Sunday, September 27, 2009

Absolving Maoists of their crimes (September 27, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
In the late-1960s and early-1970s, it was not unusual to hear about young men and women from privileged backgrounds breaking off ties with their families, catching a train to some god-forsaken place in Bihar and then going “underground”. When I joined Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, unquestionably a citadel of both excellence and privilege, in 1972, there were many who viewed all imports from Calcutta as potentially suspect and contaminated with the Naxalite virus. After all, too many bright sparks had abruptly disappeared into the countryside in search of the class war that would finally liberate India and elevate China’s Chairman into “our Chairman”.

Mercifully, such puerile manifestations of impatience with the old order yielded little fruit. The majority of those who packed a pair of jeans and tried to persuade poor peasants that they should hack the local landlord into pieces and feed the jackals, returned dejected and traumatised. Most of them had done nothing really purposeful during their “underground” stint but there were a few who had taken the perverted prophet Charu Mazumdar at face value. Some had indeed killed hapless traffic policemen, ageing vice-chancellors and third-rung politicians.

These amateur criminals posed a problem both for their parents and those in charge of stamping out the Naxalite movement. Fortunately there is one law for the aam aadmi and one law for those who have connections. Thanks to an astonishing show of flexibility by the authorities, the PLU murderers were given a way out. Their parents were advised to send the deviants to a foreign country and make sure they didn’t return in a hurry. Most never did. The US in particular hosts a large number of law-abiding people of Indian origin who were banished from the mother country for heinous crimes. In the old days, criminals in England were transported to Australia and French criminals suffered on Devil’s Island. Four decades ago, we sent off our political criminals to taste life in the heartlands of capitalism. It was the most agreeable punishment devised by an otherwise brutal state.

Needless to say, this punishment was reserved for some. The Indian state came down hard on the less fortunate. Few of them have lived to reflect on their misguided past.

The ones who went “underground” for a lark returned to their normal lives after hunger and dysentery overwhelmed their Maoism. The few who were truly agonised over the plight of the poor joined the Human Rights and Civil Liberties groups. It was a prudent change of tack since these bodies have been generously funded by angst-ridden Europeans (if only to show that India is at the core a rotten Third World country) and have evolved into overground service centres for every conceivable group that is waging war on the Indian state. In hindsight, Charu Mazumdar’s investment in the brat pack of the 1960s has paid off. Today, in the guise of protecting civil liberties, they operate as ideological covers for any group that wants the disintegration of India.

It is necessary to provide a background to the contrived tear-jerking that is being witnessed in the English-language media over the arrest of one Kobad Ghandhy, an ideologue and Politburo member of the outlawed CPI(Maoist). Normally, the arrest of a senior Maoist leader doesn’t lead to every cub reporter shedding tears. But Ghandhy’s advantage is that he came from a rich Bombay family, went to Doon School, bummed around London in the 1970s, was a leading light of the Human Rights industry and, finally, went “underground” to service a group of armed murderers.

Of course, Ghandhy has probably never killed someone personally or planted one of those deadly mines that have led to the deaths of policemen and para-military forces in Chhattisgarh. For that matter, he was probably never personally around when his comrades turfed poor Adivasis out of their homes for the crime of refusing to acknowledge the power of the Red Flag. No, or so the argument goes, Ghandhy was a good man because he felt for the poor, spoke good English and had eschewed his inheritance. He was a good man because he cut a romantic figure.

The campaign to paint a halo around Ghandhy has begun in right earnest. In time, we may even witness countless intellectuals and even Nobel Prize winners sign petitions calling for his release, perhaps on medical grounds. It is even possible that an orchestrated campaign may lead to the courts ordering his release on bail on compassionate grounds — the paediatrician Binayak Sen was granted bail on grounds of ill health. But does a spirited campaign by bleeding hearts necessarily absolve Ghandhy?

A man who occupied a top leadership position of an outlawed organisation that has assaulted the sovereignty of the Indian state cannot claim with any degree of credibility that he was oblivious of the military wing of his party. The armed struggle is an integral part of the CPI(Maoist) and its military operations have been sanctioned by the political leadership. Obviously, Ghandhy may be unaware of the operational details of the arson, murder and extortion in the deep forests of central India. But these operations have been sanctioned by people like him. His supporters cannot whitewash his culpability.

The law doesn’t make a distinction between those who can speak English and those who are better versed in the vernacular. Over the past two years, many of the so-called ideologues of the Students Islamic Movement have been arrested. They preached the idea of jihad and motivated many earnest Muslim youth to kill innocent people for the sake of a larger cause. But these ideologues never actually carried out the bombings; they left it to the more daring and resourceful.

If Ghandhy is to be released, the top leadership of SIMI (also a banned outfit) should be feted by Human Rights-wallahs in five-star hotels and invited to meaningful seminars underwritten by the European Union. Would that be a sign of India’s enlightenment or India’s stupidity?

