Thursday, October 19, 2006

Courts of history (October 20, 2006)

Symptoms of a strategic impasse on both sides of the Atlantic

By Swapan Dasgupta

History and nostalgia have been recurrent themes in the works of Alan Bennett, arguably the most compelling playwright in contemporary Britain. In Forty Years On, centred on the annual school play in a minor public school in the Britain of 1968, there is a scene involving a session of the “court of history.” On trial is former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, accused of being beguiled by Hitler—a “scallywag” with a moustache—at Munich in the autumn of 1938. Chamberlain’s defence that he was the first British Prime Minister to fly in an aeroplane, and that too at the age of 69, is dismissed by the judge as being worthy of only a footnote. Nor does the defence counsel’s plea that the hapless Chamberlain was born in Birmingham cut any ice with the court. After peremptorily dismissing the defendant’s final plea—that he died shortly after Munich—the verdict of history is pronounced in a short, two-word sentence: “perpetual ignominy.” Chamberlain protests loudly that “the sentence is impossible. There is no verb in it” but he is again brushed aside.

Of all the post-Victorian prime ministers of Britain, no one has been more decried by both history and historians than Chamberlain. Others may have been guilty of other misdeeds—Arthur Balfour for shameless cronyism, David Lloyd George for ethical promiscuity, Winston Churchill for adventurism and Margaret Thatcher for uprooting consensus for ideology, but Chamberlain’s desperate desire to avert another European war in 1938 has been equated with the most heinous of all moral failings—cowardice.

It is interesting to view history’s rounded denunciation of Chamberlain with an emerging judgment of US President George W. Bush and his close ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Chamberlain was anxious to avert a direct conflict with European fascism for two reasons: British public opinion was fiercely against another long-drawn war; and the economy wasn’t strong enough to withstand a conflict. Even those venerable patricians who loathed Hitler and everything Nazism stood for, were candid enough to admit that Britain would not be able to hold on to the Empire in the aftermath of a long war. Post-War developments quite clearly showed that the fear was entirely legitimate.

Nor should the weight of public opinion be discounted. The deaths and suffering after four years of inconclusive trench warfare scarred all sections of British society. By the conventional wisdom of the times, another European conflict was something that had to be averted at all costs. This was the reason why Chamberlain’s “peace with honour” was so enthusiastically endorsed by the British people in 1938. Indeed, till the end of the phoney war in 1940, the anti-appeasement brigade led by Churchill and sundry Communist intellectuals were labelled adventurers by sensible people. Having burnt its fingers over Belgium 25 years ago, ordinary Britons had no real desire of playing crusaders in Czechoslovakia and Poland. When war became inevitable in 1939, Britain joined in grudgingly and without the jingoistic exuberance which greeted the beginning of hostilities against the Kaiser.

The awkward run-up to World War II has, predictably, evaporated from public memory. Yet, there is bitter irony in the fact that whereas the ignominy attached to Chamberlain persists, there is growing disquiet on both sides of the Atlantic at the Anglo-American war on terror. The Iraq war was always contentious and Britain’s involvement was never fully endorsed by its people. But grudging acquiescence has today yielded way to fierce opposition.

The symptoms of a strategic impasse are there for everyone to see. The neo-conservative project of force-feeding the Middle East with democracy is in a shambles. With the death toll in Iraq rising each day, there is horror when “experts” claim that more than half-million people have died in the conflict which began with the search for Saddam Hussein’s elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction. Public opinion polls in the run-up to November’s mid-term elections suggest that Bush’s Republicans will lose control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Intrepid journalists such as Bob Woodward have documented the disarray within the Bush Administration and argued that the people at the top are in a state of denial over a war that has come to be acknowledged as unwinnable. In Britain, where the conflict has forced Labour’s most adroit leader to announce his premature retirement, the Chief of General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, has publicly called for Britain to get the hell out of Iraq—an unprecedented step for a military man.

The Iraq effect is being felt all over the world. In Afghanistan, a resurgent Taliban has clearly smelt the possibility of overturning the Hamid Karzai regime. NATO had one hell of a time trying to replenish its forces in Afghanistan with another 2,500 trained soldiers—it had to finally settle for Estonian participation. Pakistan, which was forced into the war on terror at gunpoint five years ago, has again begun dreaming of recovering its strategic depth in Afghanistan. Accurately gauging the fierce anti-Americanism in the Islamic world, it is quietly extending a helping hand to the Taliban and nurturing those Islamists who see future opportunities in India.

So debilitating has been the Iraq effect on Anglo-American morale that a crazy North Korean dictator has chosen the moment to make his country a nuclear-weapons state. Pyongyang is fully aware that the bleeding in Iraq has made it impossible for Bush to even consider another regime-change expedition against the demented Kim Jong-Il.

There is no consistency in the way people react to situations. If Chamberlain was pilloried by the “court of history” for doing too little and leaving the war against fascism for too late, Bush and Blair stand accused of trying to do too much and too soon.

Ironically, the very same arguments which were used to justify appeasement in the 1930s have re-appeared in calls for a retreat from the killing fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the iniquity of the Treaty of Versailles was used to press for a more sympathetic understanding of Hitler’s territorial designs, Zionism is being held out as the explanation for Islamist anger. And, just as one Tory back-bencher blamed the cultural deficiency of the Nazis on the absence of fox-hunting, Islamofascism is being attributed to veiled women traipsing through the Midlands.

“Orientalism” and “moral relativism” didn’t exist as trendy catch phrases in the Thirties, but there was always the expedient willingness to let “bloody foreigners” get on with their strange ways as long as they left you alone. John Betjeman may have had tongue firmly in cheek when he wished the bombs to fall anywhere except 189 Cadogan Square but decapitations in Kandahar and bombings in Mumbai can be tucked into the inside pages as long as there are no would-be suicide bombers lurking about Finsbury Park and High Wycombe.

The war on terror has weighed the multicultural man’s burden and found it deceptively lightweight.

It’s the endgame in Iraq and Afghanistan. The departure from Baghdad and Kabul will be highly spin-doctored but it still won’t be Dunkirk. In all likelihood it will be another last plane out of Saigon. In time, the West will get its homeland security by coming down hard on the potential fifth-columnists in Bradford, Leeds and Tower Hamlets. Sheer expediency will force radicals of Pakistani origin to re-establish the “covenant of security” which was broken by the Al Qaeda.

The implications are obvious: India will soon have to fight its own war against a force oozing with confidence, having worsted two superpowers in rapid succession.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 20, 2006)

Saturday, October 14, 2006

PM foreign to real issues (October 15, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

We are in that phase of a government’s life when prime ministers, and the retinue around them, start experiencing the monotony of national existence. When that happens, convention demands that the gaze of the Prime Minister’s Office is conveniently diverted to “pressing international concerns”—with pleasurable consequences.

For the past two months, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has displayed an over-weaning anxiety to optimise his air-miles. First, there was the long haul to Brazil followed by the quixotic sojourn in Havana—the high point being Fidel Castro’s reminiscences of PL-480 shipments to India. Then there was the Gandhigiri trip to South Africa—a visit which intrigued the hosts and confused the Zulu protestors in Durban. (Question for Kaun Banega Crorepati: Which Indian Prime Minister in recent times hasn’t visited the railway station in Pietermaritzburg?)

Last week, the Prime Minister was in England to collect an honorary doctorate from Cambridge. True, there was also a courtesy call on Tony Blair and the mandatory conviviality with the same businessmen he met two days before in Mumbai, but these were obligatory add-ons to confer an official gloss on a worthwhile private visit.

Yet, there is no need to be accusatory. Prime Ministers have made foreign visits for far flimsier reasons. In 2002, Atal Bihari Vajpayee spent two agreeable days in Cyprus, en-route to an avoidable India-EU summit in Copenhagen. The only apparent reason was to release a Greek translation of his poetry!

Of course, Manmohan could have made much more of his well-deserved honour from Cambridge. After all, how many Indian notables can match his scholarly credentials? Unlike him, most of those using the prefix Doctor possess honorary degrees.

Last year in Oxford he provoked xenophobes at home with a subtle endorsement of the “coconut” trail, his thank you speech. Last week’s Cambridge performance was unmentionably soporific. It was dotted with the pedestrian eloquence of the JNU kind: “The gap between the rich and the poor is widening… My appeal is that developed countries should not allow short-term national interests to prevail at the cost of promoting freer trade and combating poverty. The prosperity of so many cannot be sacrificed for protecting the interests of so few.” There were also the adulatory references to Jawaharlal Nehru—the head of the family—and Joan Robinson, the socialist economist whose dogmatic influence set the Indian economy back by many decades.

No wonder the Cambridge address secured the ungrudging approval of the certifying authority of progressivism: The Hindu.

Then it was off to what business journalists call the Nokia junket. Normally Finland is not on any itinerary but this year Helsinki was hosting yet another India-EU summit.

A prime ministerial visit to a Scandinavian country is best avoided. It is one thing for the Indian Prime Minister to engage periodically—even if it is by way of a courtesy call en-route to Cambridge—with someone like Blair who knows India, acknowledges its global significance and, most important, is totally at ease with Indian sensitivities; dealing with sanctimonious Scandinavians is a different ball game. Being unable to comprehend the clutter of Indian democracy and the array of the Indian experience, the countries of Northern Europe have been accustomed to treating India on par with say, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, bywords for ethnic strife and poverty. As exporters of conflict resolution and foreign aid, they have never quite grasped India’s nuclear imperatives nor really understood why President George Bush insists on treating New Delhi differently from Pyongyang.

Four years ago, Vajpayee was subjected to a gratuitous Viking sermon on Kashmir and last week Manmohan had to undergo the ignominy of the Finnish Prime Minister sitting in judgment on India’s nuclear programme. The issue is not why Finns are the way they are; the problem lies in India running after foreign testimonials. To justify a grand visit with full entourage, the flatterers prepared the curious headline: “Finland supports Indo-US nuke deal”; what they got instead was “Finland snubs India.”

Pity no one asked the Finns about India’s permanent membership of the UNSC!

