Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rising from the rubble? (November 28, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

AFTER DECEMBER 6, 1992, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP overnight became the Indian media’s Enemy Number One. This was not on account of the Fourth Estate arrogating to itself the role of a custodian of India’s multicultural inheritance but because frenzied kar sevaks, irked by what they perceived was the media’s onesided coverage of the dispute in Ayodhya, chose to beat up photographers (remember this took place before the invasion of the TV crews) carrying out their professional duties. The relationship between the media and saffron outfits turned so sour that when the police unleashed water cannons on BJP demonstrators who tried to violate a ban on a scheduled rally on Delhi’s Boat Club Lawns in February 1993, a gaggle of journalists actually cheered and muttered ‘serves you right’.

The wheel, it would seem, has turned full circle some 17 years later. In hindsight, the Sangh Parivar, particularly the RSS and Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has reason to be extremely grateful to the media for getting it out of a pickle over the long-delayed Liberhan Commission report on the demolition of the Babri structure.

The government had planned to table the Liberhan report in Parliament around December 22, the penultimate day of the winter session. It rightly calculated that the ensuing fuss would make it impossible for Parliament to function and, therefore, it would be more prudent to minimise the time lost in disruption. The plan to defer the tabling of the report till the very end of the session was also premised on the belief that it would make it possible to announce some tough measures in the Action Taken Report.

These calculations went awry on the morning of November 23 when the Indian Express “leaked” the broad findings of the Liberhan report. This disclosure, quite predictably, created a storm in the House over the ethics of bypassing Parliament. But even before the disruption was complete, NDTV announced that it now possessed a copy of the report. To prove its authenticity, the channel even broadcast actual passages from the report.

The government’s hand was forced. With the PM in the US, it could not afford a political explosion that exposed sectarian fissures

For any government, keeping a high-profile report of a commission of inquiry is an occupational hazard. The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the Jain Commission report on Rajiv Gandhi’s murder had witnessed media leaks which had derailed government calculations and led to unintended consequences. The media “leak” of what Home Minister P Chidambaram described as the “purported” Liberhan report had a similar effect. First, it focussed parliamentary discussion on the apparent breach of privilege, a procedural issue that diverted attention from the report itself. Secondly, it gave the BJP and the RSS sufficient time to prepare a response to what they always knew would be a strong indictment of their conduct in Ayodhya 17 years ago. The “leak” took away the surprise element from a report that had been too long in the making.

Finally, and this was probably the biggest jolt to the government, the “leak” enabled the media to paint the report in a way it wanted rather than how the government hoped for. In the normal course, a 1,000-page report would have been accompanied by an executive summary that would package the report in a way the government thought was politically prudent. What happened instead was that the surprise inclusion of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the list of 68 people “culpable” of spreading communal disharmony and the not-so-surprising exoneration of the PV Narasimha Rao-led government at the Centre became the talking points of the debate. In determining the political packaging of Liberhan’s reflections, the government had no hand.

The extent to which the enterprise of the media came to the rescue of the RSS is incalculable. The Liberhan report was a devastating indictment of the entire Sangh Parivar. It claimed the demolition was a meticulously planned criminal conspiracy involving the entire saffron family, including “pseudo-moderates” such as Vajpayee. It suggested that the BJP was merely a front organisation for the RSS — shades of KN Govindacharya’s infamous description of Vajpayee as a mukhauta (mask). Worse, it maintained that the civil administration of the states where the BJP was in power was suborned by the RSS.


Digging up the past Kar Sevaks performing the foundation-laying ceremony in 1989





It is immaterial that many of Liberhan’s conclusions were in the nature of assertions, not backed by empirical evidence. At times the report read like a pamphlet rather than the pronouncements of a judicial officer. What matters is that Liberhan had prepared the ground for any government to go beyond criminal action against those of the 68 still living. After 17 years of deliberation, Liberhan offered the government the ammunition for an outright ban on the RSS, if not the BJP.

At this point it is unlikely that the government would have exercised this draconian option. A commission of inquiry isn’t a judicial body and its pronouncements have no statutory significance. Any legal action against the RSS would have had to be a considered political decision and based on today’s ground realities. Any ban based on the perceived criminality of the organisation 17 years ago wouldn’t have been sufficiently persuasive, particularly as it was bound to be perceived as an attempt to cripple the BJP.

Few in the BJP — a section of which had forewarning of Liberhan’s dim view of the men in khaki shorts — seriously expected the government to ban the RSS. However, they didn’t anticipate harsh strictures against LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi either. What they did expect was that the government would extract every ounce of propaganda mileage from the report and paint the whole movement in the darkest of colours. This wouldn’t matter to the committed but many in the BJP feared the fallout of the Liberhan report on a generation whose perception of the party had been discoloured by the Gujarat riots of 2002.

There is no evidence to suggest that the RSS leadership had a similar appreciation of the possible complications the Liberhan report would create for it. It had been alerted to the possible ominous implications of the Liberhan report but it didn’t gauge its significance. Living in a cloistered world and more or less dependant on information volunteered by fellow swayamsevaks, it was too caught in the headiness of its new role as the overlord of the BJP to worry about extraneous developments. Having spent the past three weeks planning its takeover of the BJP, it was inclined to see politics through a narrow prism. It was merely concerned that the Liberhan report would resume the focus on Advani, revive his political importance and derail the planned removal of the Leader of Opposition.

THIS MAY explain why the initial RSS response to the Liberhan “leak” verged on the absurd. A section of the RSS that deals with the BJP came to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that the media was acting at the behest of those in the BJP who are uneasy with the RSS’ intrusive ways. Their suspicions were directed at what they perceived was the Advani camp in the BJP. Throughout the evening of November 23 and the morning of the next day, there were calls to journalists by an individual attached to the party president suggesting that the leak had been managed by Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley with some help from fellow-lawyer P Chidambaram. The suggestion was so bizarre that no one cared to grace even the gossip columns with it. But it did indicate that the RSS faction was completely at sea and unable to cobble together a coherent response. After an initial appearance on TV last Monday morning by RSS spokesman Ram Madhav — when he echoed the larger opposition concern over the violation of parliamentary privilege — the RSS disappeared from public view for a full 24 hours till it was known that the government was content with a feeble ATR.

It was a different story in the BJP. Although caught by surprise by the timing of the “leak” — which was conspiratorially attributed by the less informed to the government’s desire to break opposition unity over sugarcane pricing and the indulgence shown towards the alleged corruption of former Jharkhand chief minister Madhu Koda — it honed in on the two things that would become its main weapons of aggressive defensiveness.


Charioteer Advani helped the BJP ride to power on the Ram mandir plank
Photo: AP










The first, quite understandably, was the issue of the leak itself. Thanks to a casual line in the Indian Express report citing a Home Ministry source, some BJP members targeted Chidambaram. It is interesting that Jaitley, whose connections with the higher echelons of the media makes his BJP colleagues envious, chose to point an accusing finger at the Commission.

The second theme of the BJP counter-attack centered on the harsh observations against former prime minister Vajpayee. That Vajpayee had serious misgivings over the BJP’s direct involvement in the temple agitation and was perhaps the only senior BJP leader to express regret over the demolition was well known. Also in the public domain was the knowledge that Vajpayee had done his utmost to keep the RSS from interfering in the running of his government. That such a leader was, in effect, described as a stooge of the RSS and pilloried for vitiating the atmosphere in the country was clearly unexpected.

Anupam Gupta, the estranged counsel for the Commission, has claimed that Vajpayee’s name was cleverly introduced by Liberhan to dilute the strictures against Advani. The veracity of his charge is still unproven but the fact that Vajpayee was excused from appearing before him by Liberhan, despite pleas by some organisations, made the appearance of his name even more bewildering. It, however, gave the BJP the big opening to use Vajpayee as a shield against the grave charges levelled against it. The assault on the reputation of the ailing veteran, who commands the respect of the entire political class, became the instrument to discredit the report as a whole. Certainly, his presence in the list of 68 culpable individuals was a factor in the government deciding that the Liberhan report didn’t warrant any serious follow through.

THE GOVERNMENT, it must be added, had to respond to the leak by tabling the actual report well before schedule. With the Prime Minister in the midst of an important state visit to the US, the last thing it wanted was a political explosion that would expose the sectarian fissures in India and undermine the country’s claim of being different from its turbulent neighbours. It was the pressure of the occasion that made the government settle for a line of least offence. For this the BJP and RSS must thank an enterprising media.

Next month, when the Liberhan report becomes the subject of a detailed discussion in Parliament, the BJP is likely to offer its version of the politics of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. It will revisit the archaeological evidence of Hindu temples that preceded the construction of Mir Baqi’s mosque in 1528; it will re-emphasise the inordinate delay in the judicial process that so exasperated the Hindu nationalists and fuelled the demand for direct action; and it will contrast Liberhan’s harshness towards the Sangh Parivar with his astonishing generosity towards previous Congress governments. Yet, there is certain to be one aspect of the Liberhan report that is calculated to put it on the defensive: the charge that it is not a political party but a front organisation of an unaccountable RSS.

