Sunday, June 28, 2009

System, not exams, causes stress (June 28, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

An understandable desire to make a quick mark in the fiercely competitive world of politics may have prompted Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal’s radical proposals to overhaul India’s schooling system. However, in shedding tears for the examination trauma suffered by lakhs of school children, not to mention their parents, Sibal forgot to ask a simple question: Why have the public examinations held at the conclusion of classes 10 and 12 become a cause of so much anguish?

In most developed countries, the debate over schooling centres on declining standards. Many educationists have expressed concern that the examinations are no longer an adequate test of a student’s actual worth. In Britain, for example, the GCSE for 16-year-olds are seen to be less demanding than the old O-levels. Likewise, many university authorities feel that the A-level examinations for 18-year-olds are inferior compared to the International Baccalaureate.

Developing countries such as India have a different set of problems. There is, of course, the question of standards. But this is balanced by two additional concerns. First, there was a need to ensure access to education for all but particularly those children whose parents and grandparents had suffered from either illiteracy or, at best, managed ‘class 8 pass’. Second, there was the more complex question of tailoring education to meet the requirements of the economy.

When S Nurul Hasan presided over the abolition of the 11-year schooling system and introduced the 10+2 system in the mid-1970s, he was guided by the firm conviction that the primary purpose of schooling was not to steer a maximum number of students into India’s over-stretched university system. Hasan believed, maybe even sincerely, that the public examinations at the end of class 10 would be the last occasion a majority of school children read text books. A majority of 16-year-olds, he believed, would either join the labour market or undertake some job-oriented vocational training. The remainder would go on to a more scholastic education and only the top layer of the 18-year-olds would enter universities.

Needless to say, it hasn’t quite worked out the way Hasan imagined. To cope with the problem of supply exceeding demand, employers simply raised the entry-level requirements. Today, for example, a class 12 pass is the minimum requirement for a police constable and a bus driver. Hasan imagined it would be class 10 pass. The result is that the schooling system has to cope with two very different sets of demands. There are those who just want a certificate that will make them eligible for menial jobs and there are those who want schools to prepare them for university.

Balancing the two is at the best of times difficult but they have been made doubly complicated by political pressure. To prevent the established middle classes from being the natural beneficiaries of a scholastic system where the quality of schools and teachers play a major part, Governments were forced to establish a system of equivalence. In plain language this involved the creation of an examination system where the advantages of social origin would be nullified and the students of a cash-strapped Government school would not feel disadvantaged.

In practice this meant that students would no longer be tested for their critical faculties, their ability to handle knowledge and their creative acumen. These, it was believed, would place students from better-off backgrounds at an advantage. Instead, it was felt that rote-learning and increased weightage on modularisation would be the great leveller because it lessened the subjective element in evaluation. To lessen the disparity in English language skills, for example, the thrust was no longer on the use of idiomatic language but on the ability to regurgitate a defined pattern of usage. Indeed, those students who have an easy command over English and are in the habit of reading books have often been marked down against those who know their text books inside out.

The trauma suffered by children preparing for board examinations is not on account of the hard work they have to put in. The disorientation is caused by the sheer mindlessness of the learning process and the equivalence process inherent in the evaluation.

In an ideal world, the authorities should have approached the problem by trying to secure better schools, better trained teachers, innovative pedagogy and more opportunities for bright kids from deprived social backgrounds. Rajiv Gandhi had the right idea when he started the Navodaya Vidyalayas in district towns. Sibal should have focussed his attention on a mushrooming of such schools of excellence throughout the land, particularly in the poorer regions. Instead, he has taken an easy way out by proposing to make the class 10 board exam voluntary. This is not going to solve the problem. Instead, the proposal to make school education uniform and regulated by one authority is certain to add to mindlessness. With one board, the challenges of diversity are going to be compounded by the problems of volume-a recipe for even more modularisation.

The paradox of India is its great unevenness. The education system tries to balance the brilliant, the plodder, the mediocre and the sub-standard under one roof. The result is an inevitable levelling down process. It is time politicians recognise that different levels of attainment cannot be accommodated under one roof. To be meaningful, to cater to the requirements of a dynamic, modern and increasingly globalised economy, and to satisfy the growing aspirations of an ambitious population, the one-size-fits-all approach has to be junked.

India is in need of a binary system which has to be sufficiently open-ended to accommodate social diversity. The country needs skills, but it also needs the ability to transform information into knowledge. If higher education has been defined by its centres of excellence, school education must have its share of the same.

Sunday Pioneer, June 28, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Cry for freedom (June 26, 2009)

A modern Iran could counter regressive models of the faith

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past three decades, Iran has been plagued by its sinister projection in the free world. Even if the images of a mass of humanity marching against the Pehlavi dynasty in 1980 were inspirational, the spectacle of the Revolutionary Guards undertaking combat drills before the captured American Embassy in Tehran and the show trials of the Shah’s henchmen, drug addicts, communists and sexual “deviants” before Ayatollah Khalkhali, nicknamed the “hanging judge”, cast Iran as something straight out of the Dark Ages. In recent years, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grotesque denial of the Holocaust painted Iran as a country run by cranks — and dangerous ones at that. Even those who rue nuclear apartheid are terribly ill at ease with the idea of a theocracy with weapons of mass destruction.

I must confess travelling to Iran in 1999 with many of these unfavourable images firmly etched in my mind. In the mid-1970s, as a student in Britain, I was familiar with the down-and-out Iranian exile, usually leftist radicals, half-angry and half-terrified of Savak informers lurking around campuses. In the 1980s, this breed was replaced by the more prosperous and, indeed, more clubbable exiles who couldn’t countenance the draconian illiberalism of the black-robed ayatollahs. In the heyday of the Shah’s impatient drive to modernize Iran, Tehran had often been regarded as a Paris of the East. After 1980, Iran eschewed cosmopolitanism.

Going by appearances, Tehran in 1999 seemed a complete throwback to the 1970s. From the cars that had clearly outlived their natural life to the worn-out interiors of the hotels, it was obvious that Iran had seen better days. Only the grandly opulent foreign ministry — where, unfortunately, the officials seemed incredibly wooden and socially ill at ease —served as a reminder of the fact that Iran wasn’t just another emerging basket case but was driven by a passionate desire to be a regional power worthy of its rich inheritance.