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 15, 2006)

Monday, October 09, 2006

The rebel economist (October 10, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Not being a betting man, it is impossible to judge the track record of the US-based Thompson Scientific in predicting Nobel Prize winners. In anticipation of the Swedish Academy’s, the organisation has suggested that the Indian-born Professor Jagdish Bhagwati is, among others, being seriously considered for this year’s Nobel Prize for economics.

If the past is any guide, the prize for economics is not automatically awarded to individuals who have made seminal academic contributions. While scholars who have facilitated understanding of, among other things, risk and prices through complex mathematical models have naturally been honoured, others have been rewarded for what can best be called lifetime contributions. It all depends on the global environment and the priorities of the jury. Purist economists, for example, don’t seem to rate Amartya Sen’s academic contributions too highly. At the same time, everyone acknowledges that Sen’s writings and interventions have been influential in shaping government policy and in reaffirming the status of economics as a human rather than mathematical endeavour.

I leave it to specialists to evaluate the category of Bhagwati’s contributions. However, the jurors in Stockholm may find it reassuring that there will be considerable satisfaction in all right-thinking circles in India if Bhagwati’s name features in the final list. If Bhagwati’s contribution is acknowledged by the trustees of Alfred Nobel’s legacy, it will be an important step in rectifying the intellectual imbalance created by the award to Sen.

Last week, for example, a beleaguered UPA Government announced plans to resurrect the 35-year-old garibi hatao slogan of Indira Gandhi, as the preface for another 20-point populist package. A Nobel Prize for Bhagwati at such a juncture will be a strong indictment of this handouts culture.

To the generation of Indians which came into its own in the period roughly coinciding with the socialist heydays of Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, the name of Jagdish Bhagwati had a special significance. At a time when a planned economy based on draconian government controls, reckless nationalisation, crippling shortages and heady welfarism was the rage in Coffee House circles, Bhagwati was the dissident. His relentless critique of Indian planning and socialism were akin to heretical tracts. They were quietly appreciated, but out of the earshot of the socialist stalwarts who dominated the university faculties. My friends who studied economics used to say that reading Bhagwati was essential for understanding the grim realities of India but irrelevant if your focus was on high marks—the examiners were invariably leftists or worse. The words of one Communist charlatan “If you want marks, you must read Marx” rankled in the minds of the ambitious.

It was this stifling environment that made Bhagwati pack up his bags and depart for the US where he was more appreciated. He was, in many ways, an intellectual exile from socialist India. In A Stream of Windows, Bhagwati wrote about this oppressive climate: “What led India down this road? Some of the ideas came … from the politics of Harold Laski … and from the economics of Joan Robinson et al… But it must also be said that, if the seeds were planted in England, much pruning was done in India itself. There was substantial, homegrown culpability on the part of India’s economists… Faced by the mounting evidence of the bankruptcy of India’s policies, the economists generally dug in their heels, often exercising their theoretical talents to rationalise what was nonsensical. It has been well said that any elementary mistake in economics can turned into a profound truth by ingeniously making the right assumptions to deduce what you want. So India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises.”

Bhagwati was never mealy-mouthed in his polemical engagements. He wielded his pen to devastating effect—an attribute that didn’t endear him to the socialist time-servers. He even named Sen as one of the main perpetrators of this intellectual deceit.

At Columbia, Bhagwati was primarily preoccupied with issues of world trade. However, when Manmohan Singh began dismantling the inefficient control economy in 1991, Bhagwati was enthused. In a scathing attack, he described the alternative welfarism propagated by Sen and Jean Dreze as a “throwback to the obscurantism that shielded the inefficient policies from the brunt of early criticisms.”

As productive India trembles at the thought of any reincarnation of Indira’s socialism, an honour for Bhagwati will be comforting to all those have despaired of India settling for the Third World when it should have been reaching for the sky.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, October 10, 2006)

Saturday, October 07, 2006

That sinking feeling (October 8, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

No amount of ham-fisted spin-doctoring and the desperate resurrection of a 35-year-old slogan can take away from what is fast becoming an open secret: the floundering government of Manmohan Singh. In the early days of the UPA Government, it made sense to contrast the sincerity of the Prime Minister with the blundering ways of his coalition colleagues. Today, there is not even that fig-leaf. By desperately trying to bush aside taunts and show that he is indeed leadership material, the Prime Minister has exposed his own inadequacies and ineptitude. Nothing demonstrates this better than his laughable attempts at diplomacy.

The evidence is there in full public gaze. It has taken not even a fortnight for the contrived Havana bonhomie with Pakistan to be overwhelmed by the slippery General’s cigar smoke. Even if there are some missing links in the Mumbai Police Commissioner’s assertion that the July 11 blasts were the handiwork of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba and local traitors, the implication of his charge that the whole massacre was conducted under the benign supervision of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is grave. Since the preliminary findings of the Mumbai police inquiry were available to the Prime Minister and his National Security Adviser when they arrived at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, it follows that the Havana agreement on a joint terror mechanism was signed with a man our Prime Minister knew was the chief patron of terrorism.

Nor is there any basis to de-link the ISI from President Pervez Musharraf. Responding to the growing disquiet in the West over the ISI’s complicity in the Taliban’s resurgence in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan, Musharraf defended his so-called state-within-a-state aggressively. He told BBC’s Newsnight that the ISI was a “disciplined force”. When it was pointed out that a leaked British Ministry of Defence (MoD) report advocated that a future civilian government should send the army to the barracks and disband the ISI, Musharraf retorted angrily that the MoD should disband itself first.

By refusing to perpetuate the fiction that the ISI is somehow an autonomous cabal, Musharraf was, somewhat uncharacteristically, not being economical with the truth. However, by choosing to paint Pakistan as a co-victim of terrorism, the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary have compromised India’s diplomatic offensive against terrorism. The US Ambassador to Pakistan wasn’t being needlessly insolent by suggesting that India should have first given the Mumbai evidence to Pakistan before going public. The logic of the Havana agreement is that the victim and the terrorist must conduct a joint whodunit.

And why blame Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry for dismissing the Mumbai investigations as preposterous. If Pakistan is the victim of terrorism, how can it be accused of masterminding terror?

By trying, like some others before him, to find a place in history, Manmohan has dug India into a fox hole. The relentless pursuit of a maverick foreign policy has resulted in India being taken less and less seriously in international circles.

Last week, there was the expected ignominy over the Indian candidate to the UN Secretary-General’s post—actually he was his own candidate who used India as an expedient launching pad—which exposed the limits of Indian influence. Simultaneously, there was the strange spectacle of the UPA’s strategic ally, the CPI(M), deciding that India’s priority in the UN strategy is to secure Venezuela’s place in the Security Council! Indeed, with India slipping down the value chain, the CPI(M) has decided that it makes more sense to now flaunt its credentials as China’s liaison agent in India.

Then there was India’s stand-offish attitude towards the ongoing NATO offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan—an indifference that may have convinced the Washington beltway that India is unlikely to make the jump from potential to performance. If, as a result, the Indo-US nuclear deal is timed out by the Senate, it will signal Manmohan Singh joining Chandra Shekhar, Charan Singh, Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral in the pantheon of the insignificant. The dress-rehearsal was his importunate visit to South Africa and the speech to an empty stadium in Durban.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 8, 2006)

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sensible approach (October 6, 2006)

David Cameron coul break Labour's dream run in government

By Swapan Dasgupta

For many years, a truly agreeable meal in London meant only one thing for me: lunch at the Grill Room in The Connaught. A combination of what a friend used to call a “honest meal”, a not too outrageously-priced wine list and a charming ambience made this restaurant my enduring favourite.

Of course that was before nouvelle cuisine and celebrity chefs made their appearance. Confronted with the onslaught of fashion and the image of being of being a fuddy-duddy establishment, the Grill Room effected a radical makeover. The new “Angela Hartnett at The Connaught” was plain different. It was definitely more “contemporary”—whatever that means—and the fare was more healthy than “honest”. A visit to The Connaught these days means an opulent working lunch, not the earlier over-indulgence that preceded the brandy and cigar, and the mandatory snooze in the oh-so-comfortable chesterfield in the club.

In this age of global warming and carbon gas emission, Western civilisation seems intent on snatching away some of the more simple pleasures of life. Courting the Green vote, governments are contemplating punitive taxes on petrol and cheap air travel; smoking has been deemed an act of deviancy; and Britain has even appointed a minister to curb obesity. The nanny state has indeed made life a trifle oppressive in Britain. Thanks to a campaign by Jamie Oliver, a celebrity chef whose showmanship is more gripping than his recipes, the education authorities have tried to make school dinners healthy. Mars Bars, sausage rolls and bags of potato chips have been outlawed from the tuck shops and replaced with fruit, milk and cereal. The ubiquitous sausage and chips with cabbage, or liver and chips with cabbage, or pasty and chips with cabbage—food that made the Empire—have been replaced by salads with oodles of rocket leaves and pasta with locally sourced turkey.

Some of us who can’t imagine Britain without fry-up breakfasts on cold, overcast mornings and the unmistakable smell of boiled cabbage have reason to thank the Conservative shadow higher education minister Boris Johnson for upholding the principle of free choice. At a fringe meeting during the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth this week, Johnson damned the “over-priced, low-fat rubbish” being served in school canteens: “I say let people eat what they like… If I was in charge, I would get rid of Jamie Oliver…”

The incorrigible Johnson didn’t stop at school dinners. Responding to the Conservative demand for maximum local autonomy to counter the Labour Government’s over-centralisation, he argued that “localism” could pose unforeseen problems in areas with a large Muslim population. Supposing, he asked, “Tower Hamlets or parts of Bradford were to become governed by religious zealots believing in that system. Are we ready for complete local autonomy if it means sharia law?”

These are questions politicians are not meant to ask. But Johnson’s awkward aside can well be seen in the context of a spirited debate in Britain on the relationship between “core beliefs” and a viable electoral strategy. Ever since Tony Blair discarded the socialist certitudes of the Labour Party, abandoned the trades unions for the spin doctors and won three consecutive general elections, the Conservatives have been grappling with the problems of internal change. Having discarded four leaders in quick succession since 1997, it has settled for the 40-year-old David Cameron who, if the opinion polls are any guide, has the potential of breaking Labour’s dream run in government.

