Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winds of change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since a thoughtful English friend presented me with a beautiful leather-bound copy for Christmas some five years ago, I have been well and truly hooked to the Schott's Miscellany Diary produced by Smythson. To me, it is more than a diary for recording appointments. Its pages are peppered with some of the most useless pieces of trivia that become obsessively engaging during long car journeys and excruciating waits in overcrowded airport lounges.

A casual perusal of the 2011 edition confirms what I had always suspected: that the 11th year of a century is one of those years that, in hindsight, turn out to be reasonably inconsequential. Maybe that won't be the case a hundred years later in 2111 when the triple Nelson could assume some numerological significance—recall how the English umpire Dickie Bird used to hop on one leg and fidget insanely when the score showed 111. However, the occasional English eccentric notwithstanding, the 11th year—to me at least—seems destined to be drearily underwhelming.

The Schott's Miscellany confirms my worst fear. According to its somewhat Anglo-centric view of the past, the three momentous events of 1911 were: the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act curtailing the powers of the House of Lords, the staging of the first Monte Carlo motor rally and the inaugural voyage of Britain's first seaplane Water Bird. They could well have also added the Coronation Durbar of George V where the disastrous decision to transfer the capital from Calcutta to Delhi—"the graveyard of empires"—was announced.

The year 1811 seems marginally better. It was the year that the Great Comet appeared in the skies and tickled the embryonic scientific temper. It was also the year the Luddites began attacking and destroying industrial machinery—an anniversary that should provide hearty inspiration to the likes of Jairam Ramesh and Medha Patkar as they set about petitioning Sonia Gandhi for the immediate abolition of capitalism and the formal restoration of feudalism.

Going further back in time, 2011 will also mark the 500th anniversary of the Portugese conquest of Malacca by Afonso de Albuquerque—an event India will treat with contempt because we have turned our collective backs on colonialism, except as a way of adding to the national income from tourism. It will also be the 500th anniversary of the establishment of St John's College, Cambridge, the institution that hosted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Ideally, the Prime Minister should travel to Cambridge for the big feast but that will depend on the state of the country.

How will the aam aadmi—a copywriter's one-liner that has come to haunt the Congress Party—know whether India is well enough for Manmohan to travel down memory lane? Security considerations will obviously rule out any early announcement but like the old days of Kremlin-watching and peering through the chinks in the Iron Curtain, the bloodhounds of Lutyens' Delhi have learnt to read tea leaves and decipher smoke signals. If, for example, Jagdish Piyush, the purveyor of bad verse from Amethi starts invoking the rich tradition of Trinity, where knowledge flows down the generations, it will be the signal for the hidden army of loyalists to suggest that India has exhausted its patience with the scholar from St John's. Arguably, 2011 may yet end up as the year when change in Delhi becomes imminent.

But the "winds of change"—whose 50th anniversary was, incidentally, marked in 2010—may not be confined to Delhi and the Congress Party. The coming year will be the golden jubilee of the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. The anniversary will no doubt be commemorated with due solemnity, many vegetarian meals and some boisterous Bhagwati jagran ceremonies. But it is also possible that someone somewhere will make it a point to post some forgotten pages from history. At a time when the BJP senses the possibility of batting its second innings, an anniversary celebration may be the appropriate occasion to consider some incontrovertible facts: that Mookerjee wasn't a member of the RSS; that the RSS initially played a supportive, rather than a controlling role in the new party; that Mookerjee's idea of a 'people's party' was a grand coalition of non-Congress and anti-Communist forces; and that the new party was driven by nationalism and not Hindutva, which was an idea associated with the Hindu Mahasabha.

Whether the re-discovery of its true inheritance will influence its political choices is a matter of conjecture but 2011 may be the year the BJP is forced to confront the big question: does it remain a 20 per cent party or does it strive to be a party of government by enlarging its vision and social constituency? The answer to this question will determine the choice of its captain—someone who appeals to the committed or someone who can attract wider incremental support. The candidates are in place but still awaited is a considered choice and the formal anointment.

Finally, 2011 will witness the century of Delhi as the national capital of modern India. This is an occasion that will not be commemorated, not least today's India remains squeamish about its pre-1947 links. But acknowledged or otherwise, it may be an opportune moment to review the role of an 'imperial' capital in an increasingly federal India. An intrusive Centre calling the shots in the provinces is an idea that is finding few takers, and more so with a market economy having eased out an inefficient licence-permit-quota raj. Ironically, the champions of centralism today are bodies such as the non-accountable National Advisory Committee and the arbitrary Environment Ministry that harbour paternalist notion of imposing 'good' on people rather than allowing communities to determine their own priorities.

By precedent, 2011 will not be a year of culmination, but it could be a period of initiation of a future change. It's the anticipation of a better future that should make the 365 days worthwhile.

Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, December 31, 2010


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Politically correct poppycock

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the more astonishing items of "news" I read in recent days was in the online edition of the Daily Telegraph, one of the most culturally authentic newspapers from England. It seems that social psychologists in Canada's Simon Fraser University found that "non-Christians feel less self-assurance and fewer positive feelings if a Christmas tree was in their room." In other words, non-Christian minorities in the West felt "excluded" by the ubiquitous Christmas decorations and paraphernalia this time of the year. The Canadian academics interviewed 77 Christians and 57 non-Christians (which included atheists, Buddhists and Sikhs) to conclude that Christmas is bad for national integration of this multi-ethnic (but overwhelmingly Christian) North American country. Their policy prescription was stark: tone down your Christmas celebrations for the sake of an inclusive society.

The inclination to treat this research as another piece of secular, social engineering must be resisted. For the past few years, my Inbox has been filling up with email greetings, mainly from the English-speaking world in the West, wishing me "Happy holidays". Initially, the substitution of "Happy holidays" for "Merry Christmas" seemed quirky. However, after I received one such e-card from an Oxford academic who spends her time in a town that resonates with ecclesiastical history, I am driven to the inescapable conclusion that the quirkiness has become a fad.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh. It is entirely possible that the profound conclusion of the academics from Simon Fraser University has been imbibed by the socially-concerned, liberal middle classes of Western Christendom. They may well have concluded that wishing a self-confessed pagan like me "Merry Christmas" is tantamount to social condescension and amounts to a social slight. After all, the sight of a Christmas tree is supposed to make a non-Christian like me less self-assured and, perhaps, vulnerable to perpetuating an iniquitous world order.

It is the perpetuation of such politically-correct nonsense that makes me want to believe dire Chinese prognosis of the steady decline of the West. Imagine the reaction of an ordinary, non-news channel watching family in India if it is told that some unemployable professors have shown, after surveying 134 individuals, that the bright lights and loud crackers of Diwali intimidated "non-Hindus" and, therefore, undermine the basis of Indian secularism? Imagine, if the country is told that public celebrations of Hindu festivals should be firmly discouraged for the sake of creating an inclusive society?

I am glad to say that the universal reaction of all Indians, cutting across religions, to such preposterous suggestions would be complete bewilderment. India, very reassuringly, remains very firmly a society that celebrates faith quite boisterously. If it Christmas, Santa Claus is celebrated; Eid becomes the time for grand Iftar parties; and Diwali is shorthand for every type of indulgence. In India, there is no wall separating faith and culture: both merge seamlessly into each other.

It was exactly the same with Christmas in the West. From the nativity plays for the tiny-tots in schools to office parties where binge drinking and social indiscretions combined noisily, Christmas was to the West exactly Diwali is to us. There were dollops of faith, piety, commercialism and over-indulgence. And the culmination was always a family get-together. Did it really matter that one community pegged their happiness on the birth of Christ and the stories associated with that event, while another chose the anniversary of Ram's return to Ayodhya after a prolonged exile to let their hair down?

Indians appreciate the spirit of goodwill associated with Christmas and the New Year because it corresponds with their own experience of festivals. An individual from a so-called "minority" community may be envious of the gluttony that is associated with Christmas in the West, but to suggest that he/she feels less sure about being a non-Christian in the West as a result is absolute poppycock.

If indeed they do, they should consider emigrating to some secular fundamentalist country where religion and religious festivals have no public presence. Indeed, emigration has been my suggestion to many of the ethnic minorities who complain incessantly of how bad life has been treating them in the West. Being a cultural minority does not involve giving up your distinctiveness. However, it does not absolve the minority of appreciating and even participating in the public festivals of the dominant community. In short, if any non-Christian is offended or feel diminished by "Merry Christmas" he should be sent for re-education to some grim seminary that lacks central heating. .

