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)

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Baluch freedom long overdue (September 3, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Contrary to his posthumous reputation, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti, the Baluch leader who was killed by the Pakistan army on August 26 was not your archetypal freedom fighter. A strange mix of adventurer and rascal, he always sought to leverage his position as head of the Bugti tribe for private gain. During the 1973 uprising—now described by Baluch nationalists as the first War of Independence—Bugti detached himself from the Marri and Mengal tribesmen and was appointed Governor of Baluchistan. He provided a cloak of legitimacy to the brutal suppression of the revolt. Subsequently, as Baluchistan became one of Pakistan’s strategic assets, Bugti upped his demands, rallied nearly 10,000 of his tribe and joined the other tribes in the second War of Independence. Even then, it is said that oil companies paid him nearly Rs 67 crore each year to ensure he confined his war to purely military targets.

To those with memories, the Baluchistan issue may be faintly reminiscent of a problem in East Pakistan. According to an observation by a Carnegie Endowment report, “the Baluch believe that Baluchistan today is a colony of Punjab…” This is marked by resentment over the fact that despite accounting for 36 per cent of Pakistan’s gas production, Baluchistan hasn’t tasted the fruits of development. Instead, with customary arrogance, the Punjabi elite has sought to tell the fiercely independent tribesmen that they are not pucca Muslims and should, first, receive the benefits of traditional madarsa education funded by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The theological arguments were replenished in 2005 by a staggering use of military force that would be inconceivable in any democracy.

Despite the protracted insurgency, the Baluch struggle has remained a simmering footnote because the province is at the centre of a new “great game” involving China, Iran and, the oil companies. China is wary that a movement for independence will jeopardise its massive investments in the naval bases in Ormara and Gawadar. The Iranians are anxious to prevent Baluch nationalism from spilling over. And the oil companies don’t want to jeopardise energy production and future pipelines linking Baluchistan with Central Asia, Iran and India. On its part, the US has to balance its displeasure over northern Baluchistan being used as a base by the Taliban with the imperatives of securing Pakistan’s grudging cooperation in the war on terror.

Given these complications, India is on the right track by extending solidarity with the Baluch people. Although the cautiously worded statement of August 28 may well be seen as an example of tit-for-tat grandstanding against Pakistan, there are compelling reasons why India should extend “moral and diplomatic support” to the movement for an independent Baluchistan. Apart from whittling down Pakistan’s nuclear, naval and economic assets—reasons that should be compelling enough—the tribal insurrection in Baluchistan mark a significant defiance of Wahabi Islam, the ideological fountainhead of global terrorism. The champions of the ummah have attempted to negate ethnicity—they have been quite successful in Bangladesh—and Baluchistan offers an opportunity to force political Islam to follow a more conventional paradigm. The opportunity should not be missed, not least because a “friendly” Baluchistan will serve to restore India’s land link to Afghanistan and Iran.

Ideally, the role of India in the Baluchistan struggle should have been akin to its role vis-à-vis the Northern Alliance which played such a crucial role in removing the Taliban from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, a series of political misjudgements have led to New Delhi reposing inordinate faith in the territorial integrity of Pakistan. The NDA Government, for example, overruled military and intelligence advice and turned away from Baluchistan on the narrowest of commercial considerations. It is reassuring that the strategic community has taken the first tentative steps to rectify the errors.

As an autonomous area over which the writ of British India did not run, Baluchistan was a fit candidate for independence in 1947. It didn’t happen that way. But that’s no reason to shy away from this unaccomplished agenda of Partition.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, September 3, 2006)