Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why praise jugaad? It’s bleeding us (August 29, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Even the most passionate upholders of 'national pride' don't deny that the arrangements for October's Commonwealth Games are in a mess. Some feel that the chaos will persist till the closing ceremony and puncture India's pretensions of being perceived as a rising power. The optimists have a different take. Yes, they agree, the authorities entrusted with the responsibility of showcasing India have underperformed. But there is a nagging faith that at the end of the day Indian jugaad will salvage national honour. Using the imagery of Sports Minister M.S.Gill, they pray that this "Punjabi wedding" will also have a celebratory ending.

Gill may well be right. Delhi is witnessing a last-minute Botox to conceal all its ugly creases. Mountains of debris are being relocated to places foreigners don't venture; makeshift drains are being bored into newly-built roads and flyovers that had overlooked the monsoon rains; and traffic planning now includes the suggestion that car owners should consider a fortnight's leave from the Capital.

If Swaminathan Aiyar's gushing praise of jugaad (SToI, August 15) is to be believed, it is this ingenuity that marks India from monochromatic civilisations. It's an attribute that saw Indians through the bad old days of socialist austerity and mismanagement. From the humble housewife who recycled the metal foil on milk bottles for scrubbing utensils to the businessman who applied creative accountancy to skirt punitive taxation, the mind space of India was hogged by jugaad. Where the creativity of developed countries was spent on improving the system, Indian energy was expended on trying to beat a cruel and uncaring world. That is what jugaad was all about—attempts to reinvent the wheel, without the help of carpentry tools and, in some cases, either metal or wood. It was all about being compelled to study from 'guide books' and 'notes' because more worthwhile study material wasn't available in the bookshops and libraries.

That India came out of the nightmare of socialism with body and soul broadly intact and hungry for new opportunities had a lot to do with jugaad. Like with Robinson Crusoe, jugaad helped us tide over the bad times.

Unfortunately, there was a flip side to our ability to inveigle our way through adversity. Jugaad has also scarred India. It has prompted a celebration of expediency, short-cuts, and shoddiness. It has created a penchant for taking a winding course where a straight road should suffice. Once the escape route from hell, jugaad has now become an obstacle to India realising its true potential.

Take an everyday example. Go to a shop looking for a piece of equipment or a spare, the shopkeeper invariably asks: "Company made or local?" Ideally we should opt for the sturdy and the enduring but if the purchase if left to a contractor, he will buy the 'local' (which could well be Made in China) and charge for the 'company made'. It's a patch-work solution and leads to the long-term problem of inefficiency, not to mention opportunity costs.

This is precisely what has happened to many CWG projects. A road is upgraded only for the authorities to discover that there is no provision for drainage pipes or underground cables. It is then re-dug, the missing features installed and a new, makeshift road built that will endure till the last plane load of visitors to the Games leaves Delhi. This is what jugaad has come to mean in today's cash-rich India: a patchwork arrangement for the very short-term, a grey market of deceit. It is no longer frugal technology at work, the shoddiness is akin to what the inimitable Duke of Edinburgh once decried as "installed by an Indian electrician". The handiwork of jugaad is both mocking and bleeding India.

We can no longer afford to be beguiled merely by the cute and the exotic: the washing machine being used as milk churners and the old tyres that end up as shoe soles. Jugaad has come to symbolise not merely improvisation but the irregular and the slapdash. The proverbial chalta hai attitude is dangerously close to becoming the national philosophy. Merely laughing it off because "we are like this only" won't help India's quest to be taken seriously.

Sunday Times of India, August 29, 2010



N-Bill intervention big boost for BJP

By Swapan Dasgupta

The passage of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill through Parliament was marked by a rare display of convergence. A Bill that was greeted with horror and outrage when it was first drafted was deftly modified to accommodate the objections raised by the Opposition, particularly the BJP. The final product may not satisfy everyone, not least those inclined to accommodate potential N-suppliers at any cost. But it constitutes the broadest consensus on a subject that will be crucial to India's transition to another energy regime.

The Government should, of course, be complimented for its pragmatic approach to a law the Prime Minister considers a key item in the welcome kit for the US President when he comes calling in November. Had the Cabinet persisted with the initial Rs 500 crore liability and the surreptitious attempts to make a mockery of the all-important clause 17b of the Bill, it would have had to engage in the same skulduggery that was last witnessed during the Trust vote in 2008. That, in turn, would have made President Obama's visit contentious.

Yet, it takes two to tango. If the UPA showed a willingness to pay heed to the opposition's objections and suggestions, it was also because the BJP shifted tack from its confused opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal to a policy of constructive engagement. It was, therefore, not merely Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee and Prithviraj Chauhan who chose to think of the BJP as the legitimate Opposition rather than as the 'enemy'; the BJP too undertook a much-needed course correction.

Contrary to some impressions, the tentative shift away from the cussed and disruptionist role played by the BJP in Parliament between 2004 and 2009, has not been easy. Those responsible for what I have often described as the 'Hizbollah-like' opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal succeeded in making the party look ridiculous to its large middle-class. The process was egged on by three factors.

First, there was a complete non-application of mind by the leadership. Stunned by its unexpected defeat in 2004, the top rung of the BJP seriously believed that unrelenting opposition would ensure that the fragile UPA dispensation would simply keel over. This belief owed as much to wishful thinking as to astrology but its net effect was paint the BJP as an obstructionist force.

Secondly, during the tenure of UPA-I, BJP moved away from the modernist plank that was a feature of the NDA Government. This was partly a reaction to the India Shining campaign's failure but it was also egged on the small trader impulses of those guiding the wider saffron movement. Thanks to this limited and blinkered vision, the BJP was unable to either present a coherent critique of the UPA's inept statist-welfare model or emerge as the natural party of rapid development. Consequently, Congress consolidated its traditional BPL vote and made deep inroads among the BJP's natural APL base.

Finally, following its 2004 defeat, the BJP abandoned all meaningful attempts to create a broad church party and retreated into an ideological ghetto. The growing importance of the RSS in the BJP may have been dictated by organisational imperatives but it led to serious distortions. The party leadership outsourced its strategic thinking to activists whose familiarity with a world beyond the committed was tenuous. This meant that the party didn't necessarily do what was right and necessary but tried to second-guess an RSS whose decision-making was at times guided by either flights of whimsy or based on eccentric inputs.

One major consequence of this over-reliance on a cultural body that is not naturally at ease with either politics or governance was the failure of the BJP to generate new blood. Rahul Gandhi's political impact may still be untested and based disproportionately on flattery and hype. However, the heir apparent has succeeded in creating a network on new talent. The BJP, on the other hand, has succeeded in repelling those who are committed to a non-Congress alternative but who have no connections with the RSS. The truncation of the NDA since 2004 is a reflection of the ghetto mentality that has overwhelmed a section of the BJP.

It is heartening that some of these dubious certitudes have been called into question by the leadership of the BJP parliamentary party. The party's role in the creation of the Nuclear Liabilities Bill marks the party's first worthwhile intervention in policy making at the Centre since 2004. It won't lead to an instant change in the popular perception of the party but it will give some reassurance to those Indians desperately searching for a worthwhile alternative to a blundering and complacent Congress.

