Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sena is belittling Shivaji's legacy (January 31, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those who have watched the 2002 TV production of James Hilton’s celebrated Goodbye, Mr Chips may recall a scene where Chips, now the Headmaster of Brookfield, reads out the names of those teachers and old boys who had fallen in the battles of the Great War. When he announces the name of Max Staefel, a close friend who taught German in less troubled times, a murmur of dissatisfaction runs through the Assembly: Staefel was German and had died fighting for the ‘other side’. Chips pauses, looks directly at the boys and utters a memorable line: “A man is not a country.”

I don’t know if the ability to distinguish between an individual and his nationality or, for that matter, a man and his religion, is one of the attributes of the Shiv Sena. Probably not. What else can explain its rigid determination to make a huge issue of a possible participation by individual Pakistani cricketers in the IPL tournament? Mercifully, it won’t come to that because the hyper-sensitive authorities in Pakistan have announced that they will not permit their cricketers to play the T-20 pyjama cricket.

Of course the Shiv Sena isn’t content with merely threatening Pakistanis. It has, for very different reasons, decided to target any celebrity who has the gumption to proffer opinions different from its narrow-minded politics. Shahrukh Khan has been threatened for regretting the absence of Pakistanis from his Kolkata Knight Riders team. Sena activists have warned cinema halls to not screen his new film My Name is Khan. Mukesh Ambani has been told that he is unfaithful to Mumbai because he believes in an overriding Indian identity. Earlier, Sachin Tendulkar was attacked for a similar pronouncement. And, even earlier, there was all that fuss over the rise in the number of Chhat pujas in Mumbai.

To only blame the Shiv Sena, or its estranged cousin Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, for injecting intolerance into Mumbai is to exonerate another culprit. The State Congress played an equally cynical game by attempting to impose a language test on aspiring taxi drivers. It was apparent to everyone, not least the Congress high command, that this was Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s way of getting a slice of the Marathi manoos constituency.

Yet, it is undeniable that it is the Sena and its offshoot that are primarily responsible. The Sena parivar appears to be hell bent on pursuing the politics of notoriety. Shahrukh wasn’t the only person who expressed his regret at the exclusion of players from Pakistan in this year’s IPL. Even Home Minister P Chidambaram, who has even confessed to being a cricket fan, has stated his unhappiness — though, I suspect, the IPL authorities wouldn’t have imposed their informal ban without some sort of signal from the Government of India. So why single out Shahrukh?

The charitable explanation is that Shahrukh is a celebrity and targeting him is calculated to spread the Sena message without any effort. Amitabh Bachchan was similarly pilloried when he did those unfortunate pre-election Uttar Pradesh promotion films for Mulayam Singh Yadav. The Big B has subsequently emerged as a brand ambassador for tourism in Gujarat. Mercifully, the Sena didn’t think that celebrating the salt dunes of the Rann of Kutch is an insult to the Marathi manoos.

Shahrukh has been targeted because he bears a Muslim name. There is no other explanation. I am aware that the charge of communalism has often been bandied about very casually, not least by those who imagine that criticism of Pakistan is tantamount to attacking all Muslims. On this occasion, however, the ‘communal’ charge is justified. The Shiv Sena is exposing its intolerance.

The recent behaviour of the Sena raises uncomfortable questions for its alliance partner. Among the features of the BJP were its insistence that India is one country and that there should be “justice for all and appeasement of none”. It has rightly been critical of job reservations on the basis of religion and has steadfastly opposed the ‘special status’ of Jammu & Kashmir under Article 370. Yet, it has been paralysed into silence by the antics of its long-time alliance partner. Even the RSS has remained a mute spectator to the Sena parivar’s shenanigans.

What the Shiv Sena is in effect demanding is an Article 370 for Maharashtra that would confer exceptional rights on ‘State subjects’ and deny these to others who would presumably be categorised ‘guest workers’. Apart from the sheer insanity of distorting the momentum of India’s business capital — whose beneficial fallout also touches the Marathi manoos — the Shiv Sena has now begun to question the primacy of Indian citizenship. In effect, the Sena is demanding a two-tiered sovereignty for Maharashtra, a demand that is qualitatively little different from the demand for ‘dual sovereignty’ in Jammu & Kashmir. Has Uddhav Thackeray and his cousin weighed the implications of what they have undertaken? Do they realise the chaos if every second State presses for exclusionary laws?

It is time the BJP considered the implications of associating with a party that seems hell-bent on fracturing Indian nationhood. The muscle-flexing of the Sena has gone unchallenged and unquestioned for too long. If the BJP doesn’t want to stand up and be counted, it may as well proclaim that all that lofty talk of idealism and ideology is pure humbug.

As for the Shiv Sena, it should realise that Shivaji didn’t proclaim himself the King of the Deccan; he was anointed the Hindu Maharaj; his kingdom was the Hindu pad padshahi. The Sena is ensuring that Shivaji’s grand canopy is shrunk to the size of a handkerchief.

Sunday Pioneer, January 31, 2010

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mind your language, we're all Indians (January 31, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For someone whose fluency in the languages of the Aryavarta is fairly basic, there are few things more exasperating than being caught in the crossfire of incomprehension at social gatherings where, as a rule, you meet people of your own social strata. Delhi is ostensibly the Capital of India, the administrative centre of a country with multiple languages and cultures. Yet, there is an unstated presumption that most Indians are sufficiently multi-cultural to able to laugh at risqué jokes in Punjabi and say ‘wah-wah’ to the Urdu couplet most appropriate for the occasion.

The one occasion when, out of sheer perversity, i feebly asked for subtitles, there were twenty pairs of eyes accusing me of being a rootless Angrez.

Negotiating the linguistic clutter of India is never easy and invariably prone to social and political misunderstanding. I recall a curious encounter with a shopkeeper in Southall, the ‘Indian’ ghetto in London, in the early-1980s. Having ordered a takeaway, the man at the counter asked me politely: “Are you an Indian?” “Yes,” i replied. “Can you speak Punjabi?” he queried. “I’m afraid not,” i confessed. “Well, can you speak Gujarati?” Again, i confessed my inability. “What sort of an Indian are you?” he barked indignantly.

It’s a question that left me flummoxed. Unwilling to engage in a discourse on the linguistic complexities of India, i left the Southall desi content with the satisfaction that he had ticked off a rootless wonder—one who didn’t know the two Indian languages most prevalent in the UK.

The encounter in Southall came to mind last week on reading a report from the Jaipur Literary Festival, an event that is fast becoming the place-to-be-seen each January. In a bewildering intervention, diplomat-author Pavan Varma suggested that independent India began on the wrong culture when Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his memorable “tryst with destiny” speech in English. According to him, it was indicative of a perverse mindset and “testimony to how the roots of our own languages were weakened in 200 years of colonial rule.” Nehru, it would, seem, set the tone for the subsequent marginalization of the mother tongues in India.

Like the man from Southall, Varma seemed to be asking: “What sort of Indian was Nehru?”

Having tasted the Jaipur experience for two consecutive years, it may be presumed that Varma’s tirade against the cultural inadequacies of those Indians who see English as a status symbol went down rather well. The festival has always been marked by an undercurrent of tension between those who crave the opportunity to hear and interact with internationally-acclaimed writers and those who turn to protest against the less exalted billing to bhasha—the newspeak for what was earlier called the ‘vernacular’. The bhasha brigade tends to be somewhat assertive in flaunting their victimhood and, like Varma, invariably succeed in guilt-tripping the Angrezi-wallas. Denouncing the apparent colonization of the mind is trendy.

Bhasha may be shorthand for Indian languages but in practice it has become a euphemism for Hindi. The real grievance of the Hindi chauvinists isn’t that the language has been ignored. Hindi is the primary language of politics (but not statecraft). It dominates TV and Bollywood, and it is the language most understood throughout India. Its functional importance is undeniable. Apart from Tamil Nadu where its encroachments are fiercely resisted, a smattering of Hindi can see you through most of India.

