Sunday, May 28, 2006

Why give Aamir Modi's pedestal? (May 28, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since the 1990s, celebrities and activists associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan have converted self-righteous abusiveness into a fine art. Last week, to take a random but not atypical example, the voice of writer-NBA activist Arundhati Roy was heard across the airwaves telling indulgent Americans that “There is no real democracy in India”. The grim reality of mass murders of the poor and the inspiring insurrection of the Maoists who are gaining control of district after district are not widely known because the “Indian mainstream (is) so servile” and beguiled by neo-liberal fantasies.

To be fair, Aamir Khan should not be equated with the indignant Booker Prize winner. Roy has an admirable way with words and has a definite political agenda. Aamir, on the other hand, is neither a Javed Akhtar nor is he as conceptually endowed as Roy. He is an attractive Bollywood star who has decided that it pays to combine a disarming smile with a loose public agenda. Yet, it is important to remember that Aamir cannot be equated with either a Shabana Azmi or Shatrughan Sinha—articulate representatives of the Left and Right. A man who endorses Coca Cola and simultaneously sups with Medha Patkar, a Luddite if there was one, is either remarkably versatile or just plain confused.

Maybe it is unfair to be so dismissive. What seems to drive Aamir is a profound hatred of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. As someone influenced by his environment, he is merely mirroring a fashionable demonology—so fashionable that it led to the much-despised Bush Administration denying Modi a visa to visit the US. For the fashionably bigoted—and they are particularly preponderant in the “slavish” Indian media—the programmes of the Gujarat Government like bringing water to the parched citizens of Kutch and widening the roads of congested Vadodara, reek of fascism. I have even heard a demented secularist likening the urban renewal programme of Vadodara to Hitler’s construction of the Autobahn!

When it comes to Modi, anything goes. Modi may be the Gujarati icon and the man the Indian Right awaits, but you can’t be a Modi admirer and be thin-skinned at the same time. That he defied treacherous wisdom and won Gujarat in 2002 was bad enough. The fashionable hatred for Modi has grown exponentially with his success in exposing the hollowness of the NBA campaign.

There was a time when an I-love-Modi pronouncement was an invitation for a fatwa of social ostracism. Today, the circle of Modi baiters is shrinking rapidly, and soon it will be confined to professional ambulance chasers, English TV anchors and friends of jihadis. It was revealing that when good sense compelled the Prime Minister to disregard the partisan advice of Saifuddin Soz on the rehabilitation issue, Medha Patkar’s counter-offensive was to question Modi’s secular credentials. Devoid of a worthwhile political plank, Modi’s detractors have fallen back on the resurrection of Muslim angst.

Maybe Aamir’s posturings on the “victims” of Sardar Sarovar dam and the displaced of Vadodara aren’t so evolved. In any case, they have absolutely nothing to do with Fanaa, a run-of-the-mill Bollywood film with the usual spiel about a terrorist with a golden heart. Amit Thakkar, the alleged mastermind of the unofficial ban on Fanaa in Gujarat, has every right to be outraged by Aamir’s views but to call for an apology is absolutely preposterous. Aamir’s right to be ignorant and offensive is sacrosanct, as is Thakkar’s right to not buy a ticket for Fanaa. But a “ban”, which helped Aamir gloss over a trade dispute with multiplex owners, puts the BJP in Gujarat on par with the narrow-minded regimes in Nagaland, Punjab and Goa that have banned The Da Vinci Code.

It certainly does no good to the image of the Gujarat Chief Minister. Predictably, he is being blamed for the puerile misadventures of the BJP’s youth wing. By putting Aamir on par with the Chief Minister, you are actually knocking Modi off his pedestal.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 28, 2006)


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Left, Right, Left, Right, to seventh heaven (May 27, 2006)

Economic pragmatism, cultural correction and lots of help from the opposition. That's how the CPI(M) does it again and again in West Bengal.

By Swapan Dasgupta

Winning an election, or so the conventional wisdom in India goes, is easier than securing re-election and resisting the inevitable tide of anti-incumbency. It is to the credit of the CPI(M)-led Left Front in West Bengal that they have proved otherwise—not once, not twice, but on six different occasions. On May 11, the Left Front coasted to victory for the seventh time, decimating all its opponents and finally putting to rest all the elaborate theories of “scientific” rigging. In the annals of competitive, multi-party democracy, the Comrades in West Bengal have set a political record that will be difficult to surpass.

And yet, it is undeniable that Left leaders woke on the morning of May 11 with a slight trepidation. It is not that the final outcome was in any doubt. No one, not even the most incorrigible of anti-Left optimists, seriously believed that there would be a silent, democratic upheaval. At the same time, what the redoubtable K.J. Rao described as the “freest of all free elections” in West Bengal raised some larger questions.

First, assuming that all previous elections in the state had been marred by varying degrees of adulteration, were the exit polls projections accurate? Since forecasts were based on a benchmark—in most cases the 2001 Assembly poll results—would the past distortions have a bearing on present projections? Statisticians argued that it should but no one was certain of the magnitude of the scientific rigging in the past. Barun Sengupta, the venerable editor of Bartaman, for example, put the quantum of adulteration at a 33 per cent average. Others, including the CPI(M) leadership, believed it was statistically insignificant.

Second, this was a poll conducted under strict and intrusive Election Commission supervision. A scrutiny of electoral rolls led to some 24 lakh “bogus” voters being excluded from the rolls and the inclusion of an equal number of new voters. In short, there was something like a 48 lakh turnover which, it was argued, had the potential of creating upsets in marginal constituencies.

Third, contrary to motivated Left fears that the presence of central para-military forces would frighten off voters, particularly in the villages, Bengalis braved the May sun and turned up in amazingly large numbers to vote. The average turnout touched 83 per cent, up from 78 per cent in 2004 and 75 per cent in 2001. Again, contrary to suggestions that people resented the EC’s over-bearing arrangements, there was widespread endorsement of the measures to prevent intimidation of voters in the queues, impersonation and booth capturing. The recurrent comment of voters was how happy they were to have “cast my own vote myself”—a tacit indictment of past elections. Consequently, the question uppermost in the minds of all political parties was: would such a spectacularly high and genuine turnout upset the psephological applecart? Would West Bengal witness a silent vote for change?

