Saturday, August 29, 2009

L.K. Advani should have done a Sonia (August 30, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Soon after the BJP’s resident Humpty Dumpty proclaimed that L.K. Advani would remain Leader of Opposition not merely for the full term of the 15th Lok Sabha but for the “next 50-100 years”, an impish party worker forwarded me an SMS doing the rounds: “There is a move”, it read, “to name all railway waiting rooms after Advani so people can wait forever without feeling upset.”

Political defeat can be very cruel, especially for former next Prime Ministers —to paraphrase Al Gore’s self-deprecating humour. The past three months have been particularly harsh on the man who was once lauded as the “iron man”. From being the BJP’s tallest leader and one of the most respected figures in politics, Advani has suffered a steep fall. He has been mercilessly attacked by a former colleague like Jaswant Singh who nurtures a deep sense of betrayal, uninhibitedly lampooned by a frustrated Arun Shourie, deserted by his favourite harbinger of bad advice, and mocked by a Twitter generation that knows only the present. Beset by controversy after controversy, including the one on Kandahar that may make it difficult for him to face Parliament, Advani has seen a dramatic erosion of his moral authority in a party he nurtured with dedication and foresight. In the past 10 days, as the BJP implodes around him, he has even borne the ignominy of being pitied and patronised by individuals of amoebic standing such as “Tarzan”. He deserved better.

The irony is that Advani’s unfortunate predicament is largely self-inflicted. On May 16, it was apparent to everyone but the most obtuse that the unequivocal rejection of the BJP and NDA also amounted to the rejection of their prime ministerial aspirant, around whom the campaign was built. True, the battle was never entirely presidential and other factors also shaped the final verdict. But what was certain is that Advani didn’t succeed in attracting incremental votes in the same way as Vajpayee did. If the BJP’s dip from 181 seats in 1999 to 138 in 2004 was occasioned by anti-incumbency, the further fall to 117 seats in 2009 could be attributed to crumbling alliances and the absence of Vajpayee. The reasons for Advani’s failure to give the party a boost can be debated but the failure itself is undeniable.

Advani’s inability to be an electoral magnet didn’t imply that he was only fit for relegation into the dustbin of history; it merely underlined his limitations in one department of politics and that too at a moment in time. In the past, political leaders have been decisively rejected in one election only to make a spectacular comeback in another one. Vajpayee was a casualty in 1984; he became the flavour of the season in 1998 and 1999. Rajiv Gandhi’s fall between 1984 and 1989 was dramatic, as was Indira Gandhi’s rejection in 1977. But none of them ever lost their electoral potential.

Those who persuaded Advani to re-assume the Leader of Opposition role argued that a man who the party thought fit for the PM’s job on May 15 couldn’t be junked as Shadow PM’s job on May 16. It was a flawed argument. There was never any question of the BJP projecting an 87-year-old veteran in 2014 as its PM candidate. This year’s election was Advani’s last shy at the top job. His failure meant that it was time for a new face.

Advani’s instinctive reaction to the 2009 verdict was right. He wanted to step down from any formal leadership position but not withdraw from active politics. This retreat would have allowed him to use his considerable moral authority to facilitate a smooth transition and, more important, to guide the BJP in a responsible direction. He would have naturally acquired the status of Chief Mentor and, in effect, been the most important voice in the BJP for the next few years.

By undertaking a line job yet again, Advani miscalculated seriously. He incurred the wrath of those who were never at ease with him in the first place. Today, they are using Vajpayee’s name to take devastating pot shots and wound him grievously. Secondly, his decision to bat on allowed the likes of Rajnath Singh to use him as a human shield to undertake sniper attacks on all those he perceives as threats. If someone as small-minded as the BJP President is merrily lighting bush fires, it is because Advani’s moral authority has plummeted.

The BJP wouldn’t have been gripped by debilitating convulsions if Advani had taken a leaf from the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Deng Xiaobing and even Sonia Gandhi—leaders whose authority never depended on the positions they held. Indians love sacrifice, at least the pretence of it.

Sunday Times of India, August 30, 2009

100 per cent inflation in 100 days (August 30, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The first 100 days of the second UPA Government is an occasion that will go largely unnoticed in the country. Even the TV polls and the lavish advertisements are unlikely to register too much in the public consciousness. The simple reason is that, all pronouncements notwithstanding, 100 days is a contrived benchmark to assess the performance of any government. Most people need a longer time span before they can come to a decision about whether a government is a performing or non-performing one and whether or not it corresponds to their sense of self-interest.

At the risk of jumping to hasty conclusions a few observations may be in order. First, while there is dissatisfaction with the government’s inability to control food prices—said to have increased 100 per cent in 100 days—this has not yet translated into a larger political dissatisfaction with the Congress. A government in its second term may not enjoy a prolonged honeymoon but this doesn’t imply that the process of estrangement has begun. Politically, the UPA Government still looks comfortable and this level of comfort has little to do with performance. After the fear that the 15th Lok Sabha election would throw up an inconclusive verdict, India seems reassured that a stable government is in place.

Secondly, the absence of the Left from the cast of the ruling coalition hasn’t meant a spurt in the reforming zeal of the government. The Congress is essentially a party wedded to the idea of an intrusive and interventionist state. There has been no change in that philosophy and the global endorsement of spendthrift governments to fight recession has meant that the UPA will not depart from its well-trodden path of statism. If there was an expectation in corporate circles and among innocent business journalists that the comfort zone of politics will facilitate some radical change, the first 100 days has done nothing to provide it nourishment. On the contrary those believers in responsible fiscal management may find enough in the unmanageable fiscal deficit to fear for the future.

Finally, while the Prime Minister came out of the general election with enhanced personal stature, he has chosen to not drive home the advantage in the first 100 days of his second innings. Manmohan Singh was never an assertive Prime Minister. His reputation for playing it safe and trying not to ruffle feathers is legendary. This may not win him a huge fan following but it has also ensured that a campaign of visceral hate against him is unlikely to ever succeed. His image and reputation have been built on decency and understated competence. In recent months, he tried to break the mould only once—at the Sharm-el-Sheikh summit with the Pakistan Prime Minister. But this attempt to think out of the box and be extra generous towards the neighbourhood rogue enthused neither the country nor the strategic affairs community. Rather than persist, Manmohan chose to retreat without fuss and reserve his cards for a future occasion. The Sharm-el-Sheikh fiasco also ensured that the bid to accommodate “global concerns”, a euphemism for US pressure, on climate change has been put on hold. It will probably be re-emerge unexpectedly at the Copenhagen Summit.

Manmohan Singh may want to give the impression that he is a political novice but there is no doubt that the goodwill the UPA Government continues to enjoy at the end of an unspectacular 100 days owes a lot to him. While many of the UPA ministers are thoroughly incompetent and some of them lack integrity, the overall impression that the country is heading in the right direction owes a lot to popular trust in the Prime Minister. As long as this trust is not shaken, the UPA will continue to be treated indulgently.

It is also a truism to suggest that this trust will not be shaken as long as the main opposition party continues to wage war against itself. Manmohan Singh and the Congress seem to be shining when compared to a BJP that has completely lost sight of its political responsibilities. The main opposition doesn’t lack the ammunition to either take pot shots or undertake sustained artillery fire on the government. Unfortunately, its present leadership is either incapable or has lost the will to fight a long war.

Mohan Bhagwat said in his press conference last Friday afternoon that the BJP must resolve its own battles, without looking outside mediation. Once this principle is accepted and the leaders who have a stake in the future put their heads together—as they belatedly did on Friday evening—it will not be long before the BJP begins to get its act together. There are some long-term issues of strategy that need careful deliberation but two immediate priorities—one honourable retirement and one dishonourable discharge—are apparent to all but the wilfully obtuse. It is also clear that any delay in doing what has to be done—on grounds of either compassion or astrology—will only worsen the situation, provoke a scorched earth response, guarantee a political defeat in Maharashtra and ensure that the second 100 days of the UPA looks far better than the actual experience.

The BJP is a lot into Mao Zedong these days. Three years before he instructed his deranged Red Guards to “bombard the headquarters”, the Great Helmsman penned a few lines of poetry that are worth repeating: “On this tiny globe/ A few flies dash themselves against the wall,/ Humming without cease/ Sometimes shrilling, sometimes moaning…/ Away with all pests!/ Our force is irresistible.” Bad poetry but a nice thought.

Sunday Pioneer, August 30, 2009

The Epereror of Air (August 29, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a customary propriety that governs political discourse in India. However, even the most accommodating libertarian would be hard put to describe Arun Shourie’s interview to Shekhar Gupta on NDTV on August 24 as anything but excessively colloquial. That the former editor-turned-politician is disinclined to conventional niceties is well known. Last Monday, short of uttering unparliamentary profanities, Shourie did everything to tear mercilessly into the Bharatiya Janata Party and its top leadership. He described BJP president Rajnath Singh as a man desperate to play Tarzan, an “Alice in Blunderland”, a supine Thakur and a man whose sole attribute is his “All India Radio voice”. Few stand-up comics could have done better.

Shourie, however, is not a political innocent. Before watching the interview in its entirety, I felt that Shourie had drafted the longest political suicide note in the brief history of the BJP. On Tuesday evening, I was proved horribly wrong when the baritone Thakur refused to expel Shourie and almost apologetically asked him to explain the “spirit” behind his remarks, if he was so inclined and at his own convenience. It was put out “sources” close to the party president’s—“sources” that no longer care to enforce the principle of deniability—that Shourie hadn’t made any personal attacks on Rajnath and that, unlike the unfortunate Jaswant Singh who was shown the door without a hint of courtesy, the attacks had been “political”, not “ideological”, and therefore was a far lesser offence than describing Mohammed Ali Jinnah as a “great man”.