Sunday Pioneer, September 27, 2009

Bust the myth of good over evil (September 27, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In Bollywood films of an earlier age, the penultimate scene invariably had the hero collaring the villain and beating him to a pulp till inept policemen lumbered in to intervene. These dhishum-dhishum scenes were extremely popular and would be met by loud clapping from the lower stalls.

The inclination to vanquish the bad guy cuts through cultures and is probably older than civilisation itself. The triumph of good over evil, of dharma over adharma resonates through the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Though the epics aren’t strictly religious and don’t dwell on the relationship of mortals with God, they have a profound contemporary influence. The Ramayana, in particular, has come to symbolise simple religiosity and ethics.

Throughout the past week there have been readings, enactments and sermons on the chequered life of the King of Ayodhya. The evening of Navami will mark the killing of the King of Lanka by Ram and Dussehra or Vijayadashami will celebrate the triumph of good over evil. In large parts of India, fierce effigies of Ravana, his son Meghnad and his obese brother Kumbhakarna will be ceremonially burnt.

The demonization of Ravana, the learned and fearless Brahmin who abducted a defenceless woman through guile and then shamelessly lusted after her, is understandable. Ravana, however, had legitimate reasons to wage war on the then-exiled Ram — for his attack on the 14,000 Rakshasa inhabitants of Janasthan, the killing of his vassals Khara, Dushana and Trishira, and most importantly, Lakshman’s humiliation of his sister Surpanakha. But Ravana violated the accepted tenets of statecraft by abducting Sita and tempting her to become his wife. Had Ravana chosen to take on Ram frontally in battle, he would not have been held guilty of adharma.

It is worth recalling that the relationship between Aryas and Rakshasas wasn’t bound in deep rivalry and racial antagonism; they shared the same civilisation. When Hanuman arrived in Lanka to find Sita, he was, according to Makhanlal Sen’s 1927 translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, ‘‘delighted’’ by its sights: ‘‘The highways of Lanka were broad and strewn with flowers... The city was crowded with the lofty mansions of the Rakshasas... Those houses were spotlessly white, decorated with floral leafs and built in the padma and swastika styles... In some houses, the Vedas were being read (and) their mantras chanted... At different places Rakshasas were singing Ravana’s praise...’’

The demonization of Rakshasas as uncivilised barbarians, the proverbial ‘‘other’’, is a subsequent perversion. What should have been a morality play involving two kings was transformed by simple prejudice and folklore into a clash of civilisations.

Each Dussehra reinforces the image of an ethnically fractured India. This is not on account of the destruction of the 10-headed Lankeshwar but the inclusion of Meghnad and Kumbhakarna in the rogues’ gallery.

The legend has it that Kumbhakarna was a fierce but harmless prince who miscued a boon from Brahma and had to sleep for six months to prevent his insatiable appetite from depopulating the plant and animal kingdoms. Ravana’s minister Mahodara described him as ugly, haughty, incapable of appreciating subtlety, saucy and garrulous from infancy. Yet, the Ramayana tells a tale of Kumbhakarna’s wisdom. On two different occasions, he berated Ravana for ‘‘neglecting good counsel’’ and told him bluntly ‘‘you have soon to reap the consequences of your wicked deed of abducting another’s wife.’’ Indeed, his speech to Ravana before embarking on his doomed mission is an enlightened treatise on statecraft.

At the same time, Kumbhakarna was unwavering in his commitment ‘‘to do what an affectionate friend is ready to do for his friend in distress.’’ Torn between his intellect and his sense of loyalty, he chose the latter. It’s a dilemma that many individuals have been confronted with and people have chosen differently. Did Kumbhakarna choose wrongly? Should he have gone the Vibhishana way and betrayed his brother? There are no easy answers, only one obvious conclusion: Kumbhakarna was not evil.

For the valiant Meghnad, also known as Indrajit, there was never any choice. To him, loyalty was paramount. He told the ‘‘villainous renegade’’ Vibhishana: ‘‘Friendship, pride in birth, feeling of brotherhood and religious sentiments do not govern thy conduct... If a stranger be accomplished, and one’s own people be without any accomplishments whatsoever, still a stranger is always a stranger and one’s own people always continue to be his own. He who abandons his own party and joins another, is doomed to ruin...’’

Over the centuries, popular opinion has sided with Indrajit. There are countless individuals named after the brave son of Ravana; Vibhishana’s name died with him. The man honoured by Ram for preferring dharma over his own King and people has become a byword for treachery.

And yet, paradoxically, every Dussehra, we gloat over the killings of Meghnad and Kumbhakarna. It isn’t quite right.


Sunday Times of India, September 27, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Tharoor too loud for Indian politics (september 20, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Many years ago, during a very jolly and boisterous evening in a pub, an English friend told me a wonderful story. A newly-independent Third World country, it seems, had decided that it needed the English system of justice, particularly the trappings. The new Government got to work purchasing wigs and robes for the judges and barristers and instructing them in court procedure. After a year, it felt confident enough to invite a legal luminary from England to come and see the progress.

On witnessing a trial at the ‘native’ High Court, the English lawyer was very impressed. The conduct of the judges and barristers was exactly as the Inns of Court had prescribed. It was England transplanted into another continent.

