Friday, October 30, 2009

After Coronation Street (October 30, 2009)

Britain has a serious white problem on its hands

By Swapan Dasgupta

Nearly 25 years ago, I shared a pot of afternoon tea at a hotel in St. James’s with Enoch Powell, then on the margins of British politics as a Unionist member of parliament for the idyllic South Downs in Northern Ireland. It was a freewheeling conversation that touched, among other things, on his memories of wartime India, his obsession with the classics and the massacre of the English language by journalists. But the conversation inevitably veered to that infamous “Rivers of blood” speech of April 1968 which lost him his position in the Conservative Party and cast him as an untouchable.

Powell initially tried to make light of the fact that his allusion to the Sibyl’s prophecy of the “River Tiber foaming with much blood” had been completely misconstrued by hacks, presumably untutored in the classics: “Maybe I should have said it in Latin.” In a more serious vein, he lamented the breakdown of traditional communities and the disorientation of ordinary, decent people by widespread immigration into the United Kingdom. “Tell me,” he asked piercingly, “was it fair to either the Brummie or the Pathan? They are very different peoples; they have different cultures.”

Powell was not speaking from ignorance. He knew the English Midlands, having represented Wolverhampton, a town that grew out of the Industrial Revolution; he knew the “Pathan”, his shorthand for the Pakistani immigrants who had taken advantage of their Commonwealth status to work in the factories during the immediate post-war boom; he knew Urdu, having studied it during the war; and he had imbibed the romance and grandeur of India in a manner reminiscent of Lord Curzon and Rudyard Kipling. In an article in 1974, he had touchingly compared the relationship of Britain and India to a “shared hallucination”.

Ironically, on all the four counts invoked by Hain, the Cambridge-educated Griffin, who speaks with a pronounced non-U accent, deserved a hearing regardless of how repugnant his views were. Diversity, after all, cannot be confined to merely a celebration of cultures that originated outside the Sceptred Isle. Minority currents include the angry, under-achieving white working classes, particularly in the rust belts of northern England, which have provided sustenance to the BNP.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation-sponsored research released earlier this month admitted that “traditional white, working-class communities have been left behind by the pace of social change in modern Britain”. In a construct reminiscent of the deprivation rhetoric hitherto reserved for vulnerable ethnic minorities, it argued that “the reduction in social housing, greater competition for jobs, unstable employment, and breakdown of traditional community bonds through institutions like trade unions and clubs and societies has [sic] turned what were some of the country’s strongest communities — celebrated in soaps like Coronation Street and EastEnders — into isolated, fractured groups, where perceptions of unfairness can drive people to take extremist views”. Educationally, says the report, children from poor, white working-class families are the worst under-achievers.

Pepper the narrative of the Rowntree report with declamations against a “sham” democracy and venal multinational corporations, and Arundhati Roy’s characteristically feisty understanding of Maoist extremism in India isn’t very dissimilar.

Britain has a serious white problem on its hands. Logically, there isn’t a direct correlation between immigration and the decline of manufacturing in northern England. If anything, cheap labour from the New Commonwealth helped sustain British competitiveness for longer than economics warranted. And in sectors such as coal mining, where communities preserved their ethnic compactness, the decline was linked to militant trades unionism rather than cheap, foreign labour.

The sense of white vulnerability, it would seem, is nominally economic. In the rust belt of the Midlands, the Pakistani and black communities aren’t comparatively better off — though the Asians have a better record of generating self-employment. A pre-existing cultural schism has been deepened by the feeling among whites that no one cares and that there are no serious attempts to either stop immigration from within the European Union or detect and deport illegal immigrants and spurious asylum seekers.

White rage has been fuelled by the antipathy to a liberal consensus that makes it illegitimate for the non-kosher side of the immigration debate to be heard. When marginalized white English folk read of Islamist outrages in Britain and encounter people who want to reproduce the culture of Waziristan, including the sharia law, in Lancashire, they are both bewildered and angry. This resentment has given the likes of the BNP the political opening to rail against the cosy consensus in Westminster.

Griffin is not Powell. His anti-immigration populism and his concern for British and Christian values conceal a warped mind. The BNP leader believes in eugenics, dotes on the Ku Klux Klan, comes close to questioning the Holocaust and has a taste for pseudo-history. He truly belongs to the fringe. Yet, the BNP polled nearly a million votes this year, much, much more than the charismatic Sir Oswald Mosley and the National Front could ever dream of. What made the difference is not the economic recession or even Britain’s visible descent into irrelevance. At the heart of the BNP surge is the despair over the collapse of a way of life and visceral rage against a cosmopolitanism that happened too fast and without sensitivity.

History will record whether the BNP is actually a threat to the British consensus or just a freak storm. For the moment, what strikes an outsider is the iniquity of suppressing a rounded debate on immigration and multiculturalism. Ethnocentric views of national identity cannot be silenced by legislation or, worse, drowned in a sea of condescension. Had Powell not been edged out of the mainstream after 1968, English nationalism wouldn’t have turned so nasty.

The Telegraph, October 30, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

No point blaming Raj for Sena-BJP defeat (October 26, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

After the 1991 general election which was dominated by the Ram temple issue and which saw the BJP emerge as the prime force in Uttar Pradesh, The Economist magazine carried an article evocatively entitled “The winner came second”. In the aftermath of the Maharashtra Assembly election that saw the Congress-NCP alliance squeak through to a bare majority, albeit with a reduced vote share, many analysts may be tempted to conclude that this time “The winner came fifth”.

