Friday, April 30, 2010

Appealing alternative (April 30, 2010)

Too much of Britain has changed unrecognizably

By Swapan Dasgupta

Of all the politicians thrown up by the New Labour dispensation in Britain, few can match Lord Mandelson’s reputation for cleverness. Blessed with an impeccable political pedigree (he is the grandson of Herbert Morrison, a cabinet colleague of Clement Atlee and the first head of the London County Council), natural erudition and a mastery of committee politics, Mandelson has often been regarded as the brain behind the reinvention of the Labour Party by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s. Despite two resignations from the cabinet for dodgy personal conduct, the former member of parliament for Hartlepool has been such an adroit political manager that neither Blair nor his dour successor could afford to keep him away from the cabinet room for long. This time, as Labour faces its most difficult election since 1983, Lord Mandelson is back as the party’s principal strategist, fielding hostile questions from the media and putting his spin on the campaign.

Yet, so awesome is Mandelson’s reputation for cleverness that not even the noble act of waging a rearguard battle for Labour is free from speculation over his hidden agenda. It is whispered, in the rarefied circle of hacks with expense accounts, that ‘Mandy’ knows that Gordon Brown is a lost cause and that he is in the game to manage the post-defeat wave of recriminations: ensure a relatively hassle-free leadership transition from Brown to either one of the two baby-faced Miliband brothers, sons of the redoubtable Ralph Miliband of the London School of Economics and Socialist Register fame, or to someone less cerebral but more charismatic.

Curiously, the belief that Mandelson is in the game to ensure another orderly management of decline isn’t shared by his opponents. The perception of Mandelson as a reincarnation of John le Carré’s Karla is so strong that even the possibility of a hung parliament is being attributed to him. The spin doctor, it is said, couldn’t ensure a Labour victory, but at least he will prevent an outright Conservative victory by boosting the prospects of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democratic Party.

Here’s what the London mayor, Boris Johnson, had to say about Mandelson’s ‘devilish’ plot to induce Britons to vote for another election: “I have it on good authority…, that the puffing of Clegg — all that ostentatious ‘I agree with Nick’ stuff from Gordon Brown in the first debate — was entirely deliberate. In agreeing to the debates, Labour thought it had spotted what the Tory high command had missed: that if you put Clegg and (David) Cameron simultaneously before the nation, and the electorate saw two vaguely similar products — telegenic 43-year-old public schoolboys with an air of deep reasonableness — then all at once the Tories would lose their Unique Selling Point.” Even the diabolical Karla couldn’t have done it better.

If British elections have truly been reduced to an elaborate chess game involving Grandmaster Mandelson and two spirited amateurs, it would have signalled a remarkable counter-revolution. If the voters are indeed so gullible and so easily prone to clever manipulation, politics would have become a simple extension of advertising, leaving no role for ideas, policies and social organization.

The remarkable Liberal Democratic surge — some pollsters suggest, particularly after the prime minister’s ‘bigoted woman’ gaffe, that Labour could slip to third place in vote share — may be unappetizing to the Conservatives, and the resulting political impasse may leave Britain more vulnerable to an impending economic crisis of Greek and Icelandic proportions. But the reason for Clegg’s rise in popularity has little to do with the fact that he mirrors Cameron, as Johnson has suggested. A more persuasive clue to the rise of the third party may be located in the social changes that have scarred Britain.

In the past, British voting behaviour was governed by social certitudes: the working class, immigrants and public sector employees voted Labour, the middle classes and the countryside were Conservative bastions and Liberals picked up seats in the Celtic fringe and on the strength of individual candidates. The outcome of an election was settled on the votes of some five per cent floating voters. Occasionally there were major shifts: Margaret Thatcher picked up a large chunk of working-class votes and Tony Blair’s New Labour ate into the Tory share of the middle-class vote.

The most remarkable feature of the 2010 election is the erosion of the core strength of both Labour and Conservative. The cloth-cap socialism of Labour centred on the manufacturing centres has become an anachronism, but so has the robust patriotism and culture of deference that defined the Conservatism of Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan. The epicentre of New Labour wasn’t the East End of London; it was better reflected in the partly gentrified Islington and Ealing. Likewise, Cameron consciously took the heart of the Conservative Party out of the ’Shires and tried to transplant it into London’s gentrified Notting Hill. It’s not that Cameron necessarily believed that this shift was desirable. Like many Conservatives frustrated at being in opposition since 1997, the shift was electorally expedient.

Unfortunately, both parties cannot afford to abandon their old constituencies entirely. Brown can talk about his ‘middle-class values’, a departure from the language of the Red Flag, but he cannot jettison the party’s faith in high taxes to pay for an expensive, expansive and unaffordable public sector.

Cameron, on his part, has forced constituency parties to select more women, blacks and individuals with ‘alternative’ sexual proclivities. He has shied away from addressing the widespread concern over unchecked immigration and he has tried his utmost to reassure voters that the Tories aren’t pathologically hostile to the elaborate social sector. In particular, he has tried to remove the stigma of the Conservatives as a ‘nasty’ party. In a bid to underplay accusations of personifying privilege, he has frequently appeared without a tie, tried to live down his membership of the Bullingdon Club in Oxford, and made the silly decision to send his children to state schools.

Sadly, these gestures have often been seen as too contrived by an emerging class that is more European than British in its social outlook. In the second television debate, an earnest member of the audience actually asked the leaders what they had ‘personally’ contributed to lowering carbon emission. It resulted in Brown having to say that he is using trains rather than taking flights; and it compelled Cameron to proclaim the virtues of some solar panelling in his Notting Hill house. I can’t recall what Clegg waffled but the question was precisely the type of concern that defines the Liberal Democrats — irreverently described as the ‘yellow peril’ on account of their party colour.

The Liberal Democrats are the proverbial ‘nice’ guys who believe in community action, recycled garbage, unilateral nuclear disarmament, human rights, amnesty for illegal immigrants and the euro. Not too many people know what they stand for but they like Clegg for his polished preachiness. In the past, those who felt both the main parties were useless either stayed at home or experimented with the loony far-Right or even the Green Party. Today, the growing ranks of the exasperated who neither like the incumbent nor care much for the decisive belt-tightening that will invariably accompany Tory rule, have an appealing alternative: the unsullied piousness of Clegg.

If the Liberal Democratic bubble doesn’t burst before May 6 and Britain is landed with political uncertainty, it will be a reflection of the fact that too much of Britain has changed unrecognizably, and not necessarily for the better. It is beyond even Mandelson to manage this awkward reality.

The Telegraph, April 30, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Little Britain fights a new Class War (April 25, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

f recent opinion polls mirror the outcome, it would be wise to endorse London Mayor Boris Johnson’s appealing solution to a looming British disaster: “Dissolve the electorate and summon a new one.” There is still a fortnight for Albion to come to its senses, elect a coherent government and prevent a paralysis that could propel a beleaguered economy in the direction of Iceland and Greece.

