Friday, December 25, 2009

Turkey in translation (December 25, 2009)

Christmas acquires an entirely new meaning in the Orient

By Swapan Dasgupta

The growing traffic mess in Delhi — courtesy, it is said, the preparations for next year’s Commonwealth Games — may be infuriating to the man in a hurry, but it has provided fresh employment opportunities. It may be a sign of the capital’s growing prosperity that beggars (they double up as propitiators of Shani Maharaj on Saturdays) have been vastly outnumbered by an army of itinerant hawkers selling everything from mobile-phone chargers, magazines and pirated paperbacks to boxes of tissues. Last week, the magazine sellers appear to have switched tack and moved on to something extremely seasonal: red-and-white floppy Christmas hats and somewhat frightening masks of a very pink-faced Santa Claus.

Indians are very partial to celebrations of any description. Yet, the transformation of Christmas into a middle-class celebration in a new city whose connections with the raj are at best tenuous has surprised me. Even the ‘natives’ of Calcutta, a city created and nurtured by the last set of imperial rulers, took a long time to warm up to this seemingly alien tradition. As a child in the Sixties, I was always struck by the fact that most of my relatives and, for that matter, our ‘Hindustani’ drivers, never referred to Christmas: it was always burra din. Worse, childish implorations to gawk at the lights on Park Street and visit the makeshift shops selling Christmas decorations in the central circle of New Market were invariably translated as the expedition to the ‘shaheb para’ (sahib quarter). For the Bengali bhadralok, still nurturing a visceral distaste for the rulers who never acknowledged their erudition, burra din was synonymous with shaheb para — although I did witness the incongruity of the Ganguram shop in Gariahat market wishing its customers Merry Xmas.

It is one of the oddities of history that Christmas became an indispensable part of the ‘season’ only after the Union Jack had been permanently lowered. The boisterous Christmas parties at Firpo’s, Princes and the clubs that attracted the beautiful Indians of the 1950s and 1960s were a post-Independence phenomenon. For the burra sahibs of the raj in government, the boxwallas in Clive Street, the Anglo-Indian community around Free School Street and the handful of ‘native’ Christians, Christmas had a loose religious significance — the Church of England rarely went beyond acknowledging that god was a good chap. But its transformation into a secular bacchanalia had to await a time when race relations were on a more even keel.

It is not that the British in India never tried to spread the tidings of happiness to the other side of the bridge. In Curries and Bugles, a delightful cookbook of the raj, Jennifer Brennan, a daughter of the Regiment, recalled that both British and Indian children were invited to a party hosted in the Karachi garrison but with mixed results: “[The] high point of the party was always the arrival of Father Christmas. Sometimes he rode in on a camel, sometimes grandly on an elephant… Many of the Indian children didn’t know who he was but the English kids would rush up and surround him, dragging their nannies and ayahs behind them. I remember one time the red-clad figure with the white woolly beard called out ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ in a stentorian bass voice and a little Indian boy beside me burst into tears. He thought the figure was a demon.”

I was narrated the flip side of this cultural mismatch in London in the mid-1990s. An Indian banker was given the responsibility of being Santa Claus in an office party of a conservative financial institution in the City of London. One of his jobs involved plucking out a gift from his sack, calling out the name of a child and presenting it to him with the mandatory ‘Ho! Ho! Ho!’ It all went smoothly till he plucked out a present for a Scottish lad called Hamish. “Hamish!” he called out, pronouncing his name as a variant of the Indian name, Harish. There was no response. “Hamish!” he bellowed again. Again there was silence. The awkwardness was broken when he heard a mother whispering to a bewildered child, “Hamish, I think he means you.”

This year a well-known politician is negating the idea of Christmas as a family occasion and hosting a lunch for 200 of his “close friends” on Christmas Day. He is neither calling it a Christmas lunch (or even the politically correct “holiday lunch”) nor does he plan to serve cold cuts and the obligatory pasta; he is partial to Amritsari kulcha and many versions of chhola bhatura. But this politician friend is a wonderful aberration — he once nibbled at a lavish French dinner hosted by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and then feasted on daal-subzi at the Indian ambassador’s residence. To the discerning Indian, Christmas is a celebration of Western culture — its cuisine, including mince pies and Christmas pudding, its music, its made-in-Germany Englishness and its theology. The indigenization of Christmas may have taken place in evangelical outposts, but it may take the capture of the Vatican by Kerala before it becomes conventional wisdom.

What is even more striking is that this celebration of Occidental Christendom doesn’t follow a script. Once upon a time, while entertaining local Britons, Indian notables tried a bit too hard to provide “English fare” to their guests. The results were often as comic as the old Colonel’s suggestion of a spoonful of jam as an antidote to an over-spiced curry. In Dekho! The India That Was, Elizabeth Wilkin recollected a disastrous culinary experiment by an Indian: “The soup was too peppery, the fish too salty. A none-too-tender peacock, which the cook had failed to stuff, was served with a jar of strawberry jam which did proxy for the absent cranberry sauce…and an iced pudding which had refused to freeze made its watery appearance before a final indigestible savoury. Had our hospitable host but realised how much more we would have welcomed a good hot Indian curry, he would have spared himself trouble and us a very painful experience.”

Western civilization, which the Mahatma impishly thought was a good idea, lies in the eyes of the beholder. The old burra khana of the regimental mess tends to often get lost in translation or, perhaps, even acquire an entirely new meaning. So it is with Christmas in India—both for Christians and others.

Some years before the 1857 explosion, the dispossessed Nana Saheb invited some East India Company officials to dinner in Cawnpore. Its disdainful description by a guest is instructive: “I sat down to a table which was covered with a damask tablecloth of European manufacture, but instead of a dinner napkin there was a bedroom towel. The soup was served up in a trifle dish…I ladled it with a broken tea cup…The pudding was brought in upon a sup plate…The cool claret I drank out of a richly cut champagne glass, and the beer out of an American tumbler of the very worst quality.”

The sneers of the Company officials drove Nana Saheb into rebellion. Some 150 years later, his syncretic tableware would probably have been celebrated as an example of aesthetic audacity, if not multiculturalism. On Christmas Eve, I plan to tuck into New Zealand lamb, washed down with agreeable claret and the choral chants of the New College Choir. On Christmas day, it will be Amritsari kulcha and tandoori chicken. If only I could add the 3 pm Queen’s speech and a silly hat, my burra din would be truly gratifying.

The Telegraph, December 25, 2009


Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate Change: India needs to be fearless (December 20, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week there was a flutter over an advert put up by a famous ice cream brand. A promo at its first Indian outlet proclaimed that access was "restricted only to holders of international passports." Predictably, people read "international passports" as code for 'foreigners only'.

A significant feature of the controversy was the sharply contrasting responses. If there was all-round outrage in blogosphere, it was offset by the attempt of many advertising professionals to insist it was a needless fuss. Indians, it was suggested by some pundits on TV, were, as usual, being hyper and the advertiser could at best be accused of clumsy prose.

The inept bid to distinguish between passport-holders and natives may have come a cropper, with the company issuing grudging words of regret. Yet, this little storm indicated the growing importance of a pre-existing national malaise: The desire to appear 'reasonable' to the foreigner.

In the bad old days of socialism and shortages when India led a proverbial "ship to mouth" existence, the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Krishna Menon practised an inverse snobbery centred on preachiness and prickliness — recall their pious sermons belittling "colonial attitudes" and "imperialism". The two, cast in the mould of upper-class English radicals, were particularly repelled by brash and insular Americans who imagined they owned the world. This revulsion was reflected in India's foreign policy, its anti-capitalist rhetoric and a culture of spurious austerity, which, naturally, never cramped the style of those who determined the public good.

Unlike China, where the disdain for "foreign devils" was indiscriminate, India's socialist xenophobia held some foreigners to be more equal than others. The India chapter of Vasili Mitrokhin's selections from the secret KGB archives in Moscow reveal the incredible extent to which decision-making in Indira Gandhi's India was manipulated and subverted. The lure of the socialist bloc was so compelling that the KGB even had to confront the problem of over-supply: There were just too many cabinet ministers willing to sing its tune for a holiday on the Black Sea.
Ideally, India's slow realization of its own potential should have led to a more even-handed approach to the world. Tragically, the ability to prosper in a globalized world has produced its own distortions. The standoffishness of the Nehruvian era was based on a perverse celebration of the daridra narayan principle. It was always unviable in an age of entrepreneurship. It had to go. But it's been replaced by an unwarranted degree of cravenness that involves putting national sensitivities and, at times, national interests, on the negotiating table.

In principle, there is some merit in allowing expediency to subsume taste. It never made sense and still doesn't make sense to let an aesthetic rejection of the American way of life dictate foreign policy. Over the centuries — thanks in no small measure to the colonial encounter — India and the West have acquired a familiarity, which can be leveraged for mutual gain now that India is on the cusp of an economic breakthrough. However, the extent to which a previously unequal relationship can be upturned for a more balanced approach depends on the ability to not be taken for granted.

China has turned this into a fine art. Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to be unflinching in upholding what it regards as its national interests and honour. This has included the ability to respond to perceived slights and transgressions over Tibet, Taiwan and text books with characteristic Middle Kingdom arrogance. China has leveraged its huge domestic market, its labour productivity and its awesome trade surplus to redefine its standing in the world. The West doesn't want to muck about with China. In India, unfortunately, an ice cream vendor can make apartheid a marketing gimmick and a pen manufacturer can merchandise Mahatma Gandhi.

India has sold itself too cheaply. It is said that one meeting with President Sarkozy before reaching Copenhagen persuaded the Ethiopian prime minister to scale down the developing nations' demand for $400 billion of Climate Change financing to a mere $100 billion. We don't know what meeting or which persuasive arguments propelled Jairam Ramesh to say one thing to Parliament and another thing outside. We can only speculate over the meaning of a White House note patting Barack Obama on the back for persuading India to quantify its emission cuts. And we can ask whether "flexibility" involves laying all your cards on the table knowing there is always pressure to concede more in the final round of bidding.

India appears to have been overwhelmed by a fear of being a "deal-breaker". But unless a country has the self-confidence to bare its fangs judiciously, it will never be a "deal-maker." 

Sunday Times, December 20, 2009

To succeed, the BJP must look to the future (December 20, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

On Saturday evening, the Breaking News brigade had to take a difficult and unenviable call: Either to prioritise the shenanigans at the Copenhagen conference on climate change or the scripted finale of a melodrama that began with the BJP’s defeat on May 16. Most channels ended up doing a balancing act that left no one entirely happy. The bleeding hearts lamented the casual treatment of a conference ostensibly aimed at saving the planet from ecological disaster. The desi political animal on the other hand thought it unworthy that air time should be expended on a useless jamboree that interested only the jholawallah minusculity. Far better, they believed, to concentrate on the drama in India’s main Opposition party.

It is not my business to ascertain who was right. Sitting in TV studios that evening, what struck me was the remarkable similarities between the frenzied search of a declaration in Copenhagen and the quest for a political settlement in the BJP. True, the climate change conference produced more drama because the end-game was capsuled into 10 days of hyper-activity. By contrast, the BJP drama has stretched for nearly seven months but there have been no unseemly though colourful street protests to celebrate the confusion. Compared to the Copenhagen bacchanalia, the BJP drama was as sedate as a 1960s love duet in a Hindi film.