Ten years ago, Tehran had reminded me of Calcutta — another great imperial city overwhelmed by genteel decay, political graffiti, frozen in time but yet pulsating with life and vitality. The traffic was infuriatingly chaotic and inimical to any timely business. Yet, the shopkeepers in the grand arcade of the Bazar-e-Bozorg flaunted an impish and irreverent sense of humour. “Have it with champagne or good vodka,” the man who sold me an old silver caviar dish told me laughingly. He was delighted because I had paid for it in US dollars, a currency preferred to the wads of “khomeinis”— the disparaging description of the local currency.

It wasn’t merely the indefatigability of the Iranian man on the street that was such a sharp contrast to the media-driven stereotype. Much more of a discovery was the remarkable extent to which the Iranian economy was powered by women. The sartorial restrictions — the ubiquitous head scarves and the occasional full chador — appeared as needless restrictions on personal freedom. However, it was remarkable that this insistence on modesty in a completely male-dominated establishment hadn’t succeeded in reducing women to complete subordination. In office after office, particularly in the private sector, it was clear that women were the driving force. “Our men are useless,” a woman graduate nominally attached to an embassy told me bluntly, “Without women this country would be in an even worse state.”

Maybe she was exaggerating but I suspect she was pointing to something that Iran-watchers have been slow to realize: the growing mismatch between the economic role of women and their role in the power structure.

On the face of it, the recent turmoil in Iran is over a flawed election involving candidates whose credentials had been vetted by the theologians in the Guardian Council. Initially, there had been nothing to suggest that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the foremost challenger of President Ahmadinejad, was anything more than a representative of a fraction of the ruling establishment, in particular that section allied to the former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani. Mousavi had, after all, served as prime minister under the spiritual guidance of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The factors which transformed Mousavi from being just a more benign face of the Islamic establishment into a threat to the status quo, as he undoubtedly has become, is really the story of Iran’s evolution in the past two decades.

In a sense, Mousavi became a prisoner of the forces that saw in his candidature a small opening for the creation of a less doctrinaire and more open society in Iran. Leading the charge were the young men in jeans who have been sending Twitter commentaries to the outside world on the state of the street protests. But what has been sustaining the movement is the solid support from modern, mainly middle-class, Iranian women who have the greatest stake in demolishing the all-powerful theocracy. The brutal gunning down of the jeans-clad, 27-year-old woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, deified as the Angel of Freedom, has come to symbolize the angry yearning for personal freedom in Iran.

There is a caricatured version of what this freedom is all about. Recounting her experiences in Tehran, Leyla Ferani, a 21-year-old British Iranian woman wrote in The Daily Telegraph: “By day I dutifully donned a shawl and overcoat, in public playing the part — like all Iranian girls my age — of the respectful and obedient woman. But at night, and in private, the shawls were off. The same girls — with their brothers and cousins — joined me in underground raves, fuelled by smuggled alcohol and copious amounts of cannabis.”

Given the severity of punishments for drinking and smoking pot, it is hardly presumptuous to suggest that violation of the law was a conscious act of subversion. “I feel a heaviness of heart,” another woman told Ferani, “because I know that I’m not living the way I want to.”

It is conceivable that all this outpouring of anger will come to nought against the organized might of the State. There are many in the West pressing President Barack Obama and other leaders to back the protestors in Iran in the same way as the former president, Ronald Reagan, backed Solidarity in Poland. Unfortunately, any certificate from the West is likely to make things more difficult for Iran’s beleaguered liberals.

The cry for personal freedom may have an outward veneer of Westernization, both in terms of the partiality to jeans and to Facebook and Twitter. But that is at a high level of superficiality. Societies such as India and Iran are too rooted in their own cultures and backed by their own distinctive religious traditions to be overwhelmed by glitzy Westernization — although, like any forbidden fruit, this may have a strong initial attraction.

In theory, there is also a potential conflict between cosmopolitan dreams and nationalism. However, if the Indian experience is any guide, the real attraction is for Western technology and consumer goods. Global influences may modify indigenous value systems but at the end of the day, the appeal of uninhibited individualism and atomized existence is limited. If Iranian nationalists fear that a rash of personal freedoms will trigger a civilizational breakdown, they can take solace from the Indian experience.

It is important that democracy takes firm roots in Iran, and it is equally important that theocracy is undermined there. A modern, progressive Iran has the potential of becoming the alternative to regressive versions of the Islamic ideal. Iranians are always quick to remind visitors, “We are not Arabs”. The distinction needs to be spelt out unambiguously. It would also help if it is simultaneously affirmed that Iran doesn’t aspire to be a clone of the West.


The Telegraph, June 26, 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why the twitter-bugs can't change Iran's regime (June 21, 2009)

Sunday Times of India, June 21, 2009

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a natural romance associated with the fight for freedom and democracy. When that struggle blends with the lure of a mysterious Orient, its long-distance fascination is even more compelling. The disgust against saffron-robed Buddhist monks being thrashed by the authorities in Burma and Tibet have mobilised an army of the well-meaning-from Hollywood stars to Harvard professors. When that outrage merges into righteousness, usually fuelled by the symbolic presence of a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, the brew is even headier. Confronted by the halo surrounding Aung San Suu-Kyi and the Dalai Lama, the junta in Yangon and the Politburo in Beijing look like incarnations of Darth Vader.

The street protests in Tehran against a ''stolen election'' have grabbed a lot of media space. Yet, the absence of a face which captures the disquiet has also meant that the stir hasn't made the same impression on the western imagination as, say, Slumdog Millionaire did. The comparison may seem facetious but it is worth remembering that, self-interest apart, what really drives ''international opinion'' is a happy hour of concern and condescension. The West loves to feel superior.

Iran, unfortunately, doesn't fit the stereotype. Despite the forthright indictment of the election process by some European leaders and American opinion-makers, the protests in Tehran aren't likely to set both sides of the Atlantic ablaze in righteous indignation.

The defeated Mir Hossein Mousavi was the nominal alternative to the scruffily combative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. However, there were always doubts over how much reformism could flow from someone who was prime minister under Ayatollah Khomeini. Mousavi's candidature was, after all, vetted by the all-powerful theologians who call the shots. The choice before voters was not one of good versus evil but between 'Evildee and Evildum'. The hiccups over over-zealous election management are symptomatic of a factional struggle within the ruling establishment.

It is possible the angry young men and well-dressed women in Victoria Beckham sunglasses in Tehran - the only place where Mousavi outpolled Ahmadinejad - have different ideas. While Ahmadinejad supporters tend to be poor and socially conservative - more black chadors are seen at his rallies - Mousavi becomes a rallying point for all those who feel weighed down by the social illiberalism of the Ayatollahs. There is an emerging Facebook and Twitter generation in Iran which rues the curtailment of personal freedoms and yearns for the relatively more exciting lives enjoyed by their non-resident cousins. The fierce allergy of the theologians to the intermingling of the sexes is a particular irritation and there is exasperation that fun has been driven underground.