Unfortunately, even this limited gain is in danger of being wiped out if the BJP now falls into a trap laid for it by the Congress. The 'saffron terror' issue is one where BJP must rebuff all attempts by extremists acting as custodians of Hindu interests to gain legitimacy. A resurrected Ayodhya dispute will be another test of its responsible nationalism. The Congress wants to paint the BJP as a party of narrow-minded fanatics out to destroy India's plural society. It wants to show that India's future isn't safe in the hands of such a force.

More than a thousand speeches, it is worthwhile policy engagements, like those on the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, which will persuade India to have another look at the BJP.

Sunday Pioneer, August 29, 2010






Thursday, August 26, 2010

Climatic Arthashastra (August 27, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

In Agatha Christie's celebrated ABC Murders, the plot centres on the search for a serial killer who selected his victims by the letters of the alphabet: a Mrs Ascher in Andover, a Miss Barnard in Bexhill-on-sea, Sir Carmichael Clarke in Churston and a cinema goer in Doncaster. The case tested Hercule Poirot's "little grey cells" until he realised that the series of apparently purposeless murders were aimed at drawing attention away from one particular killing.

Whether the Union Minister of Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh is an avid reader of crime fiction isn't something that is public knowledge. In recent weeks, however, the Minister has earned himself the name Minister for Non-Clearance for the alacrity with which he has put a spanner in many projects. Apart from the big No to Vedanta's plans of using its plant in the Kalahandi district of Orissa to emerge as the foremost aluminium producer in the world, Ramesh has put on hold the land acquisition for the Rs 51,000 crore POSCO steel plant in the Jagatsinhpur district of Orissa, articulated his scepticism of plans to build Mumbai's second airport in Navi Mumbai and his Ministry has made public its plans to have another 'environmental' look at the new privately-promoted, picturesque Lavasa township in Maharashtra.

On the face of it, Ramesh has opened a multiple fronts, a feat that has won him the gushing praise of international jholawalas and all those in India in search of a big stick to beat 'big money' with—and this includes the Left-leaning editorial classes. Those activists who were put out of gear when Ramesh narrowly failed to subvert the national consensus at the Copenhagen summit on Climate Change have suddenly found something to cheer about. The inscrutable functionaries of the People's Republic of China haven't as yet reacted publicly to their favourite Indian minister's preening triumphalism. But considering Beijing's vested interest in what The Economist has described as "a colonial-style trade relationship that is hugely favourable to China", any measure that curtails India's own value-addition to its own mineral wealth will be viewed with satisfaction in China.

Politically speaking—although Ramesh steadfastly denies any political agenda—the Minister has chosen his targets with care and due diligence. On the face of it, he has targeted two states: one ruled by the anti-Congress Biju Janata Dal and the other by a Congress-NCP coalition. But this apparent even-handedness seems an elaborate eye-wash since it is unlikely that the Centre will compromise the future economic viability of Mumbai or risk an open confrontation with its NCP partner. Like the ABC killer, Ramesh has tried to conceal his real target through decoys.

Bearing the brunt of the Ramesh offensive is the 11-year-old Orissa government of Naveen Patnaik. Unlike most other modernisers, the soft-spoken, aesthete Chief Minister does not flaunt his commitment on his sleeve. Having aroused the hopes of a backward state that is not on the radar of the babalog elite, Patnaik has proceeded with extreme sensitivity to the delicate question of land acquisition. Despite extreme provocation from politically-inspired agitators, he has refrained from heavy-handed police tactics and put in place an extremely generous rehabilitation policy.

The owners of 1,877 betel vines in the 4,004 acres required by the POSCO plant, for example, have been promised Rs 17 lakh per acre of acre of agricultural land plus a dole of Rs 2,250 per month till a family member secured employment in the steel plant. It may be mentioned that 3,556 acres of the 4,004 to be leased to POSCO is government land. Oriya appetite has also been whetted by the state government decision to ensure that 90 per cent of the jobs created go to people from Orissa, a decision that has left the South Korean promoter dissatisfied.

The report of a sub-committee of the N.C.Saxena committee which formed the basis of Ramesh's peremptory 'stop work' order has found niggling faults with the POSCO land acquisition process. These objections, predictably, will be set aside in the coming months. But the delay is certain to give a fillip to the anti-POSCO brigade, disrupt all schedules and even raise costs. These don't concern Ramesh. He is looking to create a situation whereby public faith in Patnaik's ability to manage Orissa's development is called into question. More important, by seeking to identify Patnaik with 'big money', he is aiming to hit at the Chief Minister's credentials as a leader of unimpeachable integrity. This would explain why the inexplicable order on the POSCO project has been carefully linked to the denial of bauxite mining rights to Vedanta in Niyamgiri hills.

In his triumphalist media interactions last Tuesday, Ramesh made it seem that a pathetic Patnaik had come to him pleading for Anil Agarwal. "I merely listened, smiled, and did not say anything", he said with an air of smug superiority. The subtext was gin clear: 'who the hell is the Orissa CM?'

Ramesh's arrogance arises from two factors. First, by getting a member of the activists-dominated National Advisory Council to do his hatchet job, he has painted the war on Orissa as Sonia Gandhi's project. Secondly, he carefully timed his decisions to coincide with Rahul Gandhi's rally in Kalahandi. These are clear signals to the Prime Minister to refrain from protesting too much. Ramesh's admirers also say he has also got his own back on P.Chidambaram who once sat on Vedanta's Board of Directors.

India needs to take environmental concerns seriously and follow laws—although laws can't be applied retrospectively and goalposts can't be constantly shifted. It's also a great idea institutionalise a local stake in the region's future growth. But these causes aren't going to be served by converting the Environment Ministry into an instrument of blackmail and recrimination. Indira Gandhi used planning to settle political scores and dish out favours. Environment clearances are turning out to be the new instruments of political control in a market economy. Today it is Orissa; tomorrow it will be another non-Congress state.

Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, August 27, 2010






Sunday, August 22, 2010

Let Pakistan stew in its own juice

By Swapan Dasgupta

Around the time the authorities in Pakistan first began appealing for international assistance to help the victims of the devastating floods—what the UN, with characteristic hyperbole, has called the "greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history"—I was driven to send a Tweet: "Pak…has specialised in milking adversity for profit."

Predictably, the message drew many adverse comments. I was charged with insensitivity, narrow-mindedness and what not. The underlying theme was that suffering is suffering and there was no need to politicise it. Fearing I may have dialled a wrong number, I opted out of this debate.

It now transpires I was being unduly squeamish. The past fortnight clearly suggests that my fears of Pakistani intentions aren't born out my own hateful prejudice: it is shared by much of the world, although they wouldn't be indiscreet to say so publicly.

Last week, the UN appealed to the world community to raise $460 million in aid. So far, according to the Wall Street Journal, around $228 million has been raised. Writing from Islamabad, the correspondent of London's Daily Telegraph noted: "International aid officials are struggling to raise funds for Pakistan because of what they call an 'image deficit'. Business leaders inside the country are also offering goods and services rather than cash in order to make sure funds are not misused."