And yet, there were marked similarities in the end-games. In Copenhagen, the outcome was a face-saving, non-enforceable declaration that didn’t even satisfy the signatories. The West didn’t succeed in getting the developing countries, but particularly China, India, Brazil and South Africa (the so-called BASIC group), to agree on international monitoring of its carbon emissions. The developing countries didn’t get the generous compensation package from a recession-hit West. And the clowns outside the conference venue were left convinced that the end of the world was imminent.

It was a similar situation in the BJP. The RSS was forced to accept the principle of an honourable exit route for LK Advani. The post of chairman which was given to the veteran leader fits uneasily into any organisational chart. If he plays his cards well, Advani could emerge as the primary moral authority in the BJP, almost rivaling the ideological ombudsmen in Nagpur. The belief entertained by those adept in the art of remote control, that Advani would retire and devote his energies reading books, watching cricket and enjoying Hindi films, have been dashed. The inventor of the modern rath yatra has publicly said that he is still in the game of politics, although he carefully avoided any mention of the Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kwan Yew precedent. In recent years, the management of the BJP has certainly come to resemble a dyarchy; Saturday’s agreement formalised it.

If the “politicians” in the BJP scored a modest success by ensuring Advani’s exceptional status, they failed to establish the inviolability of the principle that ‘the BJP should be run by the BJP’. It is no great secret that Nitin Gadkari, like his predecessor Rajnath Singh, has been appointed by the Sangh and the “politicians” have merely endorsed a decision taken elsewhere. But unlike the transition in 2005 which was based on tacit understanding, the latest arrangement is based on the bizarre separation between ‘politics’ and ‘organisation’. The BJP will control its own politics but the RSS (through its full-time pracharaks) will run the organisation. Whether this curious separation — reminiscent, in a strange sort of way, of the separation between ‘mass struggles’ and parliamentary interventions in the Communist parties — will work or become the recipe for incoherence is something that bears close monitoring.

The affable and well-liked Gadkari has his work cut out for him. His ability to be an effective president will depend on his success in bridging this divide. The new president will be conscious that he owes his appointment to the RSS, not to speak of Mohanrao Bhagwat’s public veto of the so-called ‘Dilli 4’, but he has to realise that his appointing authority is increasingly being perceived as a self-serving faction in the BJP. The manipulative conduct of the ongoing organisational elections has left a bitter taste in many mouths and it will take an exemplary show of fairness by the new president to restore confidence in the BJP’s political processes. If Gadkari is seen to be controlled by a cabal of pracharaks, it will lessen his effectiveness and in due course lead to desertions from the party. If the impression gains ground that RSS membership is a prerequisite to a meaningful political career in the BJP, the party will lose its appeal as the principal opposition to the Congress.

Like Copenhagen, it has all boiled down to a simple question of how to save the world. The RSS believes that the BJP has strayed from its mission and has lost sight of its core beliefs. The RSS wants to focus on identity issues and conduct campaigns to uphold Indian heritage. The pragmatists in the BJP feel that India has changed in the past two decades and that a national campaign to save the cow and the village — the scarcely noticed Gau-Gram Yatra — leave a new generation bewildered rather than moved. They want to focus on bread-and-butter themes and want the party to make a special bid to connect with a new generation that is more cosmopolitan, more culturally adaptive and more impatient to get on in the world than their parents or grandparents were. They want to focus on contemporary issues and leave religiosity to the sadhus and sants. In short, the tussle is over the very identity of the BJP in the 21st century: A party preoccupied with the past or a party looking to the future.

As of today, the BJP is dangerously close to merely occupying the historical space.

Sunday Pioneer, December 20, 2009

Saturday, December 12, 2009

India’s position on climate subverted (December 13, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
At the risk of sounding a complete killjoy, I feel there is a compelling case for making serious international conferences joker-free zones. The images of the Copenhagen conference on climate change illustrate the point. At one level, there are fractious, but nevertheless serious, deliberations involving sovereign nations and multilateral bodies. There are also non-official specialists, think-tanks and the media who are observing and reporting the proceedings. And finally, there are those who have landed up in Copenhagen for the sole purpose of providing diversionary photo-ops and making a spectacle of themselves.

It is tragic that some Indians — whose sojourn in Copenhagen must have been paid for by someone — have joined the carnival. One newspaper reported on Saturday that some of these visitors have joined exhibitionists who have stripped to their underwear to demand that the world be saved. There was also a report of a kisan who barged into a meeting and spoke eloquently in Hindi about the need for rich countries to subsidise agricultural research in poorer countries including, presumably, India.

This is precisely the type of sloganeering that detracts from the main purpose of the Copenhagen conference. More to the point, such apparently well-meaning kisans actually play the part of agent provocateurs. Why, for one moment, should taxpayers in the European Union or the US subsidise agricultural research in India unless, of course, they perceive a benefit for themselves? There is nothing called a free lunch any longer. Going to town with imaginary Third World grievances and guilt-tripping exercises end up hardening stands in a West that is unsure about how to deal with its own economic recession. Such idiotic demands actually serve to bolster the credibility of those who believe that the Copenhagen conference is aimed at punishing hard-working souls in Alaska and Texas and rewarding the corrupt in Zimbabwe and even India.

It is important to recognise that aid has become a term of abuse in the West. There is a growing body of over-taxed individuals, particularly in the EU, who believe that it is preposterous to transfer resources to fast-growing economies such as China and India because the Kyoto Protocol established the principle of non-reciprocity in tackling climate change. In an article in the Washington Post last week where she pressed on President Barack Obama to stay well away from Copenhagen, Republican poster girl Sarah Palin argued that “any potential benefits of proposed emission policies are far outweighed by their economic costs” for the US. She highlighted the apparent iniquity between Obama’s proposed carbon emission cuts and proposals in Copenhagen that allow India and China to actually increase their emissions. Since any US action has to be endorsed by the Senate and will confront grassroots fears of more economic dislocation, Palin’s outburst shouldn’t be viewed as merely the hunting call of those out to slaughter polar bears.

The principle of historical responsibility on which the non-reciprocity of the Kyoto Protocol is partly based is increasingly coming under attack by a West which is fearful of its long-term decline in the 21st century. American negotiator Todd D Stern told the New York Times “I completely reject the notion of a debt or reparations…For most of the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution, people were blissfully ignorant of the fact that emissions caused a greenhouse effect.”

Stern is right that those who created gas-guzzlers and turned the Earth into a less agreeable place were ignorant of the consequences of their action. But that is also true of tobacco companies who didn’t know that smoking causes cancer. It is also true that the manufacturer of thalidomide didn’t know that the drug would result in deformed babies. Yet the courts have made such companies pay hefty compensation for their miscalculations.

What is being attempted in Copenhagen is the complete negation of the architecture of Kyoto. But it doesn’t stop at that. The Danish draft, which was praised by the White House, establishes two classes of world citizens: Those from rich countries who can emit 2.67 tonnes of carbon per head and those from less fortunate places who will be allowed 1.44 tonnes. And yet, our very own Jairam Ramesh chose to ridicule India’s stand that the ‘per capita principle’ is fair and just.

For the past two years the West has stepped up its lobbying in countries such as India to overturn Kyoto and replace it with a new so-called level playing field that institutionalises the historical advantage enjoyed by it. The climate change business is only tangentially about saving the planet and preventing the island states from going under the sea. It is primarily about the emerging balance of power in the world.

For the West, the stakes are very high because it is attempting to reverse a larger process of economic decline. This is why there’s been a concerted bid to subvert India’s negotiating strategy and paint the national interest as obstructionist. A clutch of NGOs and individuals, many funded by the West, have sprung up to rubbish the national consensus and press for “flexibility”.

There is no persuasive evidence to show that India’s Environment Minister wasn’t a part of the subversion. He has attempted to shift our negotiating position through quiet subterfuge. Every move of his has been cheered by those who make no secret of their distaste for the Kyoto model. Indeed, had it not been for an alert Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the West would have been celebrating its success in getting India to be more “realistic”.
Ramesh has not been alone. It is scarcely possible that he could have got away with his wilful inconsistencies had he not enjoyed high political backing. This is why India’s attention must not be derailed by populist tomfoolery in Copenhagen. Our future is being negotiated by slippery politicians and we need to be alert.

Sunday Pioneer, December 13, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Beyond the old books (December 11, 2009)

Modern India and the discourse of faith

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the few quirky sidelights of the parliamentary debates on the maverick report by Justice M.S. Liberhan on the events in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, was the speech by the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Rajnath Singh. Opening for his side in the Lok Sabha, the MP for Ghaziabad, Singh was predictably outraged that the report had named the legendary Devraha Baba as one of the 68 persons culpable of spreading communal disharmony 17 years ago.

As someone with roots in eastern Uttar Pradesh, the BJP president’s indignation was warranted. It was known that the Baba died in June 1990, well before kar sevaks turned the 16th-century shrine into rubble. To that extent, his inclusion in the commission’s rogue’s gallery was a travesty. Equally needless and unsubstantiated was the commission’s observation (para 69.22) that Devraha Baba issued “open threats by exhorting…dacoits to take to arms for Ram temple”.

A fierce reverence for Devraha Baba was among the few points of convergence between the BJP and the Samajwadi Party in a debate that was otherwise polarized on familiar lines. The Baba, who commanded a wide following and was regarded as a living deity, was a legend in his long lifetime. According to his devotees, the Baba, who was normally perched on either an elevated platform or a tree and blessed his devotees by touching his foot to their head, had supernatural yogic powers and was 250 years old at the time of his death.

Regardless of his exact longevity, celebrities flocked to secure his blessings. As Rajnath informed Parliament, President Rajendra Prasad, accompanied by the Uttar Pradesh governor K.M. Munshi, chief minister Sampurnanand, Lal Bahadur Shastri and C.B. Gupta, conducted a puja of the Devraha Baba during Kumbh Mela. Indira Gandhi too met the Baba and was said to be a devotee. Before beginning his election campaign in Faizabad on November 6, 1989, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, accompanied by the home minister Buta Singh, UP chief minister N.D. Tiwari and K.Natwar Singh, spent 40 minutes with the Baba, a move presumably linked to his bid to gazump the BJP.

Having established the bipartisan appeal of the Hindu seer, Rajnath went one step further. He made the astonishing claim, on the strength of “old books”, that “King George V went for darshan of Devraha Baba in 1911”.

Whether the King-Emperor departed from his dreary routine of being showered with expensive gifts by the Indian princes and attending grand dinners to confer a Royal Charter on a holy man who, in 1911, was either 170 years old or a mere child, hasn’t been documented in detail. The “old books” that Rajnath alluded to must contain details that historians have been unwise to ignore for so long. Regardless of the veracity or otherwise of George V’s darshan of Devraha Baba, Rajnath’s injection of this unknown and somewhat questionable factoid points to a larger malaise of a section of the BJP: the patent inability to blend the discourse of faith into a modern idiom.

To the BJP president who, by common consensus, had a limited target audience of his speechwriters and his “appointing authority”, a euphemism for the bigwigs of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, there was nothing unnatural in embellishing the documentation of the Devraha Baba’s spiritual and Hindu credentials with his transnational appeal — the paradoxical nationalist quest for foreign certification. To a less committed audience, it was further evidence of an inability to distinguish between legitimate history, conspiracy theory, mythology, bazaar gossip and plain banality.

