Sunday, May 30, 2010

Let India bare its fangs to preachy moralists (May 30, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

The spat involving Canada’s visa policy and India’s national honour has been resolved much to New Delhi’s satisfaction. The Intelligence Bureau functionary who is part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s advance party for the forthcoming visit to Toronto has been belatedly granted a visa; the Canadian Government has issued what Toronto’s Globe and Mail called a “grovelling apology”; and it has been clarified that Canada has the “highest regard for Indian institutions and processes”, not to mention the Indian military and security services.

Just as the initial insensitivity of the provincial Government in Victoria after a rash of attacks on Indians was fast replaced by some frenzied damage control by the Australian federal Government, Canada has acted quickly after New Delhi made it clear that it was considering collateral retaliation. The BJP may have thought that the pig-headedness of Canada’s immigration authorities was evidence of the weakness of India’s foreign policy. Actually, the prompt remedial action by Ottawa suggests that India has become too important a global player for countries to be insensitive to its national pride. This is a far cry from the situation just a couple of decades ago when an Indian passport was not a great facilitator of smooth travel.

The pragmatic response of the Canadian Government to a mischievous interpretation of a section of its Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, 2002, has, for the moment, saved bilateral relations from taking a nosedive. The official Canadian description of the BSF as a “notoriously violent para-military unit” that is “responsible for war crimes in India” and the equation of the IB with rogue intelligence agencies may strike Indians as odd. But such rash and sweeping generalisations are the inevitable consequence of countries like Canada arrogating to themselves the role of global watchdogs on human rights.

The right of Canada to deny a visa to any Indian is undeniable, just as India possesses the sovereign right to tell any foreigner that he or she is not welcome. Most countries have used that right both judiciously and arbitrarily. India denied a visa to Salman Rushdie for nearly a decade after The Satanic Verses controversy erupted. A similar flight of whimsy may soon, I fear, be repeated in the case of the writer Taslima Nasreen. Where Canada differs is by statutorily barring all those it considers guilty or complicit of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On paper this may sound unexceptionable. The problem arises in deciding who and what constitutes the offence. Since there are no accepted global yardsticks, Canada has set up its own war crimes section where, presumably, gullible, starry-eyed youngsters, fresh from university and an internship with some ridiculous human rights activist body, sit in judgement over the Indian Army. More absurd, these assessments are based on ‘open sources’ which is a euphemism for random, subjective research based on what is available on the Internet.

That a Government can behave so amateurishly is inconceivable. Yet it is well known in Delhi that junior diplomats, with little or no experience of the complexities of a country, are often asked to make human rights assessments. Predictably, their most valued sources are the professional activists who have a vested interest in exaggerating and misreporting ‘atrocities’. For these activists, human rights are more than a cause: It is a livelihood issue.

Some years ago, for example, the British High Commission in Delhi arrived at a highly tendentious assessment of human rights abuses in Gujarat based on the report of a well-meaning but inexperienced Third Secretary. The junior diplomat spoke to only those who grace NDTV studios but who have little standing in Gujarat. On such casual exercises are lofty policy pronouncements made.

Canada’s assumption of the role of global ombudsman for human rights is similar in many respects to the US Congress sub-committee that sits in judgement each year on ‘religious freedom’. Both are examples of an infuriating sanctimoniousness, premised on the unstated belief that all that is good and noble in the world is to be found in North America. Conversely, there is also the assumption that the ‘Third World’ is being ruled by a cynical, corrupt and brutal elite that must be accorded pariah status. To these noble idealists, there is no real difference between India and Rwanda; both are areas of darkness.

If the underlying condescension of those who claim to have risen above the colonial mindset is pitiful, it is important to remember that these attitudes are fuelled by Indian activists financially nurtured by multilateral bodies and Western Governments. The gratuitous human rights concern of countries such as Canada don’t exist in isolation, they compensate for the political and social irrelevance of the liberal contrarians in India.

If, for example, the activists can’t make headway within India defending Kashmiri separatism or, for that matter, Maoist terrorists, they make up for their own deficiencies by getting other gullible Governments to tar the reputation of the Indian Army, para-military forces and security agencies. The Home Ministry has lists of all those activists who rubbish India before foreign parliamentary committees. If these are made public, India would realise that the fault is not confined to gullible Canadians.

There are times when the arrogance shown by China in dealing with assaults on national pride need to be emulated. Indians are naturally courteous and as a country we don’t like picking fights — not even with those who send bombers across the border. Yet, it is time New Delhi did show that it is capable of baring its fangs. The Government has acted with the right blend of restraint and firmness in dealing with the Canadian visa problem. Maybe it should now address the root causes of this dementia.

Sunday Pioneer, May 30, 2010

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Modest ambitions (May 28, 2010)

A narrow political approach and bad economics constrain the UPA

By Swapan Dasgupta

t may well be another case of “irrational exuberance” that could haunt the country in the coming years. For the moment, however, the choreography of the first anniversary of the United Progressive Alliance (Mark II) has broadly followed a supportive script. True, there were some unexpected hiccups that dampened the festivities — the second Dantewada massacre by Maoists, the Air India crash in Mangalore and the prime minister’s non-inspirational responses to media questions last Monday — but overall, the Congress party can look back on the sixth year of a Manmohan Singh government with quiet satisfaction.

The hallmarks of rising comfort level were all there: high approval ratings for the prime minister, mildly encouraging prospects for the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s continuing disorientation, high growth rates, hopes of food inflation easing, a possible thaw in relations with the most troublesome neighbour and, most important, a mood of subdued optimism that contrasts so sharply with the gloom and doom in the West. Particularly heartening for the dynastic loyalists, the country appears reconciled to the fact that when Singh calls it a day — not that there is any pressure on him to go back to his books — it will be the turn of a middle-aged Gandhi.