There is no doubt that Raj Thackeray and his Maharashtra Navnirman Sena have managed an impressive debut, winning nearly six per cent of the popular vote and 13 seats. The aggregate figures don’t do justice to the MNS’s focussed intervention: It won eight seats and secured 19.8 per cent of the vote in Greater Mumbai. Considering that the Marathi manoos make up nearly 35 per cent of India’s most important urban cluster, a rough calculation would suggest that Raj was endorsed by at least his target constituency. Of course, this is based on the assumption that he neither sought nor gained the support of the non-Marathi manoos.

By any reckoning, this is a spectacular debut and made more significant by the fact that the MNS effect was felt in Greater Mumbai and Pune. That is why there can be an iota of sympathy for BJP leaders who claim the alliance was robbed of nearly 40 seats by Raj-seats that invariably added to the Congress-NCP kitty. Without these urban seats, the ruling coalition would not have secured a majority.

However, to claim that Raj was the Congress’s Trojan horse is unfair. The Congress may have benefited from the entry of another player that cut into the Shiv Sena-BJP votes but this vote-splitting will remain a part of the game as long as the first-past-the-post system exists. Of course, the Congress-NCP was also happy to indulge Raj because it undermined Uddhav Thackeray and the Shiv Sena. But these tactical manoeuvres cannot take away the fact that Raj did appeal to the beleaguered Marathi manoos of urban Maharashtra far more effectively than the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena could manage. Whereas Uddhav was trying to enlarge the social base of the Shiv Sena and transform it into a conventional regional party, Raj was appealing to the core instincts of the old Shiv Sena. The results showed that Uddhav’s social expansion scheme was undercut by losses in the Shiv Sena’s original strongholds. The Shiv Sena may have been reduced to fourth place, even below the BJP, but in terms of social reach and potential it is still well ahead of the MNS.

Yet, the MNS was an effective spoiler, just as it was in the Lok Sabha election. That Raj was unlikely to be a claimant for power was well known to Greater Mumbai’s Marathi manoos. Simultaneously, the same Marathi manoos was also aware that the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance had a very fair chance to oust a non-performing Congress-NCP alliance. So why did half of the Marathi manoos in Greater Mumbai conclude that it was better to fly the MNS flag and give a leg up to Raj rather than elect an alternative Government? This is the real question that Uddhav and the BJP must reflect on.

To attribute voting behaviour to Raj’s charisma and oratory alone gives a misleading picture. After the Lok Sabha poll, the 18.4 per cent of voters in Greater Mumbai who voted for the MNS could have decided that it was time to vote in a Government that was more sensitive to regional aspirations or persist with an ineffectual protest vote. That this chunk of the Marathi manoos chose to persist with Raj is revealing and suggests insufficient faith in the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.

It is this erosion of faith that should be agitating the minds of Uddhav and the State BJP leadership. If the 60 seats of Greater Mumbai are excluded from the calculations, the Congress-NCP alliance won 118 seats against 72 seats for the Shiv Sena-BJP in the rest of the State. Moreover, in all the regions, the Congress-NCP was ahead of the Shiv Sena-BJP in popular votes. The only region where the Shiv Sena-BJP outpolled the Congress-NCP was, ironically, Mumbai.

These figures bolster the claim that the Congress-NCP didn’t necessarily win the election by default. Except in Mumbai, the ruling coalition held on to its traditional advantage. Indeed, compared to the Lok Sabha poll, it actually improved its position in Konkan, Vidarbha and Marathwada. It was good luck and MNS that came to its assistance in Mumbai.

The results suggest that the Shiv Sena-BJP were a casualty of the larger loss of momentum that seems to be afflicting the NDA and the BJP in particular. The Congress has consistently nourished its own social constituency through a combination of Centrally-funded welfare schemes and symbolism (Rahul Gandhi’s cultivation of Dalits being a prime example). By contrast, having lost the youth and middle class vote to the Congress in the Lok Sabha election, the BJP has gone into denial. It is too preoccupied with abstruse ideological issues and inter-personal conflicts that have absolutely no bearing on shared lived experiences. The Sangh Parivar rallied behind the BJP purposefully in this election but its organisational clout didn’t make any significant difference. That is because elections aren’t won by booth committees but by the popular mood. That is where the real disconnect lies.

There is little point in blaming Raj for depriving the Shiv Sena-BJP of an election victory that wasn’t theirs in the first place.

Sunday Pioneer, October 25, 2009

How the BJP lost the central plot (October 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

An intriguing feature of last Thursday’s dawn-to-midnight TV coverage of the outcome of three state assembly elections, was the disproportionate time spent on dissecting the losers.

A possible reason for this partiality for the second-best was the lacklustre nature of the Congress victory. The ruling party regained all the three states, thanks to the vagaries of the first-past-the-post system, but there was nothing exciting, resounding and inspirational about its victory. In Haryana, it was distinctly pyrrhic. The poetry and romance of politics was markedly absent from the Congress universe. Even its victory celebrations were reminiscent of the relief felt by old-style public sector managers at the fulfilment of five-year plan targets. The Gandhi-owned party, it almost seemed, won out of habit. The largest chunk of people voted for it because they preferred predictability, even boredom, to uncertain change.

Such an assessment, far from being unkind to either Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, is actually a back-handed compliment. If a large and important state such as Maharashtra is willing to indulge a party after five years of non-performance, and even ineptitude, it suggests that the Congress creed is fast turning into common sense. The Congress has become something akin to a default preference for peoples and communities who are not driven by either overriding zeal or a fierce sense of distinctiveness.

Yet, there is a flip side to this characteristically Hindu complacency. The Congress’ partial success in identifying itself as the party of the inoffensive middle ground has been accompanied by the corresponding decline of the BJP as the alternative pole of politics. A decade ago, after the clear national mandate for the BJP-led NDA, there was satisfaction in many quarters that democracy had finally come of age in India. Although bi-polarity was never total — the Left and regional parties were still relevant in the states — it was assumed that the country was moving towards a broad two-front system led by the Congress and BJP respectively. The horrifying post-election convulsions in the BJP have rung alarm bells in the Indian Establishment. India’s stakeholders want political stability to co-exist with a robust Opposition that is also in a position to offer an alternative to voters. After Thursday’s results, the BJP, it would seem, has abdicated that role.