The fears don't seem to be misplaced. Just as the military hardware donated to the Pakistan military by the West to fight the hateful Taliban in Afghanistan have a strange habit of being diverted to the eastern front, aid to Pakistan ends up in strange sort of places. It has been revealed that nearly $300 million of assistance for the 2005 earthquake that killed 80,000 people (mainly in the so-called "Azad Kashmir") were diverted to other, presumably worthwhile, causes. Syed Adil Gilani, the head of the Pakistan chapter of Transparency International told The Times (London) last week that of the estimated 87 billion Pakistan rupees spent by the Federal Flood Commission since 1977, anything between 60 to 70 per cent has been embezzled.

OK, you may well say that the failure to distinguish between public funds and private resources isn't exclusively a Pakistani failing. Those following the murky saga of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi would be inclined to believe that the awesome record of the Federal Flood Commission across the border may well be matched by those who, we have been promised, will be severely punished after our national pride has been salvaged in October.

However, before the sadbhavna brigade rushes to the facile conclusion that India and Pakistan are brothers-in-corruption, it is necessary to impose a small caveat. The money squandered or pocketed in connection with the CWG is money paid for by the beleaguered community of Indian taxpayers. Unlike the socialist 1960s when India led a ship-to-mouth existence and ministers went begging bowl in hand for aid, today's market-driven India taxes its own people and businesses and then proceeds to misuse the money.

Pakistan is cleverer. Our neighbour doesn't bother too much with internal generation of resources. It leverages its strategic importance to ensure that some gullible foreigner pays for its profligacy.

Pakistan has turned extortion into a fine art. In the 1980s, General Zia-ul Haq cleverly exploited Pakistan's position as the frontline state in the jihad against the godless 'evil empire' to ensure happy days for the military. After 9/11 and the initial shock of the 'with us or against us' threat issued by the Bush administration, Pakistan perfected the ability of "looking both ways"—British Prime Minister David Cameron's evocative phrase. The military was generously funded by the US, NATO countries, the Gulf states and China, and multilateral agencies underwrote the country's development. From this largesse, a significant amount was conveniently diverted to bankrolling the Taliban in Afghanistan, not to mention shadowy groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba which trained its guns on India. In other words, US and British soldiers in Afghanistan were being killed and maimed by weapons paid for by the American and British taxpayers. When West occasionally opened its eyes and threatened to choke the unending supply of dollars, Pakistan would simply retort 'no money, no cooperation'. The threats have always worked.

Pakistan has emerged as the world's most deft blackmail state. Now blessed with nuclear weapons and a quiet but unbreakable alliance with China, it is smiling all the way to the bank. Floods or earthquakes, democracy or dictatorship, LeT or A.Q.Khan, Pakistan has got away with murder because it knows exactly how to threaten and how to extort.

This may be why those noble souls in the West who donated so generously for Tsunami relief and for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti have suddenly become tight-fisted over Pakistan. And it is this 'image deficit' which prompted Pakistan to even accept the $5 million offered by India, a generous sum considering that China—now the world's second largest economy—has donated only $7.2 million. Recall that when India offered a larger sum in 2005 for the victims of the earthquake, Pakistan left the gift unopened.

India's liberal chatterati say that we should be honoured and flattered that Pakistan accepted our donation. They say we should give more. For what? Must the guns to be deployed in the next terror attack be paid for by the Indian taxpayer?

There is a simple way out: let Pakistan stew in its own juice.

Sunday Pioneer, August 22, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

A battle between the Republic and democracy in New York

By Swapan Dasgupta
In an essay published in 1985, Irving Kristol, the 'godfather of the Neoconservative movement', quoted a political scientist as saying that American democracy is based on one key assumption: "that the people are usually sensible, but rarely wise." The American system of government, with its elaborate checks and balances and separation of powers, he contended, was geared towards ensuring that the popular will would ultimately prevail.
The operative term was "ultimately". "Short of the ultimate", Kristol wrote, "the Founders thought it appropriate that popular sentiments should be delayed in their course, refracted in their expression, revised in their enactment, so that a more deliberate public opinion could prevail over a transient public opinion."
Kristol was addressing a debate then raging in the US over school prayer and crime and liberal fears of a rampaging populism that would brush aside the principles on which the Republic had been founded. The debate, in any case, was not new. Throughout its history, the US has led a schizoid existence. Till the defeat of the southern Confederacy in the Civil War, its lofty espousal of freedom jarred against the reality of slavery; and till President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights legislation, some Americans could well have been said to be more equal than others.
Nor was it a case of some white bigots in the southern states violating the enlightened principles that shaped the US Constitution. Dixieland's resistance to the complete abolition of slavery was based on the principle that individual states of the Republic had a right to choose their own course of action, unhindered by Federal intrusiveness and Yankee notions of correctness. Both sides in the Civil War could fall back on both public opinion and the Constitution. The dispute was, quite predictably, settled by force—not merely in the battlefield of Gettysburg but again a hundred years later in Birmingham, Alabama, when federal forces were despatched to escort a handful of scared Black students to a de-segregated school.
The battle between the lofty embellishments of Republicanism and populist democracy has re-surfaced in the passionate controversy over the proposed construction of an Islamic Centre, better known as Ground-Zero Mosque, on a site a stone's throw from where the twin towers of New York's World Trade Centre stood till that horrible September 11 morning. Coming in the wake of the mid-term elections to the US Congress, the controversy has escalated into a clash between two Americas—one which ostensibly swears by the Constitution and one which waves the Flag.
If the editorial columns of the 'respectable' media are any indication, it is a simple battle between (pro-mosque) enlightenment and (anti-mosque) bigotry. The former has the unequivocal backing of intellectuals, the First Amendment and critical endorsements from President Barak Obama and the Mayor of New York. The latter may be burdened by the philological clumsiness of Sarah Palin, the Islamophobia of Newt Gingrich and absence from the soirées of Manhattan, but it has the endorsement (or so the polls say) of nearly two-thirds of America. This has been compelling enough, particularly in an election year, for Senate Majority leader Harry Reid and New York Governor David Paterson to call for a review of the project. The force of public indignation against Cordova House, as the Islamic Centre will be called, was also sufficient to transform Obama's categorical support at the White House iftar into evasive waffle a day later, prompting one writer to dub him a "stubborn man without conviction".
On the face of it, the pro-mosque lobby is on strong grounds. The US Constitution allows every citizen the unhindered right to both preach and practice faith, without any interference from the state. The rigid separation of state and faith, which was originally intended to forestall any partiality to or discrimination against non-conformist Christian sects, has now come to the aid of a religion that is outside the Judaeo-Christian framework. The universalism of their Constitution has now come to haunt Americans.
The only possible way the construction of the Ground-Zero Mosque can be legally prevented is by denying it planning permission. This was the route taken by a local authority in Britain to stop a Tabligi Jamaat mosque from being built at a site overlooking the main stadium for the 2012 Olympic Games. But with state control being far more tenuous in the US and New York's Mayor having given the project his blessings, a governmental veto of the project seems unlikely. This may explain the attempt by New York Governor Paterson to persuade the developers to voluntarily abandon plans to build at this particular site and, instead, opt for a more non-contentious venue.
The opposition to Cordova House isn't based on a challenge to the constitutional right of Muslims to build either a mosque or a community centre. The issue is the alleged 'insensitivity' (some would say provocation) of building it so close to a place where 3,000 people were killed by terrorists claiming to speak for Islam. Would it be proper, ask the sceptics, to build a Japanese war memorial at Pearl Harbour?
The promoters of the project have claimed that Cordova House is aimed at promoting inter-faith understanding. However, this has been greeted by scepticism on account of a history of Islamic triumphalism and the tendency of Muslim rulers in distant lands to build a mosque to commemorate a victory. Regardless of the intentions of the Imam in charge of the project, and even his reputation as an authority on Sufism, the fear is that sooner or later the building will come to symbolise a victory monument and become a hub of Islamist extremism. Sinister meaning has even been attached to the use of Cordova, a city that once symbolised Islam's inroads into the Christian world.
Curiously, one facet of the controversy appears to be troubling both the liberal, non-Muslim supporters of the mosque and their flag-waving opponents. Both fear that whatever the final outcome, the controversy will sharpen the polarisation between Islam and the West and have a negative impact on US foreign policy in the Islamic world.
The fear is justified although, ironically, the debate over Cordova House is only peripherally a tussle between Islam and America. The controversy is really another chapter in the battle between the Republic and democracy. Americans, a historian presciently observed, "Americans erected their constitutional roof before they put up their national walls…and the Constitution became a substitute for a deeper kind of national identity."
The problem was initially addressed by two filters: the first by an enforced compromise between the brash 'frontier spirit' and lofty 'aristocratic' values, and secondly, by forcing newcomers into a melting pot of Judaeo-Christian values. However, the evolution of the American 'nation' appears to have been derailed by the emergence of a new, disparate America which may in time resemble an ethnic menagerie, bound by a Constitution that was written with a relatively cohesive society in mind. The groundswell from below over the Ground Zero sacrilege constitutes the spirited protest of an older and somewhat endangered 'national identity' which appeared to have been subsumed by the Obama landslide of 2008 but is actually alive and kicking. It is basically a plea to the governing elites—where the liberal self-image counts for too much—to not allow permissiveness to override common decencies.
A mosque overlooking the scene of the 9/11 won't reinforce America's image as a haven of enlightened tolerance; it may set it apart as a country unable to distinguish between right and wrong.
The Telegraph, August 20, 2010