It is not merely Cameron’s kindly youthful looks that gives him an edge over the post-Blair Labour leaders. For the past year, Cameron has lost no opportunity telling the Tory faithful that they were roundly beaten by Blair because they lacked credibility. The post-Thatcher Conservative Party, according to him, was out of tune with the Cool Britannia that warmed up to New Labour. The pet obsessions of Conservatives, he felt, bred an astonishing insularity. The party devoted more time banging on about the hobby horses of its activists than attending to the concerns of voters.

Built on the twin pillars of “change” and “social responsibility”, Cameron has forged a vision of “compassionate” conservatism which is very different from anything the Tories have ever known. He has formally added Green to the Tory blue and made the protection of the environment a key policy concern; he has robustly committed the party to institutions of the welfare state such as the health service; and he has badgered local constituency parties into adopting more women and members of ethnic minorities as prospective parliamentary candidates.

The change of tack has begun yielding dividends. In the local elections in England, the Conservatives beat Labour quite convincingly and polled nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Even his worst critics admit that Cameron has succeeded in persuading a significant number of people to at least start viewing the Conservatives as a possible alternative to Labour. In particular, he has nullified the blind hatred of Conservatives which was a feature of young, urban voters of a culturally confused Britain.

At the heart of the Cameron strategy is the belief that for any party to be win elections, it must first capture the middle ground. Just as Blair shifted Labour from the Left to the Centre, Cameron is nudging the Conservatives into capturing the Centre ground and jettisoning the remains of Thatcherism. The Conservatives have, for example, lessened their traditional preoccupation with tax cuts, fox hunting, immigration and Europe. Instead, the party talks more about community action, Green issues and bolstering social services.

Cameron has conveniently interpreted the Centre to mean anything which preoccupies the popular mind space. It’s a clever ploy because the implication is that while he is addressing voters’ concerns, the ideologues of the Left and Right are loftily detached from the grassroots. The Centre, in Cameron-speak, listens and responds; the ideologues pontificate and lecture.

Labour has attacked Cameron as a PR invention and lacking substance. However, within the Conservative Party, the “sour Right”—Douglas Hurd’s carping description of the old Thatcherites—has charged Cameron with abandoning the party’s “core” concerns—the political equivalent of griping over the loss of the Grill Room. This attack in turn has prompted a larger question: is politics about governance or spreading ideology?

As the oldest political party in the democratic world, the modern Conservative Party has an interesting history. Lacking any doctrinal basis and, instead, flaunting a very English incoherence, the party has nevertheless endured for the past 150 years on the basis of self-renewal. From the repeal of the corn laws under Robert Peel, disputes over tariff reform and imperial preference in the early 20th century, the contrived genuflections before the Welfare State after World War II, to Thatcherism, the Conservatives have not confused policies with principles. The party has kept ideological certitudes to a bare minimum—individual liberty, respect for Crown and country and a non-intrusive state. Within these parameters, there has been a vigorous interplay of ideas and, when in grave doubt, Conservatives have taken refuge behind pragmatism and common sense—what Cameron calls “sensible” policies.

The definition of sensible has, like walking shoes, evolved. Last year, an enterprising journalist wrote a book entitled The Strange Death of Tory England. Like me, he was taken in by appearances. What matters is not that the old Grill Room clientele hasn’t moved into the new celebrity chef’s orbit. The important thing is that both sets of people—separated by age, collective memory, tastes and even outlook—will still, in all probability, be voting Conservative. What matters is that the baton has been passed on to another generation.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, October 6, 2006)

Monday, October 02, 2006

You can't be good to evil (October 1, 2006)

Swapan Dasgupta

This is the time of the year when India celebrates the triumph of good over evil, of dharma over adharma. In the east, we commemorate the homecoming of the Goddess Durga, the personification of shakti and the divine force which was created to slay the demon Mahishasura. In other parts of India, the triumph of Ram over Ravana is observed with the ceremonial burning of effigies.

The celebrations assume different forms. In Gujarat, there is boisterous dancing through the night. In Bengal, there is feasting and revelry. In the North, the pre-Dussehra restraint is followed by an uninterrupted bout of over-indulgence culminating in Diwali - the day of Ram's triumphant return to Ayodhya.

It is, therefore, ironic that this should also be the time the country is confronted with a disagreeable demand aimed at puncturing our sense of dharma. Under the expedient guise of forgiveness and compassion, there is an insidious attempt to taunt India and the Indian way of life.

The reference is, of course, to the orchestrated outcry against the death sentence handed out to Afzal Guru, the jihadi from Sopore, convicted for his role in the attack on Parliament in 2001.
It would be understandable if the objections came from those who have ethical problems with capital punishment. The belief that no man has the right to take another man's life is grounded in the noblest standards of human conduct.

However, faith in ahimsa also constitutes an indictment of a jihad which is prefaced on the merciless killing of the enemy. Equating murder with judicial punishment implies that every belief should be treated on par.

Few of those who have taken up cudgels for the unrepentant Afzal are either Gandhians or pacifists. For the pragmatic Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, the street demonstrations against Afzal's sentence are an additional headache he could do without.

For the CPI(M), the indulgence towards Afzal is an aspect of the emerging global alliance between Red and Green. And for the Congress, which has made moral relativism its new leitmotif, it is all a question of Muslim votes. In its ambivalence on Afzal, the party is nervously anticipating a similar furore if death sentences are handed out to any of those found guilty in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case.

To be fair, neither Ghulam Nabi Azad nor the one-man CPI(M) in Jammu and Kashmir are pro-active in demanding clemency for Afzal. They are at best responding to an issue that has been seized upon by all the separatist groups and their controllers across the border to hit the Indian State hard.

Why is the Afzal issue important to those who want Kashmir to be a part of our neighbouring Islamic republic? First, a Presidential order commuting Afzal's death sentence to life imprisonment will not be seen as the triumph of Gandhian values over judicial retribution.
It will be seen as the Indian state's capitulation before organised pressure. India, in other words, will be seen to lack the political and moral backbone to uphold its own laws.

Second, if one of the main conspirators in the attack on Parliament - an incident that nearly triggered an Indo-Pakistan war - is allowed to subvert the due process of law, it will be tantamount to suggesting that jihadi crimes will be judged by a different yardstick.
By passing a unanimous resolution calling for one of the main accused in the 1998 Coimbatore blasts case to be set free, the Kerala Assembly has trod a dangerous path and Afzal's reprieve is another step in the long march to capitulation.

It is not very pleasant to acquiesce in capital punishment. However, there are crimes which call for the severest punishment because the perpetrators are unwilling to subject themselves to the same moral codes that determine civilised existence.

The jihadis crossed the lakshman rekha long ago. A show of indulgence towards them is akin to suggesting that there are no boundaries which govern right and wrong. If that is so, why should we bother with Durga Puja and Dussehra?

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, October 1, 2006)

Monday, September 25, 2006

We, the meek Indians (September 25, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

What our grandfathers used to call the “Munich spirit” — a euphemism for pretending that evil can be managed by accommodation, for the sake of peace — is on the verge of being substituted by the Havana haze. In his infinite wisdom, the Prime Minister has deemed that Pakistan's truancy can’t be viewed as age-old hatred blending with an evil doctrine; the inner violence of a tormentor must be itself viewed with all the sympathy befitting the deviant who fell on his head as a baby.

The triumph of victimhood over common sense has been a feature of the West ever since the Sixties’ generation injected bleeding-heart sociology into the policy-making apparatus of the state. Venerable institutions like the British monarchy, the Church of England, the New York Times, the Ivy League colleges and the BBC have abandoned traditional values for a new moral code which is incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, good and evil.
So steep has been the fall, even the once-infallible Pope has been coerced into issuing a quasi-apology for guardedly suggesting that Islam should examine why its mosques are becoming the recruiting grounds of terror.

Significantly, the missiles hurled at the Vatican haven't come exclusively from the minaret-dominated bazaars of the Orient; almost every Muslim stone has been matched by a volley of abuse from ‘intellectuals’ who have seen commercial flights and commuter trains in their own countries bombed by fanatical mujahedeen.

“It was part of Hitler’s weird genius”, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in his memoirs, “to be able to persuade a lost bourgeoisie... that he intended them no ill will. Stalin performed a similar feat with a lost intelligentsia.” He could just as well be writing about those troubled souls who imagine the roots of the Malegaon bombings lie in civic inadequacies and the collapse of textile manufacturing.

Perhaps this is a caricature but perhaps it is not. In his caustic commemoration of the fifth anniversary of 9/11 — The Age of Horrorism — novelist Martin Amis imagines a conversation between John Walker Lindh, ‘the famously obtuse’ American convert to jihad and Osama bin Laden at the Tarnak Farms in Afghanistan.

“Now would be a good time to strike, John would tell Osama, because the West is enfeebled, not just by sex and alcohol, but also by 30 years of multicultural relativism. They'll think suicide bombing is just an exotic foible, like shame-and-honour killings, and female circumcision. Besides, its religious, and they are always slow to question anything that calls itself that… And you'll be amazed by how long the word Islamophobia, as an unanswerable indictment, will cover Islamism too. It'll take them years to come up with the word they want—and Islamismphobia clearly isn't any good…Strike now. Their ideology will make them reluctant to see what it is they confront. And it will make them slow learners.”

What the American jihadi may have told Osama is too close to the bone. The Islamists have little patience or respect for those who talk kindly but gratuitously about Muslim ‘alienation’ and about the need to be hard on terror and caring towards its breeding grounds.

George W Bush may be the spitting reincarnation of John Wayne—”a man who's got to do what a man's got to do”—but there is much to be learnt from his administration. In his memoirs, which he shamelessly advertised on the White House lawns, Musharraf recalled that after 9/11, the pugnacious Richard Armitage called up ISI chief General Mahmood and informed him that unless Pakistan cooperated, America would bomb it back to the stone age. Clarifying matters, Armitage said that he said nothing about bombing Pakistan, but he did confront Mahmood with a simple choice: “You are either with us or against us.” When the General tried to explain the complexities of Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan, Armitage cut him short: “History begins from today.”

To Musharraf, Armitage seemed very ‘rude’. What he hasn’t said is that the muscular American was also very effective. Within 24 hours Pakistan accepted every one of the non-negotiable and difficult conditions set by the US for joining the war on terror!