If the demolition forced the return of the liberals, then the belated anguish over a broken shrine may delay an RSS takeover

In the context of the ongoing sound and fury over the BJP’s takeover by the RSS and the alleged selection of the next party president by RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat — who had also named those ineligible for the post — this twinning acquires some relevance. There are many in the BJP who are extremely uneasy over the growing tyranny of the unelected — as one BJP MP described it in private. After the Liberhan report they are equally disturbed by the larger political costs of being perceived as a poodle of the RSS. In Parliament, the BJP can successfully forge a semblance of Oppposition unity, including with the Left and Samajwadi Party, but these gains are offset the moment the RSS enters the equation.



Too little too late Liberhan hands over the report to the PM as Chidambaram looks on
Photo: PIB


House uproar SP and BJP members scuffle in Parliament over the Liberhan report


At the weekly Tuesday morning meeting of the BJP parliamentary party on November 24, it was a relatively unknown backbencher who set the proverbial cat among the pigeons. Uday Singh, a second-term BJP member from Purnea in Bihar, rose unexpectedly from his seat to ask the leadership about this strange animal called the RSS. Why, he asked, is the party being asked to undertake surgery and chemotherapy by an outsider? Why, he added, has the next party president been chosen by those who are not in the party?

The interesting feature of his outburst was that he was neither shouted down nor booed. He was heard in stunned silence until party president Rajnath Singh intervened to placate him with the assurance that “no outsider” would decide the party’s next president. When Uday Singh emerged from the meeting, he was heartily congratulated by many for daring to say what they had been thinking.

In a larger sense, the Liberhan report is unlikely to revive interest in the Ayodhya dispute. Despite the grandstanding by the VHP and Togadia’s apparent willingness to mount the gallows for the sake of Lord Ram, India has moved on from the decade in which mandir fought Mandal and Muslim. There may still be a Hindu desire to see a grand Ram temple at the disputed site in Ayodhya but the nation is not going to do anything dramatic about it. The makeshift Ram temple surrounded by armed guards and steel barricades is likely to define the Ayodhya landscape for the foreseeable future. No wonder realists in the BJP seem more willing to debate sugarcane and Madhu Koda rather than Ayodhya — a discernible change from how the public debate was fashioned two decades or so ago.

The only limited impact of the Liberhan report is that the RSSwill once again become an object of fierce controversy and it will need the BJP to contain the damage. After the initial excitement over the Liberhan report had subsided, BJP workers were quick to point to the irony behind the RSS having to depend on Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley — two of Bhagwat’s four blacklisted leaders — to play defence counsel. In a debate carried out primarily in the media, the RSS found that its favourites such as Rajnath were either completely ineffective or completely out of their depths.

The renewed focus on the RSS may give another lease of life to Advani as the only man with the stature to hold back the RSS offensive. Advani has made his last bow as a prime minister-in-waiting, but he is still the party’s favourite to play the role of a reliable parliamentarian, until the next prime ministerial candidate is chosen. Two weeks ago, the forward march of the RSS into the BJP seemed unstoppable. But two weeks is a long time in politics. Just as the explosion at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 forced the return of the liberals to the top leadership of the party, the belated anguish over a broken shrine may force the RSS into reviewing its expansionism. The liberal may be the endangered species inside the BJP but there are moments he can make all the difference between political survival and political irrelevance. The politicians in the party recognise it. Does the RSS?

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 48, Dated December 05, 2009

India must think big, stand by Dubai (November 29, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

It’s always amusing to hear those who acquire wisdom in hindsight. “When you start building a third island shaped like a palm tree, intending it to be as big and crowded as Manhattan,” wrote Jim Krane, the author of the evocatively titled “Dubai: The Story of the World’s Fastest City” in Saturday’s Financial Times, “you are crying out for a sober voice to bark: Stop!”

Like the Emperor’s new clothes, there were remarkably few “sober” voices that were sceptical of the prolonged celebration of bling in the Arabian desert. From clever bankers in London and New York who have a slightly disdainful attitude to those who don’t earn million dollar bonuses to the peddlers of exorbitantly-priced “luxury goods”, Dubai was always a shorthand for quick bucks. Unlike Singapore, where opportunity mingles with hard realism, Dubai had transformed into a fantasy land.

When an English friend with an impish sense of humour once hosted me for a drink at a top-floor bar in the dhow-sail shaped hotel that was being flaunted as a monument to opulent living, I recall repeating John McEnroe’s immortal outburst: “You can’t be serious!” In the gilt-plated lift, we encountered a short, podgy Russian with an unlit cigar in his mouth, with his arm firmly clutching the posterior of a giggling, well-endowed blonde — a caricature of the gangster’s moll from a B-grade film. Predictably, the Russian was also accompanied by a fearful looking bodyguard.

The bar itself was something straight out of a 1960s film centred on some Dr No or Goldfinger out to take over the world. It was embellished with strobe lights, featuring multi-coloured stars and objects that defy coherent definition. Like Andy Warhol, it seemed that the interior designer had had a great laugh at someone’s expense, and profited handsomely from it.

To me, that seemed the central problem with Dubai: The belief that capitalism worked best in a gigantic amusement park. Of course, it was not very funny for the thousands of construction labour who lived dreary lives and sent home every last coin they saved through self-deprivation; nor was it very funny for the sad-looking maids who silently endured the travails of restricted employment. But for European bankers whose bonuses depended on underwriting fantasies, Indian and Pakistani dons who frolicked beyond the long arm of the law, spoilt Arab kids who imagined that life was one big fast car ride down a new motorway and Western businessmen who sold rich Arabs the modern equivalents of beads and trinkets, Dubai was the Xanadu of capitalism.

The tragedy of Dubai was that its whacko priorities subsumed its other achievements. For a place that wasn’t even in a position to issue its own postage stamps till the early-1950s — it used Indian stamps and even the Indian currency — Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum used the oil revenues to make Dubai a worthwhile offshore hub for both South Asia and the troubled West Asia. Dubai, unlike Saudi Arabia, wasn’t an enclave of medievalism. Leaving aside politics which was always a big No-No, Dubai was socially liberal — almost permissive — and financially unregulated. The Sheikh’s thrust towards making Dubai a hub for the electronic media, education, tourism and finance was worthwhile and remains as valid today as when it was initially conceived.

What isn’t valid is the assumption that these goals would be enhanced by pouring money into projects such as the Snowdome and purchasing casinos in the US. “Don’t sell things you will buy” is a principle that many prudent shopkeepers follow. Dubai erred in pouring money into projects that tickled the skewed aesthetics of an aristocracy that lived off rentier income. Dubai had a lot of indigenous money but precious little indigenous entrepreneurship. It mortgaged decision-making to carpetbaggers who have made quick bucks and won’t be around to commiserate with the Sheikh.
For India, the misfortunes of Dubai present unconventional opportunities. Going by present indications, Indian companies are not going to be hugely affected by Dubai’s inability to honour its debts. However, the slowdown and the end of the construction boom are likely to lessen the quantum of remittances from Indian workers located there. There may be at best adverse short-term consequences for States such as Kerala which export labour to the Emirates. Does this mean that India should breathe a sigh of relief and look down disdainfully on those who lacked the wisdom to manage prosperity with a cool head?

Such a response would be myopic. For all its profligacy, Dubai remains a place with world-class infrastructure and world-class facilities at knock-down prices. Should these be left to others to mop up and use as a base for a more enlightened approach in future? India has an old, historical relationship with the Gulf and we cannot forget that till 1947 the region was more or less regarded as an extension of India, both politically and economically. We may have frittered away those advantages by narrowing our vision but there is no earthly reason why that short-sightedness should persist in this century. India should use its political and economic clout to, first, be supportive of Dubai and, subsequently, to try and fill the void left by the West’s loss of confidence in the Emirates.

How this should be done and what should be the nature of Government assistance to businesses willing to repose their confidence in Dubai is something that has to be worked out, fast. The Dubai crisis presents a golden chance for India to re-establish its role in the region. We shouldn’t let the opportunity slip away by refusing to think big.

Sunday Pioneer, November 29, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Too easy a conclusion (November 27, 2009)

Even the Liberhan report cites conspiracy, an Indian favourite

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the normal course, some 17 years of single-minded perusal of a subject — backed by an army of researchers and support staff and privileged access to government records and all the relevant individuals — should have resulted in a work that is magisterial, rigorous, incisive and almost definitive. It is a commentary on Manmohan Singh Liberhan that all the privileges and perks of the government of India and an astonishingly flexible deadline couldn’t inspire him to produce a report on the “sequence and events leading to and all the facts and circumstances relating to the occurrence at the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid complex at Ayodhya on December 6, 1992” that would have been cherished for its fairness and legal erudition. Instead, the country has been, first, “leaked”, and subsequently presented with, a report that may well serve as a model for undistinguished prose, empirical inadequacies and tendentious generalizations.

A cabinet under pressure to respond speedily to contain the damage arising from a breach of parliamentary privilege met hurriedly for 30 minutes to consider the report. India’s political guardians considered a clutch of recommendations, including profundities such as “It is inherently unfair, immoral and legally dubious to hold democracy hostage to religious and casteist blackmail”, and “As members of a single union, the State Governments must… trust the union government and expect a reciprocal trust as well”. The monosyllabic response of the government’s action taken report to most of the insights of the commission was: “Agreed.”

Displaying a sense of humour that is otherwise not very evident, the report’s recommendations include the observation that: “In the first half of their career, most officers fall prey to extraneous influence for securing transfers and postings or other benefits for themselves. In the latter half, the emphasis is equally on finding out and securing a roosting ground for their post-retirement period.” To this unexpected display of candidness, an astonished government could only respond: “Noted.”

