Thursday, December 01, 2005

Not into the sunset (Dcember 2, 2005)

Neither India nor the BJP has heard the last of Uma Bharti

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sometime in 1993, I received a call from Uma Bharti to meet at her flat on Baba Kharak Singh Marg in Delhi. She wanted some help in getting out of yet another sticky situation, substantially of her own making. She had antagonised the top brass of the Madhya Pradesh unit of the BJP by accusing former chief minister Sunderlal Patwa of plotting to kill her. It was a wild charge and deserving of some disciplinary action.

After a few pleasantries and a quick round-up of Madhya Pradesh politics, I bluntly asked Uma why she was hell-bent on tormenting Patwa. Surely she should realise that you couldn’t get anywhere in the state by alienating a powerful group in the BJP that included Patwa, Kushabhau Thakre and the Rajmata of Gwalior? “I can’t help it”, retorted Uma, “it’s in my genes.”

It was the strangest answer I ever heard from a politician. The question is: has Uma ever really been a politician?

She somehow got out of that little spot of bother in 1993. She has also extricated herself from many other acts of indiscretion because, at the end of the day, the sombre notables of the BJP don’t know whether to take her seriously or treat her as the resident eccentric. Accustomed to a political style centred on anushashan (discipline), they just don’t know how to cope with a sanyasin who is both a tomboy and a natural charmer. One moment she threatens and curses, and before the day is out she plays the sweet, vulnerable girl who had momentarily let her emotions get the better of her rational judgment.

Uma is forever getting the benefit of doubt. That’s because everyone in the BJP know they are also dealing with a highly gifted individual, an indefatigable campaigner and an accomplished communicator. Words come naturally to Uma. A professional preacher since the age of six, she can still cast a spell on just about any audience. She can master a complicated subject effortlessly and communicate it to a rural audience through parables from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Whether she’s proclaiming the glory of Lord Ram or denouncing the Congress, Uma knows how to strike the right note.

She is also a charmer and plays mind games. During the 2003 Madhya Pradesh campaign, she entered into a fantastic partnership with Arun Jaitley to demolish the Congress. She would perennially tease Jaitley, and then go on to harass him to the point of exasperation. With Venkiah Naidu she was forever aggressive and even intimidating. With the party stalwarts such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Jaswant Singh, she would be remarkably coy and paint herself as a homely and slightly spoilt child. At the same time, she possesses a sort of village cunning that propels her into preying on people’s vulnerabilities and pandering to their pet hates.

With Uma, you have to be on your guard. Her behaviour can and does, at times, leave the party leadership fuming. Yet, there are few who bear permanent grudges – women, ironically, judge her more harshly than men. “Uma is mad”, is the common refrain and the precursor to acts of collective forgiveness. Everyone knows they were dealing with someone special and unique.

Uma’s impulsiveness has always been the problem. On reflection, she readily concedes that she has overshot the limits of endurance and rush to friends and charm them into lobbying for her rehabilitation. This, ironically, adds to her vulnerability. Her patrons lobby hard to restore her to favour but, in the process, they also identify her with her own little agendas. When Uma speaks, you can be sure she is speaking her mind; when she pens lengthy letters, which invariably find their way to the media, you can almost be sure she is being led by the nose. Three months ago, she lost the confidence of the RSS by denouncing some pracharaks by name in a letter. It was someone else’s agenda.

When Uma was thrust into Madhya Pradesh politics in early-2003, she went very grudgingly, wrongly believing the move to be part of an elaborate conspiracy to discredit her. Yet three months into touring the vast state she correctly gauged that the Congress could be defeated. She visited every constituency in the state and, backed by a formidable organisation of both the party and the RSS, won a landslide victory for the BJP.

Unfortunately, the rigours of governance proved too much for her. Restless and impulsive, she failed to delineate her priorities and frittered away her energies moving from one scheme to another. Worse, she surrounded herself with people who did her reputation and image no good. In a sense she was glad that the Hubli chargesheet extricated her from a job she was finding difficult to cope with. Agitation was her forte and she was glad to get to where the action was. At the same time, she wanted to be the real power behind the new chief minister. Neither Babulal Gaur nor the party, however, were willing to oblige.

It was around March this year that Uma got it into her head that she must reclaim the chief minister’s post. She set about carefully plotting her return. Never popular with the MLAs because of her whimsical and tempestuous ways, she set about wooing the top leadership of the party. She used every trick to get back into the good books of Vajpayee and Advani. Yet she made absolutely no headway with the so-called second generation. Nor, despite roping in a Mylapore brahmin close to the RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan, did she succeed in persuading the Sangh to give her another shy at the chief minister’s post.

Two years ago the opposition of the second generation and the RSS would not have weighed against support from Vajpayee and Advani. In November 2005, with the damaging Jinnah controversy behind it, the veterans no longer have the final say in the party. The power centre in the BJP has shifted and the second generation feels more comfortable with a safe pair of hands like Shivraj Singh Chauhan at the helm in Bhopal. Uma never had the support of a majority of MLAs; she was trying to hustle a diktat from the top. When that failed to materialise, she lost her composure, went totally berserk, levelled wild allegations against Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and Jaitley and forced the BJP to take the second disciplinary action against her in less than a year.

For the moment, Uma’s predicament is unenviable. She has literally shot herself in the foot and she invokes little sympathy within either the party or the wider movement. Her defiance, however, is unlikely to be unrelenting. Once the magnitude of her isolation sinks in, Uma is certain to use every trick in the book to inveigle her way back into the BJP. She is fiercely ambitious and talented and she is aware of the exceptional latitude allowed to her. She is certain to play on the party’s definite need for her at the national level, even if she realises that Madhya Pradesh is now completely out of bounds.

As she proceeds on a meaningless yatra, Uma looks like she is walking into the sunset. But don’t count on it. Uma Bharti has always demonstrated the ability to write her own rules, rather than be dictated by institutional discipline. She won’t be content just playing with her dogs or retreating into the caves of Badrinath. Neither India nor the BJP has heard the last of this prodigy from Tikamgarh.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, December 2, 2005)

Thursday, November 17, 2005

A bomb too many (November 18, 2005)

The attitide of the Indian Left to the Iran question is suspect

By Swapan Dasgupta

The diaries of former Soviet official I.A. Benediktov, deposited in the archives of the Cold War International Project of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, offer some interesting insights into the mentality of Indian Communists. Benediktov, who served as Moscow’s Ambassador to India in the early-1960s, documented his meeting with E.M.S. Namboodiripad in October 1962 after Pravda temporarily reversed its scepticism of Beijing’s stand in the Sino-Indian border dispute because it feared the Cuban missile crisis would trigger a global conflict between the Soviet Union and the US.

“We ask that you transmit this to the C(entral) C(ommittee) CPSU," Namboodiripad told the Soviet Ambassador, "that the publication of this article and the advice of the CPSU contained in this letter of the CC CPSU, truly will help our party get out of the extremely difficult position it is now in. Before this there were moments when we felt ourselves to be simply helpless, but now the party will be able to remedy this situation. We are grateful to the CC CPSU for this help; you cantransmit this personally from me and from Comrade B(hupesh) Gupta."
Namboodiripad then went on to argue that “The most typical mistake of many Communists ... is that they cannot clearly distinguish (between) patriotism and bourgeois nationalism.” In other words, this great Marxist theoretician, who is lauded by the CPI(M) and who serves as the inspiration to its present leadership, was categorical that in the event of a clash between Indian nationalism and the foreign policy objectives of a so-called socialist state, Indian Communists must necessarily bat for the latter.

S.A. Dange was, perhaps, a notable exception who more or less bamboozled the CPI in 1962 into taking, what Mohit Sen in his autobiography, A Traveller and the Road, described as “a stand in support of the nation.” Yet, as Sen noted, neither Dange “nor anybody else went beyond categorising the Chinese attack as a mistake and an aberration. The deeper implications … for Communist ideology, theory and practice were never raised… Not the CPI alone but the whole Communist movement would have to pay a heavy price for evading troublesome questions.”