“Blessed are the meek”, we have been told, “for they shall inherit the earth.” Yet, there is a fine line between meekness and weakness. The government’s failure to drive home the distinction may lead a slippery General into believing India has lost its nerve.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, September 25, 2006)

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Havana betrayal (September 24, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in the race for canonisation, his spectacular act of forgiveness in Havana would have ensured instant deification by any council of the exalted. It is, after all, not every day that the head of a democratically elected government can be “happy” imagining that the blood of 200 unsuspecting commuters in Mumbai was not spilt, that the massacres of Hindus in Jammu never happened and that the blasts in Malegaon were from the dress rehearsal of a syncretic Dussehra. It takes a politician of rare loftiness to tell people that the violence they see around them is actually an illusion (maya), and that those who kill are as tormented as those who get killed.

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, life is not an exercise in competitive saintliness. One week after the joint statement in Havana, lesser mortals are still asking what propelled him to pronounce General Pervez Musharraf and some of his more sinister associates ‘not guilty’ of charges of snuffing out innocent Indian lives. For three consecutive days the main opposition party led a no-holds-barred assault on the Prime Minister’s judgment. Manmohan was variously accused of “capitulation” and succumbing to “foreign” pressure—both grave charges. Stalwarts of the security and intelligence establishment joined the chorus. In a stinging intervention, a former head of the Intelligence Bureau even accused the leadership of lacking “guts”.

National concerns have been met by a wall of silence. Neither the Foreign Secretary nor the Foreign Secretary-designate (who is being credited with the Havana doctrine) have cared to explain and remove doubts. The Congress Party which is in business of defending its Government has suddenly lost its voice. The only official reactions have been in the form of an intemperate email from the Prime Minister’s Office to one of the sceptics and a clutch of reports in the media. These suggest that far from succumbing to Musharaf’s bluster the establishment of a Indo-Pak complaints centre on terrorism was a deft move dating back to Manmohan’s Amritsar speech last March.

Ironically, the spin doctor’s version makes magnanimity even less comprehensible. The proposed “treaty of peace” in March was followed by the Mumbai and Malegaon blasts in July and September. The investigations have so far indicated that the bombs bore the signature of terrorist training camps in Pakistan and that the organisers were a blend of Pakistanis and local jihadis. An angry India called off the Foreign Secretary-level with Pakistan and the National Security Adviser was quite blunt in suggesting that the terror attacks were being managed from across the border. Musharraf feigned innocence and retorted that the threat to India came from “freelance terrorists”.

However, as security agencies have repeatedly pointed out, even the “freelance” mujahedeen have an uncanny habit of being accredited to either the Pakistan army or the ISI. Last week, Omar Khayam, a Briton of Pakistani origin charged in the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic flights, told a London court that the ISI had organised and funded explosives training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The ISI, he added, worked with radical Islamic groups to choose those who were given the training.

The belief that being indulgent to Pakistan could win India some crucial brownie points, ahead of the final hurdle in the Indo-US nuclear agreement, has also proved a miscalculation. President Bush’s blunt assertion that he could not trust Pakistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden and his displeasure with Musharraf’s deal with the Taliban forces along the Afghan border are ominous. The West may be wary of a Indo-Pak nuclear face-off but it doesn’t expect India to certify that Pakistan is an innocent casualty of Islamism. Musharraf’s duplicity is well known and acknowledged. Only Manmahon has had second thoughts.

What happened in Havana wasn’t a trivial mistake; it was a betrayal. The Prime Minister has poured Ganga water over the blood-stained hands of killers and violated the memory of every victim of terrorism. He may be a good man. But a good man who condones evil doesn’t warrant India’s respect.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 24, 2006)

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Pastoral disquiet (September 22, 2006)

The Pope’s theological gloss on violence in Regensburg


What Pope Benedict XVI dubbed “startling brusqueness” has never been the sole preserve of lesser-known 14th-century Byzantine emperors. Many of the more evolved communicators of both this and the previous century have fallen back on parliamentary pungency to drive home a similar disconcerting message.

Writing with characteristic restraint in The Spectator two years after 9/11, Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph, observed: “When politicians say ‘Islam is a peaceful religion’ they are not exactly wrong — all the great religions speak of peace as their ultimate attainment — but one can’t help wondering if they would say it quite so often if they were absolutely sure it was true.”

Conor Cruise O’Brien — the distinguished Irish politician and diplomat who also served as editor of The Observer — wasn’t so guarded. Referring to the turbulence in Algeria in The Independent in January 1995 — well before Osama bin Laden’s fame spread beyond Peshawar and Kandahar — he had some pithy advice for Western intellectuals: “ How the West should cope with the Islamic revival is a complex matter. But…we can never get it right if we go on trying to believe that there is something called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ which is somehow not intrinsically related to Islam itself.”

Apart from the recondite allusion to an early example of inter-faith dialogue, the central thesis of the pope’s contentious lecture to the faculty in Regensburg wasn’t strikingly original. For the past 25 years, ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the West has been trying unsuccessfully to come to grips with both Islamic revivalism and Islamist terrorism. Whereas the liberal consensus is that Muslim disquiet has its origins in the apparent injustices in Palestine, Bosnia and even Kashmir, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic are more inclined to see the problem in terms of conflicting value systems. The proffered solutions to what is increasingly being seen as the ‘Muslim problem’ have also differed. The left-liberal agenda centres on the West, particularly the United States of America, taming both the Zionists in Israel and the Arab potentates. A variant of this is the neo-conservative project of force-feeding Western-style democracy to the peoples of the entire “arc of extremism” from Sudan to Pakistan.

Theological engineering is an unstated rationale of the neo-con project. Since Islam makes no obvious distinction between God and Caesar, and between the religious and the secular, the entire existence of the faithful is built on divinely-ordained injunctions encapsulated in the sharia. As the philosopher Roger Scruton — more a Tory than a neo-con — has argued in his incisive study, The West and the Rest, “the Muslim conception of law as holy law, pointing the unique way to salvation, and applying to every area of human life, involves a confiscation of the political.” Under the circumstances, participatory government, which naturally involves the constant creation of man-made and nation-specific laws, has the potential of being a palliative to the certitudes of a holistic faith.

The problem with the democracy project is that it skirts the specificities of the Islamic experience. Apart from Saudi Arabia and, to some extent, Iran, almost no Muslim-majority country has replicated the pure Islamic state. Iran, in fact, has a vibrant, if illiberal, democracy. But this has not tempered its clergy-controlled Islamic radicalism. Indeed, the experience of Muslim countries would prompt the conclusion that either tribalism or Turkish-style secular fundamentalism is a more effective counter to any ummah-centric activism than liberal democracy.

To be fair, neither the pope nor mainstream conservative opinion has had much time for this convoluted subversion of medievalism. Unlike some of the more trendy Christian theologians — disproportionately located in the rudderless Church of England — the present pontiff has attached low priority to inter-faith shenanigans. Sharply critical of Eastern mysticism, he has concentrated his energies in strengthening what he sees as the roots of Roman Catholicism and galvanizing Christianity in its core area — Europe. His observations on Islam in Regensburg reflected the pastoral disquiet over suicide-bombers making life impossible in Europe.

In his address, the pope made three broad points. First, that the Hellenic influence over Christianity has involved blending faith with reason: “The inner rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek philosophical inquiry was an event of decisive importance not only from the standpoint of history of religions, but also from that of world history…This convergence, with the subsequent addition of the Roman heritage, created Europe.” Second, that there is little rational justification for violence. Finally, that god, far from being a creation of whimsy, is actually a reflection of the noblest and most refined human characteristics: “God acts with logos. Logos means both reason and word.”

That the Regensburg lecture was a theological indictment of the literalism driving Islamist terror is obvious. But the pope was, by implication, also being sharply critical of those evangelist churches which are grounded in blind faith and simplistic readings of the gospel. More important, in questioning the rationality of violence, he was tacitly abjuring some of Christianity’s own bloody inheritance. The charge that he was invoking the competitive bigotry of the Crusades and falling back on Christian triumphalism seems unfounded.
The most significant feature of the pope’s lecture — and which has been ignored in the din over his alleged Islamophobia — is his forthright assertion that the load-bearing pillars of Christianity are unquestionably European. By this logic, a robust rejection of Islamist-inspired terrorism in Europe involves shoring up Judaeo-Christian values and contesting the over-secularization of public life. In the context of the fierce debate on multiculturalism that is raging throughout the European Union, it is clear where the Vatican stands. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope had despaired of the West’s “hatred of itself”. The West, he observed, “no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.”

Leaving aside his theological gloss on violence, many of the pope’s concerns have earlier been echoed in countries like India which have experienced the full blast of Islamist terrorism. Many contemporary assessments have dwelt on the fact that the apparent finality of the Quran has made it difficult for Islam to experience a Reformation and come to terms with territorial nationalism. What is also undeniable is that despite unceasing claims that Islam is a religion of peace, almost all Islamists have justified their terrorism in terms of religious obligation. Far from being declared apostates, the bombers have been celebrated as martyrs. There has also been disquiet that the tenets of brotherhood in Islam do not always extend to non-believers. The invocation of a new caliphate invokes the dread of enforced dhimmi-tude — a situation incompatible with modern existence.

These are issues which warrant debate and, wherever possible, dialogue. The pope may have been injudicious in citing a 14th-century assessment by a Byzantine emperor to liven up the proceedings, but his concerns are relevant both politically and in theological terms. What is alarming, however, is the ugly furore over his lecture. The hysteria suggests that any debate on Islam based on critical scrutiny is bound to be accompanied by threats and intimidation — a travesty which liberals seem perfectly willing to overlook. Far from creating understanding, this intolerance is calculated to aggravate Islamophobia. The non-negotiable tenets of political correctness involve debunking the clash of civilizations as fanciful nonsense. Unfortunately, ground realities are beginning to suggest otherwise.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 22, 2006)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Pope and the defence of reason (September 17, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

At the height of the war in Lebanon two months ago, an assortment of Arabs, British Muslims, radical socialists and bleeding heart liberals marched through the streets of London with placards proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah.” Since Pope Benedict XVI delivered his scholarly but contentious lecture in Regensburg last Wednesday, an equally unlikely assortment of individuals bound by a common distaste for Islamist terrorism have been whispering the counter-proclamation: “We are all Papists now.”