Saturday, August 14, 2010

This August 15, face the reality of Kashmir

By Swapan Dasgupta

This August 15, our world has been turned upside down. For the past two months, the Kashmir Valley has been engulfed in an orgy of stone throwing directed against the civil government and the security forces. It has been widely described as the Kashmiri intifada, a tag calculated to generate oodles of romanticised angst. Nearly 45 people, many of them children, have died as harried security forces have attempted to restore order. Quite predictably, each death has bolstered a caricatured view of brave but desperate protestors being felled by the lathis and guns of an uncaring colonial power.

For the propagandists of the yet unspecified azadi, the upsurge has become the moment of liberation, a time to dispense with ambiguity. Behind the poetic justification of stoning, a romantic exile's quiet but unmistakable endorsement of the fidayeen gunmen and the ridiculous recourse to pseud-speak ("Life here is Orwellian, Kafkaesque and Catch-22 all rolled into one") is a more ominous development: the defiant proclamation that a 'solution' to the Kashmir problem isn't possible within the Indian Union and the Indian Constitution.

A position that was once the prerogative of the likes of the fully-veiled Asiya Andrabi of Dukhtaran-e-Milat notoriety—even the stalwarts of the All Party Hurriyat Conference used to camouflage their subliminal desires in the demand for a tripartite agreement—has entered the mainstream discourse.

The Kashmir Valley has always nurtured a core group of highly motivated activists who never reconciled themselves to the accession of 1948. That was always a fact of life which provided succour to Pakistani adventurists determined to complete the "unfinished business of Partition." Field Marshal Ayub Khan's Operation Gibraltar in 1965 was prompted by the belief that his tiny spark would light the proverbial prairie fire in the Kashmir Valley. The ISI made the same calculation when it eyed the protests of 1989-90 as an opportunity for an armed insurrection. But somehow, secessionism never got to the centre stage in the Kashmir Valley. Azadi was a template slogan for all occasions, akin to the labour movement's Inquilab Zindabad . It was poetic rather than literal.

The threat to the Indian Union posed by the recent 'spontaneous' outbursts that even left the Hurriyat leadership feeling unwanted, shouldn't be minimised. The ferocity of feeling and the visible show of hatred against all symbols of authority, particularly the Abdullah family, suggest that the old political recipes to soothe ruffled feathers will carry diminishing returns. No doubt Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meant well when he addressed the all-party delegation from Jammu and Kashmir last Monday. But with the wealth of ground reports at his disposal, he should have known that neither autonomy nor a committee exploring a public sector-driven employment generation scheme would address the situation. The protestors screaming azadi now mean what they shout; their eyes are on what they imagine is a bigger prize.

This grim reality may be unpalatable to those convinced that Kashmiriyat is inherently at odds with the doctrinaire Islamism that will darken the Kashmir Valley if the India link is snapped. This inability to face an awkward truth may explain the appealing suggestion that the stone chucking youth are actually crying out 'to belong' to an economically resurgent India and that New Delhi must respond with a kindness, generosity and opportunity.

How the TV chatterati interpret events in Srinagar is of some importance in determining how Middle India sees the Kashmir problem. Since the last thing anyone wants is for youthful over-boisterousness to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash in the rest of India, there may be some merit in squeamishness and even wishful thinking. However, piousness on the air waves won't change the ground reality. For the impressionable agitators living in emotional ghettos, the PM's elegy, last week's solidarity dharnas in New Delhi and supportive noises by Indian intellectuals have prompted one inescapable conclusion: India's resolve to keep Kashmir a part of the Union is fast waning.

The perception may be a self-serving and a result of mistaking contrition for capitulation, but it nevertheless exists. On Independence Day, it may be time to introduce an alternative understanding of India, an India where indulgence also merges with unflinching resolve.

Sunday Times of India, August 15, 2010

Manmohan will be the fall guy (August 15, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Dr Manmohan Singh has achieved the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of India after Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. For a man who was catapulted to the Finance Minister's post by sheer good fortune in 1991, rising to the top political job and holding it uninterruptedly for six years is no mean achievement. While his effectiveness as a PM has been questioned and he has had to face taunts of being India's "weakest PM", no one has doubted his integrity. In an India where politics has come to be associated with disrepute and sleaze, Singh's personal uprightness has been a redeeming feature for India. The country must truly be grateful that the only thing shady about 7 Race Course Road comes from the greenery.

The same standards of rectitude cannot, unfortunately, be applied to the UPA Government. Manmohan Singh has presided over a rotten government which would have been running for cover if India possessed a purposeful opposition.