It is curious that Britons should actually invite the uncertainties of a hung Parliament. By rights, a reinvigorated and fashionably inclusive Conservative Party should have been the natural alternative now that New Labour has lost its way after 13 years in power. But that is not how things are shaping up. The exasperation with Labour has run parallel to nagging doubts over the Tory alternative and a perverse inclination to give the Liberal Democrats a chance to muddy the waters. Apart from a sense of unsullied piousness, there’s no clarity over what the Lib Dems stand for. Yet, this hasn’t stopped an inexplicable groundswell for the third alternative. So much so that Nick Clegg may turn out to be Britain’s answer to H D Deve Gowda.

The bizarre possibility of a hung Parliament at a time of economic uncertainty prompts the question: why is there insufficient enthusiasm for the 44-year-old David Cameron? We can appreciate that voters have tired of Labour and the dour, humourless Gordon Brown. But why has this fresh-faced Bambi not evoked the kind of adulation that greeted Tony Blair in 1997? After all, the two appear to be separated at birth.

The answer is: class. In particular, the inverse snobbery that marks today’s Little Britain.

Brown kicked off the class war on the very first day. When he proclaimed his attachment to his ‘middle-class’ background, he was slyly drawing attention to his opponent’s pedigree.

Cameron’s political ‘disability’ lies in his relationship from his mother’s side and through his wife to the titled aristocracy. Plus, he went to Eton. In the hateful eyes of every Madame Defarge, he is tainted by birth and upbringing. That he subsequently secured a First from Oxford hasn’t lessened his class crimes. Rather than be wowed by his cleverness (not a natural upper class attribute) the class warriors have gleefully pointed to his membership of the Bullingdon, an undergrad dining club that attracted the boisterous and dandy Hooray Henrys of Oxford. If a man can spend a riotous three years in Oxford and still secure a first-class degree, he should, ideally, be a role model. To the new Sparticists, it implied he was a Harry Flashman, the archetypal bounder and cad.

The wheel has turned full circle from the days Lord Curzon deemed a gentleman couldn’t have soup at luncheon or be seen in a brown suit in London.

In the mid-1920s, A J Balfour “nonchalantly assembled a Cabinet… (that) included a brother, a first cousin, a first cousin’s husband, his fag at Eton (and) his fagmaster …” In 1957, Sir Antony Eden appointed an 18-member Cabinet in which 10 were old Etonians, of which five had gone on to Christ Church, Oxford. It took Margaret Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, to reinvent the Conservative Party, make it more middle class and merit-oriented.

Yet, the changes weren’t always appreciated. Harold Macmillan rued that the Thatcher Cabinet had “more old Estonians than old Etonians”, Alan Clarke mocked Michael Heseltine for living in a house where the furniture was ‘bought’ and John Major was taunted as the hick who tucked his shirt into his underpants.

Cameron has tried too hard to live down the stigma of privilege. He has accommodated the sensibilities of a permissive society on faddish issues like gays, single mothers, ethnicity and the environment. Today’s Tory candidates reflect the diversities of a country fanatical about living down its past. For his part, Cameron has banished his children to state schools, shunned private medicine and appears tie-less in posters. His faithful shadow George Osborne (also Eton and Oxford), the heir to a baronetcy, took elocution lessons to hide his verbal class distinction.

Maybe Cameron should have remained authentic and not succumbed to the Levellers. Boris Johnson (also Eton and Oxford) has persisted with his public school impishness — he recently delivered a speech in Latin — and has turned class into an arena of eccentric endearment.

Class has always been a British obsession and British humour has also been driven by the eccentricities of a fading U-non-U (upper class, non-upper class) divide. Yet, there are limits to revelling in social stereotypes. When the accident of birth starts moulding the political preferences of an evolved democracy, as communists hoped it would, it is time to worry. Replacing the arrogance of entitlement with other forms of exclusion is neither progressive nor democratic.


Sunday Times of India, April 25, 2010

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Let state keep its paws off IPL (April 25, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

To those unfamiliar with the byways of Indian politics, last Friday’s Lok Sabha debate on the IPL mess may have seemed a case of Bharat angrily hitting back at India. There was Sharad Yadav sneering at the fundamental dishonesty of the money-bags and pointing fingers in the direction of the evil from Mauritius and Switzerland. There was Gurudas Dasgupta who always gives the impression of being disgusted with everything and, in this case, the trivial pursuit of cricket.

Earlier, we had read about the Left Front Minister in West Bengal advocating a complete ban on IPL because tickets for Shah Rukh Khan’s box in Eden Gardens had been sold well above the marked price. Then there was the indefatigable Lalu Prasad Yadav, a familiar fixture during the IPL-1 games in Delhi, demanding IPL should be nationalised and placed under the control of the Department of Sports.

But why blame traditional politicians who earlier assumed that scams are only to do with real estate and are a bit bewildered by complicated instruments of modern capitalism? Some TV channels have been salivating at the hint that matches may have been fixed to favour betting syndicates, that kickbacks were used to buy private aeroplanes and that the pom-pom girls from deprived parts of the former Soviet Union aren’t innocent add-ons. The Bollywood formula deemed that crooks must be wrapped up in glamour and sex. The IPL has been projected to fit the stereotype.

The contrived indignation over the bent and the beautiful reminds me of what Lord Macaulay once wrote of the religiously-driven Puritans of England: That they indulged in “bear-bating not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators”.

Every generation produces new cultural trends that are linked to entertainment. And every generation breeds the kill-joys out to demonstrate that new fashions signal moral degeneration, national collapse and the end of civilisation as we know it. In the 1940s and 1950s, novels and the theatre were perceived by many to be morally crippling. In the 1960s and 1970s, ire was directed at pop music and film songs — ironically, the very ones that are elevated today to the status of classics. When the Beatles were honoured by the Queen, many World War II heroes returned their medals in protest.

The envious disdain for IPL is reminiscent of earlier generation wars. There is the familiar complaint that with IPL, cricket has ceased to be a ‘gentleman’s game’. The point is well taken and there is no doubt that IPL has more to do with entertainment than sport. Certainly, there is very little in common between a cerebral five-day Test match and the T20 game where a good slog is cheered lustily and a delectable leg glance invites exasperation.

Yet, look at the phenomenon from another angle. In the past, cricket was a middle class game which was patronised by the Maharajas and, subsequently, by a handful of indulgent industrialists. The IPL managed to do the inconceivable.

First, cricket became a mass spectator sport, cutting across classes. Today, the blue collar worker is as interested in seeing a game as the glitterati. Would we rather revert to the days of MCC members clapping politely and muttering “Well played, Sir”?