Of course, there were the negatives: non-performing ministers, garrulous upstarts, corruption, rising inflation, infrastructural bottlenecks, caste tensions, left-wing extremism and a thoroughly inefficient State. In other circumstances, some of these negatives could well have constituted a lethal cocktail and created political uncertainty — recall that the Congress by itself is well short of a Lok Sabha majority. It is a commentary on either the low credibility of the Opposition or the good political management of the government that nothing in the past year has really rocked the UPA boat.

On the internal security front, the government has been very lucky. After 26/11, the jihadis appear to have taken a strategic break and left the disruption to the Maoist insurgents waging war in the most inaccessible parts of India. It is a moot point as to whether the Congress general secretary, Digvijay Singh, could have risked describing the guerrilla killers as “misguided ideologues” had the attacks spilled over into districts which enjoy better connectivity. However, by combining the robust, no-nonsense approach of the home minister, P. Chidambaram, with the so-called healing touch approach of those claiming the blessings of the Gandhis, the Congress seems to believe it can have the best of both worlds.

The confusion over where the UPA stands in relation to the Maoist menace is not a stray case of miscued cleverness. A hallmark of the UPA, in both its incarnations, is the constant endeavour to reconcile disharmonious tunes. Future historians may view this as a case of creative tension involving the Centre-Right and the Centre-Left or even as an aspect of the Gandhi-Singh dyarchy that has worked remarkably well. There are times when the prime minister and, indeed, the cabinet are brusquely overruled by the Congress president, but, equally, there are occasions when the priorities of the chief executive are accepted without demur.

Although the prime minister began his innings in 2004 promising big ticket domestic reforms, his orbit of responsibility appears to have shrunk over the years to a free rein over foreign policy. Manmohan Singh stood his ground on the Indo-US nuclear accord and the party was mobilized to buy him a majority after the Left withdrew support. Likewise, the misgivings of the Congress over Singh’s proposed bonhomie with Pakistan have been put on hold for the time being. But sceptical noises can easily resurface if the initiatives falter or the jihadis derail sadbhavna with a terror strike.

Limiting Singh’s sphere of policy initiatives to diplomacy may well become the UPA’s most costly miscalculation. Before he was anointed prime minister by Sonia Gandhi’s “inner voice”, Singh had proved his mettle as a bold finance minister, a man who carried out P.V. Narasimha Rao’s drive to unburden India of outdated ideological baggage. When he took on the big job in 2004, there were expectations that he would continue where he had left off and take the Indian economy to new creative heights.

It may sound unkind and contrary to conventional thinking but the underperforming economy has turned out to be Singh’s biggest letdown. Such an assessment doesn’t ignore India’s continuing high growth rate and the government’s success in warding off the ravages of the global meltdown. Yet, judged in terms of what was possible, the inability to reach double-digit growth and the continuing muddle over the fiscal deficit, it seems a case of missed opportunities. India did not perform badly under the UPA but the economy underperformed in relation to its potential.

The UPA’s biggest strategic miscalculation lay in diverting government resources away from investment in asset-building infrastructure and into welfare. In political terms, this may have paid handsome returns. There is, for example, evidence to indicate that the pre-election waiver of farm loans, which cost the exchequer nearly Rs 70,000 crore, and the generous pay hikes to government employees (at a time when the private sector was undertaking pay-cuts and retrenchment to meet the effects of a global slowdown) helped the UPA in the polls. The national rural employment guarantee scheme, which bore the signature of Sonia Gandhi, and the first national advisory council may not have yielded similar instant gains. Indeed, the Rs 35,000 crore NREGS continues to suffer from faulty implementation and misappropriation. In just too many cases, the real beneficiaries are not the intended beneficiaries.

It may be some time before the cumulative effects of these mega welfare schemes are fully gauged. The preliminary conclusions are, however, not all that appetizing. First, mega government expenditure has fuelled inflation, from near-zero per cent at the time of the polls to around 9.9 per cent now. Secondly, reckless spending on sops and freebies was a factor in the government’s inability to control the fiscal deficit. Thirdly, by sucking money out of the system for handouts, the generosity of lady bountiful raised interest rates, deprived the productive sectors of cheap credit and blunted India’s competitive edge. Upgrading India’s infrastructure took a back seat to populist politics.

That the corporate sector managed to overcome these constraints and still produce healthy balance sheets is revealing. It suggests that with a more conducive macro-economic environment, India would have emerged as a big beneficiary of the crisis in the West.

The UPA, it would seem, has institutionalized the very non-Indian habit of living beyond one’s means. By eschewing prudent economics for short-term populism, the UPA did not merely undermine the country’s creative potential, it established an insidious culture of never-ending entitlements. The epidemic of reservations along caste, religion and gender lines is a natural consequence. The experience of Europe indicates that such a transformation creates a bloated bureaucracy, promotes high taxation and, in the long term, acts as a deterrent to entrepreneurship. In India, the situation is compounded by the fact that a dysfunctional State has now been accepted as a natural state of being — the reason why the prime minister has shelved his previous commitment to administrative reforms. An inefficient State has now been taken as a permanent reality.

The fundamental shortcoming of the UPA is that its political approach is constructed on modest expectations — the need to win the next election. At a time when the global centre of gravity is shifting eastwards, towards Asia, India needed a challenging, long-term vision. Instead, the Manmohan Singh government has preferred to focus narrowly on the present. That is both its strength and its shortcoming.