Why, goes a joke doing the rounds in Iran, does Ahmadinejad have a middle parting? Answer: because he can separate the male and female lice.

The experiences of 21-year-old British-Iranian woman who spent a month in Tehran may not be typical but is certainly indicative of how much a global, westernised culture has seeped into Iran. "By day," she wrote in Daily Telegraph, "I dutifully donned a shawl and an overcoat, in public playing the part - like all Iranian girls my age - of the respectful and obedient woman. But at night, the shawls were off. The same girls - with their brothers and cousins - joined me in underground raves, fuelled by smuggled alcohol and copious amounts of cannabis."

This description of the 'other' Iran captures the impulses behind the protests and also explains why they are unlikely to lead to a dramatic regime change.

The abrupt politicisation of this Twitter generation - to the extent that some are questioning the authority of the spiritual leader Ayatollah Khameini - has titillated the West. From Obama downwards, policy makers are exploring the potential of internet social networking becoming a handle in the fight for change in Iran. Yet, in embracing the modernists so enthusiastically, the West has prepared the ground for a conservative retaliation. The backlash may not necessarily take the form of a Tiananmen Square-type massacre but in days to come the Twitter-bugs are certain to be subjected to two charges. They will, predictably, be accused of being un-Islamic and morally degenerate. But far more damaging will be the charge of colluding with the West against Iranian nationalism.

It's a charge they may find difficult to counter. In its 20 years of existence as an Islamic Republic, Iran has acquired a siege mentality. This stems contradictory impulses: a fierce desire to protect its civilisational vitality and the realisation that cultural purity is impossible in a shrinking world. Indifferent economic progress has driven Iran towards populist adventurism which, however flawed, enjoys mass endorsement.

The Twitter-bugs of Tehran want to push Iran into acknowledging a national failure. Unfortunately, they haven't factored the biggest hurdle to Iran's return to the modern world: national pride.

Back to the past in West Bengal (June 21, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

As a schoolboy in a Calcutta devastated by competing variants of Marxism-Leninism and other exotic viruses, I recall a poster that made its appearance sometime in 1970. Conceived as a parody of Dwijendralal Roy’s well-known play Chandragupta, it had Alexander remarking to his trusted general: “Satya Seleukos ki bichitra ei desh: deeney ora Nakshal, raatey Congress. (Truly Seleukos this is a bewildering place. They are Naxalites by day and Congress at night.)”

Those were fearful and confusing times. On the face of it, the Naxalites were in the midst of their campaign of annihilation of “class enemies”, the CPI(M) was battling the Congress and the Naxalites, and the Congress was in the throes of political churning and reinventing itself as a youth brigade (this predated Sanjay Gandhi) against the Left. On the ground, however, no one was very sure which local militia was with whom and at whose behest. The lines of political identity were very blurred-something Siddhartha Shankar Ray adroitly exploited to finally restore order after 1972, but at a huge cost.

Watching Congress and Trinamool Congress on the one side and CPI(M) stalwarts on the other trade insults and charges over the handling of the insurrection in the Lalgarh area of West Midnapore district is very distressing. It brings to mind an observation of Karl Marx that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. West Bengal is reliving the mean politics of the 1970s which devastated the State to such an extent that it hasn’t yet recovered from the blow after 40 years.
The comparisons with the past are eerie. In the 1970s, thanks to the involvement of large numbers of students from middle-class families, the predominantly Left-wing intelligentsia of West Bengal painted the Naxalite movement as an expression of idealistic anger against a decaying system. It was generally assumed that the Naxalites meant well, even if their methods were a bit extreme. Public intellectuals such as Mrinal Sen, Ranajit Guha and Samar Sen were widely seen to be sympathetic to those who proclaimed “China’s Chairman is our Chairman, China’s path is our path.”

This atmosphere of indulgence enabled the Naxalites to get away with outrageous acts of murder and vandalism. The routine desecration of statues of national figures, including Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi, and the murder of ageing vice-chancellors and traffic policemen, were looked upon either as revolutionary grandstanding or youthful excesses. Even Charu Mazumdar’s demented assertion that the knife was a better way to kill a class enemy than firing with a gun resonated as a major theoretical debate.
Today’s Maoists are immeasurably more professional than yesterday’s Naxalites. The quality of their arms and ammunition is comparable (and occasionally better) than those used by the security forces. They have an apparently inexhaustible source of funds raised from ‘taxes’ levied on businesses in ‘liberated areas’. In military terms they are far more focussed and have deliberately confined their activities to forested and relatively inaccessible parts. Unlike the 1970s when they banked on a spontaneous outbreak of the “spring thunder”, the CPI (Maoist) of today is clear about its objective of undermining the Indian state by the creation of liberated areas where its writ prevails. It also seeks alliances with other secessionist movements and even Islamist groups.

The challenge of Maoist extremism has been recognised by all those committed to the preservation of a democratic India. Yet, this has not prevented an outpouring of sympathy for the so-called ‘cause’ the Maoists profess. Human rights activists have emerged as the overground arm of the banned Maoists and various student bodies are operating as thinly-disguised front bodies. The Maoists even scored a propaganda coup of sorts through their campaign to free Binayak Sen, a doctor who operated as a facilitator for a Politburo member of the CPI (Maoist). The Maoist-inspired campaign against the tribal-led Salwa Judum resistance movement has appealed to those who want a stick to beat the BJP with.

It is this cover of liberal sympathy — witness the likes of Aparna Sen and Sumit Sarkar calling for “restraint” by the administration — which is serving the Maoists well in Lalgrah. The opposition to CPI(M) high-handedness in Nandigram was hugely successful and contributed to the Left Front’s defeat in West Bengal in the parliamentary poll. It was the post-poll retreat of the Left that created the vacuum which the Maoists have filled in Lalgarh — with some help from the Trinamool Congress.
The Maoists have done what the CPI(M) has perfected in many parts of rural Bengal: Uprooting all those opposed to them by force. Yet, there is one major difference. The CPI(M) sought monopoly political control; the Maoists seeks a parallel state, a springboard for encroachments into the rest of West Bengal and Jharkhand.

The ‘liberation’ of Lalgarh is an assault on Indian sovereignty. Its national cost is unacceptable. The Centre cannot afford to prevaricate.