However, there is one shortcoming Hindi hasn’t been able to overcome: its lack of respectability. It suffers from a deep, age-old inferiority vis-a-vis Urdu and an inability to cope with the disdain of more evolved languages.  Contrary to what Varma believes, colonial rule and exposure to European ideas saw a flowering of regional languages in the three presidencies. Hindi’s rise was post-1947 and dictated by political necessity.

In Bengal, a state familiar to me, the upwardly mobile, concurrently fluent in English, were never embarrassed by the presence of bhasha newspapers and books in their homes. In Hindi-dominated Delhi, material prosperity has triggered a comic Westernization, not least of which is the massacre of the English language.

India is routinely embroiled in contrived controversies over language. Periodically, nationalist assertion involves

Angrezi-bashing and shadow boxing with a colonial past. Yet, thanks to a globalization from which India has profited greatly, these outbreaks of seasonal hysteria rarely cross the bounds of a phoney war. English has continued to gain in usage but India isn’t likely to become a cultural outpost of the Anglosphere. India’s English is the language of abstraction, ideas and business; Hindi is for everyday communication.

It’s a replay of the Persian-Hindustani hierarchy in Mughal India. Perhaps Nehru anticipated this: he spoke to the nation in English and to voters in Hindi.

Sunday Times of India, January 31, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: The Munshi of Bartania (January 30, 2010)

Victoria & Abdul: The True Story Of The Queen’s Closest Confidant
By Shrabani Basu
Rupa | 229 pages | Rs 395

By Swapan Dasgupta

Queen Victoria never visited India. But more than any other monarch she cast a mystical spell over her distant subjects. The Empress of India or the ‘Maharani’, as she was popularly referred to, became an enduring symbol of the British Empire in India. Regardless of the subsequent turmoil that resulted in the eclipse of the Raj just 46 years after her death, the reign of the ‘Old Queen’ invariably invoked wistful nostalgia. The Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 came to symbolise just government and the ‘Queen’s peace’ was a shorthand for prolonged stability—the respite India yearned for after a century of turbulence.

Six decades after Independence, invoking the romance of the Victorian age isn’t fashionable—neither in Britain nor in India. Even ‘Victorian values’, which once denoted thrift, enterprise and restraint, has been recast as privilege, snobbery, even racism. This rewriting of history may well be a commentary on Britain’s current fads but it also underlines the hazards of exploring a curious chapter of Victoriana: the bizarre saga of Munshi Abdul Karim.

Abdul’s fall is attributed to the aristocracy’s racism, but the fact that he was pushy, oily and obnoxious perhaps contributed more.

Having worked the royal archives, Shrabani Basu has written a charming, lively and rigorous narrative of the complex relationship between a slightly dotty Queen and a slippery Indian from Agra who rose from serving at the table to her closest confidant. Like many powerful and lonely widows, Victoria needed an emotional crutch. After the death of her beloved husband, Albert, she turned to the gruff Scottish stable hand John Brown—a relationship that became the object of salacious gossip. The void left by Brown’s sudden death was filled by Abdul Karim, one of the two servants Victoria imported from India in 1887 to impress visiting royalty. Abdul became the Queen’s shadow, teaching her Urdu, filling her mind with his sectarian views on Indian affairs and jumping headlong into court intrigues.

The final decade of Victoria’s life was dominated by Abdul, who made himself so unpopular and controversial that within a week of the Queen’s death in 1901 he was turfed out of Windsor. His private papers were destroyed. A frightened Abdul returned quietly to India, never wrote his memoirs and died unsung.

The ‘Munshi-phobia’ that gripped the court and contributed to Abdul’s fall has been attributed by Basu to the incipient racism of the British aristocracy. To her, the final harassment of the Munshi is even reminiscent of post-9/11 Islamophobia—a needlessly gratuitous extrapolation. Indians were a rarity in Victorian Britain. The few who were visible were either visiting princes or soldiers who helped add colour to the pageantry on occasions such as the Jubilee and exhibitions. They were viewed as exotic examples of a far-flung Empire. The princes were favourites of the upper classes,  and were mercilessly fleeced for this privilege. They were also consulted by policymakers, their social sensitivities were accommodated and their sense of hierarchy respected. In an age where the landed aristocracy had total influence, the princes fitted into the notion of ‘traditional leaders’. The Queen herself played a major role in being hospitable to the visiting princes, securing expensive gifts and winning their undying loyalty.

Abdul was an oddball. His origins were humble and his education meagre. He tried to circumvent this lack of pedigree by using his clout with the Queen to demand privileges, trying to shape policy and, worse, insisting he be treated on par with the members of the court. He had the temerity to send a Christmas card to Viceroy Lord Elgin—seen as an act of insolence—and, to the horror of the India Office, demanded a knighthood. Victoria didn’t help matters by being irritatingly persistent that Abdul get whatever he wanted.

Abdul didn’t know where to stop. His downfall was triggered not on account of race—that entered the picture as an expression of distaste—but because he was pushy, oily and obnoxious. Abdul replicated Indian techniques of social mobility and personal self-aggrandisement to a society with very different rules. He lacked subtlety and judgement. In the final analysis, Abdul lost out because he made Victoria look extremely foolish. This seems the inescapable conclusion of this thoroughly researched and elegantly written history.

Outlook, February 8, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pakistan’s affront a certificate for India (January 24, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The sharp reaction in Pakistan to the non-inclusion of any of its players in next season’s IPL may seem needlessly petulant. The IPL, after all, is a privately-sponsored tournament and if team owners collectively decide that it is not worth the hassle to involve Pakistani cricketers, it can hardly be said to be a calculated affront to the Pakistani state and its people. It’s a bit like a Pakistani music director claiming that Aamir Khan has insulted his country by refusing to sign him up for his next blockbuster. Life is not always a great conspiracy; momentous decisions are often taken on mundane considerations, peripherally related to lofty matters of state.

Nevertheless, I am heartened by the shrillness of the reaction in Pakistan. If anything, it only goes to prove that Pakistanis attach a great deal of value to the glamour of playing cricket in India. In the 1970s, when India was a struggling socialist country, mired in shortages, the ultimate prize for cricketers was a berth in an English country side. I recall the outpouring of national pride when the dashing Farokh Engineer kept wicket for Lancashire in the 1970s. Pakistanis must have felt an equal measure of pride seeing Asif Iqbal captain Kent, Majid Khan open the innings for Glamorgan, Zaheer Abbas top the averages for Somerset and Intikhab Alam prop up Surrey. That was because England was perceived as the headquarters of cricket. Overseas cricketers even lusted for contracts with club sides in the Lancashire League.

An associated feature of this craving to be recognised in England was the dejection, which quickly turned to anger, if something went wrong. Sourav Ganguly was contracted to play for Lancashire in 2000. Unfortunately, he was not a great success. According to a report in Wisden Cricketer (helpfully included in Sourav’s Wikipedia entry), “The imperious Indian — dubbed ‘Lord Snooty’ — deigned to represent Lancashire in 2000. At the crease it was sometimes uncertain whether his partner was a batsman or a batman being despatched to take his discarded sweater to the pavilion or carry his kit bag. But mutiny was afoot among the lower orders. In one match Ganguly, after reaching his 50, raised his bat to the home balcony, only to find it deserted.”

Predictably, there were many in India (and too many in Bengal) who equated Sourav’s adjustment problems with English racism. They were reacting in a manner entirely becoming of subject peoples who have nothing apart from victimhood for succour.

What we are seeing in Pakistan is eerily reminiscent of an earlier generation’s love-hate relationship with English cricket. Today, India is the power centre of world cricket; it controls the economics of cricket. There is a natural desire to find a place in Indian cricket — and the public adulation is a bonus. Equally, the anguish of exclusion invariably results in intemperate accusations of bias and national humiliation.

Pakistan’s affront is the best certificate for Indian cricket and, by implication, the Indian economy. Along with Bolywood, the IPL is evidence of India’s soft power. Whether we like it or not, IPL is no longer perceived as a private sector initiative; Lalit Modi’s preferences have a bearing on wider perceptions of India. When the Bangladeshi bowler Mashrafe Mortaza was ‘bought’ by Shah Rukh Khan’s team last year for a whopping $600,000, it didn’t merely attract newer fans for Kolkata Knight Riders, it earned India immeasurable goodwill in a neighbouring country that is prone to be rather prickly in its dealings with the big neighbour.