When the hosts asked him for his views, the Englishman was ecstatic. “We couldn’t have done it better,” he admitted. “However, there is just one puzzling feature about your courts. Why do you often have a topless woman running through the court?”

The hosts were unfazed. “That’s part of English tradition,” one of them replied. “What is?” inquired the puzzled Englishman.

“We have often read in the papers about a titter running through the courtroom…”

Shashi Tharoor should be reassured that he is not the first person to have suffered as a result of what fellow Stephanian Mani Shankar Aiyar once lamented was the editorial class’s “nodding acquaintance” with idiomatic English. Over the past week, ever since his by-now infamous reply to Kanchan Gupta’s innocuous Twitter query, I have heard truly colourful translations and interpretations of both “cattle class” and “holy cows”. It has been suggested in all seriousness that Tharoor’s aside was a snide reference to the Congress’s holy cow and holy calf who had just made well-publicised trips in cattle class. “He compared Madam to cattle,” was the indignant comment of a home-grown Congress loyalist who felt that politics should be a vernacular prerogative, not the fallback career of international babus.

India may well boast one of the largest concentrations of English-knowing people but there are serious occupational hazards in assuming that idiomatic usage, literary allusions, irony and sarcasm are not lost in translation. When Arun Jaitley described Manmohan Singh as a “night watchman PM” in the Rajya Sabha, a senior Minister demanded an apology; in his mind, the PM had been called a chowkidar! Again, for reasons I have never quite gauged, some Bengalis take violent umbrage to the word ‘nonsense’, much more than any four-letter word or doubts over parentage.

St Stephen’s College in the 1970s (when Tharoor and I were classmates there) resonated with clever one-liners, outrageous puns and the appreciation of PG Wodehouse. For the “gentlemen in residence” — Stephen’s-speak for hostellers — “time pass” lay in chuckling over Bertie Wooster’s thoughts on gainful employment: “I once knew a chap who had a job.” In the harsh world outside, this would be viewed as insensitivity born of privilege. For that indiscreet moment, Tharoor, otherwise quite focussed in his self-advancement, forgot that messaging on Twitter (a very public medium) isn’t quite the same as college debating repartee. The consequences of this Twitter message may well turn out to be worse than the offence — despite the PM’s gallant attempt to lighten the air.

The problem with Tharoor is that he didn’t know when to cut his losses. After the controversy of his 100-day stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel, he should have done what the more experienced SM Krishna did — effect a strategic retreat, keep quiet and let the media move on to the next story. Instead, there was, first, the “gym and privacy” excuse, followed by the sneering disdain for the larger austerity drive — the “chaat” meal in Bengali Market with an accompaniment of 20 TV cameras. Worse, he let his Officer on Special Duty run a proxy battle of defiance — from keeping a room at the same five-star hotel to taking on the formidable Jayanthi Natarajan on Twitter.

Tharoor should have realised that paratroopers are always suspect in the fiercely competitive world of politics. He should, ideally, have kept his personal publicity machine at a low key. He should have shunned releasing every novel debuting at a five-star venue; not sent unsolicited collations of his weekly Tweets to all and sundry; not made the official MEA spokesman redundant by speaking on every conceivable foreign policy issue for TV; not gloated over the fact that fellow Stephanians in the Foreign Service now had to pay courtesy calls on him; and most important, not taken his OSD to private dinners. Tharoor gave the impression of being, what Sunanda K Datta-Ray once called, “raucously arriviste”.

Those familiar with the labyrinthine byways of the Congress would have read the signals the day Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot — a man not known for saying anything — requested Tharoor’s resignation. It wasn’t Gehlot settling some personal score; it was the Congress establishment showing the precocious interloper his place. Tharoor may yet survive if he grovels and promises to behave himself in future. But after he returns from his West African sojourn it won’t be the same Tharoor.

India (or at least the Congress), in the immortal phrase of Sir Edwin Lutyens, now “expects every man to do his dhoti”.

Postscript: Newspaper readers have of late been barraged with extensive chunks from Mahatma Gandhi’s Collected Works, and in many instalments.

It reminds me of former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour’s aside on the publication of yet another book by Winston Churchill: “I hear that Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis.”

Sunday Pioneer, September 20, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Links and ruptures (September 18, 2009)

Recalling the beginning of World War II brings many surprises

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the few surprises of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of World War II was the British rediscovery of Dame Vera Lynn. Once the favourite of a war-torn generation, an album of old Vera Lynn favourites such as “White cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll meet again” suddenly found itself at the top of the music charts last week.

The temptation to momentarily relive, at least musically, the lost world of Anderson shelters, Doodlebugs, Wrens, camp coffee, spam, spivs and Churchillian bombast may well be the function of unadulterated nostalgia. World War II and the Nazis did, after all, exercise a macabre hold on the collective imagination of many generations, including those born in the late-1950s. Those conveniently-sized combat comics, where stiff-necked and jackbooted German officers with monocles used to exclaim “Achtung”, “Schweinhund”, “Donner und Blitzen” and, at a pinch, “one Englander less”, both amused and fascinated impressionable minds. In his autobiography, Nirad C. Chaudhuri recounted the Bengali admiration for the German war machine — something that must have influenced Subhas Chandra Bose. I remember the awe-filled reverence of a granduncle when he spoke of von Rundstedt, von Rommel and von Mannstein — he always stressed the “von”, perhaps to make them sound more authentic.