It is one thing to oppose the CPI(M) politically as the Congress and Trinamool Congress have been doing. However, it is an act of extreme short-sightedness to use the State Government’s disarray to prevent sustained military action against the Maoists. Worse is to cite the plight of tribals to allow the well-armed Maoists to consolidate their hold. Orissa is a case study of the futility of a kid glove approach.

India is paying a heavy price for the narrow partisanship that has marred anti-Maoist operations in Chhattisgarh. If the process is repeated in Lalgarh the Maoist dream of a contiguous chunk of ‘liberated’ area in the heart of India will become a reality. The political approach to fighting Left-wing extremism means the surgical detachment of excising a cancer. This is as true for Bastar and Dandakaranya as it is for West Midnapore.


Sunday Pioneer, June 21, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Games in the BJP: What's behind Sinha's gamble (June 15, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

June.15 : There are two intriguing features about Yashwant Sinha’s
well-crafted resignation letter that may have escaped attention amid
the initial excitement over "breaking news".

First, it isn’t just a coincidence that the letter was released to a
television channel (which had also been privy to Jaswant Singh’s note
to the Bharatiya Janata Party core committee meeting) an hour before
BJP president Rajnath Singh’s gag order.

Since no order is retrospectively applicable, Mr Sinha’s letter, it
would seem, was carefully timed to take full advantage of the
attendant publicity without incurring the risk of disciplinary action.
Second, while Mr Sinha’s missive was ostensibly aimed at the "few
higher mortals in the party", the primary target was clearly the
newly-appointed Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun
Jaitley. True, L.K. Advani also suffered collateral damage for
reneging on his initial decision to step down as Leader of the
Opposition in the Lok Sabha. But the primary objective of the letter
was to throw as much mud as possible on Mr Jaitley and paint him as a
manipulative, self-seeking and controversial functionary.

Shooting the messenger is a time-honoured tradition. Yet what is
intriguing is the deftness with which Mr Sinha avoided pinning any
responsibility for the 2009 debacle on the venerable who acted on the
belief that a lost "semi-final" would herald a victory in the finals
of 2014, the man who chose to elevate Varun Gandhi from a political
deviant to an ideological icon, and the man who has so far resisted a
structured party post-mortem on the ground that the exercise has been
outsourced to a three-man team from a fraternal organisation. That
such a person was not a harmless crank dabbling in astrology but was
at the organisational helm of the BJP, has strengthened the belief
that the rebellion of the left-out and lost generation was actually
choreographed from somewhere in the long expanse of Ashoka Road.

Add to that the contrived aggression with which BJP spokesperson Rajiv
Pratap Rudy defended Mr Jaswant Singh and equated Sudheendra
Kulkarni’s disingenuous soul-searching with an article by Mr Jaitley,
and there is every reason to suspect that the turbulence in the BJP is
nothing short of an orchestrated battle for the control of the

Mr Sinha, who didn’t shy away from being "accommodated" in the Rajya
Sabha after his 2004 defeat, may have an agenda entirely different
from those who are complimenting him for putting Mr Jaitley in the
crosshairs. But his visceral dislike of the general secretary who
dared question the overkill opposition to the Indo-US nuclear
agreement, allowed him to make common cause and become the stalking
horse for a group that faces near-extinction if a new party president
assumes charge next year. Mr Sinha hasn’t blown his chances in the
BJP. His apparent recklessness was premised on the gamble that
targeted muckraking could force some nervous men in the Rashtriya
Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to prefer an organisational status quo after
December. If that happens, the MP for Hazaribagh will be back on the
BJP front bench.

The moratorium on all public debate that followed Mr Sinha’s
resignation was not an act of firmness by a selfless apparatchik
concerned with the image of disarray in a dejected party. Behind the
supposedly sombre directive to distance the party from the oxygen of
media publicity was the Cheshire Cat smile of a poacher turned

The tragic story of the latest bout of bloodletting in the BJP is that
the right questions have been asked but often for the wrong reasons.
The MP from Darjeeling was entirely right to highlight the growing
disrepute of Hindutva as a badge of identity — an issue over which
there is an emerging consensus in the BJP. Unfortunately, the
political efficacy of his intervention in the core committee was
diluted by a churlishness over losing the privileges that came with
his earlier job as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
Likewise, Rajya Sabha MP Kalraj Mishra set the cat among the pigeons
by speaking about the alleged sale of BJP tickets in Uttar Pradesh. It
is a matter of incidental detail that a thorough probe into the
process of ticket distribution may not necessarily cast him in a very
positive light.

Two games are being played simultaneously within the BJP. First, there
appears to be a determined resistance by some BJP elders, particularly
those in their mid-60s and above, to a generational change in the
party. Had the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won the 2009
election, many of today’s dissidents would have been accommodated in
the Cabinet and a few others pensioned off as governors.

With official avenues of advancement closed after the defeat, the
elders have unfurled the banner of revolt in the belief that this will
ensure their accommodation in the party. Their real fear is that Mr
Advani will step aside only after he ensures that his handpicked
Generation Next exercises collective control over the party. A
pre-emptive revolt was aimed at arousing the hierarchical instincts of
RSS veterans who also fear that the new RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has
similar ideas.

Alongside this battle against superannuation is the battle over ideas.
A reason why the BJP has hitherto not permitted a structured
post-mortem is rooted in the intellectual insecurities of a few
leaders. There is a scriptural positioning that stems from learning a
few homilies by rote — what Communists call "the line" — but far more
challenging is the ability to blend ideas with situations. Such an
acumen distinguished Mr Advani from the rest of his colleagues,
including Atal Behari Vajpayee. Today, unfortunately, the BJP at the
Centre is being held hostage to the philistinism of those who cannot
distinguish between politics and politicking and who have mortgaged
decision-making to those with an ability to pay.

The post-defeat turbulence marks a quiet battle between those who want the BJP to be a wholesome and sober nationalist party, and those who have little inhibitions against making it a variant of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 15, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

West predicts, Iran disproves (June 14, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For most Indians interested in life beyond our national boundaries, the primary source of information is the Western media. Consequently, it is not surprising that there was an expectation that Saturday morning would mark the beginning of a new chapter in the politics of Iran. Going by the heady excitement of American and British TV reporters at the spectacularly high voter turnout in Teheran and elsewhere, viewers would be forgiven for harbouring the impression that the presidential election would be a veritable turning point in the history of a great country.