Before rushing to take rival positions in the trench warfare of civilisations, it is prudent to remember that the contemporary Islamist assault on the “decadent” West, epitomised by “American imperialism”, has long enjoyed the backing of influential Muslim theologians. This is perhaps the first time that the philosophical gulf between Islam and western civilisation has been delineated by someone who wields authority in the Christian world.

Pope Benedict, unlike many of his colleagues in Rome, has not succumbed to either the pretensions of Christian universalism or the mumbo jumbo of inter-faith dialogue. He has rightly viewed both Christianity and the Catholic Church as load-bearing pillars of Western civilisation. He has disavowed the growing secularisation of national cultures and, by implication, called into question the moral relativism which accompanies the practice of multiculturalism in the EU.

In an article “If Europe Hates Itself” written when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, the Pope despaired about Europe’s growing inability to distinguish good from evil: “The West reveals … a hatred of itself, which is strange and can only be considered pathological; the West … no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure.” In November 2004, he despaired that secular ideology which is “imposed through politics… does not give public space to the Catholic or Christian vision (and) runs the risk of becoming something purely private and thus disfigured.”

The Regensburg lecture amounted to a Christian critique of the violence that is inherent in political Islam. However, rather than fall back on the politically expedient and customary detachment of Islamism from Islam, the Pope chose to distinguish between Christianity’s reason-based European underpinnings and Islam’s faith-based traditions centred also on literal acceptance of its texts. By implication, his lecture was also an attack on some of the more aggressively evangelical churches found in the US and would have been treated as such if the references to the Byzantine experience had been omitted. In arguing that violence was at odds with reason, the Pope was also tacitly repudiating some of Christianity’s bloody inheritance, but this aspect of his lecture has been overshadowed by the furore over Islamic certitudes.

What the Pope argued last week is not strikingly original. Many of the contemporary critiques of Islam have dwelt at length on the fact that the apparent finality of the Quran has made it difficult for Islam to experience a Reformation. What is also undeniable is that whereas the claims of Islam to be a religion of peace have been unceasingly made, almost all the Islamists have justified their terrorism in terms of religious obligation. Heinous crimes have been committed and justified in the name of religion. Concern has also been voiced that the tenets of brotherhood in Islam do not always extend to non-believers, making them incompatible with multi-religious existence.

These are issue which warrant dispassionate debate and dialogue. The Pope may have been injudicious in citing a 14th century assessment by a Byzantine emperor but the questions he has raised are relevant both in theological and political terms. What is alarming is the fierce reaction to his lecture. They suggest that any debate on Islam based on critical scrutiny is bound to be accompanied by threats and intimidation. Far from encouraging sympathetic understanding of Muslim societies, this climate of intolerance is certain to fuel Islamophobia.

Political correctness necessitates debunking the clash of civilisations but realities on the ground are beginning to suggest otherwise.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 17, 2006)

Lost and leaderless (September 16, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

IN Indian politics it is sometimes difficult to separate reality from caricature. A farcical mix-up forced the BJP to confront this problem at the National Executive session in Dehradun earlier this month.

A clutch of papers and documents which delegates were handed out on arrival contained, among other things, the text of party president Rajnath Singh’s address to the previous National Executive meeting held in Delhi three months ago. One delegate, either an ignoramus or someone with an impish sense of humour, was approached by a reporter from a news agency for a mandatory “exclusive”. Without batting an eyelid, he presented the reporter a copy of Rajnath’s Delhi musings. The reporter couldn’t believe his luck. He imagined he had laid hands on a text of the presidential address the day before it had been delivered. Without examining the fine print, he rushed to file his “exclusive” report which was duly disseminated to all the media subscribers. Since there was not much happening that day, most of the newsrooms picked by the report for their “dak” editions.

It was purely by chance that someone, late in the evening, drew the proverbial attention of a BJP spokesman to the news agency’s preview of Rajnath’s speech. Realising the mix-up, he pressed the panic button and persuaded the agency to withdraw its unwitting misrepresentation. By then the damage had been done and most newspapers carried curtain-raisers of a speech made by the rashtriya adhyaksh three months ago!

What is remarkable about the mix-up is not that it happened but that most newsrooms accepted the report without demur. Two conclusions follow. First, that it is possible to sell the media just about any pup. Secondly, that the BJP is so template that a three-month old speech can just as easily be passed off as today’s news.

Being above mundane accountability, the media can afford to be blasé about its own shortcomings. For the BJP, however, the message is ominous: from once being associated with political innovation, improvisation and imagination, it has come to be synonymous with predictability. To put it less charitably, a large chunk of the outside world perceives the BJP as an old LP record with the needle firmly stuck in a groove.

For a party that missed being at the helm of affairs in New Delhi by a whisker a mere 28 months ago, the fall of the BJP has been precipitate. The party still leads a formidable opposition combine in Parliament and is a major stakeholder in eight state governments. With luck and a dose of anti-incumbency, it may add Uttaranchal, Punjab and even Goa, to its tally next year, thereby compensating for the possible loss of Jharkhand.

Yet, despite this large spread, the BJP conveys all the unmistakeable signs of a party that has somehow lost its way. The gung-ho over-confidence which marked the final year of the NDA Government has been replaced by an all-round dispiritedness which, in political terms, has translated into the party looking more and more inwards.

The facile explanation for this disorientation is that there is a fierce tussle between those who are described as Hindutva “hardliners” and more moderate pragmatists. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was always viewed as a moderate and L.K. Advani the hardliner. After the controversy over his Pakistan visit, Advani has been placed with the moderates and pitted against faceless apparatchiks. By a natural process of extension, the party’s confusion has also been blamed on the desire on the part of the RSS to impose its authority on the BJP. Since it is customary for conviction-based parties to withdraw into an ideological bunker in moments of adversity, the BJP too has been charged with falling back on hoary certitudes to offset the after-effects of the shock defeat in 2004.

The reality, it would seem, is a little more complex. In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 defeat, there were many—not least in the RSS and its affiliate organisations—who blamed the electoral setback on the apathy of committed voters to a government which had lost sight of emotive issues such as the construction of the Ram temple. The BJP, it was argued, had paid the price of ideological deviation. India Shining, it was held, should have been subsumed by full-throated cries of Jai Shri Ram. The country, it was implied, was all dressed up for a Hindu revolution but was betrayed by BJP leaders who spent their waking hours either feathering their own nest or attending to ministerial files.

Although most BJP leaders feigned grudging acceptance of this “betrayal” theory—both M.Venkiah Naidu and Advani acknowledged the disappointment of the karyakartas in their presidential addresses at National Council meetings—the party as a whole was loath to abandon aggregative politics for ideological grandstanding. This, despite the RSS sarsanghachalak’s perceived patronage of those hell-bent on creating a separate “Hindu” party. True, the BJP has never missed any opportunity to tom-tom its “distinctiveness”—witness its aggression on the recent Vande Mataram controversy—but, at the same time, it has made an important distinction between preaching to the converted and connecting with the wider electorate.

The failure of the protests against the arrest of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi in 2004 was an important pointer to the fact that 1990s-style “identity” politics was yielding diminishing returns in a country which is delighting in the lollipops offered by the market economy. Despite an attempt by Advani to force its hand, the party consciously steered away from involvement in the anti-quota stir last summer. And, in terms of electoral politics, the BJP has contested all the major State Assembly elections since May 2004 on issues that have not compromised its relations with NDA partners. In West Bengal, for example, it underplayed its rhetoric against Bangladeshi infiltrators to accommodate its Trinamool Congress ally.

Hindutva, Advani once told a National Executive meeting a decade ago, can best be viewed as “the ideological mascot of the BJP”. This core brand positioning is certain to persist without necessarily overwhelming the party’s marketing strategies. If there is a shift, it will be on account of a mood transformation in the country rather than the desire of activists to fall back on self-comforting certitudes. The BJP is a party that is committed to cultural nationalism—another euphemism for Hindutva—and champions Hindu interests. But, as a participant in the electoral arena, it will not confine itself to Hindu issues alone. This is a dichotomy that is inherent in the party. It is also the only way the party can be a mass-based, rainbow coalition of both Indian conservatism and the Indian Right.

The argument that the BJP is a conventional party of the Right—an Indian equivalent of, say, the Christian Democrats of Europe or the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom—is often contested by those who point to the unique role played by the RSS in its affairs. Since the RSS is, strictly speaking, not accountable to the electorate or indeed to any one but its own swayamsevaks, its influence over the BJP has been seen to be a non-democratic drag on the BJP. Over the years, many of Left and liberal persuasions have argued that the BJP will forfeit its claim to be regarded as a “normal” political party until its snaps its umbilical cord with the RSS.

The relationship between the RSS and BJP is a constantly evolving one. There is no doubt that in the aftermath of the ban imposed on it in 1948, the RSS felt the need for a political outlet for its swayamsevaks. This coincided with the attempt by former stalwarts of the Hindu Mahasabha, notably Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, to forge a nationalist, pro-Hindu alternative to the Congress. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in 1951 as an alliance of these twin imperatives. The RSS loaned foot soldiers and apparatchiks to the BJS while Dr Mookerjee brought political experience and gave the new party a public face.

With the tragic death of Dr Mookerjee in Srinagar shortly after the first general election, the balance of forces in the BJS tilted sharply towards the RSS. Although many individuals from non-RSS backgrounds—notably Devaprasad Ghose, Raghuvira and Rajmata Vijaye Raje Scindia—occupied important positions, individuals “loaned” to the BJS by the RSS played the decisive role. The role of senior RSS pracharaks such as Deendayal Upadhyaya, Kushabhau Thakre, Nanaji Deshmukh and Sundar Singh Bhandari in determining the political thrust and shaping the culture of the BJS can hardly be overstated. Most of those who played an active role in the BJS will testify that there was no day-to-day interference in the functioning of the party and this stemmed from the RSS’ complete faith in the BJS leadership.

Has the transition from the BJS to the BJP involved a shift in this relationship?