This became somewhat more pronounced during his bid to debunk Liberhan’s suggestion that the mobilization for the kar seva was contrived and achieved through money-power and the misuse of state resources. What others would have substantiated by casually citing the election results of 1991, which elevated the BJP from a fringe player to the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Rajnath tried to do with a foreigner’s certificate. In his speech, he went on to claim that in November 1990, BBC Radio had claimed that popular participation in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was greater than that witnessed in the 1942 Quit India movement.

The claim, despite its inherent heresy, wasn’t incredible. L.K. Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra of September-October 1990 drew spectacular crowds and certainly redefined Indian politics. It is entirely possible that the numbers of those who turned up to chant Mandir wahin banayenge were greater than those who took part in Mahatma Gandhi’s least successful movement in 1942. Yet, the belief that the mass appeal of the Ayodhya movement could be demonstrated by invoking a BBC programme was laughable. It was reminiscent of an earlier age when village tea-shops were abuzz with titillating news allegedly originating from the BBC. All of us who covered elections in the pre-TV age recall being told by local pundits that BBC had forecast a victory for such-and-such candidate. In rural India, BBC was often the shorthand for the bush telegraph — in an age when the official media lacked all credibility. For Rajnath to invoke the same BBC is very revealing. It is also a bit incongruous in the context of his declamation against the “colonial mindset” of the report.

Equally, Rajnath was quite unfazed and bereft of any squeamishness when he approvingly referred to “genetic engineering”, a term suspiciously reminiscent of eugenics, and to DNA tests to argue that the genetic pool of India differed from that of Central Asia. This sudden burst of science was aimed at demonstrating that Babur, a Chagtai Turk, had nothing in common, at least genetically, with local Muslims who were converts from either the Hindu or Buddhist faith.

Ever since Nazi Germany used race and physical anthropology to perpetrate some of the worst crimes against humanity, the invocation of race and genetics in history and the social sciences have been viewed with considerable suspicion. These sensibilities were absent from Rajnath’s speechwriters, who are still bound in a ghettoized world of like-minded individuals. Their detachment from a new India that has become cosmopolitan and more Western was marked. They have become a caricature of the celluloid Borat from Kazakhstan whose pathological aversion to Jews and unfamiliarity with the social mores of America made him both funny and unacceptable.

The Liberhan report presented the BJP a handy escape route from the embarrassment of a misadventure 17 years ago. The shoddiness of the findings, its blunders and howlers and the absurdity of its recommendations made it difficult for even the ‘secular’ parties to use the report as a weapon of self-righteousness. The BJP just needed to ridicule the commission’s clumsiness, indicate its lack of even-handedness and hone in on Liberhan’s record of freeloading to get over an event best left to history to judge. L.K. Advani wisely chose to stay out of the firing line; and Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley in the Rajya Sabha did effective demolition jobs of Liberhan without simultaneously provoking a secularist backlash. The two politicians blacklisted by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, discreetly signalled to the country that 17 years and two generations separated the past from the present.

Rajnath’s certitudes appealed to the fanatically faithful, but seemed comic to those for whom the Ayodhya years are a hazy memory. He showed quite conclusively why any BJP that chooses to be bound in ghettoized Hindutva will invariably hit road bumps in 21st-century India. Unwittingly, he also demonstrated why another BJP with a more contemporary idiom has a future as the rallying point of anti-Congressism.

The Telegraph, December 11, 2009

Was Rao a winner or loser? Let history decide (December 6, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In Alan Bennett's celebrated play 'Forty Years On', there is an amusing but poignant scene centred on the trial of Neville Chamberlain by the 'Court of History'. This court, the presiding judge informs the disoriented accused, is "not a 'Court of Justice'. We judge solely by appearances, and i don't like yours." In a court where the presentation of evidence follows the sentencing, Chamberlain is held guilty for his failure to recognise that Hitler was a "patent scallywag". He is handed out a two-word sentence: "Perpetual ignominy".

There may be unintended similarities between the procedural quirkiness of Bennett's 'Court of Justice', particularly its decision to ''judge solely by appearances'', and the lack of rigour that marked Justice M S Liberhan's pronouncements on the demolition in Ayodhya 17 years ago. Quite predictably, and not least because he converted a three-month contract into a 17 year pension, Liberhan has been mercilessly pilloried and ridiculed by both the political class and the media. What should have been the definitive post-mortem report of an event that left India both shaken and stirred, ended up resembling the shoddy dissertation of a plodder in a C-grade university.

The disservice that Liberhan has done to the standing of the judiciary is incalculable. But equally galling has been his role in disfiguring the public perception of the past. Since a great deal of the Liberhan report is clouded in sweeping generalisations, inconsistencies, factual inaccuracies, purple prose and plain howlers, the inclination to rubbish everything in the 1,000-page offering has proved irresistible to the political and editorial classes.

The prime collateral casualty of the rubbishing of Liberhan report has been former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. Whether out of a sense of gratitude to the man who facilitated a most agreeable superannuation or a desire to not displease the Congress Party, Liberhan was excessively understanding of Rao's compulsions and whitewashed his role with embarrassing cravenness -- a generosity he didn't extend to the other side.

Understandably, this partiality has provoked a backlash. In a fortnight of public debate, the role of Rao has been put under a partisan scanner. He has been painted either as a blundering fool who preferred his afternoon siesta to matters of state or a closet communalist who worked in tandem with the RSS. Even the Congress, which he served with great distinction, has been hesitant to come to his defence. Rahul Gandhi's facile observation that the Babri Masjid would have been intact had a Gandhi been at the helm has become the new correctness.

The transformation of Rao into a latter-day Chamberlain does a grave injustice to someone who, until the 1996 election, was seen as both a visionary and an amoral Chanakya. Interestingly, this was the case even after the demolition when the chattering classes went ballistic over the "perfidy" of the RSS and BJP. When, contrary to the triumphalism of its campaign -- "aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh" -- the BJP was defeated in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh in the 1993 assembly elections, Rao was hailed as the man who rolled back the tide of Hindutva.

The Congress also celebrated Rao's astonishing ability to quietly secure a majority for a government that had been sworn in as a fragile minority government in 1991. Today, the bribery of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs by the ruling party is viewed as an inglorious chapter in India's parliamentary democracy. At that time, Rao was feted for his political management, just as Manmohan Singh was in 2008 after winning the Trust vote in equally controversial circumstances. Politicians love winners and, until the 1996 debacle, Rao was seen as a winner.

There are obvious pitfalls in viewing the past through the prism of the present. Just as Chamberlain returned from Munich as a folk hero for averting a war few people wanted, Rao frustrated the BJP by denying it the privilege of a frontal conflict against "pseudo-secularism". The extent to which Rao exasperated his opponents by, first, opening up avenues of middle-class enrichment through economic liberalisation, and, subsequently, opening independent lines of communication with Hindu sadhus involved in the temple agitation, has not been sufficiently appreciated. Rao calculated that his "soft Hindutva" would undermine BJP designs of emerging as the sole custodian of Hindu interests, keep the Congress in the political game and somehow reduce the emotional polarisation. It was a high-risk strategy that was undone because a section of the VHP understood his game and wilfully jumped the gun on December 6.

Rao miscalculated the dangers of brinkmanship. But what if he had succeeded? Wouldn't the 'Court of History' have honoured him as a great prime minister who had the courage to take India along a different, non-Nehruvian trajectory?


Sunday Times of India, December 6, 2009

Ayodhya still a festering sore (December 6, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan may not have fulfilled the brief that was given to him by the PV Narasimha Rao Government way back in December 1992: To unearth the real story of what happened on December 6, 1992, and why. In finally submitting his report after an excruciating delay, he has, however, fleetingly focussed political attention on the act of demolition. This year’s commemoration of December 6 will be a little more spirited than has been seen for a long time. Without the Liberhan report, an anniversary which stood in real danger of being forgotten amid the hurly-burly of the present stands the chance of a momentary revival.

For many politicians who saw the mandir-masjid controversy as an irritating diversion from a brand of politics they were more familiar with, the focus on the act of demolition isn’t unwelcome. Despite the VHP’s bravado, most middle-of-the-road Indians, particularly those for whom the demolition wasn’t a lived experience, are disinclined to view the complete negation of the rule of law as something to be celebrated. The passions of 17 years ago have given way to more sober reflection and a changed environment.

Such a mood may not repair the tattered reputation of Liberhan but it isn’t going to secure brownie points for the BJP either. Today, the mood is decidedly inimical to sectarian posturing; even righting the wrongs of history isn’t seen an issue worthy of immediate action. In the parliamentary debates on the subject, it would be in the BJP’s interest to focus on the omissions and commissions of Liberhan, rather than engage in furious chest beating over the divinity and omnipresence of Ram.
Tactically, it is not a good idea for any political party to take pot shots at the judiciary. It is doubly hazardous for the BJP. First, it has to live down its inability to live up to the commitments it gave the Supreme Court 17 years ago. Second, it is unwise to target an institution that is still hearing the case of the disputed property in Ayodhya.

What is tactically imprudent for the BJP is one thing. What is of larger public interest is the fact that a suit which was filed in 1951, which was subsequently resurrected, bunched together and promised a speedy verdict, is still hanging fire. On April 26, 1955, the Allahabad High Court observed that “it is very desirable that a suit of this kind is decided as soon as possible and it is regretted that it has remained undecided for four years.”

It is pertinent to point out a 58-year delay in settling a property suit because of the persistence with which many unthinking politicians parrot the “let the courts decide” mantra. In appearance, the question of who owns the land on which the ‘disputed structure’ once stood is a property dispute. In actual fact, the judiciary appears remarkably disinclined to treat it as such.

In 1993, the Supreme Court said a flat “no thank you” to the Centre’s plea to determine whether or not a Hindu temple predated the Babri Masjid at the disputed site. However, in upholding the Centre’s acquisition of the disputed property and adjoining areas, it also approvingly referred to the Privy Council judgement on the Shahidganj Gurdwara case in Lahore. It negated the principle of “once a mosque, always a mosque” and, in effect, gave the Hindu litigants a post-dated cheque. The question is: When can this cheque be presented to a bank and when will it be honoured?

These are difficult questions to answer. For all practical purposes, Ram Janmasthan has seen uninterrupted worship of a Ram idol since 1949. Despite all the security bandobast and the Government’s obvious reluctance to encourage too many worshippers, the makeshift Ram temple built by kar sevaks on the evening of December 6, 1992 is functioning.

There are many Hindus who are unperturbed by the fact that a grand Ram temple hasn’t been built yet. Taking a long view, 60 years of inappropriate roofing doesn’t disturb the equilibrium of the sanatan dharma. The community can wait another 60 or even 160 years without demur.

Yet, there is a more pressing issue. It is clear that a favourable verdict alone will not guarantee a Ram temple and not by humiliating another community. Past experience suggest that some court verdicts are impossible to implement without a wider political sanction. Will such a sanction be easily forthcoming, given today’s balance of forces?

Probably not. It may have been a different story had the NDA won re-election in 2004 and had LK Advani used his good offices in North Block to arrive at a negotiated settlement. To be fair Advani did try very hard and even roped in venerated religious figures (including the Shankaracharya of Kanchi and the Dalai Lama) to give a helping hand. There was also the unpublicised participation of Muslim religious figures in the talks.