It wasn’t the media alone that delighted in the winds of change blowing across Persia—the TV images of enthusiastic, well groomed men and women forming a million-strong human chain across Teheran were quite heady. Bowled over by the imagined impact of his word play in Cairo earlier this month, President Barack Obama even thought it prudent to comment on the election in Iran. “We are excited to see”, he told reporters last Friday afternoon, “…a robust debate taking place in Iran and obviously, after the speech that I made in Cairo, we tried to send a clear message that we think there’s a possibility of change. And ultimately, the election is for the Iranians to decide. But just as what has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran as well, is that you’re seeing people looking at new possibilities.”

Cut out the routine caveat about the decision being up to Iranians, there was little ambiguity in Obama’s endorsement of “new possibilities”.
In the end it was a colossal anti-climax. To use the immortal words of historian AJP Taylor, it was a turning point in history when history refused to turn. With most of the votes counted, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has secured nearly 66 per cent of the votes against 31 per cent polled by his main opponent Mir Hossein Mousavi.
Assuming that there was no hanky-panky (and there is absolutely no evidence of this), it appears that the Western perception of Iran had been governed by a staggering measure of irrational exuberance. The West, it would seem, had erred in transposing its subjective preferences on the people of Iran.

Yes, there was enthusiastic middle-class support for Mousavi. Yes, Mousavi’s articulate middle-class and youth supporters were looking for avenues to repair Iran’s relationship with the West. Yes, there was a strong undercurrent in favour of a large measure of social liberalism, particularly an enlargement of women’s rights. And yes, the modernist sections of Iranian society were never comfortable with the cultural idiom of Ahmadinejad. In their mind he was too much of an outlander and a storm-trooper for the theologians who have the final say over public policy.

Although Mousavi had been approved by the theologians as a safe candidate, ie someone who was acceptable within the broad parameters of the Islamic Republic, it was quite clear that he was being propelled by those for whom “secular” statecraft held greater attraction. In short, regardless of Mousavi’s personal inclinations, his victory was calculated to trigger a movement for more fundamental changes in the way Iran is run.

The drive for reforms would not have left the Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khamenei unaffected. According to the present arrangement, the Spiritual Leader has control over foreign policy, the military (including the nuclear programme), law enforcement and justice. Although the elected President is Iran’s face in the world, his primary responsibilities are limited to the economy and education.

In suggesting the primacy of reformist impulses, the West erred grievously. There is an inclination for Western diplomats and its media to attach disproportionate importance to the views of those they are either in agreement with, or those with whom they enjoy a convivial social relationship. Broadly speaking, foreign journalists and diplomats interact meaningfully with those who are fluent in English and not socially conservative. It was interesting to note that few journalists covering the Iranian election actually made the effort to find out what made Ahmadinejad tick with the poor and the working classes.

The Daily Telegraph reporter landed up at an Ahmadinejad rally and was surprised to discover that the President enjoys a cult among people the diplomats and media aren’t accustomed to meeting. The rally, he wrote with more than a touch of amusement and condescension, “combined the fervour of a religious gathering, the jostling crowds of a rock gig moshpit, and the carefully choreographed build-up of a World Wrestling Federation grudge match”. It’s the “great unwashed” that gave Ahmadinejad a categorical second term. It was in many ways a class war.

But last week’s verdict doesn’t sound the death-knell of Iranian liberalism. There is a tremendous energy within middle-class Iran that feels stifled by rigid social taboos and the strictures on personal and intellectual freedom. However, the political expressions of these frustrations are stymied by the association of liberalism with the West, an association that raises both conservative and nationalist hackles. After all, despite what Obama said in Cairo, Iranian nationalism is at odds with the West over a dispute that is nominally over nuclear weapons but which translates on the ground as an issue of national self-esteem.

However, this is a schism that Iran cannot afford to either suppress or allow to fester. President Ahmadinejad has a pugnacious style. He loves a good fight and this is the basis of his success. But if he wants Iran to pull together, he has to walk that extra mile to reassure Mousavi’s supporters that there is a place for them in Iran’s power structure. That means loosening the control of the theologians. Otherwise Iran will suffer from an internal subversion and will allow the West opportunities to fish in troubled waters.

Sunday Pioneer, June 14, 2009

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Iron Man's meltdown (June 13, 2009)

Sudheendra Kulkarni made important points, but they were half-truths. The fact is, Modi offered inspiration, Advani confusion, says the BJP watcher


APOLITICAL PARTY like the BJP doesn’t exist for the gratification of a self-perpetuating leadership. It is sustained by a vibrant dialogue involving the leadership, activists, stakeholders and above all, its supporters and voters on the ground. It is a measure of the deep commitment of large numbers of Indians to the ideas driving the BJP that the 2009 defeat has generated a passionate and spontaneous debate over the party’s future. Without waiting for the leadership to first read a report on the debacle by three unnamed notables and then determine the ‘line’ in a closed door chintan baithak, well-wishers of the party including many who gave quality time to the party during the long election campaign have taken matters into their own hands and have already initiated a debate the party leadership can’t afford to ignore.

Contrary to the perception that it is some sort of a cadrebased body operating along Leninist command-and-control lines, the BJP actually approximates a political movement. This accounts for both its strengths and its weaknesses. Like much of Hindu society, a strange cocktail of idealism, ideology, pragmatism and selfinterest governs the BJP.

Sudheendra Kulkarni’s “candid insider account” (TEHELKA, June 13, 2009) is a welcome addition to the ever-growing literature on the BJP’s 2009 election experience. As the driving force behind LK Advani’s campaign for the prime ministership, Kulkarni has been refreshingly forthright in positing his reasons why the campaign to regain power went so horribly wrong. For its own reasons, the party leadership may have taken a dim view of a kiss-and-tell story by an ‘insider’ but these concerns don’t invalidate either the importance of his intervention or the efficacy of his observations.

Some of Kulkarni’s observations are unexceptionable. In 2009, the BJP-led NDA was missing in action from 143 seats of eastern and south India. These also happened to be precisely the areas where the Congress and its allies performed best — at the cost of the Left and the Third Front.

Secondly, it is also undeniable that the BJP coupled its uneven geographical spread by not being on the radar of Muslims and Christians who are 14 per cent of the population but whose enthusiastic participation in voting gives them a political clout far greater than their number.

Kulkarni’s argument that belligerent and ugly expressions of Hindutva have limited the BJP’s reach among both minorities and moderate Hindus is also one that will have many takers within the party and even the RSS. The BJP’s complete misreading of the post-Kandhamal mood in Orissa and the adverse fallout of Varun Gandhi’s tasteless remarks on the rest of Uttar Pradesh add weight to Kulkarni’s suggestion that the BJP must clarify “what formulations of Hindutva are not acceptable to it.”

