are rooted in the debate surrounding the Ayodhya years, but both India and the man have changed
Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay (Tranquebar Press, 2013, 410 pages. Rs 495)
Biographies of individuals who could end up as the Prime Minister of India have begun making their appearance in a pre-election India gripped by political uncertainty. In the past year, for example, there have been two attempts by three journalists to explain the life and politics of Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s media-shy heir apparent. Both books were astonishing in one respect: the authors had never met nor spoken to the Congress Vice President!
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s political biography of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi does not short-change readers with such brazenness. Yet, the fact that the author met the subject of his study for just one lengthy session (he had, of course, interacted with him in earlier years when Modi was a functionary at the BJP central office in Delhi) in May 2012 and completed the back some nine months later suggests that ‘quickies’ are becoming the norm in Indian publishing.
To do justice to his subject, a biographer needs to certainly understand the wider environment in which the individual operates. He certainly needs to engage exhaustively with friends, family, associates and detractors of the person under scrutiny. But these are never a substitute for getting under the skin of and understanding the mind of the subject. For a person whose life is still a work in progress, this is a doubly complex exercise that requires patience, perseverance and doggedness.
It is not that Mukhopadhyay hasn’t tried. He has read most of the secondary articles and reports on Modi; he has spoken to those who dislike Modi within the RSS family; and he has touched base with most of Gujarat’s senior journalists. Indeed, like the reporter who is parachuted into unknown territory, he has followed the drill: first talk to the taxi driver and then imbibe the wisdom of local journalists.
There is only problem with this approach: the local media (with some exceptions) is usually the least well-informed about the Chief Minister. I have seen this in Orissa and I have experienced it in Gujarat. In 2002, for example, there were almost no takers for the couple of seats set aside for media in the leader’s helicopter during the campaign. The media had decided to boycott the ‘monster’, having convinced itself that he was going to lose—a perception bolstered by spurious polls. In 2007, an Ahmedabad journalist asked me to contribute an article on the theme: “Is 2007 Modi’s Waterloo?” And in 2012, Delhi journalists were routinely told by their Gujarat colleagues that the BJP would fall short of a majority.
Mukhopadhyay’s over-dependence on the local media has inevitably led him to replicate the facile conclusions on which the Delhi chatterati has depended in assessing Modi. I was struck, for example, by the complete absence of any inputs from retired or serving bureaucrats on Modi’s approach to administration. It was amusing to see the complete absence of accounts from entrepreneurs and farmers on the business environment of Gujarat. Rather than undertake rigorous groundwork, Mukhopadhyay has relied exclusively on reports that suggest that Modi is no big deal. Likewise, the absence of any discernible inputs from senior BJP figures, many of whom have a strange love-hate relationship with him, is very noticeable. There are umpteen stories of the years Modi spent in ‘exile’, dreaming of a return to Gujarat, and the way he handled the post-2002 assault by the Prime Minister’s Office that would have enriched the of the man. Equally, Mukhopadhyay does not provide any insights into Modi’s troubled relationship with the RSS establishment and how he prevailed.
The fundamental mistake of this biography lies in the belief that the Modi who was an important functionary during the Hindutva mobilisation from the late-1980s to the mid-1990s is the same man who now aspires to be Prime Minister. This is a common mistake of those who covered the Ayodhya movement and were convinced that fascism was round the corner in India.
The most interesting story to be told is how Modi clobbered the likes of Togadia, insulated himself from the RSS’ micro-management and coped with the unrelenting hostility of the Indian Establishment. The Modi who found himself thrust into the unlikely role of ‘Chhote Sardar’ in 2002, redefined the terms on which he would be judged subsequently. In believing, like many still do, that the rise and rise of Narendra Modi is a consequence of crude identity politics is to misread the man completely. Modi’s critics, it would seem, are still judging him on the terms of a debate that surrounded the Ayodhya years. Since then, India has changed, Modi has changed but his detractors are caught in a time warp.