For the past five years the Congress-led government at the Centre has abdicated this role. Its political calculation is that Ayodhya can well fester and that it makes more sense to focus on regaining lost Muslim support. It is not that the Congress will ever try to implement Rao’s knee-jerk promise 17 years ago to “re-build what has been destroyed.” Even the Muslim community knows that is impossible. What is possible, however, is the political will to quietly chip away in the direction of a settlement that has the larger effect of burying the ghosts of history once and for all.

To resolve Ayodhya when passions are running high on both sides is an impossibility. To broach the issue when the country has accepted other priorities would be prudent. But that requires courage, a willingness to take risks and accept failures. All these are in short supply. This is why Ayodhya will remain a festering sore.

Sunday Pioneer, December 6, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Is there a Right space in Indian politics? (December 5, 2009)

Or, have the BJP’s successive electoral setbacks dashed hopes forever? Swapan Dasgupta searches for answers

Sir Julian Critchley, who served as a Conservative MP through the tenure of five British Prime Ministers without achieving anything remotely memorable, once narrated an incident in what used to be the Smoking Room of the House of Commons. Relaxing with a book after, presumably, a leisurely lunch, he was spotted by a party venerable. “Young man”, said the grandee sternly, “it does not do to appear clever: advancement in this man’s party is due entirely to alcoholic stupidity.”

    For a long time, and this was certainly the case till Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher forged the “counter-establishment”, the Right was equated with stupidity. The Conservative Party, which governed Britain through most of the 20th century, was, for example, treated as the Stupid Party by the intelligentsia. Conservatives were seen as mindless defenders of privilege, unthinking status quo-ists—in short, caricatured versions of Monty Python’s Upper Class Twits. Conservative women were likewise dismissed as tweedy, giggly Sloane Rangers who cared more about their horses and Labradors than public life.

    The image of anti-intellectualism—such a contrast to the earnest, liberated, Left Bank intellectuals who dominated the Left—was, ironically, something the Right revelled in. Echoing (quite unwittingly) George Orwell’s observations on Englishness, Lord Hailsham, a man who occupied some of the highest posts in government, once wrote that “Conservatives do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life, the simplest among them prefer fox hunting—the wisest, religion.” No wonder London’s Mayor Boris Johnson is such a darling of Tory party conferences. Despite his formidable scholastic achievements, Johnson has wilfully cultivated an endearing flippancy that distinguishes him from earnest busybodies.

    As someone whose political attitudes originated, not in Harrow but further south, down the Finchley Road, in trendy Hampstead, Jawaharlal Nehru mirrored this frightful image of the Right. Transposed into the dust bowls of Hindustan, the Right meant the over-dressed occupants of the Chamber of Princes, it meant arrogant Brahminism, it meant compador capitalists lusting after knighthoods and it meant indolent zamindars and taluqdars who spent their countless leisure hours frolicking with nautch girls and impressing the local district magistrate. To Nehru, the Indian Right was invariably prefaced with another loaded term: reactionary.

    Unlike the Left which could boast 57 varieties of doctrinaire nlightenment, the Right has always defied coherent definition. There were the Tories in the Anglo-Saxon mould that brought together land and industry in a framework of common sense; there were the Fascists who combined their loathing of the Reds with fearful xenophobia and authoritarianism; and, finally, there was what the philosopher Roger Scruton described as “a natural instinct in the unthinking man—to accept and endorse through his actions the institutions and practices into which he is born.” To add to this mixed bag, there emerged, after the outbreak of the Cold War, the economic Right which deified free enterprise, individualism and minimal government interference.

    In the India of Nehru and his daughter, India had its share of all these different tendencies. The feudal spirit, marked by deference and noblesse oblige, outlived the abolition of zamindari and uneven land reforms; Hindu resistance to the secularisation of society and the pampering of minorities flowered in small towns, among the dispossessed from Pakistan and followers of Veer Savarkar and Guru Golwalkar; and Nehru’s drive to enlarge government and the public sector to the detriment of private initiative encountered pockets of resistance from the notables of another era.
    Politically, the Right occupied fringe status. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was driven by the RSS but embraced other representatives of the cultural Right including the likes of Raghu Vira and R.C. Majumdar. It was ambivalent in its opposition to Nehruvian economics but was unambiguous in its pro-Hindi, anti-cow slaughter and anti-Pakistan thrust.

    On its part, the Swatantra Party, founded by C.Rajagopalachari, was more akin to a traditional Conservative Party. It was unequivocal in its denunciation of Nehru “prosperophobia” and espousal of free enterprise. Its ranks included the glamorous Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, farmer’s leader N.G. Ranga, former ICS officials such as the legendary V.P. Menon and pillars of industry like Sir Homi Modi. Its fellow-travellers included constitutional lawyer Nani Palkhivala.

    The Indian Right got a fillip in 1969 when the Congress split. The breakaway Congress(O), derisively dubbed the Syndicate, trained its guns on Indira Gandhi’s authoritarianism and her marked pro-Soviet tilt but, in essence, it encapsulated the urges of earlier pragmatists such as Sardar Vallabbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad who had been thwarted by Nehru. In alliance with the Jan Sangh and Swatantra, the Congress(O) forged the Grand Alliance to take on Indira.

    The enterprise proved an unmitigated disaster. Indira was able to paint the Grand Alliance as a front for the princes, the capitalists and Hindu communalists—hence the injection of “vested interests” into the political vocabulary. Her promise to eradicate poverty won the day handsomely.

    The 1971 defeat was a body blow to the very idea of an Indian Right opposed to socialism. State-sponsored development and curbs on the private sector became the basis of a new political consensus. Even the Janata Party, made up of the earlier Grand Alliance plus a clutch of additional defectors from the Congress ranks, didn’t dare depart from this path when it won the referendum on the Emergency in 1977. In the three years it was in power, it persisted with Indira’s regressive populism.

    The failure of the Indian Right in the 1970s owed to a multitude of factors. First, at the international level, socialism appeared as the idea of the future. The defeat of American power in Vietnam and Cambodia and the youth rebellion in the West rendered any critique of the Left singularly unattractive. Indeed, the debate now centred on which particular variety of socialism was most appealing. Secondly, the association of the Right with the defenders of archaic rights of the erstwhile maharajas, the opponents of nationalisation and discredited political bosses stood in sharp contrast to the youth power Indira unleashed. Finally, state-sponsored development and the continuous expansion of the public sector created a constituency of new beneficiaries and aroused expectations of more populist lollipops. Indira’s aggressive socialist evangelism transformed the mindset of a very large chunk of the electorate. A tradition of individual and community initiative was subsumed by a culture of entitlements: the state gave and the people received. For those with enterprise, cronyism was the only way forward. The creative impulses of India were channelled in what Dhirubhai Ambani used to describe as “managing the environment.”

    There were two pockets of resistance to this assault on India’s self-respect. The beneficiaries of the Green Revolution, usually farmers belonging to intermediate castes, couldn’t reconcile themselves to the Congress’s patronage of those on the margins of society. They formed the backbone of opposition to the Congress in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. Secondly, the trading community rued the overdose of bureaucratic controls and shortages. Since this section already constituted the social base of Hindu nationalism, an economic grievance was complemented by exasperation with ‘secular’ politics. The early-1980s witnessed an epidemic of communal riots in the small towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These in turn fuelled the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party as the leading party of the Indian Right. This time, and unlike the post-1967 phase, the opposition was not centred on economics. Cultural and religious symbols constituted the new Left-Right faultlines.

    The long road to the demolition of the “disputed structure” in Ayodhya established the BJP as the primary party of the Indian Right. However, although the battle against the Nehruvian consensus was fought over religio-cultural symbols, the conflict had a strong economic underpinning.

    By the time India entered the 1990s, the socialist experiment had visibly faltered. The economy was stagnant and unable to counter crippling shortages and deprivation. The labyrinthine maze of controls and regulations became an instrument of rampant corruption and by the time the Chandra Shekhar government sent out an SOS to the IMF, India seemed precariously close to becoming another failed state.

Internationally too the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union punctured illusions of a socialist utopia. India was faced with an existential dilemma and the Ayodhya movement encapsulated a growing anger and frustration with a bankrupt order. The Hindu rage was also a revolt against socialism.

    The course correction undertaken by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao and his finance minister Manmohan Singh proved too late to save the Congress from electoral rout in 1996. Yet, the liberalisation of the economy undercut the steady drift to extreme religious polarisation. The BJP didn’t junk Hindutva but it complemented it with a market-friendly agenda that ended the sluggish Hindu rate of development. In a span of some 15 years India witnessed a capsuled surge in economic growth, a feat unmatched in at least three centuries. The dismantling of the iniquitous license-permit-quota raj and a hesitant acceptance of globalisation produced newer opportunities and enlarged the mental horizon of the middle classes. With the breakdown of the joint family system and the atomisation of urban society, many of the older assumptions governing politics started disappearing.

    For the Indian Right, this transformation was momentous. Unlike the 1950s and 1960s when the material base for the emergence of a non-statist model was lacking, 21st century has established the primacy of the private sector. High interest rates and punitive rates of personal taxation which deterred entrepreneurship under socialism are no longer viable in a country where the quest is for rapid growth and better standards of living.

    Unfortunately, following two successive election defeats, the BJP has been engulfed by an unwarranted insularity. Rather than re-fashioning the party to take advantage of spectacular opportunities, it has abdicated the modernist agenda and fallen back on sectarian certitudes. Rather than allow pragmatic politics to determine its future course, the party has been hijacked by a small cabal whose understanding of contemporary realities is remarkably feeble. Any RSS takeover of the BJP is bad news for the Indian Right.

    There is an emerging space for the Indian Right centred on the promotion of decentralisation, accountability, transparency, fiscal responsibility, sustainable development, responsible environmentalism, gender equity, consumer rights and an overall culture of efficiency. The Congress has reinvented its paternalism in the guise of welfare—a wasteful endeavour that may drag India into a needless fiscal crisis; it has expanded the bureaucracy without making it more accountable and efficient; and it has lauded modernity without embracing meritocracy. The Congress has prospered electorally by preying on the sectarian vote banks which have viewed the Right as the proverbial Nasty Party.

    The Indian Right has allowed the battle to be fought on terms set by the Congress. It must now redefine its political priorities to avail of an ever-expanding political space. The Swatantra Party failed because it was ahead of the times; the BJP may falter if it doesn’t move into the 21st century.

Times of India, The Crest Edition, December 5, 2009


Crest, December 5, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rising from the rubble? (November 28, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

AFTER DECEMBER 6, 1992, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP overnight became the Indian media’s Enemy Number One. This was not on account of the Fourth Estate arrogating to itself the role of a custodian of India’s multicultural inheritance but because frenzied kar sevaks, irked by what they perceived was the media’s onesided coverage of the dispute in Ayodhya, chose to beat up photographers (remember this took place before the invasion of the TV crews) carrying out their professional duties. The relationship between the media and saffron outfits turned so sour that when the police unleashed water cannons on BJP demonstrators who tried to violate a ban on a scheduled rally on Delhi’s Boat Club Lawns in February 1993, a gaggle of journalists actually cheered and muttered ‘serves you right’.