The chickens, it would seem, are now coming home to roost. In 1998, the two Communist parties went apoplectic when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government transformed India into a nuclear power. Their response was largely guided by Beijing’s sharp opposition to India entering the exclusive five-member nuclear club, although for the sake of respectability they used the language of the American and Scandinavian non-proliferation zealots. Whereas the Indian Communists had earlier welcomed the “worker’s bomb” of the Soviet Union and China, their unrelenting opposition to “bourgeois nationalism” prevented them extending such a courtesy to India. Communist “patriotism”, with a Hindu tinge, naturally involved abjuring Indian nationalism in favour of a make-believe socialist internationalism.

Today, the Indian Communists have resumed their battle against the old nationalist enemy. This time, however, they have chosen a more intriguing issue. Last week, the CPI and CPI(M) joined hands with the Samajwadi Party and the Muslim clergy to attack the Manmohan Singh Government’s alleged capitulation to the US on the Iran question. Declaring that foreign policy could not be conducted behind closed doors, the Left has demanded that the Government either make amends for siding with the US at the previous International Atomic Energy Authority meeting, or face the consequences of a full-scale revolt by some 100 MPs who were hitherto supporting the UPA Government. If India votes with the US at the next IAEA meeting on November 24, the CPI leader A.B. Bardhan has said menacingly, “they will have to repent it.”

The Left’s position is puzzling in two ways. First, the Communists have glossed over the apparent inconsistencies in opposing India’s own nuclear ambitions and endorsing Teheran’s clear bid to channel a part of its nuclear programme into the manufacture of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The Islamic Republic already has an intermediate-range ballistic missile, anti-ship missiles to call the shots in the crucial Gulf of Hormuz and it is also developing an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that could have a range of 6,000 miles. According to the Washington Post, a US National Intelligence Estimate report earlier this year indicated that the weaponisation process could take another 10 years of surreptitious activity.

Second, Iran has absolutely no socialist pretensions; it is unabashedly Islamist in orientation. There may be theological differences between the Shia mullahs who constitute the last word in Iran’s national affairs and the Wahabi-inspired Islamist resurgence in the larger Muslim world but the contradictions are submerged in the wider battle against the “Great Satan” and its local ally, Israel. Iranian President M. Ahmadinejad’s threat to obliterate Israel from the map of the world wasn’t a casual indiscretion. It was in line with his Inaugural Address boast that “a new Islamic revolution has arisen and the Islamic revolution … will, if God wills, cut off the roots of injustice in the world. The wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world.”

President Ahmadinejad may well be guilty of a polemical exaggeration that comes with inexperience. Time and a show of understanding, many well-meaning votaries of appeasement contend, will almost certainly blunt his revolutionary impetuosity. But, can hope be a basis for international indulgence? Ahmadinejad has, after all, warned that “A country that is ready for martyrdom can do anything.”

For India, the issue is neither academic nor just an extension of the emerging special relationship with the US. Iran’s nuclear programme has been shown to have an “unofficial” Pakistani link, courtesy the ubiquitous A.Q. Khan. China too has its finger in the Iranian nuclear pile. Therefore, while the US certainly has reason to be concerned about the implications for the safety and security of Israel and equations in West Asia, India has to confront an additional issue. In plain language, can India afford the presence of two contiguous Islamic nuclear powers on its western borders?

Coupled with an assertive China in the east, a nuclear Iran will become a security nightmare for India. Apart from being a major psychological boost to Islamist radicalism, Iran’s nuclear might will enhance India’s strategic vulnerability and increase its dependence on the US. In such a situation, a strategic alliance between India and the US, far from being a boost to India’s regional clout, will become a defensive necessity. The alternative would either be a seriously weakened India or an India forced into an unequal strategic relationship with China.

Since it is not the apparent intention of the Communists to nurture Indo-US friendship, its motives in making the Iranian question a prestige issue are plainly suspect. Socialist countries created in the Stalinist mould have never had inhibitions in using local Communist movements to further its foreign policy objectives. China is no exception.

It is not in Beijing’s economic or strategic interests to have a democratic India playing a major role in Asia, either in conjunction with Washington or independently. Its opposition to India’s entry into the P-5 nuclear club and its determination not to allow any other permanent Asian member into the Security Council are part of a larger design to both contain and encircle India. In this scheme, the Indian Communists have an important role to play in muddying the waters domestically. This makes it obligatory for India’s pre-eminent nationalist parties, the Congress and BJP, to work discreetly in tandem to secure the country’s future and prevent the blatant communalisation and subversion of foreign policy.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, November 18, 2005)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

On a common plane (November 4, 2005)

The Oil For Food shindig has raised issues of ethics

By Swapan Dasgupta

India’s beleaguered External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh and the equally harried British MP George Galloway are about as similar as chalk and cheese. Singh, a refined product of Mayo College, St Stephen’s and Cambridge, is a former diplomat who married into the Patiala royal family. Galloway, on the other hand, proudly boasts his working class Scottish origins and revels in a form of inverted snobbery. If Singh speaks in measured tones, is a bibliophile and oozes charm and courtesy, Galloway is brusque and is prone to flying off the handle. Those who watched Galloway’s dramatic re-entry to the House of Commons in the face of overwhelming odds last May will remember his memorable slugging match with TV presenter Jeremy Paxman. In the Beltway, they still talk about his pugnacious banter with the stuffed shirts at a Senate Committee hearing earlier this year, when he gave as good as he got. By contrast, Singh’s foray into the pre-Cold War world of non-alignment is a guaranteed cure for insomnia.

Yet, today, thanks to very strange circumstances, Singh and Galloway find themselves in the same boat. Both have been accused by the UN-sponsored independent committee headed by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker of benefiting financially from the regime of the ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Singh has been called a “compromised” politician and a lobbyist and the Opposition BJP has demanded his resignation. Galloway has been compared to Lord Haw Haw—the English renegade who became a publicist for Hitler—and described by a US Senator as “not an honourable man or a good man”. His conduct is being investigated by the British parliamentary commissioner for standards. Both have vehemently denied the accusations, both have threatened legal action and both are fighting for their political survival.

The alleged misdemeanours of Singh and Galloway centre on Saddam’s successful subterfuge of the UN-monitored Oil for Food programme in Iraq. Having decided that its oil wealth could be transformed into a powerful foreign policy weapon and an instrument of Baathist self-aggrandisement, the Saddam regime honed in on individuals who could gauge the lucrative potential of anti-imperialism. What Saddam did was nothing novel. He merely emulated the patronage disbursement methods of the erstwhile Soviet Union. More to the point, these complicated financial dealings would have remained undiscovered had President George W. Bush not forced a regime change in Iraq in 2003.

For George Galloway, if the Senate’s Governmental Affairs Committee inquiry and the Volcker Report are to be believed, the Iraqi gift of oil sale rights meant entering into an understanding with Fawaz Zureikat, a Jordanian businessman friend. It was Zureikat who sold these rights to Switzerland-based oil traders, received the money, collected the illegal surcharges and funnelled the proceeds into the accounts of a charity run by Galloway and his estranged Palestinian wife Amineh Abu Zayyad. The linkages between money paid by Swiss oil traders into Zureikat’s account and their disbursement into bank accounts in Jordan held by Zayyad have been established by both committees. Galloway’s former wife benefited to the tune of $700,000, a not inconsiderable sum.

Although Singh’s alleged dealings with the Iraqi regime have not been scrutinised in as much detail, the Volcker Report has divulged enough to put a question mark on his political future. Singh and the Congress Party were allegedly granted similar oil sale rights. The allotments were passed on to a Swiss company Masefield AG for handling. The Volcker Report, however, has provided no details of payments made to either Singh or his nominees, but there is a presumption that payments were made which yielded the beneficiaries a profit which, many believe, were as high as 30 per cent of the contract value.