I would, in fact, go a step further and reaffirm my argument (made in the Times of India, June 4, 2009) that it is time for the BJP to reconsider the very use of the H-word. The hideous baggage of Pramod Muthalik and Praveen Togadia that ‘Hindutva’ carries negates its use as respectable shorthand for a wholesome ‘way of life’.

Unfortunately, this is where my agreements with Kulkarni cease. In suggesting that “Never in the history of the Jana Sangh or the BJP was the party enfeebled by so much disarray at the top,” he has questioned the competence and integrity of those who were at the organisational helm of the party. As an expression of frustration, this blame game may be in order but the organisational shortcomings — particularly the appointments of inappropriate state presidents — were known to Advani in December 2007 when he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. What was done in the intervening period to put the right people in charge?

Kulkarni doesn’t answer the question and instead blames the Sangh Parivar and the party for not throwing their collective weight behind Advani, thereby making “a strong leader like Advani…look weak, helpless and not fully in command.”

Kulkarni doth protest too much. The RSS may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there is no doubt that the Parivar participated in the campaign ungrudgingly. The participation may not have been as intense as it was in, say, the 90s, and the social influence of the Parivar may have shrunk in the intervening period. But that does not warrant a charge of criminal dereliction of duty. Defeat does not mean there was a lack of resolve. To suggest otherwise is hurtful and churlish.

IN HIS outpourings, Kulkarni casually admits, “Of course, it is also true that Advani himself failed to assert his leadership at crucial points before and during the campaign.” Was this failure to lead an oversight, as Kulkarni seems to suggest, or was it a strategy that went awry?

That the BJP was not in a state of battle-readiness was known to almost everyone in the party for more than a year. It was also an open secret that a few leaders who relied excessively on resident astrologers saw the 2009 election as a “semi-final,” believing that their big moment would come in 2014. If Advani had wanted to act to correct these divinely ordained distortions, the party would have welcomed it enthusiastically. There would have been no opposition from the RSS too.

Unfortunately, Advani didn’t attend to the problems. Instead, he embarked on the suicidal course of trying to transform a parliamentary election into a presidential one. From the summer of 2008 onwards, Advani sought to project himself as a leader who was nominally from the party but stood well above it. Beginning with the functions associated with the publication of his autobiography to the establishment of his war-room, the unveiling of his personal website and his own vision statements, the Advani strategy lay in bypassing a problem-ridden party. Advani even had his separate media strategy, which centred on Kulkarni and his team of wide-eyed interns.

Whether the visible detachment of the Advani campaign from the party campaign was deliberate or an incidental consequence of Kulkarni’s own style of functioning is something that only Advani can clarify.

It is true that a conscious strategy of separating the leader from the party can often yield results. Atal Behari Vajpayee’s popularity always exceeded that of the BJP. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi benefited from his cult following. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work with the Advani 2009 campaign. Advani didn’t secure an incremental vote that would have given the BJP a booster shot. His projection as the “mazboot neta” didn’t correspond with his hands-off approach to the problems affecting the party. His energetic Internet campaign, while conveying an impression of meaningful impact, didn’t offset the age factor among youth voters.

The real problem, as I stressed in an earlier article, is that Advani suffered from the confusion of contradictory images. This haziness was responsible for the sudden midstream realisation by many that Modi offered something extra: inspiration. By then, it was too late for an audacious queen sacrifice.

Finally, in suggesting the BJP’s future course of action, Kulkarni has proposed that the relationship between the BJP and RSS be redefined, a suggestion he first mooted during the Jinnah controversy in 2005. It is an important area of concern considering the murmurs of dissatisfaction against the overbearing style of some RSS apparatchiks.

That the approaches of the BJP and RSS need to be different is undeniable. That the BJP must not be micro-managed by the RSS is also not a bone of contention. Yet, the functional autonomy of the BJP cannot diminish the fact that its institutional links with a nationalist organisation committed to Hindu unity and nation building are a source of strength. The RSS’ role of providing a moral and ethical compass for the BJP remains as valid today as it was in 1980 when the dual membership issue forced a parting of ways with the Janata Party.

In positing BJP-RSS ties as a key issue towards the revitalisation of the party, Kulkarni has climbed on his favourite hobbyhorse. It reveals an unfortunate streak of adventurism that deflects attention from the more urgent business at hand: forging an enlightened nationalist agenda centred on security, growth, modernity and good governance.

There is also a need to analyse and learn the relevant lessons from the failed 2009 campaign. Kulkarni has provided some interesting insights but has also cluttered the picture with red herrings. This isn’t surprising. There are many in the BJP who insist that the problem with Advani was Kulkarni.

Tehelka, VI, 24, June 30, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Time for a makeover (June 12, 2009)

How a dying party was resurrected

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a school of thought that sticks to the notion that political behaviour is almost entirely culture-specific and governed by the principles of exceptionalism. Therefore, what happens in one country, while interesting in itself, has little or no relevance in understanding either behaviour or trends in other societies. Some have extended the logic of uniqueness to even suggest that national politics is an amalgam of divergent localism and that aggregation runs the risk of missing out the rich experience of community action. Subjecting the small guy to what Edward Thompson once described as the enormous “condescension of history” has acted as a deterrent to cross-cultural perspectives, at least as far as the study of contemporary politics is concerned.

This irreconcilable clash between narrow empirical scrutiny and grand theorizing has also been conferred an unlikely ideological dimension. Marxists professing internationalism have been enthusiastic in drawing parallels and even learning from the experiences of ‘struggles’ elsewhere. There has been a marked reluctance, however, on the part of the adherents of the so-called national ideologies to extend the learning curve beyond the nation-state. In India, for example, despite the impressive history of cross-fertilization of ideas prior to Independence, political practitioners have been loath to draw upon the experience of their counterparts elsewhere.

Given the plethora of self-constructed walls and the underlying belief in the uniqueness of cultures, it is hardly surprising that last week’s elections to local bodies and the European Parliament in Britain has evoked little interest beyond the mundane coverage of a distant, foreign event.

For the shrinking tribe of Britain-watchers, there were two points of interest. First, the European Parliament election led to the victory of two members of the far-Right (some would say neo-fascist) British National Party, an event that has triggered consternation in liberal and multiculturalist circles. Of course, it is recognized that elections to the body in Brussels is governed by proportional representation. This means that it is extremely unlikely that the BNP will prevail in the first-past-the-post system that holds true for Westminster. Secondly, the European Parliament election saw the relegation of the ruling Labour Party to third place nationally. The main opposition Conservative Party won most of the seats but the surprise runner-up was the United Kingdom Independence Party made up essentially of Conservatives who favoured a more forthright assertion of national sovereignty.