The wheel, it would seem, has turned full circle some 17 years later. In hindsight, the Sangh Parivar, particularly the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has reason to be extremely grateful to the media for getting it out of a pickle over the long-delayed Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri structure.

The government had planned to table the Liberhan report in Parliament around December 22, the penultimate day of the winter session. It rightly calculated that the ensuing fuss would make it impossible for Parliament to function and, therefore, it would be more prudent to minimise the time lost in disruption. The plan to defer the tabling of the report till the very end of the session was also premised on the belief that it would make it possible to announce some tough measures in the Action Taken Report.

These calculations went awry on the morning of November 23 when the Indian Express “leaked” the broad findings of the Liberhan report. This disclosure, quite predictably, created a storm in the House over the ethics of bypassing Parliament. But even before the disruption was complete, NDTV announced that it now possessed a copy of the report. To prove its authenticity, the channel even broadcast actual passages from the report.

The government’s hand was forced. With the PM in the US, it could not afford a political explosion that exposed sectarian fissures

For any government, keeping a high-profile report of a commission of inquiry is an occupational hazard. The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Jain Commission report on Rajiv Gandhi’s murder had witnessed media leaks which had derailed government calculations and led to unintended consequences. The media “leak” of what Home Minister P Chidambaram described as the “purported” Liberhan report had a similar effect. First, it focussed parliamentary discussion on the apparent breach of privilege, a procedural issue that diverted attention from the report itself. Secondly, it gave the BJP and the RSS sufficient time to prepare a response to what they always knew would be a strong indictment of their conduct in Ayodhya 17 years ago. The “leak” took away the surprise element from a report that had been too long in the making.

Finally, and this was probably the biggest jolt to the government, the “leak” enabled the media to paint the report in a way it wanted rather than how the government hoped for. In the normal course, a 1,000-page report would have been accompanied by an executive summary that would package the report in a way the government thought was politically prudent. What happened instead was that the surprise inclusion of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the list of 68 people “culpable” of spreading communal disharmony and the not-so-surprising exoneration of the PV Narasimha Rao-led government at the Centre became the talking points of the debate. In determining the political packaging of Liberhan’s reflections, the government had no hand.

The extent to which the enterprise of the media came to the rescue of the RSS is incalculable. The Liberhan report was a devastating indictment of the entire Sangh Parivar. It claimed the demolition was a meticulously planned criminal conspiracy involving the entire saffron family, including “pseudo-moderates” such as Vajpayee. It suggested that the BJP was merely a front organisation for the RSS — shades of KN Govindacharya’s infamous description of Vajpayee as a mukhauta (mask). Worse, it maintained that the civil administration of the states where the BJP was in power was suborned by the RSS.


Digging up the past Kar Sevaks performing the foundation-laying ceremony in 1989





It is immaterial that many of Liberhan’s conclusions were in the nature of assertions, not backed by empirical evidence. At times the report read like a pamphlet rather than the pronouncements of a judicial officer. What matters is that Liberhan had prepared the ground for any government to go beyond criminal action against those of the 68 still living. After 17 years of deliberation, Liberhan offered the government the ammunition for an outright ban on the RSS, if not the BJP.

At this point it is unlikely that the government would have exercised this draconian option. A commission of inquiry isn’t a judicial body and its pronouncements have no statutory significance. Any legal action against the RSS would have had to be a considered political decision and based on today’s ground realities. Any ban based on the perceived criminality of the organisation 17 years ago wouldn’t have been sufficiently persuasive, particularly as it was bound to be perceived as an attempt to cripple the BJP.

Few in the BJP — a section of which had forewarning of Liberhan’s dim view of the men in khaki shorts — seriously expected the government to ban the RSS. However, they didn’t anticipate harsh strictures against LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi either. What they did expect was that the government would extract every ounce of propaganda mileage from the report and paint the whole movement in the darkest of colours. This wouldn’t matter to the committed but many in the BJP feared the fallout of the Liberhan report on a generation whose perception of the party had been discoloured by the Gujarat riots of 2002.

There is no evidence to suggest that the RSS leadership had a similar appreciation of the possible complications the Liberhan report would create for it. It had been alerted to the possible ominous implications of the Liberhan report but it didn’t gauge its significance. Living in a cloistered world and more or less dependant on information volunteered by fellow swayamsevaks, it was too caught in the headiness of its new role as the overlord of the BJP to worry about extraneous developments. Having spent the past three weeks planning its takeover of the BJP, it was inclined to see politics through a narrow prism. It was merely concerned that the Liberhan report would resume the focus on Advani, revive his political importance and derail the planned removal of the Leader of Opposition.

THIS MAY explain why the initial RSS response to the Liberhan “leak” verged on the absurd. A section of the RSS that deals with the BJP came to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that the media was acting at the behest of those in the BJP who are uneasy with the RSS’ intrusive ways. Their suspicions were directed at what they perceived was the Advani camp in the BJP. Throughout the evening of November 23 and the morning of the next day, there were calls to journalists by an individual attached to the party president suggesting that the leak had been managed by Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley with some help from fellow-lawyer P Chidambaram. The suggestion was so bizarre that no one cared to grace even the gossip columns with it. But it did indicate that the RSS faction was completely at sea and unable to cobble together a coherent response. After an initial appearance on TV last Monday morning by RSS spokesman Ram Madhav — when he echoed the larger opposition concern over the violation of parliamentary privilege — the RSS disappeared from public view for a full 24 hours till it was known that the government was content with a feeble ATR.

It was a different story in the BJP. Although caught by surprise by the timing of the “leak” — which was conspiratorially attributed by the less informed to the government’s desire to break opposition unity over sugarcane pricing and the indulgence shown towards the alleged corruption of former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda — it honed in on the two things that would become its main weapons of aggressive defensiveness.


Charioteer Advani helped the BJP ride to power on the Ram mandir plank
Photo: AP










The first, quite understandably, was the issue of the leak itself. Thanks to a casual line in the Indian Express report citing a Home Ministry source, some BJP members targeted Chidambaram. It is interesting that Jaitley, whose connections with the higher echelons of the media makes his BJP colleagues envious, chose to point an accusing finger at the Commission.

The second theme of the BJP counter-attack centered on the harsh observations against former prime minister Vajpayee. That Vajpayee had serious misgivings over the BJP’s direct involvement in the temple agitation and was perhaps the only senior BJP leader to express regret over the demolition was well known. Also in the public domain was the knowledge that Vajpayee had done his utmost to keep the RSS from interfering in the running of his government. That such a leader was, in effect, described as a stooge of the RSS and pilloried for vitiating the atmosphere in the country was clearly unexpected.

Anupam Gupta, the estranged counsel for the Commission, has claimed that Vajpayee’s name was cleverly introduced by Liberhan to dilute the strictures against Advani. The veracity of his charge is still unproven but the fact that Vajpayee was excused from appearing before him by Liberhan, despite pleas by some organisations, made the appearance of his name even more bewildering. It, however, gave the BJP the big opening to use Vajpayee as a shield against the grave charges levelled against it. The assault on the reputation of the ailing veteran, who commands the respect of the entire political class, became the instrument to discredit the report as a whole. Certainly, his presence in the list of 68 culpable individuals was a factor in the government deciding that the Liberhan report didn’t warrant any serious follow through.

THE GOVERNMENT, it must be added, had to respond to the leak by tabling the actual report well before schedule. With the Prime Minister in the midst of an important state visit to the US, the last thing it wanted was a political explosion that would expose the sectarian fissures in India and undermine the country’s claim of being different from its turbulent neighbours. It was the pressure of the occasion that made the government settle for a line of least offence. For this the BJP and RSS must thank an enterprising media.

Next month, when the Liberhan report becomes the subject of a detailed discussion in Parliament, the BJP is likely to offer its version of the politics of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It will revisit the archaeological evidence of Hindu temples that preceded the construction of Mir Baqi’s mosque in 1528; it will re-emphasise the inordinate delay in the judicial process that so exasperated the Hindu nationalists and fuelled the demand for direct action; and it will contrast Liberhan’s harshness towards the Sangh Parivar with his astonishing generosity towards previous Congress governments. Yet, there is certain to be one aspect of the Liberhan report that is calculated to put it on the defensive: the charge that it is not a political party but a front organisation of an unaccountable RSS.

If the demolition forced the return of the liberals, then the belated anguish over a broken shrine may delay an RSS takeover

In the context of the ongoing sound and fury over the BJP’s takeover by the RSS and the alleged selection of the next party president by RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat — who had also named those ineligible for the post — this twinning acquires some relevance. There are many in the BJP who are extremely uneasy over the growing tyranny of the unelected — as one BJP MP described it in private. After the Liberhan report they are equally disturbed by the larger political costs of being perceived as a poodle of the RSS. In Parliament, the BJP can successfully forge a semblance of Oppposition unity, including with the Left and Samajwadi Party, but these gains are offset the moment the RSS enters the equation.



Too little too late Liberhan hands over the report to the PM as Chidambaram looks on
Photo: PIB


House uproar SP and BJP members scuffle in Parliament over the Liberhan report


At the weekly Tuesday morning meeting of the BJP parliamentary party on November 24, it was a relatively unknown backbencher who set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Uday Singh, a second-term BJP member from Purnea in Bihar, rose unexpectedly from his seat to ask the leadership about this strange animal called the RSS. Why, he asked, is the party being asked to undertake surgery and chemotherapy by an outsider? Why, he added, has the next party president been chosen by those who are not in the party?

The interesting feature of his outburst was that he was neither shouted down nor booed. He was heard in stunned silence until party president Rajnath Singh intervened to placate him with the assurance that “no outsider” would decide the party’s next president. When Uday Singh emerged from the meeting, he was heartily congratulated by many for daring to say what they had been thinking.

In a larger sense, the Liberhan report is unlikely to revive interest in the Ayodhya dispute. Despite the grandstanding by the VHP and Togadia’s apparent willingness to mount the gallows for the sake of Lord Ram, India has moved on from the decade in which mandir fought Mandal and Muslim. There may still be a Hindu desire to see a grand Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya but the nation is not going to do anything dramatic about it. The makeshift Ram temple surrounded by armed guards and steel barricades is likely to define the Ayodhya landscape for the foreseeable future. No wonder realists in the BJP seem more willing to debate sugarcane and Madhu Koda rather than Ayodhya — a discernible change from how the public debate was fashioned two decades or so ago.

The only limited impact of the Liberhan report is that the RSSwill once again become an object of fierce controversy and it will need the BJP to contain the damage. After the initial excitement over the Liberhan report had subsided, BJP workers were quick to point to the irony behind the RSS having to depend on Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — two of Bhagwat’s four blacklisted leaders — to play defence counsel. In a debate carried out primarily in the media, the RSS found that its favourites such as Rajnath were either completely ineffective or completely out of their depths.

The renewed focus on the RSS may give another lease of life to Advani as the only man with the stature to hold back the RSS offensive. Advani has made his last bow as a prime minister-in-waiting, but he is still the party’s favourite to play the role of a reliable parliamentarian, until the next prime ministerial candidate is chosen. Two weeks ago, the forward march of the RSS into the BJP seemed unstoppable. But two weeks is a long time in politics. Just as the explosion at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 forced the return of the liberals to the top leadership of the party, the belated anguish over a broken shrine may force the RSS into reviewing its expansionism. The liberal may be the endangered species inside the BJP but there are moments he can make all the difference between political survival and political irrelevance. The politicians in the party recognise it. Does the RSS?

