Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winds of change

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, December 31, 2010


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Politically correct poppycock

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belated Merry Christmas!

Sunday Pioneer, December 26, 2010



Handle with care

West Bengal poses a real dilemma for the Congress

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Telegraph, December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lessons that Bihar can teach West Bengal

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Times of India, December 19, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Red fading into green

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle, December 17, 2010



Saturday, December 11, 2010

Congress heavyweight’s misplaced zeal

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Pioneer, December 12, 2010




Friday, December 10, 2010

Tantrum time

Paper tigers and the empty chair in Oslo

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Telegraph, December 10, 2010

Monday, December 06, 2010

Green fundamentalism as state oppression

By Swapan Dasgupta

Sunday Pioneer, December 5, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Saturday, December 04, 2010

Time to fight the cancer, not join the lynch mob

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Times of India, December 5, 2010

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Credibility crisis

By Swapan Dasgupta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, December 3, 2010