From the perspective of statecraft, it would have made eminent sense for the IPL to have acquired the services of a few Pakistani cricketers. Instead, we are confronted by the needless spectacle of most Pakistanis perceiving the exclusion as a national affront.

India is a point of envy for most non-bigoted Pakistanis; the bigoted ones hate India for precisely that reason. There is a tendency in Pakistan to contrast its own miserable plight (which includes a daily dose of suicide-bombing) with the liberal dynamism of India. Many Pakistanis feel towards India the same way as India feels for the US. There is a desperate desire to be acknowledged.

By ignoring its cricketers, the IPL has unwittingly given a cynical Pakistani Establishment a convenient handle with which to arouse further hatred of the traditional enemy. In suggesting that Pakistan should introspect over why its players are not wanted, South Block has complicated matters and given a private matter an official twist.

At the heart of the problem is the insufficient realisation in India that we are no longer a pathetic Third World country. A ham-handed Home Ministry mindset still seems to dictate many of our responses to complex issues. For example, the silly post-Headley visa regulations meant that many writers from overseas couldn’t make it to the Jaipur Literary Festival. The two-month bar on multiple entries into India also meant that some chose to give the event a miss, rather than make convoluted travel plans.

I don’t know the extent to which a one-size-fits-all visa regime strengthens national security. But imagine if Britain or the US had imposed similar restrictions on overseas visitors. Would we have nodded our acquiescence of their homeland security or would we have cursed them solidly and charged them with xenophobia?

National security is paramount. But before we insist that every knee-jerk restriction is put into effect indiscriminately, it would be beneficial to consider the reaction if we were at the receiving end. The inability to be discerning cost the US enormous good will. India would do well to learn the lessons and move towards an uncompromising but enlightened national security regime, one that is blessed with intelligence and discretion.

Sunday Pioneer, January 24, 2010

The Wonder That Is India (January 23, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, a body called Reputation Institute published a poll of how some countries perceived themselves in terms of “overall respect, trust, esteem, admiration and good feelings”, and how these countries were in turn viewed by others. Predictably, the perception gap was the least for countries such as Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Japan and even UK. In the case of India, it was as high as 32 points, around the same as the US.

It was reassuring that 82 per cent of Indians are basking in self-esteem—the corresponding figures were 79 per cent for China, 77 per cent for the US and a measly 57 per cent for Japan. In 1997, a poll had suggested that some 60 per cent of Indians thought they were better off under British rule.

Opinion polls are never conclusive but the Reputation Institute exercise does point to a phenomenon that has often been corroborated by anecdotal evidence: Indians feel that the 21st century is theirs.

The headiness that marks 60 years of the Indian Republic is a departure from the gloomy pessimism of earlier decades. Amid this high, it’s easy to forget that not very long ago the haunting face of a hungry Indian child was used to guilt-trip the West into parting with loose change. My parents used to talk about the unspeakable horrors of the 1943 Bengal famine; I recall the grim shortages that marked the mid-1960s; my son, a product of the market economy, takes material comforts for granted.

Nationalist history has stressed the starry-eyed idealism of an India that heard Jawaharlal Nehru making a “tryst with destiny” and witnessed Rajendra Prasad sign the Constitution 60 years ago. But that was half the story. India was intoxicated by the sweet air of freedom after centuries of servitude but its exuberance wasn’t universally shared.

On the far-Right of this ‘perception gap’ stood Winston Churchill who viewed Indian independence as the betrayal of a sacred trust. Using Gibbon’s imagery, he even prepared a speech prophesying that “to India it may well be the age of Antonines”; he never delivered it. Still, he fell back on the horrors of Partition to lament “one of the most melancholy tragedies Asia has ever known”—the end of Empire.

On the far-Left of the brigade of sceptics stood the Communists, determined to turn human tragedy into political advantage. After a Moscow-dictated shift in the party line saw the elevation of B.T. Ranadive as general secretary, the Comrades took to the streets chanting ‘ye azadi jhooti hai’. The insurrection against a ‘spurious’ independence saw grotesque acts of political adventurism: an ultra-Left group stormed the Jessop factory in Calcutta and threw an European manager into the boiler. Mercifully, this delinquency ended in 1951.

Nor was India alone affected by the turbulence; the neighbourhood proved equally volatile. In Pakistan, the murder of Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951 triggered a wave of sectarian discord, regional tensions and political instability and paved the way for a military coup in 1958. In Burma, soldiers barged into Parliament in July 1947 and gunned down Aung San, the leader of the nationalist movement, and six of his ministers. The tragedy paralysed democracy and eventually led to General Ne Win’s eccentric socialism. Only Ceylon, ironically the only country that never had a mass-based nationalist movement, proved an island of democratic stability — at least till 1956 when Sinhala nationalism brought in ethnic complications, frequent changes of Constitution and, finally, a deeply damaging 25-year civil war.

In hindsight, India seems to have come out of decolonisation least damaged. A commitment to bad ideology meant it had to wait till 1991 for sensible economics to prevail and entrepreneurial opportunities to return. Yet, for 60 years the political edifice created by the founding fathers of the Republic held — barring an 18-month aberration during the Emergency. India conducted 15 democratic elections and witnessed peaceful transitions of government. The military remained outside politics, the judiciary stayed independent and civil liberties were preserved and even extended. There were bouts of political turbulence and civil unrest but these didn’t jeopardise the Constitution.

This awesome 60-year record must seem inexplicable to those who tore their hair for 30 years trying to work out viable and acceptable institutions of self-government for India. Constitution-making for India didn’t begin in 1947; its origins go back to the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919. Thereafter, it went through a bumpy and treacherous ride — the Simon Commission Report, the three Round Table conferences, the Cripps Mission and the Cabinet Mission — which left many convinced that independent India would be violently ungovernable. But these abstruse and fractious exercises actually helped clear up the clutter for the inheritors of the Raj.

Prior to 1947, there were four major concerns. First, would India be governed by an overriding Centre or be a loose federation, a United States of India? Second, how would religious minorities be given a stake in the new dispensation? Third, how would the internal differentiations within Hindus be tackled to prevent, as many feared, Brahmin domination? Finally, how would democracy square with mass poverty and

Partition resolved the seemingly intractable strong-Centre versus federal debate. The biggest votaries of a weak Centre walked away into Pakistan. Partition also ensured that the role of minorities wouldn’t become an instrument of permanent political blackmail. India’s multi-religious character could be preserved within the parameters of a liberal Constitution that followed the spirit of the Queen’s Proclamation to not override faith and custom. The only difference was that while the British after 1858 tried to steer clear of all Indian social customs, free India confined its prohibitions to minority sensitivities. As for iniquities within Hindu communities, the Poona Pact of 1932 was carried over and extended to affirmative action in government employment. Mandal took it a step further. The formation of linguistic states cemented another possible area of discord. Today, however, there is a danger of some ghosts from the past reappearing.

The final issue was the evolution of political consciousness and the creation of a democratic culture. This proved a long time coming but the process was helped by the remarkable political self-assurance of the Congress Party. Till 1967, the party leadership didn’t have adequate incentives to attempt a derailment of democracy. Only Indira Gandhi had other ideas. Fortunately, the brief Emergency interlude ended up making Indians fanatically committed to the system. After 1977 India imposed a moratorium on quick-fix, radicalism. Demands for a “committed” bureaucracy and judiciary and a presidential system have become politically unacceptable.

Yet, India’s success with democracy wouldn’t have happened without the presence of a middle class that had imbibed a measure of European Enlightenment and combined it with patriotic selflessness. It was the relative irrelevance of this class in Pakistan that gave feudal landlords and soldiers the upper hand in that country. Lord Macaulay may be a swear word for those untainted by cosmopolitanism but contemporary India has reason to appreciate the prescience of his 1835 mission statement: “Come what may, self-knowledge will lead to self-rule.”
India’s thriving Republic is an Indian achievement but it’s also an outcome of inheritance.