In hindsight, most of these concerns turned out to be completely unfounded. The Left juggernaut was unstoppable. As predicted by the opinion and exit polls, the Left Front won a seventh term in office with an increased majority, reversing the marginal decline witnessed in 1996 and 2001. Throughout the state, there was an increase in the Left Front’s popular vote. The higher turnout proved completely advantageous to the incumbent.

The results for a divided opposition were so ungratifying that the leader of the Trinamool Congress legislature party may not qualify to be recognised as the Leader of Opposition. From 61 seats in 2001, the Trinamool came down to 29 and lost seats in its strongholds of North and South 24 Parganas and Kolkata. The Congress too was badly mauled and the party failed to consolidate the gains made in in 2004 in Malda, Murshidabad and North and South Dinajpur districts. In Malda, the void left by the death of Congress stalwarts Ghani Khan Choudhury was filled by the Left.

West Bengal did witness a silent vote for change but the beneficiary of that vote was the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M). It is the paradox of the Left being able to encapsulate both continuity and change that warrants explanation. After enjoying 29 uninterrupted years of power, there was a natural anti-incumbency. How the Left managed to internalise this anti-incumbency in its own favour is the fascinating story of the mood change brought about by Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya—a man who is being lauded as the Deng Xiaobing of Indian Communism.

For a party that believes in the dictatorship of the Politburo, the CPI(M) is understandably squeamish about according pre-eminence to Bhattacharya’s role in transforming the mindset of governance. “Buddhadeb is merely continuing a process that began under Jyoti Basu” is a familiar refrain of many CPI(M) old-timers.

To a limited extent this is true. In the final years of his rule, Basu recognised that the dismantling of the license-permit-quota raj had made it untenable for the Left to blame the economic decline of West Bengal on the “step-motherly” attitude of the Centre. As states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat braced themselves to take full advantage of the new supply-side economics, West Bengal too felt the need to change its image and business environment. The surge in agricultural productivity witnessed after the land reforms of the late-1970s proved inadequate to offset the industrial decline of the state. West Bengal became the rust belt of the east and Rajiv Gandhi’s carping aside about Kolkata being a “dying city” was an unpleasant home truth that Bengalis couldn’t accept graciously. The situation was so pathetic that in 1987, the Left Front’s campaign in Kolkata focussed on two so-called achievements: the construction of a sports stadium in Salt Lake and the building of a cinema hall in the heart of the city! And 1987 was the year of the Left’s most spectacular victory: 251 out of 294 seats.

For the Left, the problem was two-fold. First, the culture of militant trade unionism, including gherao, which arose in the mid-1960s led to a massive flight of capital and proved a big deterrent to any new investment. Yet, since the empowerment of organised labour was so central to the CPI(M)’s political mission, it was difficult to persuade organisations like CITU that wider social responsibilities demanded a curb on militancy.

Second, the CPI(M) leadership was dismissive of what they saw as the trappings of modernisation. Top CPI(M) leaders like the late Promode Dasgupta and Benoy Choudhury were upright individuals who led very austere lives. They nurtured a deep antipathy to the glitzy, bright lights of capitalism which, in their view, encouraged iniquity and decadence. They neither understood nor appreciated the dynamics of modern capitalism. To them, industrialisation meant massive Soviet-style steel plants financed by the public sector.

Dasgupta, the main who firmed up the organisational walls of the CPI(M) was, for example, totally focussed on what his priorities were. In a revealing interview in 1978 to a now-defunct magazine from Calcutta, he spelt out his approach: “In bourgeois democracies the common man has no political role once he has cast his vote in the election. We are determined to give him a continuing role in rural development… If, even with the limited power at our disposal, we can accomplish certain things in the villages, we should be able to bring about a mass awakening among the rural people.”

What Dasgupta left unstated was that empowerment became synonymous with the stranglehold of the party over all institutions, including those linked to civil society. The CPI(M) has made it impossible for people to survive in the countryside without coming to an understanding with the party. The Opposition has either been forced underground or exists on the sufferance of the CPI(M) Local Committee. The CPI(M) doesn’t need to rig the polls; it operates in a opposition-free void in at least 150 of the 294 seats.

For the veterans of the CPI(M)—inspired to a very large degree by the mythology around China and Vietnam—this high-handedness is synonymous with the mobilisation of the peasantry. But peasant activism injects associated problems. As India has progressed from deprivation to surplus, the CPI(M) has chosen to don the mantle of permanent outlanders in the modern world.

It is conceivable that Basu realised that the old ways wouldn’t do but he lacked either the political commitment or the clout to force a change in the party’s way of thinking. Till the late-1990s, until the emergence of urban protest under Mamata forced a review, the CPI(M) was content to believe that their stranglehold over rural West Bengal would see them through the future.

Basu’s grudging retirement amid great fanfare triggered change. The new generation which came to the fore with Bhattacharya had not all cut their teeth in the food movement of the mid-1960s or the land grab movement during the days of the first two United Front governments. Their apprenticeship in the Communist movement coincided with the U-turn in China under Deng and the collapse of the Soviet Union. As such, they were not fired solely by the romanticism associated with the early years of the CPI(M)’s growth in West Bengal. Having tasted power uninterruptedly since 1977, they were not overwhelmed by the oppositional mindset of an earlier generation.

Yet, the process of change necessitated leadership and direction. With the advent of Bhattacharya, the Left Front began focussing on industrial and urban regeneration. For the first time after decades of neglect, there were investments to upgrade the urban infrastructure. The much-needed flyovers relieved the traffic congestion of Kolkata and the city that was known for unending power cuts suddenly lost all use for inverters and generators. Kolkata witnessed a retail and housing boom as new suburbs blessed with good civic ameneties were added to the city’s boundaries. What Chandrababu Naidu did for Hyderabad, Bhattacharya has done for Kolkata. He has not only resuscitated a dying city, he has put it back on the map of urban India. After some four decades, Kolkata has become liveable again.

The physical changes to the city were only the beginning. Bhattacharya has systematically begun the process of reversing each and every one of the outlandish changes introduced by the CPI(M) under Basu.