The past two months has witnessed the spectacle of sleaze being complemented by ineptitude and growing political incoherence. The country is witnessing the sordid spectacle of a scandal-ridden Commonwealth Games holding the country's reputation to ransom and the Government stubbornly refusing to be accountable for the criminal mismanagement of public resources. Sports Minister Manohar Singh Gill assurance to make the CWG a "Punjabi wedding" and then advising MPs to file Right to Information petitions to know the details of expenditure on sports facilities must count among the more amusing facets of the UPA's disingenuous ways.

Last week's parliamentary furore over the 26-year-old Bhopal tragedy too could have been treated as a desi version of a Monty Python farce had the issue not been so incredibly tragic. We had the spectacle of the veteran Arjun Singh being wheeled into the Rajya Sabha for a one-point agenda: to rewrite history. And we then had the equally grim spectacle of Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram proffering the hypothesis that Arjun Singh's revisionism couldn't be countered because there were no records to indicate otherwise.

The end result was comic and an eye-opener for all those who imagined that India's political evolution had kept pace with its emergence as a new economic powerhouse. What India was told about the circumstances of the arrest and the subsequent release of Union Carbide chairman Warren Anderson was an eye-opener. It seems that Arjun Singh unilaterally ordered Anderson's arrest in Bhopal, and then informed an inscrutable Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi who heard the news in silence. Subsequently, Anderson was released and flew from Bhopal to Delhi on a State Government that had apparently been requisitioned without the Chief Minister's knowledge—a fact apparently contradicted by the logbook. The then Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra had earlier said that the US had negotiated a "safe passage" for Anderson, but the present Home Minister is in no position to confirm or deny it. Arjun Singh has said that he came under pressure from the Union Home Ministry, then headed by P.V. Narasimha Rao, to release Anderson. But as a good Thakur he did not wilt. Anderson left in the state government aircraft but without the Chief Minister's knowledge.

This version of history endorsed by the Congress Party is charming in its stubborn refusal to be influenced by empirical detail and common sense. Anderson, it would seem, was arrested on the express orders of the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister but was released without him or the Prime Minister knowing, perhaps at the intervention of the Union Home Minister who may have also been responsible for the decision to let him leave the country. In short, to blame Rajiv Gandhi for any collusive involvement is a travesty; only Rao has a case to answer.

Last week's curious revelation which can't be confirmed or denied because the paper trail has disappeared has served to reaffirm a principle on which all Congress governments have rested: the King (or Queen) can do no wrong. The absolute sanctity of a monarch's decision may be a quaint principle of Britain's unwritten Constitution where the Head of State is above politics. In India, however, this principle has acquired a new meaning.

Thus, while all Prime Ministers of the proverbial Regency period—and these include Rao and the present incumbent—are answerable for all their actions, the monarchical Prime Ministers are above all scrutiny. Rao can be blamed for the events leading up to the demolition of the Babri shrine in Ayodhya but it just won't do to extend the responsibility to the man who overturned the Shah Bano verdict and ensured to opening of the locks of the disputed place of worship. Manmohan can be blamed for policies that contributed to the steep rate of inflation but it is the height of impertinence to suggest that the Congress President's programme of profligate spending had anything to do with the mess in public finances. Sonia Gandhi, as we have seen, is never wrong; at best she is occasionally 'misled'.

Today, Manmohan Singh is basking in the thrill of political longevity and enjoying the public rewards of personal integrity. He would do well to live for the present. The Congress' own history won't be so kind to his record. Like Rao, he is destined to be the fall guy because the Queen and her family can do no wrong.

Sunday Pioneer, August 15, 2010

Friday, August 13, 2010


By Swapan Dasgupta

In the turbulent late-Sixties when West Bengal began its long and unending spiral of decline, the creative minds of the state were engaged in two parallel pursuits. The more far-sighted of them packed their bags and got the hell out of an emerging nightmare. Those who stayed on immersed themselves headlong into a self-defeating radical enterprise that led to nowhere.

For a long time, the battle of ideas was spiritedly fought on the crumbling walls of a Calcutta that cried out for urban renewal. The wall graffiti of those days was original, vivid and not without a trace of humour. I particularly recall the CPI(M)'s parody of lines from Dwijendralal Roy's play Chandragupta. Gazing at the mighty River Indus, the all-conquering Alexander of Macedonia informs his general Seleucus, his fascination with the India that lies beyond: "Satya Seleucus ki bichita eiy desh: dine ora Naxal, rate Congress." (Truly Seleucus what a curious land this is: by day they are Naxals and at night, Congress.)

The Naxalites emerged from the womb of the CPI(M) in 1967. But that uncomfortable reality didn't stop Jyoti Basu, Promode Das Gupta and Hare Krishna Konar from treating its wayward progeny as an instrument of 'counter-revolution'. This perception wasn't entirely unwarranted. It is now sufficiently clear that Indira Gandhi and Siddhartha Shankar Ray used the puerile shenanigans of the urban guerrillas to unleash a 'white terror' that, besides decimating the Maoists, also put the CPI(M) out of business from 1971 to 1977. What Mao Zedong called "waving the red flag to attack the red flag" was successfully used in West Bengal, albeit at a very high cost.

Mamata Banerjee became active in the Congress when the Naxalites were in disarray and the CPI(M) had gone into hibernation in West Bengal. It is more than likely that she imbibed from her political mentors the tale of how the state was reclaimed for the Congress, albeit for just six years. For a long time, and throughout most of her lonely war against an all-powerful CPI(M), Mamata was content with only one aspect of the war: street battles and agitations. To add to an approach that firmly established her as the most potent symbol of resistance to the CPI(M), Mamata has of late added an all-important dimension: political strategy. Using the imagery of the legendary Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci, she has added the 'war of manoeuvre' to the 'war of attrition'.

This week's "non-political" rally organised by Mamata in Lalgarh, a hub of Maoist activity in West Midnapore district led to a predictable furore in Parliament. Citing her olive leaf to the banned CPI(Maoist) and her stated misgivings over the death in a police encounter of its leader Azad, the Leader of Opposition (Rajya Sabha) Arun Jaitley, said that "the principle of collective responsibility is being breached, and there is a disagreement on the policy of the Government" towards the Maoists. The UPA Government was deeply embarrassed by this forceful charge of incoherence. What made it worse was the revelation that at least two Maoist leaders wanted in connection with serious charges of rail sabotage and murder were open participants in the rally.

Ironically, this attack, while deeply embarrassing for the Congress, may actually prove politically beneficial to Mamata. In playing footsie with the Maoists and their front organisations, the Trinamool Congress is moving with crafty, if cynical, pre-meditation.

In throwing her weight behind the Maoist campaign against CPI(M) 'high-handedness', Mamata has earned herself the grudging but tactical support of West Bengal's left-liberal intelligentsia. This sub-strata of poets, artists and film-makers amount to relatively little in today's West Bengal. They are a pale shadow of the group that dominated and distorted Bengali intellectual life in the first three decades after Independence. Yet, their shift from being Left fellow-travellers to becoming Mamata's camp followers—a process that the leader actively pursued and encouraged—is symptomatic of a larger process: the cracks in the Left edifice.