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 48, Dated December 05, 2009

India must think big, stand by Dubai (November 29, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

It’s always amusing to hear those who acquire wisdom in hindsight. “When you start building a third island shaped like a palm tree, intending it to be as big and crowded as Manhattan,” wrote Jim Krane, the author of the evocatively titled “Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City” in Saturday’s Financial Times, “you are crying out for a sober voice to bark: Stop!”

Like the Emperor’s new clothes, there were remarkably few “sober” voices that were sceptical of the prolonged celebration of bling in the Arabian desert. From clever bankers in London and New York who have a slightly disdainful attitude to those who don’t earn million dollar bonuses to the peddlers of exorbitantly-priced “luxury goods”, Dubai was always a shorthand for quick bucks. Unlike Singapore, where opportunity mingles with hard realism, Dubai had transformed into a fantasy land.

When an English friend with an impish sense of humour once hosted me for a drink at a top-floor bar in the dhow-sail shaped hotel that was being flaunted as a monument to opulent living, I recall repeating John McEnroe’s immortal outburst: “You can’t be serious!” In the gilt-plated lift, we encountered a short, podgy Russian with an unlit cigar in his mouth, with his arm firmly clutching the posterior of a giggling, well-endowed blonde — a caricature of the gangster’s moll from a B-grade film. Predictably, the Russian was also accompanied by a fearful looking bodyguard.

The bar itself was something straight out of a 1960s film centred on some Dr No or Goldfinger out to take over the world. It was embellished with strobe lights, featuring multi-coloured stars and objects that defy coherent definition. Like Andy Warhol, it seemed that the interior designer had had a great laugh at someone’s expense, and profited handsomely from it.

To me, that seemed the central problem with Dubai: The belief that capitalism worked best in a gigantic amusement park. Of course, it was not very funny for the thousands of construction labour who lived dreary lives and sent home every last coin they saved through self-deprivation; nor was it very funny for the sad-looking maids who silently endured the travails of restricted employment. But for European bankers whose bonuses depended on underwriting fantasies, Indian and Pakistani dons who frolicked beyond the long arm of the law, spoilt Arab kids who imagined that life was one big fast car ride down a new motorway and Western businessmen who sold rich Arabs the modern equivalents of beads and trinkets, Dubai was the Xanadu of capitalism.

The tragedy of Dubai was that its whacko priorities subsumed its other achievements. For a place that wasn’t even in a position to issue its own postage stamps till the early-1950s — it used Indian stamps and even the Indian currency — Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum used the oil revenues to make Dubai a worthwhile offshore hub for both South Asia and the troubled West Asia. Dubai, unlike Saudi Arabia, wasn’t an enclave of medievalism. Leaving aside politics which was always a big No-No, Dubai was socially liberal — almost permissive — and financially unregulated. The Sheikh’s thrust towards making Dubai a hub for the electronic media, education, tourism and finance was worthwhile and remains as valid today as when it was initially conceived.

What isn’t valid is the assumption that these goals would be enhanced by pouring money into projects such as the Snowdome and purchasing casinos in the US. “Don’t sell things you will buy” is a principle that many prudent shopkeepers follow. Dubai erred in pouring money into projects that tickled the skewed aesthetics of an aristocracy that lived off rentier income. Dubai had a lot of indigenous money but precious little indigenous entrepreneurship. It mortgaged decision-making to carpetbaggers who have made quick bucks and won’t be around to commiserate with the Sheikh.
For India, the misfortunes of Dubai present unconventional opportunities. Going by present indications, Indian companies are not going to be hugely affected by Dubai’s inability to honour its debts. However, the slowdown and the end of the construction boom are likely to lessen the quantum of remittances from Indian workers located there. There may be at best adverse short-term consequences for States such as Kerala which export labour to the Emirates. Does this mean that India should breathe a sigh of relief and look down disdainfully on those who lacked the wisdom to manage prosperity with a cool head?

Such a response would be myopic. For all its profligacy, Dubai remains a place with world-class infrastructure and world-class facilities at knock-down prices. Should these be left to others to mop up and use as a base for a more enlightened approach in future? India has an old, historical relationship with the Gulf and we cannot forget that till 1947 the region was more or less regarded as an extension of India, both politically and economically. We may have frittered away those advantages by narrowing our vision but there is no earthly reason why that short-sightedness should persist in this century. India should use its political and economic clout to, first, be supportive of Dubai and, subsequently, to try and fill the void left by the West’s loss of confidence in the Emirates.

How this should be done and what should be the nature of Government assistance to businesses willing to repose their confidence in Dubai is something that has to be worked out, fast. The Dubai crisis presents a golden chance for India to re-establish its role in the region. We shouldn’t let the opportunity slip away by refusing to think big.

Sunday Pioneer, November 29, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Too easy a conclusion (November 27, 2009)

Even the Liberhan report cites conspiracy, an Indian favourite

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the normal course, some 17 years of single-minded perusal of a subject — backed by an army of researchers and support staff and privileged access to government records and all the relevant individuals — should have resulted in a work that is magisterial, rigorous, incisive and almost definitive. It is a commentary on Manmohan Singh Liberhan that all the privileges and perks of the government of India and an astonishingly flexible deadline couldn’t inspire him to produce a report on the “sequence and events leading to and all the facts and circumstances relating to the occurrence at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992” that would have been cherished for its fairness and legal erudition. Instead, the country has been, first, “leaked”, and subsequently presented with, a report that may well serve as a model for undistinguished prose, empirical inadequacies and tendentious generalizations.

A cabinet under pressure to respond speedily to contain the damage arising from a breach of parliamentary privilege met hurriedly for 30 minutes to consider the report. India’s political guardians considered a clutch of recommendations, including profundities such as “It is inherently unfair, immoral and legally dubious to hold democracy hostage to religious and casteist blackmail”, and “As members of a single union, the State Governments must… trust the union government and expect a reciprocal trust as well”. The monosyllabic response of the government’s action taken report to most of the insights of the commission was: “Agreed.”

Displaying a sense of humour that is otherwise not very evident, the report’s recommendations include the observation that: “In the first half of their career, most officers fall prey to extraneous influence for securing transfers and postings or other benefits for themselves. In the latter half, the emphasis is equally on finding out and securing a roosting ground for their post-retirement period.” To this unexpected display of candidness, an astonished government could only respond: “Noted.”

To those interested in governance, the Liberhan Commission has thrown up a multitude of issues. The more abstruse of these centre on the wisdom of charging the Rs 8 crore or so spent by the commission on salaries (not including expenses) to the national rural employment guarantee scheme. At a more sublime level, there are concerns over the unrestricted licence granted to State-appointed commissions of inquiry to reflect on life in general. Since one inquiry report often becomes a template for another, there may be some virtue in imposing a set of guidelines to prevent the rigorous exploration of a specific subject from being embellished by lessons in undergraduate civics.

The extent to which the premises of one inquiry are reproduced in another is quite remarkable. In the past two decades or so, there have been three inquiry reports, all three divulged to the media before being presented to Parliament, that have pursued a common thread: conspiracy.

The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi, presented to the government in February 1986, but suppressed till it was leaked to the media in March 1989, recommended that the “Central government should seriously consider the question of appropriate agencies to investigate the matter as regards the involvement of R.K. Dhawan, the then special assistant to the former prime minister”. To C.K. Thakkar, Indira Gandhi’s death at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards seemed a consequence of a palace conspiracy.

In a similar vein, the Jain Commission of inquiry — which was given 12 extensions — into the death of Rajiv Gandhi at the hands of a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam death squad in 1991, had its interim report leaked to the media in 1997. Relying quite heavily on Intelligence Bureau inputs, the 5,280-page report, comprising eight volumes of interim findings, also smelt an elaborate conspiracy that stretched from the LTTE-held Northern Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu. M.C. Jain held the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, and his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. It also went on to blame the former prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, for being indifferent to the threats to Rajiv’s life. The Congress responded angrily to the report, demanded the dropping of all DMK ministers from the Union council of ministers and subsequently withdrew support to the I.K. Gujral-led United Front government.

This week, and perhaps because it, too, included suggestions of an elaborate conspiracy that extended from the top to the lowest rung of the sangh parivar, the Liberhan Commission was leaked to the media. Unfortunately for those who fed the media, there are as yet no indications that the political fallout of Liberhan’s experiments with truth will have as devastating a consequence as the reports of Thakkar and Jain — perhaps a case of diminishing returns from conspiracies.

A feature of the Liberhan report is its post-facto rationalization of events that at that time seemed to be discordant. That there was a loose coordination between the various arms of what has come to be known as the sangh parivar isn’t in any serious doubt. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and, for that matter, sundry sadhus and sants were, after all, working for a common cause: the construction of a grand Ram temple at the site of the erstwhile Babri Masjid. Yet there were important differences.

The BJP, for example, had to combine its commitment to the temple with the imperatives of running a state government and respecting the rule of law. Just three months prior to the demolition, the state government run by Kalyan Singh was put into an awkward position by obstinate sants and sadhus (unconnected to the RSS) who refused to obey a Supreme Court directive to desist from constructing a ceremonial gate and a podium at a distance from the disputed shrine. The BJP believed the sadhus were being obstinate and it took a lot of persuasive skill to persuade the VHP to observe a short truce for negotiations with the Centre. Predictably, these yielded nothing and it is in the ensuing frustration and anger of the VHP and the sants that we can glean important clues relating to the demolition. Curiously, most of the holy men who added their congregational might to the movement have not been censured.

This doesn’t exonerate the BJP of its responsibility for reneging on an assurance to the Supreme Court. At the same time, it doesn’t detract from the fact that L.K. Advani, Vijaya Raje Scindia and even Kalyan Singh were completely taken aback by the unexpected turn of events. As an eyewitness to the demolition, I can state with certainty that until about 12.30 pm, when a former editor of an RSS publication (and a virulent Advani critic) rushed to the podium and asked for the idols to be removed, the BJP leadership was unaware that the Babri structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

These may be trivial details in a sweeping reconstruction, but it does suggest that the perception of a grand conspiracy involving the BJP, VHP, RSS and the assortment of highly individualistic sadhus may be somewhat facile. There were some people who organized a small band of activists with pickaxes and ropes. They rightly calculated that the actions of the vanguard would have an unstoppable bandwagon effect. It was the job of Liberhan to sift through the evidence and present a picture of the events as they happened. Instead, he fell back on the Indian penchant for grand conspiracies that can’t be corroborated with empirical evidence.

In India, conspiracy is a rhetorical flourish and the commissions of inquiry mirror this casual attitude to a serious charge.

The Telegraph, November 27, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Getting past the past (November 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A good wine improves with age and good cellarage. To understand why 17 years of official patronage transformed a rich harvest of frenzy in Ayodhya into Justice Liberhan’s rancid pickle, it is instructive to look at the demographic realities of today’s India.

Assuming that the political consciousness of an average individual begins at 18, it is revealing that the traumatic events of December 6, 1992, constituted a lived experience for only those Indians who are 35 years of age and older. For the remainder who make up some 60 per cent of the population, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid battle was the obsession of an earlier generation. In a country where a sense of history is in any case feeble, the emotive fervour of the past has not been passed on to another generation.