The rectification programme has been particularly marked in education. In the early-1980s, the Left Front removed the teaching of English as a compulsory subject in primary schools. At one stroke this measure negated the historical advantages of middle class Bengalis in the all-India employment market. Proficiency in the mother tongue was always desirable but Bangla alone could not secure jobs in a wider environment. And there were few jobs to be had within West Bengal.

Second, the Left Front under Basu had launched a vicious assault on all centres of excellence. In the name of equity, the state witnessed a spectacular levelling down programme. The worst affected were institutes such as Presidency College. Pathological control freaks, the CPI(M) began an exercise in social engineering that led to good teachers being banished to the remote interiors and mediocre teachers from the mufassil being despatched to teach the best students in the best institutes. The whole thing was a complete fiasco and contributed to an unprecedented brain drain from West Bengal. Those who could voted with their feet and simply quit the state.

Just prior to the election, Bhattacharya restored the teaching of English at the primary level and conferred autonomy on some of the better colleges in the state. It was done without too much fanfare and without too much debate. But the message went home—Bhattacharya was different and meant business.

There was a third change too. Bhattacharya tried to steer the CPI(M) away from its abrasive relationship with the upper echelons of Bengali society—remember Ashok Mitra’s infamous comment that a Communist was no bhadralok. By actively courting the intelligentsia and sports celebrities on the strength of his civility and erudition, he has projected himself as the great bhadralok consensus. This is bound to yield very rich dividends from the vast Bengali diaspora. The last leader who had attempted this was Dr B.C. Roy, chief minister from 1948 to 1963. Jyoti Basu was too abrasive and self-absorbed to worry about the non-voting classes.

Bhattacharya is fast acquiring a cult status in the state. Backed enthusiastically by a media that used to be spat upon by an earlier generation of Marxists, he has secured for the Left Front the valuable incremental vote that made the difference between a convincing win and a landslide. He has aroused dizzying expectation from a state that once knew the good life but later fell on bad times. He is perceived not as a Communist but as a moderniser—the man who can leapfrog West Bengal into the 21st century by attracting capitalist investment.

Curiously, these popular expectations have run foul of a section of the CPI(M) which is still committed to an archaic class struggle—witness CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat’s observation, immediately after the election, that “West Bengal and Kerala do not determine our national policies.”. Bhattacharya routinely pays lip service to socialism but has proclaimed his intention to work within the parameters of capitalism. In practical terms this involves three changes in the thinking of the CPI(M).

First, Bhattacharya has tacitly acknowledged the importance of profit in driving investments. Entrepreneurs, he knows, will invest in the state if they are assured of an environment conducive to healthy returns. Apart from infrastructure, this necessarily involves curbing labour militancy. In short, to succeed Bhattacharya must be able to persuade his CITU colleagues that they should temper their militancy. Second, the Chief Minister is aware that he can no longer bank on public sector investments for either industry or infrastructure. He needs both investment from both the Indonesian Salem group and the indigenous Tata Motors. In time, if Kolkata Airport is to be upgraded, he will need massive private sector participation. In short, Bhattacharya will need to counter almost everything that the CPI(M) Politburo in Delhi stands for.

The imperatives of West Bengal threaten to challenge the Politburo’s cocooned Marxism. By climbing on to the bandwagon of capitalist growth, Bhattacharya has captured the mood of restlessness in West Bengal. However, by simultaneously suggesting that the historic role of the CPI(M) is to manage capitalism efficiently and ethically, he has also bombarded the party headquarters. For a party that treats its voluminous party resolutions as gospel, Bhattacharya is guilty of revisionism, a heinous crime in the Communist lexicon. He can either fall in line with the Karats and Yechuris and retreat to the bunker or, alternatively, he can force Delhi to recognise the validity of his approach. Both processes will entail prolonged and abstruse ideological debate—a distraction the comrades love. In Kolkata, the so-called knowledgeable circles are already talking of the “Buddhists” in the party burrowing into the collected works of Karl Marx to show why the denigration of capitalism before the onset of socialism is an unfortunate Leninist distortion.

Parliamentary democracy entails two parallel but potentially conflicting responsibilities—to the electorate and to the party. Today, Bhattacharya and a section of the CPI(M) find themselves at the ideological crossroads. They have to choose between their obligation to the state and their commitment to an ideology that has been internationally discarded. It is only in Bengal that this non-issue can become a Hobson’s choice.

(Published in Tehelka, May 27, 2006)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Minority as moral majority (May 21, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In his compelling critique of majoritarianism and the impending “clash of civilisations”, Amartya Sen has argued that each individual embraces a multiplicity of identities and not merely a religious one. In short, we are all, in some way or other, a minority.

Sen’s argument has been enthusiastically endorsed by India’s politically correct community. The mere invocation of the term “minority” is enough to make them mushy and infuriatingly sanctimonious. Minority rights, we are repeatedly told, must be preserved at all costs, even if it involves making hideous compromises with the principles of equity and modernity. Last week, we had a grotesque assertion of minorityism when Information and Broadcasting Minister P.R. Das Munshi chose to obliterate the crucial distinction between accuser and judge. A clutch of people, said to be the custodians of Roman Catholicism in India, were called upon to judge the universal suitability of the celluloid version of The Da Vinci Code. It does not matter that the collective wisdom of the group was limited to issuing a faith warning. What is significant is that the Government deemed it necessary to consult and respect “minority” sentiments.

I am not going to address the issue of whether or not the Minister would have displayed similar interest had the offence been caused to people who call themselves Hindus. A privileged status for minorities has become the Great Indian Consensus. There is no outrage when a minister in the Uttar Pradesh Government sets a handsome reward for the murder of some Danish cartoonist. Nor do we turn collectively incandescent when Pope Benedict XVI presumes to lecture us on domestic legislation. When it comes to minority interests, democracy and sovereignty are deemed to be negotiable.

It has taken India’s most recent Nobel Prize winner to point out that identity should not be circumscribed by religion only. It must, he insists, be secularised. Minority rights in terms of gender, sexual preferences, aesthetics, food and dress preferences and quirky flights of whimsy must be institutionally accommodated if we are rise above mobocracy.