Impressions of national character are invariably shaped by stereotypes. If, for a very long time, the resolute, blundering Briton with a great sense of propriety and humour, was seen to be the perfect foil to the ruthless and fanatical German, the answer may be found in the pages of Biggles and Battler Britton, films such as The Dam Busters — where Guy Gibson had a black Labrador named “Nigger” — and television serials such as Foyle’s War, about a police detective serving in Hastings through the war. They updated the stiff upper-lip jingoism of earlier films such as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, set in the turbulent North-west frontier of India. This Gary Cooper blockbuster also happened to be one of Hitler’s great favourites and it is possible that his grudging respect for the English could have been shaped by its constant viewing and conversations with the lively but starry-eyed Unity Mitford.

Likewise, it was Glenn Miller’s band that set the signature tune for the GI presence in war-torn Europe and Asia. With it, Hollywood’s portrayal of the world war established the Japanese as perfidious, buck-toothed fanatics screaming “Banzai” and painted Americans as fun-loving, blunt-talking, non-hierarchical and brave defenders of liberty and decency. The charitable image of the Yankee corresponded to that of Rick in Casablanca; the not-so-indulgent portrayal was summed up in the wartime English gripe about the Americans being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”.

The extent to which World War II defined our mental images of other peoples is one that merits further inquiry. What is certain is that these wartime perceptions of the national character lingered on till the end of the 20th century.

Germany was a particular victim of persisting stereotypes. In his memoirs, the former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl, narrated the incredible hostility he faced at a European meeting on December 8, 1989, after he had unveiled his proposal for German reunification. Shedding diplomatic niceties, the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, told the heads of state over dinner: “We beat the Germans twice, and now they're back.” Last week, following the release of a mass of documents on the subject, it emerges that Thatcher’s views were shaped by the then French president, François Mitterand. According to notes made by the foreign policy adviser, Sir Charles Powell, Mitterand warned Thatcher over lunch at the Élysée Palace on January 20, 1990, that reunification would result in Germany gaining more European influence than Hitler ever had. His gloomy forecasts included a return of the “bad” Germans.

After two devastating world wars, it is understandable that fears of the “real” German character —seen through the prism of Prussian militarism and Nazi inhumanity —remained a subliminal concern of British and French leaders. But this fear also stemmed from the belief that national character, while certainly layered, is also largely unchanging. As convenient (but unstated) journalistic shorthand, generalizations laced with perceptive insights do have a role. In understanding the ways of the English, it is, for example, impossible to ignore George Orwell’s writings on the subject. But do Orwell’s observations still hold? For that matter, does Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the underpinnings of American nationhood make sense in an increasingly diverse country?

Likewise, despite Edward Said’s strictures against Orientalism, it is hard to not factor in the observations of experienced colonial administrators on the Hindu mind or the Islamic mentality. Indeed, much of contemporary strategic studies is devoted to penetrating the apparent inscrutability of the Han Chinese, separating the indigenous Iranian from the logic of Khomeinism and coming to terms with al Qaida mindset.

Yet, as the case of Germany suggests, there are major problems in wrapping national character with history. Post-war studies of Germany indicate that the de-Nazification process was left incomplete due to the compulsions of the Cold War. At the same time, there are reasons to believe that wartime sufferings, the loss of territory, the dispossession of ethnic Germans from Poland, erstwhile Czechoslovakia and the Balkans, and the realization of the magnitude of the Holocaust have resulted in a genuine abhorrence of both war and militarism. “Where in the world,” Avi Primor, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany, was moved to ask at a function in Berlin to mark the Holocaust, “has one ever seen a nation that erects memorials to immortalise its own shame?” At the ceremony in Gdansk (formerly the German-dominated port of Danzig) on September 1, the Poles alluded to the culpability of the erstwhile Soviet Union and Stalin’s annexation of eastern Poland; Vladimir Putin took a dig at those who colluded with Hitler till it was too late. Yet, none took exception to the unqualified German apology of the chancellor, Angela Merkel, for starting the war.

When I was in Kabul last year, I heard many disparaging comments about the small German contingent stationed in the relatively safe Kunduz province. It was suggested that the Germans don’t conduct night patrols, that they have Afghan irregulars protecting their military camps and that they have made a complete hash of the police training duties assigned to them by focusing too much on nurseries and crèches and not enough on the rough and tumble. Perhaps the detractors were being too unkind but following the near-hysterical reaction in Germany to the air-strikes in Kunduz at the hijackers of two oil tankers, I am inclined to the belief that there is nothing in common between the German army that perfected the Blitzkrieg in Poland 50 years ago and the German army that finds itself in Afghanistan. They may well have come from different planets altogether.