Second, IPL altered the balance of power in the international cricket establishment. Lord’s had long lost its primacy. But IPL made India the centre of world cricket or at least the world’s cricket economy. This explains why there is a tussle among international players to secure an IPL contract. It also explains why Pakistan perceived the exclusion of its players from IPL-3 to be a national affront.

Finally, IPL gave a tremendous boost to India’s leisure economy. Coming in the wake of the growing internationalisation of Bollywood, IPL injected more than Rs 15,000 crore worth of economic opportunities. It was in particular a bonanza for media but the exchequer too benefited greatly. There are those who gripe about IPL overshadowing India’s ‘real’ problems and question the ethical validity of late night parties in a country of horrifying inequalities. It would interest them to note that a large percentage of the NREGS, the RTE Act and the proposed Food Security legislation will be funded by the proceeds of IPL.

It is necessary to introduce a reality check into the IPL fuss. There are undeniably many things wrong and irregular with the IPL administration. There are conflicts of interest, lack of transparency, infusion of dodgy money, political backhanders and plain embezzlement. There are laws against such crimes and the law enforcement agencies have a full right to investigate, prosecute and even punish. But it would be useful to realise that IPL would have succeeded and flourished even if there were no unethical practices. The popularity of IPL wasn’t on account of the illegal practices — just as the state of the stock market is, in the final analysis, a reflection of economic fundamentals and not insider trading. The greed and criminality of a few individuals doesn’t detract from the fact that the IPL is based on solid fundamentals.

The IPL is a private sector achievement. It was conceived, implemented and nurtured by entrepreneurs without any reference to the state. In a country where statism is rampant, this is anathema to politicians who now want a controlling interest in a successful venture. State interference would be a kiss of death for IPL. It would be akin to TV programmes being outsourced to the Lok Sabha channel.

Just because a Minister was exposed taking a backhander is no reason for an institution to be destroyed as an act of retribution. The IPL demands overdue internal reforms and a thorough clean-up. But the state should keep its grubby paws off. Let it confine its interest to the conduct of its Ministers and the violation of laws.

Sunday Pioneer, April 25, 2010

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Tharoor go, save your class (April 18, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The recent controversy to have hit the embarrassment-prone Minister of State Shashi Tharoor has been interpreted by some observers as a clash involving the ‘old’ and the emergent India. Tharoor’s cosmopolitanism, his willingness to tap social networking for political ends and his flamboyance, verging on exhibitionism, has been invoked to suggest a departure from the stodgy hypocrisy of Indian politics.

On his part, Tharoor consciously promoted his own superior distinctiveness, grabbed a disproportionate share of media space and riled colleagues with his smug superciliousness. Escalating resentment against the interloper was undeniably a factor behind trivial pickups, such as the one of his ‘cattle class’ tweet, turning into battles of a class war. The simmering tension between vernacular India and English-speaking India erupted into the open with Tharoor.

Apart from the fact that neither St Stephen’s nor the UN bureaucracy had equipped him to fight the ugliness of the class war, Tharoor was insufficiently attentive to the fact that unlike the media, diplomacy and even the professions, politics is not the preserve of the PLUs.

To survive in the cut throat world of netagiri, PLUs have to overcome their class background unless, of course, they are blessed by family ties.

An appreciation of the social turbulence that Tharoor predictably encountered in his first year in politics is not to endorse his argument that entrenched ‘vested interests’ picked on the new boy and gobbled him up for nashta. Being an orphan of Macaulay has its own problems in today’s India but the disability of upbringing is compounded if question marks are attached to the person’s integrity.

Rajiv Gandhi was treated with exceptional indulgence in the first two years of his prime ministerial life. However, once the Bofors scandal raised concerns over his integrity, particularly his family’s links to Ottavio Quattrocchi, he found himself being incessantly mocked at for being a babalog. The derision cost him the 1989 election.

In his interview to NDTV, Tharoor self-righteously proclaimed that in his long and distinguished career in international public diplomacy no one had ever raised a question about his integrity. He is absolutely right. As someone who has known him since 1972, I must confess a sense of bewilderment when the Delhi grapevine first started picking up whispers centred on the IPL bidding. Tharoor may be faulted or even appreciated for his earlier lapses but sleaze and Shashi didn’t seem co-terminus.

I have to confess that many of us have been deeply disappointed. The facts of the Sunanda Pushkar ‘sweat equity’ allotment are very damning. Tharoor’s deep involvement with the Kochi bid was an open secret and even an admitted fact. Delhi society was also fully aware of his liaison with Sunanda — he made the association pretty public — and his proposed marriage to her. She accompanied the Minister on what we presume was an official visit to Assam and there is TV footage of her being welcomed by Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. There was nothing discreet or distant about the relationship. She was a lady much more than someone Tharoor ‘knew well’.

Under the circumstances, the extremely generous disbursement of free equity worth approximately Rs 70 crore (but whose worth could multiply nearly six times in five years) to Sunanda appears fishy to say the least. Tharoor has claimed that the arrangement owed to her ‘proven expertise’ in marketing and running businesses. It is a claim that appears to be based on unrecognised potential and has drawn derisory responses.

Equally, Tharoor’s suggestion that the attacks on Sunanda are indicative of gender bias has appeared expedient. The awkward conclusion is that cold business logic cannot justify such an incredibly lucrative bonanza for Sunanda. No wonder her denial that she is a ‘proxy’ for the Minister has been greeted with scepticism. Even the Congress has not been convinced that Tharoor and Sunanda are personally linked but professionally detached.

Tharoor has divulged many explosive details about the murkiness of the IPL. His attacks on Lalit Modi have struck a chord and put pressure on the BCCI to take a more direct interest in the business of the tournament. There are strong indications that Tharoor’s intervention may also facilitate the appointment of a professional CEO for IPL.

Likewise, Tharoor’s point about spreading cricket to Kerala is well taken and it is unlikely that Kochi will be deprived of its IPL team.

However, none of this detracts from the fact that Tharoor hasn’t been able to explain Sunanda’s stake in the Kochi team to everyone’s satisfaction. As a person well versed in the ways of the world, he was aware that it was the non-disclosure of a friendly loan of £ 373,000 from a colleague that led to the resignation of Peter Mandelson from the British Cabinet in 1996. He may have also been aware that generous salary increases and promotions to his girlfriend Shaha Riza led to the resignation of Paul Wolfowitz as World Bank president in 2007. Tharoor must, in addition, be only too familiar with the nepotism that sullied the record of his former boss, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

As an avowed believer in openness, transparency and probity in public life, Tharoor can hardly deny that this is an open and shut case and makes his continuation as a public servant untenable. It can hardly be his case that rectitude is an unworthy Anglo-Saxon ideal or simply a stick to beat Mayawati with.

Tharoor’s predicament should give no joy to those who have yearned for freshness in politics. He had his chance but let human frailties and the air of India cloud his judgement. His unavoidable fall will be celebrated by those who want politics to remain a closed shop. But for letting the side down so badly, he has only his cocksure arrogance to blame. A man who sought ‘new’ politics was brought down because he couldn’t rise above old politics. For the honour of his class he should step down.