The Telegraph, May 28, 2010

Monday, May 24, 2010

Complacent UPA ignores voter rage (May 23, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maoists are known to be grim and humourless. It was, therefore, entirely fitting that these ‘merchants of death’ should have sullied the first anniversary celebrations of UPA-Mark 2 with another horrible massacre in Dantewada, a heinous act that soured the ringing endorsements of the Manmohan Singh Government in the opinion polls and media.

A reality check on the make-believe political atmosphere of Delhi in the long, hot summer was always necessary. Fresh from its victory in the Lok Sabha cut motion debate and its success in steering the Women’s Reservation Bill through the Rajya Sabha, a gung-ho UPA has simultaneously conveyed the impression that it was also celebrating the 6th year of the BJP’s loss of power at the Centre.

The threat of an alternative Government is an acknowledged incentive for purposeful governance. When voters know that one coalition can be booted out and replaced by another, their threshold of tolerance for non-performance comes down automatically. Yet, a curious feature of Indian democracy is that very rarely does an incumbent Government feel an alternative breathing down its neck. Most existing regimes at the Centre delude themselves into believing that There Is No Alternative.

The unflinching faith in TINA was a factor behind Rajiv Gandhi’s post-1987 arrogance and the complacency of the NDA during the 2004 poll. India is witnessing a re-run of TINA as the Manmohan Singh Government meanders, without any sense of urgency, but with the reassurance that a Congress-led Government is guaranteed until 2019.

When the UPA returned last year, conventional wisdom deemed that with the Left and Lalu Prasad Yadav out of the way, the Government would have greater coherence and attend to some long-term measures. It was felt that investments in infrastructure would get a fillip and some of the irritants in the path of rapid growth would be removed. The hope was that the UPA would also focus on overall quality of life in India. This was certainly the expectation of metropolitan and middle India that endorsed the Congress.

There was also a non-economic concern centred on terrorism. After the 26/11 carnage in Mumbai and the replacement of the absurd Shivraj Patil by the more purposeful P Chidambaram, there was optimism that India would finally get its internal security regime in order. No one realistically believed that all jihadi attacks would cease. What was hoped was that the Government would do its level best to prevent attacks and minimise police and intelligence ineptitude.

A mandate is given for five years and it is both unrealistic and unfair to judge any Government on the strength of its 365-day record. Yet, if an assessment is attempted, the UPA Government’s performance must be measured in terms of popular expectations. In 2014, the scheduled date for the next general election, the UPA will be asked two questions. First, are we better off today than we were in 2009? And, second, are we safe?
More than anything else, it is the soaring rate of inflation, particularly the rising price of food, which has soured the UPA record. A year ago, India faced zero inflation. Today, general inflation is touching 10 per cent and food inflation hovers around 17 per cent. This phenomenal rise plus the uncertainties of the equity market have forced the consuming classes to temper their material expectations and tighten their belts. Since Indian consumers are more flexible and maintain a high savings rate, neither inflation nor the economic slowdown has resulted in the dislocation witnessed in the West.

Unfortunately, the fiscal responsibility shown by the consumer has not been met by a corresponding sense of Government responsibility. The UPA’s showcase programmes such as the NREGP and the proposed Food Security Act may be socially desirable. But isn’t it nationally desirable to demand effective and efficient utilisation of every rupee spent by the Government? This is a question that isn’t merely unaddressed but is thought to be politically unacceptable.

Under the guise of ‘good politics’ the UPA has set in motion a political culture that involves hardworking citizens, honest taxpayers and successful businesses having to bear the burden of Government inefficiency and corruption. India can justly be proud of its ability to ward off the global recession. But that was due to the ability of individuals, service providers and manufacturing companies to cut costs and operate more efficiently. If this sense of mission and sacrifice that corporate and civil society demonstrated had even been partially emulated by the Government, India’s global clout and influence would have been hugely enhanced.

It’s really a question of targets. The UPA has wilfully set its targets so low that it doesn’t see missed opportunities as a failure. Its economic focus is to create a culture of dependency and entitlements — attributes that in the long run will blunt India’s economic competitiveness and make it under-perform. As an economist, Manmohan Singh is probably aware of the long-term effects of this distortion; as a Congress functionary, he knows that unchecked Government expenditure can yield temporary electoral dividends. The politician Singh has prevailed over the economist Singh.

It is this short-sightedness that has also led to the Home Minister retreating from his robust approach to confronting Maoism and yielding to pressure to be partisan. If Maoist terrorism has to be fought back, it has to be viewed as a national problem rather than as a Chhattisgarh problem. Yet, the UPA’s inclination is to let the BJP State Government stew in its own juice and draw collateral benefits from its troubles.

The UPA can afford to be brazen in both the economic and security fronts because it believes there is no worthwhile Opposition. As of today it is right. But it should also know that Indian voters rarely wait for an alternative to crystallise. They first act against a Government and then let the political process fill the vacuum.

Sunday Pioneer, May 23, 2010

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Force should be met with force (May 23, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this year, a fashionably 'progressive' essayist lauded India's Maoist terror squads as "Gandhians with a gun", a description that is about as persuasive as 'celibate rapist'. Not that either mockery or public anger plays any role in tempering the perversity of those who flaunt democracy only to subvert it. In the wake of the second massacre in Dantewada in two months, the experts of terror have raised their sophistry to bizarre heights.