To those interested in governance, the Liberhan Commission has thrown up a multitude of issues. The more abstruse of these centre on the wisdom of charging the Rs 8 crore or so spent by the commission on salaries (not including expenses) to the national rural employment guarantee scheme. At a more sublime level, there are concerns over the unrestricted licence granted to State-appointed commissions of inquiry to reflect on life in general. Since one inquiry report often becomes a template for another, there may be some virtue in imposing a set of guidelines to prevent the rigorous exploration of a specific subject from being embellished by lessons in undergraduate civics.

The extent to which the premises of one inquiry are reproduced in another is quite remarkable. In the past two decades or so, there have been three inquiry reports, all three divulged to the media before being presented to Parliament, that have pursued a common thread: conspiracy.

The Thakkar Commission report on the assassination of Indira Gandhi, presented to the government in February 1986, but suppressed till it was leaked to the media in March 1989, recommended that the “Central government should seriously consider the question of appropriate agencies to investigate the matter as regards the involvement of R.K. Dhawan, the then special assistant to the former prime minister”. To C.K. Thakkar, Indira Gandhi’s death at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards seemed a consequence of a palace conspiracy.

In a similar vein, the Jain Commission of inquiry — which was given 12 extensions — into the death of Rajiv Gandhi at the hands of a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam death squad in 1991, had its interim report leaked to the media in 1997. Relying quite heavily on Intelligence Bureau inputs, the 5,280-page report, comprising eight volumes of interim findings, also smelt an elaborate conspiracy that stretched from the LTTE-held Northern Sri Lanka to Tamil Nadu. M.C. Jain held the then Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi, and his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam responsible for abetting Rajiv’s murderers. It also went on to blame the former prime ministers, V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar, for being indifferent to the threats to Rajiv’s life. The Congress responded angrily to the report, demanded the dropping of all DMK ministers from the Union council of ministers and subsequently withdrew support to the I.K. Gujral-led United Front government.

This week, and perhaps because it, too, included suggestions of an elaborate conspiracy that extended from the top to the lowest rung of the sangh parivar, the Liberhan Commission was leaked to the media. Unfortunately for those who fed the media, there are as yet no indications that the political fallout of Liberhan’s experiments with truth will have as devastating a consequence as the reports of Thakkar and Jain — perhaps a case of diminishing returns from conspiracies.

A feature of the Liberhan report is its post-facto rationalization of events that at that time seemed to be discordant. That there was a loose coordination between the various arms of what has come to be known as the sangh parivar isn’t in any serious doubt. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and, for that matter, sundry sadhus and sants were, after all, working for a common cause: the construction of a grand Ram temple at the site of the erstwhile Babri Masjid. Yet there were important differences.

The BJP, for example, had to combine its commitment to the temple with the imperatives of running a state government and respecting the rule of law. Just three months prior to the demolition, the state government run by Kalyan Singh was put into an awkward position by obstinate sants and sadhus (unconnected to the RSS) who refused to obey a Supreme Court directive to desist from constructing a ceremonial gate and a podium at a distance from the disputed shrine. The BJP believed the sadhus were being obstinate and it took a lot of persuasive skill to persuade the VHP to observe a short truce for negotiations with the Centre. Predictably, these yielded nothing and it is in the ensuing frustration and anger of the VHP and the sants that we can glean important clues relating to the demolition. Curiously, most of the holy men who added their congregational might to the movement have not been censured.

This doesn’t exonerate the BJP of its responsibility for reneging on an assurance to the Supreme Court. At the same time, it doesn’t detract from the fact that L.K. Advani, Vijaya Raje Scindia and even Kalyan Singh were completely taken aback by the unexpected turn of events. As an eyewitness to the demolition, I can state with certainty that until about 12.30 pm, when a former editor of an RSS publication (and a virulent Advani critic) rushed to the podium and asked for the idols to be removed, the BJP leadership was unaware that the Babri structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

These may be trivial details in a sweeping reconstruction, but it does suggest that the perception of a grand conspiracy involving the BJP, VHP, RSS and the assortment of highly individualistic sadhus may be somewhat facile. There were some people who organized a small band of activists with pickaxes and ropes. They rightly calculated that the actions of the vanguard would have an unstoppable bandwagon effect. It was the job of Liberhan to sift through the evidence and present a picture of the events as they happened. Instead, he fell back on the Indian penchant for grand conspiracies that can’t be corroborated with empirical evidence.

In India, conspiracy is a rhetorical flourish and the commissions of inquiry mirror this casual attitude to a serious charge.

The Telegraph, November 27, 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Getting past the past (November 25, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

A good wine improves with age and good cellarage. To understand why 17 years of official patronage transformed a rich harvest of frenzy in Ayodhya into Justice Liberhan’s rancid pickle, it is instructive to look at the demographic realities of today’s India.

Assuming that the political consciousness of an average individual begins at 18, it is revealing that the traumatic events of December 6, 1992, constituted a lived experience for only those Indians who are 35 years of age and older. For the remainder who make up some 60 per cent of the population, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid battle was the obsession of an earlier generation. In a country where a sense of history is in any case feeble, the emotive fervour of the past has not been passed on to another generation.

The furore over the Liberhan report is likely to prove a five-day wonder for a number of reasons.

First, the credibility of the exercise has been sullied by Justice Liberhan inveigling for himself the longest deadline in officialdom.

Secondly, its conclusions have not added to the pre-existing knowledge of the involvement of the RSS in the demolition of the 16th century structure.

Thirdly, its strictures against the usual suspects have been rendered farcical by the needless inclusion of Atal Bihari Vajpayee among the 68 persons responsible for sullying communal relations.

Fourthly, by exonerating the P.V. Narasimha Rao government of any responsibility, it has given the impression of political bias. If, as Liberhan claims, there was a widespread conspiracy involving the entire Sangh Parivar to bring down the Babri structure, the Centre must have been a repository of either high-level ineptitude or complicity to believe Kalyan Singh’s assurance of good conduct.

Finally, by choosing caution over grandstanding in its Action Taken Report, the Centre has negated the possibility of renewed mobilisation over a dormant dispute.

The Centre’s refusal to extend the accusing finger pointed at the RSS and BJP to a punitive political conclusion may be the object of initial ridicule. In the short run it may even embolden hotheads into imagining that the fear of a Hindu backlash has thwarted a fresh bout of prosecutions and bans — the RSS was banned by the Rao government immediately after the demolition but this was lifted by the Bahri Commission review six months later. In the coming days we are certainly going to hear a lot of unrepentant noises from a section of the Sangh Parivar, particularly the VHP.

However, while the Centre may have based its passivity on the need to prevent Hindu nationalism from re-acquiring a united face, there is a more awkward reality the BJP and RSS must come to acknowledge.

In hindsight, L.K. Advani’s famous assertion in 1990 that the Ayodhya movement will be the “biggest mass mobilisation” of independent India turned out to be almost prescient. The movement to right a historical wrong shook India, redrew the contours of electoral politics and destroyed the Congress’ monopoly over political power. Yet, this spectacular Hindu upsurge had a definite context. To many, particularly in the rural Hindi heartland, it was an outpouring of simple religiosity — the need to give back to Lord Ram his imagined janmasthan in Ayodhya — tempered by the clever symbolism of Ram shilan, rath yatra and kar seva. To others, it was a simple expression of Hindu pride — “garv se kaho hum Hindu hain.” To a third group, the so-called “political Hindus”, it was a movement to roll back the frontiers of the Nehruvian consensus. Its Hindutva — the first time this term acquired a meaningful political currency — lay in forcing agnostic secularism into acknowledging the Hindu basis of nationhood.

Individually, none of these diverse currents had the ability to shape the political agenda. It was the grand (and expedient) coalition of the three that made Ayodhya the dominant theme of Indian politics for a decade.

It is, however, equally important to remember the wider social and political environment that nurtured the Ayodhya movement. The late 1980s were marked by the growing realisation that India’s experiments in socialism had reached a crisis point. The domestic economy was in crisis and riddled with corruption, nepotism, shortages and over-regulation; opportunities for individual and collective self-improvement were hard to come by; and the new age promised by Rajiv Gandhi was soured by Shah Bano, Bofors and Quattrocchi. It was this wider existential dejection that gave the Ayodhya movement its fillip. It encapsulated protest, millenarianism and modernity under one roof; simultaneously, it was an upsurge born of the frustrations of prolonged defeat.

Now, 17 years later, India is a changed place. The sense of defeat has given way to a new optimism centred on expanding opportunities. The beleaguered Hindu of 1992 is now the self-confident Hindu of 2007, confident that India can make a mark in the world. The root causes of the Ayodhya explosion no longer exists. It has been replaced by a new headiness, a new brashness, a new impatience and even a new nationalism. The sons and daughters of the very Hindus who celebrated December 6, 1992, by distributing mithai and then voting the BJP into power in 1998 today recoil in horror at the images of frenzied kar sevaks tearing down an old monument. A generational change has witnessed a shift in mentalities brought about by concentrated economic growth, sustained global exposure and the slow disintegration of the joint family. The slogans which inspired an earlier generation don’t gel with those who reached political maturity after 1992.

In their own way both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Advani recognised this and attempted to reinvent the BJP. Two general election defeats have, however, rekindled the ambitions of those who are unfamiliar with the 21st century and most at home in their own little ghettos. There is a tussle in the BJP between those who want to leave Ayodhya to history and those who want to relive the past in the present. Liberhan’s report may force a decision. Let us hope it will be a choice grounded in reality.