There are, however, another set of transactions which are more damaging. The Iraqis, it would seem, also gave oil rights directly to Masefield. The Volcker Report says it that Singh was to be the “non-contractual beneficiary” of these deals. In concrete terms this meant that the illegal surcharge amounting to $749,197 would be handled by Singh or his nominee. Consequently, $748,540 was paid to Hamdan Export and its owner Andleeb Sehgal, a close family friend of Singh, in Jordan at various times in 2001, presumably by Masefield. The money was then further diverted into the accounts of Iraqi officials, as kickbacks.

The Volcker Report refers to “layers of individuals and companies between the allocation and end-use of Iraq’s crude oil (which) resulted in transactions where the UN could not determine from the face of the contract who actually was benefiting from or controlled the purchase of oil.” In the transactions with which Singh is linked, there are two routes. The first involved the contracted beneficiary selling his rights to an oil trader and making a profit from the commission. The second involved the oil trader securing the allotment directly but channelling the surcharge into the accounts of the specified “non-contractual beneficiary”. This money was then routed back into Iraq. At this point, the “non-contractual beneficiary” became the handling agent of Iraqi kickbacks.

The Volcker Committee says that its claims are backed by the records of the Iraqi State Oil Ministry Organisation (SOMO), bank records in Jordan and other records found in Baghdad. If true, it would suggest that both Singh and Galloway have some explaining to do. Certainly, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s stated belief that the facts are “insufficient” to warrant “any adverse conclusion” against Singh seems a trifle hasty. It does not behove a Prime Minister to dismiss an international inquiry so peremptorily.

What is interesting is that in protesting their innocence both Singh and Galloway are speaking the same language. Galloway has suggested that the documents implicating him are “fabricated” and Singh told The Hindu that the Volcker Report was based on “forgeries.” Testifying under oath to the US Senate committee on May 17, Galloway stated that “I am not now, nor have I ever been, an oil trader, and neither has anyone on my behalf.” He added that the businessman Zureikat “never gave me a penny from an oil deal, from a cake deal, from a bread deal, or from any deal.” On his part, Singh hit back with a series of questions: “Is there any evidence that I or my son ever had contact with this company (Masefield AG) or any other company involved in this? Is there any evidence that I had ever heard of this company?”

Finally, Galloway has consistently seen the attacks on him as part of an orchestrated political campaign. He has stuck to his position with great theatrical aplomb, prompting Senator Coleman to observe that “It’s a constant pattern of deny, deny, deny… It’s something he does all the time—shifting the focus to something that is not in front of you.” Being India’s External Affairs Minister, Singh should have been more inhibited. But he too has charged Volcker of targeting those who opposed US intervention in Iraq. “I opposed sanctions, I opposed the war and I opposed sending Indian troops to Iraq.”

Both Singh and Galloway are blessed with political certitudes. Of course, they are not alone. Throughout India and Britain there are countless well-meaning individuals who believed President Bush’s Iraq war was a misadventure. Fortunately, few of them find their names listed as “non-contractual beneficiaries” of illegal deals cut by a tyrannical regime. The issue is not politics but ethics. It is this issue that has to be addressed by both the anti-imperialist patrician and the radical plebeian.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, November 4, 2005)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Conservative wisdom (October 21, 2005)

There is a deep distrust of inner-party democracy in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a political creed, Conservatism, with a capital C, is naturally nation-specific. Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and even Lee Kuan Yew may inspire Conservatives across national boundaries but, at the end of the day, Conservative parties depend on home-grown heroes and a very indigenous idiom. Apart from the loose commitment to individual freedom, entrepreneurship and national identity, there is little that President George W. Bush has in common with, say, President Jacques Chirac. Yet both represent the dominant Conservative trends in the US and France. Likewise, there is a marked difference between the Conservatism of Lord Salisbury, whose portrait occupies the pride of place in London’s Carlton Club, and Margaret Thatcher. One was a 19th century Tory grandee who flaunted his “illiberal” credentials; the other, a grocer’s daughter, was in many ways a radical.

Notwithstanding the absence of anything remotely resembling a Conservative International, the British Conservative Party holds a very special place in the hearts and minds of most ideological Conservatives—to be distinguished from instinctive Tories. First, Britain has the longest, unbroken tradition of political Conservatism. Second, this Conservatism, in a very un-Conservative way, has actually been articulated as a philosophy by thinkers by, among others, Edmund Burke, Sir Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph. Theoretical rigour may now be the hallmark of the Neo-Conservatives in the US Republican Party, but the process predated the Jewish intellectual concerts from Trotskyism. Finally, the British Conservative Party has had the uncanny ability to reinvent itself periodically. For over 150 years, it has demonstrated its willingness to not only change but change for the better.

This week, the Conservative Party has completed the first round of an elaborate exercise to elect a leader to succeed Michael Howard. From a field of four, the party’s elected MPs in Westminster have short-listed two candidates. Approximately 300,000 Conservative Party members across Britain will now elect one of them as leader. As an exercise in democratic consultation, the process is exciting. Unlike the past when either the incumbent chose his successor or left it just to the MPs, the present procedure ensures that the new leader is both acceptable to parliamentary colleagues and endorsed by the foot soldiers. Since MPs are most concerned with winning power and the grassroots activists with Conservative values, the winner in the leadership race is expected to marry the twin imperatives of pragmatism and ideology.

It is instructive to scrutinise the leadership contest in the Conservative Party in view of the imminent changes in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the only party that fits the Conservative tag in India. In end-December, at the conclusion of the party’s National Council meet in Mumbai, party president L.K. Advani will hand over charge to a “colleague”. With just 10 weeks to go before the event, there is an eerie silence from within the party over the succession. While the media has speculated wildly over Advani’s successor, the party itself is in denial about the succession.

The contrast with the Conservative leadership contest couldn’t be more pronounced. For the past four months there has been a vibrant public debate about the future of Conservatism in a post-Thatcher Britain. Has the image of the party become excessively “ugly”? What has to be done to connect Conservatism with modernity? Should core values prevail over electoral imperatives? Should the new leader merely look to the committed or address floating voters? These are some of the important questions that have been addressed by the candidates for the top post. There has, in short, been a healthy exchange of ideas.

True, some of the preoccupation has been over image and the background of the candidates. The privileged Eton and Oxford background of 39-year-old David Cameron has been juxtaposed against the more humble origins of David Davies. At 65, Kenneth Clarke has been painted as a man of the past. There have been rude remarks of him having too much hair in his nostrils. Some retired colonels in the Shires have expressed indignation over Cameron’s ambivalence over a wild past, while old ladies have warmed up to him as the new “alpha man”.

The extent to which the replication of American primaries in the Conservative Party helps its members make a wise choice is still a matter of conjecture. However, there is little doubt that the process itself will be invigorating for a party that has tasted three consecutive election defeats. Although the Westminster system is parliamentary, electoral encounters are invariably presidential in nature. Voters in Britain do select an MP but they actually vote for a Prime Minister.

As of now there is little clarity in the BJP as to whether it is choosing a president to run the organisation or selecting a leader who will be the public face of the National Democratic Alliance in the next general election. In all probability, the wise men in the Sangh Parivar will settle for a president who can bring some order and stability back into the party and help it get over the turbulence of the past year. The choice of a prime ministerial candidate is likely to be deferred, at least till as long as Advani remains Leader of Opposition.

Yet, the choice cannot be deferred indefinitely. While the return of stability in the organisation is imperative for the BJP to play the role of a robust opposition, the NDA will need a face to posit against Sonia Gandhi in the next general election. There are at least four leaders, three of whom were Cabinet ministers in the previous NDA Government and one who is a Chief Minister, who could, arguably, occupy the space vacated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But how will the leader be chosen?