A reason for the Left Front dominance since 1977 is that it has created an umbrella big enough to accommodate all anti-Congress tendencies, except the BJP. On a parallel track, the Left has also pursued a policy of keeping the anti-Left forces deeply divided. The CPI(M)'s greatest success was in facilitating Mamata's split from the parent Congress in 1996 and then driving her into the arms of a BJP which, in turn, drove away the Muslims from her. These two developments ensured that a divided anti-Left couldn't cope with the electoral might of a united Left. Today, it is the Left which looks bedraggled, with Mamata having won over two important far-Left groups to complement her deep inroads into the Muslim vote. The Congress, many of whose leaders negotiated local peace treaties with the CPI(M) may not be happy with Mamata's imperiousness and her devious ways. But, as the civic polls earlier this year showed, the alternative to breaking with Mamata is political oblivion.

The Maoists are also important to Mamata in another way. Districts such as Western Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, where the Maoist influence is greatest, also happen to be areas where both the TMC and the Congress have negligible ground presence. In using the Maoists to keep the CPI(M) on tenterhooks in its strongholds, Mamata is doubling her pressure on the ruling coalition.

Yet, dalliance with the Maoists is potentially dangerous and can backfire, as many Nepali politicians will readily testify. Mamata's covert understanding with the outlaws can, at best, endure till the CPI(M) is removed from power. After that, will she revert to the original doctrine she learnt as a cub political worker? But will the Maoists have acquired a stable base by then? Will Mamata then have to fall back on the Ray doctrine to eliminate its newest ally that has no faith in the niceties of Constitutional politics?

West Bengal's tryst with violence, it would seem, is likely to persist after Buddhadeb Bhattacharya retreats into the opposition benches.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, August 13, 2010

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Government, Opposition, made for each other (August 8, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the first time since its re-election in May 2009, the UPA Government conveys an unmistakable impression of being in utter disarray. The tell-tale signs of a regime losing direction are all too apparent. The oft-repeated promise, made at the beginning of the year and subsequently, to bring inflation under control, has turned out to be hollow. The Kashmir Valley which enjoyed two years of relative calm has erupted viciously, much to the delight of Islamabad. The "peace process" with Pakistan which features very high on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's agenda has floundered horribly, leaving Indian diplomacy in a state of incoherence. There is an undeclared civil war within the Congress on various issues, with its General Secretary Digvijay Singh openly questioning the political sagacity of Home Minister P.Chidambaram on the battle against Maoists. In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress has experienced a humiliating debacle in the by-elections in the Telengana region. And finally, the extravagant 'coming out party' for a resurgent India that was to have coincided with the Commonwealth Games in October, has left India's international image in tatters, with the Congress caught between the need to save "national honour" and yet maintain a healthy distance from a party MP who is fast becoming the personification of sleaze.

In normal circumstances, the appearance of political vulnerability should have had the power scurrying to call in its disaster management experts. The mood in the governing establishment is, however, far from purposeful. The party is still proceeding on the assumption that all is well and the present difficulties are a storm in the teacup.

The sense of complacency, somewhat reminiscent of the smug reassurance of the British in "fortress Singapore" in the last month of 1941, is based on the belief that the Opposition has been hobbled in a series of pre-emptive strikes. In Gujarat, the dangerous Narendra Modi is thought to be beleaguered on account of the assault launched by the Congress' crack 'special operations' team, aka CBI. In Karnataka, the kerfuffle over the Reddy brothers of Bellary has given the state Congress ammunition for a more conventional war. In West Bengal, a rampaging Mamata Banerjee is causing endless grief to a dispirited CPI(M).

And as an act of bravado, the China-friendly Minister of Environment has carried the spirit of political vendetta to Orissa, against a Naveen Patnaik Government whose only crime is to have won three consecutive elections. Jairam Ramesh has earned himself lots of brownie points by endorsing the Delhi Government's transformation of India's greenest metropolis into a concrete jungle and yet playing spoiler to the POSCO project that subverts the interests of countries which view India as an endless source of raw materials.

The Congress belief that an opposition more concerned with hosting the equivalent of kitty parties, where MPs and leaders can showcase the careers they perhaps should have pursued, is incapable of mounting a serious political challenge to the Manmohan Singh Government may well be right. On the CWG controversy, for example, a section of the BJP leadership has entered into cosy sweetheart arrangements with the ruling establishment and been sufficiently compromised into offering nothing more than token resistance. A wing of the CPI(M) is so anxious to settle scores with its General Secretary Prakash Karat that it has little inhibition about wanting to 'settle' with the Congress at the national level in return for a covert anti-Mamata understanding in West Bengal. A faction of the Janata Dal (U) has been pressing Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar to jump into bed with the Congress, an arrangement they believe could lead to a happy convergence of interests in both Patna and Delhi.

The creation of a compromised, 'loyal' opposition is a legitimate part of politics, and a strategy that both the UPA and NDA have, during their stints in office, deployed. Yet, even a discredited and wilfully ineffective opposition cannot help the government if it is unwilling to help itself. Unless it specialises in its own shenanigans, the focus of any electorate is not primarily on the opposition but on the government. Unless the government does it what it has been elected to do, and does it well and with a measure of integrity, it cannot use the reality of a disjointed opposition to press its case for re-election.

The Congress does not have anything approaching a simple majority of Lok Sabha seats. It is dependent on its two major allies, DMK and Trinamool Congress, and a clutch of smaller UPA partners to see it through the Lok Sabha. Moreover, it needs the RJD and even the Samajwadi Party to feel comfortable. It is, therefore, quite astonishing that the Congress often gives the impression that its position is akin to that enjoyed by the Nehru-Gandhi family in its heyday. Had this been a conscious bluff, a part of a psychological operation against the enemy, it would have been understandable. However, it would seem that the Congress is convinced of its imagined net high worth and is proceeding on the belief that a few acts of dereliction, waywardness and truancy will not jeopardise its innate infallibility. After all, or so the argument goes, the party has two further aces up its sleeve: an opposition that lacks self-confidence and, most important, the real leader who will seek his rightful inheritance before the next election.

The game plan seems quite attractive—assuming it is a game plan at all—but for two imponderables. What if the sheer exasperation of the electorate throws up an opposition leader who seeks victory rather than settling for a small nest egg? And what if the heir apparent finds the mess he has inherited is incapable of a quick-fix solution? Worse, what if the electorate sees UPA rule as a continuum and not something that can be divided into neat time zones—the dismal present befitting a Singh and a golden future worthy of the King?

Sunday Pioneer, August 8, 2010

Friday, August 06, 2010

Delusions of wealth (August 6, 2010)

The Commonwealth Games will be a reality check for India

By Swapan Dasgupta

The belief that a sporting event can be deftly packaged to showcase national pride has a somewhat dubious history. It was Adolf Hitler's Third Reich that first chose to capitalise on the 1936 Berlin Olympics to proclaim the reality of a reinvigorated Germany marching in unison to a national purpose—a feat immortalised in Leni Reifenstahl's evocative documentary film. Japan had the same idea in mind when it set about trying to project its warped version of Asian pride for the 1940 Tokyo Olympics which had to be cancelled owing to the war in Europe.