Take the justification of the May 17 blast that killed 44 bus passengers – all local inhabitants and all poor. Since the earlier claim of paramilitary forces being a legitimate target is clearly untenable, it has been suggested that the presence of a few off-duty special police officers in the bus was a direct provocation. "If there were indeed civilians in the bus," writer Arundhati Roy told The Times of India, "it is irresponsible of the government to expose them to harm in a war zone by allowing police and SPOs to use public transport."

The logic is revealing: anyone remotely connected with the state, even a SPO drawing a pathetic Rs 3,000 allowance each month, is an enemy and must face the bloody consequences. It is further implied that by using public transport, these functionaries are inviting collateral damage on fellow passengers. The real Mao once wrote that "revolution is not a dinner party"; his disciples have reminded us that there is no place for squeamishness and table manners.

How the conduct of these armed 'Gandhians' squares with the Mahatma who called off the Non-Cooperation movement in 1922 after an angry mob killed 23 policemen in Chauri Chaura, is best brushed aside. For the moment, it would be unwise to disregard the menacing overground message from the underground.

Those who can conduct military operations with such ruthless efficiency have long lost the right to be called "misguided ideologues" and treated with benevolent indulgence. What is the difference between Kasab and the Maoists who ambushed the CRPF jawans on April 6 and detonated a deadly explosive under a bus last week? Kasab believed that he was part of God's army and that every Mumbai resident was a legitimate target for murder. The Maoists too believe they are a People's Liberation Army waging war on the state and its flunkeys.

The only obvious difference is that while Kasab came from Pakistan, the foot soldiers of the Red army are Indian by birth. In every other respect, the Islamists and the Maoists are the same: both have transformed grievance and utopia into inhumanity. They may well have had a place in the statecraft of preceding centuries; judged by contemporary norms, they have forfeited all claims to human rights.

It is important to stress the mismatch between Maoist insurgency and Indian democracy, if only to drive home the necessity of a unified response from both the state and civil society. The argument that equitable economic development will blunt the anger of those who resent their marginal status is true only up to a point. However, if the benefits of state welfare and the market economy are to reach every corner of India, it is necessary for the state to be in physical control of territory. The Maoist approach is not to present the wretched of the earth with a revolutionary alternative that can compete with bourgeois politics on equal terms. It aims to exercise a military stranglehold over a region and either intimidate or eliminate dissent. Maoists don't believe in choice; they are committed to total control.

It's literally a chicken and egg situation. Sonia Gandhi may feel that NREGA and a Food Security Act will deliver the deviants to the Indian Constitution and isolate the doctrinaire Maoists. However, the district administration and the panchayats need to be physically present to undertake good works. To undertake Bharat Nirman in a large chunk of forested, central India, the state must uproot an illegal military presence first. The development route to counterinsurgency is, ironically, prefaced on a military victory. Reduced to essentials, the difference between the hardliners and the appeasers is one of articulation.

It may be tactically prudent to keep the language of retaliation less robust and peppered with piousness but there is no escaping the fact that the Maoist leadership will not be moved by either persuasion or bribery. To make Maoism unattractive to frightened villagers, force will have to be met with force. Siddharth Ray showed the way in West Bengal in the 1970s.

Unlike separatist movements that can be coerced into compromise, there is no halfway house in confronting Communist insurgencies. In the war for state power, it's either us or them. One side has to yield. The choice is stark: it's either Maoism or the democratic way of life.

Sunday Times of India, May 23, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jairam Ramesh's Chindia affair (May 16, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

More than his contributions to policy-making and the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility, Jairam Ramesh has made a mark on Lutyens’ Delhi for his witticisms and his spin-doctoring abilities. His one-liner, “Yankee go home but take me with you,” if original, was probably the most devastating comment on the spuriousness of India’s fashionable anti-Americanism. Once dubbed the “only Kannadiga in the Tamil Maanila Congress”, during the United Front days when he was under the patronage of then Finance Minister P Chidambaram, Jairam combined his cleverness with an ability to weather political upheaval. That’s because he was a good speech writer and a crafty spin doctor, talents that the Congress recognised. He was well utilised by the party in 2004 and 2009 and many of his inputs undoubtedly helped make a difference.

It is probably unfair to suggest that Ramesh has put his spinning skills to work in the past week when it appeared that his very survival as a Minister was in doubt. Yet, it is curious that a controversy that began with an impassioned outburst against India’s “paranoid” Home Ministry mindset and a robust defence of Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies has drifted effortlessly into a debate on political culture and outspokenness — areas where the Minister’s indiscretions can well be seen as a departure from the usual stodginess and non-application of mind.

From Ramesh’s perspective, the derailment of the debate is desirable, not least because it diverts attention from what he said in Beijing and puts the focus on his intellectual vanity. It does Ramesh no harm to draw flak for his uninhibited individualism, as long as it is accompanied by certificates from historian-ecologist Ram Guha that “Jairam is the best Environment Minister India has had.”

Guha’s assessment will, of course, encounter protests from the State Governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Kerala — all run by non-Congress parties. Nor will it be shared by India’s erstwhile negotiators to the Copenhagen summit on global warming where it was felt that the Minister was being remarkably casual about India’s interests and a bit too bothered about what China and the US thought.

Ramesh has a highly individualistic sense of what constitutes the national interest. The need to improve India’s bilateral relations with China is an issue that excites him. Through much of 2003, when he held no official positions, Ramesh wrote nearly a dozen articles in a Kolkata-based newspaper on various facets of China, so much so that he established a claim to be regarded in Beijing’s eyes as the new Dr Kotnis. He even coined the term Chindia to signify an ideal Asian convergence.