There is a belief that the BJP was never suited for that role in the first place. This argument rests on the belief that the saffron outfit is too narrowly ideological and blessed with too many social angularities and prejudices of ‘Middle India’ to emerge as an alternative common sense. It is often seen to be insufficiently ‘inclusive’ and its appeal is felt to be unduly dependant on a rise in the emotional temperature. In a land of multiple gods and goddesses, the BJP has often conveyed a picture of rigid monotheism. Ashis Nandy has even suggested it is too European for accommodative Hindu tastes.

This critique of the BJP isn’t punctured by Raj Thackeray’s seeming success. The Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) leader may have secured instant fame by securing 5% of the popular vote and hobbling his cousin Uddhav Thackeray. But in achieving stardom through notoriety, Raj has also ensured he will remain a fringe player. His politics appeals exclusively to Marathi rage — the protest against cosmopolitanism; its innate radicalism violates the reassurance and step-by-step progress most
voters look for.

The BJP will be shooting itself in the foot if it imagines that cloning the MNS with a dose of militant Hindutva is the answer to stagnation and decline. There was nothing inherently flawed in the BJP’s approach to the Lok Sabha polls. It lost, not because its centrist moderation was unviable, but on account of tactical errors: its prime ministerial candidate lacked universal appeal, particularly compared to Manmohan Singh; its track record in Opposition was wildly erratic; and its campaign was derailed by an ugly extremism all Indians found abhorrent.

Today, the BJP has compounded its problems. First, it is caught between the competitive pulls of moderation and backward-looking certitudes. Secondly, it has disengaged from the youth and middle classes who rallied behind the party in the 1990s. Finally, it has entrusted the party organisation to a man with bizarre priorities and a monumental chip on his shoulder. He spent Thursday organising a party boycott of a news channel where someone had mocked him as a feudal. He followed it up by wilfully creating a diversion from the defeats in the three states: securing Vasundhara Raje’s resignation as leader of Opposition in Rajasthan!

No wonder, TV channels feel the losers are infinitely more interesting than the winner. To remain relevant, the BJP has to junk its comedians for a leadership that understands the virtues of calculated dreariness.

SundayTimes of India, October 26, 2009

Friday, October 16, 2009

In search of old territory (October 16, 2009)

China’s global vision may not augur well for India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Barely three weeks after top officials, including the national security adviser, berated the media for Sinophobia and war hysteria, New Delhi has been stung by what it regards as an astonishing lack of reciprocity from Beijing. It is one thing for China to routinely issue proforma denunciations of the “splittist Dalai clique” and object to every journey undertaken by the exiled Tibetan leader. Yet, even by the exalted standards of Chinese insensitivity, the protest against the visit of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to Arunachal Pradesh for an election rally took the proverbial biscuit.

Those who make a living by deciphering the legendary inscrutability of India’s eastern neighbour may well suggest that the statement by China’s foreign ministry spokesman last Tuesday need not be taken literally. It can hardly be the case that Beijing seriously believed that the understated Manmohan travelled to Itanagar to “stir up trouble at the disputed area”. Yet, even a ‘nuanced’ view of the statement cannot distract from its symbolic significance. By targeting the Indian prime minister, China appears to have decided that only a frontal assault on Indian sovereignty over Arunachal Pradesh will serve as a deterrent to New Delhi’s going ahead with its ambitious infrastructural improvements in the state.

The sudden resurrection of the unresolved border problem over the past year — more or less since the Indo-US nuclear agreement passed all the cumbersome international and domestic tests — has upset some of the calculations of Indian strategists. Those who believed that Sino-Indian relations must be premised on economic convergence and healthy competition have been frazzled by some of Beijing’s wilfully provocative measures. Apart from the People’s Liberation Army’s ‘forward policy’ in Ladakh and Aksai Chin, China started issuing stapled visas for Indians resident in Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. The clear message to New Delhi was that Beijing didn’t recognize these two states as integral parts of the Indian Union.

At the same time, there exists a great deal of muddleheadedness in India over how best to deal with China. The issue acquires considerable relevance in view of the recognition that in another 25 years or so China may well overtake the United States of America as the world’s largest economy in terms of gross domestic product. No doubt India, too, would have progressed considerably by then — PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that India will be the fourth largest economy by 2025, after the US, China and Japan — but the distance between China and India would remain as yawning.

Of course, there is nothing inevitable about the rise of China at the cost of the West. Economic forecasts don’t factor in unforeseen developments such as political disasters and spectacular scientific advances that have the potential to upset calculations. The West, and particularly the US, may yet witness an unexpected surge and India has often demonstrated an uncanny knack of being its own worst enemy. Yet New Delhi’s long-term assessment of China must be based on the assumption that the balance of world power is likely to tilt eastwards, in favour of China.

For the moment, even as the world marvels at the Chinese miracle, Beijing has been careful to convey the impression that it will be a benign force that will follow the rules of multilateralism and not upset the existing rules of international relations. So far Chinese diplomacy has yielded spectacular results. The political eclipse of the neo-conservatives in the US has been accompanied by a discernible softening of attitudes to China by the Barack Obama administration. There is a greater inclination to celebrate the rise of China rather than resist it. The cancellation of the Dalai Lama’s meeting with President Obama may be as trivial as the decision to decorate the Empire State Building with China’s national colours to mark the 60th anniversary of the communist takeover but appear to be symbolic of a new accommodation.