The problem, as I see it, is the growing lack of self-esteem of the "secular" West, a problem that Pope Benedict XVI has been constantly highlighting. It is they who are uncomfortable with tradition, faith and the role of the West in the world. Under the cover of multi-culturalism or some other impressive sounding doctrine, they have basically abjured their own inheritance. This small but influential minority has a right to retreat from national customs but to seek to justify their deracination by gratuitous concern for the sentiments of non-Christians is both wrong and morally offensive.

The notion of a Jealous God is not universal. It may even be an aberration.

Belated Merry Christmas!

Sunday Pioneer, December 26, 2010



Handle with care

West Bengal poses a real dilemma for the Congress

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the realm of domestic politics, 2010 seems set to end with both the Congress and the Manmohan Singh Government looking somewhat fragile. A series of corruption-related scandals that began from the run-up to the Commonwealth Games last August and reached its climax with the Opposition agitation for the appointment of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to explore the 2G Spectrum allotments have shaken the Congress's self-confidence. The Congress leadership's bid to talk up the party's morale by mounting a shrill offensive against the Bharatiya Janata Party at this week's otherwise purposeless AICC session in Delhi doesn't seem to have repaired the damage. On the contrary, the cocktail of scandals, telephone intercepts and leaked diplomatic cables have dented the image of the Prime Minister and called into question the leadership potential of the Congress' designated heir presumptive.

Politics, however, is a long-term game and with no general election scheduled till the summer of 2014, it is presumptuous to rush to the conclusion that the United Progressive Alliance has become too beleaguered to function as a purposeful government. Time is still on the UPA's side. Whether or not it will be able to stage a grand recovery and shift the national agenda to issues of its own choosing may, however, be substantially dependant on the verdict in the next summer's Assembly elections in five states. The West Bengal Assembly election result in particular holds the key to how national politics will shape up.

The significance of the West Bengal poll can hardly be overstated. Having ruled uninterruptedly for 34 years, the Left Front has a special interest in ensuring it holds on to its control of Writer's Building. With Kerala, which also elects its Assembly in the summer, looking increasingly susceptible to change, a Left defeat in West Bengal will underscore the marginalisation of the Communist parties in national politics.

Just prior to the 2009 general election, when the Left Front accounted for a solid bloc of nearly 70 Lok Sabha MPs, the CPI(M) played a seminal role in nurturing the illusion of a Third Front which would hold the balance of power in a fractured Parliament. It was on the strength of the CPI(M)'s seemingly impregnable base in West Bengal that Prakash Karat could challenge the bipolar division of politics in the country. The 30 plus Lok Sabha seats it was forever confident of winning from West Bengal provided it the launching pad for predatory raids on the National Democratic Alliance, many of whose partners were wary of the negative impact of their association with the BJP on minority voters. The alternative possibilities offered by a CPI(M)-led Third Front was one of the factors behind the desertion of the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal from the NDA. It was also a factor behind the perennial hesitation of the Asom Gana Parishad to cement a long-term alliance with the BJP, an alliance that many in Assam see as "natural." Had the CPI still retained the influence it once had in Bihar, it is entirely possible that the same compulsions that propelled N.Chandrababu Naidu and Naveen Patnaik into leaving the NDA would have influenced Nitish Kumar too.

More than the Congress, for which it posed a headache only during the last two years of the first UPA Government, the Left, in recent years, has proved a very effective spoiler to the BJP by providing an alternative pole of attraction to many of its NDA partners. The Congress, on the other hand, has been the direct beneficiary of a process that has prevented all the anti-Congress regional parties from rallying behind the BJP-led alliance.

Since the Left could not have performed this divisive role without the assurance of firm electoral support from West Bengal, some Congress strategists are understandably nervous of the national implications of a decisive Mamata Banerjee win in 2011. If the 2009 Lok Sabha results are replicated in next year's Assembly election, along with an extra dose of incremental support for the Trinamool Congress-led alliance, the CPI(M) is unlikely to be in any position to revive its Third Front pipedream for the 2014 general election. Its entire energies and resources are certain to be taken up by the challenges of survival in a hostile environment. The CPI(M)'s internal preoccupations in turn would—in theory at least—leave the field wide open for the BJP-led NDA to emerge as the sole challenger to the UPA on the national stage.

The possible re-emergence of national bipolarity, as happened between 1998 and 2004, may be beneficial to the Congress if it transforms the contest into an undiluted secular-communal battle. However, it is far from certain that the BJP will oblige. More likely, the NDA is likely to fight the general election on a centrist plank and target the UPA's 10-year record. In that event, a battlefield where a weak Left is confined ineffectively to the margins, will not seem attractive to the Congress.

West Bengal poses a real dilemma for the Congress. Its state unit wants a breather from uninterrupted Left rule; but its national compulsions favour Left rule in the state, as a counterweight to the BJP. The choice would have been less stark had the Congress been an equal partner of the TMC. But the Congress is virtually leaderless and is only relevant in just four border districts. More to the point, it sees little hope of being able to influence the mercurial TMC chief whose one-point priority is to decimate the Left; everything else is incidental. As the TMC's conduct during the recent stalemate in Parliament suggests, Mamata does not share the Congress' national priorities and is willing to side with the Opposition if it suits her self-interest. This individualism may have been spurred by the suspicion in TMC circles that the Congress is willing to sacrifice its interests in West Bengal for 'national' compulsions.

It is in this context that the tensions between the TMC and Congress over the future of the mahajot in West Bengal can be located. A beleaguered CPI(M) is aware that its hope of somehow transforming an imminent rout into a contest lies in dividing the anti-Left vote. The CPI(M), , for example, is discreetly encouraging the BJP into believing that it can secure more than seven per cent of the popular vote by contesting all the 294 seats. Likewise, Lutyens' Delhi resonates with whispers of the Left offer of a covert bail-out of the UPA government in the Budget session of Parliament if the Congress chooses to make its "self-respect" an issue in the seat negotiations with the TMC. The Left has calculated that a headstrong Mamata won't think twice before walking out of the UPA Government, if the Centre's image becomes a liability. As such, the CPI(M) is persisting with its unwavering attack on the Congress at the Centre. It is hoping that the more the UPA is vulnerable in Delhi, the more it will be inclined to strike a local deal in Kolkata, and the more likely Mamata will see her junior partner as an unnecessary passenger.

On the ground, the West Bengal election resembles ugly street battles and even a dance of death. In rarefied Delhi, it is marked by byzantine parlour diplomacy where the will of the people is viewed as a negotiable commodity. Yet, it is imprudent to judge the politicians too harshly. This is one rare occasion when the collective wisdom of West Bengal will determine the course of national politics. The stakes are very high.

The Telegraph, December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lessons that Bihar can teach West Bengal

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is hardly any 'good news' in this season of despair and mounting cynicism. One of the few comes from a hitherto unlikely quarter: from Bihar and the large Bihari diaspora scattered over India.

Economic growth, it is well recognised, depends as much on actual generation of wealth as on sentiment, the shorthand for a positive perception of the environment. Ever since Nitish Kumar's conclusive re-election, the sentiment on Bihar has turned bullish. This is evident not so much in the capital markets of Mumbai where these things take longer to play out, but among those who have an emotional stake in Bihar's future. Accustomed for long to being the butt of derision and ridicule, Bihar has now been infected with a heady, we-can-do-it mood. In the short term, the tangible results of this optimism may be modest: a real estate boom, growth and establishment of small and medium enterprises and some willingness of those who had bought a one-way ticket out of Patna to return and do something worthwhile. Once the investments of the pioneers start yielding results, the big players will be inclined to give Bihar a try.

The promise and expectation of good governance is all that it takes to arouse the native entrepreneurial instinct. If the Nitish Kumar Government can combine security, education and decent roads with adequate power supply and a measure of streamlined decision-making, Bihar has the potential to make a worthwhile contribution to the larger India story.

The signs of re-awakening in Bihar should, ideally, have a multiplier effect in the rest of eastern India, but particularly in West Bengal. A few decades ago, Bengalis would have found the suggestion of learning from Bihar quite preposterous. Till the early-1960s, West Bengal ranked next to Maharashtra as the country's most industrialised province. Calcutta was the economic and cultural hub of a huge area that covered both the erstwhile, undivided Bengal Presidency and the North-east. It was a cosmopolitan city that embraced gracious living and intellectual vibrancy.

All that, tragically, is history. If there is a city that, despite its many flyovers and umpteen shopping malls, epitomises a sense of decline, it is Kolkata. There is still a pulsating busyness about the city but it is also coupled by a visible sense of desperation, an outcome of shrinking opportunities. Kolkata has mastered the art of survival but lost the ability to grow and prosper. An imperial success, Bengal failed to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the market economy.