The humiliation of the ruling Labour Party has, quite predictably, grabbed most attention. Despite warding off a challenge to his leadership last Monday, Gordon Brown has been more or less reduced to a lame-duck prime minister, and there is international concern over his ability to lead Britain in its hour of economic crisis. A general election is not due for another 12 months and there is fear that the interregnum could witness a state of drift.

How Britain governs itself in the run-up to a general election that many feel should be called immediately is, of course, a great concern. But the story of Labour’s sharp fall from grace — including its loss of pre-eminence in Wales after 81 years — has obscured an equally fascinating story: the Conservative Party’s recovery after three successive general-election defeats. Extrapolating from last week’s vote, pollsters now suggest that a snap election could well witness a 30-strong Conservative majority in the next House of Commons.

The suggestion that the Conservative advance is part of the larger European rejection of the Left and socialist parties is well taken. However, it is pertinent to recall that just four years ago, after Tony Blair cruised to his third successive triumph for New Labour, the political obituary of the Conservative Party was also being written. It was then argued that the Conservatives had been reduced to being a party of southern England, with no meaningful presence in the big cities and with no support in multi-racial, cosmopolitan Britain. Like the other two pillars of the erstwhile British Establishment — the monarchy and the Church of England — British Conservatism was thought to have outlived its role. In Blair’s Cool Britannia, Toryism was thought to be an archaic, reactionary phenomenon and about as relevant to contemporary Britain as the gentleman’s clubs and the Book of Common Prayer.

The story of the Conservative comeback is fascinating for a number of reasons. At a superficial level, it is a story of how a 42-year-old David Cameron, a leader from a privileged background (Eton and Oxford), carried out his mandate “to change the party and change the country”. But it is more a story of how the new leader adapted an old party to new circumstances.

It is striking that in terms of policy, the Conservatives made only nominal adjustments. The party recognized that it had to dispense with some of Margaret Thatcher’s more unpopular assaults on the welfare state. It has now recognized the importance of the National Health Service and state-sponsored schooling. But apart from these corrections, the Conservatives have stuck to the defining facets of the party: commitment to individual excellence and family values, support for entrepreneurship, low taxes and tough policing. There has been precious little revisionism and no reinvention of the fundamentals of Conservatism. Unlike Tony Blair, who had to jettison some of the more abrasive facets of Labour’s socialism, Cameron’s Conservatism has been free of ideological hiccups.

Cameron’s most notable success has been in the arena of image management. He has made the Conservative Party more electable by making it more contemporary. Blair shifted Labour’s centre of gravity from the moribund working class culture of a declining industrial Britain to the trendy, college-educated middle-classes of, say, Islington. Cameron did nothing so profound. He just ensured that the prevailing image of British Conservatism was no longer that of the upper class male with a plummy accent or the retired colonel cultivating roses in Cheltenham. The sartorial norms of traditional Conservative dinners were relaxed from black tie to lounge suits. In fact, Cameron often took care to appear at many party functions without a tie.

Interestingly, this image makeover involved relatively less of a social shift than what Labour experienced. Cameron attached greater emphasis on nominating professional women as prospective parliamentary candidates and garnished it with some symbolic representation for Britain’s ethnic minorities. In short, he opened up the party to a wider social milieu.

One aspect of Cameron was more radical: he consciously steered the Conservative Party away from issues of identity. Unlike the party’s post-Thatcher preoccupation with immigration and national identity, which were responsible for the party’s marginalization under William Hague and Michael Howard, Cameron stuck to conventional social and economic themes. He formally recognized that Britain had changed from the time Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan ruled the roost and that the Conservative Party too needed to change. It was not the reinvention of a party but a renewal. Those with a sense of history may even see it as Benjamin Disraeli’s Conservatism overwhelming the Marquis of Salisbury’s “illiberal” Toryism.

The devotees of national exceptionalism would believe that the Conservative example is a narrowly British experience. A more commonsensical look at how a dying party was resurrected without a revolutionary overhaul, however, suggests that there are elements that have the potential of wider application. The form may be different, but India’s beleaguered conservatives could take inspiration from another similar tradition.

The Telegraph, June 12, 2009

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Don't tar all of Australia as racist (June 7, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Vietnam War triggered a bizarre youth rebellion in the heartlands of Capitalism. Soaked in a heady cocktail of Marcuse, Mao and marijuana, the disaffected generation brought about a revolution in music and lifestyles. Simultaneously, they reduced the accumulated wisdom of many generations to abusive sloganeering. It became routine and almost a caricature for inchoate rebels to denounce every paid-up member of the establishment with the epithet "fascist pig".

Yesterday's rebels are now in their 60s but their insidious legacy of compressing human experience into capsuled slogans has not merely persisted but been sanctified by cash-rich, talking shops such as the UN. Fading memories have relegated the denunciation of 'fascism' to the archives. In its place has emerged a new political correctness centred on empowerment, victimhood and, in many cases, the forthright rejection of ordinary decencies. In the hierarchy of today's slogan-speak, the charge of 'racism' is almost equivalent to the medieval disavowal of lepers.

A wariness of the counter-prejudice nurtured by the new hierarchy of political correctness should not blind us to the relatively more enlightened set of values that are now the global norm. The feeling of cultural superiority that coexisted with the exercise of power in the pre-World War II era has yielded place to a new moral relativism. Tolerance, pluralism and human rights define today's fashion. For this we have to be grateful to those who shouted "fascist pig" at the symbols of authority a few decades ago.

As a nation that has tried to reinvent itself from a 'white' Dominion to what its PM Kevin Rudd described as a "country of great diversity, harmony and tolerance", Australia has been shaken by the outcry over the assault on Indian students in Melbourne. Despite the official suggestion that the epidemic of attacks - some 1,447 people of Indian origin have been assaulted in Victoria in the past 12 months - are the handiwork of "idiotic thugs", the wide impression that Indians have been targeted on account of their colour have been deeply wounding to Australians.

'Middle Australia' has responded to the charge of racism with visible irritation. Writing in the Herald Sun last week, a columnist couldn't conceal his disbelief that "India which perfected the caste system and is plagued by Hindu-Muslim bloodfests, is telling us that we are too prejudiced".