In assessing the “The Times’ which shaped Modi, Mukhopadhyay overlooked the post-1991 economic transformation of India. The vicious 2002 riots were the last gasp of the old politics. What matters is subsequent events, themes that this book leaves under-explored.---Swapan Dasgupta
Business Standard, April 26, 2013
Friday, April 26, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
On November 16, 1905, two days before he left India for the last time—and in controversial circumstances—Viceroy Lord Curzon delivered a remarkable speech at the Byculla Club in Bombay. The popular expectations from a Viceroy, he suggested, were unbearably exacting: “He must be prepared to speak about everything, and often about nothing. He is expected to preserve temples, to keep the currency steady, to satisfy third-class passengers, to patronise race meetings, to make Bombay and Calcutta each think that it is the Capital city of India, and to purify the police…If he does not reform everything that is wrong, he is told that he is doing too little; if he reforms anything at all, that he is doing too much.”
Arguably, Curzon was protesting too much. As an unapologetic advocate of “one-man supervision” (to be distinguished from one-man rule) which he viewed as the best alternative to bureaucratic government—“the most mechanical and lifeless of all forms of administration”—this most “superior” of all Viceroys revelled in micro-management. Predictably, this insistence on the Viceroy being the fountainhead of governance and policy-making led to a clash with the India Office and forced his premature return to the far less glamorous world of domestic politics in Britain.
There is some merit in re-reading Curzon’s Byculla Club speech in the age of 24x7 news channels. Over the past few years, there has been an engaging debate over the role of government and governance in India. For many, the rapes in Delhi, the mushrooming of pornographic clips on mobile phones, the cheating of small investors by suspect chit funds and the persistence of malnutrition among children point to the need for more government and, perhaps, more intrusive governance. Conversely, the suggestion of cronyism in the allotment of telecom licences and coal blocks, the sheer incompetence of state electricity boards and the leakages identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the workings of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) has prompted the conclusion that the Indian state is not merely bloated but incompetent and venal.
A remarkable feature of this fierce debate that rages incessantly on TV screens, Parliament and other public forums is that they are invariably case study based. Those who are demanding the censure of the Government for depriving the public exchequer of rentier income in the sale of spectrum and allotment of coal blocks may well be those who were earlier in the year resentful of the controls the state sought to exercise on the social media. The middle classes are outraged that the Right to Education Act has resulted in state-sponsored hiccups in the admission procedures of schools. Yet the same middle classes pillory the West Bengal Government for doing too little to stop the proliferation of shady chit funds that invariably end up cheating small investors. In Punjab, farmers often seek an end to regulations that prevent the free movement of grain and other crops, but are active in their insistence that fertilisers be subsidised and electricity for farming be provided free of charge. And, finally, there are companies that have made a fortune from what passes for Information Technology—outsourcing and body shopping—that seek to combine complete deregulation with subsidised land to build sprawling campuses.
Given these contradictory and flexible impulses, it is small wonder that political leaders have consciously avoided elevating the debate to arrive at a meaningful conclusion on the role of the state in a market-oriented economy. There is incessant chatter about ‘good governance’ but relatively little concern over the ideal reach of the state.
Perhaps Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may the odd man out. Unlike his colleagues in the Bharatiya Janata Party who have desisted from elevating their natural misgivings over an over-regulated economy and society into a coherent philosophy, Modi has actually tried to address the core issue. What has over-simplistically come to be described as the “Gujarat model” has, in Modi own words, come to mean “less government and more governance”. Whether this approach corresponds to the late Margaret Thatcher’s motto of a “small state but effective state” is an issue that will no doubt surface nearer the general election, but the common refrain of the editorial and chattering classes has boiled down to a simple assertion: ‘Gujarat isn’t India’.