Indian Express, November 25, 2009

Monday, November 23, 2009

The revenge of the proletariat (November 21, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

HERE ARE some images which serve a twin purpose: they can both terrify and inspire, depending on who is looking. Earlier this month, the world celebrated the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, an event which triggered the eventual collapse of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the erstwhile Soviet Union. Once again the world relived the frenzy and the spontaneous anger which nullified the organised might of a superpower. There were also those who shed a quiet tear at the collapse of a world built on passionate certitudes.

Curiously, for a state that flaunts its penchant for internationalism, the event wasn’t commemorated in any meaningful way in West Bengal. The Comrades who earlier celebrated Vietnam’s resistance to US imperialism, came out in their thousands to welcome Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela to Kolkata and created a literary tradition inspired by Maya - kovski, Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Neruda, were not unexpectedly silent about a mass uprising against regimes that claimed direct lineage from Lenin and Stalin.

Apart from the inhibitions of socialist correctness, the wariness of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to address the lessons of history was completely understandable. The celebrations in Berlin touched a raw nerve because they coincided with the CPI(M)’s devastating defeat in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats. Whereas Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee could, arguably, have attempted to gloss over international communism’s greatest debacle by focussing on nine years of his own stewardship of West Bengal, the electoral drubbing left the CPI(M) demoralised and disoriented. There are no Assembly elections due until the summer of 2011 but the ruling Left Front already gives the unmistakable impression of being a defeated army.

Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal’s ubiquitous ‘Didi’ has already acquired the reputation of a lady who, having fought the Reds unwaveringly since her political debut in 1984, is within smelling distance of capturing Writers’ Buildings. On November 15, when she undertook a short padayatra from Nandakuthi to Tarakeshwar in Hoogly district against the CPI(M)’s “reign of terror”, she was accompanied by a sea of adoring and belligerent humanity. There were two popular slogans: the first taunted the Reds, “Aye CPM dekhe jaa, Mamatar khamata” (Come CPI(M), and witness the power of Mamata) but the second was decidedly menacing, “Biman/Buddhadeb-er chamra, khule nebo amra” (We will skin Biman Basu and Buddhadeb).

The CPI(M) has reason to be worried. The electoral downslide of the Left Front in the Lok Sabha election of this year was quite precipitate. For the first time since 1971, the CPI(M)-led combine failed to win a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state. Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, which had been reduced to just a solitary seat in 2004, stole the thunder by winning 22 seats. Mamata drove home her advantage in the by-elections to 10 Assembly seats held in November. The ruling Left Front won a solitary seat and the CPI(M) tally was zero.


Initially the CPI(M) tried to gloss over the magnitude of its defeat. In a resolution of June 22, the party Central Committee admitted “serious reverses” but simultaneously argued that “the main base of the Party is by and large intact…” The CPI(M) leadership comforted itself with the statistical delusion that its popular vote had fallen nominally, from 1.88 crore in 2004 to 1.85 crore in 2009. The reality was far gloomier. The support for the Left Front fell by a staggering 7.42 percent, from 50.72 percent in 2004 to 43.30 percent in 2009. The CPI(M)’s own vote share fell from 38.57 percent to 33.10 percent and it lost every seat in what is loosely called the FM belt around Kolkata. More ominously, a substantial body of Muslim voters, those who had contributed to the huge Left victories in 2004 and 2006, switched over to the TMC-Congress alliance. 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.

That the Lok Sabha outcome wasn’t merely a case of an electorate voting on national considerations for a stable government at the Centre became clear in the 10 by-elections this month. Compared to the 50.72 percent and 50.12 percent Left Front candidates polled in the 2004 Lok Sabha and the 2006 Assembly elections, its vote fell to 38 percent, a 12 percent decline. The CPI(M) could not even hold on to the Belgachia seat in Kolkata which was held by Subhas Chakravarty, the flamboyant Jyoti Basu loyalist who had once been censured by the party for his Kali worship.

To describe recent happenings in West Bengal as mere evidence of parivartan (change) is an understatement; the state is witnessing an upheaval that has the potential to rival the turbulence in the late 1960s when Congress dominance gave way to the domination and stranglehold of the Left.

For a start there is the strong undercurrent of violence. Politics in West Bengal has always been peppered with violence and intimidation on a scale that many in the rest of India find difficult to imagine. Just on paper, more than 500 political murders have been committed since the 2006 Assembly election. The CPI(M) has claimed that since March and October this year, nearly 124 of its cadres (or their children) have been killed, over half of them by Maoists. On its part, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has made popular resistance to the CPI(M)’s high-handedness and “reign of terror” its signature tune, a theme that has, not unexpectedly, found an echo among those Bengali intellectuals who view Maoist insurgents with starry-eyed romanticism.

There is a basis to the indignation of both sides. Ever since it came to power in 1977, the CPI(M) has exercised a stranglehold over the state. Its political thrust has not been confined to merely winning electoral battles but in exercising control over civil society. In rural West Bengal, the dreaded Local Committees of the CPI(M) replaced the bureaucracy and police as instruments of governance and law and order. From determining who can farm a particular piece of land and appointing the village school-teacher to imposing social boycotts of an errant “class enemy”, the CPI(M) ensured that its presence impacted on each and every individual in the village. It was impossible for a family to live in a village unless it made peace with the local CPI(M). It naturally followed that it was virtually impossible for an opposition party, be it Congress, TMC or anyone else, to operate freely in rural society. This may explain why almost all competitive politics in West Bengal was invariably centred on cities and other urban clusters; in much of rural Bengal, the CPI(M) and its allies ran a one-party state.


The party took a very dim view of all those who became very vocal in their opposition to the Left during elections. Every election in West Bengal was invariably followed by violence when TMC and Congress activists would either be hounded out of their homes or forced to ‘surrender’ before the Local Committee. The police and administration would remain mute spectators to these harsh assertions of class power. When Mamata rails the CPI(M)’s ‘reign of terror’, she is invoking the plight of those unfortunate individuals who were victims of Left intolerance.

However, it would be a travesty to suggest that the CPI(M) hold on rural society stemmed from the exercise of force alone. For more than three decades, the Left prospered on the goodwill generated by Operation Barga and the decentralisation of power to the panchayats. Operation Barga, the Left Front’s most far-reaching achievement, conferred security of tenure to bargadars (sharecroppers). In practice, it made ‘registered’ bargadars de-facto owners of the land they cultivated. The devolution of power to elected panchayats which immediately followed the empowerment of the poor peasantry, together redefined rural power relations. With Left cadres and the elected panchayats taking an active interest in the actual implementation of land reforms, the social and political backbone of the jotedars, the rich farmers who made up the village leadership of the undivided Congress, was broken. For 30 years, the anti-Left opposition could not re-establish their presence in rural West Bengal. The Left would invariably lose seats in Kolkata and Howrah, perhaps even in the border districts of Malda and Murshidabad, but in the vast expanse of the rural hinterland its strongholds were almost impregnable.

For the Left, the political and economic empowerment of the rural poor was central to its larger game plan. The Left movement was born in the industrial heartland of West Bengal, at a time when the state was second only to Maharashtra in overall development. In the mid-1960s, when the CPI(M) first tasted power in a fractious anti-Congress coalition, it concentrated its energies in nurturing militant trade unions. In 1967, it unleashed the ‘gherao’ movement which saw the forcible incarceration of managers until they agreed to the union’s demands. The police were given strict instructions by the administration to not interfere in worker’s struggles. The result of the ‘gherao’ epidemic was, predictably, a rash of lockouts and closures. Panicky industrialists got the message and began the flight of capital from West Bengal, a process that continued till the 1980s.

When it returned to power in 1977, the CPI(M) knew that reviving the manufacturing industry in West Bengal would take a lot of doing. Apart from the wariness of militant trade unionism and an increasingly ramshackle infrastructure marked by prolonged power cuts, there was a strong impression in industry circles that over-exposure to Left politics had deprived the state of any worthwhile work ethic. At an individual level, Jyoti Basu was regarded as a reasonable man and the archetypal Bengali bhadralok but his invitation to industry to return to the state carried little credibility. West Bengal had become a byword for trouble.

In the early days of Left Front rule, there was a belief in CPI(M) circles that public sector investments, particularly in Haldia, would pave the way for a second wave of industrialisation. It was a naïve optimism that produced many manhours of daydreaming and also triggered a polemical fusillade against an ‘uncaring’ and ‘discriminatory’ Centre.

With the private sector petrified of a return to the bad old days of ‘gherao’ and Naxalite violence in the streets and both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi unmoved by the call for public sector investments — Rajiv, in fact, presciently called Calcutta a “dying city” in 1984 — the Left had no alternative but to concentrate on making a difference in rural West Bengal. Left ideologues rationalised an expedient turn with suggestions of growing agricultural productivity creating additional demand for goods and services. In short, the decline of the ‘old’ economy centered on manufacturing would be compensated by a flowering of the rural economy.


ehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 47, Dated November 28, 2009Bengal politics has always been peppered with violence on a scale the rest of India cannot even imagine

The rural thrust of the Left Front was complemented by an electoral strategy based on two principles: unite the Left vote and divide the anti-Left vote. It is a measure of the CPI(M)’s far-sightedness that it never abandoned the Left Front despite winning a clear majority on its own. Equally, it is noteworthy that all the major Left parties have remained allies of the CPI(M), despite occasional bouts of frustration. Having learnt the lessons from the late-1960s, Jyoti Basu in particular was careful never to repeat the intra-Left feuding that was a factor in the downfall of the first two United Front governments and the CPI(M)’s narrow loss in the 1971 Assembly election.