Some questions arise from the retreat (I still hesitate to call it decline) of the West. Will China’s global role remain as benign after it has succeeded in overtaking the US’s GDP? The rules of international relations were determined by the West after 1945 and reflect the cultural bias of Europe and North America. Will China persist with the status quo once its economic hegemony is established? How will a new global architecture impact India?

The issue is important because China’s global vision incorporates a political hegemonism that is fraught with ominous consequences for India. With the Han Chinese constituting some 90 per cent of China’s population, Beijing’s view of race and ethnicity is, predictably, linked to China’s inviolable unity. However, as Martin Jacques has noted in his insightful book, When China Rules the World, “The notion of China and Chinese civilisation is bolstered by a widespread belief that the difference between the Chinese and other peoples is not simply cultural or historical but also biological.” There was a racial underpinning to 19th and early-20th century European imperialism and China’s rise may be accompanied by similar assumptions.

Such a mindset has a bearing on China’s quest for the recovery of its “lost territories”, not merely across the Taiwan Straits and Outer Mongolia but also along the McMahon Line.

Stemming from this sense of superiority is China’s inclination to perceive relations with its neighbours, in east Asia at least, in terms of the tributary system that prevailed before the entry of the Europeans after the Opium Wars. The system was based on an institutionalized inequality in relations between the Middle Kingdom and the tributaries, and a corresponding consensus over the superiority of Chinese civilization. With China dominating the economies of east Asian countries, scholars like Jacques are inclined to believe that “China’s economic strength, together with its enormous population, could return the region to a not dissimilar state of affairs to that which existed in the past”. There is a possibility that the scope of the new tributary system could extend into central Asia and Australia. This is not to say that China’s hegemonism will be uncontested.

India never fell into the orbit of a Greater China. Traditionally, the Himalayas were a barrier to the spread of Hindu civilization eastwards and Chinese civilization westwards. India and China have, consequently, evolved over the centuries with only nominal contact and little understanding of each other. Tibet was the only point of perfunctory contact. This mutual incomprehension and memories of the 1962 border war may be factors in the recent climate of distrust. But China’s attitudes towards neighbours also follow a template in which the tributary system is firmly etched. China cannot countenance India as part of the West but it has yet to evolve an alternative to viewing a neighbour as anything different from either a subordinate or a potential vassal.

The Telegraph, October 16, 2009

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rajiv Gandhi: Prince Gets Spoilt

He started sincere, but finally gave in to old party methods

By Swapan Dasgupta

My initiation into the rarefied political salons of Delhi took place on the evening of December 31, 1984. I was on a fortnight’s visit to India to study the general election that had been called after Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As I was at a loose end that evening, an old college friend who was well connected to the city’s liberal fraternity suggested I accompany her to Romesh and Raj Thapar’s open house at Chanakyapuri.

I was in a cocky mood that evening, having won numerous bets over the outcome of the election. In hindsight this may appear surprising, but a perusal of the English-language newspapers of December 1984 will show that the chattering classes expected the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress to just about squeak through.


Having spent 10 days in Calcutta, I had a very different perspective. Even in strong Communist bastions, it seemed that the new prime minister had captured the popular imagination. There was a wave of revulsion in the middle classes when the imperious CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee brushed away Mamata Banerjee—an unknown Congress candidate contesting the no-hope Jadavpur seat—as she tried to touch his feet after the filing of nominations. The Bengali mashima class (the proverbial  neighbourhood aunties) in particular were completely bowled over by the stoic dignity of Rajiv Gandhi as he observed the funeral pyre of his mother—an image repeatedly telecast by Doordarshan, the only TV channel available then. I saw Rajiv speak at an election rally in south Calcutta and observed the awe, curiosity and enthusiasm that greeted him—despite his halting Hindi and lines such as “Akali Dal ka prevarication”. Indira’s funeral pyre was a permanent backdrop, but there is no doubt that in 1984, Rajiv added a substantial incremental vote to the Congress kitty.

If the mood was so sympathetic to Rajiv and Congress in the refugee colonies of Calcutta and the rust belt of Howrah, my assumption was that it would be decisively more so in the states where the Congress was entrenched. When Karan Thapar (he was doing an election programme for a British channel) rang me three days before polling, I told him it     wasn’t going to be a mere landslide but an avalanche.

As the results started trickling in, I made a small detour to Connaught Place. Outside the red-bricked offices of the Statesman, a crowd stared at the election scoreboards and announcements. At each announcement of a Congress victory, there were cheers. But an exceptionally loud roar greeted the announcement that Amitabh Bachchan was comfortably ahead of H.N. Bahuguna in Allahabad; and an equally boisterous cheer followed the “flash” that Atal Behari Vajpayee had lost to Madhavrao Scindia in Gwalior.

The party that evening was more akin to a wake. The liberal intelligentsia was not amused by the outcome. There was considerable tut-tutting over the provocatively aggressive advertisement campaign run by the Congress, despair over the quite explicit anti-Sikh propaganda in the localities and occasional mirth over Rajiv’s relative inexperience. An elderly professor mocked Rajiv’s closest aides, the two Aruns: “One sold boot polish and one sold paint. Now they are going to run India!”

To someone born into a business ambience, the corporate backgrounds of Arun Nehru and Arun Singh didn’t seem a liability. Indeed, it signalled a refreshing change from the hypocritical dhotiwallas who dominated the legislatures and the brash kurta-pyjama acolytes of Sanjay Gandhi who were said to have organised the Sikh killings. India, I argued, needed reassurance after the trauma surrounding Mrs G’s assassination; with his awesome majority, Rajiv had the opportunity of bringing in some change.

That evening, as 1984 was rung out, I was in a hopeless minority. Delhi’s genteel liberals had decided that the masses had betrayed the classes and would pay a heavy price for letting emotions get the better of common sense. The liberal intelligentsia that had initially been the cheerleaders of Indira in her fight against the Syndicate in 1969, had been horrified by the Emergency and the rise of Sanjay Gandhi, had torn their hair in exasperation as the Janata experiment proved disastrous, had decided that Rajiv’s election meant giving legitimacy to dynastic succession.

