Saturday, February 26, 2011

Why does India turn a blind eye to tyrants?

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is reassuring that while the cricket World Cup is being played in the subcontinent, the organisers have wisely chosen to skirt Pakistan. Security may be the apparent reason but the ICC could just as well have fallen back on aesthetics: the very idea of playing at the Gaddafi stadium in Lahore would seem to be in questionable taste.

Such abhorrence for a dictator who has ruled oil-rich Libya since 1969 would have been unimaginable even two months ago. Colonel Muammar Gaddafi may have been regarded as slightly odd, even a potentially dangerous madcap with intellectual pretensions, in the smug world of international politics—only the irrepressible Oriana Fallaci was audacious enough to describe him as "clinically stupid", a view that is now conventional wisdom after his bizarre TV address last week. But this did not stop sundry ex-Prime Ministers, Nobel Prize winners, heads of reputable academic institutions and sundry Left-wing 'revolutionaries' from descending on Tripoli to confer respectability on the Green Book and the so-called Third Universal Theory.

Like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez—the man most likely to offer 'Brother Leader' sanctuary in case he opts for a one-way ticket out of Tripoli—Gaddafi sought to buy his way into the league table of erudition and greatness. His Zurich-registered Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation lavishly patronised apparently good causes. The London School of Economics, where his son Saif-al-Islam was taught democracy and good governance, was a big beneficiary of his largesse. As a thank-you gesture, it hosted Gaddafi at Houghton Street and invited Saif to deliver the Ralph Miliband lecture for 2010.

Great centres of learning, it is said, are amoral about the colour of donations—there is no stigma attached to the munificence of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Unfortunately, the pursuit of scholarship was only a small part of Gaddafi's foreign policy megalomania. When it suited him, he was equally generous in his funding of terrorism and armed struggle. Libya's role in the bombing of a Berlin discotheque and the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie has been established. Less well-known are its sponsorship of the massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics and its arms supplies to the Irish Republican Army. The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahriya also gave asylum to two army officers responsible for the cold-blooded murder of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman.

The hospitality Gaddafi showered on Mujib's killers stemmed partly from his distaste for a country created by "Soviet imperialist designs" and partly from his partiality to Islamic populism. Gaddafi hero-worshipped President Nasser of Egypt but, unlike Nasser, he was no secularist—he even enthused over an Islamic Europe in the near future. This may account for his wariness of India. He was openly supportive of Pakistan in the Bangladesh war of 1971 and abused Indira Gandhi in a language unacceptable in international diplomacy; and in his only appearance at the UN General Assembly in 2009, he called for the creation of an independent state in Jammu and Kashmir. Gaddafi also opposed India's claim for a permanent seat in the Security Council and provided covert assistance to Pakistan's nuclear programme. His support for Pakistan was, however, tempered by his deep anger over the execution of his 'friend' Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, an anger that has persisted.

Gaddafi's eccentric ways are well known. What is, however, perplexing is the willingness of the Indian foreign policy establishment to walk the extra mile to court him. In 1984, for example, Indira Gandhi was persuaded to go to Libya on a state visit. The visit proved a disaster after the Libyan authorities insisted that the Prime Minister cover her forearms.

Part of this desperation to oblige may have been dictated by energy security. But there was a political subtext to the prevailing fascination for Arab and African dictators. Since Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed his unwavering commitment to all "anti-colonial" struggles, India was inclined to overlook post-colonial tyranny for the sake of being on the right side of history. Delhi even turned a blind eye to the harassment and expulsion of Indians in Burma, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Uganda. Every disreputable Third World tyrant was routinely invited as chief guest on Republic Day and honoured with state-sponsored 'peace' prizes. If Gaddafi and, for that matter, Robert Mugabe haven't been specially hosted, it is not on account of their unsuitability.

The West kowtowed to dictators for either strategic or economic reasons. India flattered them even when it hurt its self-interests. The details of Saddam Hussein's Oil-for-Food payoffs have provided some rationale to apparent acts of irrationality. If the files from Gaddafi's foreign ministry ever come into public view—as it should—India will be a little more knowledgeable about why a vibrant democracy hasn't been more discerning in its foreign policy.

Sunday Times of India, February 27, 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Does India have a Prime Minister

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is a British parliamentary tradition that India should seriously consider adopting: the Prime Minister's Question Time. Each Wednesday the House of Commons is in session, the PM has to answer questions posed by the Leader of the Opposition and backbench MPs for 30 minutes. These 30 minutes are potentially harrowing for any PM, including glib performers like Tony Blair and David Cameron. The reason is that there is no advance intimation of the issues likely to be raised, and these could range from a sharply-worded poser on some aspect of foreign policy to an indignant demand to know why a local hospital had been closed. Like the Boy Scouts, the PM has to 'be prepared' for every eventuality.