The question arises because there has been a deep distrust of vibrant inner-party democracy in India. Neither Mahatma Gandhi nor Jawaharlal Nehru could countenance a Congress president elected against their wishes. Both Subhas Bose and Purshottam Das Tandon were unceremoniously dumped after winning presidential contests. To circumvent the problem, the very idea of elections for top political posts was done away with. Regimented consensus and unanimity became the norm. A spurious form of discipline was posited against the dangers arising from factionalism. Consequently, splits became the norm in India because the avenues of discussion and dissent were foreclosed.

The BJP faces the problem as much as the Congress does. Whereas in the Congress it is the ubiquitous high command that calls the shots, in the BJP a clutch of elders take all the crucial decisions. Pramod Mahajan’s veiled protest against this practice, in a TV interview last week, was valid. Equally valid was his suggestion that the National Council should elect the next party president. However, unless the outgoing president is bent on imposing an unacceptable candidate on an unwilling party, it is unlikely that anything remotely resembling the Conservative Party leadership contest will be witnessed in Mumbai in December. Even if a contest is forced, it will end up as a non-contest.

The political culture in India hasn’t sufficiently evolved for inner-party battles to be conducted in the public gaze without this jeopardising the overall health of the organisation. The overwhelming consensus is that family matters should be settled internally and behind closed doors. The BJP perceives itself as a joint family. In such a set-up, it is always the moral guardians who are entrusted with crucial decisions on behalf of the collective.

It is not classical democracy in the Western sense but it is a manifestation of Indian Conservatism.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 21, 2005)

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Truth beyond the archive (October 7, 2005)

A public inquiry into Mitrokhin's disclosures would be helpful

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is habitual for the Opposition to make exaggerated demands on the Government of the day, and equally routine for ministers to reject them peremptorily. Yet, it was singularly discourteous of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to, first, disregard a joint letter on The Mitrokhin Archive disclosures from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the Leaders of Opposition from both Houses of Parliament and, then, organise an uninformed media response by the Minister of State for Home Affairs S.P.Jaiswal. In view of the grave charges of KGB penetration into the Government, intelligence agencies, politics and media of the country, particularly in the 1970s, the BJP leaders pressed for a public inquiry. In the first official reaction to the disclosures, Jaiswal claimed that the BJP indignation was “devoid of merit.” Echoing the Congress spokesman’s charge of unsubstantiated “sensationalism” levelled against Vasili Mitrokhin, the Minister said that the Government was not expected to take note of every allegation by retired spooks.

Despite Jaiswal’s misplaced bluntness, the Government’s response fits a pattern. From the day extracts from The Mitrokhin Archive-II began appearing in the media, nervous Congressmen and Communists have been consciously trying to equate the disclosures with some of the more incredible tell-all memoirs of defectors and ex-spies. The voluble CPI leader A.B. Bardhan, for example, called the book a “spy thriller” and the Congress spokesman even suggested that it “should not be dignified by (a) reaction.” To add to the volley of trivialisation, a retired intelligence officer conveniently revealed that two leaders of the erstwhile Jana Sangh held “secret” meetings with a KGB agent at Wengers, once a favourite meeting point for Delhi politicians. The CPI(M) too fleetingly entered the battle screaming libel, and then quietly withdrawing when it dawned on its leaders that it was actually the KGB which had sullied the late Promode Das Gupta’s reputation by painting him as an IB informer.

While it is compelling to suggest that there is little point in raking up the past, now that the Soviet Union is itself history, it would be a mistake to view Mirokhin’s disclosures as yet another motivated and unsubstantiated leak. First, unlike the spy hunts that routinely arouse Cold War nostalgia in the West, The Mitrokhin Archive is not based either on intelligent deductions or casual reminiscences of retired George Smileys. Mitrokhin, who defected to the UK in 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was not personally involved in the KGB operations he has described. He was an archivist who had unique access to all the KGB files, including the identities of moles, sleepers and informers. For more than a decade, he made copious notes in longhand from the files and, when the opportunity presented itself, passed these on to the British MI6. The Mitrokhin Archive is the closest approximation to a history of the KGB, as seen through the organisation’s own records. Its importance is stupendous.

Second, although Mitrokhin was personally anxious to secure the publication of all the material he smuggled out of the erstwhile USSR, the British Government was more circumspect. Realising the explosive nature of its contents and its likely consequences, it evolved a rigid criterion to determine what should be published and what should be left unsaid. Malcolm Rifkind, the Home Secretary in John Major’s government decreed that “The names of people the KGB had targeted for recruitment or attempted to influence could not be made public unless they had been prosecuted or convicted or they had agreed to the release of their names.” Rifkind was particularly insistent that it was not up to the intelligence agencies “to decide whether or not names should be revealed.” He also made it clear that this “did not apply to British names.”

The decision to impose political control over the publication of the Mitrokhin archive was subsequently upheld by a June 2000 report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of the House of Commons, chaired by Tom King. The King Report specified that the release of details would be undertaken in a “controlled manner” and that “none would be published without Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Security Service clearance.” An inter-departmental working group under Whitehall’s Intelligence Coordinator was established and it ensured that “the policy on the exclusion of certain categories of information from the book was complied with.”

The predictable dismay among readers that The Mitrokhin Archive names only those who are dead is understandable. However, that is not because Mitrokhin’s notes were patchy. The names of those who helped the KGB in the past and who continue to play a role in public life have been carefully omitted for diplomatic reasons. The British Government, it would seem, was anxious to ensure that it was discreetly detached from a publication that is for all practical purposes an official publication.

Yet, the agonised soul-searching in Whitehall does convey a powerful message. It implies that the carefully vetted details which were found suitable for publication bear an official stamp of authenticity. For an Indian Minister to describe the The Mitrokhin Archive as a series of baseless claims is an act of puerile evasion.

In pressing for a public inquiry, whether in the form of a Joint Parliamentary Committee or a specialist investigation like the one that followed the Kargil war, it is instructive to read British Home Secretary Jack Straw’s statement to the Commons on October 21, 1999. “Thousands of leads from Mr Mitrokhin’s material have been followed up world-wide”, he said. “As a result our intelligence agencies in cooperation with allied Governments have been able to put a stop to many security threats. Many unsolved investigations have been closed; many earlier suspicions confirmed; and some names and reputations have been cleared. Our intelligence and security agencies have assessed the value of Mr Mitrokhin’s material worldwide as immense.”

There is absolutely no ground for believing that what is true for the West isn’t true for an India which was described by Mitrokhin as “the easiest country for KGB operatives to penetrate.” What needs to be investigated is not merely the lavish funding of the Communist Party and its fellow-travellers. Mitrokhin has underlined the broad contours of the subversion of India’s intelligence agencies, the diplomatic service and the media. As an emerging global power, India cannot be unmindful of the disastrous consequences of a rotten inheritance.

Is a public inquiry feasible? More important, can such an inquiry go beyond what has already been published?

The answer to both questions is a categorical Yes. Britain may have been loath to make all the details provided by Mitrokhin public but it has indicated its willingness to share, in a “proper and controlled manner”, additional information with “liaison partners”, a euphemism for intelligence agencies of friendly countries. Indeed, there is enough reason to believe that some of this information was supplied to Indian intelligence during the time the NDA was in power. If not, the British Government has kept open the possibility of sharing much more of what Mitrokhin revealed as a part of “reciprocal exchanges of information between liaison partners.” India and Britain share extremely cordial relations and there is an institutionalised arrangement of intelligence sharing. The Government cannot proceed on the a priori assumption that Britain will not oblige Indian requests for more information.

In a sense, it all depends on the UPA Government’s sincerity in pursuing an inquiry that could well show up its Left allies in very poor light. With the right measure of political will and diplomatic adroitness, The Mitrokhin Archive could pave the way for an overhaul of India’s national security.