That this is a truism is undeniable. The so-called ‘Gujarat model’ is an over-simplified journalistic invention that in popular parlance has come to imply a single-minded focus on growth and, by implication, a relative neglect of what is called ‘human development’. The extent to which there has been a conscious diversion of resources from ‘human development’ to infrastructure is debatable. Economist Bibek Debroy, for example, has suggested that this facile conclusion is the consequence of an inability to get the most up-to-date figures. The overall improvement in the quality of life in Gujarat, he maintains, has kept pace with its sustained double-digit GDP growth.
Regardless of the political debate over the nature of Gujarati capitalism, some tentative conclusions are in order. First, Gujarat operates under the same set of laws and regulatory regimes that in vogue in the rest of India. The Dholera Special Investment Region, for example, has been created out of an enabling legislation that is available to all Indian states, including West Bengal. Why, it may well be asked, has only Gujarat chosen to avail of the opportunities?
Secondly, there has been no discernible rollback of the state in Gujarat. Where Modi has succeeded is in transforming loss-making public sector units into relatively more efficient entities that show modest profits. The Gujarat State Electricity Board is a case of a PSU that has shown good results without having to travel down the privatisation route. Modi, for example, has been inflexible on the issue of reasonable user charges as the price for uninterrupted domestic power to both cities and villages—a price the consumers have been more than willing to pay. Power subsidies for agriculture haven’t been done away with. Instead, there has been a rigorous drive to segregate power for agriculture from ordinary domestic and commercial usage. In short, the subsidy regime has been sharply targeted.
Thirdly, there has been a conscious attempt to remove small irritants in the path of entrepreneurship. The scale of Inspector Raj—a problem that plagues traders in, say, Uttar Pradesh—has been reduced quite dramatically and there is a greater emphasis on self-regulation.
Fourthly, there has been a stress on bureaucratic accountability and a sharp reduction in the discretionary powers available to the state machinery. The process of transfers and postings that preoccupy so many of India’s politicians has been made transparent and almost entirely rule-based. Bureaucrats have also been given relative security of tenure as the price for accountability and efficiency. Likewise, the use of IT to access government records has improved the quality of service in areas that involve the interaction of citizens with the state. Add to these the small innovations such as the introduction of evening courts which have yielded dramatic results.
Finally, and this is important, the profound changes that have reshaped Gujarat in the past decade have been effected without the creation of a new, ‘committed’ bureaucracy. It’s the same set of people who have proved slothful and venal elsewhere who have delivered wholesome governance in Gujarat.
The debate over the role of the state, it is clear, has been overstated. A rollback of the state remains a difficult proposition considering the unevenness of India’s development. What is more relevant is a sustained focus on the efficiency of governance. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
When it comes to pageantry, the British continue to be unrivalled. The “Ornamentalism” that once made the British Empire an object of awe and even reverence was in evidence, albeit on a more modest scale, at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher last Wednesday.
Perhaps the event lacked the underlying glamour of the state funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 when grandmothers wept and veterans saluted the coffin of a man who had acquired the legendary status of a Nelson and Wellington. Thatcher, by contrast, was not someone out of a G.A. Henty novel. The battles she fought were distinctly unglamorous: against dreary bureaucrats in Brussels over trade and currency, against a tin-pot Argentinian dictator, against a doctrinaire dinosaur miners’ leader and, more often than not, against upper-class patricians with cultivated stutters whose upbringings hadn’t included dealings with a pushy woman with steely determination. Like Churchill she too fought a war; but it was a long-overdue civil war.
Future historians will remain divided over her legacy. To the sceptics, she was a deeply divisive figure whose policies devastated communities and destroyed the inner tranquillity of post-imperial Britain. Thatcher, it will surely be claimed, tried to refashion a people into what they were clearly not. It will be said that what mattered to her was drive and enterprise—attributes that bypass the great majority of plodders. The lady who won three consecutive election victories quite conclusively, it would appear, was always loath to pander to the average.