The purpose of PM's Questions is not merely to showcase a verbal duel between the leaders of two political parties—the best debater doesn't always prevail at the general election. The idea is to institutionalise the accountability of the PM as the head of the entire Government. Individual ministers carry their departmental responsibilities but the buck stops at the PM. He is accountable for the entire Government and he has to know its every arm.

It is a commentary on the state of Indian democracy that Manmohan Singh's interaction with the editors of TV channels last Wednesday was accompanied by a degree of satisfaction that the PM had finally broken his silence. That the PM had actually chosen the path of reticence in the face of a political crisis of enormous magnitude was itself intriguing. Surely, he owed the people of India and its Parliament some explanation. That he chose to route his version of current developments through a regulated televised interaction—after mildly berating the media for sapping the nation's self-confidence with its focus on the negative—is even more revealing. Since the PM is naturally media-shy and one-liners don't come to him naturally, the choice of forum suggests an even greater discomfiture with the chaotic and insolent ways of Parliament.

The choice of occasion and platform is, however, an incidental footnote. What is far more significant is the manner in which Singh has subtly redefined the role of a PM in the age of coalitions. That he is not the grand, imperial PM in the style of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and, at a pinch, even Atal Behari Vajpayee was well known. The circumstances of his appointment to the top job were different and unique. At best, and not least on account of his seniority and intellectual erudition, he was expected to be primus inter pares (first among equals). The tragedy of Manmohan Singh is that he has recast the position of the Prime Minister as a departmental head: the man responsible for the ministry called Prime Minister's Office.

Had Constitutional improvisation been allowed, Singh should have been re-designated as Chairman of the Cabinet. The prefix PM is ill-suited to him.

Unfortunately, this is a reality that many in this country have not yet fully recognised. Many of the questions thrown at him by the editors were premised on the belief that Singh occupies the hallowed post of PM as the country has known it. Why, he was asked, did he reappoint A.Raja to the Cabinet in 2009? Why did he not take proactive steps to stop the Commonwealth Games loot fest? Why was he so tardy in ensuring the cancellation of a sweetheart deal between ISRO and Devas?

These were questions based on flawed assumptions. They were about as flawed as the automatic equation between, say, the Mughal Emperor Jehangir and his descendant Emperor Shah Alam. On paper they were both Mughal emperors who the same grand titles. But, did Emperor carry the same meaning in 1765, when the East India Company was allowed to exercise its sovereignty over Bengal in the Emperor's name, as it did in 1603 when Sir Thomas Roe pleaded for permission to trade?

To be fair, Singh didn't try to pretend what he was not. He confessed that "some compromises had to be made in managing coalition politics" and that his choice Raja in 2009 was dictated by the wishes of M.Karunanidhi. But he didn't object because "I had no reason, frankly speaking, to feel that anything seriously wrong had been done." On the 2-G spectrum sale, he admitted to his personal preference for the auction route. But when Raja cited the endorsement of the TRAI and the Telecom Commission for the first-come-first-serve route, Singh said "I did not feel I was in a position to insist (on) auctions."

The conclusion is obvious: as the head of one department, Singh was loath to tell another department how to go about its business.

Likewise, wouldn't it have been presumptuous for the PMO to tell ISRO and the Department of Space how to go about its S-band transactions? Yes, there was a lot of foot-dragging between the decision to scrap the contract in July 2010 and perfecting the paperwork. But the PMO wasn't involved; it was all the doing of the space babus.

Only, in this case the Minister for the Space Department was the same as the Minister in charge of the PMO: Manmohan Singh.

Singh conceded to "irregularities" in the Government and an "ethical deficit". But he wasn't responsible. Maybe the PM was. But, does India have a PM?

Sunday Pioneer, February 20, 2011

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Legally speaking

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was something eerily predictable about the reactions to last Tuesday's Special Court verdict on the gruesome Godhra killings of February 26, 2002—the incident that triggered the equally horrible communal riots in Gujarat.

For a few days before Justice P.R. Patil delivered his 815-page judgment that led to the conviction of 31 of the 134 Muslims charged with either conspiracy or participation in the arson attack on the S6 coach of the Sabarmati Express, the less restrained section of the media had been speculating on the possible implications of a 'guilty' verdict. Would it inflame communal passions? Was justice at all possible in "Narendra Modi's Gujarat"? The implications were obvious: the cause of communal harmony and justice would be best served if the entire case was thrown out.

If the questions were predictably tendentious—the Special Court had been set up in April 2009 on a Supreme Court directive and had no relation with the state government's administration of justice—the post-verdict reactions followed the 'activist' template. Father Cedric Prakash, an activist clergyman who runs an NGO, was quick to denounce Justice Patel's judgment as a "miscarriage of justice"; Prashant Bhushan, who was briefly amicus curie in the Gulbarga Housing Society case, called the verdict a "travesty of justice"; lawyer Mukul Sinha who had contested the 2007 Assembly election and lost his deposit, described the conviction of 31 people as based on "concocted evidence" and "falsehood"; and Teesta Setalvad, herself under scrutiny by the Special Investigation Team for allegedly presenting dodgy affidavits, debunked any "conspiracy" to attack the train.