This is a feeling that also strikes a visitor to an English city on a Saturday evening. Watching drunken louts on the rampage, the question arises: is this the people who, 50 years ago, ruled over the largest empire in history?

There was a German national character in 1939, a British sense of values and even a Japanese sense of misplaced mission. Fifty years is enough to reshape a people beyond recognition. Just as the Germany of Beethoven, Goethe and Bismarck was overwhelmed by Hitler’s fulminations, Goebbels’ lies and Göering’s comic vulgarity, today’s Germany seems at the forefront of an emerging West European sensibility, one that has repudiated history. Are sharp ruptures with the past also a global trend?

The Telegraph, September 18, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why run away from the enemy (September 13, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are good reasons why the commemoration of the eighth anniversary of 9/11 was remarkably subdued in both the US and Europe. The initial fear, followed by outrage and a steely determination to cleanse terrorism from the world has given way to frustration, despondency and defeatism. Iraq may have got off the front pages but Afghanistan, where it all began, is now increasingly being perceived as a hopeless war. Both liberals and conservatives in the West seem agreed that there is little point losing more lives and pouring money down a bottomless pit if the Afghans themselves are not sensitive to the charms of democracy and development.

Predictably, the dreaded Taliban with their medieval fanaticism and warped values invite maximum derision. But Western scorn is being dished out in equal measure at President Hamid Karzai whose exotic elegance once induced the perfect multiculturalist wet dream. Karzai is today being cast as a ballot thief and linked to sinister drug barons and ugly warlords. The ethical commitment that galvanised the post-9/11 crusade against the new evil has been considerably blurred by the realisation that the home side also plays foul. In the framework of moral absolutes, “we” are seen to be as imperfect and sinful as “them”. The will to fight to fight the “just” war in Afghanistan has evaporated.

The implication is obvious: if the West can’t carry the proverbial white man’s burden in Afghanistan and, in Kipling’s immortal words, “veil the threat of terror/ And check the show of pride”, it should concentrate on its own aam admi concerns—like addressing school kids, pushing for universal health care and coping with the recession. A century ago, Empire-builders could take on the fanatical Mahadi and his “Fuzzy Wuzzies” in Sudan to avenge the murder of General Gordon. In those days, public opinion at home didn’t count. Today, as President Lyndon Johnson discovered to his cost in 1968, a spectacular domestic track record can be effortlessly nullified by an overseas misadventure.

In the past six months, the West has acknowledged that it no longer has the political and moral resolve to do what it takes to win the Afghan war. Britain can barely stomach the death of 200 soldiers; a reinvented Germany can’t get over the collective trauma of having ordered the bombing in Kunduz; and the US Congress is taking a dim view of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request for a last ditch surge in ground forces.

The war aims of the US-led NATO forces have been dramatically modified. From mounting an assault on a global menace, the West now wants to merely safeguard itself from terror attacks. In other words, if the Taliban can guarantee that it won’t mount terror strikes against the West or help those crazies from Birmingham who want videographed martyrdom, they can earn themselves the uninhibited right to thrash every barber, every musician and every unveiled woman. Their pent-up jihadi impulses can be carefully redirected elsewhere, as long as it is not Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the ones who are likely to oversee the post-withdrawal arrangements.

For Pakistan, the departure of the US-led forces and its own assumption of peace-keeping duties (for a generous consideration, of course) in Afghanistan will be triumph comparable in scale to the recovery of East Pakistan. First, it would have recovered its lost “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, an enormous gain in the context of its hostility with India. Secondly, it would have inherited the entire military arsenal of the retreating army. Third, as a price for guaranteeing zero terrorism against the West, it would have a reserve army of motivated Islamists to work for the “liberation” of India, particularly Kashmir.

India was an unintended beneficiary of Osama bin Laden over-reaching himself and inviting US retribution after 9/11. With the West’s likely retreat from Afghanistan, these gains stand in danger of being nullified. With an assertive China in the east and a re-energised Pakistan in the west, India may have reason to be deeply worried. How long can New Delhi live in denial and continue to raise the threshold of tolerance?

Yet, it’s not India alone that should be alarmed. When the last helicopter departs from Kabul and Mullah Omar returns to reclaim his lost Emirate, the Islamists would have won a spectacular victory. In just two decades, jihad would have been seen to have vanquished two superpowers—first the Soviet Union and now the US. The inevitable triumphalism is bound to infect the entire Muslim world. In Iran, it will reaffirm the conviction that a self-absorbed, decadent Western civilisation doesn’t have the moral gumption to resist a resurgent Islam.

The West should realise that running away doesn’t solve a problem; it often emboldens the enemy.