Thatcher, it would seem, was a creature after her time. She took her inspiration from a time when Britain nurtured generations of individualists hungry for success and adventure. The ‘Victorian values’ she admired and advocated weren’t merely about hard work, thrift, self-help, patriotism and a respect for ordinary decencies. For Thatcher, an individual’s station in life wasn’t determined by the accident of birth: it was shaped by energy and enterprise. To her, the state didn’t exist as a safety net or a cushion: it existed as a facilitator to help people better themselves. That could be done by lower taxes, less regulations and a state that concentrated on its essential responsibilities. She hated the idea of a society of haves and have-nots; she wanted a nation of haves. In a sense she was at odds with the notion of social stability which implied a static, hierarchical order. Having experienced the social derision of Tory grandees for being a grocer’s daughter, she loved the idea of unsettling the status quo. She was a Conservative by affiliation but a revolutionary by instinct.
It was precisely because Thatcher couldn’t be neatly pigeon-holed that she aroused the unrelenting opposition of the intelligentsia. The hostility was so visceral that she was snubbed by her alma mater Oxford University and denied a Honorary Doctorate.
In hindsight the magnitude of opposition was surprising. Thatcher was not an intellectual in the sense that she didn’t write book reviews for the Spectator or attended literary soirées in either Chelsea or Hampstead. Yet she was deeply wedded to ideas and had a profoundly common-sense understanding of economics. In that sense she wasn’t the personification of the ‘stupid party’—the familiar Left-liberal caricature of the Right. The real problem was that the ideas that appealed to her were profoundly unfashionable in the group-think world of the media and the Senior Common Room. More important, initiatives such as the privatisation of state-owned industries and the sale of government housing—both important steps in the creation of a “property-owning democracy”, a Thatcherite ideal—were regarded as complete blasphemy. To conformist intellectuals who claimed a monopoly over the gospel, Thatcher was indeed a witch.
Fortunately, Thatcher never lacked self-assurance and courage of her convictions. She could egg on the people of Eastern Europe to soldier on against the ‘evil Empire’ because she was convinced that godless statism was indeed evil. She could unreservedly claim that she was putting the “Great” back into Britain because she knew that there was nothing to be ashamed of.
Sunday Times of India, April 21, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
Judged by the lax standards of India where human life tends to be woefully cheap, the twin blasts in Boston that led to four deaths and many more injured, may have seemed relatively trivial. True, there was considerable admiration for the local police and the federal authorities that pursued the investigations with understated rigour and their success in identifying and apprehending the two unlikely perpetrators of the blasts, but this was offset by disagreeable comments that America “had it coming.” How the spectators of the Boston Marathon were responsible for the problems Moscow has with Chechnya, is a different matter altogether and unlikely to unsettle the pre-conceived theories of those who are relentless in putting their own spin on the so-called ‘roots of terrorism’.
President George W. Bush may well be the target of fashionable derision but it can scarcely be denied that his emphasis on Homeland Security has now become a bi-partisan goal, from which even the relatively more liberal President Obama dare not depart.
Compare this with the farce that was witnessed in India earlier this week over the sentencing of the perpetrators and facilitators of the devastating serial Bombay blasts of March 1992 that killed nearly 250 people and left countless others permanently disabled. The Supreme Court this week, accorded the film star Sanjay Dutt an extra month of freedom to surrender before the Mumbai. The ostensible reason was to allow the Bollywood star a little more time to complete his various shooting engagements, a move that will give a lot of respite to many film producers who had sunk in a great deal of money in films starring Dutt.
Not surprisingly, this generosity by the apex court didn’t go down too well with the great unwashed. It is a cruel fact of life that there isn’t enough justice to go round the world. However, conceding the element of iniquity in the administration of the law, there was outrage over the belief that class bias could be so openly and blatantly upheld. There may be sympathy for the film producers who stood to make whopping losses if Dutt was packed off to jail immediately, but there was little appreciation of the fact that a convicted criminal was being shown extra consideration, not to attend a sick relative or a moping pet dog, but to make some extra money.