In The Telegraph of May 29, 2003, Ramesh asked the question: “Are we schizophrenic when it comes to full-fledged economic ties with China?” His answer was revealing: “While trade has taken off, we seem to be prisoners of the old mindset when it comes to Chinese investments in India. Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications networking major, already employs over 500 Indian software professionals in Bangalore but it has already caused concern in the Indian security establishment. We are approaching its expansion plans very warily.” He concluded that “India is still unable to break out of the shibboleths of the past” and warned this prejudice would affect the prospects of Indian companies in China.

The story doesn’t end here. In October 2003, the Confederation of India Industry hosted an Indian Expo in Beijing. Ramesh secured a CII accreditation and attended the fair. At Beijing, he surprised Indian industry by his forthright advocacy of Chinese companies, particularly in the telecom, IT and port sectors. At the meet where the Indian Commerce Minister and his Chinese counterpart were present, Ramesh intervened from the floor and repeated the arguments proffered in his article. Ramesh’s behaviour prompted India’s Ambassador to China to alert the Commerce Minister about a possible conflict of interests.

India’s Ambassador to China in 2003 is today the National Security Adviser and the then Commerce Minister now happens to be the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. They were witness to Ramesh waving the red flag at India in Beijing seven years ago.

The position Ramesh took in 2003 may not have a direct bearing on his conduct as a Minister of the Government of India. In 2003, he was speaking for himself; today he represents India. However, we cannot but be struck by the fact that his views have not been circumscribed by his stint in the Government. In 2003, he wrote on “the ambivalence of the Central Government in its myriad form on Chinese investments in India”; last week he spoke about “needless restrictions” on Chinese companies in India. In 2003, he wrote about how the good Huawei was being thwarted; seven years later he repeated that “Huawei is creating assets in India, it is hiring Indian professionals, (and) over 80 per cent of its employees are Indians”.

The point is not that Ramesh felt for Huawei then and feels for it now. It would seem that that the Minister can’t distinguish between his advocacy of Chindia in 2003 and his assigned role in 2010. What Ramesh said in Beijing last week wasn’t an unscripted indiscretion; it followed the 2003 script. If the original script had secured Cabinet backing, Ramesh would have been in the clear. He now has some serious explaining to do about the intrusion of past friendships into official duties.

Ramesh’s outburst wasn’t against Chidambaram in person. He was hitting out at India’s perception of its own national security. Whether such a contrarian should have anything at all even remotely connected with China is something for the Prime Minister to decide. To reduce the Ramesh affair to the ‘foot-in-mouth’ epidemic in the Congress is to trivialise it. The Government is confronted with a more delicate problem.

Sunday Pioneer, May 16, 2010

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Changing soul of Britain (May 14, 2010)

The Conservative Party will have to renew itself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Future historians may well look upon the second Elizabethan age as the time Britain lost its certitudes. The period between the death of George VI and the possible accession of Charles III will have encapsulated more change than is usual for a country that never tasted either foreign occupation or political revolution. The “orderly management of decline” that began with the loss of India in 1947 may have been well choreographed, but it has not been without trauma. The unchanging Britain of long summers, aggrieved shop stewards and smug aristocrats has yielded way to binge drinking, boarded-up Woolworths and a strange form of multiculturalism that celebrates every identity, as long as it isn’t English. With 14 prime ministers under her belt, the new Old Queen has reigned over a country that has changed unrecognizably: ethnically, religiously, linguistically, sartorially and, most important, emotionally.

For the disappearing tribe of Anglophiles, there were just a handful of institutions that lived up to the cravings of nostalgia and good taste: Radio 4, a Test match at Lord’s, Prime Minister’s Question Hour, the public library and, above all, the Conservative Party.

In many ways, the Conservative Party personified the soul of Britain. Sometimes dubbed the ‘stupid’ party, it celebrated the British penchant for tradition and common sense and the corresponding distaste for abstruse ideology. Apart from a short spell under Margaret Thatcher, when a particular economic doctrine dominated its thinking, the Conservative Party was only nominally right-wing. It stood for orderly change, social mobility and a nebulous Britishness — highly personalized attributes that were clumsily transplanted to politics. It was a party of privilege in so far as it attracted the propertied, cricket lovers and those who regarded politics as a minor feature of existence. The foot soldiers of the Conservative Party in the ’Shires were invariably stalwarts of the local Women’s Institute, those concerned with the quality of food and gardening rather than the profundities of governance. The Tory party was never an acquired taste; it was an instinct you either possessed or didn’t.

The Church of England used to be described as the Tory party in prayer. The analogy was appropriate. Like the Conservative Party, the national church in its heyday — before the Book of Common Prayer was abandoned and the clergy began thinking of themselves as NGO activists — was ferociously non-doctrinaire. Its only real commitment was to the congregational singing of robust hymns composed by noble Victorians and the belief that God is a good chap.

Whether the post-war decline in Anglican church attendance played a role in the slow displacement of the Conservatives as Britain’s default party is a subject for future historians to consider. What is certain, however, is that far-reaching social changes such as massive immigration from the New Commonwealth and the European Union, the erosion of deference resulting from indifferent schooling, the Americanization of mass culture and the breakdown of family values played their part in the dramatic eclipse of the Conservatives during the triumphant reign of Tony Blair. The Tory defeats in 1997, 2001 and 2005 meant more than an inability to resist the charisma of Blair and the contemporariness of New Labour: it suggested that Britain had moved from natural conservatism to securing what Gordon Brown shrewdly detected was a “progressive majority”.