In tackling Shourie with kid gloves, the BJP president’s conduct was reminiscent of a Chief Constable confronted with the misfortune of dealing with a monarch apprehended for rash driving under the influence of alcohol. His indulgent “boys will be boys” approach was in sharp contrast to the muscle flexing over discipline the BJP witnessed during the eventful three-day chintan baithak in The Peterhof, Shimla.

The most charitable explanation for Rajnath’s pusillanimity is that many of Shourie’s allusions to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Lewis Carroll were, unfortunately, lost in translation. The suggestion that Rajnath was persuaded that the comparison with Tarzan was actually flattering—the King of the Apes was, after all, a pedigreed English aristocrat who had brought order to an anarchic animal kingdom—may be a bit fanciful. However, it is undeniable that Shourie’s outburst focussed as much attention on the perpetrator as it did on the judge.

Consistency is said to be a virtue of little minds but the brazen show of double standards has served to highlight the style of a leader who has been at the organisational helm of the BJP since 2006 and who plans to cling on to office till July/August next year.

Rajnath has been the most controversial BJP president in the party’s 29 year history. The mention of his name provokes mixed responses from the faithful, from dismissive condescension to visceral antipathy. Jaswant Singh has brushed him away as a “provincial politician” unworthy of the post he is occupying; a senior legislator from Uttar Pradesh suggested to me at the time of his appointment that Rajnath’s “achievements were disproportionate to his performance”; the charge of casteism and “Thakurvad” has been routinely levelled at him; and at least one commentator has bluntly indicated his penchant for “transactional” relationships. Yet, Rajnath has doggedly persisted and survived every crisis to fight another day. He has ensured he can’t ever be written off.

To gauge the secret of Rajnath’s ability to be at the centre of a Mad Hatter’s Party and yet keep head and shoulder intact, it is necessary to look at the circumstances of his appointment. When the decision to remove Advani as party president was taken by the RSS in mid-2005, the search for a successor proved difficult. Many of those who were elevated to leadership positions by Advani were squeamish about inheriting the mantle under controversial circumstances. Within the party to brass, the consensus veered in favour of re-appointing M.Venkiah Naidu, whose tenure was interrupted by his resignation following the defeat in 2004. At this juncture the RSS intervened, chose Rajnath and ensured his unanimous selection. The choice was backed by Atal Behari Vajpayee; Advani, however, wasn’t enthused.

In 2005, Vajpayee had reason to be favourably disposed towards Rajnath. A man of strong likes and dislikes, Vajpayee had over the years developed a strong antipathy for Kalyan Singh, the undisputed mass leader of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh. Whether this was due to incessant tale-carrying by some upper-caste leaders or a function of Kalyan’s partiality for backward caste politics is a matter of conjecture. But Vajpayee strongly backed the moves to destabilise Kalyan. As president of the UP state unit, Rajnath emerged as a parallel power centre and, in time, became Chief Minister after Kalyan’s expulsion in 1999 and the disastrous Ram Prakash Gupta interregnum.

The state Assembly election in 2003, which was fought under Rajnath’s leadership, proved disastrous for the BJP. The party was relegated to third position but no blame was attached to Rajnath. He was quietly removed from state politics and was appointed Cabinet minister at the Centre. After the 2004, he was appointed general secretary but was never a major player in national BJP politics.

The RSS decision to nominate Rajnath as successor to Advani was based on a few elementary considerations. First, Rajnath was a relatively faceless leader, lacking a national profile. In time, he was expected to acquire an image that highlighted the distinction between a wholesome Bharat and an increasingly deracinated India. Rajnath had also proved himself a Sangh loyalist and was expected to carry out the programme of greater Sangh control over the organisation. Not being an Advani man, he was expected to be a foil to Advani’s considerable hold on the party.

In the three years he has been in organisational control, Rajnath has helped the Sangh consolidate its hold on the BJP. The powers given to RSS-appointed Organising Secretaries at the Centre and the states have paved the way for the declining importance of politics and politicians in the BJP.

In facilitating the greater control of the Sangh over the BJP, Rajnath however took great care to try and consolidate his personal hold over the party. Rajnath practised a style of politics, borrowed from the political culture of UP, that was in sharp contrast to everything the party had known so far. The approach was contentious, ham-handed and exposed Rajnath to the charge of transforming the BJP from a broad-based party to a sect.

The first feature of Rajnath’s style is his inclination to rule through fostering divisions. The BJP had always prided itself on a vibrant inner-party democracy whereby all issues and decisions were debated and discussed threadbare in the top echelons at least. By convention, the party president always had the last word but the formulation of the last word was always a collective decision. Rajnath subverted the process in different ways. Lacking the necessary intellectual self-confidence to argue his measures through, he attempted a divide-and-rule approach and more often than not bypassed the core committee completely. After the UP Assembly election debacle, for example, Rajnath prevented any discussion on the subject for fear that it would show him in an unfavourable light.

The bid to divide the party into “us” and “them” led to growing unilateral interference in the affairs of the states. In the early part of 2007, there began a concerted campaign—encouraged by a section of the RSS—to destabilise and, if possible, secure the removals of Narendra Modi and Vasundhara Raje as Chief Ministers. Modi, in particular, was the victim of a full-fledged caste revolt and had to strain every nerve to win the 2007 Assembly election. Vasundhara proved less adept at outflanking the rebels and inner-party sabotage cost her the 2008 Assembly election. It is interesting that those who are today in the forefront of the anti-Vasundhara campaign were those who were the most active dissidents against the Chief Minister in the period the BJP was in power. After the 2008 defeat, the BJP came to the correct conclusion that inner-party factionalism made the crucial defference between victory and defeat. But when all those guilty of internal sabotage are sought to be subsequently rewarded by the national party president, the charge of factional squabbles being a centrally-sponsored scheme assumes greater validity.

It was a similar push from Delhi that lay behind the move to remove Sushil Modi as Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar. The revolt, which received open backing of people in the party president’s office, would have succeeded had it not been for the decision to take a vote of the party MLAs. In the vote, Modi prevailed quite decisively.

Likewise, former Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri had the support of a majority of BJP MLAs in Uttarakhand. However, he lacked the perspicacity to take on both the dissidents and their backers in Delhi. He resigned in disgust.

The inclination to subsume what is good for the party to what is good for his factional wars is a hallmark of Rajnath. The BJP lost the 2009 election because, in the ultimate analysis, the voters showed insufficient confidence in the leadership of Advani. However, in ensuring the magnitude of defeat, Rajnath played his own hand. He soured the relationship with Kalyan Singh sufficiently for the former chief minister to walk out over a trivial matter; he nullified the possibility of Babulal Marandi returning to the party in Jharkhand; he encouraged the hotheads in Orissa to the point that Naveen Patnaik decided to go it alone; he went out of his way to endorse Varun Gandhi and provoke an urban backlash against the party; and he ensured organisational atrophy in UP. After the election was lost, he decided it was time to put the knife into Arun Jaitley by encouraging a variety of leaders to speak out against him. The idea was to enmesh Jaitley into controversies and ensure he was ruled out as a possible candidate for the president’s post. There are suggestions that the party president’s henchmen were behind the leak of the unsigned document that has been mistakenly attributed to Bal Apte. Now, with his term approaching an end, Rajnath has ensured the derailment of organisational election in a sufficient number of states to continue holding office till July/August 2010.

However, it is pertinent to point out that Rajnath has escaped his share of the responsibility for the 2009 defeat because of Advani’s unfortunate decision to continue as Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha. Had Advani stuck to his original decision to step down, it is certain that his moral authority in the party would have been paramount. Without holding any post, Advani would have been in a position to ensure a smooth succession to the next generation. By persisting as Leader of Opposition, he has made himself vulnerable to sustained sniper attacks and ridicule that have cumulatively eroded his political authority. The net beneficiary of Advani’s persistence has been Rajnath. It has allowed him to deflect his share of responsibility and, more important, to undermine the importance of all those who were nurtured by Advani.

Throughout his political career, Rajnath has demonstrated a political wiliness that has marred the fortunes of the party but allowed him to climb up the leadership ladder. The RSS bears some responsibility for allowing the BJP to be derailed to a point that its very survival as a meaningful entity is now being called into question. Had the RSS played its role as a moral and ethical guide, Rajnath would not have dared lighting bush fires at every point and then pretending to look on innocently. Instead, it chose to believe in its own infallibility and chose not to recognise that it had been guilty of a grave misjudgement in 2006. Even now some Sangh functionaries are pressing for a constitutional amendment that will result in Rajnath securing another term as president.

If that happens, the BJP that Rajnath will bequeath to his successor will be a letterhead. Even if he departs now his successor will have to perform a near-miracle to restore the lost glory of the BJP. In the annals of political management, Rajnath has demonstrated that nothing succeeds like failure.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 35, Dated September 05, 2009


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Out of touch (August 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A fortnight ago, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged from the Budget session of Parliament quite upbeat. Despite the Congress wallowing in the euphoria of victory, the party fulfilled its responsibilities as a robust but responsible opposition, questioning the Manmohan Singh government at every stage and attacking it spiritedly on foreign policy blunders. The change of guard in the parliamentary party, it seemed, had tempered its recklessness, kept internal differences on hold and begun focusing on serious issues of public policy and governance. The retreat from "shrillness" had, it appeared, been put into operation.