In hindsight, their scepticism was prophetic. Yet, in 1984, only perfunctory attention was paid to this subversion of democratic principles. Actually, the subversion had begun in 1966, when Indira Gandhi took over from Lal Bahadur Shastri. But Indira’s accession was not regarded as dynastic politics for two reasons. First, her appointment was endorsed by Congress MPs after an election that also involved Morarji Desai. Secondly, Indira was perceived by the “progressive” wing of the Congress as a foil to the party bosses. She had a claim independent of her status as Nehru’s daughter.

It was the Emergency and the rise of Sanjay Gandhi that signalled the end of innocence. By the time Indira returned triumphantly to power in 1980, it was clear the Congress had been restructured on the basis of loyalty to the leader and her family. When a reluctant Rajiv was made general secretary of the party in 1983, ostensibly to “help Mummy”, the writing was clearly on the wall. When he was sworn in post-haste as prime minister by an ever-obliging President Zail Singh on October 31, 1984, India was mentally conditioned to dynastic succession, at least in the Congress.

Yet, Rajiv’s appointment and election victory was more than just a “The Queen is dead, Long live the King” proclamation. The son was very different from his mother who, in the months before Operation Bluestar, seemed headed for a possible election defeat. In 1984, Rajiv represented a freshness of style, a partiality to technology (as symbolised by his penchant for computers) and a willingness to break away from his mother’s cussed partisanship.

The term Generation X hadn’t been invented but Rajiv did symbolise the arrival of the “Beatles generation” (Arun Singh’s memorable phrase) at the doors of governance. “We are in power now,” a Cambridge-educated professor at iim told me shortly after the election. He was reflecting the optimism and hope of the well-heeled generation that had chosen to stay back in India through the gloomy years of the shortage economy. The belief that Rajiv would inject decency into politics contributed immeasurably to making dynastic succession acceptable to non-feudal India. He was, after all, the only prime minister since Independence who had earned a living outside politics.

Yet, there was a catch: what one section perceived as decency was seen by the entrenched political class as the arrogance of the English-speaking elite. For a long time, Rajiv never came to terms with the existing rules of the political game; like many before him, he felt he could connect with “real India”, minus the disreputable intermediaries. His “power brokers” speech at the Congress centenary in Bombay in 1985 reflected that restlessness.

Tragically, the unease was short-lived. The headiness of 1984 was in three years replaced by the shoddiness of the Shah Bano U-turn, the Bofors scandal, the departure of the two Aruns and the revolt of the Raja of Manda. By then, Rajiv had been well and truly coopted by the system. The flicker of hope some of us felt that winter evening of 1984 had been extinguished.

Outlook, 14th anniversary special issue, October 11, 2009

We're connected, but not enough (October 11, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In his semi-autobiographical novel Summertime, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, the South African-born writer J M Coetzee painted a vivid picture of the white Afrikaner mentality in the heydays of Apartheid in the 1970s. Personally appalled by the iniquities of Apartheid, Coetzee initially believed that far-flung rural communities, insular small towns and a language that wasn’t spoken anywhere outside South Africa made for the Afrikaner ‘‘misreading of history’’ and their inability to detect the winds of change across Africa.

On reflection, however, Coetzee felt this explanation was ‘‘misleading’’. The Afrikaners, he wrote, had ‘‘read no history at all. On the contrary, they turned their back on it, dismissing it as a mass of slander put together by foreigners who held Afrikaners in contempt... Alone and friendless at the remote tip of a hostile continent, they erected their fortress state and retreated behind its walls: there they would keep the flame of Western Christian civilization burning until finally the world came to its senses.’’

It is probably unfair to single out the much-derided Afrikaners for retreating from the big, bad world into a Never-Never Land built on righteous certitudes. The desire to preserve, at all cost, a cherished way of life against the encroachments of modernity and godlessness, is a feature of many communities. This may partly be explained by pride in indigenous value systems and a sense of contentment with a familiar world. But, as is apparent from the Afrikaner experience, the dividing line between self-pride and intolerance can be very thin. The Afrikaners had every reason to be proud of the achievements of the early settlers, their ability to transform the bush into rich farmland and the community’s collective doggedness during the Boer War. However, community pride also came with the conviction that blacks lacked enterprise and were incapable of self-government. In the Afrikaner perception, blacks were an inferior race.

It is reassuring that the world has moved on from the days Hitler trumpeted the ‘‘master race’’ and Apartheid ideologues cited theology to justify crude racism. With more international travel and better communications, the earth has become smaller. Peoples and communities still take pride in their own worlds but at least their perception of others isn’t always bound in ignorance and stereotypes. But there are significant exceptions. Religious dogmatists, cultural xenophobes and racists keep popping up in the unlikeliest of places, from Afghanistan’s wastelands to the cyber world.

Despite an epidemic of political correctness, prejudice is flourishing. To expect otherwise is unrealistic. As long as humans have strong likes and dislikes based on culture, beliefs and tastes, there will be prejudice. Yet, there is a crucial difference between prejudice and intolerance: one is benign, the other malevolent.

When it acquired mass popularity some 15 years ago, the internet was seen as a means of bringing the world closer. The web bridged distances, nations, hierarchies, information walls and tariff boundaries. Its consequences were revolutionary, as profound as the invention of the printing press. By giving every individual with an internet connection the notional right to engage with every corner of the globe, the web also became an invaluable instrument of democracy. With blogging, every individual now has the means to skip intermediaries and disseminate his thoughts globally.