(Published in The Telegraph, October 7, 2005)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Wrong time to speak up (September 23, 2005)

Advani is the victim of his own creative restlessness

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is becoming a habit for L.K. Advani to spring unpleasant surprises on the BJP. He did it on June 4 at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah in Karachi and triggered a crisis which would have paralysed the party had it not been settled by the cease-fire agreement with the RSS on June 11. Three months later, on September 18, he again surprised the BJP National Executive at Chennai with a carefully prepared concluding statement which, defying tradition, he read out in English.

That Advani would relinquish the post of party president wasn’t a surprise. Although the terms of the June 11 truce were never made public, it was understood that the BJP would revert to the one-man-one-post principle after the National Council session in end-December. It now transpires that the Pact had also specified that he would announce his decision to quit at the Chennai National Executive. For at least a week before the Chennai meet, Advani had indicated his determination to make that announcement, despite suggestions that he defer it till the Bihar poll results. During the week neither the BJP office bearers nor the RSS leadership indicated they wanted him to reconsider.

The surprising feature of his concluding statement in Chennai, therefore, was not Advani’s announcement that “a colleague” would assume charge after the National Council meet. The BJP National Executive was mystified by his rigid insistence, despite last-minute advice to the contrary from anxious general secretaries, on using the occasion to speak about the creeping distortions in the BJP-RSS relationship. Advani spoke about the need to counter the prevailing impression “that no political or organisational decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS.” The RSS, he said, “provide valuable inputs for our decision-making process.” The BJP, however, was a political party and had its own compulsions. “It is in protecting the ideological moorings of the BJP and in articulating it in an idiom and language the people understand that great care is needed.”

Advani's message was blunt: the BJP could do without RSS micro-management. The relationship between the two bodies had to be “symbiotic”, rather than filial, and based on trust. The RSS and BJP belonged to an ideological family but there could be no question of domination and subordination. It had to be a partnership of equals. In effect, Advani sought to transform an unstated Hindu undivided family into a binding confederal code.

Tensions, even dissatisfaction with the RSS, both at the local and national level, are not new to the BJP. Almost all the BJP stalwarts—from Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat in Rajasthan to Uma Bharati in Madhya Pradesh—have at some time or the other come into conflict with the local RSS functionaries. Present relations between Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and the state RSS leadership are, for example, incredibly strained, with anti-Modi dissidents being egged on by local pracharaks. In Rajasthan, many RSS stalwarts feel that Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje is, like Modi, too high-handed.

Regardless of how the RSS conducted its political interventions in the Jana Sangh days, the friction in recent times--since the BJP started controlling governments--has invariably followed two themes: those involving appointments and postings, and those concerned with government policy and contracts. Matters came to a head during the NDA Government because expectations were high and demands insatiable. Unlike the Congress which is quite brazen in seeing government as the dispensing agency of political patronage, the sangh parivar carries a lot of ethical baggage. This may be a reason why run-of-the-mill corporate lobbying during the Vajpayee years had to be cloaked as commitment to lofty principles like swadeshi. It is a different matter that a few RSS leaders couldn't see through this humbug.

Apart from the hiccups over Jaswant Singh’s appointment in 1999 and tensions over the NDA’s rough handling of the Ayodhya agitation in 2003, the clashes of the past didn’t sour the overall BJP-RSS relationship. That was because they weren’t, by and large, concerned with the RSS’ ideological priorities. Some pracharaks in Gujarat griped about Modi’s imperiousness but they couldn’t really fault his inflexible determination to ensure that the BJP wasn’t another carbon copy of the Congress. Consequently, the dissident problem in the state hasn’t degenerated into a BJP versus RSS fight; it has remained an intra-BJP affair, with some RSS functionaries fishing in troubled waters.

Likewise, Vajpayee, as Prime Minister, sought to enlarge his personal base by reaching out to figures in the erstwhile Congress establishment. He routinely turned down requests from both the RSS and the party. The atmosphere of the Vajpayee court was decidedly anti-RSS. No wonder the Sangh felt slighted, even humiliated. But Vajpayee was Vajpayee, and always a law unto himself.

There may well be some takers for Advani’s terse message that the RSS should not get into micro-managing the BJP. It is generally agreed that it does not behove the RSS leadership to press the case of every swayamsevak aspiring to a position. With the phenomenal growth of the BJP in the past 15 years, there is some resentment in the BJP that RSS members enjoy an unfair advantage in the party hierarchy. This is despite the awareness that the contributions of some RSS-inducted functionaries are less than modest.

Yet, Advani’s plea for a debate to iron out the wrinkles in the RSS-BJP relationship was greeted with a sense of exasperation. For a man whose contribution to putting the BJP and the RSS ideology on the national stage is seminal, there was not a voice of anguish when he made his resignation statement.

Part of the reason lies in the perception that although a debate on the RSS-BJP relationship is interesting in itself, there is insufficient provocation for such an exercise at this moment. The controversy over Jinnah, which sparked the present turmoil in the BJP, arose because rank-and-file BJP members were outraged by what their leader said in Pakistan. It was their anger that led to Advani’s isolation in the party and the erosion of his moral authority. The RSS merely echoed what BJP activists felt.

When the RSS chief had earlier, during a TV interview, called for Vajpayee and Advani to retire the party rallied behind the two stalwarts. By showering praise on Jinnah’s vision, and that too in Pakistan, Advani alienated himself from both the party and the Parivar. Consequently, his concluding address in Chennai was viewed as a personal statement. At a time the UPA is on the backfoot, confronting the RSS with a theoretical debate wasn’t a BJP priority. Indeed, there was a feeling that Advani had become too self-absorbed.

That there is a special relationship between the BJP and RSS is undeniable. Some BJP activists treat the RSS as the mother organization, others see it as a moral guide and yet others view its role in strictly utilitarian terms and that too during elections. All these views co-exist harmoniously because the relationship with the Sangh, apart from being individual, is also an evolving one. It has to be nurtured and managed, with both sides sharing the responsibility, and it is just not prone to codification. When problems arise, as they invariably do, they have traditionally been resolved through protracted dialogue conducted outside the public gaze. The element of discretion is overwhelming.

In disavowing this unwritten code, Advani did himself grave injustice. The BJP’s sharpest thinker was a victim of his own creative restlessness.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 23, 2005)

Monday, September 19, 2005

The discreet charm of Amartya (September 19, 2005)

Review Article

By Swapan Dasgupta

Amartya Sen, The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity (Allen Lane, London, 2005) pp. 409, Rs 650

Ever since dissent became the leitmotif of the teaching classes, there has been a clamour among historians and radical activists to debunk the notion that history writing is the preserve of the ruling classes. “I am seeking”, explained Edward Thompson in his celebrated 1963 preface to The Making of English Working Class, “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” In 1982, the historian Ranajit Guha initiated the Subaltern Studies project which, apart from challenging “elitist historiography”, sought to highlight “the contribution of people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this (Indian) nationalism.”

These were worthwhile correctives to a historiography geared to understanding the exercise of power. Tragically, the correctives ended up becoming the mainstream. Whereas 50 years ago, the study of British constitutional precedents and the Afghan policy of British India, to mention two stray examples, were obligatory, today’s history curriculum devotes more attention to “peasant studies” and “popular” movements.

Electorally, the Left hasn’t prevailed in India and is unlikely to do so in a hurry. However, since the 1970s it has acquired hegemonic status in some of the important centres of intellectual production, particularly the history departments and the media. There is a striking mismatch between how Middle India thinks and how its intellectuals react.

The mismatch has been in sharp evidence for the past two decades. The rise of assertive Hindu nationalism and the six years of a BJP-led Government at the Centre triggered sharp intellectual reactions. Apart from an aesthetic revulsion to the outlanders, there was considerable disquiet at the assault on cherished Nehruvian assumptions of nationhood. It was painfully apparent that Hindutva was Middle India’s protest against a counter-culture that, quite inexplicably, was becoming the dominant “idea” of India.