Tragically, the events of the past fortnight have not merely undone the good work in Parliament but cast the BJP in the most unfavourable light imaginable. Following the peremptory assault on Vasundhara Raje, the ungracious expulsion of Jaswant Singh and the skulduggery over the leak of an unsigned internal report, the party has painted itself into a corner. To both its supporters and a bewildered public, it has appeared petty, cussed, illiberal, undemocratic and completely at odds with itself. Despite the farcical gloss of "jolliness" the party president inexplicably detected in L K Advani's demeanour in Shimla, the BJP shows distinct signs of imploding.

If the public relations disasters had been occasioned by mofussil unfamiliarity with image management and a show of low cunning, the BJP would have reasons to be irritated but not alarmed. Unfortunately, the present turbulence doesn't seem an isolated cloudburst. At the heart of the internecine war is the unresolved question: What sort of BJP?

Political parties, especially those devastated by electoral defeats, are naturally inclined to seek self-renewal and, occasionally, reinvention. For all its pretence of being grounded in ideological certitudes, the BJP is no exception to an innate desire to remain relevant in the battle for power. There is, after all, no percentage to paraphrase a self-deprecating republican song from the Spanish Civil War in the other side winning all the battles while the chosen ones had the best songs.

In evolving a strategy of recovery, the BJP has been hamstrung by a series of pre-conceived notions. The first is a communist-like belief in the supremacy of ideology. That a worthwhile political party must be grounded in a loose set of values and a sense of mission isn't in any doubt. The problem arises when there is an attempt to codify ideology into scripture. The BJP began its innings with a commitment to a nebulous cultural nationalism. This was a framework of Indian nationhood which, while intellectually contested, allowed the party to demarcate itself from the Congress's constitutional patriotism and socialism. Since the connection between cultural nationalism and governance was illusory, it also permitted the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to embrace pragmatism without too much fuss. When in power, the BJP paid ritual obeisance to the party's distinctive facets and then proceeded to focus on issues such as robust foreign policy, an open economy and rapid modernisation.

A chunk of those who devoted themselves passionately to the BJP did so out of a conviction that it was a "Hindu party" committed to "Hindu interests". At the same time, the party's electoral advance (except in 1991) owed almost entirely to the fact that it was seen as a wholesome alternative to the Congress. It is not that the Hindu dimension of the BJP was disregarded but that Hindu identity took a backseat to more bread and butter issues. There was always a hidden tension between the BJP activist and those who voted BJP. Vajpayee exploited this to his advantage.

Recent attempts to codify political Hindutva and define an ideological "core" have contributed to the BJP reducing its political options dramatically. The charge of "ideological deviation" against Jaswant, for example, reveals a streak of regimentation. It negates the broad church approach and casts the party in the role of a sect, a move that fits uneasily with an increasingly self-confident Hindu youth and middle classes.

The second problem the BJP faces is its bizarre inclination to reduce political problems to organisational shortcomings. Till a year ago the party argued that a plethora of booth committees and multitudes of full-time pracharaks would see its candidates through. This "sangathanist" approach to politics is largely derived from the RSS tradition and may help explain why tensions between the organisation and mass leaders recur incessantly. Vasundhara is the latest victim of this uneasy relationship but she isn't going to be the last as long as organisation is seen as autonomous from politics.

A Times of India interview with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has fuelled frenzied speculation that the BJP may bypass its well-known public faces for a relatively low-key but ideologically sound person as the next leader. The search for an elusive Manohar Lal who personifies aam Hindutva may be an innovative way out of the present troubles. Unfortunately, it may not address the fundamental problem the BJP faces: estrangement from a young, impatient electorate which wants to combine glamour and glitz with quick-fix solutions. The party is still fixated on another India that is either disappearing or is in rapid retreat.

Times of India, August 25, 2009

Sunday, August 23, 2009

BJP in need of moral integrity (August 24, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
There’s a lovely story which Diana Mosley (nee Mitford) once narrated in a book review. A famous writer, it seems, was terminally ill and dying. As a last resort, his doctor called a specialist for a second opinion. The specialist examined the patient from head to foot and pronounced him healthy. The next morning the writer, realising the end was imminent, called his regular doctor and, with a smile on his face, exclaimed, “I die knowing I am a healthy man.”

At the risk of somewhat overstating the case, the black humour of the writer can be compared to the affability of the BJP national president. Speaking to the media last Friday afternoon at the conclusion of the three-day chintan baithak, the gentleman in question revealed a secret that had hitherto not permeated the defences of The Peterhof in Shimla. Eyes gleaming and fingers frenetically emulating the deadly spin of a Muralitharan, he let out that all was well in the party and that LK Advani was feeling rather “jolly”.

In the coming weeks Advani will presumably elaborate on the reasons for his exhilaration. At the risk of being dubbed a party-pooper, it would be fair that as far as the ranks of the BJP are concerned, the party president should have looked up the Thesaurus to find the antonym of “jolly” to describe the mood. To say that the sentiment in the BJP is distinctly downbeat would be an understatement; the party is positively devastated.

The chintan baithak was accompanied by a number of bush fires that cumulatively threaten to bring down an edifice painstakingly built through hard work, sacrifice and wisdom over the past 29 years.

First there was the furore over the Parliamentary Board’s directive to sack Vasundhara Raje as Leader of Opposition in Rajasthan, despite her proving she has a clear majority support of MLAs.

Second, there was the graceless expulsion of Jaswant Singh for what appeared to be the
crime of having written a quasi-academic book challenging the nationalist consensus on Mohammed Ali Jinnah and the partition of India. True, the reasons for the party’s exasperation with the highly individualistic Jaswant were more complex and feelings against him had been mounting. To the untrained eye, however, the expulsion appeared as acts of spite and intolerance. Worse, it was also perceived as a case of double standards.

Finally, there was the media “leak” of what purported to be the Bal Apte committee report on the BJP’s defeat in the Lok Sabha poll. To gauge what really ails the BJP, it is worthwhile dwelling on the final embarrassment. It is an eye-opener.

At the risk of offending a media that had assumed proprietorial stakes in the report, the authorship of the document has to be clarified. It is understood that at the chintan, a senior leader asked Apte if he had read what was being circulated in his name. The veteran from Mumbai was compelled to shake his head shamefacedly in denial. The leadership was not, therefore, being disingenuous when it told a hungry and expectant media that there was no such report. Nor was it an untruth that discussion of such a report was not scheduled. Yet, it is a fact that the document in question was included in the bag given to all delegates. It was ostensibly meant as background reading but few of the delegates had even bothered to even look at it.

The mysterious inclusion of this document, which was neither authored nor approved by Apte, among the papers circulated at the chintan, prompts two conclusions. First, there was no one who had actually read the bumf that was being put inside the delegates’ briefcases. The make-believe was, presumably, given the same importance as glossy tourist brochures and booklets on the achievements of the host Government that the bureaucratic minders of politicians feel is obligatory to make a good impression.
The casual and surreptitious manner in which the non-report was smuggled into the delegation papers leads inevitably to an awkward conclusion: The slim document was put there in the certainty that its contents would be divulged to the media. It was written with that objective in mind. This may explain the careful finger-pointing and some inexplicable omissions.

The BJP has been conducting its own inquiry of how this document got into the kit for delegates, who wrote it, who divulged it to the media, etc. What this inquiry is likely to throw up is of no consequence to us. What is relevant, however, is the phenomenon of internal sabotage.

The BJP has many problems confronting it. Some of these relating to political positioning, ideological issues and the choice of future leaders are complex, require a great deal of honest soul-searching and unworthy of knee-jerk solutions. They will have to be addressed over time.

What don’t require prolonged deliberations are issues that centre on integrity. Over the past three years, the most significant change in the BJP has been a vitiated internal regime and a climate of distrust. This is worse than the ordinary faction fights which are part and parcel of politics. The no-holds-barred attempts to discredit particular leaders, create embarrassments and wilfully light bush fires have led to a moral debilitation that in turn has created political complications. The kerfuffle over the Apte non-report is as good an example as any to highlight the rot.
In the past, such problems were nipped in the bud by individuals who played the role of both counsellor and umpire. The system has broken down because of the perception that the umpires are no longer neutral.

The RSS chief has rightly spoken of the need for factional fights to end. His appeal will make sense if the root of the problem is unearthed. The BJP can live with ideological deviation; it will collapse if moral integrity isn’t restored.

Sunday Pioneer, August 23, 2009

Friday, August 21, 2009

The art of firing blanks (August 22, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

“Membership of a political party”, a senior leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party told me on phone from the venue of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chintan baithak in Shimla last Wednesday morning, “also involves personal compromises. You must be prepared to accept curbs on your individual rights.”

The suggestion that political activism is not merely a set of entitlements but also involves genuflecting at the altar of the “party line” is known to all those who take the plunge into public life. It is to the credit of Jaswant Singh that he could persist with his individualism and free thinking and, at the same time, climb to the top rungs of the BJP leadership. To a large extent this was due to the remarkable indulgence of his angularities by three BJP stalwarts: Rajmata Vijaya Raje Scindia, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat and, most important, Atal Behari Vajpayee. It was Vajpayee who persevered with him despite the misgivings of the RSS and the exasperation of middle-rung BJP leaders who could never quite fathom what he was all about. The cumulative effect was that Jaswant remained his own man, never afraid of undertaking voyages into either uncharted or potentially hazardous waters.