Times of India, January 23, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A different tea party (January 22, 2010)

The Massachusetts result gives opposition to Obama a fillip

By Swapan Dasgupta

Less than two years ago, the American historian, Simon Schama, began The American Future: A History with the melodramatic lines: “I can tell you, give a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7.15 pm. Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodore Roosevelt High.” Schama then went on to describe the presidential primaries in the nondescript town of Des Moines in Iowa and the silent upsurge that saw an unknown Senator Barack Obama edge past his better known Democratic Party rivals in Precinct 53.

“It didn’t take a genius, much less a media analyst,” he wrote gushingly, “to figure out what was going on in Iowa: a populist rejection of political business-as-usual: of the dominant orthodoxies.”

I was asleep in the early hours of Wednesday when CNN flashed the Massachusetts Moment: jubilant Republicans in, of all places, Boston, celebrating former male model Scott Brown’s surprise victory over his Democratic rival in a seat held by the iconic Kennedy family since 1952. Unlike Schama, I missed another moment of change. Was it a populist revolt against another dominant orthodoxy? Or was it the trigger of a counter-revolution against the audacity of hype?

Political buffs are forever enthralled by byelections. They are a bit like a capsuled dress rehearsal of another big day; and they are meant to follow a predetermined script and not spring unexpected surprises. The fun begins when the lines get terribly muddled and all hell breaks loose. The phlegmatic fall back on hoary clichés — the ‘wake up call’ and ‘pull up your socks’ being all-time favourites — and the more excitable reactions take the form of abstruse over-generalizations, and the writing of obituaries that often turn out to be woefully premature.

The post-mortem of the Massachusetts Moment has been along both lines. No one, not even the starry-eyed panel that awarded President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for showing potential, could have underplayed the significance of a Democratic defeat in the pocket borough of liberalism. Massachusetts provided three Democratic presidential candidates in the past 50 years. It was also the only state to vote against Richard Nixon in the one-sided election of 1972 — a contrariness celebrated by the Watergate era bumper sticker, “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts.”

Massachusetts was to the Democrats what Amethi and Rae Bareli are to the Congress in India and what Ebbw Vale is to the ‘old’ Labour Party in Britain: the custodian of the faith.

Many — the proverbial Namierites in the woodpile — will attribute the conversion of a 30-point lead for the Democrats in November to a five-point deficit on election night to the inadequacies of the Democratic candidate and smug over-confidence. They will refer to the enormous damage caused by her ignorance of which team a local sporting hero played for.

No doubt the small picture can often be more revealing than the grand overview, but the point to note is that the upset was caused not because loyal Democrats stayed at home (the usual way of protesting against an imperfect candidate) but because the unattached section voted Republican. More to the point, the winner mounted a single-minded campaign against the president’s trillion-dollar healthcare initiative and garnished it with sweeping asides against the pitfalls of being good to terrorists. If byelections are often a vehicle of single-issue protest, a way of rocking the boat without sinking it, Massachusetts was its perfect illustration. Yet, the sheer magnitude of the swing against the Democratic Party — Obama won the state in November 2008 with a 27-point margin — suggests that the byelection result could be a pointer to a deeper stirring in American society.

What Schama would undoubtedly have found interesting and indicative of the overall health of a resuscitated democracy is the role of activists from an organization that calls itself the Tea Party Patriots, an allusion to the famous Boston tea party of 1773. Created in early-2009 as a reaction to what it perceived was the Obama administration’s growing reliance on government intervention, TPP’s mission statement is unambiguous: “The impetus for the Tea Party movement is excessive government spending and taxation. Our mission is to attract, educate, organize, and mobilize our fellow citizens to secure public policy consistent with our three core values of Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.”

Using the disquiet over lavish bailout packages, the mounting fiscal deficit, ‘ObamaCare’ and the administration’s ‘softness’ towards the ‘enemies of America’, the movement created an alternative grassroots conservatism that has steadily chipped away at the liberal sanctimoniousness which propelled the Obama victory in 2008. Its ‘tea parties’ in some 200 towns have attracted those always uneasy with the underlying permissiveness of the Obama phenomenon but who nevertheless shied away from the neo-conservatism of the Bush-Cheney era.

American conservatism has traditionally been bipartisan and blessed with a self-image of robust common sense, a euphemism for what is painted as the “American way” by creatures as diverse as Superman, John Wayne and Arnold Schwarzenegger. A large swathe of the United States of Ameica always nurtured serious misgivings over the politico-cultural dimensions of the “Yes we can” trumpeters but were intimidated into passivity by the sheer energy of the Obama campaign. Now, and despite the apparent disarray in the Republican Party, these voices are beginning to find a focus.

The Massachusetts victory is calculated to give the opposition to Obama a fillip. It is premature to write off the president and see his declining approval ratings after a year in office as setting the stage for a paralysed presidency. Obama still has vast reserves of goodwill at home and abroad to stage a political recovery. However, he has a problem within the constituency that voted him to power so enthusiastically.

Obama epitomized a yearning for a kinder, gentler, younger, ethnically diverse America. His America implicitly negated many of the assumptions of both conservatism and traditional liberalism. In power, the president has been unable to satisfy those most vocal in his support.

Afghanistan is a case in point. A large section of those who voted for Obama clearly felt that the US should rapidly extricate itself from an unwinnable war. By implication they also believed that a withdrawal would insulate the US from the wrath of the Islamists. The desire to opt out was, however, completely at odds with the military that demanded more troops on the ground. Late last year, the generals got three-fourths of the 40,000 extra troops they had sought but this concession was coupled with the rider that US forces would withdraw by mid-2011, an unrealizable proposition.

The net effect is a muddle. The military resent an impractical deadline that bolsters the Taliban’s resolve and encourages Pakistani obstreperousness; the peaceniks feel that Obama has been sucked into a system that is inherently at odds with the values they felt he stood for. In 2008, Obama’s success rested on both America tiring of the Bush administration and an ambiguity over what he actually stood for. A year later, Bush is history but the mystery of the ‘real’ Obama persists.

This confusion over what the administration really wants to achieve has set the stage for a backlash, as witnessed in Massachusetts. Obama is not being hounded by a coalition of white supremacists and illiberal Christians — the famous “Right-wing conspiracy” the Clintons once invoked. His problems arise from those who still believe in the greatness of America and can’t bear to see it transformed into another namby-pamby Europe, playing second fiddle to a resurgent China.

There is hope for America, despite Obama.

The Telegraph, January 22, 2010

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Basu and Bengal were made for each other (January 18, 2010)

[This is the English version of an obituary published in Ananda Bazar Patrika (Bengali) on January 18, 2010]

By Swapan Dasgupta

Growing up in Calcutta in the 1960’s and early-1970s in a household with strongly Congress inclinations, I can vividly recall the outpouring of venom that greeted the very mention of Jyoti Basu. In those turbulent days spanning the slow loss of Congress dominance and the violent transformation of West Bengal into a “Red Fort”, Basu was at the epicentre of controversy. As the most visible Communist mass leader he was perceived by many as the evil choreographer of West Bengal’s plunge from a settled existence into uncertainty, verging on anarchy.

The image of a fiery revolutionary bent on turning the world upside down may have been sharply at odds with the benign bhadralok who missed becoming India’s first Bengali Prime Minister by a whisker in 1996, and that too as a consensus candidate. But an evolving image was a feature of a gentleman who first became a player before Independence and was in the crease for more than six decades. The Jyoti Basu held under preventive detention in 1962 by Dr B.C. Roy for his known pro-China sympathies was a very man from the venerable elder statesman who helped forge the Congress-CPI(M) understanding at the Centre in May 2004.

Few individuals can boast a more fulfilling and chequered political life as Jyoti Basu. Since the time he entered the Legislative Assembly of undivided Bengal way back in 1946, Jyoti Basu has been a decisive force in the politics of West Bengal. As Leader of Opposition from 1952 to 1967 during the days of Congress dominance, Deputy Chief Minister in the two United Front governments between 1967 and 1967, the longest-serving Chief Minister from 1977 to 2000 and elder statesman in his twilight years, Basu’s life encapsulates both the history of West Bengal and the Communist movement since Independence.

