Monday, March 30, 2009

The Professor's empty class (April 4, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Regardless of what the Electronic Voting Machines reveal on May 16, Manmohan Singh will have the satisfaction of knowing that he now has permanent membership of a select club of prime ministers who have completed a full term in office. That in itself is no small achievement. When he was anointed Prime Minister after Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice” told her to stay away from Race Course Road, few imagined that the UPA Government would last its full term and that Manmohan would be at the helm for the entire duration. Indeed, in the early months of the government some in the BJP attached great store on one astrological prophecy that the government would collapse by September/October 2004. Leader of Opposition L.K. Advani also flaunted a Deutsche Bank report which suggested that the UPA government would barely endure for more than a year.

Any assessment of Manmohan’s stint in Race Course Road must proceed with the recognition that India’s most non-political Prime Minister succeeded in the most politically daunting challenge before him: he carried his bat through the entire innings. It is conceivable that he succeeded precisely because he never deviated from his contrived unconcern with day-to-day politics. He was careful to never pose any threat to the politicians and they in turn were happy to leave him undisturbed. Had he developed political ambitions midway—and it is so easy to acquire delusions of grandeur in a rarefied environment—he would undoubtedly have been a member of the other club of Prime Ministers who had to leave office prematurely.

The unique circumstances of Manmohan’s appointment and tenure should argue against describing his five-year term as the “Singh era”. The Prime Minister, as a British magazine shrewdly observed midway through his innings, was in office but not in power. Manmohan never had full power or authority to begin with. The controlling levers were always held by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi—she had an overriding veto—and individual Cabinet ministers were accorded an unprecedented degree of autonomy. The all-important Prime Minister’s Office was reduced to a cipher, its role limited to periodic expressions of unhappiness. Even the appointment of key functionaries, hitherto the sole preserve of the Prime Minister, was outsourced to 10 Janpath. Till the “office of profit” issue forced Sonia Gandhi to be a little more careful, even crucial policy making was vested in the National Advisory Council headed by the UPA chairperson.

Manmohan’s unique contribution to India’s system of governance lay in transforming the Central Government into a confederal arrangement. Lalu Prasad Yadav did his own thing in Rail Bhawan; Praful Patel proceeded on the belief that the promotion of private airlines also involved crippling the public sector; Ambumani Ramadoss carried out his own witch-hunt at AIIMS; and crony capitalism became the norm in DMK-run ministries. Nor were Congress Cabinet ministers more disciplined. Arjun Singh followed his neo-Mandal and Muslim appeasement agenda in the Human Resource Development ministry; Mani Shankar Aiyar thought it fit to pursue an independent course of energy diplomacy in the short period he was Petroleum Minister; and P.Chidambaram never took kindly to even the gentlest hint of criticism. And the more arduous task of political management was left to Ahmed Patel and Pranab Mukherjee.

Manmohan had some qualities that are unique to a holder of the country’s most important political job—he was not vain and egoistical. His professorial air was genuine. As Winston Churchill remarked about his Labour rival Clement Atlee (somewhat unfairly), he was a modest man with much to be modest about. His total inexperience with electoral politics and his awareness that he was just a proxy made him adaptable. He chose to look the other way on the issue of tainted ministers, the 2G scandal involving a DMK minister and the clean chit to Ottavio Quattrocchi. He even exonerated former External Affairs Minister K.Natwar Singh for his shameful involvement in the Iraqi oil for food scandal. Without Manmohan’s negotiable sense of right and wrong, the UPA Government would never have run its full course.

It is interesting that the coalition fell apart almost instantly once the Congress Party—egged on, it is said, by Rahul Gandhi—decided to flex its muscles on the question of seat distribution for the Lok Sabha polls.

There was only issue on which Manmohan was adamant: the Indo-US nuclear agreement. The agreement with President George W. Bush in July 2005 may have begun as a logic step forward from the Indo-US proximity during the tenure of Atal Bihari Vajpayee but Manmohan saw this as his door key to history. It is undeniable that the nuclear deal would have perished midstream had Manmohan not made it a prestige issue. He even indicated that he was willing to resign and create a political crisis if the UPA buckled under the “anti-imperialism” of Prakash Karat. It was Sonia Gandhi and her political team that forged the alliance with the Samajwadi Party; and it was with crucial intelligence inputs that a sufficient number of defectors were organised to win the Trust Vote in July 2008. However, even these initiatives would not have been taken had Manmohan not made it clear that this was one thing on which he would not yield.