This is why it is odd that the widespread protests by medical and other students in professional courses against Arjun Singh’s infamous quotas hasn’t propelled politicians into defending minority rights. Let’s be quite clear, the affected students and those likely to be affected are in a woeful minority. They are the best and brightest of our youth, those who can hold their own in any internationally competitive environment. They have precious little need for either affirmative action or grace marks. They are India’s undisputed crème de la crème.

For this precise reason those who marched on the streets of Delhi on Saturday are in a miniscule minority. In theory, that should lead to a clamour among politicians to be photographed with them. Yet, for the past seven days, not one politician of consequence from any of the mainstream parties has dared to be associated with this minority movement. Manmohan Singh had breakfast on Friday with a bearded friend of the Taliban, Das Munshi hobnobbed with the Catholic clergy on Thursday and Comrade Sitaram Yechuri, after spiritedly giving the bear cartel on Dalal Street a generous leg up, rubbished all flirtations with knowledge at a Sahmat meeting on Friday. No one, not even BJP leaders who are privately in sympathy with everything the students stand for, dared to either show solidarity or at least lend them a sympathetic ear. Remember that only two MPs, and none from the Lok Sabha, mustered the courage to oppose the infamous 104th Amendment Bill.

I don’t believe this strategic abstention is occasioned by the alleged upper cabecause the students are allegedly upper caste composition of the protestors. To equate merit with genetics is grotesque and an assertion worthy of race supremacists. The real reason is a little more complex.

At the very heart of the protests against the new quotas is a frighteningly modern demand. The students are asserting their right to be treated first and foremost as Indians—overriding all class, caste and creed. That’s a majoritarian argument no respecting minority-ist will ever countenance.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 21, 2006)

Friday, May 19, 2006

Not out of the box (May 19, 2006)

The Buddhist-Marxist confrontation may well turn ugly

By Swapan Dasgupta

That the Left Front was heading for its seventh consecutive win in West Bengal was never in any doubt. The focus of the 2006 election, held under the Election Commission’s exemplary supervision, centred on the margin of victory. First, the turnout and the outcome was expected to establish the quantum of “scientific rigging” that was claimed to have been widely prevalent in past elections. Second, and more important, the results would determine the political viability of Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s bid to chart a new course for the state. If the LF performed worse than 2001, it would mean a thumbs-down for Bhattacharjee’s out-of-the-box thinking. Conversely, an improved result, particularly in the urban clusters where the Left has been slipping steadily since 1991, would be tantamount to a popular endorsement of the so-called Buddhist line.

By improving its popular vote by 2.7 per cent and increasing its seat tally by 36 in a 294 member Assembly, the Chief Minister has, for the moment, silenced sceptical colleagues who feared that flirtations with capitalism would meet the same fate as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s India Shining campaign. Disaggregated data from The Hindu-CSDS exit poll indicate that swing to the LF was as much as 11.3 per cent in the 18-25 age group and 14.2 per cent among those with a college education. Among the salariat, the swing to the LF was 17.7 per cent in the urban areas and 17.5 per cent in the rural areas. With the traditional LF vote more or less holding—the only exception was a 9.6 per cent dip in support among agricultural workers—Bhattacharjee has succeeded in forging a spectacular Bengali consensus around his policies. Those with a stake in the future of West Bengal have endorsed him enthusiastically.

Had Bhattacharjee been the leader of a normal ‘bourgeois’ party, this resounding electoral endorsement would have constituted the last word on the subject. Apart from sniper attacks from a clutch of disgruntled party men, few in the BJP, for example, have the gumption to question the radical reformism of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Modi, like Bhattacharjee, can win votes.

Unfortunately for Bhattacharjee, the CPI(M) is an abnormal party. It is a party-of-the-book and reposes primacy in Marxist theology as the way forward. For the CPI(M), winning elections is not the last word. Taking its cue from V.I. Lenin’s early-20th century prescriptions for Czarist Russia, it sees elections and parliamentary democracy as merely a means to the end—in the CPI(M)’s case a People’s Democratic Revolution. Consequently, the regeneration of West Bengal, for which the LF secured a mandate, is subordinated to a far larger, and somewhat fantasmagoric, objective.

The ability of Bhattacharjee to reconcile his reformism with the self-image of the CPI(M) is not an academic issue. In a revealing interview to Ananda Bazar Patrika last Tuesday, the Chief Minister made some pronouncements which, judged by the beliefs of the CPI(M), amount to heresy.

First, he stated bluntly that “we are not in a pre-revolutionary situation. Capitalism is unlikely to collapse now”. It is not necessary to be a rocket scientist to acknowledge the obvious. However, common sense is often at odds with the belief of old-style Communist parties that is inherently fragile and in a state of permanent crisis. Many Marxists, of course, have been unendingly predicting the “final crisis” since 1914.

In its political resolution adopted at the 18th Party Congress in 2004, the CPI(M) spoke about the “crisis in the world capitalist system and … the contradictions of world capitalism today”, adding that “Programmes of liberalisation and structural adjustment are a response to the present crisis of capitalism”. To the party ideologues, any apparent capitalist boom is “unsustainable” and the system is being artificially propped up the “increase in military expenditure” in the United States.

Second, stemming from his understanding that capitalism holds a long lease, Bhattacharjee argued that “we are surrounded on all sides by capitalism. You cannot practice socialism by insulating yourself from this environment. This was the biggest error committed by the Soviet Union.” Once again, what Bhattacharjee is saying is not unique, but those familiar with the history of the Soviet Union will realise that he is also alluding to a debate that gave ideological cover to Stalin in his triumphant battle against the Left opposition. At that time, the Trotskyists had rightly warned that “socialism in one country” would lead to hideous distortions. However, their solution—unending revolutionary turmoil throughout the world—was both ridiculous and adventurist. By echoing the absurdity of enclave socialism—as unreal as Mahatma Gandhi’s faith in the self-sufficient village economy—Bhattacharjee is tacitly casting doubts on the claims of both China and Vietnam to be regarded as socialist.