The unfortunate association of muscle and speed with militarism and totalitarian regimes hasn't, however, prevented the theme of national-pride-through-sports from being carried over into the 21st century. China excelled in using the 2008 Beijing Olympics to demonstrate to a starry-eyed world the awesome might of undemocratic efficiency. South Africa had more modest ambitions when it took on the role of host for the 2010 football World Cup—an event that carried the additional burden of regulating the boisterous enthusiasm of the fans. But the net result of the successful tournament was exactly the same: an outpouring of national pride that glossed over the shortcomings of a cocky and self-serving African National Congress regime.

India has a feeble reputation as a sporting nation. Apart from cricket, where it has successfully blended popular enthusiasm with commerce to secure the commanding heights of the cricket economy, its standing in most of the recognised sports is non-existent. A surprise Gold Medal in shooting at the Beijing Olympics and sporadic individual successes in badminton, tennis, squash and boxing have been offset by the reality of its decline in hockey, a game where it won the Olympics Gold from 1924 to 1956. Like in various other departments, India's sporting record suggests individual successes and indifferent teamwork—cricket being the exception.

Despite what the Ministry of Sports or the Indian Olympic Association may claim, it is unlikely that the reason for hosting the Commonwealth Games in the first half of October was to give a fillip to India's struggling athletes, swimmers, wrestlers, gymnasts and rugby players. India lacks the aptitude, the facilities and the lavish patronage necessary to transform raw talent into world class skills. Apart from cricket, tennis, golf and squash where private initiative has made all the difference, Indian sport is unduly dependant on the munificence of an inefficient government. The autonomous sporting federations which could have assumed the role of nurseries have different priorities.

The myth that the creation of world-class facilities will make all the difference between mediocrity and excellence was punctured after the experience of the 1982 Asian Games held in Delhi. The Asiad, which became Rajiv Gandhi's launching pad into public life, had one enduring national legacy: colour TV. Apart from that, it gave Delhi numerous flyovers, a swanky residential complex in Siri Fort and a clutch of five-star hotels. True, the city also saw the construction of numerous grand stadia but these facilities ended up as venues for pop concerts, Diwali melas and political conventions. For the Indira Gandhi government, something as nebulous and intangible as national pride was the real priority, not sports.

Former Minister of Sports Mani Shankar Aiyar was being wilfully naïve when, in a characteristically irreverent intervention, he suggested that the huge amounts of money being spent on the forthcoming CWG—the estimates range from Rs 10,000 crore to Rs 40,000 crore—would have been better utilised in the training of sportsmen and women. Even if we disregard his successor's promise that the event would resemble a "Punjabi wedding", the fact is that neither the previous NDA that managed the successful bid in 2003 nor the present UPA Government that has made a dog's breakfast of the CWG ever imagined it was spending the money to further India's reputation as a sporting nation. The purpose of the Delhi CWG was always to announce to the world that India has arrived, a proclamation that would set the stage for a bid for the Asian Games, perhaps even the Olympics, and lots of neighbourly envy.

Tragically, the grand proclamation of national achievement is likely to fall on deaf ears. Since the CWG is largely a contrived event, it is unlikely the uneven quality of the venues will make a huge difference, apart from cautioning the international sports authorities of the need to seriously discount Indian claims in future. However, at a time when India is making a serious bid to be recognised as an economic power of consequence and a good place for business, the kerfuffle over the arrangements has proved to the world that India's transition from the Third World to Asian Tiger status is woefully incomplete. Far from showing that India has arrived, it has indicated that the country has a colossal scope for improvement before it can claim a measure of parity with the developed countries.

The biggest eye-opener has been the extent of state ineptitude. The ability of the state sector to plan and efficiently deliver projects according to international standards was on test in the CWG, and the results have been deeply disappointing. It was not the paucity of resources that led to public sector agencies such as the Central Public Works Department, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi and even the much-acclaimed Delhi Metro Rail Corporation often living up to the caricature of what the Duke of Edinburgh once called the "Indian electrician". Certainly, the generous funding didn't justify the shoddy renovation of stadia built for the 1982 Asiad. The expenditure on renovating Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium was Rs 961 crore, Indira Gandhi Stadium Rs 669 crore, Dhyan Chand Stadium Rs 262 crore and Karni Singh Shooting Range Rs 149 crore. Speaking in Parliament, CPI(M) MP Sitaram Yechuri said: "these costs are huge. Compare them with the costs incurred in the renovation of Ferozeshah Kotla stadium. It was only Rs 85 crore."

It was heartening that Yechuri alluded to the cost-efficient renovation of the Ferozeshah Kotla cricket ground which was undertaken by the non-official Delhi Cricket Association. Quite unwittingly, he underlined the biggest malaise that hinders the effective showcasing of India: an inept and bloated state sector which lacks integrity. Cricket has flourished because, for all its imperfections, it has extricated itself from the subsidy regime of the state.

If the ineptitude of the Indian state has been on display, it is complemented by the parallel show of venality. Never mind the national pride self-serving politicians are now invoking, the evidence of brazen short-changing of the public exchequer through over-invoicing is too brazen to allow an easy cover-up. There have been ridiculously inflated bills for the hire of air-conditioners, dust bins, chairs and umbrellas; absurd sums expended on the purchase of soap dispensers and toilet paper; and sweetheart deals with fictitious advertising agencies and dubious car hire firms. The tight deadline meant that all norms and sense of responsibility were discarded as politicians and their nominees joined the gold rush. The Delhi Government didn't even hesitate to siphon money from Planning Commission-endorsed allocations to the holiest of holy cows: the welfare of Dalits.

The run-up to the CWG has been a reality check for an India that was allowing its new-found prosperity run away with its sense of proportion. In trying to cynically flaunt national pride, a cocky political class has created the enduring image of the upstart Indian. It's an image that seems destined to linger.

The Telegraph, August 6, 2010

Sunday, August 01, 2010

CWG mess shows colossal ineptitude (August 1, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the parlour games intellectuals and amateur know-alls tend to play during moments of intense boredom is something called counter-factual history or, better still, "Virtual History"—the title of historian Niall Ferguson's delightful forays into the unknown. In plain language, this involves asking the question "What if?" and then proceeding to let the imagination run riot imagining what God's alternative plan could have been. Bengalis, for example, are prone to endlessly speculating the future of India had their Netaji emerged unscathed from the burning aircraft in Taipei. As a cricket fan, my counter-factual favourite is wondering what could have been Sir Don Bradman's career record had six years of World War II not interrupted his poetic flow.

On a more serious note, there are economic historians who have used counter-factual history to make drive home some features of actual history. It has, for example, been suggested that British national income would have been 10 per cent lower in 1865 had there been no railways. Likewise, in his seminal work published in 1966, Robert Fogel (who subsequently won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1993) asked what would have been the state of the US economy had the railways not been there in the mid-19th century. He concluded that the GDP would have been adversely affected by no more than three per cent.