Since 2004, however, the party’s exasperation with his individualism had been mounting. The release of his autobiography, A Call To Honour, was accompanied by huge controversies over his version of the Kandahar hijack of December 1999 and his suggestion that there was a “mole” in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Cabinet. On both counts Jaswant caused a huge embarrassment to the party, something he disregarded with disdain. He added to his offence by attempting to become a faction player in Rajasthan and campaigning openly for the then Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje’s ouster. Then, following the defeat in this year’s Lok Sabha election, he took the injudicious step of teaming up with Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha to ask uncomfortable questions of the leadership. The points he raised weren’t entirely invalid but it prompted too many people to retaliate with the query: “When has he lifted his little finger for the party? For 29 years he has eaten the party’s cream.”

The accusation against Jaswant was that he viewed his privileged status in the BJP as an entitlement, sans obligations.

That Jaswant was undertaking a political biography of Mohammed Ali Jinnah was known since 2005. He had made that public during the row over L.K. Advani’s misadventure in Pakistan. At that time, he had also let it be known that he would resign his primary membership of the BJP if it failed to back Advani on the Jinnah issue. It never came to that because the Advani tangle was settled—or, more accurately, brushed under the carpet—through some face-saving compromises.

In January this year when news of the imminent publication of Jaswant’s Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence broke, an alarmed party leadership pressed the author to delay publication till after the Lok Sabha poll. It was rightly calculated that the Congress would have a field day if the so-called “face of Kandahar” was now seen to be heaping lavish praise on the man who created Pakistan. Jaswant obliged. But never for a day did it enter his mind that the publication should be shelved for a time when he was no longer active in politics.

Jaswant’s astonishing reassurance was not bravado; it was based on calculation. He was certain that the BJP faithful would take a dim view of any reappraisal of Jinnah that made him appear as just another canny politician. The demonization of Jinnah has, after all, become a part of the broad nationalist consensus, just as Jawaharlal Nehru always wanted. However, this storm, he believed, would be managed. The BJP, he believed, would dissociate from the book, perhaps drop him from the Parliamentary Board, but would then allow the storm to pass. Jaswant took solace from the belief that the BJP would not really like to resurrect the Jinnah debate because Advani too would suffer collateral damage.

In hindsight it was a colossal miscalculation. The first part of the script went perfectly when BJP stalwarts stayed away from the book release at Teen Murti and so did the second act when, first Sushma Swaraj and then Rajnath Singh dissociated the party from Jaswant’s views. But things had already started going wrong. Jaswant’s interview to Karan Thapar on CNN-IBN on Sunday night and its reports in the next morning’s newspapers fuelled anger in the BJP ranks in much the same as when Advani uttered his praise of Jinnah at the mausoleum in Lahore four years ago.

The party faithful were incensed on a number of counts: the description of Jinnah as “secular”, the suggestion that Muslims were yet to be regarded as equal citizens in India and, most important, the inclusion of Sardar Vallabbhai Patel as a man also responsible for the Partition. That Jaswant’s view of the Muslim plight in India was actually a subtle indictment of a two-nation theory which had led to an unending spiral of minorityism was too subtle for ordinary comprehension need hardly be stated. Read in isolation and without reference to the arguments in the book, it seemed very much like an endorsement of religion-based fragmentation.

Of greater consequence was the inclusion of Sardar Patel among the architects of Partition, along with Nehru and Lord Mountbatten. Since 1989, the BJP had very consciously tried to appropriate the legacy of Sardar Patel by including him in their pantheon of national heroes. At one time, Advani had cast himself as another Iron Mould in the mould of Patel and after 2002 Narendra Modi had been deified as the Chhote Sardar.

To be fair, Jaswant does not deal at length in his book on the culpability of Patel. He is included as a part of the larger Congress leadership that had to finally acquiesce to Partition as a way out of spiralling sectarian riots that followed the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day in August 1946. Yet, the perception, gained from a reading of his interview with Thapar, that Jaswant had tarred Patel with the brush of ignominy proved too much for the volatile Gujarat unit of the BJP to stomach.

There was another political compulsion that Jaswant never factored: a set of seven by-elections to the Gujarat Assembly where the Patidar (the community to which Patel belonged) vote was crucial. The Congress, which had jumped gleefully into the controversy by dubbing BJP the Bharatiya Jinnah Party, was more than prepared to remind Gujaratis and the Patels in particular that a front-ranking leader of the BJP had insulted their greatest icon.

Had Jaswant confined his indictment of the Congress to a targeted criticism of Nehru—something the BJP does routinely—his worst punishment would have been the withdrawal of invitation to attend the Chintan Baithak and subsequent exclusion from all posts in the BJP. In fact, that is what was contemplated till Tuesday morning. However, by the time Rajnath Singh mustered the requisite self-confidence to communicate the order to stay away from Simla, Jaswant was already ensconced in the very agreeable Oberoi Cecil in Simla.

When the order to stay away was finally communicated at 8.30 am or so on Wednesday morning, it was a case of too little and too late. The party leadership, influenced by reports of BJP cadres burning effigies of Jaswant, demanded exemplary action. This appealed to Rajnath who had seen his own authority successfully challenged by Vasundhara Raje the week before. He too wanted a scalp, if only to establish his claim as a tough, no-nonsense leader. Throughout Wednesday, the party president’s spin doctors kept feeding a hungry media the assertion that it was Rajnath who had decided to crack the whip, emboldened by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s pronouncement that inner-party squabbling must stop immediately.

When the Parliamentary Board members met on the sidelines of the Chintan Baithak at 9 am on Wednesday, Jaswant’s goose was cooked. The decision to expel him from the party was unanimous. Even Advani endorsed it.

From a public relations perspective, the Jaswant expulsion drama was a disaster for the BJP. First, there was the obvious discourtesy involved in communicating a decision of this magnitude by telephone and, if Jaswant is to be believe, with a chuckle from Rajnath. Secondly, the BJP leadership proved utterly insensitive to the perception that Jaswant was being expelled for writing a 600-page treatise which it was common knowledge almost none of the Parliamentary Board had actually read. To the faithful, the leadership had taken the right decision, albeit belatedly, but to the Indians (including BJP voters) unfamiliar with the innards of the party, it seemed an act of intolerance.

The legitimate outrage over a party arrogating to itself the role of a thought police has, quite rightly, fuelled speculation about greater RSS control over the BJP and the formal abandonment of all liberal pretensions. The BJP, it is being claimed, has retreated into the shell of a narrow, insular Hindutva and being an extension counter of Nagpur. It is said that it will no longer entertain the “overdose of democracy” that many leaders had in private complained of.

Are these fears real? At present it is difficult to arrive at definite conclusions but certain factors are worth considering. For some years the BJP is witnessing a tussle between ideology and politics. There are those who believe that the BJP exists as a Hindu party to uphold Hindu interests, even if such an approach proves electorally counter-productive. By this logic, the responsibility for organising the party should be entrusted to RSS functionaries and that lay RSS members should be encouraged to enter electoral politics in a big way and emerge as trusted mass leaders.

The pragmatists who prefer the political approach feel that the 2009 election is an eye-opener. The BJP, they insist, must focus only on those issues that are aimed at winning back the middle classes and the youth—segments that have deserted the party in favour of the Congress. In short, the BJP must embrace modernity, be in a position to re-forge meaningful alliances and relegate identity politics to the backburner. Interestingly, it is the Chief Ministers who favour such an approach.

An interesting feature of this debate is that the adherents of one position are not necessarily always on the same side. Unfortunately for the BJP, a decision on political positioning has been derailed by unresolved leadership questions. Who will be the party president in January? Will Rajnath Singh manage to amend the party constitution and a third term for itself? Is Advani really going to play out his full term as Leader of Opposition? Will the RSS chief’s desire for a younger leadership be translated into reality?

The answers to these questions are relevant because the redefined priorities of the BJP must match with the image and personality of those who are entrusted with the leadership. Tragically, the BJP has no institutionalised democratic mechanism to choose a leader who is most acceptable to both its ordinary karyakartas and, more important, ordinary non-attached voters. Traditionally, the party has left complex leadership questions to be settled by a small cabal that works closely with the RSS. The RSS would prefer if Advani drew up his own succession plans but Advani has shown no inclination to redefine himself as an elder statesman. Does Bhagwat’s clear preference for a younger leader mean that Advani will now be forced into revealing his hand? More important, does Advani still have the authority to not merely nominate his successor but ensuring he/she actually secures the post.

Alternatively, the BJP may decide that it will not rush things and wait for its next prime ministerial face to emerge at a time nearer the election. As of today, the real BJP leadership is in the states. Yet, it is the Centre that pretends it wields authority.

The Chintan Baithak may well help clear confusion in the minds of the top leadership and help forge something akin to a consensus. But that is assuming the participants speak out their minds frankly and fearlessly. The kerfuffle over Jaswant and the abstruse non-debate over Jinnah may have defined politics in the age of swine flu—when voices are muffled by the most visible symbol of self-preservation, the ubiquitous mouth gag.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 34, Dated August 29, 2009

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Different conclusions (August 21, 2009)

The BJP’s decision to expel Jaswant Singh is comic and crass

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something both comic and crass about a political party first censuring and then expelling one of its most senior members for an exercise in revisionist history, and that too with astonishing gracelessness. It is comic because Indians, particularly Hindus, are temperamentally loath to see history as something distinct from mythology and even fiction; and crass because it reveals an inability to come to terms with non-conformism.