At one time the Bengali middle class personified enlightenment and the push to modernity. Those impulses were fuelled by a thriving economy centred on both trade and modern manufacturing. Once economic stagnation and decline set in, a way of life and thinking also dried up. Today, the Bengali middle classes are struggling to keep afloat, desperately leveraging their modest real estate holdings for modest advantage. Those who could, abandoned sonar Bangla long ago to build careers elsewhere. Like their Bihari counterparts, they haven't done too badly. Those who couldn't move out have adjusted to a new life devoid of the embellishments of gracious living. With the shrinking of the economy, there has occurred a truncation of the mind. And, if the garish posters of Bengali films are anything to go by, there has also been a debasement of taste.

For three decades, Bengalis were intoxicated by the prospect of an undefined revolution that would bring salvation. Like Lalu Yadav's social awakening that conferred a sense of empowerment but thwarted the quest for livelihood, the CPI(M) destroyed many social hierarchies and injected into the less privileged a sense of heady insolence—the cholbe na culture. In Bihar, unguided social engineering produced a 'jungle raj' marked by lawlessness; in West Bengal, the Reds unleashed a cadre raj that sought to exercise total control over the locality and the workplace. Outwardly, Jyoti Basu and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee conveyed a sense of refinement and even decency. But they were like the proverbial gold filling in a mouth of decay.

The same exasperation that decimated Lalu in Bihar is likely to lead to the Left Front defeat in next summer's Assembly poll. You can whiff the yearning for change in Bengal and see the wilting of the CPI(M)'s famed organisation. However, unlike the hopes pinned on Nitish, there are few expectations from Mamata Banerjee. In confronting the Left, she too has imbibed the same militant negativism that once defined her adversary. But unless she can transcend the politics born of cussedness and despair, Bengal is destined to remain the sick lady of the east. Bihar and Orissa are marching ahead because they don't have the hang-ups that stem from misplaced superiority.

Sunday Times of India, December 19, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Red fading into green

By Swapan Dasgupta

As someone who visited Kolkata after more than a year, I was struck by a curious phenomenon: the abrupt disappearance of the CPI(M) from public spaces. For the past three decades, the sight of the daily Ganashakti pasted on improvised billboards and adorned with the ubiquitous red flag was drearily familiar. I don't know how many of the aam aadmi actually ploughed through the small print while waiting at bus stops, but ideological indoctrination was never the main point of the exercise. Rather, it was intended to convey a sense of the party's constant presence in every locality.

Today, the hoardings and wall writings of the CPI(M) are few and far between. There are few portrayals of muscular workers and determined peasants marching with the red flag. Also shrinking are evocative slogans declaiming against some perceived injustice. Instead, there are umpteen makeshift hoardings of a benign but somewhat stern Mamata Banerjee and streams of Trinamool Congress (TMC) buntings in the mohallas. If flaunting of party flags and agitprop are intended to convey a sense of a locality's political affiliation, it is clear that the TMC has upstaged the CPI(M) from most of Kolkata. The Left Front may still be ruling from the Writer's Buildings but it has ceded control of the streets to Mamata.

The State Assembly elections are not due until April or May of 2011 but there is already an anticipation of change. The unemployed (and, sometimes, unemployable) youth who frequent the corner tea shops appear to have moved en masse to the side of Didi, as Mamata is popularly referred to. Indeed, it probably takes some courage for CPI(M) supporters to proclaim their political preferences, in urban West Bengal at least. The CPI(M) was decimated in Kolkata and the adjoining districts in the 2009 Lok Sabha election. It took the verdict in a spirit of resignation and has withdrawn into its shell. As of now the TMC seems to be guaranteed a landslide in the cities and towns in the Assembly elections. The Left activity is mainly centred on trade unions which, unfortunately for them, influence voting behaviour peripherally.

It is different in the countryside. The CPI(M) is very deeply entrenched in rural Bengal thanks to its control of the panchayats. In the past, this control, coupled with the goodwill it had earned through the redistribution of land under Operation Barga, had ensured the Left Front of huge majorities in rural constituencies. In districts such as Burdwan, Birbhum, Bankura, West Midnapur and Purulia, both the TMC and the Congress had difficulties finding credible candidates for rural seats.

The situation has changed perceptibly after the Lok Sabha election. First, the CPI(M) hold over other districts, particularly those located in North Bengal and around Kolkata has weakened considerably. There are four basic reasons for this erosion of support.

First, for reasons that are not entirely clear, Muslim voters appear to have made a conscious decision to back the TMC-Congress alliance.

Secondly, a net result of the Left Front over-zealous land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram is the erosion of the party's credentials as a champion of the poor peasantry. The beneficiaries of Operation Barga are first generation landowners and their attachment to their small holdings verge on the fanatical. This section has been unmoved by the government's arguments that industrialisation necessitates compulsory land acquisition. With her catchy but somewhat vague slogan of Ma, Mati, Manush (loosely translated as mother, land and mankind) Mamata has emerged as the champion of the rights of small farmers. She has given her TMC cadres (who invariably tend to be petty businessmen and sons of yesterday's large landholders) the necessary political opening to woo a section the Left took for granted. This incremental support may cost the CPI(M) dearly in constituencies that, while being rural, also have urban clusters.

Thirdly, the Left Front had hoped that the growth in rural prosperity through land reforms would trigger the revival of manufacturing and services in the state and provide job opportunities to the rural youth. This hope provided the basis of the Left Front's landslide win in 2006. However, the optimism surrounding the "revival" of West Bengal largely dissipated after the Nandigram fiasco and the willingness of investors to sink their money in the state evaporated after Tata Motors moved its Nano plant from Singur to Gujarat. The fiasco left the Chief Minister rudderless and called into question the Left Front's ability to secure economic growth in West Bengal. The CPI(M) is experiencing the backlash that comes with a failure to deliver. It is not that Mamata necessarily signals hope, but she personifies the mood of protest.

Finally, the CPI(M) has been adversely affected by the mushrooming of support for pro-Maoist groups in the more inaccessible parts of Purulia, West Midnapore and Bankura. The areas which today have a Maoist "problem" are those where the CPI(M) and its allies exercised a monopoly of power and political presence. The Maoists appear to have entered into a tacit understanding with the TMC to join hands against a common adversary. This informal alliance won't be enduring but, for the moment, it serves a mutual convenience. It has left the CPI(M) vulnerable in the unlikeliest of places.

The CPI(M) is unlikely to give up West Bengal without a spirited fight. It is aware that in the event of defeat, the party will be fiercely targeted by Mamata's party for its 30-year-old record of petty tyranny. Turf wars in West Bengal tend to be extremely bloody and this may be reflected in pre and post-poll violence—something that the Election Commission should factor into the poll schedule.

Additionally, the last card before the CPI(M) is to try and somehow scuttle the Congress-TMC alliance. The TMC genuinely feels that many of the Congress' central leaders would be happy to exchange its support with that that provided by the Left. Mamata is hoping for the best but simultaneously preparing for the worst. This sense of anticipation is the only common ground left in a Bengal that waits anxiously for the summer to settle the political uncertainty.

Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, December 17, 2010



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Congress heavyweight’s misplaced zeal

By Swapan Dasgupta

The 26/11 attacks in Mumbai two years ago was a horrific event that exposed the inadequacies of India's counter-terrorism strategy. Yet, the incident did have its redeeming fallout. The UPA Government at the Centre was compelled to acknowledge that Indian lives and property would continue to be at risk if the political charge of anti-terrorism was entrusted to someone who was as visibly uninspiring as Shivraj Patil. It is said that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was delighted to be given the opportunity to shift P.Chidambaram from Finance—where he had acquired a reputation for rigidity and unresponsiveness to expert advice—to Home. The PM's happiness was understandable but it was fortuitous that Chidambaram turned out to be the right man to lead the Indian challenge to terrorism.

This assessment may well be contested by those who see in last week's Varanasi bombing the evidence that it is back to square one. That impression may be bolstered by the harsh exchange of words between the Centre and State Governments over intelligence inputs—a spat reminiscent of the bad old days of political one-upmanship over terrorism.

Yet, to be fair, the situation does not lend itself to despondency. For a start, it is well recognised that the state's capacity to confront terror has improved significantly ever since Chidambaram assumed charge. Indian intelligence and policing still have a very long way to go before the country can be reassured of the safety of its citizens. But it would be pragmatic to realise that total, fool-proof security is impossible. It is impossible in the United States and it is impossible in Israel, a country that knows a thing or two about counter-terrorism. India's open society and the character of its carefree society make it a ready target for every determined terror group. Therefore, if in the aftermath of 26/11, there have only been two major terror attacks—the German Bakery blasts in Pune and the Dashashwamedh Ghat bombing in Varanasi last week—we should compliment Chidambaram for ensuring that the situation isn't as bad as what prevailed between 2006 and 2008.