To begin with, the BJP as a political party is much larger and more politically relevant than the BJS ever was. The BJS, at best, enjoyed an equal status with the Swatantra Party and the various avatars of the Socialists in the broad anti-Congress constellation. Apart from holding power in the Delhi Metropolitan Council from 1967 to 1972, the BJS never controlled any state government on its own. The most it ever managed was to share power briefly in short-lived coalition governments. In its 25 years, the BJP has managed far more. It even gave India its first genuinely non-Congress Prime Minister. For the BJP, the stakes are much higher.

Secondly, since the Ayodhya movement, the BJP has established itself as a distinct ideological pole. It has reshaped political alignments on its own terms, though not always to its own advantage. The BJP has been phenomenally successful in redefining India’s security paradigm, challenging hitherto uncontested Nehruvian assumptions of foreign policy and offering a powerful majoritarian critique of secularism. Despite petulant charges of betraying Hindutva that is periodically levelled by purists, Vajpayee and Advani together have done more to advance the cause of Hindu nationalism than any other in recent times.

What is more, most of the creative ideas which have emerged in the past two decades centred on Hindu nationalism have arisen from the BJP and not the RSS. Looking at the internal dynamics of the Sangh parivar, the scales have tilted decisively in favour of the BJP. Even the Vishwa Hindu Parishad which at one time looked poised to enter the stage as a variant of the Christian coalition in the US has been reduced to a vocal but ineffectual rump.

The impact of this shift in the balance of power has been considerable. Till the time the NDA Government came to power at the Centre in 1998, the relationship between the RSS and BJP was managed with utmost discretion and behind closed doors. RSS stalwarts such as Bhaurao Deoras and former sarsanghachalak Rajendra Singh (Rajju Bhaiyya) developed strong personal relationships with the top echelons of the BJP and helped sort out the wrinkles in RSS-BJP ties. Even Vajpayee’s lukewarm attitude to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement wasn’t allowed to come in the way of a mature relationship between the two bodies.

In line with its philosophy that “fraternal” parivar bodies should enjoy functional autonomy, the RSS also shied away from day-to-day involvement in the affairs of the BJP. A number of chosen pracharaks would, of course, be despatched periodically to work in the political arena but they were at the same time expected to conduct themselves in accordance with the priorities of the BJP. During elections there were periodic requests from RSS units to accommodate such-and-such individual. In some cases the requests were met and in others refused, but the principle functional autonomy was never contested. Indeed, all general elections from 1989 to 1999 witnessed parivar bodies pooling their resources to help candidates of the BJP and its coalition partners.

The election of the NDA Government in 1998 introduced new complications. Unlike the Congress which had got accustomed to the exercise of political power, both the BJP and the wider Sangh parivar were new to the game. The sheer magnitude of opportunities and the scale of available patronage proved dizzying to many who had spent a lifetime outside the purview of the wider Indian establishment.

The troubles began even before the swearing-in ceremony when early-morning confabulations involving a top RSS functionary and the prime minister-designate led to Jaswant Singh being excluded from the Cabinet. Jaswant had originally been billed to assume charge as Finance Minister. Although the objections were couched in ideological terms—Jaswant was charged of being unduly partial to multinationals—it subsequently transpired that the RSS was goaded into objecting on the strength of the misgivings of a powerful corporate group.

Although the RSS had its way, its direct interference in a process that should have been the preserve of Vajpayee ensured injected a sour note into the the top BJP leadership’s relations with the so-called parent body. Many of the RSS’ functionaries in the states took Vajpayee’s needless capitulation as the signal for sustained pressure on NDA ministers. The bulk of these demands had precious little to do with the RSS’ Hindutva project; they related mainly to appointments, contracts and disbursements of government largesse. What has come to be known as the petrol pump scam was only one element of the frenzied quest for securing the material benefits of political power.

Ideally, the RSS should exercised restraint and applied moral pressure on BJP ministers to curb the greed of karyakartas. Unfortunately, once it was clear that some RSS functionaries were feathering their own nest, the less ideologically committed in the BJP joined in with gusto.

The extent to which the supposed “wishes of the Sangh” were met depended on individual BJP ministers. But the never-ending demands, couched in very self-righteous terms, undermined the RSS’ moral authority over the BJP. The image of the selfless pracharak devoting his energies to the propagation of the Sangh’s ideals was seriously compromised.

The term of the NDA actually witnessed rival flights of whimsy. Whereas those claiming to speak for the Sangh were hell-bent on what a very senior BJP leader described as “micro-management”, a euphemism for disbursement of favours to greedy karyakartas, a section of the Government, notably around the Prime Minister’s Office, was equally determined to make private likes and dislikes the criterion of political functioning. The damage both groups did to each other was incalculable.

In mid-2003, during the Jammu and Kashmir election, the RSS actively encouraged the formation of a separate Hindu party in Jammu to compete with the BJP. The new party performed miserably but soured the atmosphere sufficiently to ensure the decimation of the BJP in its traditional Jammu strongholds. It was around this time a very senior VHP leader told me that he had evidence that the Home Ministry was conspiring with the Al Qaeda to “eliminate” him. It was a preposterous charge but indicated the extent to which various wings of the parivar perceived each other as enemies.

By the time the general election was announced in early-2004 and the re-election of the NDA seemed a certainty, the political atmosphere of the once-united Hindu parivar was vitiated. The larger political project was made a hostage to competitive self-aggrandisement.

To comprehend the internecine war which erupted after the NDA lost power in May 2004, it is important to understand the breakdown in RSS-BJP relations that had already taken place earlier. It is in this context that we have to view the Sarsanghachalak K.S. Sudarshan’s contentious TV interview where he was very critical of the NDA’s record and suggested that Vajpayee and Advani had overstayed their welcome. Indeed, the backdrop of Advani’s controversial visit to Pakistan was the growing belief that the RSS, egged on by the VHP, was on the verge of blessing the formation of a new and explicitly Hindu political party.

There is a suggestion that Advani’s contentious statement at the mausoleum of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was part of a larger process of re-positioning premised on the exodus of the loony fringe from the BJP. If so, it proved a tragic miscalculation. Advani’s choice of symbols to drive home his message was seriously flawed. While his attempt to redefine RSS-BJP ties keeping in mind political realities and the experience of the NDA Government enjoyed support, there were few takers for his choice of Jinnah as the symbol of revisionism.

When he returned from Pakistan, Advani was confronted with a grassroots revolt involving the entire party. He, unfortunately, mistook a genuine sense of outrage for a RSS-inspired revolt. Slightly taken aback by the intensity of the opposition, he tried to counter it by making the issue a test of personal loyalty.

Advani’s unwillingness to either retract—he had been suggested a clever way out of the mess by distinguishing between the demands of protocol and party policy—or step down immediately had two consequences. First, his undeniable moral authority in the BJP, centred on the right blend of realpolitik and ideology, collapsed abruptly. He became increasingly bitter and, in time, reduced himself to the level of a faction leader.

For the BJP, this self-inflicted fall from grace was a great tragedy. With Vajpayee showing his age and beginning to withdraw from active involvement, Advani’s difficulties created a monumental void in the BJP. Ideally, the baton should have been transferred to the second generation of leaders who had been nurtured by the two stalwarts. However, the old guard was unwilling to permit this transition and let go the reins of authority. At the same time, the parampara of the Hindu parivar did not permit the BJP to be nasty towards venerable elders.

The second consequence of Advani’s fall was the abrupt shift in the balance of power in favour of the RSS. As the only organised grouping in the BJP with an established chain of command, the RSS felt obliged to step into the void created by the turmoil at the top. At the same time, the RSS’ involvement has not been total since it is itself in the throes of a spirited debate over exercising authority in the BJP or opting out of political involvement altogether and concentrating on its core area of “nation building”.

In the past year, the RSS has sent out very mixed signals. At one level, it was almost solely responsible for the appointment of Rajnath Singh as the successor to Advani. However, this was not been coupled by attempts to decisively dictate the BJP’s political priorities and set the agenda. It may sound strange but the RSS is preoccupied at present with organising many hundreds of events all over the country centred on the birth centenary of Guruji Golwalkar, the second Sarsanghachalak. Setting the BJP’s house in order is not its immediate priority.

The net result of this impasse is the BJP’s descent into incoherence. Although the BJP is nominally a structured party committed to collective leadership, it was either Vajpayee or Advani who set the agenda and took decisions which were subsequently endorsed by the rest. Today, there are multiple centres of decision-making in the party, a situation made possible by the unwillingness or inability of the party president to exercise his authority. The ill-fated Suraksha Yatra saw the party president being shanghaied kicking and screaming aboard a me-too rath. The misadventure was cut short by Pramod Mahajan’s tragic death.

There has been a mushrooming of unilateral decisions, many of which are at odds with each other. The party’s stand on the all-important Indo-US nuclear deal, to take one example, was decided shortly after the George Bush-Manmohan Singh meeting in July 2003, on the strength of the personal preferences of one of Vajpayee’s aides. To this date, there has been no detailed internal discussion on the subject in the party.

Likewise, Advani led the party into a series of remarkable flip-flops on the Justice Pathak report on K. Natwar Singh’s involvement in the Oil-for-Food payoffs. There was the unedifying sight of two BJP members of the Rajya Sabha—Yashwant Sinha and Shatrughan Sinha—and the Samajwadi Party’s Amar Singh cheering the discredited Congress leader as he frothed and fumed before the cameras. By the end of the parliamentary session the BJP was so utterly confused about where it stood that it connived with the Congress in preventing a debate on the subject in the Rajya Sabha.

There was also the utterly farcical controversy triggered by Jaswant Singh on the elusive American mole and the post-Kandahar champagne party. Jaswant’s book, in fact, helped the Congress divert the focus from its inability to come to grips with the terrorist threat. The monsoon session of Parliament saw the BJP bail out the UPA by incessantly shifting the limelight from the Government’s shortcoming to its own contradictions.

Two incidents drive home the growing incoherence in the BJP. In early-August, the BJP joined hands with the Government and the Left to endorse a unanimous resolution in Parliament condemning the Israeli attack on Lebanon. Within a week of this resolution, the party president announced in, of all places, Panaji that India should emulate Israel and launch pre-emptive strikes on terrorist bases in Pakistan and Bangladesh!