With such an onrush of hitherto untapped creativity and access to so much information, the world should have experienced a colossal intellectual explosion. Unfortunately, compared to the potential, the gains have been relatively modest. The world may be better connected and better informed. But have these led to a better understanding?

The answer is a categorical No. Far from dismantling barriers, the ultra-democratic web world appears to have been hijacked by activists cast in the mould of Coetzee’s bigoted Afrikaner. Far from promoting interaction between writer and reader, public affairs websites have been overwhelmed by hateful abuse and bigotry. Race and religion, the two pillars of yesterday’s intolerance, have been unashamedly resurrected and supplemented by slander. Sober debate and civilised bantering have been replaced by extremist sloganeering and organised bullying. It is particularly intriguing that many of the offenders are people who have one persona for the real world and an ugly personality that manifests itself the moment they sit before a computer. No wonder sensible (and sensitive) people recoiled in horror: they have either become passive net users or migrated to Facebook and Twitter where you can choose friends and followers.

The more things change, the more it remains the same. The Afrikanerdom Coetzee experienced in the 1970s has changed, and for the better. But a new trash has inherited the ghettoised paranoia and self-righteousness of the past and stepped in to subvert one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The worst offenders are in the US but Indian abusers are not far behind.

Sunday Times of India, October 11, 2009

Undeterred India must help Kabul (October 11, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is fortuitous that the increased security arrangements after the blast of July 2008 prevented any Indian casualty from last Thursday’s repeat attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Yet, by killing 17 innocent Afghans, mainly visa-seekers, the perpetrators managed to send a chilling message to the Government in Kabul and the US-led NATO forces that India’s nominal presence in Afghanistan will be violently contested.
It is reassuring, at least judging by the forthright reaction of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, that India will not countenance any intimidation from either the Taliban or Pakistan. It can only be hoped that the gaffe-prone ministers in the Ministry of External Affairs don’t mess with this resolve by suggesting that India can do business with the Taliban (as SM Krishna did to Wall Street Journal last month) either directly or through Twitter.

That the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan military establishment are flip sides of the same coin is a widely known fact many in the Barack Obama administration choose to wilfully overlook. Yet, ignoring reality or inexplicably winning a Nobel Peace Prize for good intentions does not change the ground situation. It does, however, embolden Pakistan into making life even more miserable for the “foreign” troops that deprived the country of its free run in Afghanistan prior to 2002.

Pakistan’s involvement in the July 2008 bombing was confirmed by both the authorities in Kabul and US intelligence. But even damaging charges of organising cross-border terrorism has left Pakistan unfazed. The cockiness won’t change if yet another smoking gun is held up as proof of its role as the sponsor of last Thursday’s outrage.

Pakistan’s arrogant belief that it can play by its own rules didn’t come about in isolation. In the present context, it owes almost everything to the widespread global belief that the Obama Administration is in complete disarray over how to cope with Afghanistan. From Obama’s perspective, Afghanistan is a mess he inherited from his predecessor. That’s only partially true. Whereas President George W Bush was clear in his mind why the US forces were there in Afghanistan and who they were fighting against, Obama’s conception is hazy and angst-ridden. In a series of high-level consultations involving both his military and civilian staff, the US President is reported to have repeatedly asked: “Who is our adversary?”
Such a profundity can impress well-meaning Norwegians into handing out a Nobel Prize. But it is nevertheless revealing. It suggests that, like those who drove his election campaign to heights of frenzy, Obama just wants to get the hell out of Afghanistan, even if that leads to the devastated country turning into what General McChrystal termed “Chaos-istan.”

American liberals have always been uneasy with the “war on terror.” After eight years of zero terrorism inside the US, they now feel the danger is past. This is the sub-text of the proposal doing the rounds of Washington DC that the fight ought to be against Al Qaeda and not the Taliban as if they live in separate worlds. Pakistan is pandering to that defeatism by appearing to come down hard on some of its own Islamist deviants.

The Obama Administration — described recently by one of its critics as the “biggest bunch of crybabies” seen for a long time inside the Beltway — mirrors the mood of its liberal constituency. It is desperately looking for a way out of Afghanistan and ignoring the views of its military brass, particularly General McChrystal’s demand for 40,000 more troops. Left to himself, Obama would willingly outsource Afghanistan to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and focus on what interests him — twisting India’s tail on climate change and non-proliferation and fighting Fox News and Rush Limbaugh on healthcare.

Pakistan has shrewdly assessed Obama’s vulnerability. It is aware that Obama needs Pakistan more than it needs the annual US package of $1.5 billion for the next five years. Pakistan may be the catchment area for mercenaries but it is not willing to sell itself cheap. The custodians of Pakistani national interest know that a total of $7.5 billion tied to the Kerry-Lugar Bill’s conditionalities is nothing compared to what Pakistan will gain by recovering Afghanistan.

Pakistan is aiming for the Afghanistan that existed prior to 9/11, a country that was under its sole influence. It may take firm steps to keep some of Osama bin Laden’s hotheads from mounting attacks on the Saudi princes and targets in the West but as far as it is concerned, all attacks on Indian interests is kosher. The Pakistan military establishment wants to scuttle anything in the Kerry-Lugar Bill which restricts its operational independence. It doesn’t give a fig whether or not the US Congress issues it a good character certificate or not. It is proceeding on the simple assumption that the US and NATO forces want to leave fast and have no one but Pakistan to hand over charge before flying away on the proverbial last helicopter out of Kabul.

For Pakistan, events in Afghanistan seem a win-win situation. Its worst nightmare is if General McChrystal now gets it into his head that no decisive victory against the Taliban is possible unless there is a simultaneous assault on the lifeline of the movement in Quetta and other parts of Pakistan. There is an additional concern. What if the US-led forces suddenly feel that Afghanistan’s future is better protected by those non-Pushtuns who kept up the fight against the Taliban in the mid-1990s, when the world forgot Afghanistan?