True, BJP's Jaynarain Vyas, the Gujarat Government spokesperson, did proffer a pugnacious reply to the sceptics. He gloated that "the verdict comes as a slap on the face of all those so-called NGOs who were busy maligning Gujarat." But his seemed an odd, contrarian voice amid the multiplicity of well-heeled "activists" feigning outrage. Any citizen unaware of the backgrounds of the sceptics or the convoluted course of the inquiry and legal proceedings would be forgiven for harbouring the suspicion that the Special Court in Ahmedabad had been driven by an underlying political agenda.

It is understandable that there will be litigants and activists dissatisfied by a court verdict on the ground of either evidence or interpretation of the law. They have an inalienable right to approach a higher court for relief and, presumably, the Godhra case will go to the High Court. What is disturbing, however, is not the exercise of the right of appeal but the readiness with which any judgment with political overtones is rubbished in the public domain. Indian democracy offers litigants, activists and commentators a generous space to dissect judgments and court proceedings. Indeed, more often than not, lawyers and others tend to treat TV studios and newspapers columns as a substitute for arguments in the appellate courts.

On the face of it, this may appear to be a worthless and even self-defeating exercise since judges are expected to be swayed by arguments in the courtroom and not by spirited exchanges in TV studios. The judiciary, however, is not detached from society and judges don't live in ivory towers. Like any other citizen, they too are prone to being influenced by their immediate environment. The purpose behind activists using the media to argue points of law and evidence (without having to bother about the opposing counsel) is simple: create a climate of opinion favourable to the cause they are espousing and portray other perspectives (including court judgments) as a travesty.

In the past six months, the no-holds-barred attacks on court orders have become an epidemic. In September last year, there were the shrill denunciations of the Allahabad High Court judgment on the Ayodhya dispute, including suggestions of communal bias. Ironically, the loudest protests came from those who were in the forefront of demanding a judicial resolution of a very complex religio-political dispute that has defied resolution for centuries.

This was followed three months ago by the breast-beating that followed the conviction of Dr Binayak Sen on a sedition charge by a Sessions Court in Chhattisgarh. The spectacle was repeated some weeks ago when the Chhattisgarh High Court turned down Sen's bail application.

The Binayak Sen case is an eye-opener for all those concerned about the larger civic culture surrounding judicial proceedings. In an article written after Sen's conviction, an outraged Amartya Sen wrote that "If the High Court has its thinking straight and unbiased it will overturn the decision." Anything else, he argued, would imply that "as happened in Gujarat—justice is difficult to get in the state which is under the control of a political regime that is keen on justifying its policies, some of which are very deeply problematic, rather than bringing justice to a people living in Chhattisgarh…" This was followed by an appeal signed by scores of Nobel Prize winners, with little familiarity of either India or the specific circumstances of the case, pressing for Sen's release.

Actually, it is Amartya Sen's pronouncement that is deeply problematic. If the integrity of the judiciary is made hostage to politically correct, rather than judicially tenable, judgments, India will lose its status as a democracy where the rule of law prevails.

In establishing pre-meditation, the Special Court in Ahmedabad relied on forensic evidence; the Allahabad High Court relied on archaeological evidence to suggest that a grand temple predated the Babri mosque in Ayodhya; and the Chhattisgarh Government relied on witness testimony and seizure records to suggest Binayak Sen's Maoist links. The conclusions of the judges were governed by evidence—a reason why 63 of the accused were acquitted in the Godhta case—and their refutation has to be based on technicalities, not on the strength of rhetoric.

A battle is either fought in the political arena or in the courts. The two can't happen simultaneously.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, February 25, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In familiar Company

What history says about the sources of corruption in India

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a compelling essay in Newsweek, historian Niall Ferguson contrasted President Barak Obama's missed opportunities in the Middle East with Bismarck's success in harnessing the nascent European nationalism to the advantage of the newly-formed German state in the late-19th century.

The comparison may well strike strategic affairs pundits as both facile and arbitrary: can decision-making in a complex democracy be equated with the resolute authoritarianism of the Prussian order? In his study of Bismarck, the historian AJP Taylor—someone who deftly bridged the gap between academia and journalism—had warned that "Great disasters are caused by trying to learn from history and correct past mistakes." Taylors's alternative was alluring: "it is probably better to think about the present, not the past—or the future."

It's a warning that has cut no ice. In a world where knowledge is driven by the principle of 'relevance', the temptation to see the past through the concerns of the present and profit from that experience is irresistible. William Dalrymple, to cite an example from nearer home, is presently researching a book on the now-forgotten First Afghan War (1839-42). The underlying message behind revisiting a campaign marked by initial success and subsequent disaster is obvious: Whitehall had learnt nothing from its 19th century engagements with Afghanistan and had committed the same mistakes in the 21st century.