Finally, when asked whether his dream of a “new society” meant communism, Bhattacharjee was remarkably honest: “The old models won’t work. The economy can’t be bound in a political framework. We used to think that socialism can be reached through nationalisation (state sector). The Soviet experience proved us wrong and China has learnt the lesson. Here there are so many different ownership patterns—the state sector coexists with the joint sector, the cooperative sector, the private sector and even the foreign sector. Socialism is being examined in new ways. In Vietnam, they are allowing party members to turn businessmen!”

Bhattacharjee’s suggestion that the economy be spared the travails of dogmatic Marxism is fascinating and undercuts—in a welcome sort of way—the very basis of Communist politics. In lauding China’s rapid growth through multiple channels of investment, he is obviously suggesting that Communists need not be inimical to the big bourgeoisie, foreign capital and, for that matter, entrepreneurial comrades. At the same time, he is also indicating that instead of being all-pervasive, the state should confine its role to playing facilitator and creating the right investment-friendly environment. Even Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have objected to Bhattacharjee’s formulation—unlike Marxists she too abhorred inefficient state monopolies.

The CPI(M), unfortunately, thinks differently. It attributes the problems of unemployment, regional disparities and corruption in “socialist” China to “rapid growth and engagement with the global capitalist system.” What Bhattacharjee construes as China’s dynamism is perceived as the cause of its perversion by the CPI(M). And, as far as insulating the economy from politics, the CPI(M) Programme (updated in 2000) spelt out the obligation “to free the economic, political and social life of our people from the disastrous influence of imperialism and domination by the multinational companies and various agencies of international monopoly capital.” (Yawn.)

“Who reads manifestos?” the late Devi Lal used to ask. In most political parties, manifestos and resolutions are at best read by those who draft them. The CPI(M), tragically, takes its own pamphleteering too seriously—as naturally befits the chosen revolutionary ‘vanguard’. This is why Bhattacharjee may find that his innovative and inspired proposals to extricate West Bengal from its Left-made disaster may be obstructed by Communists waving the 18th Congress resolution, flaunting passages from Lenin “himself” and hurling charges of revisionism and reformism. The Buddhist-Marxist confrontation may well turn ugly.

As he enters a new term with soaring popular expectations, Bhattacharjee has two choices before him—either to press on regardless of what AKG Bhavan in Delhi thinks, or work towards a radically new party policy. The second option is cumbersome, daunting and is about as likely to happen as the RSS abandoning Akhand Bharat formally. It makes more sense for the Chief Minister to just get on with job and let Prakash Karat stew in his own certitudes.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, May 19, 2006)

Monday, May 15, 2006

Sen's crisis of identity (May 15, 2006)

Book Review by Swapan Dasgupta

Identity And Violence: The Illusion of Destiny by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, London, 2006) 215 pages. Rs 295

If, as the stand-up comic used to say, all Chinese look the same, it surely follows that billions of people must think and react the same. An absurd proposition, you may say, as absurd as the question we often get asked during travels overseas: “Do you speak Indian?”

Yet, for thousands of years, the most intelligent minds have devoted themselves to the daunting project of reducing the behavioural patterns of communities and nations to convenient shorthand. It began with intrepid travellers like Al-Beruni suggesting—with some prescience—that Hindus have no sense of history. In the age of Empire, it evolved into ethnography as adventurers and civil servants tried to stereotype unfamiliar peoples into the good, the bad and the ugly. Thus was born the image of the noble savage, the criminal tribe, the sinister Chinaman and the wily Brahmin.

In the absence of familiarity with too many individuals, the tendency to generalise was compelling. “Every native of Hindustan, I verily believe”, proclaimed Lord Cornwallis, the second Governor-General of the East India Company’s possessions in India, “is corrupt.” A hundred years later, Lord Curzon triggered a fierce controversy by telling the Calcutta University convocation that “truth took a high place in the moral codes of the West before it had been similarly honoured in the East, where craftiness and diplomatic wile have always been held in much repute.”

In terms of profundity, these insights into what constitutes the national character and identity are about as revealing as the Hungarian George Mikes’ belief that the English prefer hot water bottles to sex or Bill Bryson’s suggestion that the best way to start an argument in an English pub is to ask for directions.

Amartya Sen is repelled by the suggestion that the very complex issue of both personal and collective identity can, through a process of “extraordinary descriptive crudeness and historical innocence”, be seriously distorted. To him, there is nothing more offensive than the “solitarist” approach—the suggestion that identity is one-dimensional. “In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups—we belong to all of them… Our shared humanity gets savagely challenged when the manifold divisions in the world are unified into one allegedly dominant system of classification—in terms of religion, or community, or culture, or nation, or civilisation. The uniquely partitioned world is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse categories that shape the world in which we live.”

Translated into English and in the context of liberal academia’s post-9/11 disorientation, Sen is suggesting that terms like Islamic terrorism and “clash of civilisations” be declared haram and banished to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

Sen’s anguish is understandable. When mad men get it into their heads to assault civilisation, aesthetes tend to fall back on decency. In 1941, as Hitler was trying to bomb England into submission, George Orwell penned a memorable essay on identity and patriotism. In “England your England”, he argued that “We are a nation of flower-lovers, but also a nation of stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers, amateur carpenters, coupon-snippers, darts-players, crossword-puzzle fans. All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official…”

Just as Sen probably found George W. Bush’s over-bearing cowboy patriotism abhorrent, Orwell was perhaps put off by the loquacious bulldog patriotism of Winston Churchill, not to mention the sanctimonious Stalinism of Leftist intellectuals. He posited a more variegated Englishness than what the trumpeters of King and Country allowed for. In a similar vein, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—a film Churchill wanted to ban—tried to gently suggest that all Germans aren’t evil Nazis.

There will be few takers for the suggestion that Osama bin Laden is the personification of the entire Muslim ummah. For all the Islamophobia that has allegedly crept into the West after 9/11 and 7/7, ordinary Muslims haven’t experienced a vicious wave of retribution. On the contrary, “moderate” Muslims have been presented with more avenues for self-improvement than is strictly warranted by their strategic clout. In a frenzied bid to ensure that Samuel Huntingdon’s “clash of civilisations” doesn’t end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, Muslims are being told by the likes of Sen that any Islamic identity can’t be exclusive and has to be tempered by other overlapping identities.