Sunday Pioneer, April 18, 2010

Friday, April 16, 2010

Bent and beautiful India (April 16, 2010)

Tharoor is only the symptom of a deeper malaise

By Swapan Dasgupta

Nearly eight years or so ago, just as India was settling into a state of newly-acquired prosperity, a political writer described the country’s upper echelons as being dominated by the “bent and the beautiful”. Today, that commentator is, alas, a high official in the prime minister’s office and gagged by concerns of propriety from proffering his comments on one of the most sordid scandals to hit the country, a scandal that serves to showcase a bent and beautiful India.

The irony of the turbulence that has shaken the Indian Premier League is that it coincides with the astonishing commercial success of an improvised game that departed from the niceties of traditional cricket. India’s domination of the economy of international cricket is one of the highlights of contemporary life and its implications have been profound.

In 1988-89, the great unwashed spent an hour each Sunday morning glued to an episode of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana; two decades later, some 32 evenings of March and April are taken up by a T20 fever that generates Rs 15,000 crore of economic activity. From a reverential preoccupation with a folksy, quasi-religious idiom of entertainment, India has changed gear to a fast-moving, choreographed amusement that involves the best international stars and oodles of glamour.

In the sphere of mass culture, the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, has done to today’s India what the Beatles did to Britain in the 1960s: secured an image overhaul. The Ambassador-dominated, shortage-ridden India of the past has been subsumed by a curious animal that breathes money, aspires to style and oozes self-confidence. The pom-pom girls at IPL matches may seem farcically tacky but their pathetic gyrations are lapped up by a crowd that is only too pleased to witness Caucasians dance to an Indian tune.

It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that the magnitude of the IPL’s success was unanticipated. When the initial auction for the teams took place four years ago, there were only a handful of corporate organizations which considered the high investments and the long gestation period as a risk worth taking. This may explain why there was a heavy dependence on high net-worth individuals and glamourous film stars. Today, that scepticism has yielded way to a bout of unbridled exuberance and expectations of near-instant returns. In addition, team loyalties, which seemed somewhat fragile in the first two years of the tournament, have given way to firmer attachments. Compared to the empty stands and the free tickets that were a feature of IPL-1 (IPL-2 was played in South Africa), IPL-3 has been a sell-out. Having an IPL team in the state has become a regional imperative and may explain why politicians are anxious to earn brownie points with the electorate by being perceived as cricket lovers.

It is the commercial and popular success of the IPL that is at the root of the present distortions caused entirely by the involvement of politicians. The controversy surrounding the flamboyant minister of state, Shashi Tharoor, illustrates the point vividly.

That Tharoor detected political opportunities in mentoring a consortium that was intent on giving Kochi an IPL team is understandable. Yet, his role was more than that of a benign ‘patron’, as he now claims. Tharoor took an active interest in the operational aspects of the bidding process. He personally called on various bigwigs in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, including Sharad Pawar and Arun Jaitley, before the auction and was present in Chennai around the time the bids were opened. After his consortium won the bid and chose Kochi, Tharoor exulted publicly and attempted to extract maximum political mileage for himself in Kerala. From being the outsider, he projected himself as the personification of Malayali pride.

It now transpires that Tharoor did more than assume the role of a mentor to the consortium: he offered them political protection against a rival political grouping promoting the interests of two unsuccessful bidders. According to details given to Business Standard on a non-attributable basis, two of the seven investors in Rendezvous Sports World were “summoned to the residence of a Union Cabinet minister and told to back off from bidding for Kochi or else. ‘We have many ways to take care of the likes of you’, the two… were told at the end of a conversation with the minister that began at 10pm and went on till 4am. They were told to go to Delhi to meet another minister from the same party, who… repeated: ‘Get out of the IPL. Sell the team.’” Other sources have indicated that Tharoor was used as the conduit to appeal to the Congress leadership to stop this harassment.

If Tharoor did indeed play knight in shining armour, fighting a political mafia, his role is laudable. However, it now seems that prior to taking up the political challenge, he was aware of and ‘supported’ the allotment of five per cent unpaid or sweat equity to Sunanda Pushkar for her marketing and networking expertise. The market value of the equity donated to Pushkar by RSW is anything between Rs 50 and Rs 70 crore, a sum that hardly stands up to the claim of being a “minor” stake in lieu of services rendered. It is estimated that in three years’ time the equity would be worth approximately Rs 500 crore. For this sum, almost every marketing guru in the world would have been queuing before the RSW offices with an application form.

It is a different matter that Tharoor’s liaison with Pushkar is an open secret in Delhi, with the venerable Press Trust of India reporting (a day before her stake holding became public) that the two planned to get married after the minister sorted out his divorce with his present wife. Since neither Tharoor nor Pushkar have denied their proximity, the surmise that the five per cent equity was for political consultancy rather than marketing expertise is legitimate. It’s a surmise that the Opposition too has made, and the resulting furore could bring Tharoor’s political career to an abrupt end.

However, Tharoor is only a symptom of the malaise. It must be remembered that he was brought into the RSW orbit only because the consortium rightly feared an organized bid to ‘fix’ the IPL auction. As commissioner, Modi has contributed enormously to the innovation of T20, popularizing it beyond the narrow circle of discerning cricket lovers and milking its commercial potential. At the same time, he has allowed himself to be buffeted by pressure from politicians who see it as a convenient business opportunity. At one time, politicians saw business as the milch cow of election funding and nurtured crony capitalism to ensure a reliable source of resources. Today, many politicians have begun to see business as an extension of politics and are less inclined to respect the relative autonomy of business. The IPL is in danger of falling prey to this shift in priorities and the hurdles put in the way of the Kochi franchise is indicative of the blurring of lines.

The shift has to be resisted, not least because cricket involves the public interest. The worst solution would be any increase in the government’s role in cricket administration. A more meaningful approach could involve complete transparency of financial transactions and the appointment of a professional chief executive accountable to a board made up of both the BCCI and the different franchise holders. Despite his pioneering role, Modi has shown that his neutrality and fairness cannot be taken for granted. Correctives are needed before the rot sets in deeper.


The Telegraph, April 16, 2010

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Arrogant Obama alienates friends (April 11, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sits with the assembled world leaders at the Nuclear Security Conference in Washington, DC, he should ponder over one notable absentee: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Once the US’s most steadfast ally and a country with which it enjoyed a ‘special relationship’, Israel’s relationship with Washington has taken a precipitate nosedive.

There are many who will undoubtedly view Netanyahu’s absence to Israeli evasion over its nuclear ambivalence. This may undoubtedly be a factor but Israel has in the past faced this ticklish question with a combination of deft diplomacy and nationalist brazenness. What is different about today’s Washington that made the otherwise pugnacious Netanyahu opt out of an important international gathering (although Israel will be nominally represented)?