Indeed, the War on Terror launched after the 9/11 attacks has generated a body of historical literature centred on the phenomenon of Empire. Written mainly by scholars deeply distrustful of President George W. Bush's foreign policy, they have been inclined to view the assault on Islamism as a cover for Empire-building and self-aggrandisement. In a war billed as being dictated by oil, former US Vice President Dick Cheney was often depicted as a latter-day personification of Robert Clive and Cecil Rhodes. Not surprisingly, the story of the East India Company's transformation from merchants to conquerors of India has formed an important part of the narrative.

The narrative has struck a chord among radicals and dissenters in an India that has hesitantly embraced globalisation. The East India Company has reappeared in populist political discourse as the symbol for corporations determined to subvert democracy and the rights of indigenous peoples for the sake of profit. This shrill denunciation of global capitalism has blended in neatly with the fringe but vocal anti-globalisation movements in the campuses of the West which accounts for Arundhati Roy's cult status.

For a country that has traditionally been disdainful of history, any attempt to imbibe past experiences is a welcome departure. To that extent, invoking the story of the East India Company is worthwhile. The danger lies in getting the wrong end of the stick. The Company holds out valuable lessons for contemporary India but the relevant lesson is not drawn from its creeping conquest of India—a feat that is near-impossible to replicate—but the story of how early capitalism subverted society and politics. In today's India where prosperity and improvements in standards of living appear to coexist with cynicism, scandal and corruption, another facet of the East India Company story is worth exploring.

To many early British administrators parachuted into India to bring order and streamlined governance, corruption often seemed a peculiarly 'native' problem. "Every native of Hindustan", Lord Cornwallis once exclaimed in exasperation, "I verily believe, is corrupt." It was a view echoed by Clive in his deposition to a select committee of Parliament investigating his 'disproportionate assets'. "From time immemorial", he explained, "it has been the custom of that Country, for an inferior never to come into the presence of a superior without a present. It begins at the Nabob and ends at the lowest man who has an inferior." Clive, in fact, claimed to have been "astonished at his own moderation" in resisting the blank cheque offered to him by Mir Jafar after Plassey.

Lest it is imagined that Clive and Cornwallis were guilty of creating 'orientalist' stereotypes to gloss over the venality of the Company's servants, it is interesting to note the first question posed to Sir Thomas Roe by the Moghul Emperor Jehangir in 1615 upon being asked for trade and tax concessions for the Company: "He asked me what Presents we would bring him." When Roe offered him "excellent artifices in painting, carving, cutting, enamelling, figures in Brasse, Copper, or Stone, rich embroyderies, stuffes of Gold and Silver. He said it was very well: but that hee desired an English horse." And Jehangir was no tinpot chief overwhelmed by greed and a desire to survive.

The suggestion that transactions in India always have a covert built-in quid pro quo clause may seem offensive but, at the same time, in the age of 2-G and the Commonwealth Games it does have a contemporary resonance. The annual payment of £27,000 to Clive for a jagir over which the Company already possessed rights was suspected to be a variant of the modern-day kickbacks that accompany defence deals and commercial contracts. What Warren Hastings disingenuously claimed was the "common Zeasut" or generous entertainment allowance "usually given to the visitor by the visited" would well have been construed today as bribes and sweeteners. Likewise, the endless retainers, some amounting to more than £10,000 annually, given by either the Nawab of Arcot or his rival the Raja of Tanjore to departing Company servants for promoting their interests in both Westminster and Leadenhall Street seem to have much in common with post-retirement consultancies and directorships offered by companies to retired babus.

The organised encounter between a commercially-driven Britain and a less purposeful India resulted in hideous political, social and economic distortions in both places. To Britons, dazzled by the wealth and opulence of the East, the ease with which Indians, legatees of an admitted rich civilisation, could be made suckers was puzzling. In the words of Charles Grant, a government official who returned from India in 1790, the people of India were "lamentably degenerate and base, retaining but a feeble sense of moral obligation, yet obstinate in their disregard of what they know to be right." Hastings wasn't so sanctimonious, preferring to locate the problem in the tradition of "arbitrary power". Today's anti-corruption crusaders have, ironically, also identified discretionary power as the root of corruption.

The ostentatious and vulgar 'Nabob' culture that stemmed from the interaction with India after 1757 also created widespread concern in Britain. The Company servants who returned with the huge proceeds of their 'private trade' may have bought prime properties, works of art and even seats in Parliament but they never attained respectability. Both Clive and Hastings were subjected to intense parliamentary scrutiny and were the targets of men such as Edmund Burke who sought a moral cleansing of society.

Justice never caught up with the Company Nabobs but the consequence of the fierce assaults on their ethics and integrity left a mark on Britain. By the beginning of the 19th century, the scandals of an earlier era forced it to move towards a relatively more ordered capitalism and an ideal of Empire centred on justice and fair play. Although there was always a mismatch between ideal and reality, the British 'national character' did internalise this abhorrence of excess. Some of this shift was reflected in India.