The prospect of millions of Muslims suddenly realising that they have an equal identity as amateur gardeners, philatelists and culinary advisers to Bangladeshi restaurants in Britain is attractive. However, it is about as relevant as the suggestion that Hitler should have been advised there was greater percentage in embracing Mahatma Gandhi on the common plank of vegetarianism.

The important thing is not that people have different identities and different facets to their personality. What Sen’s eminently readable monograph skirts is why and under what circumstances one identity subsumes the rest. It is crass, we all know, to look at the world in black and white. But what do we do when millions decide that the religious community is all important? Educating them that preceding generations of co-religionists were devoted to mathematics and gardening is unlikely to help matters.

And talking of math, how does Sen claim that Akbar completed “his large project of legally codifying minority rights, including religious freedom for all”? “Minority rights” for 90 per cent of the population!

(Published in Businessworld, May 15, 2006)

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Against Left, for Left Front (May 14, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the more intriguing theories that were proffered in Kolkata to explain the Left Front’s conclusive seventh-term victory last Thursday, one struck me as quite prescient. “It is actually a victory of Chicago”, argued a venerable Bengali notable who has been rooting enthusiastically for Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for the past four years. The Chicago he spoke about was not some obscure allusion to Al Capone or even the Tammany Hall tradition perfected by former Mayor Daley. In intellectual circles, Chicago has long been the shorthand for the aggressive, free-market economics personified by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman—thinkers who, at various times, have influenced leaders as diverse as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and Chile’s General Pinochet.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that the Comrades in Alimuddin Street have intellectually reconciled themselves to the superiority of market forces over the state. Nor is there any reason to conclude that CPI(M) is on the verge of admitting that liberal capitalism is a more wholesome and civilised system than the brutal inefficiencies of Stalinist regimentation. Yet, there is a window of opportunity that arises from Bhattacharya’s admission a few months ago that he had to work within the parameters of a capitalist economy.

At his victory press conference in the party office, Bhattacharya allayed the fears of the faithful by proclaiming his belief in the superiority and inevitability of socialism. Fortunately, it was an exercise in abstraction and akin to the assertion that in the long run we are dead and destined to go to a heavenly paradise. As long as the CPI(M) is satisfied proclaiming the virtues of their utopia, India has no reason to either worry or object. Preoccupation with the after-life has, after all, been central to most religious thought.

For the moment, the issue before the Left Front is: what needs to be done here and now? By accepting the parameters of capitalism, Bhattacharya has done what India’s self-proclaimed Stalinists don’t usually do—admit that socialism doesn’t happen by securing political power. European socialists had discarded Soviet-style socialism from their agenda some 25 years ago when it became obvious that economics was beyond the ken of party-run bureaucracies. Today, the West Bengal Chief Minister has cautiously bowed to reality. It doesn’t matter whether or not he accepts that the virtues of the market economy is regards it as a kaliyuga inevitability; what matters is that he understands its logic and plays by its rules.

The incremental vote the Left Front secured this election was on account of Bhattacharya’s commitment to take West Bengal out of the orbit of disruption and decay. At a time when Mamata Banerjee donned the garb of the ultra-Left, Bhattacharya emerged as a voice of sanity, respectability and, above all, hope. The magnitude of the Left Front’s victory in the freest and fairest election ever witnessed in the state was on account of the new direction promised by the Chief Minister. And that new direction is not what is stated in some minimum programme agreed by all the constituents of the Left Front, but something more daring. West Bengal voted to get back to serious capitalism.

Had the people of the state been exposed only to the buffoonery of the party bosses like Biman Basu and the archaic rhetoric of leaders who mirror the sloganeering of V.S. Achyutanandan in Kerala, Comrades Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechuri would not have been strutting about Delhi so imperiously. “I do not understand what you mean by the reforms of the West Bengal government”, an irritated Karat told the media last Thursday. Ironically, two days earlier, Siddhartha Shankar Ray asked on TV: is the CPI(M) faithful to Marxism? He could well have been insisting that all Muslims practise jihad.

What’s in a name? That’s the message of Ratan Tata greeting a Red victory in Bengal with an announcement of a Rs 1,000 crore investment in manufacturing. All over India there are squirming Reds who can’t get over the paradox of the Bengal verdict: a vote against the Left, for the Left Front.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 14, 2006)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pramod and the BJP (May 7, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Secrets, and the confidentiality surrounding “off the record” conversations, can only endure for a lifetime. Last Wednesday afternoon, Pramod Mahajan passed into history leaving behind a distraught BJP which had always recognised his abilities but had only just about come to acknowledge his potential. He died just as he was making the transition from the first division to the super league. Pramod’s untimely death, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee put it so evocatively, was akin to sunset at noon.

The last lengthy conversation I had with Pramod was in early-January this year. We were guests at a small dinner hosted by the US Ambassador for Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. Having exchanged some tittle-tattle about political goings-on, I confessed to Pramod that I was a little uneasy with the BJP’s strident and shrill opposition to the proposed Indo-US nuclear agreement.

“You are not alone”, he told me with characteristic candour, “I am a little surprised too.” “Have you stated your views to the party?” I asked innocently. Pramod laughed derisively. “In our party”, he confessed, “few decisions are taken after consultations. One of the leaders makes a public statement and more often than not that ends up becoming policy. Most of us just go along.”

What Pramod told me that evening was no great revelation. Despite the quarterly meetings of the National Executive and monthly meetings of the national office-bearers, the process of collective decision-making has been seriously impaired in the BJP. Rampant individualism has coexisted with dedicated team work.

Pramod epitomised this contradiction. Entrusted with responsibility for managing the 2004 general election campaign, Pramod set about the task with methodical diligence. A great one for using technology to collate data and manage the information overload, he established a campaign office which, in terms of appearance and equipment, matched that of any presidential aspirant in the US.

There were, however, some key differences. First, the campaign centre was located, not in the BJP headquarters in Asoka Road, but in portakabins perched on the back lawns of his Safdarjung Road residence. Second, the campaign was conceptualised, planned and executed by a group of people whose relationship to the party was incidental. These included quack pollsters and lowly copywriters employed on a contract basis. Third, almost all those who had been involved in the BJP election campaigns of the past were bypassed and kept out of the loop. Nominally there was an election committee but it never met. The 2004 campaign ended up being a Pramod-run campaign rather than a BJP-run campaign. The series of disasters—from the Vision Document that became a Vajpayee photo album to the puerile SMS and phone calls—happened because those running the campaign were living in a make-believe world of their own without recourse to any feedback. It was such a fantasy world that hours before the counting, laminated charts containing projections of the conclusive NDA win were distributed to senior BJP leaders. They are priceless collector’s items.