The answer is simple: President Barack Obama.

In the past few months the international grapevine has been buzzing with tales of a new, abrasive style of diplomacy that has become the signature tune of the Obama Administration. It may have been understandable if this departure from niceties had been confined to dealings with countries such as Iran and Venezuela that don’t miss any opportunity to take side swipes at the US. Intriguingly, Obama appears to have reserved his acid tongue for those who are considered close allies of the US.

It would not be inaccurate to suggest that the Israeli Prime Minister, the only representative of a vibrant democracy in the region, was sought to be wilfully browbeaten by Obama in the White House during their meeting in March. It is said that much of Obama’s impatience stems from the perception of Netanyahu as a sympathiser of the Republicans on Capitol Hill. If so, it suggests that the American President has a misplaced sense of his own intellectual superiority and a heightened sense of liberal intolerance. There was just no way that the thorny issue of East Jerusalem which Israel, with some justification, considers an integral part of its national Capital, was going to be resolved in one meaningful sitting at either the White House or Camp David. That Obama could actually believe it could suggests a rough-and-ready approach to diplomacy which may soon begin to irk even the friends of the US.

Nor was Obama’s peremptoriness limited to Netanyahu. On March 28, Obama made a sudden visit to Kabul, partly to cheer American forces stationed there and partly to confer with President Hamid Karzai. According to reports carefully leaked by the American side, Obama read Karzai the proverbial riot act. He is said to have told him that the US found his style of governance quite unacceptable and the levels of corruption well beyond the threshold of tolerance. He was told to shape up or ship out.

Obama’s sharp tongue lashing hasn’t gone down well in Afghanistan. Karzai has rightly been offended by Obama’s discourtesy and has lost no opportunity to lash out at the West. He has sought to befriend Iran, caution the US against any unilateral offensive on Kandahar and even let it be known that sheer exasperation with American arrogance may drive him into the arms of the Taliban. The US has hit back by calling Karzai’s mental stability into question and even hinting that he is suffering the effects of hallucinatory drugs. Rarely has the relationship between two allies plummeted to such incredible depths.

For all practical purposes the US has said its triple talaq to Karzai. The question is: When will the elected Afghan President be replaced by a compliant nominee of the US and its outsourced partner, Pakistan?
It is being said that the political unilateralism that marked the passage of the Health Care legislation through Congress has taken hold of Obama. From being the genial representative of a new, less divisive political culture, the US President appears to have evolved into an evangelical crusader - pursuing that which he regards is right. It’s an approach that may work in the US, although even that is debatable, but there are other civilisations where everything is not always divided into black and white, and where old world courtesies do play a role.

Not everything about Karzai is digestible but then, democracy and Afghanistan are not the most compatible of partners. To assess the world through the prism of the political correctness of liberal America is unwise. It suggests an ideological arrogance that could rebound on the US. Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan fast. But why pick on Karzai to facilitate the process? Will a handpicked nominee of Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in Kabul’s Presidential Palace be a better bet?

These are concerns that the Indian Prime Minister should bear in mind during his US visit. It has now emerged that it was a peremptory Obama directive to get India and Pakistan to improve relations that was a factor behind the useless meeting of Foreign Secretaries last month. Whether India chooses to engage with Pakistan after Islamabad’s foot-dragging over the 26/11 culprits is not a matter that should be of obsessive concern to the White House. Of course, the US can give its suggestions but paying heed to the White House’s ‘directive’ diplomacy will not be appreciated within India. This may explain why the US-India bonhomie that surrounded the passage of the nuclear deal has been replaced by a climate of suspicion which, if allowed to fester, could so easily turn into hostility.

How Obama chooses to turn his machismo into political advantage in his battle with the Republicans is a matter best left to the American voters. It is of academic concern to India. But when this combativeness is transferred to the global stage and, furthermore, is accompanied by gratuitous discourtesy, it is time for a country like India to consider diplomatic alternatives to over-dependence on the US. The experiences of Netanyahu and Karzai are clear writings on the wall.

Sunday Pioneer, April 11, 2010

Shoaib-Ayesha farce is legal disgrace for India (April 11, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Now that the decks have been cleared for the Sania Mirza-Shoaib Malik marriage on April 15, it is worth reflecting on the controversy that riveted the subcontinent for a week. Was it, as the brigade of the superior feels, a classic case of the media pandering to the base voyeuristic instincts of the great unwashed? Or, was it a contrived and cynical controversy that led to free publicity for two individuals, much to the embarrassment of two respectable families?

There is virtue in both assertions. The aam janata are conditioned to equate the private lives of celebrities with public interest and Sania was a star whose glamour quotient equalled Bollywood and cricketing greats. Her decision to marry Shoaib was governed by personal choice, but it didn't distract from a widespread perception that the groom was unworthy of the iconic Hyderabad girl. It was this undercurrent of disapproval for the interloper, also seen as a habitual predator, which fuelled gory interest in the charges of duplicity levelled by the proverbial 'other woman'. In the dogfight of reputations, Shoaib emerged as the clear loser and this ignominy may, unfortunately, rub off on his fiancé.

Yet, there was more to the filmi melodrama played out in Hyderabad than mere salacious titillation. The relationship of Shoaib and Ayesha Siddiqui has raised disturbing questions that centre on the cavalier misuse and manipulation of the laws and institutions governing the family.

A marriage is governed by well-defined laws or social and religious customs. That Shoaib could persistently deny the fact that the nikahnama involving him and Ayesha was valid suggests that there is a huge grey area surrounding non-codified practices. In Pakistan, a marriage has to be registered — which this nikahnama was not — to be valid, while there is as yet no obligation to do the same in India. Second, the nikah was conducted over telephone, an unusual practice that Shoaib seized upon to contest the reality of the marriage to Ayesha. Indeed, had it not been for some telltale archival TV footage, the threat of non-bailable arrest under the draconian Section 498(a) of the Indian Penal Code and the intervention of community elders, the cricketer may have raised the pitch, claimed harassment and turned the whole incident into an emotive but ugly Indo-Pak spat.

Yet, Shoaib's grudging admission of his marriage to Ayesha has in turn raised awkward questions. The elders in India upheld the legitimacy of an unregistered nikahnama contracted in Pakistan, where registration is obligatory. More to the point, they upheld a telephonic nikah — something clearly not anticipated in the religious texts. In the process they have opened the floodgates of dodgy, long-distance marriages where the bride and groom don't even have to be physically present. The scope for misuse is profound and equal in scale to the fixed-term muta marriages that are a cover for prostitution.