To be fair, the sharpness of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s response to his latest book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, released last Monday in Delhi, should not come as a complete surprise to Jaswant Singh. It was well known in political circles that, at the request of some senior leaders, the author kept the publication of the book in abeyance for some months to ensure that it didn’t become an embarrassment during the campaign for the Lok Sabha elections. As someone who had a ringside view of the convulsions that gripped the BJP after L.K. Advani’s display of political heresy in Pakistan four years ago, Singh must have also known that there is political price to pay for challenging orthodoxy and conventional wisdom. Not least when it involves the founder of Pakistan, a subject where demonology is the prevailing nationalist consensus.

Yet, there are important differences between what Advani argued in Karachi and what Singh has proffered in more than 600 pages of print. Advani based his perception of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s supposedly enlightened vision of Pakistan on a single speech made by the Qaid-e-Azam to the Pakistan constituent assembly on August 11, 1947. In that speech, a supremely self-confident Jinnah, wallowing in his success in securing a “moth-eaten” Pakistan, abruptly reverted to his pre-1937 liberal constitutionalism and advocated a non-denominational citizenship for a confessional nation-state that had just been established. Having belatedly discovered that speech, Advani told his Karachi audience they had erred by deviating from Jinnah’s original vision for the Muslim homeland.

Advani’s bid to gloss over the complexities of Jinnah and hone in on his constitutionalism alone may have been over-simplistic. But it had a definite political purpose. In trying to court acceptability in Pakistan where he was perceived as the “hidden hand” which wrecked the Agra summit, Advani assumed he was also sending a message to India’s Muslims who remain implacably hostile to the BJP. The assumption was based on the premise that the resolution of the Indo-Pakistan problem would facilitate the end of Hindu-Muslim problems. Ironically, this was exactly how Jinnah presented his case for Pakistan to a sceptical Congress in 1946-47.

From the Hindu nationalist perspective, Advani was guilty of heresy. Apart from giving Jinnah a certificate of greatness, his endorsement of Jinnah’s August 11 speech signalled his tacit acceptance of the two-nation theory and the repudiation of the Akhand Bharat ideal. Now, it could be argued that Atal Behari Vajpayee took the first step in this direction in his Minar-e-Pakistan speech in 1999. It could also be argued with conviction that whatever the past, Indians would be prudent to settle for the reality of Pakistan. Advani certainly believed so.

By contrast, Jaswant arrived at the conclusion that Jinnah’s bid to redraw borders, divide communities and fragment a common heritage was a monumental failure. Jinnah had believed that Partition would end the minority problem in both countries and create national citizens of India and Pakistan. Instead, more than six decades after Partition, the problems of minorityism have unsettled both countries and fostered a greater fragmentation of society through reservations and affirmative action. He concluded that Jinnah’s separatist idea had solved nothing and Partition had been a curse on all the three countries of the sub-continent.

This indictment of the two-nation theory, couched in excessive romanticism and nostalgia, can fit in with the Akhand Bharat principle of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh with only minor modifications. However, Jaswant also concluded that Jinnah was at heart a decent chap — which he undoubtedly was — and had been cornered into accepting Partition by a venal imperial power and a pig-headed Congress leadership committed to a centralized India.

To those familiar with the intricacies of the negotiations over India’s political future, Jaswant, it would seem, was in basic sympathy with those who preferred a loose political arrangement to replace the British raj. The first of these was obviously the Muslim League, whose priorities were deftly articulated by Jinnah. The Muslims, believing themselves to be a separate nation from the Hindus, sought maximum provincial autonomy — it would earn them political power in north-western India, Bengal and, maybe, Assam, and a guaranteed share of the seats in a central legislature. This is basically what Jinnah sought from the Motilal Nehru committee in 1928, from the Round Table conferences and the last-ditch Cabinet Mission. Had he secured these and had his ego been assuaged by the Congress agreement of his “sole spokesman” claim, Jinnah was more than willing to be a partner in a united India defined by a minimal Centre.

But it wasn’t Jinnah alone who was frustrated by the Congress determination to create a modern India on conventional nationalist lines. The 600 princely states, where nearly 25 per cent of Indians lived, were also opposed to any all-India federation that didn’t guarantee their separateness. As a feudatory of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, Jaswant had reason to imbibe the displeasure of the princes at Sardar Patel’s arm-twisting over integration into India, the anger over Indira Gandhi’s peremptory abolition of titles, privileges and privy purses in 1971, and the final collapse of a charming world built on custom, deference, obligations and entitlements.

In many ways, Jaswant has a quirky view of India. His Toryism blends with an intellectual acceptance of the formulation that India is a multinational aggregation. This is quite different from the prevailing RSS orthodoxy that Bharat is a Hindu rashtra that must aspire to a streamlined, efficient, modern state. In another age, Jaswant may have been at home with the pre-Independence Liberals — a grouping that suited the Bombay gentleman in Jinnah. Alternatively, he may have been a stalwart in C. Rajagopalachari and Minoo Masani’s Swatantra Party, a mix of squirearchy and free enterprise. He has announced after his expulsion that his next project will be a political biography of Rajaji.

Jaswant was an important figure in a BJP that was formed in 1980 as a wholesome version of the discredited Janata Party. It was a party that attempted to incorporate different political traditions, apart from the Jana Sangh which made up the core. At an individual level, Jaswant never amounted to much. He never had either a caste base or a mass following. He was ill at ease with constituency politics. But his symbolic presence signalled the BJP’s readiness to be a broad church for non-Congress, nationalist tendencies.

With his expulsion, this space has shrunk symbolically. The BJP may recognize that its future in a cocky, younger India may lie in pursuing reasonable, moderate politics devoid of shrillness. However, if the leadership is unwilling to countenance the heresy of an amateur historian, how will it appeal to an India to which Akhand Bharat is fanciful nonsense?

From initial reports, it would seem that Jaswant’s expulsion was widely endorsed by BJP workers for whom he was the symbol of the shameful capitulation in Kandahar. Unfortunately, elections are not won by the votes of paid-up political workers. Does the truncation of the political imagination appeal to those who are BJP’s potential voters? The jury is still out.

The Telegraph, August 21, 2009

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Graceless execution that portends a sect (August 20, 2009)


It is unlikely that mainstream Indian politics has witnessed anything as patently absurd as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s expulsion of Jaswant Singh for authoring a 600-page book on a topic as abstruse as Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

That there were many in the BJP and the RSS who were angered by yet another demonstration of individualism by Jaswant was evident after his CNN-IBN interview last Sunday.

But few expected anything as precipitate as his expulsion from the primary membership of a party he has been associated with since its formation in 1980.

Was the graceless political execution of Jaswant merely a consequence of perceived ideological heresy or was the former associate of Atal Bihari Vajpayee a symbolic victim of an exemplary measure?

Different impulses have been at work in the BJP. First, it has been clear for some time that the party was sharply divided over the reasons for its Lok Sabha defeat and equally at odds over the route to recovery.

Secondly, it has also been evident that after the defeat, the period of L.K. Advani’s effective leadership is over. The only one who has been slow to read the writing on the wall is Advani himself.

Thirdly, there is no acceptable consensus as yet as to who should replace Advani as the party’s national face. There are potential claimants —Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Narendra Modi and, at a generous pinch, Rajnath Singh —but there can be no meaningful choice unless the party is clear about the road it has to travel.

Finally, there is no clarity as yet over the role the RSS is expected to play in resolving the BJP’s crisis.

From 2005, RSS-appointed organising secretaries have tried to impose their stranglehold on the BJP at all levels, frequently coming into contact with chief ministers and other mass leaders. This formidable RSS lobby believes its domination over the BJP will give it clarity and direction and resolve disciplinary issues.

With Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s anointment as the new chief of the RSS earlier this year, a fresh complication has developed. While Bhagwat favours functional autonomy for RSS-linked bodies, the RSS functionaries who have tasted political power have other ideas. There is a mismatch between the autonomy the RSS espouses and the intrusiveness its functionaries practise.

For the past three years, Rajnath has emerged as the implementing arm of the RSS agenda. However, his effectiveness was marred by the presence of Advani as the overall captain and a reputation for factional intrigues. The post-election salvage operation was meant to signal his emergence as a tough leader — perhaps someone worthy of another three-year term.

This explains his assault on Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan, an operation remote-controlled by the political pracharaks. The initial assault failed because Vasundhara demonstrated she has a majority of MLAs. But Rajnath needed a symbolic victory before the chintan baithak to bolster his claim of being a tough, no-nonsense leader.

Jaswant Singh happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had Vasundhara been felled, he may have got away with a censure or simple exclusion from the BJP Parliamentary Board. He was the second-best scalp on offer.

But a larger purpose has been served. Rajnath has informed the world that inner-party democracy need not exist in the BJP and neither should intellectual pluralism.

It is a powerful message. From trying to be the Hindu broad church, the BJP may be regressing into a Hindu sect. Unless, of course, the chief ministers din a sense of realism into the proceedings.

The Telegraph, August 20, 2009

Sunday, August 16, 2009

BJP gets into needless spat (August 16, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Till last Thursday, there was a smug and self-serving belief in the higher echelons of the BJP that the effective interventions in the Budget session of Parliament demonstrated that the party needs only a little tweaking to chart the future. The implication was that there was no real need to rake up the past, unearth the skeletons and identify past blunders. The unstated assumption was that there is nothing seriously wrong with the BJP which cannot be put right by a quiet bonding exercise of 22 chosen stalwarts.