History and another generation will be better placed to assess what Jyoti babu made of the many opportunities that came his way. Did he live up the idealism of those bright young Indians from respectable homes who travelled to England in preparation of a career but ended up as revolutionary foot-soldiers of Pollitt and Palme-Dutt? Or did he, in a strange sort of way, live up to his inheritance as a pillar of respectability and stodginess? To use the imagery of Ashok Mitra, was Jyoti Basu more a Communist or more a Bengali bhadralok?

At the sartorial level, the answer was obvious. Aesthetically, there was nothing outlandish and, therefore, Communist about the man. Jyoti babu didn’t fight the class war by wearing rubber chappals and non-ironed clothes to prove his proletarian credentials. Always correct and decorous, he carried himself with an air of superiority, tinged with brusqueness. He loathed flash but liked the tasteful good life and, above all, his summer vacation in London. Jyoti babu was transparent; he wasn’t a poseur.

This innate decency endeared Jyoti babu to a state where the CPI(M) evolved from being a party of radical change to an outfit that championed Bengali regional aspirations. His natural desire to temper the rough edges of ideology made him a natural face of the party in times good and bad. But what did he make of this golden opportunity?

Jyoti Basu became Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1977 at a time when the state was engulfed by two distinct crises: an economy crippled by a decade of Left militancy and Congress high-handedness, and a civil society distorted by a perverse sense of entitlement. In his mind Basu knew that recovery was possible if Bengal could reinvent itself as a destination for profitable investment. He was also painfully aware that economic revival was possible if there was an improvement in Bengal’s work culture and decline in the 24x7 preoccupation with politics. Although the Communist victory had been made possible by the collapse of the old culture of deference, Basu knew that the state’s revival was possible by lowering the political temperature.

This was not what his colleagues believed. Initially, the party went in for radical land reforms and decentralisation of power to consolidate its hold in the countryside. But after five years, this strategy had run its course—though the political dividends keep flowing to this day. When it came to the revival of manufacturing and the creation of a new services sector, the Chief Minister found himself outvoted inside the party. His government adopted measures such as the abolition of English teaching till class 5 and the politicisation of institutions which set West Bengal behind by decades. Trade union militancy and crippling power cuts led to the decimation of small and medium industry. To the investing classes, Bengal became a big no-no. Its efficiency was limited to the organisation of bandhs.

Basu could have used his clout as the Bengali patriarch to force a reformist agenda. He chose the line of least resistance—arguing feebly for pragmatism inside the party but endorsing the collective view in public. Ideologically, he wasn’t much of a Communist but in following the “party line” faithfully, he was a model Comrade.

Jyoti Basu was India’s longest-serving Chief Minister, being in office for 23 years. Politically, his achievement is colossal. However, measured against where West Bengal stood in 1977 against where it reached in 2000, Basu will be regarded as one of the most spectacular non-achievers in recent times. He inherited a crumbling edifice and bequeathed a similar structure to his predecessor. He merely prevented the roof from caving in.

Maybe Basu’s exalted status is a reflection of the Bengali distaste for both achievement and change. Basu and Bengal were made for each other.

India needs more Argumentative Indians (January 17, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta


Earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the awards ceremony hosted by the Infosys Foundation as a proud parent: his daughter Upinder was being awarded the prize for history.

As he cherished the moment, a few thoughts must have run through the PM's mind. First, this was a rare occasion that a historian was being honoured by a reputable Indian body. Modern India's priority has hitherto been limited to the sciences, technology, medicine and, inexplicably, something called 'management'. IITs and IIMs have become the shorthand for Indian enlightenment; the liberal arts have been edged out of a new order centred on hustle.

Secondly, the PM must have reflected on his daughter's difficult journey to the top of the academic pile. A scholar of ancient Indian history, Upinder's search for academic recognition had been blocked at each stage by a vindictive history establishment. This wasn't on account of academic shortcomings but because she didn't see eye to eye with the 'progressives' and Marxists who insist that only they have a monopoly of the truth. For a discipline where certitudes are elusive, the 'history as science' brigade has been robustly intolerant of alternative narratives.

There was a Marxist professor of history in Delhi University in the 1970s who used to brag in his lectures that "There are two interpretations of history: the Marxist and the bourgeois. And the Marxist version is the correct one." The conventional wisdom was that if you were partial to Marx you would get marks and even tenured posts.
Upinder was among a minority of historians unmoved by this Stalinism. She maintained her intellectual integrity and eventually succeeded in breaking an insidious ideological ceiling.

Challenging the little islands of conventional wisdom and orthodoxy that dot society isn't easy. The inclination to swim with the tide is both expedient and rewarding. In the 1960s, India's slide to inefficiency and economic disaster was enthusiastically endorsed by ideologically self-serving economists who used their talents to rationalize absurdities, including the bizarre theory that public sector losses were actually socially profitable. Jagdish Bhagwati — a leading dissenter who became an intellectual exile — later commented wryly that "India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises."

Feminist theology decrees that the personal is also political. If so, Manmohan Singh must surely acknowledge the virtues of blurting out that many emperors had no clothes. As finance minister, he shepherded India out of an inefficient, over-regulated and corrupt economy and triggered a recovery of national self-esteem. He endured many taunts, including a Leftist charge of being a "quisling". But at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that challenging Nehruvian orthodoxy proved rewarding for India, even if the PM who initiated the process has been deemed a non-person.

This is why there is something disingenuous about the Congress' shrill over-reaction to Shashi Tharoor's passing reference to Jawaharlal Nehru's penchant for treating foreign policy as a moralistic running commentary. Tharoor has, understandably, subsequently denied this was his view. However, assuming Tharoor did mean what the media reported, does it constitute a political crime?

There are many contemporary accounts that testify to the widespread global exasperation at the preachiness of Nehru, particularly at a time India was traipsing the world with a begging bowl in hand. Enough too has been written about how a misplaced sense of 'anti-imperialism' blinded Nehru to China's aggressive designs. It is also common knowledge that Nehru was imperiously dismissive of dissent. Even an innocuous contrarian like Nirad C Chaudhuri was hounded by officialdom for contesting nationalist mythologies.

More to the point, the load-bearing pillars of Nehru's foreign policy were demolished by P V Narasimha Rao in 1991 and replaced by a flexibility based on national interests (rather than abstruse humbug). India has profited from the course correction.

Nehru belongs to history. He must be assessed, not merely worshipped. In cracking down on any criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family — strangely the ban doesn't extend to Mahatma Gandhi who is fair game for both scholars and cranks — Manmohan has been unfaithful to himself.

India isn't China where Google is obliged to practice censorship. But let's not delude ourselves that it is a repository of intellectual freedom. India's official culture is too hierarchical, ossified, ritualistic and reverentially theological to make for a truly open and creative society. It is at odds with a civilization that is inherently plural, exaggeratedly accommodative and wildly argumentative. What we need is not merely a "scientific temper" — the search for absolute truths — but a development of the nation's critical faculties, destroyed by centuries of rote learning.

In honouring a historian who hasn't been afraid to question, Infosys Foundation has acknowledged the importance of a rounded India. Hopefully, the recognition won't begin and end with the PM's daughter.


Sunday Times of India, January 17, 2010

Saturday, January 16, 2010

India must not blink on Pakistan (January 17, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was an awesome demagogue. Much before the technique became common currency in the inspirational-talks circuit, he used an ‘interactive’ approach to keep his audiences enthralled. In the course of his speeches he would invariably pose anodyne questions to his listeners and then await the roar of approval. I recall listening on the radio to one of his speeches during the troublesome aftermath of liberation. He posed the question “Do you want more roads?” and waited for the inevitable response. He then asked, “Do you want more buses?” and then gloated over the mass reply.

I am reminded of Mujib in the context of an epidemic of apparent brotherhood that has suddenly gripped a small section of the media and civil society in recent weeks. At numerous occasions we have been asked the question: “Do you want peace between India and Pakistan?”