True, the outrage over the leniency shown to Dutt resulted in some others convicted in the same conspiracy also getting some extra time to be with their families. But what I found interesting was the nonchalance with which India’s liberals and even representatives of the ruling Congress Party argued for all-round lenience. It was almost made out that some people were being punished for some youthful indiscretion that may have included stealing mangoes from orchards belonging to others. That Dutt and the others had been sentenced for their involvement in a case that resulted in a bloodbath was quietly forgotten. Equally forgotten was the fact that Dutt wasn’t a victim of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that he knew exactly what he was doing in helping the underworld smuggle deadly weapons to wage against India. Sanjay Dutt was convicted under the Arms Act for possessing illegal weapons. In reality, his offence was more serious, almost treasonable. By modifying the sentence to suit his shooting schedules, the law displayed utter contempt for those who died in the blasts. There is generosity for those who sided with the terrorists and little concern for those who were victims of terror.
The Supreme Court doesn’t set the terms of the political discourse. As such, it cannot be blamed for the onrush of contrived sympathy for those who were convicted and still insist they were innocent. But it can be said that the show of indulgence has created the conditions for viewing the blasts of 1993 as a conjunctural misdemeanour that was now history. From an avowed position of ‘zero tolerance’ of terrorism, the liberal discourse is shifting to a forget and forgive approach. At this rate, Dawood Ibrahim may as well surrender and then approach the court to be given time to settle business affairs that haven unattended after two decades of absence from India. Maybe a Katju-type person may even oblige him and take into account the fact that he has no bank loan, speaks Urdu and probably loathes Narendra Modi.
I am not being facetious. Last week, I read in the papers that one S.M.A. Kazmi, said to be a journalist, who has been charged with involvement in the attack on an Israeli diplomat by Iranian terrorists two years ago, has used his bail period to start an Urdu newspaper that is ironically called Qaumi Salamati (national security). I am not prejudging either the verdict of the court or the quality of the prosecution’s case. What I found revealing was that the inaugural function of Kazmi’s media venture was attended by the Chief Minister of Delhi, the Chairperson of the Minorities Commission and leaders of at least two political parties. What interests me is that a person charged with having links with terror groups that targets the diplomat of a friendly country, can secure political insurance with such ease.
Sunday Pioneer, April 21, 2103
Friday, April 19, 2013
By Swapan Dasgupta
The Janata Dal (United)-BJP alliance in Bihar has endured for nearly two decades. Forged in the mid-1990s as a united front to take on Lalu Prasad Yadav who dominated Bihar politics after his initial victory over the Congress in 1990, the alliance was much more than a mere seat-sharing arrangement: it was also a social alliance. The BJP brought in the upper castes and a sprinkling of Backward castes, and the JD(U) complemented it with substantial support from the non-Yadav backward castes. In Nitish Kumar the alliance found a leader who had the right caste credentials and a personality that juxtaposed well against the flippancy and buffoonery of Lalu. After initial setbacks, the alliance came into its own and won two consecutive Assembly elections under Nitish’s leadership.
Thanks to the seminal contribution of, first, George Fernandes and, subsequently, Sharad Yadav, the alliance also worked at the Centre. There were points of disagreement between the two parties but these were subsumed under the larger umbrella of anti-Congressism, an article of faith with Ram Manohar Lohia, the main inspiration of those leaders who had cut their teeth in the socialist and JP movements.
The question that naturally arises is: why is this hitherto stable and time-tested alliance suddenly on the verge of collapse?
To blame Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for provoking a crisis in distant Bihar is facile, unless we are inclined to believe that the very idea of Modi is life-threatening to Nitish. So far, and despite many sniper attacks by B-grade politicians who claim to speak for the Bihar Chief Minister, Modi has not uttered a single word in retaliation. Despite the implicit humiliation, he silently bore Nitish’s cancellation of a dinner for the BJP National Executive in Patna three years ago and obeyed the party leadership’s directive to not campaign in Bihar’s Assembly election. Modi has steadfastly refused to engage in a verbal slug-fest with Nitish.