To be fair, Pramod was large-hearted enough to own up to all the responsibility for the defeat. Lesser beings would have tried to pass the buck. But more important, the defeats in May 2004 and the Maharashtra Assembly election held three months later proved a very humbling experience for Pramod. He realised that his boundless energy and resourcefulness would have earned greater dividends had they been harnessed to the party. In short, the future lay in creating Team BJP rather than banking on Team Pramod.

Pramod was a quick learner and digested the lessons of the 2004 debacles without demur. Unfortunately, others were not so alert to the larger lessons of the defeat. Since June 2004—right from the day Vajpayee called reporters to Manali and inexplicably delivered a tirade against Narendra Modi—the BJP has been suffering from explosions of private agendas.

At a trivial level, there was the spectacle of Smriti Irani threatening to go on fast unless Modi was removed as Chief Minister of Gujarat, Madan Lal Khurana courting expulsion by flying off the handle and Shatrughan Sinha staying away from the Bihar election campaign because the party wasn’t willing to project him as its chief ministerial candidate. These were, unfortunately, more than individual misdemeanours. They flowed from the complete breakdown of decorous conduct right at the very top of the BJP hierarchy.

The “crisis” in the BJP, about which so much has been written in the wake of Pramod’s tragic murder, is not something that has arisen out of the inability of the “second generation” leaders to work harmoniously together. To my understanding, this has never been a serious problem. While there are individuals with different ambitions and divergent styles, these have not affected the integrity and coherence of Team BJP.

Pramod, who was prone to flippancy, articulated the problem inimitably. A man who liked the sound of his own initials, he didn’t mind being called PM. One afternoon, last year, someone jokingly referred to him Mr PM. “Don’t say that”, he retorted with a smirk, “I’m not yet 70!”

It was a cutting aside but it also drove home a problem that the BJP has been confronting, in an embarrassed fashion, since the 2004 defeat—the dogged resistance to superannuation. The “crisis” of leadership the BJP is said to be experiencing—and the prophets of doom have multiplied since Pramod’s death—actually boils down to the reluctance of the old guard to hand over responsibility to younger leaders. More to the point, the old guard wants to be relevant and at the centre of all decision-making. The result is that the party is confronted with contradictory pulls and pressures and suffers a problem of incoherence.

The manner in which Advani bludgeoned the party into hosting the ill-fated Bharat Suraksha Yatra is a case in point. In search of an issue that would bring him into the limelight and salvage his ideological credentials—battered after his controversial trip to Pakistan in July last year—Advani seized on the Varanasi bombings to tap Hindu disquiet. In terms of timing it was all wrong. First, there was no evidence that Hindu anger against the UPA Government’s “appeasement” of minorities had started boiling over. Second, it was announced at a time when radical Muslim opinion was firming up against the Congress for its policy of friendship with the US. Instead of waiting for this anger to fructify and actually encouraging the disarray, the BJP chose to reveal its cards prematurely. Finally, another yatra was perceived as a Pavlovian response to the BJP’s internal disarray.

The misgivings over the Bharat Suraksha Yatra were widespread within the party. You have just to see Pramod’s uncharacteristic discomfiture replying to Karan Thapar’s pointed questions to realise it. It was also no state secret that Party president Rajnath Singh had to be taken to his leg of the yatra kicking and screaming. And during the yatra, there was no central theme which was projected. The question is: why was the yatra undertaken despite these objections?

The answers are bewildering and a commentary on the BJP’s inner problems. First, since Advani had announced the yatra, after a perfunctory conversation with Rajnath, everyone was too polite to raise doubts. Second, there was no meeting of the BJP office bearers to discuss the political rationale behind the yatra. From its inception to its premature conclusion the yatra was centred on unilateralism. Even now, no one is willing to ask what political dividends the long journeys yielded for the party? Were the human energy expended and the money spent commensurate with the returns? Yet these questions haven’t been asked and nor are they going to be asked at the next National Executive meeting in Ludhiana.

The yatra is not the first occasion that important political decisions have been taken on individual flights of whimsy. The repeated boycotts of Parliament last year was thrust down the throats of a deeply reluctant parliamentary party—the uncharitable suggestion is that it was done at the behest of astrologers to trigger a crisis for the government. Likewise, Advani’s praise of Jinnah wasn’t preceded by any consultation within the party. It too was a misplaced act of unilateralism.

Pramod’s death at this juncture is a grave loss for the party. With his death the BJP has lost the services of a formidable organiser, an energetic mobiliser of resources and one of its best orators. Yet, there are people who can step into the void, even if no one is able to combine all three roles. Pramod will be missed but the BJP will not be crippled by his absence. Indeed, it would be wrong to suggest that Pramod’s absence will deepen the BJP’s crisis.

The truth is more complex. Pramod was helpless in the face of recent developments in the BJP. Like most others, he was just biding his time, waiting for the evolutionary process to run its course. Like other leaders with a future in front of them, he knew that a party like the BJP could not be run like the Congress—as a proprietary concern. Sooner or later the system of collective decision-making would prevail. It is a tragedy that Pramod will not be there to revel in the return to basics. He would have thrived as the captain of a team, not a cluster of talented individuals each doing his own thing.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 7, 2006)

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Man in a hurry (May 4, 2006)

Mahajan followed the mantra of a brash age

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the fledgling Bharatiya Janata Party, the last day of 1984 was hardly an occasion for celebration. As the results of the general election poured in, the anticipated victory for the Congress turned into an avalanche. Rajiv Gandhi not only bettered Jawaharlal Nehru’s 1957 performance but left the BJP decimated and devastated. All the party stalwarts—from Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia to Sikander Bakht—were roundly defeated and the party just about saved face by notching up two fluke victories in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. On hearing the results, K.R. Malkani, then editor of Organiser, rang L.K. Advani with a terse message: “It’s time to shut shop.”