Amartya Sen is not, and has never been, a doctrinaire Marxist. He is an archetypal ‘progressive’—the child of an expedient marriage between liberal cosmopolitanism and welfare economics. His sense of enlightenment is very Bengali. He combines his love for the universalism of Rabindranath Tagore with an almost Brahmo Samaj-like disdain for ritualised Hinduism. A creature of the multi-culturalism that is celebrated in the columns of The Guardian and New York Times, Sen reacted to the 1992 Ayodhya demolition, the 1998 nuclear tests and the 2002 Gujarat riots with outrage. In the process, he also effected a curious alliance with the Left and libertarian critics of ‘majoritarian’ nationalism. This collection of essays is the outcome of this intellectual metamorphosis.

Sen’s central thesis is disarmingly simple and unexceptionable. India, he maintains, quite rightly, has the gift of the gab. Its people are naturally loquacious and argumentative. “Prolixity”, he writes, “is not alien to us in India.” Indian democracy is blessed with deep, indigenous, cultural roots. As they say in Indi-speak, we are like that only.

Pluralism, argues Sen, is also ingrained in the religious tradition of the Hindus and the history of Buddhism. He traces scepticism to verses in the Rig Veda, cites its recurrence in the Ramayana and notes the multi-polarity of Hindu philosophy, including the existence of a strong atheistic current. Curiously, Sen doesn’t even have a passing mention of the Kerala-born Sankara who travelled throughout India in the 9th century debating the philosophy of Advaita with Hindu and Buddhist scholars. Nor does he cherish Swami Vivekananda’s dialogue with adherents of the Christian faith. These are not by-the-way omissions. They indicate that rounded history is, perhaps, not Sen’s priority. Like Thompson and Guha, he too is into fetishising footnotes.

As for secularism, Sen notes that its earliest modern adherent was the Moghal emperor Akbar. “To take Aurangzeb as the ‘typical’ Moghal monarch, or as the quintiessential Muslim ruler of India, would be an extremely strange historical judgment.” He even suggests that Alberuni’s contemporary account of Hindu revulsion at the iconoclastic vandalism of Mahmud of Ghazni was a case of “overgeneralizing a little.”

Sen’s emphasis on the cross-religious basis of Indian secularism is well-intentioned. Yet, he does not pause to consider why the other countries in the subcontinent have chosen a less tolerant route. Till the 10th century at least, the Hindu-Buddhist civilisational extended right up to Afghanistan. What made Afghanistan and Pakistan evolve differently? Even Bangladesh, which Sen describes “as the safest country to live in, in the subcontinent”, isn’t quite as idyllic. Give this grim neighbourhood picture, Sen may find it worthwhile considering why the “inclusionary Indian identity” stopped at the Radcliffe line. Is there a greater Hindu basis to Indian secularism and democracy than is politically expedient to admit?

It is widely recognised that Hinduism cannot be equated with codified religions of the book. This is why the term Sanatan Dharma is preferred to describe what is in essence a way of life rooted in the geography of India. Sen is absolutely right to emphasise that Hinduism is inherently plural and lacking in certitudes. He is, however, alarmed by a feeling that the Hindutva movement “has entered into confrontation with the idea of India itself.” He sees in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement an attempt to refashion Hinduism into a monolithic set of certitudes.

Sen, unfortunately, is not contesting a dangerous idea; he is demolishing a caricature. Like most things Indian, the Hindutva movement is a coalition of very different impulses. They range from those who believe in the divinity of Ram and the existence of an exact birthplace in Ayodhya, to those who are self-confessed ‘political’ Hindus. It also includes Indian conservatives who see Hindutva as a loose, emotional anchor of nationhood. Hindu nationalism is itself a broad church. Sen may be an “unreformed secularist” but his understanding of the Hindutva ‘Other’ is not nuanced, and marred by over-reliance on the contrived alarmism of the likes of Arundhati Roy. In describing his enemy, Sen lacks empirical rigour; he becomes another non-resident polemicist.

Being a collection of published essays and lectures, The Argumentative Indian was not meant to be a comprehensive study of Indian identity. Yet, when Sen makes his passionate plea for “internal pluralism and external receptivity” to define India’s sense of self, it is natural to look at the contemporary global context. The reader, unfortunately, will have to search in vain for any reference to either 9/11 or terrorism within India. It is as if these traumatic developments had no bearing on today’s India.

With Sen, omissions are never casual. They follow the choppy trajectory of selective indignation.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Heroes and charlatans (September 9, 2005)

History has become a rarefied conversation among historians

By Swapan Dasgupta

Over the past few weeks, I have busied myself trying to understand the dynamics of an encounter that agitated corporate India of the 1920s and 1930s—the conflict between the fledgling Scindia Steam Navigation Company and the well-entrenched British India Steam Navigation Company (BI). It was a vicious and, occasionally, no-holds-barred battle for dominance over coastal shipping and international routes. The conflict was ultimately resolved in favour of Scindia after 1947 when the Government excluded foreign players from domestic shipping.

For a historian, there are various ways of studying the subject. He could, if he chose, assume a position of theoretical loftiness and treat the Scindia-BI war as an incidental brush-stroke in the wider canvas of imperialism. Mapping the contours of an allegedly exploitative relationship between the metropolitan centre and the periphery would, consequently, become the focus. Alternatively, he could look upon the shipping war as a powerful case study of the confrontation between Indian economic nationalism and the British Empire. It would involve exploring the fascinating but complex relationship between Indian business and the nationalist movement, and between British commercial interests and the Government of India, in the final decades of the Raj . Both approaches would be perfectly valid and would make for scholarly monographs and even a Ph.D thesis or two.

Fortunately, the Scindia-BI war was not merely about trade statistics and the proceedings of various commissions of inquiry on maritime matters appointed by the Governments of India and Great Britain. It was primarily the story of two men who spoke differently, dressed differently, came from very different backgrounds and were yet temperamentally exactly like each other. The tale of the confrontation between Walchand Hirachand, one of the pioneers of Indian capitalism, and James Lyle Mackay, the first Earl of Inchcape, is worthy of both a Jeffrey Archer novel and a Bollywood extravaganza.

It’s a story that has to be handled with great sensitivity and, if I may say so, some degree of imagination. Walchand, or ‘Sethji’ as he was called by his employees, was both a self-made entrepreneur and a nationalist. It could even be said that his robust sense of nationalism arose from his entrepreneurship—by the 1920s he could sense the end of Empire. Apart from being India’s first shipping magnate, his business ventures included shipbuilding, the manufacture of motor cars and aircraft, sugar mills, engineering and construction. Had Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies not been so heavily biased against capitalist enterprise, Walchand would probably have been among the first Indians to make a global impact.

Pitted against him was Lord Inchcape, a self-made Scot who came to India at the age of 23 as a clerk in Mackinnon Mackenzie and rose to become the Sheriff of Calcutta, President of the Bengal Chamber of Commerce and a non-official member of the Viceroy’s Council. As head of BI, he effected the merger of his company with the redoubtable Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O) in 1914, which established him as the czar of British shipping. He was at one time considered as a possible successor to Lord Minto as Viceroy and was even offered the crown of Albania after the Great War. Fanatically committed to the Empire, he was a high imperialist who combined his romance with India with an uncompromising hatred of Indian nationalism.

The war between Walchand and Lord Inchcape was in many ways an unequal battle in which the Indian finally prevailed because he was on the right side of history. Yet, it was not a straight forward battle between a ‘good’ Indian and an ‘ugly’ imperialist. In their different ways, both men were deeply committed to India. Walchand believed in a self-governing India where the greatest opportunities would be reserved for Indians. Lord Inchcape was completely sincere in his conviction that the transition of India from medieval backwardness to quasi-modernity had been made possible by the dedication and duty of countless Britons who were committed to the idea of Empire. Lord Inchcape believed that network of coastal shipping had been developed by British companies in the face of grave uncertainty. He was damned if he was now going to allow Indian interlopers to run away with the profits of his investment. To him, Walchand was a “pirate”. To Walchand, Lord Inchcape was the real “pirate” for preying on the wealth of India.