Nitish unfortunately has not exercised the same degree of restraint. Apart from his tantrums centred on Modi’s physical presence in Bihar, he went public some six months ago in a newspaper interview that more or less said that Modi would be unacceptable to the NDA as a national leader because he lacked the necessary ‘secular’ credentials. For the past six months, his spokespersons have repeated this ad infinitum on TV—some with a measure of subtlety and others with raw bluntness. Indeed, while the rest of the national Opposition concentrated on highlighting the UPA’s non-governance and corruption, Modi became the unending preoccupation of the JD(U) leaders from Bihar.
On his part, Nitish excelled in double-speak. He supported Pranab Mukherjee as President but was happy to endorse Jaswant Singh’s candidature as vice-president. He invoked Bihari pride with his demand for a ‘special status’ for the state but also indicated that he would support any government that would do justice to Bihar. When this utterance was naturally interpreted to mean that he was making overtures to the Congress, Nitish was quick to inform concerned BJP leaders that anti-Congressism was in his DNA. Last Satuday, he told BJP leaders that he owed his great success to the NDA and that his concern over Modi was due to his worry that under the Gujarat leader the alliance wouldn’t be able to maximise its gains. Yet, the very next day he went ballistic with a public attack on Modi. At the same time, he set a December deadline and didn’t discourage Sharad Yadav from trying to cool tempers.
Unfortunately, this over-cleverness has led to a reaction. Earlier, BJP leaders were inclined to give Nitish benefit of the doubt. Today, they are beginning to feel that the pro-Modi hotheads in the Bihar state BJP were right in claiming that Nitish has all along been planning an exit strategy. Today, the mood in the Bihar BJP has turned virulently anti-Nitish and even the party’s Central leadership appear to have concluded that the alliance is for all practical purposes over.
There are enough pointers to suggest that Nitish was planning to emulate Naveen Patnaik in 2009 and leave the BJP in the lurch at the last minute, a move that would have had a devastating effect on the NDA’s morale. Yet, apart from the fact that Nitish may not like Modi, what is the rationale behind his bid to divorce the BJP?
Commentators have invariably spoken about the importance of the 16 per cent or so Muslim vote. The bulk of that vote was earlier secured by Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan’s party. The percentage of Muslim votes for the BJP-JD(U) alliance is, ironically, at about the same level as that secured by Modi in Gujarat. If Muslims haven’t been the key to Nitish’s electoral success, why is he afraid of a post-Modi minority backlash?
Asian Age, April 19, 2013
Thursday, April 18, 2013
With the party’s rank and file squarely behind Narendra Modi, a parting of ways with Nitish Kumar may now be impossible to prevent
By Swapan Dasgupta
For the past two months, India’s powerful Left-liberal Establishment has been in a state of dejection on account of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
First, following his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat last December, Modi’s tag of untouchability was ceremoniously cut off. Corporate India, diplomatic missions and particularly the media which had hitherto shunned him, now joined the aspirational classes in seeing him as a possible saviour, a leader whose steely determination could enable India to realise its full potential in a globalised community. For the past month, Modi has carpet bombed the country with his infectious ‘India can do it’ message. He has certainly found many new converts but, more important, he has aroused considerable curiosity in parts of India that hitherto had only a hazy idea about the man. In the process, he has galvanised the BJP rank-and-file and given them a new-found political purpose.
Secondly, contrary to a pre-conceived notion of what constituted Modi’s appeal, the Gujarat Chief Minister has focussed exclusively on the twin themes of economic development and governance. True, his quasi-Thatcherite message of a minimum but purposeful state has been contested. But despite the criticisms of the “Gujarat model”, Modi has set the terms of an emerging debate. He has carefully steered the focus away from his earlier reputation as an icon of sectarian politics and into bread and butter issues—themes where he clearly outscores the Congress’ would-be challenger Rahul Gandhi.