The answer is obvious. Apart from a handful of crazies, there isn’t anyone in India who is opposed to peace in the neighbourhood, whether it involves Pakistan, China or even Burma. It doesn’t require strategic affairs experts and Track 3 activists to tell us that India would rather be building roads and schools than diverting resources into expensive military hardware. I can’t speak for Pakistan but, presumably, the overall feeling across the Radcliffe Line wouldn’t be all that different. Sensible Pakistanis have had an overdose of jihad and wouldn’t mind exploring other facets of theology.

Of course, there is a flip side to the earnest desire for peace. There is an un-stated assumption that an undeclared war or, if you so prefer, a proxy war exists between India and Pakistan. It is a war that India has experienced in different ways throughout the past decade and which is also being waged in Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the anarchic zones along the Indo-Burmese border. The war has made life insecure in Indian cities, created zones of treachery in ghettos, diverted tourist traffic and even made it difficult for people to accept Rs 500 currency notes without fear of forgeries. Yes, the late Gen Zia-ul Haq’s “war of a thousand cuts” has cost India dearly — although Pakistan too has suffered from the blowback.

It is easy to buy short-term peace by following the essence of Mahatma Gandhi’s intriguing advice to the persecuted Jews of Hitler’s Germany: To be prepared for immeasurable suffering and even a massacre of the entire community since “to the god-fearing, death has no terror”. In political terms this would involve withdrawal from the Siachen heights, agreeing to dual sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir and conceding Pakistan’s overriding sphere of influence in Afghanistan. In other words, leave Pakistan with no substantial grievance against India and, presumably, emerge as such a morally superior nation that the Swedes would have no alternative but to confer the Nobel Prize for Peace on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

If you imagine this is a caricature, just examine the fine print of the writings of those who are praising the “instincts” and “tactical acumen” of the Prime Minister and advocating a “region-led” (as opposed to a “US-led”) approach to Afghanistan. The grapevine in Lutyens’ Delhi suggests that the advocates of such a foreign policy course-correction have the ears of the Prime Minister, but that could well be conjecture. Manmohan does have a penchant for encouraging others to assume the part of a stalking horse — witness Jairam Ramesh’s role in the climate change debate — and taking refuge behind a shield of deniability. The joint Indo-Pakistani statement in Sharm el-Sheikh was one of the few occasions where he allowed full play to his “instincts” and “tactical acumen”. The result was a shamefaced retreat before Parliament and a silly bid to blame the unacceptable formulations on “clumsy” drafting.

What has happened in the months following Sharm el-Sheikh to warrant an overdrive for peace? Pakistan has persisted with its obstructionist attitude towards investigations into the 26/11 Mumbai carnage; more evidence has emerged of Pakistani involvement in the massacre; the wafer-thin line between the Pakistani state and ‘non-state players’ such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba has disappeared; Pakistan itself has been plagued by daily attacks on civilian and military targets by suicide bombers; large chunks of western Pakistan are in the midst of a civil war; the fragile civilian Government in Islamabad has become even more shakier and there is concern over who is actually in charge; and the Kerry-Luger legislation has set the stage for greater US involvement in the civil administration of Pakistan.

If Pakistan was a dangerous place before 26/11, it has become infinitely more volatile in the ensuing 14 months. This is no doubt tough on the Pakistani people, particularly that section of the middle classes which is more at ease in Mumbai and Delhi than at home. To be unable to reciprocate their goodwill towards India is painful and there is a very strong case for enlarging the scope of people-to-people contacts with Pakistan, if only to showcase India’s soft power.

India could certainly do with more visits by Pakistani cricketers, musicians, artists, novelists and others who are genuinely committed to cross-border amity. There is even a case for unilaterally allowing more Pakistani traders to sell their fruits, carpets and shoes to access the Indian market without expecting reciprocity. If this is what is meant by ‘peace’, India should be prepared to go the extra mile.

But that’s where it has to stop for the moment. As far as Government-to-Government relations are concerned, India has absolutely no reason to let down its guard. At least not until there is conclusive evidence that the Pakistani establishment has become weary of persisting with a policy that is aimed at causing maximum pain to India.

The Government of India must not blink.

Sunday Pioneer, January 17, 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Of cooks, barbers and Australians (January 10, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta
For an emerging international player, the Ministry of External Affairs should have an iconic status. In the past weeks, the MEA has, unfortunately, acquired an image of frivolity with its junior Minister constantly getting into scrapes over his Twitter-ing ways and the senior Minister being mocked for being more preoccupied with his appearance than his charge. The perceptions may well be unfair but they have contributed to an overall feeling that South Block could do with an injection of gravitas.

There are times, however, when flippancy may serve an unwitting purpose. Last week, SM Krishna made a telling comment on Australia’s education industry and what he thought was Indian gullibility: “One can understand students going there (Australia) at the university level, at the IIT level or at the level of some other institution of excellence. When I went there, I was shocked to see so many students in courses they don’t need to go to Australia for — such as learning hair-styling or doing facials.”

Krishna needs to be complimented on his belated discovery that the 66,000 Indians who went to Australia last year on student visas aren’t exactly interested in rocket science and that they are unlikely to be short-listed in future for the Nobel Prize. Australia has cleverly used its education industry for two strategic ends. First, to earn itself a whopping Au$ 15 billion, of which the largest share comes from India, each year; and, second, to use bucket shops (masquerading as institutes of ‘higher education’) as a primary point of immigration. The Minister would have been surprised to learn that hair-styling, which he ironically looks down on, and commercial cookery were two of the recognised vocations for converting student visas into residence permits. Australians, it would seem, were short of barbers (or hair stylists if you prefer) and cooks (or chefs if you so like) and were glad to facilitate their entry into the country. The country had the additional satisfaction of knowing that the bulk of these preferred immigrants have paid for the privilege of meeting the manpower shortage.

Australia must be congratulated for evolving a unique, revenue-generating immigration model. It is qualitatively different from that of the US which doles out generous scholarships to the best and the brightest students from India and allures them into the American dream. The US has believed that a particular type of immigrant enhances the creative and competitive thrust of its economy; Australia has used education to cope with basic labour shortages — and not merely in hair-dressing saloons and restaurants. What has made Australia attractive to India’s less academically-inclined students is the fact that studies are at a serious discount. The students pay a whopping fee to an institute and then devote themselves to earning money driving taxis or working as shop attendants in retail establishments, particularly those that are open late into the night. Australian universities, an unnamed academic is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald, “used to be a place of learning; now they are a place of earning.”

I don’t know why Australia persists with the fiction of issuing student visas: These are short-term work visas with a steep entry fee.
This is not to mention that all Australian education is an eye-wash. There are well-regarded universities in the country, maybe even in Melbourne too. The question is: How many of the one lakh plus Indian students are enrolled in them?

It is pertinent to point out the grim reality of what passes for education, particularly in a city such as Melbourne, to disabuse ourselves of the notion that Indian ‘students’ are being targeted by Australians. It is not a town versus gown clash that has made Indians the favourite whipping boys of every disgruntled lout emerging from a pub. Those who are being targeted are Indian workers, the reserve army of potential immigrants.

This doesn’t make the attacks any less heinous. If Australians are repelled by the growth of Indian ghettos in the suburbs of Melbourne and disgusted by the curry smells and Hindi film songs, they must realise that it is a problem of their own creation. It is they who wanted cheap labour and there is a social price to be paid for this luxury.

There is a social problem that is affecting Melbourne and whether Australia likes it or not, it has a strong racial dimension. The crime statistics suggest that Indians are 2.5 times more vulnerable to attacks than others in Melbourne, and yet Australian authorities pretend that crime is colour-blind. The argument is patently disingenuous.

Australia won’t lose brownie points if it honestly admits that the State of Victoria has a serious problem of race-related crimes. It is not going to take away from the fact that the country has travelled a long way from the ‘Whites only’ immigration policy it pursued until the 1960s. Nor will India question the right of Australia to cut down student visas in future because MEA has already recognised that most of the courses aren’t worth spending hard-earned money on. But Australia cannot expect India to sit by idly as its citizens are set upon by goons and harassed and even killed.