The post-1991 encounter with global capitalism has produced perversions that correspond broadly to the experience of the 50 years after Plassey. If history is prone to selective re-enactment, India can possibly look forward to what happened after the dust settled on the first flush of exuberance.

The Telegraph, February 18, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Congress has lost the will to fight back

By Swapan Dasgupta

From the time concern began to be voiced about the utilisation of public money for the Commonwealth Games, it has been six months of unending bad news for the Manmohan Singh Government. With the Adarsh Housing Society scandal, the 2-G scam, the furore over the appointment of the Central Vigilance Commissioner and the S-band controversy coming in rapid succession, the impression that the Centre is now either a helpless or willing partner in the organised loot of the exchequer is becoming conventional wisdom.

So politically debilitating has been the cumulative effects of these billion-rupee scandals that the Congress appears to have lost the will to fight back. True, there have been attempts to establish an 'immoral' equivalence. But repeated invocations of the misdeeds of B.S. Yedyurappa and the attempt to blame the erstwhile NDA Government for all subsequent telecom distortions haven't succeeded in altering the widespread perception that the UPA Government facilitated organised loot. Just as Hosni Mubarak couldn't secure his presidency by screaming 'Muslim Brotherhood', the Congress bid to divert attention to 'saffron terror' hasn't worked, except insofar as it helped Pakistan dilute the charges of its own export of terror.

Offence may theoretically be the best defence but brazenness doesn't always pay. Kapil Sibal, with all the dexterity of a good court lawyer, has attempted to show that the fuss over A.Raja and the ISRO are much ado about nothing. Sibal's penchant for the overstatement yielded diminishing returns during the Kargil war in 1999 and is proving to be positively counterproductive in today's climate of cynicism and disgust. Shrillness was rejected by the voters in 2009 and the abhorrence for it still persists.

This is a message that shouldn't be overlooked by the Opposition which is having a ball pillorying the Government. Before it gloats over near-effortless victory after victory in TV discussions and revels in the Government's discomfiture over biting observations by the judiciary, it should pause to reflect over the state of play in national politics.

The credibility of the UPA Government is rock bottom and so is the standing of the PM. The impression that Manmohan is mute spectator to the misdeeds of politicians and bureaucrats has taken root. Even his own party is worried and becoming restless at his inability to control the slide. The system of diarchy which was once lauded as a great political innovation is under strain and has contributed to the Congress pulling in different directions. The Congress worry is all the more because there is nothing as yet to suggest that the heir designate is ready to assume charge.

The UPA muddle should have seen a natural rally behind any Government-in-waiting. The Opposition's tragedy is that frustration with the Centre hasn't automatically turned into a surge in popularity of the BJP-led NDA. Although the suggestion that the BJP is in disarray is over-simplistic, it is fair to suggest that the saffron alliance isn't anywhere close to grabbing the political space that should have been its for the asking. The BJP has recovered some lost ground since 2009 but not enough ground to be perceived as the next government.

Part of the reason could be the absence of a clear leader to lead the charge. For various reasons the BJP has deferred any decision to 2013 in the belief that a year of relentless campaign will establish the leader as the alternative face. There are three clear possibilities—and a few who are claimants in their own mind—for the top job and a final decision will rest on two factors: the political mood and the imperatives of coalition building. If the craving for a strong, purposeful leader is paramount, the choice is pre-determined. If, however, there is the need to enlarge the NDA to include regional parties in the east and south, the choice could fall on either of the other two.

Yet, merely waiting for the new messiah to be anointed does not constitute good politics. The BJP has to be ready with the groundwork. The declaration of a PM candidate by the NDA is an important facet of the final 365 days of war but it doesn't constitute the entire campaign to reclaim the ground lost since 2004.

The BJP needs a determined bout of single-mindedness and a willingness to address popular concerns. In today's climate it means a commitment to relentlessly pursue the themes of corruption and economic mismanagement, issues that appeal to the widest cross-section of the electorate. It implies a willingness to put shelve pet 'ideological' issues on one side and not get derailed by Congress provocation.

And finally, it means an ability to transcend the churlish we-told-you syndrome and formulate an alternative economic perspective that incorporates the best practices of the many successful NDA Governments. Being an opposition like Mamata Banerjee is to the Left Front may work wonders in West Bengal's state of decline but the national need is to be an intelligent opposition, one that can shoulder responsibilities for people who have a lot to lose from the UPA's misgovernance.

Every party has its eccentrics and the BJP parivar has more than its fair share. The misfortunes of the Congress have given them a chance to go prowling for simple-minded suckers. For its own sake, the BJP has to ensure its madcaps are kept behind locked doors.

Sunday Pioneer, February 13, 2011

Revolt of Egypt’s networking babalogs

By Swapan Dasgupta

For three weeks the world has been awaiting a face that would personify the determination and anger of the Jasmine revolution in Egypt. For all their accomplishments, neither Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei nor Arab League secretary-general Amr Mousa quite fitted the bill: they were too stuffy and detached from the passions on display in Tahrir Square.