More to the point, it would be unfair to blame either the Centre or any state government for wilful dereliction of duty. The levels of security may vary from place to place, depending on the efficiency of the authorities, but there is nothing to indicate that any of the elected governments are either wilfully unconcerned or hand-in-glove with the terrorists. The political culture in India is deficient in many respects but there is a consensus that terror has to defeated if politics is to survive. All politicians, both on the Right and Left, know that proven laxity on the security front will cost them dearly electorally. The Indian voter has repeatedly made clear its partiality for a bi-partisan approach to security.

This is why the recent pronouncements of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh on the 26/11 incidents come as a surprise. Digvijay's intervention isn't innocent. He was mischievously trying to suggest that the killing of Mumbai ATS chief Hemant Karkare was not an offshoot of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba attack on Mumbai two years ago. He was trying to link it to the outrage of Hindu extremist groups over their alleged complicity in bombings in Muslim-dominated areas. Digvijay, who has earlier campaigned against the so-called miscarriage of justice in the Batla House encounter case and has publicised the alleged RSS involvement in retributive attacks on Muslims, may well be attempting a form of secular equivalence: that terror is multi-denominational and cannot automatically be pinned on Muslim extremists.

Unfortunately, his political zeal is misplaced. It is not the job of politicians to get involved in the operational aspects of the offensive against terrorism. Any attempt by the most important Congress functionary (after the two Gandhis) to influence the course of inquiries or, indeed, to muddy the waters of existing inquiries, must be firmly rebuffed by the state. With investigative agencies already under a cloud for being too susceptible to political interference, the last thing the country needs is for counter-terrorism to become an instrument of political vendetta.

There are already questions being asked of the ability of the investigators into the Varanasi blast to penetrate some no-go areas in the neighbouring Azamgarh district. Earlier, political interference prevented investigators from coming to grips with some groups who were operating from deep within the ghettos of old Hyderabad city. Digvijay's posturing is tantamount to drawing a Lakshman rekha for the authorities. Indian security is compromised by such political markers. This is as true for Digvijay as for many in the BJP who have pre-judged the 'Hindu terror' issue. Anti-terrorism cannot be successful when conducted from inside the strait-jacket of political expediency.

Equally, now that the WikiLeaks have corroborated local intelligence inputs that the LeT was carefully targeting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, it is time the Centre abandoned its curious disdain of these threats. The Congress may not like Modi politically but that is no reason to be either indifferent or dismissive about terror threats. India needs to evolve a bi-partisan mindset to cope with assaults on its citizens. There is a place for partisan politics but its arena must not extend to national security. Terrorists are always inclined to exploit such fissures.

Sunday Pioneer, December 12, 2010




Friday, December 10, 2010

Tantrum time

Paper tigers and the empty chair in Oslo

By Swapan Dasgupta

The mass of classified US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that the Great Powers of the West occasionally conduct themselves as paper tigers. The American diplomatic reportage of the circumstances surrounding the release of the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset-al-Megrahi would seem to suggest that the "thuggish" Libyan regime of President Muammar Gaddafi succeeded in intimidating the British Government. The British Ambassador to Libya, it was revealed, expressed "relief" when al-Megrahi was released from prison on humanitarian grounds and came home to a hero's welcome. The alternative was grim: Gaddafi "would have cut us off at the knees."

Gaddafi's growl appears to have served as deterrent. The US Ambassador to Libya informed Washington that "If the (US government) publicly opposes al-Megrahi's release or is perceived to be complicit in a decision to keep al-Megrahi in prison, (America's Libyan diplomatic) post judges that US interests could face similar consequences." The US was asked to look the other way as Britain negotiated the release of a terrorist whose actions caused the deaths of 270 people (mostly US citizens) on board a Pan Am flight in December 1988.

The story in the leaked cables is an eye-opener. They revealed that a dodgy dictator of an erstwhile Bedouin kingdom can bulldoze his way through the self-esteem of 'responsible' powers if the latter is psychologically fearful of the consequences of saying 'No'. The WikiLeaks didn't embarrass the outlandish Libya; they, however, punctured the United Kingdom's ethical pretensions.

China's importance in the world far exceeds the commercial clout of Libya over a cash-strapped UK. At one level, China has assiduously nurtured and cultivated many regimes that crave respectability and are only too willing to shower those who oblige with generous economic concessions. At another, it has presented a picture of sweet reasonableness and untiring enterprise and awed the world by its dramatic rise as the second-largest economy, after the US. Complementing both approaches is an imaginative and generously-funded public diplomacy that has been described as a "seamless extension of China's global ambitions for resources and influence."

China's "smart power" diplomacy marked by purposeful generosity in the promotion of its own national interests and simultaneously respectful of the national sovereignty of others, has made steady progress and kept pace with the country's economic rise and rise. In an environment marked by a recognition of an eastward shift in the balance of global power and a perceived decline of the West, China has made new friends not merely in Asia but all over Africa and Latin America. There are, of course, continuing concerns over what China's dramatic rise means for the rules of global engagement. But many of these have been kept in abeyance by reasons of expediency: the need to keep China happy at a time of economic crisis in western capitalism.

Considering the unhindered rise of China and the steady, if grudging, acceptance of its Great Power status, it is somewhat of a mystery that Beijing has chosen to take a leaf out of Gaddafi's book in its reactions to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident intellectual Liu Xiaobo. Having failed to persuade the Nobel committee to ignore demands from notables such as Valclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu to refrain from honouring a leading light of Charter 08, the newest symbol of democratic resistance to the Communist Party's monopoly over political power, China has chosen to bare its fangs. It would have been understandable if Beijing's anger had been focussed against Norway and its Parliament. A war of words between Beijing and Oslo would, after all, not have agitated the rest of the world.

The Nobel Peace Prize has never been devoid of controversy. In 1935, Hitler fumed and fretted over the award to Carl von Ossietzky, a German citizen jailed for treason for revealing the story of his country's covert rearmament. The Soviet bloc was similarly exasperated when dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov won the prize in 1975 and Poland's Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was honoured in 1983. China, on its part, flew into a rage when its bête noire, the "splittist" Dalai Lama was awarded the prize in 1989.

What is intriguing is China's determination to make attendance in Friday's Nobel awards ceremony in Oslo a test of the "with us or against us" question. It has invoked the principle of national sovereignty and the integrity of its judicial system to denounce the celebration of a "criminal". At the time of writing, some 18 countries including Russia, Pakistan, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sudan, Tunisia, Egypt, Iran and the Philippines have decided to not attend the ceremony. The The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay has also indicated she won't be among the guests in Oslo owing to "another engagement".

India, which had earlier indicated its presence, has been sent a demarche by Beijing warning of "consequences" if its Ambassador was present to witness the award being presented to an empty chair. There is an implied threat that the visit of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to Delhi next week to discuss the strains in bilateral relationship may be called off if India is also seen to be joining the "clowns" backing Liu in an "anti-China farce".

To be dragged into a controversy not of its own making is never pleasant. Left to the departmental wisdom of the Mandarin-speaking club in South Block, India would probably have found some way of discreetly leaving its chair empty in Oslo. South Block has its fair share of those reposing faith in the Lord Halifax school of diplomacy to handle China's new-found assertiveness. Why, it will no doubt be argued, rile China needlessly and jeopardise the Wen visit? True, there is a cost but offending Norway and Sweden is preferable to adding another item to India's bilateral problems with a powerful neighbour. Why not take comfort from Wen's speech in August that China must also undertake political modernisation to safeguard its economic gains?

If life was so simple, solidarity with the considered judgment of the Nobel committee could have been discarded in favour of winning brownie points with Beijing. But will a post-dated cheque be forthcoming from a China that has sought to insult India over 'stapled visas' for residents of Jammu and Kashmir and shown increased belligerence over the status of Arunachal Pradesh? Instead, will a possible boycott of the Oslo ceremony be interpreted as conclusive evidence that India too is a paper tiger, a wimpish pretender on the world stage? In persuading countries to boycott a ceremony, China is encashing many of its IOUs. Fortunately, India owes China nothing.

For India, the costs of non-attendance are colossal. For the past few years, Western interest in India has risen exponentially. This is partly recognition of India's entrepreneurial dynamism and its commonality of values with the West. But equally it stems from the desire of a declining West and a stagnant Japan to bolster another Asian power to offset China's hegemonism. India is in the process of leveraging its geo-strategic location and economic growth for maximum national advantage. This process will be compromised if it is seen to be wilting in the face of a Chinese tantrum. . In any event, the company of those attending the Oslo bash is more wholesome. That, in the final analysis, may be the reason why India will be represented at the anticipatory celebration of Chinese democracy.