India is not short of competent economists, some of whom even have an acute sense of history. I would request some of them to engage in a counter-factual exercise, asking a question that has been agitating all public-spirited Indians for many decades: what would be the state of the Indian economy (judged by the necessary statistical parameters) if all the capital expenditure of the government since Independence been optimally utilised, or at least touched a 85 per cent rate of effective utilisation?

It is difficult to anticipate the answers but my casual guess is that India would probably have been in the G-8 club, instead of being a late entry into the G-20 and that too mainly on account of sheer size.

This counter-factual poser comes readily to mind in the context of emerging details of the colossal pilferage and misutilisation of funds set aside for the Commonwealth Games. The skeletal details that have emerged so far, courtesy both the media and the vigilance authorities, suggest two things. First, colossal ineptitude in the preparations for the CWG—failure to meet deadlines, inappropriate construction and a complete insensitivity to the actual requirements of residents of post-CWG Delhi. Secondly, scandalous mismanagement of anything between Rs 30,000 crore and Rs 50,000 crore of money poured into the vanity show. Some of this mismanagement suggests that many of the decision-makers are treading a thin line between incompetence and criminality.

According to the Central Vigilance Commission report which has been imperiously pooh-poohed by the Delhi Chief Minister, "Almost all the organisations executing works for Commonwealth Games have considered inadmissible factors to jack-up the reasonable price to justify award of work at quoted rates citing urgent or emergent circumstances. Despite higher rates, poor site management and delays and quality compromises have been observed." According to a NDTV report, some of the medical equipment for the CWG has been invoiced at nearly seven times their market value, a small indication of the bandit capitalism that has become the norm in government expenditure.

An interesting feature of the huge CWG 'transmission losses' is that the bungling is occurring in full public view. When the roof of a stadium starts leaking at the first hint of rain or, worse, simply collapses, it doesn't require a CVC to tell people that something is horribly wrong. Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit may have successfully co-opted local Opposition leaders, who are uncharacteristically muted in their criticisms, and IOC boss Suresh Kalmadi may have invoked patriotism to prevent the Games from being overshadowed by popular disgust, but their damage limitation skills will be only partially successful. The CWG will forever remain a shining example of the political class' complete inability to comprehend the obligations that come with handling public money.

In an ideal world, the impending CWG fiasco should have nurtured widespread scepticism of the efficiency and effectiveness of public expenditure. If Government works cost seven times more than what it does in a competitive environment, without even ensuring a semblance of quality, there are good reasons to question the high tax and spend approach that has been the hallmark of government policy since Independence.

It has continuously been demonstrated that profligate government expenditure and the exercise of discretionary powers by the executive are the two principal sources of corruption and wastage of taxpayers' money. Yet, just as it has become a Pavlovian response for politicians to demand a CBI inquiry at the faintest whiff of wrongdoing, despite the awareness that the agency is as flexible about its conclusions as plasticine, the view that the quantum of government expenditure decides the commitment to development, persists. Worse, this self-serving assumption runs through the entire political spectrum for the simple reason that government money isn't regulated by normal rules of capitalist accountability. The UPA Government wants to India a country governed by rights and entitlements. What it hasn't elaborated is that the political class naturally regards the state exchequer as an entitlement.

This is why it's important that some economist, incensed by the goings-on at the CWG, undertakes to tell India where it would have been if government expenditure had been wise, efficient and honest. The actual cost of six decades of uninterrupted folly may prompt a rethink. It may even prompt the conclusion that those screaming 'anti-national' at the sceptics should take a closer look at the mirror.

Sunday Pioneer, August 1, 2010





India, UK should put rajya above Raj leftovers (August 1, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Among the many disastrous decisions Jawaharlal Nehru took in his 16-year stint as Prime Minister was the appointment of V.K. Krishna Menon as India's first High Commissioner in London. The wiry and irascible Menon had many things going for him. Sadly, these didn't include tact and diplomacy. A familiar figure in the radical circles of Britain who was on first name terms with most members of the post-War Labour Government, Menon could never make the transition from being the indefatigable campaigner for Indian independence to becoming a grand representative of the newly-born Indian state.

There were many tales of Menon's caustic tongue that used to do the rounds in his heydays. One we particularly relished centred on an unnamed Englishman who was very impressed by Menon's eloquence and oratory. "You speak such good English", the man complimented the High Commissioner with, perhaps, a touch of condescension. Menon's retort was characteristically acerbic: "You, Sir, picked up the language. I, Sir, learnt it."

In the first flush of Independence, when it was natural to demonstrate that civilised self-government was preferable to imperial paternalism, Indians were prone to exaggerated self-righteousness. They took offence when none was intended, and a sneering, preachy, West-baiting became the signature tune of foreign policy. Yet, far from building India's reputation as a self-confident nation, it painted an image of boorishness. Indian officials were perceived in Western capitals as having a monumental chip on their shoulders.

It's not that the West didn't have its own attitude problems. The baggage of old imperial stereotypes were carried over till the 1970s and reinforced by images of material deprivation. Mother Teresa became an iconic figure in the Christian world, not merely because of her good works among the destitute and dying of Calcutta, but she unwittingly bolstered the continuing relevance of a 'civilising mission'.

The Anglicised Indian elites were a special target of derision: everything from their carefully preserved Received Pronunciation (something the BBC now seem to have consciously eschewed), their partiality to Marks & Spencer underwear and fine china from the Harrods sale, and their bewildering attachment to cricket and P.G. Wodehouse were seen as evidence of uncaring venality by a new Britain that feigned classlessness. Last week's Guardian had an agonised article by Pankaj Mishra, a doughty class warrior, charging British Prime Minister David Cameron of tickling "the vanity of the Indian elite" and "severing of Britain's old links with India's great mass of ordinary people."

The provocation was a proposal to slash the needless £250 million overseas aid to India on the ground that India is in a position to pay for its own development. Putting overpaid 'development consultants' out of work may be cruel but hard-headedness demands that Britain shifts tack from playing Good Samaritan to once again developing an appetite for business.

The extent to which self-purification gestures such as playing Avatar and creating a kerfuffle at the shareholders' meeting of Vedanta can be self-defeating was told to me at a convivial High Table dinner at an Oxford college last month. An Indian corporate had proposed to an Oxford college its interest in funding a professorial chair (an expensive proposition). In return it requested the college to organise a series of extra-mural lectures and workshops at a new campus in India. The proposal was fair and would have been operational. However, an Oxford don protested that the sponsor was being accused by jholawalas of unfair land acquisition in India which, naturally, made the deal non-kosher for an Oxford that has prospered on the bequest of Cecil Rhodes.

It is reassuring that when told of the state of play, the Indian corporate is believed to have told the college to take a flying leap.

Today, India is in a position to explore many alternatives. However, there aren't too many Indians who have the social confidence to put self-interest above false prestige. In trying to refashion an old relationship in a new idiom, Cameron tried to do just that last week. But a special relationship based on equality can't happen if one side idolises Menon and the other side sees in Mishra the authentic India.

Sunday Times of India, August 1, 2010