Last week, many Egyptians found their symbol in the boyish, bespectacled, 31-year-old Google employee Wael Ghonim. Better known by his Facebook nom de plume El Shaheed (the martyr), he could well be mistaken for another dishevelled but trendy techie with a trademark black computer bag—someone likely to be naturally awkward in the perfectly tailored suits that make Hosni Mubarak and Omar Suleiman appear so distinguished. To middle class Egypt, the backbone of the Egypt uprising, Ghonim is the archetypal boy next door.

It is Ghonim's ordinariness and modesty that enthralled Egyptians last week when he appeared on Dream TV after his release from 12 days of incarceration. His message was sincere and touchingly innocent: "we did this because we love Egypt", "these are our rights", "this is not the time to spread ideologies" and, "we deserve much better than what is happening to us." There was no bitterness and no call for recrimination—he actually praised the patriotism of his tormentors, just a plea for life with dignity. He ended with a tearful apology: "I want to tell every mother and father who lost a child, I am sorry, but this is not our mistake. I swear to God it's not our mistake. It's the mistake of every one of those in power who doesn't want to let go."

By the time an emotionally distraught Ghonim abruptly concluded the interview, leaving the channel to sign off with mournful music and photographs of nameless boys felled by bullets in the prime of their lives, it is said there was not a dry eye in Egypt. The spurt in the numbers in Tahrir Square last Tuesday, particularly of women, could be traced to the Ghonim interview.

If Ghonim's charm does indeed prove a game changer and Egypt persists in its determination for a new order that is democratic in both form and spirit, it will be a spectacular development. Since the June 2009 protests in Teheran against a blatantly rigged election, there has been growing interest in the role of social media as a catalyst for change in authoritarian societies. As the creator and administrator of the "We are all Khaled Said" page on Facebook which attracted some 3.5 lakh followers before the uprising, Ghonim personified the new cyber activism. The Egypt uprising was triggered by an improvised protest rally on January 25 convened by the April 6 movement, a group that was forged primarily out of social media linkages.

This is not to go along with the facile description of the Egyptian troubles as the Facebook or Twitter uprising. Had the anti-Mubarak stir been merely a middle class revolt of the well-off, under-35s, it would have had an impact but it wouldn't have either shaken an entrenched regime or forced a grudging shift in US policy. The demonstrations have attracted mass support, well beyond the relatively small group linked by social media. It has seen the participation of the bazaars, the working class and a Muslim Brotherhood that is ideologically disinclined to share the liberal values of the likes of Ghonim.

Where Facebook and Twitter have played a seminal role is in drawing a very wide swathe of the educated middle class youth. In her interview with Ghonim, the feisty TV presenter Mona el-Shazly spoke about a curious facet of the movement: the participation of the sons and daughters of Establishment figures in the Tahrir Square protests. The Egyptian revolution is also a babalog revolt against the lack of personal and creative freedom.

It is this facet of the uprising that has contributed to the muddle in US policy. Hitherto, Washington viewed the global spread of the social media as both a success of US enterprise and a vehicle for the spread of American values. Each tirade against a Google or Twitter-inspired ideological contamination by Iranian clerics and Chinese commissars was seen as a triumph of US soft power. In Egypt, the earnest boys and girls spouting the virtues of democracy in American accents to CNN and BBC were also upholding the spirit of freedom the US always showcased. Tragically for Washington, this idealism was at odds with American geo-political interests.

Like the Egyptian youth who have outgrown the traditional culture of deference but yet remain passionately committed to Egypt, Twitter and Facebook are also setting their own norms. If social media helped liberate Egypt, Egypt could trigger the liberation of the social media from its American origins.

Sunday Times of India, February 13, 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Melting pot menu

By Swapan Dasgupta

Two years ago, I was invited to a seminar at a grand Cambridge college. As is customary on these occasions, the seminar was to conclude with a formal dinner that sounded promising. Curiously, just before dinner I was discreetly told by a co-participant to 'tank up' at an improvised 'control room'. Apparently, some participants had insisted that they would attend the dinner on two conditions: that only halal meat would be served and there would be no alcohol. Rather than create cultural complications, the hosts had graciously acquiesced.

Apart from a sense of culinary disappointment, I was not sure how to react. For westerners (and, for that matter, Chinese), hosting subcontinental guests can be a nightmare: there are just too many dietary taboos. Many are vegetarian. Others don't eat beef or pork, while still others insist on halal. Some are teetotallers, but a minority will not accept drinking at the table. The net result: some people are gratified while others grumble silently about those who made all the fuss.

My Cambridge experience came to mind while reading the reactions to David Cameron's well-crafted assault on 'multiculturalism' at a conference in Munich last week. The British Prime Minister's speech echoed many of the themes voiced earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel but it broke new ground by formally linking some facets of cultural relativism to the threat of Islamist terrorism Europe faced from within. Cameron's contention was that multiculturalist fads had eroded a national civic culture and this in turn had allowed Islamist radicals the space to influence impressionable young Muslims in cosmopolitan societies. From espousing 'non-violent extremism' to becoming suicide bombers, he felt, was a small jump.