Sunday Times of India, September 13, 2009

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vigilantism can enrich democracy (September 13, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me begin by complimenting Minister of State Shashi Tharoor for having the courage to be entirely truthful about the reasons why he chose to live in a suite in Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel for the past 100 days or so. Of course, he was being needlessly miserly in suggesting that the attractions of Mansingh Road were confined to a functioning “Do Not Disturb” sign and a well equipped gym. Having stayed many nights in other Taj properties (though, regrettably, never in a suite), I can state with authority that a comfortable bed, opulent bathrooms (where you don’t have to worry about the water running out), efficient room service, wonderfully ironed clothes from the laundry, real Darjeeling tea and a grand plasma TV do add to the attractions. Unlike the West where hotels tend to be efficient but cold, good Indian hoteliers like the Taj know how to take care of their guests.

If, in the case of Tharoor, the alternative to the Taj Mahal Hotel happened to be Kerala House, it is perfectly understandable that he chose the former. Who wouldn’t?

Nor can Tharoor be faulted if, as he has claimed through his all-too-frequent Twitter messages, the Government didn’t have to foot the bill for his suite. If Tharoor paid for his stay from his own resources, I can at best question his imprudent management of personal finances. A good Gujarati, for example, would have put the money into the stock markets and got a pretty handsome return for a 100-day investment. But then, Malayalees, especially one who breathed the air of Calcutta in the 1960s, aren’t born to be Warren Buffets. Of course, hypothetically speaking, if a third party paid for Tharoor’s transit accommodation, it would instantly become everyone’s business.

There is a clear Lakshman rekha separating the personal from the political. As of now, there is nothing to suggest Tharoor crossed it. Envious hacks may ask philosophical questions as to whether it is right for Tharoor to be so unmindful of the prevailing drought. The question may be right but any ethical conflict is strictly a matter between Tharoor and the party that got him to the Lok Sabha. He can save his answers for Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee. It is not obligatory to explain his lifestyle to insolent journalists who can’t differentiate between a glass of plonk and Chateau Margaux 1996.

Not that the Indian media is too inquisitive. In fact, the milk of human kindness flows through its collective veins. A good populist newspaper in the West wouldn’t have let Tharoor get a decent night’s sleep in his new transit accommodation. He would have been barraged with questions. What was the preferential room tariff for the suite? What did he order from room service and what were his restaurant bills? Why did he want privacy? The bloodhounds of celebrity journalism in the West would have by now unearthed every available detail, surreptitiously interviewed the man who took up his early morning tea and got a quote or two from the housekeeping staff. Tharoor should be glad that even if Indians think politicians have no right to privacy, they respect it all the same.

All this may sound trivial. In fact, the Tharoor case is quite trivial—unless new and startling facts emerge. But what is not trivial is the perception that every politician is a parasite, out to squander the taxpayers’ money and milk the system dry. This is a serious image problem that the political class as a whole has to confront.

The reason why Tharoor hasn’t been able to move into his official accommodation is because it is still being renovated. But should a bungalow in which a Minister of State resided previously require such extensive renovation that it isn’t ready in three months? Tharoor has said that the earlier occupant desecrated the bungalow by making ugly alterations. He wants to restore the bungalow to its original state.

Aesthetically speaking, Tharoor is right. The question is: why has the CPWD allowed its properties to be desecrated? More to the point, wasn’t the ugly alterations done by the CPWD itself? So, we have the bizarre situation of the CPWD undoing what it did in the first place. And Tharoor’s case is not an isolated one. Throughout Lutyens’ Delhi, public money is being squandered in mass scale renovations of bungalows and flats where ministers and MPs will reside. In normal private accommodation, it takes at best six weeks to effect the transition from one tenant to another. In government accommodation, the renovations are extensive. Who pays for this waste? Why, the taxpayers of course.

Pranab Mukherjee is right to demand a measure of austerity in government spending. But the resistance he has encountered to his modest “request” underlines everything that is rotten about our political culture. Politicians, cutting across party lines, but with honourable exceptions, see their personal convenience as both a right and an entitlement. This is what has given Indian politics a bad name.

In Britain, the scandal over MPs fiddling their allowances provoked a huge scandal. Public indignation forced the Speaker of the House of Commons, many ministers and scores of backbench MPs to announce their retirement from public life. India could do with precisely such a cleansing process. Democracy will be enriched by a bout of unrelenting vigilantism. A Lakshman rekha to delineate the personal from the public isn’t going to be enough. We need to construct a great wall to keep the deviants in check. And shoot those who try to scale the walls or burrow under it. Let the government fix norms and ensure complete transparency.

Sunday Pioneer, September 13, 2009

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Let legislators elect leaders (September 6, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta
The death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy in tragic circumstances has triggered a wave of mass hysteria that may well influence the Congress’s choice of his successor. Since the party now rests on a series of interlocking dynastic attachments, with the Queen-Emperor at the helm, there should be no ethical problems in elevating YSR’s son, already in politics as a Lok Sabha MP, to the Chief Ministerial gaddi. If a majority of MLAs also decide that YS Jagan Mohan Reddy is the best bet to harness the emotional turbulence to the party’s advantage and, at the same time, keep the Reddy dominance broadly intact, the ubiquitous Congress high command is unlikely to say ‘No’. The experience-inexperience argument, after all, is a double-edged sword whose injudicious application could return to haunt Rahul Gandhi at a future date.