The disturbing implications of the Shoaib-Ayesha marriage don't stop here. The talaqnama negotiated between Shoaib and the Siddiqui family may have freed Ayesha from the unenviable status of a deserted wife and put an end to all criminal proceedings but the speed with which it was concluded is ominous. It suggests that the prescribed waiting period between the first two talaqs and the final divorce is largely illusory and can be circumvented according to convenience. In view of earlier rulings by Indian Muslim clerics that a peremptory triple talaq is valid even if the husband is either drunk or in a rage, the sanctioned fast-track divorce of a celebrity is certain to become a precedent, just as the telephone talaq by Chand Mohammed to Fiza in Chandigarh last year gave ideas to many.

It may interest Indians to note that Shoaib wouldn't have been able to secure such a speedy divorce in Islamic Pakistan. Ayub Khan's Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961, set out a 90-day timetable, including written notice and a formal hearing by an Arbitration Council, as the procedure for divorce. Even polygamy, a step Shoaib implicitly contemplated, involves cumbersome procedures in Pakistan, the violation of which could lead to imprisonment; in India, he could have had up to four wives quite casually.

Untainted by Zia-ul Haq's subsequent tweaking and some perverse court judgments, Pakistan has relatively more equitable laws governing Muslim marriages and divorce. In India, as the Shoaib-Ayesha tangle has so vividly demonstrated, Muslim personal laws are an unregulated open market, prone to arbitrariness, theological hair-splitting, expediency and social pressures. The shifts in social consciousness and perceptions of justice that have accompanied economic growth, women's empowerment and globalization are insufficiently reflected in India's patchy Anglo-Mohammedan law.

The bizarre Shoaib-Ayesha face-off was a legal farce and a national disgrace. In its elusive quest for a consensus, India can't afford to shelve personal law reform indefinitely.


Sunday Times of India, April 11, 2010

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A right riddled (April 4, 2010)

Swapan Dasgupta

There are some issues in public life where it becomes socially unacceptable to voice misgivings or articulate dissent. The Right to Education Act which was enacted through a Constitution amendment on April 1 — an unfortunate date to notify such a momentous proposal — is one of these. Prefaced by hyperbole, the ‘path-breaking’ and ‘revolutionary’ RTE has been welcomed for making education a statutory obligation for both the state and society. There are expectations that the law will allow every child to enjoy a meaningful childhood, banish child labour and facilitate the emergence of a better quality of citizens in the future.

The objectives are unexceptionable and it is to be hoped that within the next decade, every Indian child will have attended school and completed class 8 at least. The economic spin-off of better human resource will be felt by the country sooner or later.

The issue is not so much the principle of universal schooling but the manner in which it is put into effect. An ambitious and socially desirable scheme such as this necessitates both planning and resources. As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that beyond the stipulation that 25 per cent of seats in all schools — State and private — must be reserved for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, the enabling provisions of RTE have not been fully thrashed out.

To some extent that is a blessing. Had the Government linked the implementation process to the Constitution amendment, it is entirely possible that the legislation would have remained stuck in a parliamentary committee. More to the point, by detaching the principle from the process of implementation, there is an implicit recognition that there may be more than one way of arriving at the same goal. If the Constitution amendment is a national consensus, the enabling process is certain to become a part of partisan politics. This has already happened with various State Governments, private schools and minority institutions expressing concern over possible Government high-handedness.

To debunk all the objections as conclusive evidence of ‘vested interests’ trying to subvert a noble objective may be good politics but it is plain wrong. Experience suggests that in a highly over-politicised India, most Government initiatives have a tendency to become instruments of political control and patronage. The RTE may not be an exception to the trend.

At the heart of the problem is the quantum of discretionary powers the state is likely to arrogate to itself. The first issue is the identification of beneficiaries of the 25 per cent non-fee paying students. Will the means test be on economic considerations alone? Will fees for those students whose parents have already got them into schools at tremendous personal cost also be waived or will the scheme only apply to those who seek admission in the coming academic year?

Second, there is the much more complicated issue of the choice of schools. There is a neighbourhood principle which has been prescribed but this discriminates against those who live in neighbourhoods where there are no good schools. Is the choice of schools going to be left entirely to the state or will parents have a say? If, say, a child from a poor family secures admission to a good private school located five km away, will that child be deprived of the fee waiver merely on account of the fact that the model rules stipulate a travelling distance of only three km? In short, must the poor depend entirely on the state for selecting a school and availing of the fee waiver? Will the schools and parents have a say?

Third, there is the vexed question of the quantum of state reimbursement to the schools for the 25 per cent non-fee paying students. This is very relevant because school fees vary tremendously: They could be as modest as Rs 100 each month to Rs 8,000. As for residential schools, the fees vary according to the facilities on offer. Will the state fix an arbitrary sum that will be applicable to all? Or will it fix different slabs that still don’t cover actual costs? The implication of fixing a reimbursement rate that doesn’t cover actual costs is that the parents of the 75 per cent fee-paying students will end up subsidising the other 25 per cent. Apart from being a new stealth tax which will raise fees considerably, this iniquity is bound to create all sorts of complications, particularly the emergence of a class system within schools.

A reason why state-funded grammar schools were cherished in the Britain of another age was that they offered opportunities for social mobility for the working classes through education and interaction with the middle classes. If the RTE accepts this as an associated objective, it would be very welcome. The Prime Minister has said that money will not come in the way of the RTE. If so, the Government must look beyond babu norms.

Many educationists and economists have suggested a voucher system for Government funding. This is not a perfect system but at least it leaves the scope for parental choice, respects the autonomy of schools and is financially equitable. However, a voucher system for the poor involves cutting down the quantum of state interference. It may well be resisted by politicians who view the RTE as an instrument of patronage and another means to increase the size of the bureaucracy.

There are two conflicting principles at stake: Deepening state control and equitable education for all. The Government has to take its pick.

Sunday Pioneer, April 4, 2010

Big town delusions, small town truths (April 2, 2010)

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially; at the same time,
its horizons have shrunk. If it is to be all that it thinks of itself as,
it must progress well beyond the reality of nostalgia as its biggest
industry, bandhs as its greatest success story, and beyond the
present opportunistic economy

By Swapan Dasgupta


While channel-surfing one lazy evening, I came across Karan Johar in
conversation with the lovely Bipasha Basu. Speaking about her childhood and early years, the Bong belle mentioned that she had grown up in Calcutta (as it was then called and what I am most comfortable calling it), blah, blah.

“A real small town girl,” retorted Karan, wallowing in his own cleverness.
Bipasha looked a bit bewildered. A small town called Kolkata? Either Karan was an air-head par excellence or one of the canniest observers of contemporary India.