THE CPI(M) was also fortunate that the willingness of the Left parties to stay together was matched by a suicidal streak in the Congress. The Congress was always a formidable force in West Bengal. Its vote share invariably hovered around 40 percent, a winning tally in multi-cornered contests but insufficient to take on a united Left which invariably polled between 48 percent and 51 percent. The CPI(M) further reinforced its advantage by nurturing favourites within the Congress — individuals with whom local deals could be cut in return for a larger compliance. It was this divideand- rule approach, plus some cosying up to the Congress high command in Delhi, that brought about the split with Mamata in 1996. As long as the Congress and TMC fought separately, the Left Front was sure of not merely winning but also securing a steamroller majority. When Mamata teamed up with the BJP in 1998, the Left was jubilant. In a state where Muslim voters made up more than one-fourth of the electorate, and in the absence of any discernible Hindu wave, the Left victory was guaranteed.

The CPI(M)’s hold on rural society did not stem from force alone. There was the goodwill of Operation Barga

Yet, until the panchayat election of July 2008 when the TMC won 1,505 seats against the CPI(M)’s 1,597, the CPI(M) hold over West Bengal was unimpaired. What created the openings that Mamata was able to take advantage of so successfully?

It is interesting that both the Left and its opponents have a broadly common perception of what triggered the decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes. The finger of suspicion has been pointed at Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy which was born out of the Left realisation that unless it departed from Jyoti Basu’s contradiction management approach and did something proactive, it would be overwhelmed by a tide of rising expectations. With the improvements in agricultural productivity reaching saturation point and insufficient alternatives for economic betterment available to the people, the CPI(M) chose to jettison its traditional distaste for the private sector and foreign capital. The rediscovery of manufacturing and the turn to urban and infrastructural upgradation was overdue in a West Bengal which had slipped precariously down the national league. After his foreign visits, Buddhadeb was moved by the advances in western capitalism and struck by China’s disregard of Maoist orthodoxy and its single-minded quest for economic growth. From being a party apparatchik nurtured carefully by the legendary Promode Das Gupta, who had helped the Left Front’s post-1977 approach, the Chief Minister transformed himself into an overzealous reformer.

FOR BUDDHADEB, the Left Front’s unequivocal victory in the 2006 Assembly poll was the signal to rush headlong into the industrialisation of the state. The election, where the CPI(M) campaigned for a modern, tech-savvy, sparkling Bengal, seemed a big step in the reinvention of the Indian Left and a welcome departure from its anti-capitalist cussedness. Indeed, during the campaign, Mamata was consistently lampooned by an impatient Bengali middle class for her willingness to embrace the CPI(M)’s discarded culture. Even Ananda Bazar Patrika, the traditional repository of anti-Left feeling, endorsed Buddhadeb enthusiastically. In his no-nonsense commitment to efficiency and growth, the chief minister was even quietly compared to Narendra Modi.

The decline in the CPI(M)’s fortunes is commonly believed to lie in Buddhadeb’s 2004 industrial policy

The honeymoon turned out to woefully short-lived. In pressing for rapid industrialisation and industry-friendly sops, Buddhadeb entrusted the management of change to the party, just as his mentor had done in 1977. Using the CPI(M)’s awesome organisational clout and its control over local society, the apparatchiks set about the task of acquiring agricultural land for industry with the same degree of ruthlessness as the Communist Party of China. The reluctance of farmers to part with their land was brushed aside with contemptuous disdain on the ground that the compensation package was generous and the acquisition was for the larger good of society. When reluctance turned to fledgling resistance, the party came down with a heavy hand. And then, suddenly, without warning, Nandigram became a flashpoint. It was followed by Singur. Even the CPI(M) now grudgingly admits that the land acquisition process was handled without adequate sensitivity and that ‘mistakes’ were made. In hindsight, the CPI(M) was undone by a remarkable failure to appreciate Marx’s insights into the peasant mind. Deeply contemptuous of peasants — he once equated them to “sacks of potatoes” — Marx felt that rural life was marked by a strong attachment to land. Ironically, it was this land hunger and the CPI(M)’s ability to satisfy it through Operation Barga that won it brownie points and the undying loyalty of the rural poor. The land attachment was most marked among the first generation beneficiaries of the land redistribution programme and it was precisely this section that came out militantly against the CPI(M)’s perceived betrayal.

Till the CPI(M) aroused peasant fears with its land acquisition programme, Mamata’s support base had been confined to a narrow section of the middle class, the lumpen bhadralok and those frustrated by the CPI(M)’s inability to create sufficient employment opportunities. Her rural following was largely confined to a layer of the erstwhile jotedar class. After she took up the protests against land acquisitions with characteristic passion, including inviting urban opprobrium for driving Tata Motors out of Singur, Mamata came to be perceived in a new light in rural West Bengal. Her slogan, Ma, Mati, Manush (mother, land, people) touched the chords of rural romanticism as potently as the old Left slogan Langal jar, jamin tar (land to the tiller). The CPI(M) found itself undone by a political empowerment it had nurtured.

Didi’s slogan — ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ (mother, land, people) has potently caught the rural mood

It was a broadly similar story in Lalgarh. A botched Maoist bid to assassinate the chief minister in November 2008 provoked a vicious response from the local police and CPI(M). The official high-handedness led to Adivasi protests and provided an opening for Maoist cadres to enter the arena. The Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharaner Committee was never an out and out Maoist front; it was made up of diverse elements that opposed the CPI(M). The Maoist input lay in transforming a protest against police harassment into a full-fledged revolt, marked by the establishment of ‘liberated’ zones. There is enough evidence to suggest that Mamata tacitly encouraged all those who were taking on the state administration in Lalgarh. Her motives were simple: my enemy’s enemy is my friend. But her tacit encouragement of Chhatradhar Mahato had two consequences. First, the CPI(M) redoubled its bid to paint Lalgarh as a Maoist insurrection. The idea was to paint Mamata as an irresponsible politician, capable of compromising national security as long as it suited her anti-CPI(M) thrust. Secondly, the militancy of the local Adivasis and their need for logistical support facilitated the entry of trained Maoist cadres from the battlefields of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. For the CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

For the CPI(M), Nandigram, Singur and Lalgarh introduced another complication: the party’s alienation from the Bengali intelligentsia. West Bengal is unique in the social importance it attaches to a free-floating community of ‘intellectuals’, including writers, artists, singers, playwrights and producers of obscure documentary films. In the past this community had always been Left in its orientation, although in the mid-1960s many of them flirted with ultra-Left Naxalism. In the mythology of the ‘intellectuals’, Siddhartha Shankar Ray was the biggest villain for his role in ruthlessly suppressing the Left movement after 1971. Consequently, they never had any time for either the Congress or the TMC. Indeed, for a very long time, Mamata was an object of derision among the ‘intellectuals’ for her shrillness. Compared to her, Buddhadeb was the biggest patron of the Left fringe. His patronage of art films, theatre and poetry was appreciated and contrasted with the cretinism of other chief ministers.

The ‘intellectuals’ had traditionally turned a blind eye to the excesses of the CPI(M), unless it was directed against the Maoists. However, after the official high-handedness in Nandigram the ‘intellectuals’ chose to speak out—not least because the target happened to be land acquisition for industrialisation. In the battle between a decaying rural arcadia and the vulgar world of shopping malls, the intellectuals were firmly supportive of the former. As long as the Left epitomised an amorphous struggling mass, it was kosher; once the priorities changed to humdrum capitalism, the intellectuals smelt betrayal.

Today, the CPI(M) finds itself politically paralysed. Buddhadeb’s lofty industrial dreams have come crashing down. With Mamata on the rampage and her party colleagues bulldozing their way into areas that were hitherto forbidden territory, old memories have come to haunt West Bengal again. There is fear that political violence could become endemic as turf battles intensify. There are concerns that a more vicious brand of Maoism (as compared to the Naxalites of an earlier age) has entrenched itself in some outlying districts, using Mamata as a convenient cover. More ominously for a state that was once a communal tinderbox, there are indications of Muslim sectarian bodies also using Mamata’s ever-growing umbrella as a camouflage.

For the politically paralysed CPI(M), the Maoist menace became a selffulfilling prophecy

Fattened and even corrupted by 32 years of uninterrupted power, the CPI(M) lacks both the capacity and the will to take to Mamata’s raw aggressiveness. With the state’s poor rallying behind her and identifying her as the new repository of entitlement politics — sops and lollipops for all — it is more than likely that West Bengal will give Mamata a chance to prove herself in Writer’s Buildings. The middle class may well be nervous but the Bangla street is wildly enthused by her populism.

Since Independence, West Bengal has had just seven chief ministers. Dr Prafulla Ghose, Prafulla Chandra Sen and Ajoy Mukherjee were old-style Gandhians, fuddyduddy and ineffective; Dr BC Roy, Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu were bhadralok patricians; and Buddhadeb is a chain-smoking Left intellectual, most at ease watching films with subtitles. Mamata, if she gets her way, will herald the entry of colloquialism into a rarefied pantheon.

Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 47, Dated November 28, 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

China has tamed India with help from Obama (November 22, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

It's a great feeling to stumble upon a real gem. While browsing through a London bookshop last summer, it was chance that my eyes fell on a slim book, Whatever happened to Tanganyika? It turned out to be quirky page-turner on what its author called "nostalgic geography" - an A-Z of long-forgotten names of places and countries that interest a handful of dotty stamp collectors today. Yet, behind the trivia about Bechuanaland, the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and why national borders in Africa are often straight lines and right angles, there was a larger story: the tale of venerable statesmen meeting in Berlin, Versailles and Yalta to divide the world into colonies, protectorates and spheres of influence.

The 21st century is said to be a great leveller, a time yesterday's great powers repudiate the great games of yore. Yet, there was a disturbing imagery from another age behind the choreography of President Barack Obama's visit to China last week. For many, the reference in the joint statement to supporting "the improvement and growth of relations between India and Pakistan" was a "casual remark", about as significant as proforma commitments to foster cultural exchanges. However, since joint statements are not usually a casual collation of stray thoughts - unless the joint India-Pakistan statement in Sharm-el-Sheikh becomes a template - and certainly not regarded as such by China, it may safely be assumed the reference was calculated.

India may not quite be yesterday's Tanganyika but the assumptions behind including it in a US-China joint statement weren't dissimilar to those imperial leaders who rolled out maps and coloured their spheres of influence in red. For the US it was one step backward: it repudiated the Bush doctrine of nurturing India to offset China's dominance in Asia. For China it was a giant step forward: it secured US endorsement for taking an active interest in South Asia, including India. Together, Obama and President Hu Jintao agreed that India, for all its potential as a rising economic power, doesn't yet qualify for a place on a high table; it remains bound in a hyphenated relationship with an imploding Pakistan.

The Indian response to this new architecture of intrusiveness has been revealing. It has reacted with all the emotional indignation of a lover who senses the possibility of being jilted in favour of a star attraction. For the record, the Ministry of External Affairs has registered a feeble and tangential protest but it has not been accompanied by any tantrums, lest it sour Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House. Despite tell-tale signs of strains in the relationship, New Delhi has been desperately attempting to maintain some toehold in the Obama Administration's emotional firmament. It's becoming a losing battle. What once seemed a China-India tussle for the affections of a declining West seems to have gone China's way. India has firmly been shown its subordinate place.

This relegation does not imply that the damage control exercises by US diplomats should be brushed aside. There is certain to be an overdose of homily and flattery during Manmohan Singh's Washington visit. There will be talk of the commonality of values, the virtues of democracy and the potentialities of India. Pageantry will be used to soothe ruffled Indian feathers. But the India that will be celebrated will be the exotic India - perhaps reminiscent of the adulation that greeted the Queen of Tonga at Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953. The importance of India as a hard-nosed regional power has been quietly discounted.

The taming of India has been a colossal victory of Chinese diplomacy. During Obama's visit, China secured everything it wanted - the political dividends of funding $800 billion debt to an ailing US economy. Having locked the US into economic inter-dependence, it also used American vulnerability to legitimise a much larger role for itself. Hitherto China was the greatest champion of "national sovereignty" which it deftly contrasted to the West's intrusiveness.  The seemingly innocuous reference to India and Pakistan marks a new willingness to step into an emerging void. China is not going to flex its muscles in a hurry. It has set the markers for a new, global architecture of power that will follow its inevitable emergence as the world's biggest economy. India has reason to worry.

In the early days of reforms, Deng Xiaoping set the parameters of China's global conduct: "Observe developments soberly, maintain our position, meet challenges calmly, hide our capacities and bide our time, remain free of ambition, never claim leadership." Contrast this patient calculation that's now yielding tangible results with India's ostentatious gloating over every small step forward. Like Obama, India too must shed hype for worthwhile achievements.

Sunday Times of India, November 22, 2009

Arrogant Congress, absent Opposition (November 22, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

There are three striking features about anniversaries. The first is their sheer arbitrariness — what, for example, is so significant about the 100 days we so love to observe? The second, and this applies mainly to societies (not India) which have a marked sense of history, is their commercial potential. The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall proved very lucrative for publishers, just as ‘royal’ occasions in Britain are a good time for the producers of memorabilia. Finally, the decision which anniversary to observe and which to ignore is dictated by expediency and politics.

This week India will be commemorating the first anniversary of the jihadi attack on Mumbai on November 26 last year. If initial trends are any indication, it is likely to become another occasion for media-sponsored indignation by celebrities — the spurious enough-is-enough syndrome until the fire next time. It will also be the occasion for some mindless repetition of meaningless homilies such as the mantra that “terrorists have no religion”. That their astonishing conviction stems from theology is something we can’t discuss in polite company. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, quite fortuitously, will not be there to share the popular grief over independent India’s most astounding show of ineptitude. He will be busy telling those Americans who care to listen that India harbours no ill will towards those who are determined to set our house on fire.

Despite the odd outbursts of anger at those responsible for the monumental cock-ups in Mumbai, the anniversary of 26/11 is good news for the Government. Since it is just not done to inject partisan politics into the proceedings, India will use the occasion to demonstrate its amazing resilience, the proverbial stiff upper lip we didn’t even know we had. Politically speaking, Hindu fatalism and the cheapness of human life are the best guarantees of a pernicious culture of non-accountability.

This week, however, marks another anniversary. Exactly six months ago, on May 22, Manmohan Singh was sworn in Prime Minister for a second time. It was an occasion that was greeted by most Indians with a sigh of great relief: Not because the electorate was star struck by the first innings of the UPA but because it spared India a bout of instability and Madhu Koda-type governance at the Centre. The UPA-2 assumed office with everything going for it: Continuity at the top, enhanced self-confidence of the Gandhis, a stronger Congress and weakened coalition partners and, above all, an Opposition in total disarray. The UPA-1 was a post-election construction and was prey to conflicting political pressures and blackmail. There were no mitigating factors holding back UPA-2.

Six months is too short a time to judge a Government’s performance but it is sufficient to assess the broad direction in which it is heading. It allows us to take a call on where India will find itself at the time of the 2014 poll.

Sadly, the broad conclusions don’t inspire great confidence in the future of a country that believes it is a world power and doesn’t behave like one.
To begin with, there are unmistakable signs of the Government pulling in different directions and Cabinet Ministers doing their own thing. The sugar kerfuffle which led to Delhi being overrun by angry farmers was a classic example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was up to. The contentious Ordinance was blamed on Sharad Pawar’s proximity to an organised lobby. That was always well known. Why did the Cabinet not apply its mind to the Ordinance in the first place?

Cabinet Ministers, it would seem, love doing their own thing. Mamata Banerjee has chosen to use the Railways as a parallel administration for West Bengal. Her priorities are building sports stadiums, shoring up bankrupt Bengali newspapers, giving lectures to Bengali IAS officers and even indulging Maoists; trains comes low down on her dhobi list.

Mamata, it may be said, is not under the political control of the Congress. Moreover, she has to be indulged for her undeniable success in breaching the hitherto impregnable Red bastion in West Bengal. But that rule doesn’t apply for Jairam Ramesh who appears to have put self-glory ahead of everything else. It would interest the PM to know that officials are mortified over what Ramesh may concede inside the ‘green room’ at the climate change conference in Copenhagen next month. His perception of national interests seems at odds with the national consensus.

Giving Ministers autonomy is a good thing but the Cabinet seems to be operating like a confederacy. There are pro-China Ministers, pro-America Ministers, and pro-highest bidder Ministers doing their own thing. The External Affairs Minister, on his part, is emerging as the Shivraj Patil of the UPA-2 Government. The impending Commonwealth Games fiasco epitomises the crisis triggered by a lack of direction. No wonder the Finance Minister despairs of the alarming state of public finances — the austerity drive having been quietly punctured by angry politicians. As for reforms: What reforms?

What is particularly alarming is that the collapse of the Opposition has injected into the Congress an astonishing degree of arrogance. Thus, convicted killer Manu Sharma is let out by an unfazed Delhi administration to drink in pubs and campaign for his father; Madhu Koda is handled with kid gloves because of a fear that he may talk; the scandals of A Raja are left to the media to unearth because officials can’t displease the DMK; and, as for the soaring price of food, no one is responsible.

It would have been a good time to be in the Opposition. Except that the Opposition is busy either spinning yarns or imagining that the future lies in gau, gram and, presumably, gobar. India has got the Government (and Opposition) it deserves.

Sunday Pioneer, November 22, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Islamists set terms in war on jihad (November 15, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

Since every minor social trend and major political development in the US receives disproportionate attention in the Anglosphere, it is not surprising that the shooting of 13 fellow soldiers by US Army psychiatrist Maj Nidal Hasan Malik aroused considerable interest within India.

The saga of an armed custodian of military power turning roguish, whether out of stress or conviction, is not new. Just 25 years ago, there was the incident of the Prime Minister’s own bodyguards turning their guns on the person they were entrusted to protect. The reason was not any personal dislike of Indira Gandhi but a political (or, if you must, religious) retribution for the military action on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. A few months earlier there were incidents of mutiny among Sikh soldiers unable to digest the desecration of their holiest shrine. In weighing a perceived injustice to their faith with loyalty to the state, individuals exercised painful options — and only a handful involved rebellion.