The Telegraph, December 10, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

Green fundamentalism as state oppression

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sunday Pioneer, December 5, 2010

Union Minister for Agriculture Sharad Pawar is, arguably, one of the most resourceful figures of contemporary India with interests that range from politics and business to cricket. To admirers he is the very personification of business-friendly pragmatism, carrying with him the reputation for getting things done. To sceptics, however, Pawar is synonymous with amoral deal-cutting and calculated expediency—the epitome of the go-getting ruthlessness that has come to define both Mumbai and Indian capitalism.

Pawar's colleague in the UPA Government Jairam Ramesh sets a very different trend. A wordsmith with a penchant for witty one-liners, he has won admiration in a remarkably short time for his ability to grasp issues and challenge conventional thinking. A far cry from the fuddy-duddy politician, Ramesh is the bridge linking Indira Gandhi's vengeful populism with the Sonia Gandhi's more calibrated, but no less self-serving, paternalism.

Since assuming charge as Environment Minister, Ramesh has consciously kept himself in the news. On the plus side he has energised wildlife protection and sought to put some order into India's neglected National Parks and animal sanctuaries. But these have been overshadowed by the controversies over his attempt to close the gap between India's environment policies and the path being advocated by the West, notably the European Union. His unilateral declaration, just prior to last year's Copenhagen summit on Climate Change, of reducing carbon gas emission by 20 per cent by 2020, was been attacked by many as "lacking due diligence". There are now fears that at Cancun he may commit India to an international inspection regime without securing anything tangible in return—apart, possibly, from a career in the global seminar circuit when he ceases to be minister.

The charge of playing to the activists' gallery has, ironically, spurred Ramesh to don the Al Gore mantle more energetically. In the past few months, Indian business and state governments have been devastated by the single-mindedness with which he has used his discretionary powers to stop big-ticket projects. He has been particularly savage in using the Green veto against Orissa. But he was more accommodating with state governments in which Congress has a stake, prompting charges that environmental laws are being used as a variant of the license-permit-quota raj.

A clash between the forces that Pawwar relates to and those who play cheerleaders for Ramesh was imminent. Pawar has reposed faith in a market-driven growth that, it must be said, also suffer from familiar distortions; Ramesh, on his part, champions an interventionist state, apparently committed to checking the distortions resulting from rapid growth.

Ideally, the clash should have come a few months earlier when Ramesh put a spanner in the works of Vedanta and POSCO in Orissa, one of India's most backward states. Unfortunately, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik decided that quiet lobbying, the good sense of the PM and the judicial process were better alternatives to a direct clash with the Centre. The Orissa challenge would have triggered an overdue debate on the conflict between growth and Green fundamentalism, and the right of the Centre to dictate to the states. Tragically, the opportunity was missed.

Pawar's protest against the stay on all work and the restoration of status quo ante in the Lavasa hill station located in the Baramati parliamentary constituency has been seen in a narrow political light: as a constituency compulsion and a defence of its promoter Ajit Gulabchand of the Hindustan Construction Company. Indeed, Pawar has readily conceded that he conceived the spectacular township after a trip to the English Lake district. Additionally, his daughter was among the original promoters, till she sold her stake in 2004.

Equally, the sub-text of Ramesh's stay order has been read as a bid to 'fix' Pawar and ingratiate himself with the likes of Medha Patkar and Anna Hazare—activists who are to the Sonia Congress what Left intellectuals were to the Indira Congress. In short, the battle is widely perceived to be political and not really centred on the protection of the environment.

It is for, example, revealing that Ramesh's ex-parte order is based on Lavasa not getting certain clearances from the Centre. In its reply, Lavasa Corporation, apart from listing the 25 different clearances from different authorities it has already secured, says that it has secured the necessary permission from the Maharashtra Government. It claims that as per law it does not need a clearance from Delhi. Ramesh's ministry has thought otherwise and peremptorily imposed a stay without even a hearing. The stay was carefully timed to disrupt Lavasa's Rs 20 billion IPO scheduled for this month.

Whether Ramesh is personally culpable for his draconian order that demands the demolition of an entire town, the unemployment of 8,000 workers and the dispossession of 1,600 house owners, is for the courts to decide. What is important to note is the potential havoc an Environment Minister can wreak with his apparent discretionary powers. And it was done on the strength of a dispute over the jurisdiction of the state and central government—a babu problem, not a Green issue.

Indian environmentalism under Ramesh is fast turning into state oppression. Too many people have tolerated his flights of whimsy silently. Maybe it needed Pawar's buccaneering endorsement to create the confidence to challenge a minister who has convinced everyone that he is just a proxy for the heir apparent.



Saturday, December 04, 2010

Time to fight the cancer, not join the lynch mob

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1921, India was in ferment. After prolonged drift, it had found its voice in a man variously described as 'Gandhi baba' and 'Gandhi maharaj'. He united the country in open revolt against an arrogant Raj. Lawyers abandoned their practice, students left their studies and babus resigned their secure jobs in response to his promise of "swaraj in one year." The moment was heady.

For one Indian, 1921 was however a time for reflection. From his rural arcadia, Rabindranath Tagore detected "a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…The sight that met my eye was, on the one hand, people immensely busy; on the other intensely afraid."

India 2010 is not the nation of 1921, not by a long stretch. Yet, there is something eerily reminiscent of the cocktail of headiness and suffocation Tagore experienced.

The concern may well stem from a personal proximity to the epicentre of the earthquake rocking politics, business and the media—all pillars of the Indian Establishment. For the past three months, the country has been shaken by a scam fever: the outcry over the Commonwealth Games, followed in quick succession by the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the Karnataka land scams and the 2G spectrum loot. Simultaneously, there were the infamous Niira Radia conversations which (to borrow a British MP's observation on WikiLeaks) have redefined "public interest" to mean "the public is interested."

If India was simply experiencing a turbulent bout of ethical cleansing, excitement would have been coupled with gleeful endorsement. For some time, citizens have agonised over India occupying the twilight zone between a banana republic and a mafia state. To that extent, all moves to stem the decline and purify the system need strong encouragement, even if enthusiasm is couched in understandable cynicism.

Tragically, apart from hitting some targets the scam season has inflicted serious collateral damage and vitiated the atmosphere. The Radia tapes may have provided immense voyeuristic pleasure to those unfamiliar with and, perhaps, even envious of the cosy smugness that defines an incestuous establishment and those on its periphery. But initial inquisitiveness has quickly given way to a vengeful iconoclasm based on the facile assumption that India's entire wealth-generation process is centred on cronyism and corruption.

It is understandable when Arundhati Roy deduces from the tapes that the "state has been corporatized" and that thanks to big money the institutions of "this so-called democracy", including the judiciary, are "being hollowed out." It is also predictable that voices of post-colonial condescension in the West should celebrate "The rotting of new India." What isn't clear is why India's middle class should throw its moral weight behind this carpet bombing exercise.

What the Radia tapes indicated was not a single-minded desire of corporates to subvert every institution but their gritty determination to overcome a difficult, if not hostile, business environment. The cronyism that underpinned the Government's 2G spectrum policy was not the creation of the FICCI and CII or, for that matter, one of the Ambani brothers. It stemmed from the enormous discretionary powers enjoyed by a minister and a departmental autonomy that flowed out of the compulsions of coalition politics. Indian entrepreneurs had two options: to either play the game by rules set by venal politicians or opt out.

Radia's conversations are indeed revealing. But far from revealing "how corporates manage everything in this country", as lawyer Prashant Bhushan told the Supreme Court, they illuminate the path India Inc had to negotiate to remain in business. They also reveal that apart from having to manage a minister unconcerned with India's larger growth story, businesses had to also cope with the no-holds-barred assaults of competitors.

Yes, there was subversion but there was a context to it. Gentlemanly capitalism had been elbowed out by a treacherous business environment centred on arbitrariness. Yesterday it was a telecom problem, today it is one of environmental blackmail and tomorrow it could be something altogether different.

Instead of fighting the cancer, a lynch mob has, however, set its sights on mocking the famous, destroying reputations and creating a mood viciously hostile to entrepreneurship—the force that has propelled India's growth story.

In 1921, Tagore feared that along with the courts and colleges, "reason and culture…must be closured" and India forced to genuflect before "some mantra, some unreasoned creed." Today, while trying to cleanse the system, we may well be throwing the baby out with the soiled bathwater.

It's time to pause and focus the pent-up anger in the right direction.

Sunday Times of India, December 5, 2010

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Credibility crisis

By Swapan Dasgupta

On the NDTV programme last Tuesday evening which was devoted exclusively to media navel-gazing, my co-panellist Dileep Padgaonkar, a former editor of Times of India, indulged in some nostalgia. In the old days, he suggested, a lobbyist would never have been entertained in newspaper offices. So different, the sub-text read, from today when Niira Radia can pick up her mobile phone for a cosy chat with the who's who of the media about the need to convey the authentic DMK position to the Congress. I could read his despair: what is the world coming to?