The celebrity Mumbaikar’s condescension towards this corner of eastern India reminded me of the time in 1972 when, as a wide-eyed 16-year old,
I boarded the Rajdhani Express to Delhi and St Stephen’s College. Let alone any feeling of inadequacy in the Capital of India, the handful of us who wisely fled the academic chaos of Calcutta secretly harboured a sense of
superiority. Compared to our classmates from Patna and Jaipur, not to mention the public school types from Doon and Ajmer, we knew that we had seen the bright lights of big city life — which they clearly had not.
What is more, we had also imbibed a good enough dose of the pseudo stuff to warrant that cultivated intense appearance - mainly to impress the girls. We knew the pronunciation of Camus and could, without even the hint of a concealed snigger, call something a Kafkaesque experience. We had even seen subtitled Japanese and French films.

Nostalgia is a bourgeoning cottage industry in today’s Kolkata. When Stephen Court became an inferno, the probashi Calcuttans exchanged stories of languid afternoons in Flury’s (where there was a waiter in the mid-1970s who was the spitting image of Brezhnev) and boozy lunches
at Peter Cat. The more ancient among us looked back wistfully at the time when the Armenian College rugby team literally used to pulverize the opposition. Where are they now?

One after another, the landmarks of old Kolkata have disappeared. My parents spoke of the demolition of the Senate building of Calcutta University. I saw the grand front façade of Bengal Club being replaced by the Metro Rail headquarters, a building of incredible ugliness. In 1969, there was the ceremonial removal of all the grand bronze statues of the icons of the British Raj. With special glee, the United Front Government of the day kept the de-installation of Lord Curzon till the verylast. The grandest of all the Viceroys and, ironically, the man who protested most
against the transfer of the capital to Delhi in 1911, was being made to watch the winners rewrite the past in their own image.

The banishment of the imperial bronzes symbolised the end of gracious
Kolkata. In 1970, Firpo’s and its Long Bar was turned into a market for the rag trade; the charming flea pit of Tiger cinema has gone; there is no Skyroom for fine dining, with its unspecified dress code, courteous service and an unchanging art-deco interior; and Sir Biren Mookerjee’s grand mansion on Harrington Street (the prehistoric name of Ho Chi Minh Sarani) and even Statesman House on Chowringhee Square sit in anticipation of the demolition man. If the levellers had had their way in 1969, the memorial to the Old Queen would have probably been renamed too, just as the Ochterlony Monument was.

Cities change and none more so than those that live through profound historical flux. There is precious little left of the Kolkata of my youth that can be passed on to another generation. That, perhaps, was only to be expected. Indians are particularly insensitive to history; they move on. Calcutta too has moved on, to a new Kolkata, to the marginalisation
of the old North Kolkata, to the over-congestion of the once spacious
expansion south of Park Street, to the creation of suburbs that stretch to
Baruipur and beyond; and to the creation of a spanking New Town in Rajarhat.

In sheer size, Kolkata has grown exponentially. At the same time, its horizons have shrunk. Calcutta may not be the archetypal small town — a term we still associate with Bhubaneswar, Jamshedpur, Ranchi and Durgapur. But it is definitely a provincial town--vibrant, but provincial

As with most things, there is an obvious economic explanation attached to
the change in status.With the exception of tea, the old industries that sustained Kolkata have either died or are in terminal decline. Jute belongs to history; light engineering was devastated by the crippling power shortages of the 1980s and 1990s; and other heavy manufacturing
was done in by the mindlessness of labour militancy. Kolkata has received
the crumbs of IT; politics quashed the emergence of a hub for automobiles; and financial services never recovered from the flight of capital that began in the 1970s.

Kolkata merely leads the way in the number of successful bandhs.

The city is experiencing an unending crisis of opportunities. Life is good for those with an inherited house and an assured modest income. The trappings of the erstwhile big city are still in place: decent schools, good medical support, agreeable clubs with reasonably-priced food and
drink, domestic help and friendly neighbourhoods. But this is offset by a collapse of future prospects.

The tell-tale signs of an improvised, jugaar economy stare at the visitor. The ubiquitous hawkers are everywhere, selling everything from cheap electronic imports from China to everyday clothes at unbelievably low prices. For the itinerant vendor who comes into the city each day from places as afar as Burdwan, trade is a facet of the subsistence economy. He
competes against settled retailers, leveraging the absence of overheads and taxes to competitive advantage. Both the hawker and the small retailer are, however, confronted with a common challenge: the size of the overall cake doesn’t seem to be getting any bigger.

It’s no longer a problem confined to the people who, in happier circumstances, would have sustained an organized services sector. The growing impoverishment of the abhijat middle classes has resulted in need-based Bengali entrepreneurship. Initially, there were the fast-food outlets run by venerable mashimas and the younger son in two ground floor rooms or even a garage. The more ambitious ones have converted
charming old houses into small restaurants. The successful ones even have valet parking and accept Visa cards.

In the past year, the leveraging of prime real estate for extra income has
taken another turn.Kolkata today boasts of innumerable ‘guest houses’ located inside middle-class homes. They cater for a wide range of people, from the travelling mid-level executive who would have otherwise stayed in a grotty C-class hotel to the overseas Bengali ‘doing’ Calcutta with his family. I would argue that these guesthouses have not merely ppropriated
a share of traditional hotel occupancy, they have in fact nurtured a new market for themselves.

The emergence of a new breed of bhadralok restaurateurs and hoteliers
has been propelled by the quest for opportunities in a stagnant economy. In a fight for survival amid adversity, many Bengalis have had to reinvent themselves, eschew their inherited lordliness and abhorrence of commerce and assume new roles.

The reinvention was overdue. A curious feature of the economic stagnation of West Bengal is that it has affected the ethnic Bengalis in Kolkata far more than their Hindi-speaking counterparts. The
evidence of this is largely anecdotal. The managers of Kolkata’s five-star hotels have all pointed out that most of their prized clientele happened to be vegetarian and that the city is emerging as a major centre of innovative, multi-cuisine vegetarianism.

Whether the relative prosperity of Kolkata’s large non-Bengali elite owes to their businesses outside the state (tea in Assam and mining in Orissa
and Jharkhand come readily to mind) awaits empirical verification but it does suggest an intriguing quirkiness to the story of economic stagnation.

The Bengali bhadrolok has traditionallybeen peripatetic -the Bong traveller is a figure of endearment and ridicule in most of India’s tourist spots - seeking opportunities wherever they presented themselves. The British were forever complaining of the ubiquitous babu who had planted himself in clerical jobs throughout the land. However, the establishment of a Bengali diaspora both within and outside India was complemented
by a pulsating and vibrant Kolkata which was both home and the
fountainhead of culture.

Today, Bengalis seem to be doing much, much better outside the home
state. This has created a strange disequilibrium which has translated itself into the blunting of cultural dynamism. Culture always needs an economic surplus to sustain and patronise it. The artists of Kolkata have, for example, prospered on the evolution of a lucrative Indian art market in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore. Unfortunately, Bengali writers, poets
and playwrights have had no such luck, their language defining the limits of marketability.