History will undeniably recognise the seminal role of Manmohan in ushering the Indo-US nuclear deal. The question is: why was Manmohan so uncharacteristically insistent? It is significant to note that he even preferred to look the other way when macro-economic management—a subject so close to his heart—was horribly messed up by Chidambaram. The man who couldn’t even get his political bosses to agree to Montek Singh Ahluwalia becoming the Finance Minister of a devastated economy, managed to force through a fiercely controversial agreement with the US. Why, of all things, did Manmohan choose this issue to make a stand?

The assertion that he was intellectually convinced that the deal was good for India cannot explain everything. Manmohan may have been convinced that India’s burgeoning fiscal deficit will be very damaging to the country in the long run. Yet, he sat back and watched the deficit spiral to the point that it now accounts for 13 per cent of the GDP or more. The Prime Minister may also have known that the architecture of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was flawed and contributed to non-productive expenditure. He did nothing about it. On the contrary, the Congress manifesto almost promises to make put the onus of all welfare measures on an ever-expanding NREG scheme.

Manmohan’s sense of correctness has always been governed by a high sense of expediency but yet he made the nuclear agreement a prestige issue. And he carried the day despite formidable odds. Handled well in future years, the agreement will contribute immeasurably towards making India a regional power and a possible alternative to China in the region. If the US declines, but not too precipitately, India’s status as a non-threatening global power may also be assured.

However, to view the nuclear deal in splendid isolation may be flawed. Whether the agreement creates the pre-conditions for India’s rise as a global power or becomes an instrument for US interference in our strategic objectives will depend on how the country shapes up internally. What is important is that Manmohan may have made the choice by doing absolutely nothing to bolster India’s strategic clout.

The most important failing was in the realms of national security. For more than four years, till the 26/11 attack on Mumbai forced an overdue reappraisal, the UPA Government coupled laxity with denial. It proceeded on the dangerous assumption that any pre-emptive assault on terrorism would lead to the possible loss of Muslim votes for the Congress and other secular parties. Quite needlessly, the punishment meted out to Afzal Guru for his role in the 2001 attack on Parliament was kept on hold, thereby making terrorism a sectarian issue. The intelligence gathering machinery of the state was allowed to rust on the dubious premise that intrusiveness would offend Muslims. Manmohan stood by meekly as Cabinet ministers such as Arjun Singh and Kapil Sibal chose to make an issue of the counter-terrorism operation in Delhi’s Batla House.

To lay the blame for India’s laxity on the previous Home Minister Shivraj Patil may be expedient politics but it does not exonerate the Prime Minister. It calls into question his warped sense of priorities. Manmohan, it would seem, was willing to run the extra mile to keep India’s commitment to the US—and he was right to do so. But he couldn’t stir himself to use his position to tell the puppet masters of the UPA that the security of ordinary people couldn’t be taken so lightly. Manmohan chose to preside over an UPA that viewed counter-terrorism through the prism of communal politics. The Prime Minister may now make disapproving noises about Varun Gandhi, but didn’t he contribute to creating the conditions for hate to flower?

The shifting of the T-20 Indian Premier League to a foreign country was the result of five years of sustained disregard of national security. Manmohan today heads a government that has implicitly admitted that conditions in India may be as bad as those prevailing in Pakistan. With his government’s laxity, he diluted India’s claim to be regarded as a bulwark in the war on terror. He re-established the hyphenated India-Pakistan syndrome.

Nor does it end here. The NDA Government fell a political victim to unfulfilled expectations. Yet, it bequeathed to the UPA a vibrant, entrepreneur-driven economy and a healthy growth rate. Five years later, Manmohan has left behind an Indian economy whose fundamentals are beginning to look distinctly shaky. The UPA rode the crest of an economic boom. But instead of using the good fortune to invest in the future, it chose the path of profligate spending which can’t be sustained during the bad times. Important measures of the Vajpayee Government such as the building of highways and the creation of a network of rural roads were whittled down dramatically. The NREGA couldn’t stop rural suicides and rural indebtedness. On the contrary, the rise in irresponsible spending by the government sucked liquidity from the markets, kept interest rates well above global levels and shattered the expectations of the new middle class for home ownership and a better life. In 2004, the Congress manifesto promised 10 million new jobs each year; in 2009, there were already 15 millions Indians who had been made redundant as a result of the blunting of India Inc’s competitive edge. Manmohan responded by absolving himself of all decision-making obligations. Since December 2008, India doesn’t have a Finance Minister.

Last Tuesday, during the release of the Congress’ election manifesto, Manmohan claimed that the party had met 80 per cent of its assurances to the people. It was the most brazen and preposterous claim made with a complete straight face. It was reminiscent of the 1999 election when, as the Congress candidate for South Delhi, he charged the RSS of being responsible for the anti-Sikh riots in 1983.