The furore over the Liberhan report is likely to prove a five-day wonder for a number of reasons.

First, the credibility of the exercise has been sullied by Justice Liberhan inveigling for himself the longest deadline in officialdom.

Secondly, its conclusions have not added to the pre-existing knowledge of the involvement of the RSS in the demolition of the 16th century structure.

Thirdly, its strictures against the usual suspects have been rendered farcical by the needless inclusion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee among the 68 persons responsible for sullying communal relations.

Fourthly, by exonerating the P.V. Narasimha Rao government of any responsibility, it has given the impression of political bias. If, as Liberhan claims, there was a widespread conspiracy involving the entire Sangh Parivar to bring down the Babri structure, the Centre must have been a repository of either high-level ineptitude or complicity to believe Kalyan Singh’s assurance of good conduct.

Finally, by choosing caution over grandstanding in its Action Taken Report, the Centre has negated the possibility of renewed mobilisation over a dormant dispute.

The Centre’s refusal to extend the accusing finger pointed at the RSS and BJP to a punitive political conclusion may be the object of initial ridicule. In the short run it may even embolden hotheads into imagining that the fear of a Hindu backlash has thwarted a fresh bout of prosecutions and bans — the RSS was banned by the Rao government immediately after the demolition but this was lifted by the Bahri Commission review six months later. In the coming days we are certainly going to hear a lot of unrepentant noises from a section of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP.

However, while the Centre may have based its passivity on the need to prevent Hindu nationalism from re-acquiring a united face, there is a more awkward reality the BJP and RSS must come to acknowledge.

In hindsight, L.K. Advani’s famous assertion in 1990 that the Ayodhya movement will be the “biggest mass mobilisation” of independent India turned out to be almost prescient. The movement to right a historical wrong shook India, redrew the contours of electoral politics and destroyed the Congress’ monopoly over political power. Yet, this spectacular Hindu upsurge had a definite context. To many, particularly in the rural Hindi heartland, it was an outpouring of simple religiosity — the need to give back to Lord Ram his imagined janmasthan in Ayodhya — tempered by the clever symbolism of Ram shilan, rath yatra and kar seva. To others, it was a simple expression of Hindu pride — “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” To a third group, the so-called “political Hindus”, it was a movement to roll back the frontiers of the Nehruvian consensus. Its Hindutva — the first time this term acquired a meaningful political currency — lay in forcing agnostic secularism into acknowledging the Hindu basis of nationhood.

Individually, none of these diverse currents had the ability to shape the political agenda. It was the grand (and expedient) coalition of the three that made Ayodhya the dominant theme of Indian politics for a decade.

It is, however, equally important to remember the wider social and political environment that nurtured the Ayodhya movement. The late 1980s were marked by the growing realisation that India’s experiments in socialism had reached a crisis point. The domestic economy was in crisis and riddled with corruption, nepotism, shortages and over-regulation; opportunities for individual and collective self-improvement were hard to come by; and the new age promised by Rajiv Gandhi was soured by Shah Bano, Bofors and Quattrocchi. It was this wider existential dejection that gave the Ayodhya movement its fillip. It encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof; simultaneously, it was an upsurge born of the frustrations of prolonged defeat.

Now, 17 years later, India is a changed place. The sense of defeat has given way to a new optimism centred on expanding opportunities. The beleaguered Hindu of 1992 is now the self-confident Hindu of 2007, confident that India can make a mark in the world. The root causes of the Ayodhya explosion no longer exists. It has been replaced by a new headiness, a new brashness, a new impatience and even a new nationalism. The sons and daughters of the very Hindus who celebrated December 6, 1992, by distributing mithai and then voting the BJP into power in 1998 today recoil in horror at the images of frenzied kar sevaks tearing down an old monument. A generational change has witnessed a shift in mentalities brought about by concentrated economic growth, sustained global exposure and the slow disintegration of the joint family. The slogans which inspired an earlier generation don’t gel with those who reached political maturity after 1992.

In their own way both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani recognised this and attempted to reinvent the BJP. Two general election defeats have, however, rekindled the ambitions of those who are unfamiliar with the 21st century and most at home in their own little ghettos. There is a tussle in the BJP between those who want to leave Ayodhya to history and those who want to relive the past in the present. Liberhan’s report may force a decision. Let us hope it will be a choice grounded in reality.

Indian Express, November 25, 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

The revenge of the proletariat (November 21, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

HERE ARE some images which serve a twin purpose: they can both terrify and inspire, depending on who is looking. Earlier this month, the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an event which triggered the eventual collapse of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Once again the world relived the frenzy and the spontaneous anger which nullified the organised might of a superpower. There were also those who shed a quiet tear at the collapse of a world built on passionate certitudes.

Curiously, for a state that flaunts its penchant for internationalism, the event wasn’t commemorated in any meaningful way in West Bengal. The Comrades who earlier celebrated Vietnam’s resistance to US imperialism, came out in their thousands to welcome Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela to Kolkata and created a literary tradition inspired by Maya - kovski, Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda, were not unexpectedly silent about a mass uprising against regimes that claimed direct lineage from Lenin and Stalin.

Apart from the inhibitions of socialist correctness, the wariness of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to address the lessons of history was completely understandable. The celebrations in Berlin touched a raw nerve because they coincided with the CPI(M)’s devastating defeat in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats. Whereas Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could, arguably, have attempted to gloss over international communism’s greatest debacle by focussing on nine years of his own stewardship of West Bengal, the electoral drubbing left the CPI(M) demoralised and disoriented. There are no Assembly elections due until the summer of 2011 but the ruling Left Front already gives the unmistakable impression of being a defeated army.

Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s ubiquitous ‘Didi’ has already acquired the reputation of a lady who, having fought the Reds unwaveringly since her political debut in 1984, is within smelling distance of capturing Writers’ Buildings. On November 15, when she undertook a short padayatra from Nandakuthi to Tarakeshwar in Hoogly district against the CPI(M)’s “reign of terror”, she was accompanied by a sea of adoring and belligerent humanity. There were two popular slogans: the first taunted the Reds, “Aye CPM dekhe jaa, Mamatar khamata” (Come CPI(M), and witness the power of Mamata) but the second was decidedly menacing, “Biman/Buddhadeb-er chamra, khule nebo amra” (We will skin Biman Basu and Buddhadeb).

The CPI(M) has reason to be worried. The electoral downslide of the Left Front in the Lok Sabha election of this year was quite precipitate. For the first time since 1971, the CPI(M)-led combine failed to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which had been reduced to just a solitary seat in 2004, stole the thunder by winning 22 seats. Mamata drove home her advantage in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats held in November. The ruling Left Front won a solitary seat and the CPI(M) tally was zero.


Initially the CPI(M) tried to gloss over the magnitude of its defeat. In a resolution of June 22, the party Central Committee admitted “serious reverses” but simultaneously argued that “the main base of the Party is by and large intact…” The CPI(M) leadership comforted itself with the statistical delusion that its popular vote had fallen nominally, from 1.88 crore in 2004 to 1.85 crore in 2009. The reality was far gloomier. The support for the Left Front fell by a staggering 7.42 percent, from 50.72 percent in 2004 to 43.30 percent in 2009. The CPI(M)’s own vote share fell from 38.57 percent to 33.10 percent and it lost every seat in what is loosely called the FM belt around Kolkata. More ominously, a substantial body of Muslim voters, those who had contributed to the huge Left victories in 2004 and 2006, switched over to the TMC-Congress alliance. The ruling coalition just about managed to save face by winning a clutch of seats in the Jalpaiguri-Cooch Behar belt of North Bengal and successfully defending its strongholds in the outlying districts.

That the Lok Sabha outcome wasn’t merely a case of an electorate voting on national considerations for a stable government at the Centre became clear in the 10 by-elections this month. Compared to the 50.72 percent and 50.12 percent Left Front candidates polled in the 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2006 Assembly elections, its vote fell to 38 percent, a 12 percent decline. The CPI(M) could not even hold on to the Belgachia seat in Kolkata which was held by Subhas Chakravarty, the flamboyant Jyoti Basu loyalist who had once been censured by the party for his Kali worship.

To describe recent happenings in West Bengal as mere evidence of parivartan (change) is an understatement; the state is witnessing an upheaval that has the potential to rival the turbulence in the late 1960s when Congress dominance gave way to the domination and stranglehold of the Left.

For a start there is the strong undercurrent of violence. Politics in West Bengal has always been peppered with violence and intimidation on a scale that many in the rest of India find difficult to imagine. Just on paper, more than 500 political murders have been committed since the 2006 Assembly election. The CPI(M) has claimed that since March and October this year, nearly 124 of its cadres (or their children) have been killed, over half of them by Maoists. On its part, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has made popular resistance to the CPI(M)’s high-handedness and “reign of terror” its signature tune, a theme that has, not unexpectedly, found an echo among those Bengali intellectuals who view Maoist insurgents with starry-eyed romanticism.

There is a basis to the indignation of both sides. Ever since it came to power in 1977, the CPI(M) has exercised a stranglehold over the state. Its political thrust has not been confined to merely winning electoral battles but in exercising control over civil society. In rural West Bengal, the dreaded Local Committees of the CPI(M) replaced the bureaucracy and police as instruments of governance and law and order. From determining who can farm a particular piece of land and appointing the village school-teacher to imposing social boycotts of an errant “class enemy”, the CPI(M) ensured that its presence impacted on each and every individual in the village. It was impossible for a family to live in a village unless it made peace with the local CPI(M). It naturally followed that it was virtually impossible for an opposition party, be it Congress, TMC or anyone else, to operate freely in rural society. This may explain why almost all competitive politics in West Bengal was invariably centred on cities and other urban clusters; in much of rural Bengal, the CPI(M) and its allies ran a one-party state.


The party took a very dim view of all those who became very vocal in their opposition to the Left during elections. Every election in West Bengal was invariably followed by violence when TMC and Congress activists would either be hounded out of their homes or forced to ‘surrender’ before the Local Committee. The police and administration would remain mute spectators to these harsh assertions of class power. When Mamata rails the CPI(M)’s ‘reign of terror’, she is invoking the plight of those unfortunate individuals who were victims of Left intolerance.

However, it would be a travesty to suggest that the CPI(M) hold on rural society stemmed from the exercise of force alone. For more than three decades, the Left prospered on the goodwill generated by Operation Barga and the decentralisation of power to the panchayats. Operation Barga, the Left Front’s most far-reaching achievement, conferred security of tenure to bargadars (sharecroppers). In practice, it made ‘registered’ bargadars de-facto owners of the land they cultivated. The devolution of power to elected panchayats which immediately followed the empowerment of the poor peasantry, together redefined rural power relations. With Left cadres and the elected panchayats taking an active interest in the actual implementation of land reforms, the social and political backbone of the jotedars, the rich farmers who made up the village leadership of the undivided Congress, was broken. For 30 years, the anti-Left opposition could not re-establish their presence in rural West Bengal. The Left would invariably lose seats in Kolkata and Howrah, perhaps even in the border districts of Malda and Murshidabad, but in the vast expanse of the rural hinterland its strongholds were almost impregnable.