It is more than likely that similar conflicts preyed on the mind of the gunman in Fort Hood as he sprayed bullets on his colleagues shouting Allah-o-Akbar. In eschewing his personal future for the cause of jihad, Nidal was acting in the same way as countless suicide bombers who have joined the martyrdom queue. Driven by a deep sense of religiosity, these individuals sincerely believe that they are serving god by killing themselves and others. Their motives are very different from the ones that propelled Indira’s bodyguards. Beant and Satwant didn’t believe they were heralding a better society. Nor were they guided by theology. They shot the Prime Minister to protest against the disrespect to the holiest of Sikh shrines. Their actions were located in the tradition of blood feuds that abound in rural societies.

This distinction is crucial. It is a colossal mistake to locate the so-called Islamist rage in specific grievances such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine (the expedient default grievance). Last week, Ayatollah Abdolhossein Moezi, the representative of the Iranian ‘Supreme Leader’ in Britain, fuelled a controversy by suggesting that Muslims shouldn’t be a part of the armed forces of countries that are in conflict with fellow Muslims. “We say that Muslims are not allowed to go and kill Muslims,” he pronounced grandly.

The argument is disingenuous. If Muslims were theologically forbidden from killing other Muslims, as the Ayatollah claimed, a trigger-happy Iranian police wouldn’t have killed so many fellow Shias protesting against something as innocuous as a rigged presidential election. Nor would suicide bombing have become a cottage industry in Pakistan, considering that nearly 90 per cent of those killed are invariably Muslims. There has to some theological underpinning to acts of murder that inflict so much collateral damage on Muslims.

According to a blog by Anwar al-Awlaki, the US-based mullah who is said to have moulded Nidal, “Nidal Hassan is a hero. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an Army that is fighting against his own people. This is a contradiction that many Muslims brush aside and just pretend that it doesn’t exist. Any decent Muslim cannot live, understanding properly his duties towards his Creator and his fellow Muslims, and yet serve as a US soldier. The US is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam.” In plain language, this implies that no Muslim can be part of any outfit that opposed the Islamist jihad. This may explain why the Pakistani Army, which tries to play a double game, is considered a legitimate target.

But there is an even more sinister message in al-Awlaki’s endorsement of the Fort Hood massacre. It implies that all Muslims, regardless of which passport they hold and where they live, are bound by a common obligation to their god. Their duty, in other words, is to facilitate the global jihad of Islamism and forget about national obligations. It would not be surprising if, inspired by Nidal, clerics in European countries where there are large Muslim populations, issue similar decrees. More to the point, how long before the patriotism of India’s Muslim soldiers are put to a similar warped test? After all, there is ongoing battle between Indian nationhood and jihad.

The Fort Hood incident raises uncomfortable questions that we can’t wish away. Liberal sections of the US have warned against jumping to hasty conclusions over Nidal. It has even been foolishly suggested that the killer’s invocation to god while spraying bullets shouldn’t be misunderstood. According to a writer in The Guardian, “it’s something Arab people often shout before doing something or other” — an explanation that is striking for its originality, if not accuracy.

In India, the motivations behind Indira’s killings were instantly recognised and, in our own blundering way, acted upon. In the case of Fort Hood, there is a strange reluctance to admit all traces of an ideological virus which can potentially devastate society and even cause civil strife.

There is a global radicalisation of Muslims which has its roots in the convergence of religion and political power. To try and overcome it with competitive theology — countering one religious quotation with another — and multiculturalism are unlikely to work. On the contrary, the battle will be on terms desired by the Islamists. It is time we seriously explore whether religious radicalisation can be offset by a dogmatic refusal to concede any space to religion in political life. It’s not easy but various alternative approaches haven’t succeeded.

Sunday Pioneer, November 15, 2009

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A shift in position (November 13, 2009)

The RSS needs to rediscover the India of the 21st century

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, eyebrows were raised over yet another media appearance by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Rao Bhagwat. This time, the fuss centred on his categorical public announcement that the next national president of the Bharatiya Janata Party would not be a Delhi-based leader, and that L.K. Advani would soon relinquish his post as leader of the Opposition. Fortuitously for the Indian foreign policy establishment, his prognosis that Pakistan and Afghanistan “are a part of us and will return one day” did not arouse corresponding attention.

That a person who is not a primary member of the BJP could presume to lay down the line and blackball the party’s four prominent second-rung faces has profound ramifications. It suggests that the RSS has not merely acquired control over the decision-making of the BJP but is no longer squeamish about saying so openly. The niceties and the elaborate protocol that earlier marked the RSS’s expression of interest in specific decisions of the BJP have been replaced by an in-your-face flaunting of the political role of a so-called “socio-cultural organization”. The whispered “request from the Sangh” that earlier influenced the odd selection of candidates and office-bearers has been replaced by a command-and-control regime.

Nor does the exercise of control depend on a three-line whip to professional politicians. Since the advent of Rajnath Singh in 2005, the RSS has strategically placed its full-timers in crucial organizational posts in the belief that politicians with an eye on electoral politics are incapable of institution-building. Whereas in the 1990s the RSS despatched only a dozen or so full-timers on deputation to the BJP, their numbers are in the region of 350 today. Apart from the state organizing secretaries whose identities are prominently displayed on the BJP website, these include large numbers of district sangathan mantri who form the nucleus of a parallel party organization in the localities. In the words of a BJP leader, many of those entrusted with organizational responsibilities are “unfit to be employed as primary school teachers.”

In the past, the RSS was very wary of involvement in the political arena, seeing it as a corrupting influence and a diversion from the organization’s priority of injecting nationalism into civil society. RSS old-timers were fond of comparing the role of politics in society to the toilet in a household: a necessity but hardly something to be showcased. Today, these inhibitions have been set aside and there now appears to be a marked enthusiasm among full-timers to be deputed to the BJP. Compared to the other ‘fraternal’ organizations of the RSS, such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Kendra, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, there is glamour and self-importance attached to rubbing shoulders with the political class. Predictably, some of the lifestyle distortions that come with exercising authority and hobnobbing with political power are evident among the full-timers. The joke in political circles is that the RSS full-timer is extremely malleable and is easily won over by modest ‘gifts’ that range from mobile phones, stitched kurta-pyjamas, air conditioners and a good, home cooked, vegetarian meal — a case, as one ‘fixer’ called it, of “low investments and high returns”.

What has compounded the problem is the RSS’s brazen non-accountability to the party. It is remarkable that despite holding positions of authority in the BJP, the pracharaks on deputation are neither appointed nor can they be removed by the BJP state and national presidents. A few months ago, the president of the West Bengal BJP did something inconceivable: he issued a show-cause to the local RSS-appointed sangathan mantri. The outcome was predictable: the state president was peremptorily sacked by the national president for his audacity. Likewise in Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje successfully secured the removal of a disruptive organizing secretary. But, as a quid pro quo, the RSS demanded Raje’s removal as leader of the Opposition, despite the fact that a majority of the members of the legislative assembly was backing her. She resisted her removal for nearly three months, but ultimately had to succumb. Once again, Rajnath Singh played the part of an obliging executioner.

RSS full-timers in the BJP are spared the obligations of ordinary members. A 2005 amendment to the BJP constitution stipulated that a sangathan mantri was ineligible to contest elections. Since endorsement by the electorate is the basis of politics, the RSS appears to have insulated itself from the principle of popular endorsement. It is this detachment from the numbers game, without which democracy is meaningless, that explains the RSS’s obsession with ‘ideology’, the shorthand for the pursuit of abstruse and cranky themes. It may also explain why mass leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, Narendra Modi, Vasundhara Raje and B.C. Khanduri have been at loggerheads with the RSS.

A small example may illustrate the distance that separates the RSS from the mass politician. In its manifesto for the Haryana assembly election held last month, the BJP included an assurance to ban “Western music and vulgarity” in the unlikely event it was voted to power. The manifesto, which had apparently been drafted by a local RSS ‘intellectual’, took the BJP completely by surprise. Confronted by the ridiculous imagery of motorists switching off alien sounds the moment their cars crossed the Gurgaon toll bridge from Delhi, a red-faced BJP had to issue clarifications and denials. Later, when some national leaders enquired from the state unit why the absurd promise had been inserted in the first place, they were given an ingenuous explanation. The production of milk in Haryana, it was claimed, had suffered because cows were disturbed by loud disco music in villages!

There is a huge gulf that separates the RSS’s priorities and the BJP’s perception of politics — though there are moments of convergence. The world view of the RSS leadership is shaped primarily by interactions with its own full-timers and lay swayamsevaks. It’s a relationship shaped by two factors: unflinching faith in the sangh’s role as the vanguard of Hindu resurgence and timeless certitudes. A remarkable degree of group solidarity— including a very distinctive use of language — has contributed to a ‘groupthink’ and discouraged scepticism and inquiry in the sangh. The RSS has nurtured an enviable degree of loyalty and dedication among its followers but its efficacy has been tempered by an inability to engage with ‘non-believers’. From being an instrument of Hindu re-awakening, it has become a variant of the Freemasons, a self-aggrandizing brotherhood.