Cameron offered a robust prescription to meet the challenge: "(We) must build stronger societies and stronger identities at home. Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance…and a much more active, muscular liberalism."

At a time when there is mood of gloom and doom in Britain, Cameron's advocacy of "active, muscular liberalism" will invariably be misinterpreted as tacit endorsement of far-Right groups engaged in creating a demonology around Britain's Muslims. That would be a tragedy and will derail a much overdue process of the United Kingdom coming to come to terms with an emotional drift that has plagued it since the Sixties.

For starters, it is necessary to separate 'multicultural' from 'multiculturalism'. The post-1945 wave of immigration from the old Empire has altered the landscape of urban Britain. UK—and England in particular—now hosts people from diverse national and ethnic backgrounds. Far from immigrants and their descendants being an economic drag, this spectacular cosmopolitanism has actually helped maintain UK's post-imperial relevance. Diversity has enriched it culturally and economically.

Multicultural Britain is an irreversible reality. In an age of global connectivity it is difficult for the 'melting pot' experiment to be easily replicated. In matters of food, faith and even social attitudes, the inheritance of the 'old country' will persist for generations and may even be renewed. Indian restaurants will continue to thrive in Blighty; Bollywood films will influence fashion and fads; brown and black holders of British passports will continue to fail the Tebbit test at Edgbaston and Oval; and the mosque will remain at the epicentre of community life and social certitudes for many Muslims.

White, Anglo-Saxon Britain have accepted these foreign implants into an island nation with grace, generosity and remarkably little social tension. Yes, Britain has a race problem but considering the magnitude of the post-War redrawing of the ethnic and cultural landscape, it is remarkable that chauvinism and cultural xenophobia have not taken deep roots in mainstream politics.

In 1985, over a convivial cup of tea, Enoch Powell told me that "mass migration was unfair to both the Punjabi and the Brummie." He was wrong about the Punjabi who did well out of the Midlands; and he was only partially right about the Brummie. White working class communities may have resented odd job losses, taunted and bullied the 'Paki' boy in the local school and grumbled about the all-pervasive 'smell of curry'. But bewilderment with the unfamiliar was also coupled with 'passive tolerance' and a distaste for extremist politics—a reason why Powell, for all his undoubted erudition, was shunned by the Establishment after his 'rivers of blood' speech.

Over the years, and more so after the European Union expanded the labour market, this 'passive tolerance' has evolved into active engagement with diverse cultures. The process of integration and partnership would have been even more meaningful had it not been for two separate developments: the outpouring of multiculturalist fads and the 7/7 bombings which brought home the reality of home-grown Islamist terror.

Multiculturalism began as a noble attempt to widen the boundaries of tolerance and co-existence. It was based on the assumption that Britain was a rainbow coalition where the British inheritance and way of life were on par with those of other cultures. This assumption rejected integration as a social goal and reduced Britain to an ethnic menagerie. Secondly, along with the negation of a dominant culture, multicultural activists sent out strong signals that it was the host community that must stand down from its pedestal, vacate public spaces and make the necessary adjustments to respect minority sensitivities. They rarely stressed the importance of immigrant communities respecting the ways of the natives. Accommodation and adjustment became a one-way street. The perverse consequences were not surprising: inflammatory sermons in mosques and an in-your-face assertion of separateness.

Cameron is right to question this provocation to British tolerance but his invocation of 'muscular liberalism' as an alternative seems far-fetched. The multiculturalist parody was also a direct consequence of a larger crisis of values in British society. Over the past 50 years, the West has systematically have undermined existing moral certitudes—a recurring complaint of Pope Benedict—and made the foundations of a hitherto robust civic culture fragile. To undercut the appeal of extremism on its doorstep, the West has to recover a soul first.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, February 11, 2011









Saturday, February 05, 2011

Change in Egypt, but no revolution

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the pursuit of analytical rigour, it often helps to put emotions in cold storage.

For more than 10 days the ferment—some chose to call it "revolution"—in Egypt has shaken and stirred the world. There have been emotional scenes from Tahrir Square as clutches of young people have re-enacted an oriental variant of Greenham Common and Woodstock. There has been a genuine upsurge of sentiment against authoritarian tyranny in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, not to mention the TV studios throughout the 'free' world. These in turn have led to a wider questioning of an ingrained stereotype: that the Arab world is inherently inimical to democracy.

The world was never the same after a mass upsurge led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is entirely possible that what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution will have a similar cataclysmic effect and reshape the political contours of the territories that once made up the old Ottoman Empire.

For the moment, however, the optimism seems premature.