India, it has been recognised since 1996, has entered a troubled period of coalition governments. The national parties no longer have the necessary clout to be able to form a government at the Centre on their own steam. They have to take the help of disparate smaller parties which have a sectional focus. Yet, despite these constraints both Vajpayee and Manmohan have led coalitions that have lasted the full term. But the styles of the two were sharply different. Vajpayee was at the helm of a federal arrangement which was held together by an agreed leader and defined priorities. Manmohan led a confederal arrangement where each partner (indeed, each minister) did their own thing and where the leader existed as a symbolic figurehead. Vajpayee used his personal standing in the electorate India as his crutch. Manmohan did one better. He made the post of Prime Minister irrelevant.

Mamnohan walked through a field of snow and left no footprints.

Tehelka magazine, 6 (13), April 4, 2009

IPL's exit sends out wrong signals (March 29, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Only a reckless banker or a client-less astrologer will be willing to gamble their money and reputation on the outcome of the general election. But one thing is certain: if Congress performs poorly in urban India and fails to reap the harvest of youth votes it is banking on, a large share of the blame will go to the “munshis and managers” who forced the T-20 IPL tournament out of India.

In the course of just one successful season IPL had become one of the biggest global brands, comparable to Wimbledon and the football World Cup. The Central government chose to deal with this Indian achievement with the same bloody-mindedness it displayed in the allocation of 2G and 3G spectrum for the telecom sector. An outpouring of meanness drove the Nano plant out of West Bengal. Last week, P.Chidambaram donned the mantle of Mamata Banerjee and forced IPL out of India. Like Mamata who felt that Ratan Tata could be browbeaten because he was a hostage to money already invested in Singur, North Block proceeded on the assumption that the IPL was a helpless captive. And just as Tata had to cut his losses and resist blackmail politics, Lalit Modi inveigled IPL out of a desperate situation with a daredevil flight to South Africa.

The implications of IPL’s exile from India are awesome. There is, of course, the colossal loss of income for all those directly or indirectly involved in the cricket extravaganza—from humble vendors at the venues to the hospitality and travel industry. This, in turn, will have a bearing on government revenues which are already feeling the pinch of the slowdown.

But there is a more horrifying dimension which goes beyond accountancy. Chidambaram was being more than a little disingenuous when he argued that the IPL organisers were being unreasonable in putting entertainment above democracy. If it had been a case of adjusting the dates of a few matches to accommodate the policing arrangements for five different phases of polling, no one in the BCCI would have contemplated taking such an extreme step. The organisers agreed to add new venues such as Ahmedabad, Dharamshala and Raipur so as not to over-burden the administration of the metros. Gujarat, for example, accepted the offer of six games without any reservations; it had a problem with the date of a seventh match.

It is more than a little curious that the IPL faced resistance only from the Congress-ruled states. It was the firm no from Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi that finally clinched the issue in favour of South Africa. In Delhi, where policing is under the direct purview of the Centre, even Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit was in favour of hosting matches. Yet, the police chief informed her and Delhi Cricket Association president Arun Jaitley that no permission would be forthcoming before, during and after the polling. As far as the Centre was concerned, IPL could go to hell.

The Government, it would seem, was intent on teaching the IPL organisers a lesson. Whether this was because of Lalit Modi’s proximity to Vasundhara Raje or prompted by a desire to deflate BCCI president Sharad Pawar is a matter of conjecture. Also worth considering is the Congress Party pressure on the IPL to lift the total ban on political advertising at the venue and during the official telecast. Whatever the real story, there is compelling evidence to indicate that the government hostility was not prompted by national security imperatives. It can hardly be the case that terrorists were intent on targeting only Congress-ruled states.

The global message of the IPL flight to Africa is stark. India has sent out a loud and clear signal that the country is unsafe for any major event that involves international participation and crowds. The simple message: India is as dangerous as Pakistan.

India can only hope and pray that the world of global finance is mystified by cricket and fails to gauge the significance of the IPL fiasco.

If this self-inflicted ignominy is shameful, consider the other implication. India has proclaimed that it will respond to the terrorist challenge by running away from it. If terrorists target cricket, ban cricket; if terrorists frown upon a Rakhi Sawant Nite, deny permission to item numbers; and if zealots in Azamgarh want to impose an ideological veto on a political rally, meekly acquiesce. In an age of vote banks this is called prudent politics.

No wonder the latest batch of Lashkar-e-Tayiba terrorists trying to cross the border carried T-shirts proclaiming “Jihad is my life.” The army took them on frontally and did India proud. The vote-banker in the Home Ministry would have responded differently. He would have banned T-shirts.