Leaving aside the archaic condescension with which he views a country that contributes 90,000 students to Australia's $2 billion higher education industry, the writer's indignation isn't misplaced. Australia could easily have remained the predominantly white country it was till the 1980s. With the aboriginal minority edged out to the margins by ruthless settlers, the "Australian way of life" could have become the successful version of the failed experiment in Southern Rhodesia. The point is that Australia chose a different 'multicultural' route, a consideration that must weigh against the charge that it is inherently racist.

No doubt there are Australians who harbour deep racial prejudices. Some, like Pauline Hanson, made a big political splash 10 years ago. There are other Australians who are plain frightened by the demographic and cultural transformation of their cities. The Indian 'students' who work inhospitable night shifts and drive taxis to either pay for college or secure permanent residency are no doubt industrious and law abiding. They are also seen as doing jobs the locals don't want to touch but which are necessary to keep the economy ticking. Yet, despite their contribution to the national economy, they are also viewed by locals with a suspicion that is born of cultural unfamiliarity.

The phenomenon isn't unique. The wariness felt by some Marathi manoos at the growing number of Chhat pujas in Mumbai correspond to the bewilderment of old Birmingham residents at the transformation of some parts of the city into Pakistani ghettos. In Mumbai, the emotionally beleaguered turn to the Shiv Sena or its more excitable cousin, MNS; likewise the British National Party appeals to those who feel strangers in their own country. Both responses are, arguably, "racist" but since similar responses cut across national and ethnic lines there is also a universalism to desperate responses born out of an inability to cope with change.

Yet, the people most affected by the transformation of their neighbourhoods aren't necessarily the ones who beat up hapless students on a Melbourne train. All evidence suggests that the assaults on Indians are the handiwork of social misfits and hoodlums who aren't all white Australians. There is a distinction between prejudice and criminality.

There is a case for an Indian travel advisory against travelling to Australia because its streets are unsafe. But there is no need to go that extra mile and tar the country with the brush of racism.

Sunday Times of India, June 7, 2009

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A change of priorities (June 4, 2009)

BJP should think of life beyond Hindutva

Times of India, June 4, 2009

By Swapan Dasgupta

International communism did politics a colossal disservice when it turned 'revisionism' into an expression of visceral abuse. The implications of this snarling revulsion were more than polemical grandstanding. Ideology became a cover for rigidity, the perpetuation of textual certitudes and craven hero worship. Critical inquiry, a precondition for intellectual evolution, was consequently shunned and denounced as a betrayal of the faith.

Curiously, it's not merely ideological outfits that have been affected by the fear of revisionism. Middle-of-the-road parties centred on pragmatism, common sense and some nebulous principles (such as freedom, nationalism and equality) have been casualties too. The British Labour Party spent 18 years in the wilderness for its failure to recognise that the country had changed, whereas it had not. Its Conservative rival lost three successive elections before it realised that the key to recovery was an image overhaul. Under David Cameron, the Conservatives are no longer a party of stuffed shirts and plummy accents; modern Toryism has imbibed Britain's new cosmopolitanism.

After two consecutive defeats which also signal the end of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L K Advani era, the BJP is confronted with precisely the choices that will prompt shrill charges of revisionism. The 2009 defeat was awesome. The BJP lost the incremental gains it made in the 1990s; its support in a growing middle class fell sharply; and it failed to capture the imagination of the youth. For the BJP, the 2009 loss wasn't just a managerial disaster; it was a resounding political defeat.

Confronted with adversity, ideological parties are often inclined to retreat into their political ghettos. The assumption is that the fall in electoral support is linked to a loss of ideological purity. For the BJP, such a step has a particular attraction since it was the conscious reinforcement of its Hindu identity that catapulted it from a low of two seats in 1984 to 161 seats in 1996. This clout enabled it to gather regional allies and be in power at the Centre for six years. Today, there are voices within arguing for a re-emphasis on Hindutva, the dissolution of alliances and a greater reliance on the RSS. Will an approach that paid dividends 25 years ago yield similar returns now?

The past is not necessarily a guide to future action. Hindutva emerged as an alternative idea of India in the wake of the collapse of the Nehruvian consensus. First, there was a definite impression at the time that a Congress party steeped in disrepute no longer had the political direction to confront separatism and sectional pressures on the polity. Secondly, there was widespread exasperation with the slow pace of economic development. By 1980, it was clear that the licence-permit-quota raj had become a drag on the country. Yet it was not until 1991 that the first tentative steps were taken to unshackle India's entrepreneurial spirit. Hindutva appeared in this interregnum. Finally, there was a freshness to the idea of Hindu resurgence which appealed to Middle India, more so because the BJP promised a "party with a difference".

What has changed in the 21st century? To begin with, India is far more globalised and cosmopolitan than at any point since independence. There is a greater inclination to look outwards and imbibe lifestyle shifts. These have corresponded to a demographic shift, resulting in a younger India. Secondly, growth of global Islamist terror has made Indians far more appreciative of the need to insulate India from sectarian strife. Finally, unlike the shambolic 1990s, there is a sense of self-confidence among Indians and a belief that their country can face the world on its own terms.

The BJP has been insufficiently sensitive to these developments. Intellectually, it has not moved beyond the formulations of the 1990s. Today's Hindu is no longer beleaguered. Rising prosperity has contributed to a gentler, pop nationalism marked by good-humoured flag-waving in cricket matches. Indians don't feel threatened but, at the same time, are repelled by bigotry. The BJP must candidly recognise that assertive Hindutva marked by hate speeches and moral policing is seen as ugly mirror images of the Taliban. The spectacle of old and middle-aged men oozing sanctimoniousness and droning on about India's ancient inheritance belongs to a bygone age. It also reeks of hypocrisy because the integrity quotient of the BJP isn't worth showcasing.

Hindutva is only a fraction of what the BJP stands for. Its larger image is, however, dominated by it, not least because the party gets exceptionally agitated only on issues of religious identity. The BJP, as someone put it, has become a caricature of the pious and severe Pandeyji or Mishraji who teaches Sanskrit in schools. Its natural attraction as a party that shuns dynasty and is partial to deregulation and enterprise is offset by its old-fashioned cultural face.

Modern India isn't necessarily partial to Congress babalog. It, however, abhors the values the BJP is seen to stand for at present.

In politics, image and perception are everything. Today, Hindutva has become an etymological obstacle in the BJP's path, diverting attention from the party's impressive record in governance. The party should consider freezing it in the way Jawaharlal Nehru quietly shelved Gandhism after independence. Enlightened nationalism, good governance and modernity must become the party's priorities.