Whether it was Rajasthan’s Vasundhara Raje or an organisational stalwart with an exaggerated sense of machismo who unsettled this cosy but bogus consensus is a matter of interpretation. However, the decision of 57 of the 79 BJP MLAs and all the four Lok Sabha MPs from Rajasthan to show the central leaders that they have a mind of their own has raised questions that are relevant to the party nationally.

The central leadership’s decision to demand Vasundhara’s resignation as Leader of Opposition was based on three considerations.

First, Vasundhara was blamed for the party’s poor showing in the Lok Sabha election. Earlier, in January this year, she was re-elected as the leader of the BJP legislature party because of the realisation that, the narrow defeat in the Assembly polls notwithstanding, she was by far the most popular BJP leader in the state. It was recognised in the BJP that the party may have regained power had it not been for internal sabotage and image of disunity. It was an open secret that a section of the party’s stakeholders wanted the BJP to lose. Inevitably, the shadow of the Assembly poll defeat fell on the Lok Sabha election five months later.

Secondly, Vasundhara has been accused of an imperious style of political management and of playing the maharani. In the past, she defended herself with the suggestion that many of the BJP leaders—as opposed to ordinary villagers—in the state are innately uncomfortable with a woman in charge. My own impression is that there is some validity to what Vasundhara has always suggested.

Finally, the removal of Vasundhara seems to be part of a recrimination game involving a section of the RSS, working in tandem with the party president. After the Lok Sabha election, the BJP removed Om Prakash Mathur, a former pracharak who had been installed as state party president without even the courtesy of informing Vasundhara, then the Chief Minister. Also removed from the state was the RSS-appointed Organisation Secretary Prakash Chandra who was widely perceived to be a factional player. It is interesting that, apart from Rajasthan, there has been no similar change in other states. Since Vasundhara’s insistence was responsible for the removal of the two RSS apparatchiks, there is a strong suspicion that the latest moves are part of a tit-for-tat exercise.

There is also the suggestion that the national president has made the removal of Vasundhara a matter of personal honour because he wants to oblige those who are working for a change in the BJP constitution to gain him another term as president. A successful slaying of Vasundhara will, it is felt by those who have briefed the media about the president’s “determination” to brook no indiscipline, enhance his authority prior to the so-called chintan baithak in Shimla. Vasundhara, it would seem, has become the fall guy of someone’s intensely personal agenda.

That politics is never devoid of inter-personal strains is common knowledge. However, what makes the attempted coup in Rajasthan (and there is no other fitting description) particularly distasteful is that is goes against the fundamental tenets of democracy. The central leadership may want Vasundhara to be replaced by a compliant pygmy but if the overwhelming majority of MLAs want her as leader, the stalwarts in Delhi must swallow their pride and accept it.

The BJP is not a private limited company like the Congress and there are no profound ideological issues involved in Rajasthan. If the views of the MLAs are wilfully disregarded the party would have lost the moral right to project itself as a mass political party. It may as well declare itself a mutt (seminary) and preach to the committed within four impenetrable walls.

It is important to check a particular rot that has led to severe distortions in the BJP. Since 2006, there have been four centrally-sponsored attempts to destabilise state units, not least in places where the party is in power. In 2006-07, there was the bid to ferment dissidence against Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Modi has survived because he has popular endorsement and support of many national leaders. Last year, there was an attempt to disrupt the BJP-JD(U) coalition in Bihar by seeking the removal of Sushil Modi as Deputy Chief Minister. The destabilisers were aided and abetted by those at the helm of the central party. The revolt fizzled out when a secret ballot of MLAs showed that Modi had a clear majority. However, despite having a majority of MLAs on his side, B.C. Khanduri in Uttarakhand was unable to cope with the destabilisation that was organised from Delhi. He wasn’t enough of a politician to put up a fight. Finally, there were the troubles in Rajasthan.

There are two features of the centrally-endorsed destabilisation of the states that should be of some concern. First, in all the affected states, the conspiracies involved only a minority of MLAs and were detached completely from mass politics. The conspiracies wouldn’t have got anywhere unless they had central backing. Secondly, in all cases where BJP-run governments were concerned, the real schism was over the principles of governance. The conspirators were clear that governance should mean substantial benefits for party loyalists.

Vasundhara is not perfect. There is ample room for improvement on her part. However, by standing up to the most venal impulses of petty leaders she is upholding a principle. Without these principles, the BJP may as well do its own pinda-daan and take sannyas from democratic politics.

Sunday Pioneer, August 16, 2009

How the Non-Resident Indian has fallen from grace (August 16, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the annual ‘home’ visit of the non-resident uncle or aunt was the most important item in the dreary social calendar of a middle-class Indian family. An air of expectancy would fill the household as the bulky suitcases were unpacked and the gifts distributed — a muffler for the grandfather, a cardigan and a bottle of perfume for mother, a duty-free Johnnie Walker for father, denim jeans for the teenager, chocolates for the neighbour and a compact umbrella for the old maid. We would be shown photographs of the spacious suburban house and the big car which would be contrasted with the creaking 12-yearold Fiat outside.

Until the early 1990s, India was home to a middle-class that lived in a state of permanent deprivation. However much we loved our country and waved the flag on the few occasions India won a Test match, our Third World status confronted us incessantly. Although life was never as unbearable as in the Communist bloc, we lacked those little luxuries that make drudgery bearable.

Leaving India was an idea assiduously nurtured if you were audacious and ambitious. The grass, it was known, was far greener in the West. There, despite the social and racial disdain an immigrant was subjected to, you could make it with hard work and some enterprise. In the social milieu of the West, the expatriate Indian counted for very little. Barring the odd exception, he could never make it to the inside track of the power structure. But he ensured for himself a relatively decent standard of living. True it was a life minus servants, but it was also minus the hassles of unending shortages, petty corruption and telephones that worked erratically.

It wasn’t merely the Green Card and, ultimately, the coveted blue American or red British passport that made the NRI feel more superior. It mattered to him that his superiority was recognised and acknowledged at home. Despite not being there for 11 months in the year, the NRI became the centre of attraction in the family. He was fawned upon when he came home to India; his pronouncements were heard with awe and reverence; and he was flattered by banks and governments into parting with his few surplus dollars, in exchange for extraordinary benefits denied to rupee earners.

Nor was the importance of the NRI confined to the family. Even mighty politicians and stand-offish babus courted NRIs with an eye on some crumbs of hospitality during visits abroad. In the 1970s and 1980s, i encountered many petty travel agents, restaurant owners and property speculators in the Indian ghettos of London who counted for little in Britain but who had free access into the houses of our politicians.

All this seems a long time ago. The balance of power began tilting against the NRI sometime in the late 1990s. First, the government of India lifted the absurd restrictions on foreign travel and the purchase of hard currency by resident Indians. More important, you could use your Indian credit card abroad and not scrounge for NRI hospitality. Secondly, the spurt in domestic manufacturing and free imports implied that you didn’t have to depend on the visiting NRI for those little extras. Since many of the best global brands are available in India at competitive prices, the shopping list of discerning Indian travellers have shrunk dramatically to include only the exotic. Finally, the globalisation of Indian business signalled the end of a one-sided flow of capital. It’s no longer a case of India depending on NRI munificence but the West wooing Indian capital.

The average NRI’s fall from grace in India has been precipitate. The vacuous condescension that marked earlier attitudes has been replaced by desperation to find some accommodation somewhere. The big NRI players have no problem — they have seen their social worth in the West keep pace with India’s soaring reputation as a rising power. But the small fish whose tie and a twang once enabled him to lord over his less fortunate brethren in India has seen envy replaced with disinterest.

To the NRI confronted with a precarious descent into obscurity, there is only a small solace: interventions on the net. Taking advantage of a more connected world, the professional NRI (who knows no other identity) has stepped up his battles to cast India in his own confused image. No Indian website is free from the voluminous but pernicious comments of the know-all, ultra-nationalist NRI banging away on the computer in splendid isolation. From being India’s would-be benefactors, the meddlesome NRI has become an intellectual nuisance, derailing civil discourse with his paranoia and pseudo-superiority. It’s time he was royally ignored.


Sunday Times of India, August 16, 2009

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Politics beyond Hindutva (August 2009)

Eternal India (Delhi), August 2009

By Swapan Dasgupta

A simple sentence of political analysis by Perry Anderson, one of the foremost Marxist thinkers of our time, had a profound impact on me when I read it in early-2000. In his editorial in the New Left Review for the new millennium, Anderson argued that “The only starting point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of political defeat.”[1]

Celebrating victory is exhilarating but effortless; handling defeat is far more daunting, particularly when it assaults a deep faith. For Communists nurtured on the belief that history was on their side and that the Communist Party was somehow infallible, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and China’s endorsement of a market economy were traumatic. To those who remained true to the faith, the experience of both despondency and doggedness, and anger at those who discredited a noble ideal prompted a Churchillian determination to fight to the last and never surrender. The sense of realism and the frank admission of political defeat that Anderson demanded remained a minority current among activists—though, in private moments, they acknowledged its veracity.

A refusal to read the writing on the wall is not uncommon in political formations where group solidarity is paramount.[2] In 1978, the suggestion by historian Eric Hobsbawm[3] that the triumphant march of the labour movement was threatened by social changes and a political disconnect was disregarded by the British Labour Party. The activist-dominated organisation responded to its election defeat at the hands of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 by lurching sharply to the left and stepping up trade union militancy. The outcome was disastrous and Labour faced three more humiliating general election defeats before Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment yielded handsome dividends.