The "Golden Age" of Indian media when editors were kings, when noble souls worked for a pittance and when the management wouldn't dare step into the editorial floor is a lovely idea. It's also a delightful and self-serving myth.

In 1986, a small Bombay weekly published a report that the then holder of the "second-most important" job in India had subscribed to 3,000 non-convertible debentures of Reliance and paid for it through a loan from a private bank that also serviced the company. To compound matters, it also emerged that Times of India had written a feisty editorial criticising the Government for its ban on the conversion of these non-convertible debentures into equity.

A feature of the new Made in Media age is that while journalists (particularly those on TV) have become celebrities, they are also exposed to the one constant pitfall of celebrityhood: unending public scrutiny. India may not have the equivalent of the "Street of Shame" column of Britain's Private Eye where every peccadillo of every self-important hack is mercilessly exposed in an easily decipherable code, but it required the Radia tapes to dispel the belief that the media is above scrutiny.

Back in 1986, an editor guilty of violating an unwritten code could get away with nothing more than a modicum of personal embarrassment. As with an errant cricketer, today's celebrity journalist can't pretend that match –fixing is a minor lapse. The more high-profile the journalist, the higher the pedestal, the more exacting the expectations and more nasty the fall. Having created the illusion of a doughty Fourth Estate that upholds virtue and hounds all wrongs, the media shouldn't feign surprise if it finds itself at the receiving end of the fierce middle-class indignation normally reserved for dodgy politicians.

The media has suffered collateral damage from the Radia tapes. Many conversations Radia had with sundry journalists were innocuous: some exchanges of real information and lots of media tittle-tattle. But there were three sets of conversations that warrant a little extra attention. First, there were requests to the journalists to use their privileged access to politicians to carry messages and influence important political decisions. Secondly, there were discussions for a "pre-scripted" interview with a corporate notable, including the offer of a dummy run. And finally, there was the guarded sales pitch by an editor of his ability to influence Supreme Court judgments—an audacious hint that was subsequently brought to the attention of the apex court itself.

It is important to note that the initial media reaction to the tapes was the familiar near-total denial. The nothing-has-happened attitude that marked the suppression of the "paid news" and plagiarism scandals resurfaced and persisted for nearly a week. Although all three journalists proffered we-have-done-nothing-wrong personal statements on the web, there was a public reaction to the media's double standards, robustly articulated on the social media. For the first time ever, the media had to respond to the enormous groundswell of consumer disgust and demand for accountability. In the evolution of a public, democratic culture the inclusion of the media in the larger quest for transparency and accountability is a huge step forward.

The furore over the Radia tapes has certainly shaken the media as never before and brought to the fore ethical and professional issues that need to be tackled pragmatically, not dogmatically.

There is, first, the entire question of the media's relationship with corporates and publicists who come in various guises: lobbyists, public relations companies, brand promoters and advocacy groups. To presume that media must shun them, as Padgaonkar seemed to suggest, is absurd. Corporates need to have their perspectives in the public domain and many companies have outsourced this job to the publicists. With India being driven by energetic capitalism, the media also has a legitimate interest in business. To presume that mere articulation of corporate interests implies backhanders is preposterous. Journalists must engage with lobbyists, perhaps even develop a relationship of trust. But it is important to know when to say 'No', a principle equally applicable to NGOs who have agendas too. There are enough codes of conduct to guide the profession.

Secondly, the suggestion that the identity or nature of sources must be divulged is impractical. Meaningful political journalism involves developing relationships based on discretion and confidentiality. A good source takes years, if not decades, to develop and cannot be frittered away by a spit-and-run approach. Barkha Dutt didn't err by not divulging that Radia was now a player in the DMK: she was far too valuable a source to be 'burnt' for one rapidly-moving story. Her unprofessionalism lay in not reporting the three-way divide in the DMK and at the same time appearing to play courier for Radia.

Thirdly, much of the cyber activists' disgust stem from the perceived bias of journalists. This is a problematic issue which I, as an opinion writer, don't have to confront. Each media group has its biases and preferences that never remain a secret. This isn't unusual. Subjectivity is a feature of media in all vibrant democracies. Its rough edges can, however, be blunted by a fierce commitment to accuracy and meaningful consumer choice.

Finally, there is a seamy underside to the media that was only tangentially apparent in the tapes. The media has paid insufficient attention to the mushrooming of fixers, extortionists and plain criminals in its ranks, more so in the smaller towns. This is the real cancer that has to be eradicated.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, December 3, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010

BJP must strive for inclusive NDA

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the five-year prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, the Haryana Assembly election of 1987 was a turning point. The spectacular victory of the Lok Dal led by Devi Lal came as a loud wake-up call to a Congress that had been basking in the glory of the Prime Minister's Lok Sabha sweep of 1984. The Haryana result came at a time the Congress was beginning to feel the pressure on corruption, notably the Bofors deal, but still felt supremely confident about Rajiv's ability to tide over the problem. After the Congress debacle in this small state, there was a discernible mood change. A divided and disoriented Opposition began to get its act together and within a year a combination of regional leaders forged the National Front that, additionally, also kept up a relationship with both the Left and the BJP. In 1989, the Congress was defeated by this loose combine.

History doesn't always repeat itself. Yet the multiplier effect of the 1987 Haryana verdict should serve as a warning to those inclined to view last week's Bihar results as a purely local event. The decimation of Lalu Yadav was perhaps occasioned by the collapse of his caste alliance and the people's dread of a return to 'jungle raj'—all local factors. However, the ignominious showing of the Congress can't be attributed solely to the absence of a credible Bihari face. Read with the results of local elections and by-elections in different states in the past six months, it suggests that the post-May 2009 belief in the re-emergence of Congress dominance was misplaced. Apart from Kerala where the UDF is on the comeback trail and Punjab where the Akali-BJP alliance is making a hash of governance, the Congress seems beleaguered even in the few states it is governing. So far it has pretended that the mid-term setbacks are inconsequential and will be offset by Rahul Gandhi's charisma. After the scale of the Bihar debacle, this self-confidence needs to be revisited.

In Bihar, Congress suffered a progressive loss of momentum between the first and sixth phase of polling. That this loss of political stamina coincided with the growing hullabaloo over corruption is significant. Despite Sonia Gandhi's spirited claim that she never fails to take action against errant leaders in its own ranks, there is a perception that the Congress and some UPA constituents are out to make hay while the sun shines. True, the BJP has its own share of misdemeanours in Karnataka. But these have been dwarfed by the sheer scale of the alleged corruption in the Commonwealth Games and the sale of 2G spectrum. As a rule, corruption at the Centre overrides state-level misdeeds.

If the Congress hasn't suffered a greater loss of public confidence, it is due to a feeling that there is no government-in-waiting: the NDA remains a non-player in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and a bit player in Uttar Pradesh. In 1987, Devi Lal's victory triggered frenetic activity in the Opposition and culminated in the emergence of V.P. Singh as the symbol of an anti-Congress upsurge. Can Nitish Kumar's re-election have the same effect?

The answer depends on how the NDA as a whole imbibes the lessons of its victory. It is not enough for the BJP to gloat over the fact that its better strike rate has silenced those who felt it was a drag on Nitish, just as it was on Naveen Patnaik in Orissa between 1999 and 2009. The BJP needs to appreciate the seminal contribution of Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to making the alliance coherent. Equally, there has to be an acknowledgement that those pressing for an 'assertive' BJP, including going it alone, were guilty of an adventurism that would have been punished by the voters. In Orissa, the BJP couldn't control the recklessness of its state leaders and forced an exasperated Patnaik to walk out of the NDA. This mistake wasn't repeated in Bihar and the dividends are there for the party to enjoy.

Secondly, a section of the BJP needs to realise that just as caste can be relegated to the background by a robust development agenda—recall how Narendra Modi tackled the so-called Patel revolt in 2007—it isn't obligatory to fall back on aggressive Hinduness to secure a wide measure of Hindu support. The restrained response to the Ayodhya judgment last September can serve as a future template.

Finally, by overplaying its dynastic and 'high command' culture, the Congress has willy-nilly conceded the space for regional pride to the other side. Modi has used this aggressively in Gujarat and Nitish less flamboyantly, but no less effectively, in Bihar. With decision-making resting more and more on the states, the NDA needs to base itself on clear federal principles. Even if it is bound by a national party, it could profit by transforming itself into a coalition of state parties. Ironically, B.S. Yedyurappa's subdued defiance of 'national' pressure has actually showcased the federal structure of the BJP. So paradoxically did the Bihar unit's decision to utilise the services of just one Modi for this election.