This distortion is at the heart of the RSS’s desperation to control the BJP. In the past 15 years, the BJP has outgrown the RSS. It is the country’s premier Opposition party with a stake in at least eight state governments and umpteen district bodies and municipalities. Its social reach far exceeds that of the RSS’s. More important, the BJP has acquired relevance at a time the RSS is declining in its traditional catchment areas. Lifestyle shifts fuelled by prosperity, cosmopolitanism and leisure have made the daily bout of callisthenics less appealing to pre-pubescent Hindu boys. And yet, there is no direct correlation between the RSS’s diminishing appeal and the fortunes of the BJP. It’s only after the RSS decided the BJP was its exclusive charge that both graphs showed a southward incline.

It takes decades of good politics and sensible leadership to build a national party; it takes a few well-publicized acts of misguided zeal to demolish it. Bhagwat has got his diagnosis wrong. It’s not the BJP that needs either chemotherapy or surgery; plain detoxification will be sufficient. It’s the RSS that needs to discover the India of the 21st century.

The Telegraph, November 13, 2009

Monday, November 09, 2009

Let Vande Mataram bridge the differences (November 8, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Tuesday, home minister P Chidambaram drew flak for attending a convention of maulvis in Deoband where, among other things, it was decreed that Muslims should shun Vande Mataram, India’s national song. The attack was both misdirected and misplaced. If anything, the minister deserved admiration for his sermon on democratic niceties to a gathering of theologians professing a wide range of certitudes. ‘‘The golden rule in a democracy,’’ he told the convention hosted by Darul Uloom, arguably the most influential Sunni Muslim seminary in the subcontinent, ‘‘is that it is the duty of the majority to protect the minority, be it religious, racial or linguistic. It is a self-evident rule... firmly rooted in the universality of human rights.’’

What seemed self-evident to Chidambaram, has been self-evident to most Indians for long. Stemming from Hindu sanatan dharma, diversity and negotiations have been at the heart of the Indian experience. From overcrowded railway compartments to modes of worship and even politics, ‘adjustment’ has been the euphemism for a nebulous humaneness that is at odds with intolerance, regimentation and the quest for super-efficiency. ‘‘We are like this only’’ may be a caricature of India’s blundering and chaotic ways but it is also a profound encapsulation of a civilizational resilience that has astounded outsiders. ‘‘The secret of (India’s) permanence lies,’’ wrote a puzzled Edmund Candler, an Englishman, in 1910, ‘‘I think, in her passivity and power to assimilate. The faith that will not fight cannot yield.’’

Since 1945, freedom in the West has been reduced to the right to offend and the freedom to pursue alternative lifestyles. Compared to the exhibitionism of same-sex marriages and the robust show of artistic freedom (including blasphemy and pornography), India’s commitment to democratic freedom may seem less marked. The right to offend is qualified — witness the mounting pile of banned books and the harassment of M F Husain — and there is a tendency to skirt thorny issues such as the Common Civil Code on the grounds that Muslim sensibilities could be hurt.

The spirit of ‘adjustment’ has meant looking the other way when convenient. The triple talaq may appear to violate the ‘‘universality of human rights’’ that Chidambaram referred to in Deoband. But to many Hindus, there is nothing universal about the gender bias in Muslim personal laws; it is a Muslim problem. Except on the touchy issue of cow slaughter, where Hindus are disinclined to look the other way, minority rights in India have been nourished by Hindu self-sufficiency, verging on indifference. Despite attempts by activists and reformers to motivate Hindus into looking beyond personal salvation and the well-being of their family, the ‘live and let live’ principle has sustained Indian democracy and prevented civil strife.

The Hindu ability to be blissfully self-centred has also rested on the absence of provocation. Chidambaram was right to lay the defence of the minority on the doors of the majority but he should have touched on a corresponding concern: Do minorities have obligations too?

Muslim objections to the imagery of Vande Mataram have been around for the past 100 years when the song first captured the nationalist imagination. This was perhaps the main reason why the Constituent Assembly chose Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Jana gana mana’ as the national anthem and relegated Vande Mataram to the status of a ‘national song’. Since then, it has repeatedly been clarified that it is not obligatory for all Indians to sing Vande Mataram. Yet, while the singing of the first verse of Bankim Chandra’s evocative anthem was deemed to be voluntary, it was understood there would be no disrespect shown to it either. Vande Mataram, after all, became the signature tune of the nationalist movement, not as a calculated disrespect to Muslim feelings; its imagery was located in a different tradition.

At the root of the problem is the spirit of accommodation. By putting its stamp on a fatwa, a religious decree against singing Vande Mataram, the Darul Uloom has violated the mutual show of generosity that is so essential for democracy. It is one thing to deem that singing Vande Mataram is voluntary; it is a separate matter to forbid Muslims from singing the national song. The first is an exercise of choice; the second is an example of doctrinaire intolerance, an act of provocation that will inevitably encourage hotheads to make Vande Mataram a loyalty test of Indian-ness. In 1997, A R Rahman bridged the Vande Mataram divide with his own tribute to Mother India; last week the Deobandis reopened an old wound.

It’s time the worthies in Deoband realised that minority rights can’t be nourished unless accompanied by an equal show of minority wisdom.


Sunday Times Of India, November 8, 2009

Murky drama of national disrepute (November 8, 2009)

Swapan Dasgupta

There appears to be a frenzied tussle within the political class to ascertain which piece of bad news is more disgusting to an already cynical electorate. To some punters, former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda (a man who rose to that position despite being an Independent MLA) enjoys an initial lead. The tales of a staggering sum of money, equal to nearly half the unfortunate State’s annual budget, being stashed away in instruments ranging from residential property in Delhi and Kolkata to mines in Liberia and two star hotels in Thailand, are the stuff of legends. If even remotely true, Koda should have a venerated place alongside the early ‘Nabobs’ of the East India Company. In time, once the irritating legal complications are out of the way — as they inevitably will because the law in India is never unduly harsh — Koda will have all the qualifications to become India’s first National Professor of Political Entrepreneurship.

Koda’s achievements are all the more remarkable because they happened with little fuss and no blowing of trumpets. As the head of a coalition Government that had been put in place to keep the BJP out of power, Koda took full advantage of the political cover provided by an indulgent UPA Government. Ranchi was constantly abuzz with small talk of the very effective ‘single-window’ clearance system Koda had initiated for anything to do with the State Government, but particularly mining-related matters. The bush telegraph invariably communicated tales of a Caligula-like dispensation in Ranchi but the custodians of national morality wilfully chose to look the other way, as they did during the 2G telecom scam.
Today, there is no point in the Congress feigning righteous indignation. Without Congress complicity in the State and its indulgence at the Centre, the rise and rise of Madhu Koda wouldn’t have been possible. The CBI has suddenly discovered that Jharkhand was being sucked dry because Koda has lost his political utility. With the election campaign in progress, the Congress has suddenly donned the mantle of decency by teaming up with the only politician in Jharkhand who has a wholesome reputation.

Babulal Marandi began his innings in the BJP. In the days before the BJP also assumed the role of a commercial enterprise, Marandi was touted as the BJP’s future face for the yet-to-be-born Jharkhand. He did become the new State’s first Chief Minister but was removed because he wasn’t sufficiently ‘accommodating’. In 2005, he left the BJP weeks after the installation of a new national president because he had the foresight to realise that the values nurtured by the old BJP would soon become history. It’s a decision that he has had little reason, so far, to regret.

The shenanigans centred on the lively political culture of Jharkhand are only a chapter in the larger saga of national disrepute. The past week has witnessed the unfolding of another drama, this time in Karnataka, over the spoils of power.

The BJP has long squandered away its reputation for being many notches higher than the Congress in the index of integrity. Yet, even by the permissive standards of political conduct, the attempted coup in Bengaluru is shocking. Hitherto, businessmen used politicians and their proximity to power to secure favours, influence policies and ‘manage the environment’ so to speak. The moneybags always made sure that they were one or two steps removed from the actual exercise of power. The Reddys of Bellary are attempting to redraw the rules of the game by putting political power directly at the disposal of a formidable business lobby. They have discarded all pretence and want to exercise political power directly, even if it involves the removal of a popularly-elected Chief Minister. In Karnataka, the country is witnessing an interesting transition in the relationship between business and politics. Students of early-19th century British history will discover strange parallels in early-21st century India.
Those who believe that the matter will be resolved if Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa shows enough flexibility, reshuffles some Ministerial portfolios and sacks one of his favourite Ministers are mistaken. The draconian anti-defection laws have prevented the Reddys from engineering a vertical split in the BJP legislature party but they have more or less demonstrated that it is Bellary that now calls the shots.

It has been apparent for much of last week that a majority of BJP MLAs have chosen the Reddys as their de-facto leader and are available to do the bidding from Bellary. In a free vote, Yeddyurappa would probably lose to a Reddy-sponsored candidate. This has ominous implications because the Reddys are not committed to the BJP either by way of tradition or belief. For them, the BJP is an instrument of convenience. While flying the BJP flag in Bellary, they were waving the Congress tricolour in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh on behalf of the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy. Indeed, had it not been for YSR's untimely death and Sonia Gandhi’s decision to clip the wings of Jaganmohan Reddy, it is possible the Karnataka crisis wouldn’t have happened.

Any truce in Karnataka is certain to be temporary. Yeddyurappa will strive to regain the upper hand and the Bellary lot will try to press home their advantage relentlessly. In time, the BJP’s first Government south of the Vindhyas will be wheeled into the ICU. At the rate the national party is going, it is also possible that it is not merely a State unit that will need a life support system to keep it alive. Far from heralding a Hindu resurgence, the party has embraced Hindu venality.

Sunday Pioneer, November 8, 2009