Blair’s attempt to make his party relevant to the times involved a bitter inner-party struggle that was fought out all levels. It involved the Labour Party jettisoning Clause Four of its programme—an article of faith committing it to the public ownership of the means of production, a euphemism for nationalisation. In a speech to the party conference, three years before he became Prime Minister, Blair explained the impulses of his reformism in very simple language: “If the world changes and we don’t, then we become of no use to the world. Our principles cease being principles and ossify into dogma. We haven’t changed to forget our principles but to fulfil them. Not to lose our identity but to keep our relevance.”[4]

Blair won three elections for his party but he was never spared repeated accusations of betraying the cause.

It is paradoxical that something resembling this touching Left irredentism is being witnessed in the Bharatiya Janata Party in the aftermath of two consecutive general election defeats. What was explained as a fluke defeat in 2004 and attributed to the unpopularity of its alliance partners in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh has, in 2009, been described as a verdict against the ramshackle Third Front, with the BJP suffering collateral damage. The outcome, it has been suggested, was not really a defeat but a disappointment in terms of the party’s own expectations. The more outlandish have even gone to the extent of pinning the relative success of the Congress on doctored Electronic Voting Machines, a theory reminiscent of the “secret ink” theory that surfaced in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s famous victory in 1971.

At a purely functional level, the underestimation of defeat can be explained by the need to shore up the sagging morale of the foot soldiers and prevent their retreat into inactivity. The problem arises when the need for a “lucid registration of political defeat” is rejected altogether and discipline becomes the fig leaf for an abrupt end to all meaningful attempts at a larger post-mortem. More than two months after the results, the discussion in the BJP about the 2009 experience has been at best perfunctory and at worst disingenuous. What began as a tactical talking-up exercise has, quite predictably, ended up as denial. The belief is that time, a bout of activity coinciding with the next round of Assembly polls and the follies of the government will re-galvanise the party and paper over uncomfortable questions thrown up by the 2009 poll.

The optimism may perhaps be warranted. However, the scale of the BJP’s defeat suggests that the erosion of support is quite significant.

· The party’s tally of 116 seats is below the 138 it won in 2004 and is even lower than what it secured in 1991 when it had no allies apart from the Shiv Sena.

· Its popular vote of 18.8 per cent was a sharp 3.4 per cent below what it secured in 2004.

· Apart from Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka where it increased its vote (and seats), there was a swing against the BJP throughout India. This included a 12.4 per cent decline in Rajasthan and a 5.5 per cent fall in Delhi and Jharkhand. The decline in support throughout India brings into question the theory that, like 2004, the 2009 verdict was an aggregation of local polls.

The loss of momentum was also felt socially. According to the post-poll analysis of the BJP performance by Lokniti and CSDS: “This election represents a stagnation or reversal… Except Karnataka, the BJP does not appear to be cultivating a new social base anywhere. In this election, the BJP’s hitherto upward trend among adivasis and Muslim voters has been reversed and its expansion among the lower OBCs halted. The BJP faces a threat in its core constituency too. Though it continues to be the first preference of upper caste Indians, the only social group where the BJP is ahead of the Congress, the party has faced a sharper than average erosion in this group. The BJP trailed the Congress among ‘middle class’ urban voters. All this confirms the picture of a party in retreat.”[5]

It is curious that the social decline of the BJP (even among its core supporters) has been viewed as a simple case of campaign mismanagement. The presumption is that a better advertising agency, more catchy slogans and better candidates will be able to reverse this fall from grace. In other words there is no need for the party to be gripped by convulsions.

What is especially intriguing is the ease with which “ideology” has been disentangled from popular acceptance. In a recent interview, the BJP President argued that “On the ideological front, the party has never deviated in the past, nor would it do so in the future. There is unambiguous clarity in our ideology. There is absolutely no confusion… In our Hindutva ideology, everyone has a respected place—it is all-inclusive, liberal and tolerant. Had our ideology not been liberal and tolerant, it would never have been eternal (sanatan)... Not only the human beings, but also all the living creatures in the world are equally respected and taken care of in our ideology.”[6]

Apart from its caricatured articulation, the underlying theme of this ideological drum-beating is loyalty and steadfastness. Like many in the Communist movement who are unwilling to deviate from the textual guidelines set by Lenin “himself”, the BJP appears to have been trapped by a dogma of its own making. The fault for the BJP’s defeat, it would seem, has been pinned on the incomprehension of the electorate.

Prior to 1990, Hindutva, far from being the unchanging ideological lodestar, didn’t even feature in the BJP’s packaging of cultural nationalism. The term was generally associated with Veer Savarkar who invoked it as an encapsulation of the Hindu political mission. “Hindutva is not a word”, he wrote in 1923, “but a history. Not only the spiritual or religious history of our people as at times it is mistaken to be by being confounded with the other cognate term Hinduism but a history in full.” At the same time, Savarkar conceded that “The ideas and ideals, the systems and societies, the thoughts and sentiments which have centred round this name are so varied and rich, so powerful and so subtle, so elusive and yet so vivid that the term Hindutva defies all attempts at analysis. Forty centuries, if not more, had been at work to mould it as it is.”[7]

Savarkar’s stress on the virtual impossibility of positing Hindutva other than as a nebulous ideal, prone to sharply conflicting interpretations, has often been overlooked. Over the years, the invocation of Hindutva has taken many forms. Some individuals have tried to reduce it to a set of principles. In an interesting interview this year, K.N. Govindacharya has argued that there are five constituents of Hindutva: respect for all modes of worship, egalitarianism, harmony with nature, special respect for women and stress on non-material values.[8] Govindacharya’s vision of Hindutva has large areas of commonality with Swami Vivekananda’s belief that the alleviation of poverty should be at the core of Hindu activism.

As opposed to these ideas, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad is said to have identified some 14 parameters for what constitutes Hindutva in today’s India: belief in Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudda Vadanti; the reconstruction of temples at Ram Janmabhoomi, Krishna Janmabhoomi and Kashi Vishwanath; promulgation of a Uniform Civil Code; the abolition of Article 370; amendments of Articles 25, 26 and 30 to remove special privileges to state-funded minority run educational institutions; honouring Shri Ram, Shri Krishna, Rana Pratap, Chattrapati Shivaji and others as national heroes; no state control of temples; abolition of Haj subsidy; revision of history curricula; restoration of ancient Hindu sites; economic policies to foster indigenous entrepreneurship; ban on cow slaughter; zero tolerance of terrorism; ban on religious conversions and bar on foreign missionaries.[9]

It is pretty apparent that there is little common ground between Savarkar’s attempted distillation of 40 centuries of Hindu experience, the BJP president’s more elementary understanding, Govindacharya’s socialist Hindutva and the VHP’s political manifesto. That they all swear by Hindutva, as do the notorious head of the Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore and the alleged perpetrators of the Malegaon bombs targeting Muslim, is revealing. Like the 57 varieties of Heinz, Hindutva has become the catch-all label for a multitude of Hindu preferences, some innocuous, some innovative and others, frankly, quite crazy. In political terms, Hindutva has suffered from an imagery of confusion and incoherence. Regardless of what was in Savarkar’s mind, the contemporary usage of Hindutva doesn’t serve as a magnetic attraction to either the political Hindu or even the religious Hindu. To a new breed of cosmopolitan Indians, Hindutva often appears as a mirror image of literalist Islam.

That a term L.K. Advani once described as the BJP’s “ideological mascot” would experience such a fall was entirely unanticipated. When Govindacharya began injecting the usage of the term into the political discourse of the 1990s, he had in mind something more than the Sonmath to Ayodhya rath yatra and the movement for the reconstruction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya. At that time Hindutva became the convenient shorthand for the wider intellectual ferment centred on the meaning of Indian nationhood and the future direction of our polity. The BJP emerged as the alternative to the Congress, gaining new ground quite spectacularly, not because it resurrected historical memory but because its frontal assault on pseudo-secularism challenged the assumptions of a stagnant Nehruvian consensus. In one his more forthright interventions, Girilal Jain captured the essence of the times: “The (Babri) structure as it stood, represented an impasse between what Babur represented and what Ram represents. This ambiguity has been characteristic of the Indian state since Independence. In fact, in my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, ambiguity, indecisiveness and lack of purpose as this structure.”[10]

Yet, despite the sublimated energies it released, Hindutva was essentially a political plank born out of a thousand years of defeat and subjugation. Hindutva kept alive the historical memory of Hindus and the country’s unwillingness to accept subordination as a permanent feature of life. It symbolised the anguish and the anger of the politically dispossessed. It fought against the countervailing currents of Hindu passivity and contrived universalism—both alternative responses to defeat. Political Hindutva never fully captured the imagination of the entire Hindu “nation”; it was always contested and remained a minority current.

A reason for this lack of wider acceptability was the confusion over inclusiveness. When he prescribed the acceptance of India as both the fatherland and the holy land as a precondition for incorporation into the Indian nation, Savarkar was consciously advocating the exclusion of Muslims and Christians from political citizenship, a proposal horribly at odds with the Indian Constitution. It was this exclusionary politics that was a factor behind Shyama Prasad Mookerjee’s decision to quit the Hindu Mahasabha and facilitate the formation of the Jana Sangh.