The Ku Klux Klan analogy of an Indian tabloid may be an exaggeration (and it certainly wasn’t very funny) but the response to Indian shrillness is not stone-faced Australian denial. Nor does it lie in shrill Australian indignation over the sheer effrontery of India calling someone else racist.

The point which Australia has recognised insufficiently, and which Indians don’t seem to have recognised at all, is that India means something quite different to what it meant 30 years ago. If the race attacks don’t cease, it would be worth the MEA’s while to make the travel advisory more stringent and, as a final resort, advise the Reserve Bank of India to stop all fresh money remittances to Australia for ‘education’ purposes.

Sunday Pioneer, January 10, 2010

Friday, January 08, 2010

An undeserving loser (January 8, 2010)

As political reforms go, Modi’s must-vote bill is an important step

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time when the Indian version of the Honours List was the strict prerogative of the State. In the market economy age, it isn’t necessary for India’s achievers to lobby ministers and officials to get their names on the Republic Day list: there are alternatives.

The ‘season’ in Delhi and Mumbai witnesses a surfeit of functions organized by media houses, ‘academic’ institutes and industry-sponsored foundations aimed at honouring those who have apparently made a difference to the lives of others. There are awards for sports, media, literature, entertainment, governance, philanthropy and business. And, of course, there are the invariable awards for the “Indian of the Year”— politicians are traditionally favoured — and for “Lifetime achievement”. The wicked people say that many awards are rigged, and aimed at securing collateral benefits for the sponsors. But, like the ‘news for sale’ scandal that has gripped the media, that is another story altogether.

A striking feature of the awards is their sheer predictability. Those who observe these things keenly can more or less predict those who are favoured and those who are out of the radar. Taking a cue from the Nobel committee, it is almost pre-ordained that every second award will be offered to Rahul Gandhi — not necessarily for what he has achieved but because, like President Barack Obama, he has potential. For those awarding bodies that have the clout to arrange an acceptance speech (or at least a message), the prime minister will be honoured — again, not necessarily for what he has achieved, but for the position he holds. Among chief ministers, Delhi’s Sheila Dikshit is a permanent favourite for purely logistical reasons.

Equally significant are those who invariably get left out. Orissa’s Naveen Patnaik has about as many achievements as the Delhi chief minister: winning three consecutive elections. Yet, it is rare to see him being honoured. There are few collateral advantages to honouring Patnaik.

Another notable who has been bypassed for the awards is the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. For those who measure achievement through the prism of economic success, Modi stands out. He has presided over the highest growth rate of any state in the past years; he has made efficiency a yardstick of governance; he has curbed corruption dramatically; he has arrested the decline of agricultural productivity in his state; he has put environment on the agenda of development; and he has revelled in innovative governance. By any measure, Modi should have been swimming in awards showered on him.

It is not that his achievements are unknown. Two years ago, a media house conducted a viewers’/readers’ poll for its Indian of the Year. Modi came out tops. Yet, vox populi was discounted in favour of a hand-picked jury, which, predictably, settled for a more socially acceptable candidate. When it comes to Modi, what matters is the burden of the singer and not the song.

Last month, the Modi government undertook an audacious piece of legislation aimed at making the political process more wholesome and more accountable and, by implication, less venal. The Gujarat assembly passed a bill making voting compulsory for all elections to local bodies. In short, universal adult franchise was extended to universal adult participation — a measure adopted by 32 countries and actively enforced in 19. Left to himself, Modi would probably have made voting in assembly and Lok Sabha elections obligatory. But since these come under the purview of the Centre, such a move must await another day.

An interesting feature of the Gujarat legislation is that there is a provision for voters to reject all the candidates on offer — a “none of these” option. Presumably, if the majority of voters rejects the list of aspirants, a re-election will become mandatory. In other words, the act of either neutrality or protest has been built into a system of compulsory participation.

As political reforms go, the Gujarat legislation is one of the most important initiatives in recent times. Yet, it is curious that it has been greeted with an embarrassed but deafening silence, not least from those who are loudest in their indignation over the present debasement of electoral politics. In true babu fashion, the Election Commission has underlined the administrative difficulties of ensuring total participation, and some liberals have expressed dismay at the attempt to codify the obligations of citizenship. Yet others have pointed to the absurdities involved in dragging the sick, infirm and transient voters into the polling booth. In time, there may even be theological objections to a system of participation that isn’t divinely ordained. Even within Modi’s own party, the Gujarat legislation has not secured unequivocal endorsement. The temptation to see the measure as Modi’s personal, overbearing initiative has clouded dispassionate assessment.

The dramatic consequences of compulsory voting need to be spelt out. For a start, since a large percentage of electioneering costs governs the turnout of voters, it is certain to reduce the importance of money power quite dramatically. There will be an automatic shift in focus from ensuring voter turnout to publicizing what a party or candidate stands for. There will be a shift in politics from organization to issues. By implication, the role of the apparatchiks in the political system will be devalued.

Secondly, a major distortion in our election system results from bloc-voting by one section and the relative non-participation by a larger, unorganized and amorphous group of citizens. An organized group can punch above its weight and distort the verdict by capitalizing on the passivity of others. Compulsory voting puts all citizens, regardless of class, gender, caste and religion, on an equal footing. A net consequence could be the lowering of sectarian tensions as an instrument of voter mobilization.

Finally, a government elected with the endorsement of a majority, as opposed to a majority of the minority that turns up to vote, will enjoy extra legitimacy. This, in turn, will be a weapon of decisive governance.

That there are logistical hurdles in the path of an effective implementation of the compulsory voting scheme is undeniable. First, the preparation of electoral rolls must become more rigorous, and there must be easy procedures for citizens to enlist as voters. Secondly, the system of postal voting must be enlarged to cover a larger group of citizens than just government servants and members of the armed forces. If voting is deemed compulsory, it must become more convenient. It may even become necessary to extend the hours of physical voting. Thirdly, there is a difference between making voting obligatory and making it coercive. Since the idea is to increase voter turnout from the all-India average of 55 per cent to around 90 per cent (a 100 per cent turnout is an impossibility), there should be no harassment of those who are either unable to vote or choose to be libertarians. A system of incentives rather than punishment may be more appropriate — a subject that needs more deliberation.

Democracy is one of India’s most cherished attributes. The irony is that this great pillar of strength and national resolve has been systematically undermined by operational shortcomings of the electoral system. With growing prosperity, there is a fear that India could go the way of many Western democracies and become indifferent to the political process. Low turnouts in elections lead to the hijacking of democracy by a determined minority. It contributes to the emotional secession of the contended from citizenship and accords a premium on discontent. Measures to rectify the distortions warrant serious consideration regardless of our personal view of the man who made it happen in Gujarat.

The Telegraph, January 8, 2010

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Paralysed by the enemy within (January 3, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The Noughties has witnessed the most sustained strains in Indo-Pakistan relations in living memory. The decade which began with the infamous Kandahar hijack, has been marked by the attack on the Indian Parliament, the resulting military mobilization, the rancour of the Agra summit, unrelenting terror strikes in both Jammu and Kashmir and other major Indian cities and, finally, the audacious massacre of innocents in Mumbai. The hope, expressed in a joint statement between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and president Pervez Musharraf’s regime in April 2005 that the peace process was “irreversible” has turned out to be wildly unreal. The scale of public indignation over Pakistani terrorism forced Singh to renege on his Jesus Christ acts in Havana and Sharm el-Sheikh.

As of today, the peace process is on hold. As if to symbolize the freeze, even Pakistani cricketers who enjoy a special relationship with Indians, quite detached from political hiccups, have been excluded from the IPL tournament.

An incidental — some would say fortuitous — outcome of this prolonged sparring is civil society’s growing exasperation with Pakistan. There was a time when an older generation, with memories of happier times in Lahore and Karachi, went out of its way to endorse the doctrine of ‘asymmetry’, the belief that an elder brother must show exceptional generosity to younger siblings. Today, as Pakistan itself is devastated by a macabre ritual of suicide bombings and jihadi criminality, there is a belief that Islamabad has to first redeem itself before it is allowed to re-enter the civilized world.