In the normal course, 13 years of accumulated anti-incumbency and a fiscal crisis of enormous magnitude should have seen David Cameron walking triumphantly into 10 Downing Street on the morning of May 7 and delivering an oration that would have at least matched Thatcher’s invocation of St Francis of Assisi in 1979. Instead, despite making phenomenal gains from a dispirited Labour and preventing a Liberal Democratic surge, the party fell short of an absolute majority by 20 seats in a House of 650.

In his post-resignation address to the Labour faithful last Tuesday evening, Brown blamed himself for his inability to translate the impulses of the “progressive majority” into a parliamentary victory. But, at least, he gloated, Labour denied Cameron an outright victory.

In defeat, Brown was being entirely truthful. The last-minute consolidation of Labour votes, particularly in the marginal seats, prevented Cameron from securing the outright victory he so desperately hoped for. But it was always a difficult journey. Even if the 18 seats of Northern Ireland, where politics is unrelated to the concerns of Westminster, are excluded from the calculations, the Conservative Party was a non-player in all but one of the 59 Scottish seats. Sadly, this wasn’t always so. In 1959, for example, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in Scotland and even the Thatcher administration boasted Scottish stalwarts such as Teddy Taylor, Ian Lang and Malcolm Rifkind.

A manifestation of what is called the “West Lothian question”, after a question posed by the Labour member of parliament, Tam Dalyell, in the Commons in 1977, has meant that the Conservative Party has a winnable presence in only England and Wales. In last week’s election, the Tories won 305 of the 573 seats in England and Wales, a tally that would have given it a clear majority had it not been for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The growing Englishness of British conservatism symbolizes one of the major concerns of a party that has historically stood for the unflinching union of the four countries of the United Kingdom. For all practical purposes, Scotland has emotionally detached itself from Westminster. Its primary focus is the Scottish assembly in Edinburgh and even the Union Jack has become a novelty, if not a provocation, after Gretna Green. And although the Union Jack still serves as a badge of identity in large tracts of Ulster, Irish Unionism has become an embarrassment to England. Irish Protestants are the Britons the rest of Britain would rather do without.

Coming in the wake of the larger social transformation of Britain, the crisis of Unionism has undercut a key political plank of the Conservatives. The party can still connect with one or the other faction of the Ulster Unionists but its claim to represent Britain is punctured by the hostility of Scotland. Had Cameron won an outright majority on the strength of gains in England and Wales, it would have given Scottish separatism a huge fillip.

The Conservative Party has to renew itself, but without discarding its traditional commitment to doing “the right thing”— a Cameronian expression that means so much and so little. It has to connect to a new generation of Britons whose Britishness is a shade too cosmopolitan and who have acquired a sense of entitlement that is dependent on an unaffordable welfare State. Cameron’s concordat with the Liberal Democrats may have struck many die-hard Conservatives as a reckless sell-out. However, it has given the party an invaluable entry point into a Britain that is unmoved by traditional Toryism.

Throughout its history, the Conservative Party has reinvigorated itself by drawing defectors from other political traditions. The grafting of Joseph Chamberlain’s municipal activism to the high Toryism of Lord Salisbury and the accretion of the self-made Essex man to the party vote bank by Thatcher are just two recent examples. The addition of the social compassion of the Liberal Democrats to the Conservative kitty has the potential of undermining the “progressive majority” that the Labour Party believes will secure its recovery. A coalition government is a novelty for Britain, but it offers British Conservatism the best chance for a long innings in government.

The Lib-Dems have both a Liberal and a Labour pedigree. To reinforce the May 6 gains, Cameron has to absorb the Gladstonian inheritance of his coalition partner.

The Telegraph, May 14, 2010

Monday, May 10, 2010

Face it, India is all about caste (May 9, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In recent times the world has witnessed a lot of crying over spilt milk. Germany has apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust; Japan has said sorry to the US for Pearl Harbour; the Pope has publicly taken the burden of his errant clergy on himself and bowed his head in shame; the federal government of Australia has apologized to its aborigines for wilfully killing so many of them; Russia has apologized to Poland for Stalin's massacre of its non-Communist leadership in 1939; and 13 years ago, the Queen apologized for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

Compared to these grave wrongs of history, the abuse showered on long-forgotten British civil servants by the cheerleaders of Indian nationalism seems a case of petty theft. For six decades, generations of Indians have been taught to believe that the colonial rulers saw India through the lens of ignorance and prejudice. Sir Valentine Chirol, a distinguished journalist who was prolific on 'Indian problems' epitomized the type of Englishman Indians loved to despise. Writing in 1926, Chirol observed that "Hinduism could not build up a nation because the one vital structure which it did build up was the negation of everything that constitutes a nation."

The "vital structure" that Chirol alluded to was caste. National allegiance, he felt, "was secondary to the loyalty each (Hindu) owed to his caste since his caste was his karma, determining much more than his present life, namely, all his lives still to come."

Chirol mirrored the colonial perception of India as a land obsessed by caste and unable to rise above it. Since the foreign rulers never aimed at being social reformers, they attempted to accommodate this caste obsession in public policy. They documented caste in all its bewildering complexities in the Gazetteers and, most important, attempted to quantify caste allegiances in the Census operations from 1881. As Census Commissioner for the 1911 Census, Sir Herbert Risley went one better. It wasn't enough merely to record the caste preferences of individuals. To make life easier for policy makers, the Census had also to identify "social precedence as recognized by native public opinion." In other words, the administration had to locate a caste in the ritual and social hierarchy and determine which caste was high, intermediate or low.