Within the Jana Sangh/BJP tradition there has been a long tussle between exclusionary and inclusive tendencies. There were elements in Guru Golwalkar’s writings that more or less mirrored the primacy Savarkar attached to Indic religions. At the same time, the important distinction between the RSS as a voluntary association and the BJP as a political party was sought to be maintained. In short, while the RSS could remain a family made up exclusively of Hindu volunteers, the BJP as a political party had to keep its doors open to all faiths and communities. This uneasy coexistence of two contradictory impulses persisted despite the BJP formally embracing Deendayal Upadhyaya’s principles of Integral Humanism. Unlike Savarkar’s Hindutva, Integral Humanism attached importance to the harmonisation of potential areas of conflict, notably those involving man and nature and man and man.[11]

The tussle between these contradictory impulses came to a head during the Ayodhya movement, when Hindutva entered the BJP lexicon. The aggressive thrust towards redefining national identity yielded electoral dividends but also resulted in the BJP’s “majestic isolation”. The fallout of Ayodhya resulted in the BJP emerging as the alternative pole of Indian politics. Yet, it was also clear that there were limits to the party’s forward march as long as it wasn’t in a position to co-opt other nationalists, anti-Congress forces and some regional parties. These parties were willing to cooperate with the BJP as long as the rough edges of Hindutva were blunted. For many in the BJP too, there was a real danger that the energies unleashed by the Ayodhya movement would turn roguish. Atal Behari Vajpayee in particular saw “coalition dharma” as an instrument to check Hindu radicalism and the uncompromising advocacy of Hindutva.

Fortuitously for the BJP, the Supreme Court came to its rescue. In a landmark judgment on December 11, 1995, a three-judge bench pronounced “that no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms Hindu, Hindutva and Hinduism; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage. It is also indicated that the term Hindutva is related more to the way of life of the people in the subcontinent.”

The judgment, in effect, gave the BJP an opening to defang Hindutva as am instrument of political aggression. Where the earlier emphasis had been on Hindutva as historical memory and political change, the Supreme Court reduced it to a benign “way of life”—the very description used by S. Radhakrishnan to categorise Hinduism.

In its rush to embrace the apex court judgment, the BJP, however, left an important question unanswered. If Hindutva is merely a descriptive term for a “way of life”, how does it qualify to be the defining ideology of a political party? More to the point, how does a “way of life” constitute a philosophy of governance? The sheer nebulousness of the judiciary-determined Hindutva made it possible for hundreds of interpretations of the term to coexist, without anyone being the wiser.

These issues could have been left wonderfully unaddressed had it not been for the media projection of Hindutva as the signature tune of crazy and sometime murderous fanatics. The projection may be unfair but it has cost the BJP its middle class constituency and the youth vote.

However, to blame the media for the demonization of Hindutva is unduly simplistic. Between the Ayodhya movement which encapsulated a mood for change and the 2009 polls, India has changed dramatically. First, the past decade has seen economic growth and urbanisation on a scale not witnessed since Independence. Secondly, the joint family system is no longer the defining feature of social life in urban India. Thirdly, the demographic balance has shifted quite decisively in favour of a Young India. Fourthly, India has been subjected to more global influences than ever before. A new cosmopolitanism has taken root in the country. Finally, India’s emergence as a formidable global player has led to the erosion of the mindset of defeat that was the hallmark of the Hindus in earlier times. Hindutva provided both solace and courage to a defeated people. It is perceived to be out of place for a country whose attitude to the world is couched in cockiness and self-confidence. The advocates of a neo-imperial foreign policy in particular perceive Hindutva as a huge obstacle to the spread of Indian influence in Asia.

Political parties don’t exist in a vacuum; they relate to real situations and real societies. The emergence of Hindutva as the defining feature of an earlier age was bound in a context. That context has changed, the society has changed. Unfortunately, the BJP is caught in a time-warp. Its political miscalculations and a failure to appreciate a changing India have cost it two elections. Unless there is a reality check, the future could well be even more dismal.

[1] Editorial in New Left Review, January-February 2000, p.18.

[2] Cass Sunstein, “To become an extremist, hang around with people you agree with”, The Spectator (London), July 4, 2009, pp. 12-13.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm,, The Forward March of Labour Halted? (Verso 1981)

[4] The Guardian, October 5, 1994.

[5] The Hindu, May 26, 2009.

[6] Organiser, July 19, 2009, p.9.

[7] V.D. Savarkar, Hindutva (7th edition, Mumbai 1999) p. 2.

[8] Tehelka, June 27, 2009, p. 18.

[9] Private communication from Ashok Chowgule, June 19, 2009.

[10] Organiser, January 31, 1993, p.7.

[11] For an analysis of the conflict between Hindutva and Integral Humanism, see Chaturvedi Badrinath, Dharma, India and the World Order (Pahl-Rugenstein, Bonn, 1993), pp. 272-316.

Conspiracy theories good for laughs (August 9, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the more interesting titles on display in London’s bookshops this week is Voodoo Histories: The Role of Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History by journalist David Aaronovitch. It explores the whacko conspiracy theories that have had cult followings in the West. Some of these include the invocation of the fictional ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ to prove a global Jewish conspiracy against civilisation as we know it, the murder of President Kennedy, and the suggestion that the British intelligence services engineered the crash that led to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
I haven’t bothered spending £17.99 on Aaranovitch’s journey into the intellectual world of crazies because we have a fair share of our own Voodoo Histories. That Subhas Chandra Bose wasn’t killed in an air crash in Taipei but was instead incarcerated by Stalin in Siberia at the express request of India’s first Prime Minister is a story which refuses to die, despite umpteen wasteful commissions of inquiry. The intriguing but delightful story of how Jawaharlal Nehru got the better of Mohammed Ali Jinnah because he indulged in pillow talk with the last Vicereine of India has been repeated with monotonous regularity by Pakistani voodoo-ists who double up as historians. The same story, curiously, is used by Nehru-baiters in India to argue that Partition was always a grand bedroom conspiracy. The implication is that Nehru was an unwitting victim of an imperial honey trap.
In recent years, the abrupt decision of Sonia Gandhi to heed her “inner voice” and not accept the post of Prime Minister in May 2004 prompted a lot of speculation. Among the better conspiracy theories I heard was that a Russian aircraft carrying mysterious passengers flew into Delhi during the negotiations and stirred the “inner voice” into activity. There are other versions of this conspiracy in circulation, some involving former President APJ Abdul Kalam (“no wonder he wasn’t given a second term”) and others involving a brotherhood of former KGB agents. In fact, some people genuinely believe that the KGB had a mole burrowing deep inside Mrs Indira Gandhi’s residence.
Like the story about the wrist watch Sanjay Gandhi was allegedly wearing the morning he took off from Safdarjung airport for his last flight, conspiracy theories make good reading but are mainly unverifiable. We should delight in hearing and reading them, but it would be a sad day if such rubbish was actually taken seriously.
Tragically, the Internet has been a boon to global conspiracy theorists, not least in India. Harmless eccentrics who warm up to numerous conspiracies have made contact with kindred souls, cutting across national boundaries. Websites propagating pet theories and dedicated e-mail groups have often created the impression that they are neither loonies nor isolated individuals. Web interventions have conferred an illusion of numerical support on those who in an earlier era would have been laughed out of polite company. A determined group of whackos has often derailed serious discussions and done its bit towards making the blogosphere resemble an old-fashioned loony bin.
If the conspiracy theorists had confined their activities to making incredible assertions such as arguing that all Jews had carefully chosen not to go to the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11 and identifying the exact island where Subhas Chandra Bose had taken refuge with Hitler or Elvis Presley, their activities would not have merited a column. Unfortunately, when conspiracy theorists start puncturing the credibility of the world’s largest democracy, it is time to sit up and take note.
In the past two months, an insidious campaign claiming that the Electronic Voting Machines used in the general election were doctored has begun claiming new adherents in the political class. What began as an e-mail campaign involving some isolated pensioners located in southern India has suddenly gathered momentum among politicians. In Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK led by J Jayalalithaa has boycotted by-elections in the State, protesting the use of EVMs; in Orissa, Cabinet Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, also the Congress general secretary in charge of the State, has attributed Naveen Patnaik’s third electoral victory to EVM riggings; and, Leader of the Opposition LK Advani has demanded that India scrap EVMs and revert to paper ballots.
Had there been any persuasive evidence that a conspiracy to subvert the popular will had been successfully undertaken with the connivance of the Election Commission, there would have been a strong case for a rigorous scientific/technical scrutiny. But that has not been the contention of the sceptics. Their argument is that it is theoretically possible to doctor the EVMs — an undeniable proposition. The question is: Have these machines been doctored in a way so as to benefit a particular political party in a multitude of constituencies? Anyone familiar with the embedded chip system of EVMs would say this is absurd — unless the sequence of candidate listing is known before hand. You can doctor machines to ensure that candidate number five gets every fifth vote (regardless of where the button is pressed) but can you ensure that the favoured party’s candidate will appear as number five in every constituency?
The conspiracy theory is so patently ridiculous that the EC should have organised a televised demo to end the silly debate once and for all.
Defeat in elections is always difficult to digest. But it does not help the political process if leaders start embracing ridiculous theories because they show that the winner was actually a cheater. In cricket, there is a way of winning a match by outplaying the opponent; there is also the fabled route of winning courtesy the “Pakistani umpire”. It does not enhance the quality of our public life if the EC is unfairly charged with being a Pakistani umpire because some leaders can’t face up to the reality of public rejection.


Sunday Pioneer, August 9, 2009