From an earnest desire to befriend Pakistan, today’s Indians are content to embrace individual Pakistanis who are ‘like us’. This may explain why two decade of people-to-people contacts (generously aided by European do-gooders and the conflict resolution industry) have made not the slightest dent in political thinking, although they have generated umpteen individual friendships. Pakistanis may be right to be infuriated by contemporary India’s apparent condescension towards it — a far cry from the days Ayub Khan boasted that one Pakistani was equal to 10 Hindus. But this has less to do with the re-assertion of Brahmanical arrogance than with the economic success India has scripted for itself.

Where the hyphenation previously involved India and Pakistan, today’s comparison is between India and China. Pakistan doesn’t even enter the radar screen, except as a hooded mugger lurking in a dark alleyway.
Ironically, India’s emergence as an economic powerhouse has also contributed immeasurably to both state and public support for the fanatics in Muridke, Bahawalpur and Quetta. For the liberal, creamy layer of Pakistani society — the types who write those wonderful novels and those who attend international conferences — India’s success is enviable. They enjoy the relative openness of our society, the versatility of the Indian experience and the mushrooming of opportunities. Compared to the richness of the Indian kaleidoscope, Pakistan is singularly monochromatic and, if the satirical writings of Moni Mohsin are anything to go by, utterly vacuous.

Thirty years ago, the well-heeled Pakistani pitied India. Today, the boot is on the other foot. Compared to India, Pakistan is no fun.
The tragedy is that more the liberal Pakistani discovers virtues in the New India, the more the ‘Urdu-medium type’ is incensed by the allurement of a Satanic way of life. The bazaars in Pakistan may resonate with an undercurrent of Bollywood — the battering ram of India’s soft power — but this is like a forbidden fruit: an object of both lust and loathing.

The mushrooming of the electronic media in Pakistan has helped replenish the traditional stereotype of a slimy, cunning India. In an article last November, Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid suggested that “The explosion in TV channels... has brought to the fore large numbers of largely untrained, semi-educated and unworldly TV talk show hosts and journalists who deem it necessary to win being more outrageous and sensational than the next channel.” According to him, the signature tune of the new media is conspiracy: “You will be bombarded with talk show hosts who are mostly obsessed with demonizing the elected government, trying to convince viewers of global conspiracies against Pakistan led by India and the US or insisting that the recent campaign of suicide bomb blasts around the country is being orchestrated by foreigners rather than local militants.”

Arguably, India has its own share of shrillness but this is offset by a smugness born out of a rash of global testimonials. The inner turbulence of Pakistan arises from a conscious sense of failure — hence, the growing attractions of a medievalist utopia — and the desperation to prove that it still matters. There is precious little India can do about this disorientation, except be on guard, reach out to ‘Pakistanis like us’ and await Pakistan’s eventual self-realization or, as likely, self-destruction.

Sunday Times of India, January 3, 2010

Subterfuge as UPA policy (January 3, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

By common consensus of the English-language media, Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh is one of the best Ministers in Manmohan Singh’s Government. Erudite, articulate and witty, Ramesh corresponds to the mental image of ‘modern’ India and represents a departure from the insular, fuddy-duddy Ministers that have hitherto epitomised public life. More to the point, unlike many of his predecessors in the Ministry of Environment, Ramesh has taken a keen interest in his responsibilities. At least he cannot be said to have misused his responsibilities to practice what can best be called blackmail environmentalism. Even his worst detractors will not charge him with privately auctioning ‘green’ clearances.

Yet, like most clever people who are conscious of their own cleverness, Ramesh has proceeded on a curious assumption: That he is clever while rest of us are fools.

It may be a tenable working hypothesis as far as Ramesh is concerned but his apparent conceit hasn’t gone unnoticed. Beginning from last October when he wrote his infamous letter to the Prime Minister, Ramesh has done more flip-flops than Shibu Soren. In his private letter to the PM, he suggested that India junk the Kyoto Protocol, delink from G-77 and undertake carbon emission reduction targets without any expectation of technological and financial assistance. Predictably, this created a furore and Ramesh was quick to retreat and assure everyone that he would toe the national consensus and be a good boy. But even before the Copenhagen Summit got underway, there was a revolt in the Indian negotiating team. Ramesh was charged with systematically subverting India’s negotiating strategy: He had questioned the “per capita” principle which is at the heart of the Indian position on climate change. The revolt ended when the Cabinet on December 10 instructed Ramesh to not cross the ‘red lines’ — the equivalent of the Lakshman Rekha — in Copenhagen. Once again Ramesh promised to be a good boy and not play truant.

On returning from Copenhagen, Ramesh told the Rajya Sabha that at the fractious summit “our national interest has not only been protected but enhanced”. When challenged by the clever lawyers and the socially adept Communists in the Opposition, Ramesh was forced to concede that India had indeed breached the “red lines”. On the final day of the past year, Ramesh went a step further and admitted the Copenhagen accord has “inbuilt hazards” and there was a real danger to the very architecture of the Kyoto Protocol. At the same time, he added that the Kyoto agreement was “economically unsustainable” — a coded way of saying that a recession-hit West could not be expected to do prayashcitta for its cumulative assault on Mother Earth.

A casual comparison between the agenda Ramesh spelt out in his private letter to the PM in October and the situation that prevails today will show that he has substantially got his way: the Kyoto agreement is endangered; India has broken from the G-77; it has unilaterally announced 25 per cut emission cuts which will now be subject to a form of international scrutiny; and the West has escaped all liabilities for its dirty growth patterns. In short, Ramesh has cocked a snook at both Parliament and the Cabinet. He promised to be a good boy but ended up breaking all rules and yet being awarded the Harry Flashman Good Conduct Prize.

At one level we can admire Ramesh’s cleverness and his sense of loyalty to an America where he was educated and a China which cultivated him when he was just a freelance busybody in Delhi. However, it would be a mistake to single him out for a place in the rogue’s gallery. Was the Minister acting unilaterally or was he following a script prepared by the Prime Minister? This is a question that I have dreamt of; it is being asked by many officials, Ministers, politicians and environmental activists.
This is not to suggest that India’s position on Climate Change should be written on stone and be forever non-negotiable. Dogmatic adherence to many silly formulations conjured up by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi in their time did the country incalculable harm. India has traditionally had a very weak environmental movement and the “green” business has been needlessly over-bureaucratised. It is also a fact that politicians have tended to be environmentally illiterate and State Governments — with the exception of Gujarat — have been remarkably eco-unfriendly. The pre-Commonwealth Games assault on the environment of Delhi is an example of what can happen when public consciousness is insufficient.

Yet, these national shortcomings cannot justify change through subterfuge. The belief that policy is too complex to be a subject of democratic debate and transparency is also premised on the assumption that only a privileged few possess wisdom. Consequently, it is felt that public discourse should be insulated from meaningful deliberations and be replete with homilies and slogans. It was this underlying intellectual dishonesty that was responsible for a bureaucratised socialism to be replaced by a bureaucratised market economy — remember the time the Congress packaged liberalisation as the highest stage of Nehruvian socialism. Such brazen disingenuity may explain why India's passage away from the licence-permit-quota regime has been imperfect.
The same distortions now threaten to jeopardise the Climate Change debate.

Ironically, the same subterfuge now threatens to overwhelm the debate over autonomy for Jammu & Kashmir. If the Government feels that the State should revert to its pre-1953 status and Kashmir given a permanent “special status”, it should offer the proposals for wider discussion. Pretending that these proposals are the brainchild of some spurious committee which hasn’t met for years doesn’t enhance public confidence in the democratic process.

Manmohan Singh is said to be intellectually astute and he won a clear mandate in the general election. If he wishes to change India, he should do it explicitly and not by stealth. India is over 60 and quite capable of deciding what is in its self-interest.

Sunday Pioneer, January 3, 2010