Risley's attempt to define caste precedence triggered an upsurge in civil society. Caste groups mobilized to redefine their varna status, undertake changes in ritual practices and even press for changes in caste names. India experienced a bizarre ferment with caste leaders pressing for vegetarianism, restrictions on widow remarriage and changes in the rituals governing marriage and mourning. The Census led to a government-induced process of what MN Srinivas was later to call 'Sanskritization' — social changes premised on the belief that Brahmins were role models.

For nationalist historians, Risley was a villain promoting 'false consciousness' and furthering a divide-and-rule approach to undermine national unity. The Census was perceived, not merely as a quantitative exercise, but a divisive game which, in the process, reduced Indian society to a hideous caricature. Even though Mahatma Gandhi felt compelled to accommodate the 'depressed classes' through the Poona Pact, the conventional Congress view was that caste, like religion, was purely a social institution that had no place in public life and political decision-making. There would be some compensatory discrimination in favour of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes but that's where the encroachment of caste would end. In line with this thinking, the first post-Independence Census in 1951 dropped the enumeration of caste altogether.

So strong was this nationalist consensus that when the first Backward Classes Commission was appointed in 1954, reputed Gandhian and anthropologist Nirmal Kumar Bose proclaimed "the desire and will of the Indian nation to do away with the hierarchy of caste…and prepare the ground for full social equality." Indeed, when the Backward Classes Commission identified 2,399 non-SC and non-ST communities as 'backward', the report was fiercely contested by Congress.

In five decades, politics has come full circle.  Last week, the Cabinet deliberated on the wisdom of reviving the enumeration of caste in the Census. There was no unanimity but the government finally conceded that was little point persisting with the old nationalist consensus. Already politicized by democracy, caste has become the basis of the government's elaborate redistributive programmes. Sixty years of experiments with modernity have proved to be mere ripples on the surface; the depths of India's 'vital structure' have been unmoved.

India owes an unqualified apology to the British Raj for suggesting that its officials didn't understand India and, indeed, vilified it. It's our nationalist modernizers who have been defeated by the 'real' India. The future appears to belong to the khap panchayats. Chirol was right and we may as well acknowledge it.


Sunday Times of India, May 9, 2010

Saturday, May 08, 2010

India, Britain united in self-destruction (May 9, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those who followed the enthralling uncertainties of last week’s British politics may have been struck by the lengths to which Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his colleagues were willing to go to stay on in power. Having been rejected quite conclusively by an otherwise dithering electorate, Brown and New Labour have abruptly transformed themselves into passionate champions of proportional representation -- an issue as dear to the Liberal Democratic Party as the abolition of Article 370 is to the BJP in India.

The reasons for this endorsement of a so-called fair system that guarantees a permanent state of coalition politics are, of course, apparent. But what is not apparent is the rationale behind Labour agreeing to fundamental changes in political practice without any reference to the electorate. It may be argued that since proportional representation was a part of the Lib-Dem testament of faith, some 22.9 per cent of the voters who voted for the party can be said to have endorsed it. Adding the votes of Greens and some smaller parties who wouldn’t mind proportional representation, we can say that one-fourth of British voters believe that the most important issue facing Britain is the voting system.

A quarter of the electorate is not an insignificant number. But it is not as awesome as 75 per cent of the voters -- roughly the numbers who are either happy with the first-past-the-post system or believe that British politicians should be devoting their time and energy into forming a Government that can attend to a crippling economic crisis.

The logic of coalition politics deems that the priorities of three-fourths of voters can be subsumed by the desires of one-fourth. This is what may happen in Britain if Lib-Dem MPs feel that the Conservative Party doesn’t feel the necessity of unilaterally conceding proportional representation to secure the support of 57 Lib-Dem MPs for a David Cameron administration. A fringe agenda may become law just because the existing Prime Minister of Britain doesn’t believe that voters have rejected him and his party.

Fortunately, there are other checks and balances in British politics and a time-tested electoral system aimed at providing stable Government may not be a complete pushover. Legislation tends to be debated thoroughly in the British Parliament and a private deal cut by Brown may not withstand sustained opposition.

Yet, the arrogance with which Brown could brush aside the verdict of the voters to accommodate a small party is noteworthy. It symbolises the sly subversion of democracy by those who claim to be morally virtuous.
Brown is hell bent on clinging to power. He is despicable but even more contemptuous would be the Lib-Dems if they chose to subvert majority opinion and make proportional representation the instrument of political blackmail.

Wholesome politics doesn’t depend on transparency alone. Of equal concern are the processes of decision-making and consultations. Britain would be unwise to change its system of voting and representation because one election in 10 failed to yield a clear majority and because Labour needed the support of some extra MPs to transform a minority into a majority. Changes that affect the fundamentals of politics or, for that matter, anything else, warrant patient deliberation. They cannot be undertaken casually.

This is a lesson that should have been imparted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and those responsible for the horrific decision to include caste enumeration in the Census.

That a fundamental reversal of a 60-year-old policy should have been taken without any consultation with civil society and any meaningful debate is itself scandalous. What compounds the offence is that a decision of this magnitude should have been taken for the flimsiest of reasons. In 1990, VP Singh decided to accept the Mandal Commission report because he wanted to puncture a public rally that his troublesome Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal was planning. Last week, the Congress president grandly signalled her acceptance of caste enumeration in the Census because that would iron out the rough edges of the party’s troubled relations with caste-based parties, both inside the UPA coalition and in the larger ‘secular’ world.

A decision that will change the basic structure of Indian politics, the Hindu faith and even have a bearing on the economy was taken remarkably casually. The final decision was left solely to an individual who was perhaps unaware of the earlier turbulence in India when caste was superimposed into the Census. Civil society was neither consulted, nor did either the Government or the Opposition suggest that such a decision shouldn’t be taken in a hurry and for petty, collateral considerations. The political class acquiesced in a step that will legitimise caste as a unit of political and economic decision-making, without even knowing what they have enthusiastically endorsed. A most debilitating social regression was put into effect because India’s leaders were too intellectually lazy to comprehend the consequences of what they had done.