Judged through the prism of post-colonial realities, the judgment of history is unquestionably in favour of Walchand, never mind the awkward reality of Scindia subsequently becoming “sick” and being incorporated into the state-run Shipping Corporation of India. At a time India is rediscovering the virtues of entrepreneurship and global capitalism, Walchand is an inspirational figure, on par with the stalwarts of the Tata family and G.D.Birla.

India, on the other hand, has not been kind to Lord Inchcape. For all his contributions, he won’t even merit a mention in the Indian history books of today. Those who are on the wrong side of history tend to end up as non-persons, victims of what E.P. Thompson, in a different context, called the “enormous condescension of posterity.”

The reason does not lie in political correctness alone. The fault lies with the priorities and preoccupations of professional historians. In the quest to make history “scientific”—a mission lauded in these columns earlier this week (“Clio is not for worship” by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, September 4)—the practitioners of the craft have chosen to forget that the past is ultimately a narration of human achievements and follies, a compendium of interesting stories about real men and women. To reduce the Walchand-Inchcape battle to a clinical dissection of imperialism, capitalism, et al, would be a criminal folly. Walchand was more than just another member of the national bourgeoisie and Lord Inchcape was more than another ‘nabob’ with an estate in Scotland.

E.H. Carr bears a heavy responsibility for the degeneration of a discipline that once epitomised the liberal arts and was considered the training ground for the enlightened exercise of power. His disavowal of the “Bad King John and Good Queen Bess” approach to history writing in the 1961 Trevelyan lectures had a crippling impact on historiography. The negation of individual-centred story-telling made the study of history an abstruse, specialised discipline. With post-modernists and the humourless disciples of Edward Said chipping in, history became a rarefied and, occasionally unintelligible, conversation between historians. Since communicating with non-specialists was no longer obligatory, historians began talking in code. It was the end of History as we knew it.

The battle over history teaching is not a simple tussle between nation-building and the celebrations of fragmented diversity. These constitute the toppings of a more fundamental divide. The fuss is essentially an expression of anger against historians who have lost sight of their primary obligation to tell a true story creatively. Today’s historians are less concerned with actual men and women than with the weight of impersonal forces.

No wonder Bollywood is stepping in to fill the void. Their films tell charming stories based on heroism and perfidy. They have no “scientific” pretensions—as if human responses to their surroundings are clinically pre-determined. Predictably, there are distortions born out of either ignorance or artistic licence. Yet, they must suffice because the alternatives—state-sponsored treatises on mercantilism and false consciousness—are more fearful.

The cheerful dumbing down of our past by Bollywood is a direct consequence of mindless pandering to the pseudo-intellectualism of academia. It is time to rescue Clio from the charlatans.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 9, 2005)

Friday, August 26, 2005

What we like to believe (August 26, 2005)

The debate over The Rising is about India's perception of itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me make an honest but terrible confession. My deep and abiding interest in history began through reading Combat comics. My favourites were the Battler Britain comics about a doughty Royal Air Force officer who, almost single-handedly, took on a German army that seemed incapable of doing much beyond spluttering “Achtung” and “one Englander less.” This interest in a war that ended a decade before my birth was supplemented by films like 633 Squadron, The Guns of Navarone, Operation Crossbow and Longest Day where the good guys invariably prevailed over the baddies who liked boasting that “Vee have vays to make you talk.”

On entering my teens, an interest in India’s past was nurtured through historical novels, written in an era before it was obligatory for Indian writers to reduce the country to one gigantic laboratory of magic realism. First, there were the archaic but robust G.A. Henty classics on the adventures of Clive and battles against Tipoo Sahib. They were written for schoolboys of another country and another generation but they were a nice diversion from books of the Enid Blyton kind. Henty was the original precursor to George Macdonald Fraser’s wonderfully educative books on the wicked adventures of Sir Harry Flashman. I recommend the Flashman books to anyone who has any interest in imperial history.

Then I graduated to Manohar Malgonkar, arguably the best Indian craftsman of the historical novel. Malgonkar’s The Devil’s Wind captured the romance of Nana Saheb and the 1857 uprising, and Bend in the Ganges taught me more about the last phase of the freedom struggle than all the textbooks available at that time. And let me not forget Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet that was so sensitively made into the epic TV-serial Jewel In The Crown by Granada.

Oh yes, there were also some black-and-white Bengali films of indifferent quality on events like the Chittagong Armoury raid, the poet Mukunda Das and the 1942 Quit India Movement. They weren’t anything to write home about and were, in retrospect, unwittingly comic. In their misplaced earnestness they, however, conveyed a flavour of another time, much better than the few ‘histories’ Bollywood deigned to produce.

I delve into my own childhood in the context of the increasingly silly controversies over Ketan Mehta’s Mangal Pandey: The Rising, set around the revolt of 1857. There are some political cretins who want the film banned because it doesn’t mention Mangal’s Ballia janmabhoomi. Then there are other innocent nationalists who have got all worked up at the images of the Sepoy martyr first downing a lota of bhang and then cavorting with fallen women of indeterminate provenance. Finally, there the pamphleteers who say the film should have been all about Mangal coming under the spell of some mysterious Wahabi fakir.

The Rising is not a history, and nor does it pretend to be anything but a loose adaptation of an Amar Chitra Katha-type legend. It is a grand Bollywood extravaganza, with epic battle shots in a Central Asian terrain, realistic costumes and Englishmen who both look and sound like the real thing. Aamir Khan is dashing in an Errol Flynn way as the rebel Sepoy, who was dug out of archival obscurity by British historian John Kaye and immortalised by V. D. Savarkar as the first martyr of the India’s first war of Independence. The film-makers add a nice touch by weaving a parallel plot about the self-doubts of the Scot, Captain Gordon, who befriends Mangal and actually sounds Scottish. The Rising they combine a good adventure story with a garnishing of Bollywood mirch masala.

In historical terms, as Rudrangshu Mukherjee has shown in his well-timed monograph on the real ‘Mungul Pandy’, The Rising is fantasy. Mangal, he concludes, after a study of the available evidence, was quite an “accidental hero”, completely impervious to any winds of nationalism that may have been blowing across the plains of Hindustan.

Looking at the celluloid Mangal, any worthwhile historian would have little hesitation in echoing what The Dean of Lincoln Cathedral had to say about the fascinating story of The Da Vinci Code: “a load of old tosh.” Regardless of whether the Brahmin Sepoy was a victim of bhang, as the court martial suggested, or a symbol of patriotic defiance, as Savarkar claimed 50 years after the event, The Rising takes charming liberties with history.

The question is: so what?

In India, popular history—as opposed to academic history—is not only about what exactly happened but what is believed to have happened. The latter perception stems not from the East India Company’s detailed records but from the nationalist legends that grew around the first Sepoy “martyr”, some five decades after the event. Whether it is Shivaji or Siraj-ud-Doulah, Mangal Pandey or Bhagat Singh, popular history is always a blend of reality and folklore. It is neither necessary nor desirable to contest it. In real life, Shivaji and Maharana Pratap may have looked quite something else but in the Indian imagination they will always be the dashing warriors created by the imagination of Raja Ravi Varma.

This has always been so. The great Arab scholar Al Biruni came to India with the Ghaznavid vandals of Mahmud in the 11th century. He was a keen observer and what struck him was the fact that the Hindus did not share the sense of history that prevailed in West Asia. The Hindus, he wrote, a thousand years ago, “do not pay much attention to the historical order of things; they are very careless in relating the chronological succession of their Kings, and when they are pressed for information and are at a loss, not knowing what to say, they invariably take to tale-telling.”

It sounds an indictment but it also suggests that Indians never believed that history rests in the archives. History is what we, today, like to believe was our yesterday.