For the BJP, dissolution was not a realistic alternative. To the committed, the BJP was more than a party dedicated to Gandhian socialism and the true legacy of Jaya Prakash Narayan. Behind the ideological gobbledegook that followed the departure from the ramshackle Janata Party in 1980 over the “dual membership” issue, the faithful perceived the BJP as both a mission and a movement. It would need something truly catastrophic—the saffron equivalent of the collapse of the Berlin Wall—for the party to undertake voluntary retirement.

Vajpayee, who was then BJP president, was no great ideologue. In a somewhat despondent interview to India Today immediately after the results, he reposed his faith in the creeping anti-incumbency that would invariably follow the dizzying expectations from the new Gandhi. Yet, by way of a footnote, he added that the BJP needn’t be disheartened. There were capable, young leaders who would assure the future of the party. Vajpayee identified two of them: Arun Jaitley, an up-and-coming Delhi lawyer who had graduated from student politics, and Pramod Mahajan, one of the candidates from Bombay who had impressed everyone with his oratory and organising skills.

Some 21 years later, Vajpayee, now the Bheeshmapitamaha of the BJP, must be chuckling over his ability to almost anticipate the future—he failed to factor in the post-2002 Narendra Modi. Jaitley, apart from evolving into one of India’s most successful lawyers, is regarded by many as the most acceptable face of the Indian Right—upright, modern and devoid of those angularities associated with ideological parties. A natural coalition-builder, he is the patrician face of the BJP. And then there is Mahajan—the man anointed by Vajpayee as Lakshman—now battling for life in a Mumbai hospital.

The son of a humble Brahmin school-teacher in Maharashtra, Mahajan was a man never quite at ease with the languid ways of the parivar. He was always in a hurry. In early-2004, after L.K. Advani abruptly announced his decision to undertake his Bharat Uday Yatra, in pursuance of the India Shining campaign, it was left to Mahajan to do all the bandobast. A vehicle, with all the necessary embellishments, had to be made ready in less than a week. The evening before the souped-up Swaraj Mazda was to be despatched to Kanyakumari, in time for the inauguration, Mahajan arrived at the workshop. He didn’t like what he saw and demanded a complete overhaul. The hapless contractor pleaded for more time. “Nothing doing”, snapped Mahajan, “It must be completed by the morning.” Then, turning to a party functionary, he barked: “They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. I say Rome was built in a day.”

Mahajan exuded the frontier spirit of India’s market capitalism. He epitomised the spirit of Mumbai, the city that moulded him and which he made his karmabhoomi. To him, politics was more akin to a one-day cricket match—lots of entertainment, oodles of improvisation and a broad but flexible strategy. It was the mantra of a brash age, impatient to make up for the wasted years of socialism—and Mahajan was its personification. “There are just too many problems”, he once told a closed-door chintan meeting of the parivar, “whose solutions haven’t been addressed by ideology.”

Mahajan was ruthlessly impatient of long-winded deliberations that went on interminably without yielding an outcome. The niceties of political decision-making weren’t his cup of tea. Put in charge of the BJP’s general election campaign in 2004—an election whose outcome was thought to be a foregone conclusion—Mahajan bypassed all the established party structures. Operating from a row of well-equipped portakabins in the back lawns of his Safdarjung Road residence, he left the campaign to a few of his hand-picked managers. With money available by the bucketful, Pramod’s boys conjured up a fun campaign—lots of stars and starlets, SMS messages and recorded telephone calls with Vajpayee’s voice. As an exercise in event management, it caught the public eye.

Tragically, it lacked one essential component—content. In being preoccupied with the form, Pramod’s boys lost sight of the message. So, for that matter, did Mahajan. He convinced himself that a resurgent India would translate its aspirational lifestyle into a vote for the BJP. He forgot that most Indians don’t like seeing their politicians giving interviews while running on a treadmill. Mahajan wasn’t a hypocrite but as another of BJP’s many “political Hindus”, he didn’t gauge the ingrained importance of double standards in the Hindu way of thinking.

All in all it proved a very costly mistake and seriously undermined Mahajan’s reputation of being a permanent winner. The resulting backlash in the party also eroded a key plank of the Mahajan philosophy—the importance of pragmatism and expediency over ideology. When Advani fell victim to his own indiscretions over Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Mahajan’s claim to be primus inter pares in the second generation was brushed aside.

Yet, the irony is that Mahajan was no political innocent. Journalists on the BJP beat will testify that when it came to objective, dispassionate assessments, Mahajan was unsurpassable. In many ways, he both understood and anticipated the paradigm shift brought about by the market economy. Unfortunately, he failed to convey this political understanding with sufficient gravitas. A natural flippancy—remember the tasteless aside equating Sonia Gandhi with Monica Lewinsky—and some unwholesome associations brought him into needless disrepute. Mahajan was often his own worst enemy.

Mahajan has often been compared to S.K. Patil and Rajni Patel—both formidable fund-raisers for the Congress in a different era. The comparison holds only partially—in terms of an ability to earn the confidence of the nation’s moneybags. But there was a crucial difference. Fund-collectors were almost always backroom operators; they rarely aspired to the very top of the political hierarchy.

Mahajan always believed that in any democratic, inner-party election not involving either Vajpayee or Advani, he would prevail easily. Over the years, he collected an enormous number of IOUs at the grassroots. From ensuring a livelihood to humble party workers to giving a little bit extra to potentially winning candidates in elections, Mahajan created an elaborate network for both himself and the party. He knew how to earn fierce loyalty. On the negative side, he was intolerant of those who identified with others of the second generation. Mahajan had loyal friends but he also created fierce enemies. Uma Bharti is just one who spoke out.

That he was resourceful was well accepted. Outside BJP circles, few were aware of the extent to which he had put his resourcefulness to optimum advantage. If he and the doctors are able to fight off the damage caused by the three bullets, Mahajan’s pre-eminence in a future BJP is almost assured. The media attention and the outpouring of concern witnessed at the Hinduja Hospital have convinced the RSS to brass that maybe they did him a grave injustice. They were in a mood to make amends.

It was too late. For Mahajan it was always now or never.

(Published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, May 4, 2006)