Regardless of whom the Congress eventually names as the successor to YSR, one feature of the succession process is apparent: There are no rules and procedures to facilitate it. Over the past few years, the Congress has evolved a system of consultation and approval: The legislature party gives its views to the central observers but then delegates the authority to Sonia Gandhi. The Congress president may take heed of the preference of MLAs or impose her own nominee on the State which has no choice but to grin and bear it. By and large in the choice of Chief Ministers, Sonia Gandhi has not been driven by flights of whimsy. She has broadly maintained the balance between sensitivities and political calculations. To that extent, she has departed from the legacy of both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who were wary of strong leaders in the States.

However, the fact that Sonia has hitherto acted with tact does not lessen the inherent dangers of a system where local democracy is remote-controlled by the Centre. A spiteful cabal in Delhi has the power to make a mockery of the principles of democracy. With the modified anti-defection laws making it virtually impossible for the dissatisfied to break away from the parent party, even where fundamental principles are involved, the stranglehold of the Centre on the States has been ensured.

That there is a need to institutionalise the procedures governing political appointments isn’t in doubt. In the case of legislature parties, the principle is relatively simple: The MLAs and MPs must be allowed to choose their leader. The party high commands have a right to advise and supervise the process but the choice should rest exclusively with the elected legislators. Some people may object to the impulses that have made YSR’s son the frontrunner for the Chief Minister’s job in Andhra Pradesh, just as others have objected to BJP MLAs in Rajasthan reposing faith in Vasundhara Raje continuing as Leader of Opposition. There can be only one response to these misgivings: Tough luck.

Democracy doesn’t always produce results that are to everyone’s liking — by definition it cannot. But if the principles of democracy are adhered to fanatically, the process itself will foreclose the dangers of arbitrariness.

The issue is relevant not merely for the Congress but also to the BJP which has been witnessing internal strife over the process of succession. The BJP, which prides itself on rejecting dynastic democracy, has not been very successful in creating procedures that are democratic in both letter and spirit. Indeed, at times its record is worse than that of the Congress. The Congress, for example, had a secret ballot of its MPs in 1966 to choose Lal Bahadur Shastri’s successor as Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi won that contest defeating Morarji Desai. Again, in recent years, Sonia Gandhi’s election as AICC president has been contested on two different occasions.

By contrast, the BJP has preferred a mysterious process of consultation and consensus-building when choosing party presidents. No one, for example, is willing to own up to the fact that the choice of Rajnath Singh as party president in 2006 was not by consensus but by appointment. Who decided? Was there even a semblance of consultation? Will this mysterious process be repeated in December/January when a new president assumes office? LK Advani is understood to be playing a major role in the selection process. But will Advani be the facilitator of a larger process of consultation or will he, like the town crier, be the one to make the announcement of a decision taken by someone else?

Arguably, the BJP has the right to determine its own procedures. But are these procedures transparent? More important, are they appropriate for a mass political party which is bound together by different and often contradictory impulses? Would it not be fitting if there are defined democratic procedures for the selection of a party president? Should there not be an electoral college to decide? The debate can be over the composition of the electoral college and the relative weightage given to different wings of the party — I believe elected MLAs and MPs must have ‘super delegate’ status. But there should be no disagreement over the fact that only an electoral college should choose the party president.

It is paradoxical that while Indians are naturally argumentative and have readily taken to democracy, they are less than enthusiastic about the process of constant negotiations and engagements that make for politics. It is the absence of institutional procedures that often make politics seem fractious, individualistic and anarchic. In which case, the solution is not to throw the baby out with the dirty bathwater. There are many good practices India needs to borrow from the West. The democratisation of political parties is one that readily comes to mind.

Sunday Pioneer, September 6, 2009

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Fundamental questions (September 4, 2009)

The BJP has to open its doors to diverse currents and interests

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, a BJP-watcher in the media proffered the novel suggestion in a web article that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, should hold concurrent charge of the Bharatiya Janata Party. “I would go a step further,” she wrote, “and state that since he is so clearly the Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh of the BJP/RSS he should also take-over the constitutional post of Leader of the Opposition … In fact, Bhagwat should eventually consider being Leader in both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha but since that would involve amending the Constitution of India he should first focus on fixing the BJP Constitution to ensure him unlimited power and authority that he seems to enjoy anyway.”

Since irony and sarcasm in the English language tend to go largely undetected, this plea for one-man-all-posts could well be interpreted as a logical extension of Arun Shourie’s theatrical pronouncement that the RSS should “take over” the Bharatiya Janata Party. Conversely, since Bhagwat has affirmed many times over in his media interactions that the RSS is merely a “cultural organization” that doesn’t give gratuitous advice to the BJP, many will view the suggestion as simply insolent.