Of course, the US won’t do anything so far-sighted. But that shouldn’t deter India from deciding unilaterally that its old friends in the Northern Alliance need some extra encouragement. India has been bizarrely charged by General McChrystal with “exacerbating regional tensions” by helping the Afghan people. It’s time we made it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sunday Pioneer, October 11, 2009

Monday, October 05, 2009

Impressive but joyless celebration (October 4, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The most interesting feature of the 60th anniversary jamboree in Beijing last Friday was its reportage. In a seven-column, front-page report, the editor of The Hindu (who was favoured with “ringside seats” of the choreographed event) was bowled over by the proceedings. With breathlessness that seemed a prosaic re-run of Leni Riefenstahl’s breathtaking documentary on the Berlin Olympics of 1936, he proclaimed: “China celebrated the 60th birthday of the People’s Republic in magnificent style, parading its new high-tech military prowess and showcasing its post-1978 economic development and its rapid rise on the world stage in a 150-minute Tian’anmen event that did not neglect to refer back to 20th century revolutionary history. In the process, it sent out a clear message that while the country is strong and determined enough to use all its resources to protect its interests — beginning with the “one China” imperative — what it wants above all is an internal and external environment conducive to development and the improvement of the lives of 1.3 billion people.” Phew!

The Hindu editor attached a great deal of significance to President Hu Jintao’s speech on the occasion which “left no doubt about the path along which China was headed”. Among other things, Hu proclaimed: “We must unswervingly follow the road of socialism with Chinese characteristics…and the reform and opening-up policy…The development and progress of New China over the past 60 years fully proved that only socialism can save China and only reform and opening up can ensure the development of China, socialism, and Marxism.”

The Hindu’s endorsement of China’s vision recalled a line penned by American journalist Lincoln Steffens after a visit to the Soviet Union in 1920: “I have been over into the future and it works.” In 1949, Mao took over a devastated, poor country. This year, China overtook the US as the biggest market for luxury goods. If only Mont Blanc had produced a limited edition Mao fountain pen!

The Hindu’s gush-gush was in sharp contrast to a New York Times report of September 30 which quoted Zhang Ming, professor of politics at Renmin University in Beijing, as saying: “There is no ideology in China anymore. The Government has no ideology. The people have no ideology. The reason the Government is in power is because they can say: ‘I can make your lives better every day. I can give you stability. And I have the power.’ As long as they make people’s lives better, it’s OK.” As an afterthought, the professor asked: “What happens on the day when they no longer can?”

That’s a question which has preoccupied the rulers in Beijing. Describing the arrangements for the Tian’anmen parade, Peter Foster of London’s Daily Telegraph observed things Indians, quite inexplicably, don’t. “At a time when China has more than most countries to celebrate”, he wrote, “the Party still does not dare to invite the people on to the streets to celebrate its 60th year in power. Some 200,000 carefully vetted students and volunteers will take part in the made-for-TV parade, but ‘security considerations’ will keep the common man at a safe distance. Not unlike the opening night of the Olympics, where the streets of Beijing were devoid of celebrations, it will be an impressive, but strangely joyless affair.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Gordon G Chang, author of the ominously titled The Coming Collapse of China, suggested that the Chinese Government is “deeply insecure”: “The theme of the celebration is ‘The Motherland and I, Marching Together.’ But so great is the regime’s worry about possible unrest or disruption in protest of its rule that the laobaixing — ordinary Chinese — will not be walking in Beijing’s parade. There will be no cheering crowds lining the route along Chang’an Avenue. Citizens will be kept away by a six-province security perimeter and more than a million police and ‘volunteers’ enforcing the tightest security in the country’s history. The Government has booked all the hotel rooms overlooking the route to prevent anyone from seeing the parade up close. Nearby residents have been ordered not to look out their windows or invite guests.”

Those who witnessed the Chinese panic over the passage of the Olympics torch through New Delhi will know that Chang isn’t exaggerating.
What should we in India make of these sharply divergent perceptions of the Middle Kingdom? The one which comes through from “ringside” seats reserved for the ideologically blessed is an awesome military power, goose-stepping its way into the future and proclaiming socialism. The other perception is of an entrepreneurial people in a mad rush to prosperity, slightly cynical about the Party and those in power. Both perceptions are real because China, like India, is home to a million truths.

Both images also serve a purpose. The spectacle of 50 new weapons systems unveiled for the first time by a determined People’s Liberation Army is calculated to put the fear of god into non-militarised societies. It is aimed at intimidating both the non-Han minorities within and nations who imagine that they can compete with China economically, host the “splittist Dalai clique” and, worse, question China’s imperial boundaries.

The other view of a “normal” society where people can abuse the rulers is meant to reassure democratic societies that China isn’t a latter-day version of the regime that built autobahns, won medals at the Olympics and manufactured the Mercedes Benz and the Volkswagen. Actually, placating the soft West proved remarkably easy. The Empire State Building was lit up in China’s national colours and Bejing’s Ambassador in London was given space by the bleeding-heart Guardian to prove China’s “democratic” virtues.

Money, it would seem, works wonders in the capitalist heartland. As for those States that share an undefined border with China, guns can do the talking.

Sunday Pioneer, October 4, 2009

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Seen from a distance (October 2, 2009)

The change in Bengal is likely to be momentous and damaging

By Swapan Dasgupta

From a media perspective, there are three markedly different ways of assessing the politics of an Indian state. There is, first, the worm’s eye view of events; there is the view from the discreet vantage point of the regional capital; and there is, finally, what may be called the Google-Earth detachment. Readers of these pages will be familiar with the first two approaches in viewing West Bengal. What follows is an exploration of how the present churning in West Bengal is being seen from a distance. The perception may suffer from the over-generalizations of a foreign correspondent’s report. However, since all decisions relating to the state aren’t made by those familiar with local nuances, it may be instructive for West Bengal to gauge its image in the wider country.