Four days before the BJP National Executive met at Dehradun, BJP General Secretary Arun Jaitley confessed guardedly to CNN-IBN that the BJP had squandered some of its natural anti-incumbency advantage by focussing on irrelevancies. It was clear that he was hinting at the party’s disastrous performance in Parliament. At Dehradun, Advani devoted his speech to praising the BJP’s parliamentary strategy, particularly the contribution of Yashwant Sinha, the man responsible for the Natwar fiasco.

Although the old guard remains in a state of denial and await the sudden death of the UPA Government which will give them another shy at government-formation, the disarray in the BJP is leading to growing restiveness among the party faithful. It is more than likely that all the anxieties about the party’s future will come to a head after the Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh next year.

As things stand, the BJP in the state has more or less abandoned the field with a section of the national leadership having cut a deal with the Samajwadi Party. But while it is true that Mulayam Singh Yadav may be forced into taking the BJP’s help in UP in case the verdict is inconclusive—the hoped-for quid pro quo will be the Samajwadi support for a future NDA arrangement at the Centre—the BJP has to first win a sufficient number of seats on its own for any deal to be worthwhile. Going by the present demoralisation of the state unit, it seems highly unlikely that the BJP will finish the race in a respectable third place. In private, BJP activists doubt the party’s ability to win more than 25 Assembly seats.

If the results in UP are indeed so dismal for the BJP some of the flak is certain to be drawn by Rajnath Singh. However, the party president will not be only one to have his fingers burnt. It is certain that larger questions will be raised about the lack of inspirational leadership and the party’s growing inability to connect to the new, young India whose electoral influence is increasing with every revision of the electoral rolls. These are issues which the BJP should have debated after its May 2004 defeat but which were shelved so as not to upset the increasingly fragile status-quo.

For the moment, thanks to some grandstanding by the veterans, the BJP has been able to delay the issue of leadership which is at the heart of its present crisis. But it is only a matter of time before it is forced to confront the inevitable. The restiveness on the ground augurs well for the one man who is fast emerging as the instinctive choice of BJP voters to lead the party in 2009: the leader from Gujarat.

It may well be a controversial choice. But the BJP has performed best when it has courted controversy and flaunted its distinctiveness.

(Published in Tehelka, September 23, 2006)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Mystery of Malegaon bombings (September 12, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Some of the curious reactions to last Friday’s Malegaon bombings are reminiscent of what happened in London during the blitz of 1940.

Hitler’s aerial onslaught on London began in the summer that year with sustained attacks on strategic installations. The docks were, predictably, very badly hit, as were the adjoining working class districts of the East End and South-West London. Londoners took the bombings with remarkable fortitude but there was an undercurrent of social tension because the devastation was the greatest in the lees salubrious areas. In late-August, the German Luftwaffe changed its strategy and spread out its bombing. The West End, including some grand houses in Berkeley Square and Park Lane, suffered extensive damage. On September 13, the King George VI and the Queen had a narrow escape when Buckingham Palace was bombed and one of its wings seriously damaged.

Ironically, despite personal losses, the British upper classes greeted the damage to the West End with a measure of relief. “I am glad we’ve been bombed”, the Queen confided to a friend, “Now I feel we can look the East End in the face.”

It is unquestionably cruel to subsume the suffering of those who lost friends, relatives and children in Friday’s outrage to heartless historical analogy. However, I may not be alone in detecting an extra spring in the steps of secularists, usually remarkably reticent on questions of national security, after the Malegaon tragedy. While a pro-Communist media organisation seemed determined to point an accusing finger at Hindu extremist bodies, others couldn’t help mocking those they had earlier charged with Islamophobia. “Has Malegaon redefined the fundamentals of the war on terror?” BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley was asked by a reporter with a smirk after he unveiled the party’s resolution on internal security in Dehradun last Saturday.

Malegaon is fast turning into an instrument of moral equivalence for all those who questioned the wisdom and efficacy of the post-9/11 war on terror. There is, as yet, no evidence that the devotees of Hanuman have complemented their visceral anti-Islamist bile with murderous technology—traditionally disseminated in camps located in either Afghanistan or the wrong side of the Radcliffe Line. Indeed, the reports suggest that the explosives were of “high intensity”, something beyond the ken of the Bajrangis.

Yet, on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 it is tempting to cite recklessly conspiratorial theories pertaining to the Malegaon bombings, or at least raise questions that are not prone to simple answers, to argue that there are rotten apples in all communities. The Urdu press, not known to be inhibited by Anglo-Saxon mores, has already contrasted the unwillingness of the police to blame the usual suspects for Malegaon with its prompt identification of shadowy organisations in Mumbai two months ago—a refrain that found echo on the streets of Malegaon last Sunday afternoon. For a beleaguered government torn between supine multiculturalism—which, as the writer Martin Amis recently observed “is always well represented on the level of the op-ed page“ but inaudible elsewhere—and the whisper that Malegaon was a monstrous Hindu perversion seems cautiously promising.

It is baffling why Islamist terrorists would want to target a Sunni mosque in, of all places, Malegaon on the day Indian Muslims commemorate their ancestors. Islamists are unconcerned about killing fellow Muslims—witness the bombings in Jordan, Egypt and Indonesia—but as long as it serves a larger objective. Malegaon has no larger significance, as far as anyone can make out. Therefore, assuming the bombs are the handiwork of the parallel authority in Pakistan, it follows that there is some diabolical scheme behind choosing Malegaon as the latest carnage venue.

Adding to the already present communal tension in Maharashtra and even triggering a series of riots are some of the more obvious explanations. Then there are those who suggest convoluted links between last Friday’s blasts in Mumbai and Tuesday’s judgment in the 1993 Mumbai blasts case. Finally, the speculation is rife that the Malegaon bombings are an expedient backdrop for a more sinister campaign of reprisals targeting non-Muslims.

If the Mumbai blasts are a guide, the mystery of the Malegaon bombings is unlikely to be resolved in a hurry. However, there is every danger that the haze over the incident will create sufficient red herrings to muddy the larger battle against terrorism. Malegaon has the potential of galvanising a new victimhood which diverts attention temporarily from the grim and unappetising realities of the global terror campaign.

(Published in DNA, Mumbai, September 12, 2006)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Liberal view needs to be less fanatic (September 10, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

An unintended consequence of last week’s Al Jazeera telecast of archival footage of a beatific Osama bin Laden blessing some of the 9/11 hijackers is the abrupt death of the strange theory that the attack on Manhattan’s twin towers five years ago was a carefully orchestrated Jewish plot. This grotesque mother of all conspiracy theories, disseminated with fanatical gusto over the worldwide web and from the more intellectually challenged pulpits of the Islamic world, should have been dismissed with the same outrage that greets the suggestion that Hitler’s Holocaust is Zionist fiction. Instead, in between an unending stream of Bush jokes and the assertion that the Americans always “had it coming”, the liberal intelligentsia has for five years propped up a variant of the Osama-is-innocent fairytale—the assertion that the threat of global Islamist terror is both misplaced and exaggerated.

International liberal indignation is, typically, based on grafting domestic politics to national security. For those Americans influenced by the Anything-But-Bush approach, what matters is not that there have been no terrorist attacks on mainland America for five years—no small achievement considering the determination of the jihadis—but that some associates of Osama have had their right of habeas corpus withheld in Guantanamo Bay.

The British chapter of this Manhattan disorder would have us believe that socially maladjusted Britons of Pakistani origin are inclined to stage dramatic acts of collective destruction, like blowing up underground trains and trans-Atlantic planes, because they disagree with the foreign policy of Tony Blair.

And in India, which has no physical involvement in the peace-keeping missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the suggestion is that those who plant bombs in Mumbai and Malegaon are either paratroopers from a neighbouring country with whom we must have unending sadbhavna or creatures from outer space. Terrorists, Indians are constantly being reminded by every earnest TV anchor, “don’t have any religion.” Are there, we are asked, but with diminishing frequency, any Indian members of Al Qaeda?

Abuse is heaped on the police and intelligence agencies for allegedly targeting the proverbial “members of a particular community”. The reality seems more mixed. Those who actually staged a massacre in Coimbatore, well before Bush had even won the Republican nomination, are given exceptional treatment and allowed to convert a prison into a massage parlour. In Malegaon, said to be the hub of RDX trafficking, the scene of last Friday’s bomb blast was made a no-go area for the police for five hours after the incident during which the forensic evidence may have been tampered with.

Five years after 9/11, the world looks an even more dangerous place. The accursed Taliban regime was ousted from Afghanistan—something for which India should be eternally grateful to the US since we never had the wherewithal to do anything but feign helplessness. At the same time, the Taliban influence has spread across national boundaries. It has even become respectable in some sections to flaunt posters of the Doctor No from Tora Bora in the same way as the flower children burnt joss sticks before Che Guevara.

In India, a Cabinet minister had a small-time look-alike maulvi accompany him when he sought Muslim votes. To dispel any confusion, the maulvi was called Osama. In London and elsewhere, burqa-clad women from a “particular community” marched through the streets with placards proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now”. Some months before, a joker of Bangladeshi origin had dressed up as a suicide bomber and taunted distraught passers-by.

There is, we are repeatedly told, no need to get hysterical. It is all a function of alienation and mountainous chips on the shoulder from decades of grievances—from Vande Mataram and life insurance policies to POTA and Palestine. It is all so reminiscent of that very blasphemous Monty Python farce—the pretender Brian whiling away his final hours on a crucifix-like structure singing “Always look on the bright side of life.”

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 10, 2006)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Hollow nation (Sptember 8, 2006)

India and the Baluchi nationists are natural allies

By Swapan Dasgupta

The extent to which the so-called “second War of Independence” in Baluchistan has been galvanised in the aftermath of the octogenarian Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti’s “martyrdom” on August 26 can be gleaned from three developments.

First, the three main Baluch tribes—Bugti, Mengel and Marri—have sunk their traditional differences and joined hands in what the Khan of Kalat has called a search for options to preserve the Baluch “identity and sense of belonging.” The issue, he stated ominously, “is far from getting resolved within the parameters of Pakistan’s statehood.” While Bugti’s killing has given Baluch nationalism a fillip, the separatist movement has been nurtured on long-standing grievances over the lack of local involvement in economic development and the demographic transformation of the region. The Baluch tribes have realised the strategic and economic importance of their region to the Punjabi-dominated Pakistan establishment and are determined to extract their pound of flesh.