It is difficult to anticipate how the RSS will react to the suggestion that it shed all pretence and assume a formal political role. It is said that Sardar Vallabbhai Patel once suggested precisely such a course to “Guruji” M.S. Golwalkar, the iconic, second RSS chief. It was rejected because Golwalkar believed that politics is a “cesspool” and jumping into it would contaminate the RSS’ s larger “nation building” project. Since then, keeping an arm’s length from politics has defined RSS orthodoxy. This detachment, however, has never negated the discreet advice of the organization to its swayamsevaks in public life. Occasionally, as happened during the tenure of K.S. Sudarshan, the distinction between advice and instruction was almost obliterated.

Despite Bhagwat’s denial that the RSS was assuming charge of the BJP, there is an impression that last week’s crisis management sessions in Delhi resulted in a coup and the quiet transfer of control of the BJP from the politicians to the RSS. L.K. Advani’s resignation from the post of leader of the Opposition — a post he unwisely held on to after the May 16 defeat — is now a foregone conclusion, as is the non-renewal of Rajnath Singh’s term as party president. More to the point, the RSS appears to have indicated that it has no confidence in the ability of the BJP’s second-rung leadership to steer the party out of its present disarray.

The RSS has mounted a global search for a new face who can undertake the party re-building project. The choice may well be a politician (even one with a mass base), but real decision-making will be vested in the hands of full-time RSS pracharaks on deputation from Nagpur. As things stand, the organization secretaries (deployed at all levels) undertake party responsibilities, but are not subject to the political control of the party. Their appointments and removal are the sole responsibility of the RSS.

It is undeniable that many despondent BJP workers, perhaps a majority of them, have reacted favourably to the RSS chief assuming a pro-active role. The impression that a fractious and ambitious bunch of politicians were incapable of extricating the BJP from the depths to which it has sunk may be over-simplistic, but at the same time it was very real. Since the RSS chief wields both moral and organizational authority within the larger sangh parivar, his no-nonsense intervention has been heartily welcomed, even if it involves replacing dual control with just one power centre.

A comparison of the RSS “takeover” with a military coup ostensibly aimed at saving “the nation” from democratic turbulence is irresistible.

The problem with authoritarian solutions in argumentative societies is that the immediate exhilaration at the restoration of order is invariably replaced by long-term disappointment. Apart from a mismatch between the Sergeant-Major mentality and competitive politics, the honest brokers soon find themselves sucked into the role of participants. The RSS should know the feeling. In 2006, after Advani was removed as party president following his controversial remarks on Jinnah, the RSS sent some 250 pracharaks into the BJP to bolster the organization. They were appointed organizing secretaries at the Central and state levels and the 2008 Uttar Pradesh election was managed almost entirely by pracharaks on special deputation.

The overall experience wasn’t happy. Apart from the uneven quality of personnel deployed, the image of the RSS as a distant moral authority was subsumed by the emergence of the RSS as a faction, often at loggerheads with mass politicians. The factionalism in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan were a consequence of troubles fermented by those who claimed to speak in the name of the sangh. If the process of pracharak implantation is speeded up without a thorough assessment of the past experience, there is a possibility that the BJP could witness even more strife and major desertions. Bhagwat needs to be mindful that greater RSS control of the BJP is a high-risk strategy.

Secondly, an unstated feature of the RSS intervention is the belief in the vanguard role of the RSS and the superior qualities of those who have dedicated themselves full-time to the sangh. Compared to the “lateral entry” politician who is in the BJP because it is the most meaningful non-Congress formation, the swayamsevak is projected as something akin to a chosen people. Apart from the sheer arrogance of a belief that casts all those who didn’t attend shakhas as lesser beings — and this includes every woman — this caste system runs counter to the very purpose of a political party — to win the support of the majority and create a representative leadership profile. The cultivation of enhanced self-worth may be necessary to nurture commitment to a religious order or a brotherhood, but political leadership cannot be settled on the strength of Indic versions of the old school tie and membership of a Masonic Lodge — at least not in a 21st century where hierarchies are constantly being unsettled.

The fundamental question the BJP has to address is: why is it in existence in the first place? If upholding Hindu interests is its main leitmotif, it is not dissimilar to a grander version of the Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Musalmeen, which controls the Muslim ghettos of Hyderabad and routinely wins a Lok Sabha seat. The MIM, an offshoot of the original Razakars, resonates with nostalgia for a lost sovereignty and an eroding high culture. It will always be a factor in Muslim politics of the Deccan but a non-starter in all calculations of governance.

If the BJP wishes to be a party aspiring to some 80 Lok Sabha seats, with a presence in the Hindi-speaking states, it can persist with the cohesiveness of the erstwhile Jana Sangh. If its ambitions are greater and it seeks to challenge the Congress’s all-India presence, it has to open its doors wider to diverse currents and interests. The RSS is an important input into the BJP, but it is not the only input. If the BJP wishes to mirror the richness of the nationalist experience, it must become a Kumbh Mela of diverse tendencies. With his stature and goodwill, Bhagwat can play a constructive facilitator of such a process. However, the creation of “structures and procedures” he has repeatedly stressed must be premised on the principles of inclusiveness, accommodation and, above all, competence. A one-size-fits-all approach based on loyalty is too eerily reminiscent of the failed ideologies of the 20th century.

The Telegraph, September 4, 2009