To be viable, the NDA cannot be a clone of the Congress-led UPA. Its distinctive dynamics must serve as the basis for its expansion into unchartered and lost territories. There is little need to be preoccupied over leadership. The PM-in-waiting will invariably reflect the temperament of the alliance.

Sunday Pioneer, November 28, 2010

It’s still in the family

Book Review

Jawaharlal Nehru: Civilising a Savage World by Nayantara Sahgal (Penguin/Viking, 167 pages, Rs 350)

Books on Jawaharlal Nehru written in the past two decades have cluttered our bookshelves to the point of exasperation—and a few more are on the way. The only reasons why Nayantara Sahgal's slim volume may possibly excite any fresh interest are its deliciously provocative title and the fact that that it is written by the former prime minister's niece, one who regarded Teen Murti House her "home in Delhi".

Tragically, I confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by Sahgal's otherwise elegantly written essay. There are occasional snippets of information about Nehru the man and his relationship with his wider family but they are just too occasional and, at times, too guarded.

Take, for example, Sahgal's perfunctory account of Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, a subject that must have been discussed within the family. She admits to "an immediate attraction that drew two strangers of widely different backgrounds and life experiences together in a relationship", but shies away from elaboration. "The situation", she writes, "made for an unusual bond and a mutual enchantment that must be one of life's most magical gifts to its elect."

It would be understandable if Sahgal's discretion stemmed from a desire to let matters of the heart remain strictly within the family. But she can either be a faithful family loyalist or a writer who couples archival information with insider knowledge. She whets the reader's appetite with titbits about her dear "Mamu" and then proceeds to give absolutely nothing away.

I was particularly struck by her total silence on Nehru's relations with his daughter. The personality clash involving Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Indira Gandhi which surfaced after Nehru's death was the subject of Delhi drawing room gossip. Sahgal too had public spats with her cousin, particularly after the declaration of Emergency. The reader would have loved insights into these complicated human relationships, particularly in the context of a larger question that keeps cropping up: did Nehru actively promote the political career of his daughter? Sahgal gives the whole issue a deft miss.

What she does address is Nehru's relationship with both the Western and Eastern blocs during the Cold War. These are mainly viewed through the prism of her mother's experiences as India's Ambassador to the USSR and USA and President of the UN General Assembly. There are some nice anecdotes involving Gromyko, Vyshinsky, Robert Oppenheimer, Winston Churchill and Soekarno. But Sahgal spoils the reminiscences by quoting needless chunks from contemporary press reports of Nehru's greatness.

As a volume of reminiscences and assessments based on them, the book is far too inhibited and circumspect; as a history, it is too gush-gush in its praise of almost everything Nehru did. In trying to bolster Nehru's place in contemporary India, Sahgal has done her own reputation no good.


Tehelka, Volume 7, issue 47, November 21-27, 2010, page 60

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Appetite for a better life

Bihar's election results have profound implications for India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Throughout last Wednesday, as Bihar celebrated the return of the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party Government with an awesome majority, politicians and pundits were repeatedly asked: is this a landmark election? In academic usage, a landmark election is one that indicates a sharp rupture with the past and sets the parameters of a new pattern of political behaviour. As such, the question was misplaced. By definition, a verdict on which election is 'landmark' and which is routine can only be determined with the wisdom of hindsight.

When it voted out Winston Churchill and the Conservatives so unexpectedly but decisively in 1945, the British electorate was unaware that it was doing more than changing the occupant of 10 Downing Street. Yet, in hindsight, 1945 marked the formal end of an old order and the creation of a new consensus centred on an ever-expanding welfare state, a consensus that endured till the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In a similar vein, the Indian electorate probably felt that a new idiom of politics was being ushered by Rajiv Gandhi's staggering victory in 1984. In hindsight, however, 1984 proved to be a false dawn. By 1989 and 1991, the framework of modernity that the young Prime Minister believed he had heralded was overwhelmed by more indigenous impulses centred on social and religious identities.

It is entirely possible that a future generation may look back on contemporary assessments of the 2010 Bihar verdict as naïve over-statements. Those celebrating the apparent demise of caste in the political arena could well reappear in 2015 to concede that age-old social institutions have the ability to endure a one electoral typhoon. Who knows, Nitish Kumar may well end up disappointing those who have reposed extraordinary faith in his cleansing abilities.

For the moment, however, every Indian—barring the incorrigibly partisan—can take enormous pride at the dramatic transition of Bihar from medievalism to fledgling modernity. In earlier years, a Bihar election was the occasion to display the rotten underbelly of Indian democracy—an occasion when the people and the state cowered before rival warlords and mobsters. With six phases, the just-concluded elections may have been too long-drawn out, suggesting the Election Commission's wariness. But there was something revealing about an election campaign which was both bloodless and unscarred by intimidation and booth capturing. It certainly held out lessons in democracy for neighbouring West Bengal which suffers from an enhanced self-image of enlightenment.

More important, for a state where women's participation in elections lagged behind men's by as much as 15 per cent in the early-1990s, the statistics of this election told the story of an emerging Bihar: male turnout 50.7 per cent, female 54.8 per cent. This is a story that Lalu Yadav could not comprehend.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal leader's complete bewilderment at the outcome wasn't entirely disingenuous. Like many Indians, particularly those inclined towards the Left, Lalu has attached primary importance to social justice over economic development. For him, it was more important to put his energies behind the political empowerment of 'backward' communities than ensuring that Bihar was linked by a network of motorable roads. In statecraft that was reminiscent of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Lalu's approached empowerment through the 'swagger' test. In the final years of Lalu-Rabri raj, social justice came to imply the ability of a community to enjoy immunity from the police. It didn't matter that this swagger of the newly empowered meant a rise in extortion, kidnapping and the forcible occupation of property. To Lalu, swagger symbolised the establishment of new hierarchies, with the oppressor and oppressed changing roles.

Having emerged from the same Lohia-ite stable, Nitish Kumar's commitment to social justice was no less profound than Lalu's. He too sought change to ensure that an accident of birth is neither weighed against an individual nor held up as a badge of permanent privilege. But whereas Lalu imagined that governance was merely about manipulative social engineering, Nitish saw opportunities in the new climate of economic freedom. If Lalu equated the construction of a bridge with greater opportunities for policemen to reach a village and apprehend a deviant, Nitish saw improved connectivity as greater opportunities for commerce and employment.

Lalu had a natural sense of humour and loved playing the buffoon. But underneath his caricatured commitment to social justice, he was inherently suspicious of modernity. He equated it with social snobbery and a complex web of rules that discriminated against the subaltern castes and Muslims. He coupled this with a fear of an unknown world dominated by technology and high finance. He was the embodiment of a permanent India-Bharat schism, a divide that has also been romanticised by the Maoists and their fellow travellers.

India's pragmatist reformers have always nurtured doubts over the electoral viability of their modernist vision. In 1991, India hesitantly changed course from a state-controlled economy to a market-driven one. Yet, there was always a deep-seated reluctance to expose this shift to a frontal electoral test. The desire to introduce economic freedom was always masked in the cloak of either state-run welfarism or nebulous talk of development. With economic liberalisation invariably insulated from economic discourse and often undertaken by stealth, politicians felt the need to introduce an emotional element to their political conversation with the electorate. Invariably, these took the shape of explorations of identity.

It was also a feature of conventional thinking that the electorate of poor states have very nominal expectations of development. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politically effective governance came to mean effective management of castes. The election defeats suffered by Shanta Kumar in Himachal Pradesh, Sunderlal Patwa in Madhya Pradesh and Kalyan Singh (in his first stint as Chief Minister) in Uttar Pradesh were held up as warnings against putting efficiency over political calculation. Even the formidable Narendra Modi was warned by a section of his party to desist from taking legal action against farmers caught pilfering electricity because of its potentially damaging electoral consequences.

In the past five years, Nitish Kumar hasn't done anything revolutionary. He focussed single-mindedly on three issues: the liberation of Bihar from a state of widespread lawlessness, the construction of roads and bridges, and incentives to improve the school enrolment of girls by offering them free school uniforms and bicycles. All three measures were measured by instant and visible returns. The enhanced personal security for ordinary citizens and better communications led to the immediate release of suppressed demand resulting in increased trade and commerce and, most important, an appetite for a better life. And the sight of rows and rows of girls in uniform cycling to and from school invoked quiet pride in a society where the demand for education is insatiable.

The support for the NDA in this election cut across castes and communities. According to the post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the NDA won majority support among all the upper castes, all the backward castes apart from the Yadavs, and all the Scheduled Castes apart from the Pasis and Dusadhs. The Muslim vote was split in three, with the Congress also making a mark. What bound Bihar together was a common yearning for a better life, the underlying logic of economic reforms. Nitish demonstrated that when it comes to aspirations, there is no difference between India and Bharat. Bihar 2010 marks the triumph of earthy modernism over subaltern conservatism. It's a victory that has profound implications for the future of India.