Secondly, President Pervez Musharraf has blamed the resurgence of Baluch nationalism, after a two-decade hiatus, on the assistance and encouragement of India. The Indian consulates in Kandahar and Zahidan in Afghanistan have been identified as the source of the problem—an accusation that has acquired intensity after India publicly expressed its concern at Pakistan’s penchant for a military solution to the Baluchistan uprising.

Finally, and as a direct response to the deteriorating situation in Baluchistan, Pakistan cocked a snook at the NATO forces in Afghanistan and suspended its military operations in neighbouring Waziristan. Although the August 5 agreement committed the warlords of the region to not using Waziristan to wage war against either Pakistan or Aghanistan, it is being widely interpreted as a licence to the Taliban to confine itself to military operations against the Hamid Karzai Government in return for sanctuary in Pakistan. Musharraf, it is quite clear, wants to avoid over-extending his army in both Waziristan and Baluchistan. Since he requires the political support of the Islamists to extend his tenure as president and army chief, he would rather settle with the Taliban and be free to sort the Baluch rebels “so fast they wouldn’t know what hit them.”

Despite some comparisons with the movement for autonomy in East Pakistan which soon escalated into full-fledged movement for a separate Bangladesh in 1971, it is still premature to forecast the trajectory of Baluch nationalism. The parliamentary opposition in Pakistan has, no doubt, used the disturbances in the provinces as a stick to beat Musharraf with, but it is doubtful whether its disagreement extends to more than the strategies of containment.

Baluch nationalism finds itself confronted with very serious odds. To begin with, there is the opposition of the oil companies which are loath to be faced with any movement that threatens the exploitation of large gas reserves and the passage of pipelines that should, ideally, link Central Asia and Iran to the huge market in India. In the past, the oil companies paid significant amounts of hush-money to tribal chiefs, not least to pre-empt the possibility of a united nationalist movement, and it is likely that these moves will persist.

Moreover, China has invested heavily in the development of the Gwadar port at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, which also serves as a naval base. At present, Gwadar has docking facilities for freighters with a 30,000 ton capacity and oil tankers of up to 25,000 tons. The second phase of development, scheduled for completion in 2010, will raise the capacity for oil tankers to 200,000 and involve the creation of a free trade zone. Beijing is unlikely to acquiesce meekly in developments that threaten its toehold in this strategic region.

Neighbouring Iran too will be justifiably concerned over Baluchi nationalism spilling over and influencing its own Baluch minority. It should be remembered that when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took on Baluchi separatists with a massive show of force in 1973, he was backed all the way by the erstwhile Shah of Iran.

As things stand at present, an independent Baluchistan has few worthwhile takers internationally. The best Baluch nationalists can hope for is a measure of support from a small section of America’s strategic community that sees ethnic nationalism as a possible counter to a ummah-centric Islamist radicalism. By this logic, the whimsical colonial cartography of the early-20th century has to be undone and replaced with national boundaries which promote, in the language of Ralph Peters, writing in the Armed Forces Journal, “ethnic affinities and religious communalism—and, in some cases, both.” Assuming such a process is ever set in motion, Pakistan will be among the big losers. Thanks to the vagaries of history, Pakistan incorporates two anomalies: the Pushtun-dominated North-West Frontier Province that should rightfully have been a part of Afghanistan but for the Durand Line, and the province of Baluchistan which makes for a composite unit when merged with the Baluch-dominated provinces of neighbouring Iran.

Given that the idea of an independent Baluchistan has even less support than the demand for a Kurdistan which incorporates parts of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, what should be India’s attitude to the “second War of Independence” now troubling Islamabad? Linked to this is a broader issue: is India better served by a stable and united Pakistan?

That Indira Gandhi clearly thought otherwise was demonstrated by her readiness to fish in the troubled waters of East Pakistan after 1969. However, at Simla in 1972 she more than made up for giving the neighbour a bloody nose by being unduly magnanimous to a beleaguered Bhutto. Since then, Indian foreign policy has operated on the dubious principle that an incumbent regime is better than any uncertain alternative. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government which should have, in view of its ideological baggage, been sceptical about this approach was even more accommodating—witness Vajpayee’s remarks at Lahore’s Minar-e-Pakistan in 1999 and India’s benign neglect of the struggle in Baluchistan.

The UPA Government has hesitantly undertaken a course correction. It expressed concern over the Pakistan army’s over-reaction in Baluchistan in December 2005 and further incensed Islamabad with its carefully-worded advice to Musharraf after Bugti’s killing. It is entirely possible that India’s concern for Baluchistan stems from a desire to take a side swipe at Pakistan for its persistent “political and diplomatic” support for the Kashmiri secessionists. But does India have a larger strategic vision about Pakistan?

To be fair, Pakistan has never deviated from its larger strategic objective of wanting the eventual dismemberment of the Indian state. The principle of a “thousand cuts” approved first by Zia-ul-Haq, is aimed at ruthlessly exploiting every possible contradiction in Indian society and nurturing terrorism.

India has persisted with the idyllic, almost neo-con, view that a genuinely democratic Pakistan is the panacea for peace. Unfortunately, every democratic interregnum in Pakistan has belied Indian expectations—not because a Benazir Bhutto or a Nawaz Sharif was insincere but because of the special role of the Pakistan army and the ISI in the polity. Any enduring peace in the subcontinent has to be prefaced on the premise that these two pillars of the Pakistan establishment, now bolstered by a dose of fanatical Islamism, are no longer in a position to carry forward their destructive agenda.

The struggle in Baluchistan is significant in three ways: it hits at Pakistan’s strategic nerve centre, it proffers a localised alternative to the rampaging Wahabi Islam that threatens the civilised world and, above all, it further exposes the hollowness of Pakistani nationhood. India and the Baluchi nationalists are natural allies.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, September 8, 2006)

Living in denial (September 7, 2006)

BJP is plagued by lack of leadership

By Swapan Dasgupta

If governments and political parties in the West have been accused of becoming slaves of opinion polls, their Indian counterparts may well be charged with treating their findings with casual disdain. The two bi-annual State of the Nation polls published last month has produced broadly similar responses. The Congress, elated by the suggestion that it may well cross the 200 mark in the Lok Sabha in the event of a snap poll, has reacted with a blend of surprise and smugness. The BJP, honourable exceptions apart, has greeted the prognosis of impending electoral disaster with either disbelief or indifference. The Indian temptation of firing salvos at the messenger of bad tidings has also proved irresistible.

Cretinism apart, a reason why the polls have been by and large ignored owes a lot to the complexity of the findings. Whereas the projection of seats and the brand image index tilts towards the Congress, there appears to be grave dissatisfaction with the UPA Government’s handling of bread and butter and security-related issues. It is, for example, ominous that some 38 per cent of Hindus and 35 per cent of the electorate equate terrorism with the Muslim community.

In normal circumstances, particularly in mid-term, gut level anger at the inability of the government to contain prices and curb terrorism should have worked to the advantage of the principal opposition party. That the BJP faces the prospect of being reduced to its 1989 level in the Lok Sabha indicates that the national mood is less favourable to the Congress and UPA as it is against the BJP. The central message of the opinion polls is an indictment of a party that has muffed its role as the possible government-in-waiting.

The BJP owed its success in the late-1990s to three factors: the leadership of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the outburst of political Hindutva after the Ayodhya movement and its ability to strike strategic regional alliances. For five years, and momentary blips notwithstanding, it gave India a modicum of stability and good government. Under Vajpayee, India realised its entrepreneurial potential as never before and became a global player of consequence. Indeed, it would not be unduly gush-gush to suggest that the NDA provided India with a firm foundation on which to build a vibrant 21st century society.

It speaks volumes for the current state of the BJP that there has been no worthwhile attempt to comprehend why this political legacy has been dissipated in just 28 months. Confronted with one internal crisis after another, the BJP has gone into a state of denial. With an ageing leadership refusing steadfastly to pass the baton to another generation, the party has lurched from one bout of adventurism to another, raising issues that have been played out a decade earlier. It has made serious tactical miscalculations on the strength of either astrology or desperation to bring the government down. Confronted with tough choices of a very fundamental nature, it has left the onus of decision-making on the RSS which, by its own admission, is temperamentally unsuited to being anything more than a moral guardian.

The past 28 months has been marked by what can only be described as an onrush of unilateralism in decision-making. Right from the Jinnah controversy which led to a grassroots revolt against L.K. Advani, the BJP has paid a heavy price for putting internal democracy on hold. On issues ranging from something as crucial as Advani’s replacement as president to tactical questions involving the parliamentary party, decisions have been taken bypassing the collective leadership. The National Executive meetings have been reduced to a series of inanely predictable resolutions.

In the recent past the BJP has successfully focussed attention on its own shortcomings rather than the disabilities of the government. Consequently, its offensive has lacked the requisite sting. There was the bizarre spectacle of the national president being shanghaied aboard a suraksha yatra that neither inspired the faithful nor moved the people, and which had to be jettisoned half way. When suraksha did enter centre stage after the July 11 Mumbai blasts, the BJP chose to put the limelight on a ridiculous hunt for an elusive American mole. The recently-concluded monsoon session of Parliament was open season for the hustlers and saw the BJP flip-flopping mercilessly and conducting itself like the B team of the Samajwadi Party.

At the heart of this dysfunctional incoherence is a leadership crisis. Regardless of all the homilies about being a “structured” party that rises above personalities and individual idiosyncrasies, the BJP needs a clear chain of command as much as the Congress. In the past it has always been so and the leader, be it Vajpayee or Advani, has played a central role in channelling ideological impulses towards political mobilisation.

Skirting the leadership issue has created major distortions in the BJP. First, the ultimate authority still rests with veterans who have served the cause well in the past but who have no personal stake in the future. Second, the absence of a fresh, young public face has created a dissonance between the BJP and the below-30s who make up more than half of India’s population. Finally, the absence of an acceptable face has taken the inspirational element out of the BJP and laid bare the many ethical lapses of those associated with the party.

The BJP is sleep-walking its way to disaster. What is worse, the party knows it.

(Published in Times of India, September 7, 2006)