This negotiable sense of the past is due to another reason too. For the past three decades, professional historians in India have demonstrated their ability to destroy all interest in the subject. First, the numbing prose of the likes of Bipan Chandra and other Arjun Singh favourites has infected generations of school-children with a virulent allergy to history. Secondly, from being gripping tales of heroes, villains, kings and saints, history has been reduced to deathly boring dissections of social formations, modes of production and syncretic culture. Narrative history has been killed. With it has died the romance of history. Both are casualties of kill-joy comrades, many of whom also double up as film critics these days.

The great thing about The Rising is that it has helped rekindle some interest in the events of 1857, just as Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi did about the Mahatma and Shyam Benegal’s The Forgotten Hero did about Subhas Chandra Bose. A country needs heroes to nurture its sense of nationhood. Once upon a time these values were imbibed in schools and shakhas. Unfortunately, they only teach science and mathematics in schools these days. It is left to Aamir Khan to tell us about our past. He does it much better than either grim Marxists with limited vocabularies and scant use of the full stop or incomprehensible post-modernists.

“To poison a nation”, the African writer Ben Okri once said, “poison its stories. A demoralised nation tells demoralised stories to itself.” The reel versus real debate over Mangal Pandey is not really about history. It is a debate over India’s perception of itself. My vote is unequivocally for The Rising.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 26, 2005)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Regae, halal and 7/7 (August 12, 2005)

The British need to become emotionally British again

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day after 7/7 and the American media’s discovery of a caricatured version of the stiff upper lip and British resilience, an English historian sought to capture the grittiness of London through the evergreen lyrics of Noel Coward: “Every Blitz/ Your resistance/ Toughening, /From the Ritz/ To the Anchor and Crown/ Nothing ever could override/ The pride of London Town.” Three weeks later, there was Boris Johnson, the incorrigible editor of The Spectator and Conservative MP for Henley preaching “We’ve all got to be as British as Carry On films…”

For the scattered inhabitants of what The Daily Telegraph describes in Rhodes-esque terms as the “Anglosphere”, the past month has been both traumatic and heady. Traumatic because it was not easy to comprehend why a British-born, cricket-loving son of a fish-and-chips shop owner in Leeds believed that martyrdom on the Piccadilly Line was the most appropriate way to precipitate a global Islamic Caliphate. Equally disturbing was the finding of a YouGov survey that 24 per cent of Britain’s 1.1 million adult Muslims actually sympathised with the objectives of the London bombers. The bewilderment over the new breed of Islamist terrorists was well described by the novelist Hanif Kureishi. “These men”, he wrote, “believed they had access to the Truth, as stated in the Qur’an. There could be no doubt—or even much dispute about moral, social and political problems—because God had the answers. Therefore, for them to argue with the Truth was like trying to disagree with the facts of geometry.”

The implications are hideous. If terrorism is to be fought by addressing what well-meaning liberals insist are the “root causes”, how is any government going to grapple with the certitudes of people who insist their actions are divinely ordained? Political therapy may necessitate something even more farcical than compulsory screenings of Carry on up the Khyber and assorted Ealing comedies at the British equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.

Yet, there is light at the end of the London Underground. It may be impossible to persuade the Osama bin Laden devotees that God’s kingdom on earth should await a backward journey in time or be confined to Pakistan. However, some of the post-bombing reactions in Britain do suggest that even a “good-natured nation”—Tony Blair’s words—isn’t obliged to meekly offer itself as jihadi fodder. In the face of attacks from a determined bunch of crazies who, unfortunately, enjoy a measure of community sanction, robust and united self-defence is the only way out.

The Blitz wasn’t only about East Enders cheering the King and Queen during their walkabouts, the inspiring eloquence of Winston Churchill over crackling wireless sets and good-natured queues at the local butcher’s shop. If that had been the case, Britain would have emulated the fortunes of a Republican Spain which, as the cynical poet put it, lost all the battles but had the best songs. What came to be called Britain’s “finest hour” was made possible by the relentless production of Hurricanes and Spitfires, by adroit diplomacy that saw President Franklin Roosevelt extending covert support, and the incredible mobilisation of the military and civilian population alike. It was also made possible—and the Blitz mythology glosses over these—by draconian action against black marketers, saboteurs, British fascists, “aliens” and anyone suspected of either aiding or abetting the enemy. The British resolve didn’t happen because Britons thought goose-stepping and jackboots were silly. It happened because it was made to happen.

The problem with popular history is that it is woefully selective. Britain, there is little doubt, had a glorious war. At the same time, it had an equally inglorious run-up to the war. In hindsight, the umbrella-waving Neville Chamberlain may appear a slightly ridiculous figure who even mistook the butler at Berchtesgaden for Hitler. Yet, it is undeniable that by the time he landed in Northolt promising peace with honour and peace in our time, he was the most adored politician in Britain. From the balcony of Buckingham Palace flanked by royalty, he was feted by crowds who frankly didn’t give a damn whether Czechoslovakia remained independent or became an outpost of the Third Reich. Appeasement wasn’t a conspiracy hatched at Cliveden; it was a popular impulse. At the beginning of 1938, only Reds and discards spoke of a coming war with Germany; 24 months later was the Blitz.

History doesn’t invariably repeat itself. Yet, there are disconcerting similarities between events leading up to the Blitz and the run-up to 7/7. Between 1935 (that’s when Hitler’s menacing potential was first acknowledged) and 1939, Britain deluded itself into believing that Hitler was at best a vulgar upstart and at worst a mendacious crank who would sooner or later over-reach himself. The policy of appeasement arose from the belief that it wasn’t necessary to confront some innocuous displays of torchlight dramatics. And, of course, there was an underlying guilt at having punished Germany a little too harshly at Versailles in 1919.

Whether Britain’s current guilt pangs over the Balfour Declaration of 1918 correspond to the inter-War angst over the Treaty of Versailles is for the future to judge. What is patently clear, however, is that solidarity with Palestine has helped mask some of the most insidious forms of pan-Islamism. At the root of this airbrushing of history is Britain’s profound post-imperial guilt. The wave of immigration into Britain from South Asia and the West Indies between 1948 and 1974 may have been necessitated by a mix of economics and obligation. However, the hiccups arising from the abrupt entry of black and brown faces into a society traditionally wary of foreigners—maharajas, cricketers and Gurkhas apart—were sought to be tackled with a Patiala peg of something called multi-culturalism.

It wouldn’t be inaccurate to suggest that in terms of debilitation, the British multi-culturalism of the past 25 years is akin to the appeasement policy of the 1930s. In trying to force-feed cultural pluralism down the throat of native Britons, the liberal establishment committed a colossal blunder. It presumed that integration was a one-way street and the majority’s obligation to the minorities.

The consequences were catastrophic. British identity was confronted with its scissor crisis. There was the challenge from the European integrationists and there was the confusion over multi-culturalism. While Brussels pressed relentlessly with its complex rules and regulations, the race relations industry experimented with reggae and halal. The fancy dress parties in Brixton, Southall, Wembley and Brick Lane were by themselves quite harmless, adding some flamboyance and bad food to Britain. Unfortunately, they went hand in hand with the message that immigrants had no obligation to integrate themselves into the Anglosphere. On the contrary, multi-culturalism demanded the creation of little Indias, Pakistans, Bangladeshs and Jamaicas in the heart of urban England.

The declaration of war on Britain by jihadis, nurtured, schooled and fattened by a permissive and contrite state, was a disaster waiting to happen.

Post-7/7 there hasn’t been a physical backlash but the ferocity of the emotional reaction has been staggering. “The rules of the game”, Blair assured the indignant last week, “are changing.” It would be heartening if the change is not confined to expelling every rabid, neo-literate mullah back to Pakistan and keeping youngsters with pantomime beards and desert headgear under MI5 surveillance. In enforcing Britishness, Britain must reclaim some of its own values and upholding institutions that stand in danger of crumbling through prolonged neglect. Since the age of irreverence dawned in 1968, Britishness has been equated with a passport issued by HMG. It’s time Britain became emotionally British again.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, August 12, 2005)