The re-definition of Hindu society along officially-recognised caste lines will alter the landscape of India. The use of caste numbers to drive a hard political bargain was earlier based on bluff, now it will be based on tangible numbers -- an escalation in the stakes. For 60 years and more, a galaxy of Indian modernists tried to either rise above caste or keep this social institution confined to the rituals of marriage and mourning. Now, at a stroke, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi have put caste into the centre-stage. From now on, Indians will once again be defined by their caste and politics will follow the mobilisation of caste.

Just when India seemed poised for bigger things, a hidden hand emerged from nowhere to drag the country down again. The country will pay a huge price for the Congress’ coalition management skills. It may be so high that there won’t be much of an India left.

Sunday Pioneer, May 9, 2010

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Tapping is serious, not gossip item (May 2, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

t is a commentary on the state of public life that the revelations of widespread phone interception by federal agencies, which the Home Minister has tacitly acknowledged, has not created a political crisis of enormous magnitude. On the contrary, the exposes by The Pioneer and Outlook have drawn two strange responses.

First, there has been an outburst of cynicism. “What is new? We’ve all known that all Governments are guilty” is a fairly standard reaction of those who believe that arbitrary misuse of power is a natural part of Indian statecraft. The second response is even more bizarre. Those who otherwise deified the Bernstein-Woodward school of investigative journalism have gloated over unwarranted intrusions of privacy. The last week has seen MPs, Ministers and civil servants gloat over the purported summaries of phone conversations involving business leaders, journalists, politicians and those who can best be called fixers. Some of these reported conversations will dominate drawing room chatter and may even rival the salacious interest in the ‘real’ story of IPL.

It is well known that Lutyens’ Delhi has an insatiable appetite for gossip. This is understandable and there’s no point being judgemental about the prying instincts of humans. There is also a premium attached to individuals who are privy to confidences that never find their way into the public domain. As people whose business is to know about the affairs of other people, the media enjoys a privileged status in the soirees of the beautiful people. Journalists have a large repertoire of social and political tittle-tattle.

The problem arises when this tittle-tattle becomes the pillar of national security and intelligence-gathering. Curiously and inexplicably, the collation of political gossip became the priority of national security management over the past five years — with disastrous consequences.
There is bewilderment as to why an innocuous conversation of Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh with a party colleague, the exchange of gossip between the spouses of two Ministers and a tell-me-the-real-story inquiry from a lobbyist to a journalist should at all feature in unattributable intelligence briefs. In no way do such conversations compromise national security nor are the people involved even remotely suspected of either compromising national security or having links with people who threaten the nation. Yet, it has now been established, not least because of the open-ended statement by Chidambaram to Parliament, that Government agencies thought fit to include such conversations in their ‘deniable’ reports.

It obviously suggests two things. First, that a major thrust of the intelligence agencies was political intelligence — who met whom, who has links with whom, who is sleeping with whom, etc. Second, it would seem that there were influential people in Government, and not necessarily Ministers, who derived their power from acquiring a deep knowledge of the complete lives of political actors. In the process, the real task of monitoring national security was lost sight of. Indeed, there are very good reasons to believe that early warnings of the 26/11 attack were not acted upon because those entrusted with managing national security were preoccupied monitoring the politics of the State Assembly elections.

It’s a question of a mindset. If the energies of the NTRO were expended in unauthorised intercepts of mobile calls of politicians and unsuitable people were appointed to head intelligence wings, it suggests that the Government had warped priorities. It is understood that there are many disgruntled spooks willing to play whistle-blower and reveal some dirty secrets of their departments. I believe they should be given protection and immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. If certain people were subverting Government and conducting illegal operations, they should be exposed, stripped of their posts and even prosecuted.

Of course there is a compelling case for conducting a thorough review of the archaic Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and defining the limits of electronic surveillance. There is a balance that has to drawn between civil liberties and national security. But most important, there has to be adequate safeguards to prevent misuse of the vast quantities of information that the state has at its disposal.

There is, for example, a strong case for the installation of CCTV cameras throughout major metros, as has been done in, say, London. However, it would be abhorrent if the footage was used to supply someone information about their spouse’s infidelity. This is not a far-fetched possibility. The Amar Singh case did provide some free entertainment to many but it also suggested the dangers of snooping technologies being used to settle private scores. There are enough cases of policemen linked to anti-terrorism squads using the technology at their disposal to assist the real estate mafia.

Chidambaram says it is legitimate to eavesdrop on calls involving tax frauds. This is a dangerous over-extension of the definition of economic offences and, in any case, would scarcely meet the criterion laid down by the Supreme Court. There has to be doctrine of legitimate suspicion of undermining the state’s economic security — money laundering and hawala linked to terror groups — to warrant the deadly toys being focussed on an individual.

Unfortunately, there have been no norms governing the activities of the agencies empowered to undertake surveillance. More important, there is no effective oversight body of the great and the good to ensure that unauthorised ventures don’t become the norm. Finally, the deviants have always hidden behind the veil of secrecy to get away with the most disgraceful misuse of power.

Some lucky revelations and plucky journalism have forced an underground practice overground. They have occasioned good parliamentary debates. But the matter should not be allowed to rest. India has to introduce institutional mechanisms to prevent whimsical misuse of power.

Sunday Pioneer, May 2, 2010