The net consequence has been a steady erosion of cultural dynamism
verging on debasement. You have only to see some of the more recent Tollywood productions or the Bangla serials on TV to realise the scale of cultural decline.

The self-assured, arrogant Calcutta of the past has died. It has been replaced by the Kolkata of genteel decay, by brashness and a gritty struggle for sheer survival. The city’s future now depends onits ability to confront the present and recover a lost inheritance. It’s cholbey na
to the present and zindabad to the quest for another (elusive) utopia.

This poor, big, small town.

Times of India (Kolkata edition), April 2, 2010

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Without balance (April 2, 2010)

The Congress’s hostility may add to Modi’s political standing

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indian jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise by law. In the case of the chief minister of Gujarat, a clutch of determined activists have turned the principle on its head. The starting point of the ‘liberal’ discourse on Gujarat is that the law is an ass and Narendra Modi is guilty of ‘genocide’, ‘mass murder’ and organizing an ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’ in 2002.

This epidemic of hyperbole would not have mattered had the abuses been confined to routine political sparring. Never mind C-grade politicians who love embellishments, even India’s intellectuals have a tradition of overstating their case — Lord Curzon once rued it as the Indian penchant for what the English called a ‘mare’s nest’. “Very often,” he noted bitterly, “a whole fabric of hypothesis is built out of nothing at all. Worthy people are extolled as heroes. Political opponents are branded as malefactors. Immoderate adjectives are flung about as though they had no significance. The writer no doubt did not mean to lie… As he writes in hyperbole, so he tends to think in hyperbole, and he ends by becoming blind to the truth.”

Curzon made that observation to the Calcutta University convocation in 1905. A hundred years later, we had the curious spectacle of one of India’s leading historians comparing the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s high-handedness in Nandigram to the Jallianwala Bagh killings!

The ‘truth’ that Curzon felt Indians had scant respect for is, of course, a matter of perception. In statecraft, however, there is a wall that separates political rhetoric and the legal process. In the case of Modi, that distinction has been sought to be obliterated by shrill groupthink. Modi may well be politically culpable for the administration’s failure to prevent the retaliatory killings of Muslims after the Godhra outrage of February 2002 — and this was a subtext of the 2002 and 2007 Gujarat assembly elections — but this is different from the unproven assertion that he conspired with the killers.

It is important to distinguish between political failure and criminal conspiracy. The inability of his opponents to defeat Modi electorally on two separate occasions has prompted them to seek legal recourse, using moral indignation and media outrage as pressure points on the judicial system. Modi’s detractors failed to influence voting behaviour in Gujarat but they succeeded in creating a polarized environment and unilaterally pronounced him personally guilty of mass murder. Eight years after the riots and despite many of the cases going to the Supreme Court, there is no first information report or charge against Modi. The special investigation team which questioned the chief minister exhaustively last Saturday can, of course, recommend that Modi has a legal case to answer but till that happens and till a court pronounces him guilty, the chief minister is innocent. This fundamental principle of jurisprudence holds good for every citizen of India, however exalted or lofty.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the SIT may conclude that there is no evidence to link Modi to a criminal conspiracy. Will that satisfy the activists or his political opponents? The answer is well known. Those who persist in describing Modi as a ‘mass murderer’ will continue to do so regardless of what the SIT or the courts decide.

The unending abuse of Modi by those who see themselves as enlightened may well be political grandstanding. But through sheer persistence, and some official patronage that began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has continued with the United Progressive Alliance, they have distorted the discourse to ensure that everything in Gujarat, including its spectacular economic progress, is viewed through the prism of the 2002 riots. Some non-governmental organizations even invoked the 2002 riots to denounce the Tata decision to shift its Nano manufacturing unit from Singur to Gujarat.

Sanctimonious shrillness, it would seem, has overwhelmed civilized conversation. The incredibly petty blacklisting of Amitabh Bachchan, and even his son Abhishek, by the Congress is in line with this wave of hysteria and intolerance. The owners of the Congress have their personal reasons for shunning the Bachchan family — the inside story of the great Gandhi-Bachchan fallout remains a subject of salacious gossip. In the normal course, this feud should be of little concern to the great unwashed. Nor has it affected the fortunes of the two families: both are distinguished in their own spheres. However, when a family feud is cynically linked to the standards of activist-determined correctness, it becomes a source of worry. By charging the brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism with implicitly endorsing the 2002 killings, the Congress has signalled a ban on any association with Gujarat. Despite their personal misgivings, Congress chief ministers have rushed to oblige someone’s flight of whimsy.

Conversely, as the Republic Day awards showed, Modi-baiting has become the route to a Padma honour and a compensation for forfeiture of deposits in elections.

The issue is not Bachchan. The Congress has imposed sanctions on a Gujarat that is celebrating the golden jubilee of its statehood. Last week, an attempt was made by activists, with the backing of the Congress, to prevent the Chief Justice of India from sharing the dais with the chief minister. Thankfully it didn’t work and constitutional decorum was maintained but the message was unmistakable: any association with Modi’s Gujarat will incur the Centre’s displeasure. It was a message to the Ambanis, Tatas and Adanis too.

An integral part of India has been declared a rogue state for having the temerity to elect Modi. Bachchan has the standing and perhaps even the self-confidence to withstand official pressure. Given the hostile public reaction to the Congress’s churlishness, the controversy may even help him get back some of his sheen. But many lesser beings may wilt under the threat of official pressure. In the liberal discourse on Modi, there is no pretence of balance: the khap panchayat of liberalism has pronounced him guilty. The clamour is for the Indian courts to endorse the verdict; those who resist, risk abuse and accusations of bigotry.

For the indefatigable chief minister, there is a definite sunny side to the Congress’s targeting of Big B. By equating the promotion of Gujarat with the deification of Modi, the party has added weight to the chief minister’s attempt to become synonymous with his state. An assault on Bachchan is certain to be regarded as an attempt by the Congress to deflate Gujarat. The resulting outburst of regional pride is calculated to give Modi’s political standing a further fillip. In the past, he has cleverly translated the ‘secular’ indignation over the riots into an attack on the self-respect of Gujarat. The Bachchan episode may help the veteran marginally but it has given Modi a brush to paint his opponents as petty and spiteful.

For India, however, there is a heavy price to be paid for the Congress’s ham-handed overkill. Competitive politics has hitherto been governed by a set of club rules that the mainstream parties have agreed to follow. The Congress has chosen to break the liberal assumptions of constitutional politics by setting bizarre standards of intolerance. Those with long memories will recall the unwritten ban on broadcasting Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency because the singer had the temerity to refuse to perform at a Youth Congress rally.

Hostile public reaction may well force the Congress to call off its hounds and allow normal politics to prevail once again. That would be prudent. If nothing else, there is a cruel irony behind embracing the vicious logic of the very rioters who equated the Godhra arsonists with an entire community.

The Telegraph, April 2, 2010