The Telegraph, November 26, 2010

Sonia wants a bigger state as her estate

By Swapan Dasgupta

Congress President Sonia Gandhi's reluctance (or inability) to speak extempore has often invited ridicule from other members of the political class. To politicians who live by their wits and declamatory skills, this may be a shortcoming. However, in most evolved democracies people in positions of importance are loath to speak casually: their speeches are preceded by preparation.

It is the element of pre-meditation in the Congress President's infrequent public interventions that make them significant. Last Friday, the Congress chief delivered a significant speech at the inauguration of 10th Indira Gandhi conference—an event which may be of no consequence to the sound-bite media but happens to be something she takes very seriously.

This year's theme was Social Democracy, a European phenomenon that some of the intellectuals around the family consider paramount in defining the future course of the Congress. In an article that is worth perusing, considering the author's importance in the informal think-tank around Sonia, the academic Sunil Khilnani has proposed an "unconditional annual cash payment", what he calls a "Citizen's Growth Dividend", to be paid to both "Mukesh Ambani and the beggar outside his gates" that "would add a sense of social and economic citizenship to the political citizenship embodied by the vote."

Academics, particularly those detached from the wealth generation process in India, are known to be partial to grandiose visions of a paternalist state. Jawaharlal Nehru was attracted to such ideas, as was Indira Gandhi. Both contributed to a bloated state with a huge bureaucracy and an elaborate regime of controls. Yet, despite apparently good intentions, the results of their social engineering were not very encouraging. Indeed, as an exercise in counterfactual history, it is worth considering India's missed opportunities in the first 45 years of Independence. India is today one of the world's fastest growing economies and an object of international envy and admiration. But the country still has a long way to go before it can reach the levels of the Asian Tigers, not to speak of Western Europe. Would the gap have been so daunting had Nehru and his daughter allowed Indian entrepreneurship to flower, instead of suppressing it?

It is not merely the inherent inefficiencies of state-sponsored development that need to be considered. There is ample evidence to suggest that corruption and cronyism—both go hand in hand—further dragged India down. Indira Gandhi's role in promoting a political culture based on both sycophancy and venality is not something that has been hidden from history. To some people she was Durga, a personification of feminine Shakti, but to others Indira Gandhi was the passport to self-aggrandisement. Those agitated by the Adarsh Housing Society scam and the loss suffered by the exchequer on account of A.Raja's misplaced generosity, would find it worthwhile to re-examine the scam that unseated A.R. Antulay from the chief ministership of Maharashtra and the Kuo oil deal, if only to appreciate the historical pedigree of corruption.

Nor was Nehru's reign the Golden Age of idealism, as it is often portrayed. In a telling essay published by Seminar and Business India in 1998, Shiv Visvanathan dissected the first Prime Minister's ambivalence to corruption in the cases related to Pratap Singh Kairon and T.T.Krishnamachari. For example, Nehru equated Kairon's nepotism—not very dissimilar to the charges that are plaguing Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yedyurappa—with Mahatma Gandhi's embarrassment over his son. When someone reminded Nehru that Gandhiji had more or less disowned his errant progeny, Nehru glibly replied: "All of us are not Mahatma Gandhi." "Corruption to Nehru", concluded Visvanathan, "was a bit like pollution to the economists. It lay outside the system. He didn't really see it, especially in his enthusiasm for state-building. And yet it is Nehru's softness towards corruption that sets the stage for the deeper cynicism and violence of the Emergency years."

On the face of it, we should be grateful that the kerfuffle of the past fortnight has compelled Sonia Gandhi to acknowledge the damaging consequences of corruption—something she preferred to ignore at her AICC speech earlier this month. "Our economy", she noted in her speech to the Indira Gandhi conference, "may increasingly be dynamic, but our moral universe seems to be shrinking…Graft and greed are on the rise. The principles on which independent India was founded…are in danger of being negated."

No one would seriously disagree with her assessment. However, there are grounds to question the importance she attaches to the war on corruption. Like Nehru, who believed that corruption was a minor irritant in the grand construction of a socialist India, Sonia's priority is a paternalist state, doing good works and looking after the poor and vulnerable. The Government of India has done everything to accommodate her Lady Bountiful act. There is the NREGA, the Right to Education and the proposed Food Security Bill. India's parlous fiscal deficit and the diversion of resources from infrastructure owe much to the Government's belief that her wish is their command.

The paradox is that the bigger the state the more the resources and discretionary powers of minister, and more the corruption. Rajiv Gandhi spoke of 15 paisa of every Rupee of government expenditure reaching the beneficiaries. Sonia doesn't even speak of it. She just wants a bigger and bigger state that will be her estate. As for corruption, she could take a leaf out of her mother-in-law's book and shrug it away as an "international phenomenon."

Sunday Pioneer, November 21, 2010

Sunday, November 21, 2010

PM failed to curb coalition adharma

By Swapan Dasgupta

During World War II, many people, otherwise good, decent family men, sometimes highly educated and with cultural accomplishments, unleashed unspeakable horrors on fellow humans in the name of Fuhrer, Emperor and Fatherland.

After the War, the victorious Allies set up War Crimes Tribunals to bring the leaders of a defeated Germany and Japan to justice. A recurrent feature of the trials, which covered people ranging from Field Marshals and apparatchiks to commandants of concentration camps and industrialists who benefited from the use of forced labour, was the refrain of many of the accused: "we merely followed orders".

The argument that being a loyal, disciplined soldier of the state or party exonerates individuals from criminal culpability was rejected by the Tribunals on the strength of the Nuremberg Principle: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

Over the past fortnight, the 2G Telecom scandal has agitated public opinion, disrupted Parliament and led to the resignation of DMK's A.Raja from the Cabinet. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General has suggested that a flawed policy was responsible for the national exchequer being short-changed by a whopping Rs 1.7 lakh crore. In a rare move, the Supreme Court has asked the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to explain why he sat over a citizen's request for permission to prosecute Raja. Finally, a media revelation has suggested that PM, far from being a blind Dhritarashtra, actually sanctioned the derailment of the common good. Unless the Government is able to placate a belligerent Opposition with either tokenism or some credible answers to the grave charges, India may witness a full blown political crisis that won't leave the PM unaffected.

In rebutting his detractors, Raja appears to have fallen back on the Nuremberg Defence. He has claimed that he was acting within policy guidelines and that the PM was in the know. Ironically, Raja's claim has been bolstered by the disclosure of a letter of February 28, 2006 by Dayanidhi Maran—the DMK representative who was his predecessor as Telecom Minister—that suggests two things. First, that Raja's actions stemmed from a path that had been determined by the DMK leadership. Raja, it would seem, merely "followed orders". Secondly, that the 'DMK Telecom policy' was known to the PM who did the groundwork by insulating 2G pricing from the Group of Ministers.

The DMK, it would be fair to say, is highly placed in the index of venality. Shaped by the pulls and pressures of the large Karunanidhi clan, its stand on national issues have often been guided by the what's-in-it-for-us question. Raja, wasn't confronted with "moral choices". He, presumably, "followed orders" and turned the spirit of John F. Kennedy's on its head: 'Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what the country can do for you.'

But what about the PM, entrusted by the Constitution to uphold the national interest? There were times when Singh had to let expediency prevail—such as in the distribution of ministerial portfolios and in outsourcing the management of MPs to Amar Singh during the Trust Vote of 2008. But how could he knowingly look the other way while a Cabinet Minister choked a public revenue stream? Why did he allow the CBI to underperform in its inquiries and be censured by the Supreme Court? Did his 'coalition dharma' include the right to insulate a political party from collective Cabinet responsibility? Singh wasn't just guilty of omission; he is on the verge of being accused of complicity.

It is well worth applying the Nuremberg Principles to the PM, even though the issue is fiscal impropriety and not murder. Was the PM "following orders"? This is a strange question to ask. People take orders from the PM and not the other way round, unless there is an extra-Constitutional force at work. Was there? If so, the country is entitled to know.

Moreover, was a "moral choice" available to the PM? Was he in a position to say No to Raja and define the limits of the DMK's arbitrariness? The answers are self-evident.

The country views Singh as a man of integrity and erudition. Left to himself, he would have handled 2G very differently. Yet, despite being the only man who had the power and opportunity to right the wrongs, he abdicated responsibility. His moral failing lay in allowing coalition dharma to become coalition adharma. Judged by the Nuremberg Principles, Singh is guiltier than Raja.

Sunday Times of India, November 21, 2010