A convenient starting point may be the Lok Sabha elections held earlier this year. In the aftermath of its disastrous performance, the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a sombre statement on June 22. The party, it admitted, “has suffered serious reverses”, having won only nine seats (its allies won a further six) in West Bengal. While noting that the 5.33 per cent popular vote it secured throughout India was only 0.33 per cent below what it polled in 2004 (but had yielded only 16 seats compared to 43 in 2004), it expressed “concern about the erosion in the Party’s support base in West Bengal and Kerala”. At the same time, it put on a brave face, pointing out that the Left Front in West Bengal secured around 1.85 crore votes and in Kerala the Left Democratic Front had polled 67.17 lakh votes. Its conclusion was characteristically blasé: “Though there is some erosion, the main base of the Party is intact by and large in these two states.”


Setting aside the details of the anticipated debacle in Kerala, where election results invariably follow a see-saw pattern, the central committee can be accused of being wilfully disingenuous in its assessment of West Bengal. True, the popular vote for the Left Front slumped only nominally, from 1.88 crore to 1.85 crore. However, in the context of the turnout and an enhanced electorate, its support fell by a staggering 7.42 per cent — from 50.72 per cent in 2004 to 43.30 per cent in 2009. The CPI(M)’s own vote share fell from 38.57 per cent to 33.10 per cent. More important, the Left Front lost nearly every seat in what is loosely called the FM belt around Calcutta. There is ample evidence to suggest that a substantial body of Muslim voters switched over to the Congress-Trinamul Congress alliance and contributed to the Left Front defeat. The ruling coalition just about managed to save face by winning a clutch of seats in the Jalpaiguri-Cooch Behar belt of North Bengal and successfully defending its strongholds in the outlying districts.


The electoral transformation of a state that has been a Red stronghold for the past 32 years — the LeftFront won a majority of seats in every Lok Sabha and Assembly election since 1977 — is calculated to have traumatic consequences. Left rule in West Bengal was qualitatively different from other states in India. It was based on the principle of ascending control: loosest at the very top of the social pyramid and rigidly suffocating at the base. Other ‘bourgeois’ political parties that run state governments operate primarily as electoral machines and build fledgling networks of patronage. They leave day-to-day governance and development projects to the bureaucracy. The CPI(M) politicized almost every aspect of administration in West Bengal. It empowered its local committees, particularly in semi-urban and rural localities, to work as a parallel administration, overseeing all government work including policing. The process began in 1978 during Operation Barga but gradually engulfed every institution, including the arbitration of local disputes. Education was a particular casualty of political control: the CPI(M) insisted on controlling every appointment, from the peon to the vice- chancellor.


The CPI(M) control of local administration proved politically rewarding. The party also became a permanent election machine, blessed with the ability to deliver votes through means both fair and foul. Dependant on spontaneity (the proverbial ‘wave’) and the charisma of individual leaders, its opponents were in no position to match this streamlined machinery of harnessing votes.


A structure based on over-intrusiveness could endure as long as electoral success was guaranteed. The undivided Congress always had a vote share of nearly 40 per cent — impressive, but never enough to take on a united Left. After 1997, a divided Opposition made the task of the Left very much easier but also added to its complacency and arrogance. The excesses of Nandigram and the perceived over-zealousness of the chief minister in Singur revealed chinks in the CPI(M) rural base. Muslims ended up being particularly agitated and the ultra-Left, a euphemism for Maoist fractions, entered into a tactical alliance with Mamata Banerjee to settle scores with the main enemy. The TMC-Congress alliance ensured a level playing field in electoral arithmetic. The chemistry of an all-India election did the rest.


The immediate effect of the Left Front defeat is that the structures of control are fast unravelling. Many of those who sided with the CPI(M) because it was locally convenient have switched sides and others, including a section of the police, are negotiating their safe passage. The Maoists have taken advantage of Mamata’s political umbrella and the indulgence of the left-leaning intelligentsia to both settle scores with the CPI(M) and build bases in outlying areas. A section of Muslims with a sectarian agenda is eyeing a post-CPI(M) dispensation as being favourable to a brand of politics that West Bengal hasn’t witnessed for a very long time. For the moment, the minority community is either with the Congress or the TMC. But will its sectarian fringe don true colours after the assembly election of 2011?

The Left is in a state of paralysis for two reasons. First, the more ideological of the comrades have realized that large contingents of the party’s foot-soldiers were mercenaries and fair-weather friends. They are relieved at their departure but also recognize the damaging impact of these desertions on the party’s election machinery. Secondly, the Lok Sabha election was a personal defeat for the development politics of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The verdict has made it abundantly clear that State-facilitated industrialization will be thwarted by the general opposition to land acquisition. The beneficiaries of Operation Barga, it would seem, are loath to abandon their attachment to land in just one generation.


To the outside world, these developments are alarming. Since 1967, West Bengal has acquired a reputation for being obstreperous, mindlessly militant, over-politicized and even violent. The impressions may have been based on stereotypes, but they were real and contributed immeasurably to the state being left out of India’s growth story. For a brief period, it seemed that the chief minister was reinventing West Bengal. Now that seems like an illusion. With Mamata trying to outdo the CPI(M) in being cussed and difficult, there is a feeling that the run-up to the assembly election will witness a rash of agitational politics and spiralling violence. To cap it all, as the CPI(M) loosens its control, there is the additional threat of Maoist violence and the growth of Muslim communal politics.


West Bengal may be on the cusp of momentous political change and the end of Left dominance. But the process of change is likely to be very damaging. At least that is what it seems from the outside.

The Telegraph, October 2, 2009