For the Left, the political and economic empowerment of the rural poor was central to its larger game plan. The Left movement was born in the industrial heartland of West Bengal, at a time when the state was second only to Maharashtra in overall development. In the mid-1960s, when the CPI(M) first tasted power in a fractious anti-Congress coalition, it concentrated its energies in nurturing militant trade unions. In 1967, it unleashed the ‘gherao’ movement which saw the forcible incarceration of managers until they agreed to the union’s demands. The police were given strict instructions by the administration to not interfere in worker’s struggles. The result of the ‘gherao’ epidemic was, predictably, a rash of lockouts and closures. Panicky industrialists got the message and began the flight of capital from West Bengal, a process that continued till the 1980s.

When it returned to power in 1977, the CPI(M) knew that reviving the manufacturing industry in West Bengal would take a lot of doing. Apart from the wariness of militant trade unionism and an increasingly ramshackle infrastructure marked by prolonged power cuts, there was a strong impression in industry circles that over-exposure to Left politics had deprived the state of any worthwhile work ethic. At an individual level, Jyoti Basu was regarded as a reasonable man and the archetypal Bengali bhadralok but his invitation to industry to return to the state carried little credibility. West Bengal had become a byword for trouble.

In the early days of Left Front rule, there was a belief in CPI(M) circles that public sector investments, particularly in Haldia, would pave the way for a second wave of industrialisation. It was a naïve optimism that produced many manhours of daydreaming and also triggered a polemical fusillade against an ‘uncaring’ and ‘discriminatory’ Centre.

With the private sector petrified of a return to the bad old days of ‘gherao’ and Naxalite violence in the streets and both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi unmoved by the call for public sector investments — Rajiv, in fact, presciently called Calcutta a “dying city” in 1984 — the Left had no alternative but to concentrate on making a difference in rural West Bengal. Left ideologues rationalised an expedient turn with suggestions of growing agricultural productivity creating additional demand for goods and services. In short, the decline of the ‘old’ economy centered on manufacturing would be compensated by a flowering of the rural economy.


ehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 47, Dated November 28, 2009Bengal politics has always been peppered with violence on a scale the rest of India cannot even imagine

The rural thrust of the Left Front was complemented by an electoral strategy based on two principles: unite the Left vote and divide the anti-Left vote. It is a measure of the CPI(M)’s far-sightedness that it never abandoned the Left Front despite winning a clear majority on its own. Equally, it is noteworthy that all the major Left parties have remained allies of the CPI(M), despite occasional bouts of frustration. Having learnt the lessons from the late-1960s, Jyoti Basu in particular was careful never to repeat the intra-Left feuding that was a factor in the downfall of the first two United Front governments and the CPI(M)’s narrow loss in the 1971 Assembly election.

THE CPI(M) was also fortunate that the willingness of the Left parties to stay together was matched by a suicidal streak in the Congress. The Congress was always a formidable force in West Bengal. Its vote share invariably hovered around 40 percent, a winning tally in multi-cornered contests but insufficient to take on a united Left which invariably polled between 48 percent and 51 percent. The CPI(M) further reinforced its advantage by nurturing favourites within the Congress — individuals with whom local deals could be cut in return for a larger compliance. It was this divideand- rule approach, plus some cosying up to the Congress high command in Delhi, that brought about the split with Mamata in 1996. As long as the Congress and TMC fought separately, the Left Front was sure of not merely winning but also securing a steamroller majority. When Mamata teamed up with the BJP in 1998, the Left was jubilant. In a state where Muslim voters made up more than one-fourth of the electorate, and in the absence of any discernible Hindu wave, the Left victory was guaranteed.

The CPI(M)’s hold on rural society did not stem from force alone. There was the goodwill of Operation Barga

Yet, until the panchayat election of July 2008 when the TMC won 1,505 seats against the CPI(M)’s 1,597, the CPI(M) hold over West Bengal was unimpaired. What created the openings that Mamata was able to take advantage of so successfully?

It is interesting that both the Left and its opponents have a broadly common perception of what triggered the decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy which was born out of the Left realisation that unless it departed from Jyoti Basu’s contradiction management approach and did something proactive, it would be overwhelmed by a tide of rising expectations. With the improvements in agricultural productivity reaching saturation point and insufficient alternatives for economic betterment available to the people, the CPI(M) chose to jettison its traditional distaste for the private sector and foreign capital. The rediscovery of manufacturing and the turn to urban and infrastructural upgradation was overdue in a West Bengal which had slipped precariously down the national league. After his foreign visits, Buddhadeb was moved by the advances in western capitalism and struck by China’s disregard of Maoist orthodoxy and its single-minded quest for economic growth. From being a party apparatchik nurtured carefully by the legendary Promode Das Gupta, who had helped the Left Front’s post-1977 approach, the Chief Minister transformed himself into an overzealous reformer.

FOR BUDDHADEB, the Left Front’s unequivocal victory in the 2006 Assembly poll was the signal to rush headlong into the industrialisation of the state. The election, where the CPI(M) campaigned for a modern, tech-savvy, sparkling Bengal, seemed a big step in the reinvention of the Indian Left and a welcome departure from its anti-capitalist cussedness. Indeed, during the campaign, Mamata was consistently lampooned by an impatient Bengali middle class for her willingness to embrace the CPI(M)’s discarded culture. Even Ananda Bazar Patrika, the traditional repository of anti-Left feeling, endorsed Buddhadeb enthusiastically. In his no-nonsense commitment to efficiency and growth, the chief minister was even quietly compared to Narendra Modi.

The decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes is commonly believed to lie in Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy

The honeymoon turned out to woefully short-lived. In pressing for rapid industrialisation and industry-friendly sops, Buddhadeb entrusted the management of change to the party, just as his mentor had done in 1977. Using the CPI(M)’s awesome organisational clout and its control over local society, the apparatchiks set about the task of acquiring agricultural land for industry with the same degree of ruthlessness as the Communist Party of China. The reluctance of farmers to part with their land was brushed aside with contemptuous disdain on the ground that the compensation package was generous and the acquisition was for the larger good of society. When reluctance turned to fledgling resistance, the party came down with a heavy hand. And then, suddenly, without warning, Nandigram became a flashpoint. It was followed by Singur. Even the CPI(M) now grudgingly admits that the land acquisition process was handled without adequate sensitivity and that ‘mistakes’ were made. In hindsight, the CPI(M) was undone by a remarkable failure to appreciate Marx’s insights into the peasant mind. Deeply contemptuous of peasants — he once equated them to “sacks of potatoes” — Marx felt that rural life was marked by a strong attachment to land. Ironically, it was this land hunger and the CPI(M)’s ability to satisfy it through Operation Barga that won it brownie points and the undying loyalty of the rural poor. The land attachment was most marked among the first generation beneficiaries of the land redistribution programme and it was precisely this section that came out militantly against the CPI(M)’s perceived betrayal.

Till the CPI(M) aroused peasant fears with its land acquisition programme, Mamata’s support base had been confined to a narrow section of the middle class, the lumpen bhadralok and those frustrated by the CPI(M)’s inability to create sufficient employment opportunities. Her rural following was largely confined to a layer of the erstwhile jotedar class. After she took up the protests against land acquisitions with characteristic passion, including inviting urban opprobrium for driving Tata Motors out of Singur, Mamata came to be perceived in a new light in rural West Bengal. Her slogan, Ma, Mati, Manush (mother, land, people) touched the chords of rural romanticism as potently as the old Left slogan Langal jar, jamin tar (land to the tiller). The CPI(M) found itself undone by a political empowerment it had nurtured.

Didi’s slogan — ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ (mother, land, people) has potently caught the rural mood

It was a broadly similar story in Lalgarh. A botched Maoist bid to assassinate the chief minister in November 2008 provoked a vicious response from the local police and CPI(M). The official high-handedness led to Adivasi protests and provided an opening for Maoist cadres to enter the arena. The Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee was never an out and out Maoist front; it was made up of diverse elements that opposed the CPI(M). The Maoist input lay in transforming a protest against police harassment into a full-fledged revolt, marked by the establishment of ‘liberated’ zones. There is enough evidence to suggest that Mamata tacitly encouraged all those who were taking on the state administration in Lalgarh. Her motives were simple: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But her tacit encouragement of Chhatradhar Mahato had two consequences. First, the CPI(M) redoubled its bid to paint Lalgarh as a Maoist insurrection. The idea was to paint Mamata as an irresponsible politician, capable of compromising national security as long as it suited her anti-CPI(M) thrust. Secondly, the militancy of the local Adivasis and their need for logistical support facilitated the entry of trained Maoist cadres from the battlefields of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. For the CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the CPI(M), Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh introduced another complication: the party’s alienation from the Bengali intelligentsia. West Bengal is unique in the social importance it attaches to a free-floating community of ‘intellectuals’, including writers, artists, singers, playwrights and producers of obscure documentary films. In the past this community had always been Left in its orientation, although in the mid-1960s many of them flirted with ultra-Left Naxalism. In the mythology of the ‘intellectuals’, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the biggest villain for his role in ruthlessly suppressing the Left movement after 1971. Consequently, they never had any time for either the Congress or the TMC. Indeed, for a very long time, Mamata was an object of derision among the ‘intellectuals’ for her shrillness. Compared to her, Buddhadeb was the biggest patron of the Left fringe. His patronage of art films, theatre and poetry was appreciated and contrasted with the cretinism of other chief ministers.

The ‘intellectuals’ had traditionally turned a blind eye to the excesses of the CPI(M), unless it was directed against the Maoists. However, after the official high-handedness in Nandigram the ‘intellectuals’ chose to speak out—not least because the target happened to be land acquisition for industrialisation. In the battle between a decaying rural arcadia and the vulgar world of shopping malls, the intellectuals were firmly supportive of the former. As long as the Left epitomised an amorphous struggling mass, it was kosher; once the priorities changed to humdrum capitalism, the intellectuals smelt betrayal.

Today, the CPI(M) finds itself politically paralysed. Buddhadeb’s lofty industrial dreams have come crashing down. With Mamata on the rampage and her party colleagues bulldozing their way into areas that were hitherto forbidden territory, old memories have come to haunt West Bengal again. There is fear that political violence could become endemic as turf battles intensify. There are concerns that a more vicious brand of Maoism (as compared to the Naxalites of an earlier age) has entrenched itself in some outlying districts, using Mamata as a convenient cover. More ominously for a state that was once a communal tinderbox, there are indications of Muslim sectarian bodies also using Mamata’s ever-growing umbrella as a camouflage.

For the politically paralysed CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a selffulfilling prophecy

Fattened and even corrupted by 32 years of uninterrupted power, the CPI(M) lacks both the capacity and the will to take to Mamata’s raw aggressiveness. With the state’s poor rallying behind her and identifying her as the new repository of entitlement politics — sops and lollipops for all — it is more than likely that West Bengal will give Mamata a chance to prove herself in Writer’s Buildings. The middle class may well be nervous but the Bangla street is wildly enthused by her populism.

Since Independence, West Bengal has had just seven chief ministers. Dr Prafulla Ghose, Prafulla Chandra Sen and Ajoy Mukherjee were old-style Gandhians, fuddyduddy and ineffective; Dr BC Roy, Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu were bhadralok patricians; and Buddhadeb is a chain-smoking Left intellectual, most at ease watching films with subtitles. Mamata, if she gets her way, will herald the entry of colloquialism into a rarefied pantheon.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 47, Dated November 28, 2009