Sunday Times of India, March 29, 2009

Change Bhagwat ke Sangh (March 29, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is often a striking mismatch between how the media paints an event and how the actors in the drama perceive it. The appointment of Mohan Bhagwat as the new sarsanghachalak of the RSS was viewed by many through the prism of factional alignments in the BJP. In view of the ongoing general election campaign and the political importance of the BJP this was, perhaps, predictable. Viewed from the perspective of the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, however, electoral politics didn’t enter the calculations.

The RSS has traditionally viewed politics as a necessary but disagreeable facet of national life—one purist equated politics to the toilet in the home. From its perspective, the regeneration of India cannot be brought about by politics but only through the spread of worthwhile values in civil society. As an institution, the RSS has invariably chosen to sidestep the murky world of politics—though it has not always succeeded. Bhagwat’s elevation to the top position may have incidental political fallout, but it was not premised on politics. It centred on the creation of an ethical, nationalist leadership with tentacles in all walks of life.

The issue that is foremost in the mind of the RSS—which Bhagwat alluded to in his first public address after assuming charge—is the challenge of “modernity.” To a very large extent, the organisational and ideological priorities of the RSS were determined and moulded by an India that existed prior to the post-1991 economic transformation. The daily shakhas, with its blend of physical fitness, fun and some food for thought, held a great attraction in an unhurried world. In small towns and closely-knit mohallas, parents were happy to send their sons to the shakhas because the atmosphere was wholesome. In the absence of too many distractions and other leisure opportunities, the shakhas became a centre of community bonding.

The emergence of a fiercely competitive world and the mushrooming of leisure opportunities have dented some of the austere assumptions that defined the RSS till the 1990s. The RSS is still perceived as one of the most important load-bearing pillars of what can loosely be called the Hindutva movement. However, this has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the importance of the shakhas. The difficulties faced by the RSS are also a consequence of a fierce political-media onslaught that has painted the entire brotherhood as a secretive, backward-looking bunch of monsters committed to harassing non-Hindus.

There is an additional paradox. The Hindutva movement touched a political nerve of Middle India during the Ayodhya movement. Since the mid-1990s, however, the importance of Hindutva as a political rallying point has steadily declined. Yet, ironically, the importance of Hindutva as a social and even religious phenomenon has increased quite dramatically. The spread of “evangelical Hindutva” centred on modern gurus, yoga and TV discourses has kept pace with the modernisation of India. There is a new symbolism and even a modern iconography of the new Hindutva which is sharply removed from the symbols of the RSS.

Additionally, there is a new, assertive patriotism in the country. The public discourse, particularly the English media discourse, may be overwhelmed by secularist cosmopolitanism but Indians have simultaneously become more aware of their Indian and Hindu identities. The Indian flag is far more visible today than was the case two decades or so ago. Indians today feel a greater pride in being Indian than during the shortage economy era. In the diaspora, this has translated into Hindu pride and even Hindu activism.

Yet, and this is another paradox, the rise of a fiercely patriotic Indian hasn’t necessarily seen a corresponding strengthening of Indian nationalism—at least not politically. Narendra Modi may be the exception. The Gujarat Chief Minister has grafted the energies of a modern society on a Sangh tradition. This is an experience waiting to be more widely emulated.

As the head of India’s foremost Hindu movement, these are some of the challenges before Bhagwat. How can the RSS connect more effectively with the new India? How can the movement incorporate change without losing sight of its core values?

In many ways, Bhagwat is ideally placed to tackle the challenges of the 21st century. As general secretary of the organisation during the tenure of K.S. Sudarshan, he has formidable organisational experience and familiarity with the entire country. This is coupled by ideological rigour.

Having interacted with Bhagwat on at least six different occasions, I have been struck by the fact that his firm commitment to the RSS ideology is not coupled with dogmatism. Unlike some RSS functionaries who are trapped in an insular mutt culture—the Sangh is their entire world—Bhagwat seems acutely aware that the Hindu movement runs on many parallel tracks and, sometimes, on different assumptions. It is this recognition of plurality—an essential facet of the Hindu inheritance—that sets him apart from those who want the Hindu movement to be modelled along Leninist lines—the hegemonic role of the Sangh. In the coming days, I see the RSS under Bhagwat retreating from micro-management of its fraternal organisations and according great space for a varied articulation of Hindutva. Naturally, this will have a bearing on the future orientation of the BJP. As the head of the parivar, Bhagwat’s responsibility is to both guide and ensure that the different streams are in broad harmony.

The challenges before Bhagwat are daunting. This is not because either the Sangh or the Hindutva movement is in crisis but because the opportunities presented by the new, assertive India haven’t been fully realised. How the Sangh chief negotiates his way through these multiple openings and reaches out to the whole of India will be keenly scrutinised in the coming years.

Sunday Pioneer, March 29, 2009