It is in this context that a nervous Establishment has breathed a sigh of relief at Bihar Chief Minister’s robust intervention at the Janata Dal (United) convention last Sunday. In devoting almost his entire speech to the importance of a Prime Minister with unblemished “secular” credentials and a more inclusive development strategy, Nitish Kumar unambiguously expressed his big ‘No’ to the idea of Modi as a prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance. In short, as a long-term ally of the BJP, Nitish resumed the debate on Modi as a possibly divisive figure, a man who couldn’t carry both the pugree-wallas and the topi-wallas.
That Nitish’s tirade against Modi stemmed from his long-standing belief that the latter’s presence in Bihar would be a liability is well known. With Muslim voters accounting for more than 16 per cent of the electorate, Nitish was mindful of the Muslim antipathy to Modi. A Modi-led NDA, he believed, would lead to aggressive Muslim voting to defeat anyone associated with the BJP, a situation that could potentially benefit his main rival Lalu Yadav. Nitish has also believed that if he was perceived as the man who punctured the Modi balloon, it would lead to Muslim voters seeing him (rather than Lalu Yadav) as the great champion of the community. And, if the RJD’s Muslim support was substantially eroded, it would make the JD(U) the dominant party in Bihar, much like the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa. Nitish was in effect attempting a socio-political realignment that would either nullify his dependence on the BJP or even allow him to break with it altogether.
In his private negotiations with the BJP, the Bihar Chief Minister has steadfastly maintained that he values the NDA and that he would have no problem if the BJP chose a leader who is more in the Atal Behari Vajpayee mould. Other JD(U) leaders have stated that the party is completely agreeable to L.K. Advani being given another throw of the dice in 2014.
On the face of it, this may appear to be a case of a coalition partner counselling the BJP against a decision that could potentially be inimical to his local interests. However, it is not as straight forward as it may seem. There are enough grounds to believe that Nitish’s public disavowal of Modi and his implied threat to quit the NDA was a consequence of his belief that his intervention would muddy the waters for the Gujarat Chief Minister and, in the process, leave the BJP deeply divided. It is a matter of conjecture whether Nitish was actually egged on by some BJP leaders to be assertive in his rejection. But there is no doubt that it was silently welcomed by those BJP leaders who are uncomfortable with the idea of Modi. The needle of suspicion invariably points to one individual.
In politics it is impossible to anticipate every outcome. Nitish, it would seem, grossly over-estimated the magnitude of the misgivings over Modi inside the BJP. The rapidity of the BJP’s sharp rebuttal of what it saw as gratuitous advice may well have taken him by surprise. Equally, it is unlikely he anticipated the sharp reaction of BJP karyakartas who are convinced that their best hope for 2014 is Modi.
A large part of the BJP rank-and-file anger against Nitish may well have been emotional, but it is worth remembering that the BJP has always depended on emotions for political motivation. In 2005, it was the emotional antipathy to Advani’s comments at the Jinnah mausoleum that led to the titan being displaced.
Nitish’s anti-Modi utterances have had the same impact. First, it forced the BJP leadership to overrule the do-nothing leaders and come out strongly in defence of Modi. In short, it once again reaffirmed Modi’s status as first among equals. Secondly, Nitish’s December deadline has egged on the more enthusiastic sections of the Modi fan club to demand an end to the ambivalence over the choice of the BJP’s public face for 2014. It is becoming increasingly clear to all the BJP stakeholders that any attempts to deny Modi his overriding role will lead to a grassroots revolt. Finally, Nitish’s Sunday speech which was preceded by many sniper shots directed at Modi, has vitiated BJP-JD(U) relations to the point of no return. It may prove extremely difficult, if not impossible, to prevent a formal parting of ways in Bihar in weeks rather than months.
The Hindu, April 18, 2013