Despite initial expectations that Hosni Mubarak would emulate his fellow autocrat, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and flee Cairo with an aircraft full of personal treasure, the Egyptian regime has proved remarkably resilient. All the sustained pressure of the White House and the Pentagon have not been able to convince the Egyptian military that their Commander-in-Chief should step down immediately to facilitate an "orderly transition" to democracy. On the contrary, a combination of loyalist stubbornness and national pride appears to have convinced the nationalist army that Americans are naïve. To the beleaguered ruling establishment, the departure of Mubarak under crowd pressure will open the floodgates of anarchy and the eventual triumph of radical Islamists.

The issue is not so much who is right and who understands Egypt better. By drawing a Lakshman rekha on US intrusiveness the Egyptian establishment has sent two important signals. First, it has bolstered its nationalist credentials without, at the same time, being insensitive to the central message of change. Secondly, it has driven home the point that, all the billions of dollars of military aid notwithstanding, Egypt is not a client state of the US. It has its own mind.

The tremors from Tahrir Square may well have ensured that no future regime in Egypt can return to the comfort zone of illiberal authoritarianism. That is a huge achievement and should be a lesson to all neighbouring Arab monarchies and even Baathist Syria. But the composure with which the protests were handled, after the initial panic, suggests that what the Facebook revolutionaries are up against is a sophisticated establishment that is no pushover.

The Egyptian establishment, it would seem, has truly learnt from the hideous mistakes of the Shah of Iran. After the initial two days of panic, following the failure of the intelligence agencies to anticipate the magnitude of the protests, there was the wise decision to completely withdraw the hated police from any visible role in the preservation of law and order. Simultaneously, it was announced that the Egyptian army, that now patrolled the main streets of the towns, would not fire on its own people. This announcement and its faithful adherence by the army patrols ensured that the military retained its perceived role as the dispassionate, patriotic arbiter.

The deification of the armed forces may well be unwarranted. Since the ouster of the monarchy following a junior officer's coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, the military has called the shots in Egypt. Like its counterpart in Pakistan, the Egyptian military also runs a state within a state, and its tentacles extend to the economy as well. Mubarak cannot in any way be separated from the military. Yet, paradoxically, common Egyptians, not least the majority of the anti-Mubarak protestors, have been loath to equate the military with the political dispensation in Egypt. The military has successfully maintained an autonomous status, at least in the realm of perception. Its passive and, occasionally, protective role in the past week has reinforced its role as the patriotic bulwark against chaos. The pro-Mubarak forces that attacked Tahrir Square and unleashed a reign of terror last Wednesday were not seen as enjoying the covert blessings of the armed forces.

Vice President Omar Suleiman, the man who is now seen as wielding the real power, took a calculated risk by allowing Friday's "Day of Departure" rallies to be held without any obvious hindrance. Had the protestors actually chosen to march on the Presidential Palace, as some of the hotheads wanted, Tahrir could indeed have turned to Tienanmen, with catastrophic consequences. Fortunately, this did not happen and the strategy of wearing down the protests paid dividends. With the armed forces now shown to be sympathetic but yet unrelenting on the issue of Mubarak's immediate removal, it is likely that the opposition will strive to negotiate the future rather the immediate present.

The campers in Tahrir Square may well linger but, barring provocations and unforeseen accidents, it is safe to assume that the limits of street politics have been reached. With the beleaguered middle classes yearning to clear the rubble and get back to normal work, the danger of Egypt going the Iran way has been averted. There is likely to be representative government in Egypt but democracy in the western sense is likely to remain elusive.

There will be change in Egypt but no revolution.

Sunday Pioneer, February 6, 2010

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The easy option

For Egypt, the future of democracy may not be as expected

By Swapan Dasgupta

The belief that 'right wing' conservatives constitute the "stupid party" has becomes conventional wisdom in 'enlightened', liberal circles. This aggregation became embedded in the world of intellectual fashion during the administration of President Ronald Reagan and was cast in stone during the eight-year tenure of President George W. Bush. And, like most things self-evident to the controllers of the opinions industry, it soon became a global axiom.

It is a measure of the fragility of certitudes that the past fortnight has witnessed an abrupt rehabilitation of both these pillars of the "stupid party". The spectacular mass demonstrations in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak and the resulting apprehension in the western world have contributed to a grudging respect for the "democratic agenda" that both Reagan and Bush pursued in the face of mockery and derision from both liberals and 'realists' alike.

In a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, Bush made a speech that, in hindsight, appears prophetic: "Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe—because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment and violence ready for export."

In promoting democracy, Bush didn't quite live up to the exacting standards set by Reagan in his unrelenting opposition to the "evil empire"—an opposition that contributed to the demolition of the Berlin Wall. But even his discreet encouragement of pro-democracy activists and quiet pressure on Cairo to enlarge the scope of civil liberties so infuriated Mubarak that he didn't visit the White House even once during Bush's second term. By contrast, as the WikiLeaks have revealed, President Barak Obama and gave Mubarak a very wide berth, listened approvingly to his paranoiac fears of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood and finally reposed faith in his canny survival instincts.

The extent to which a beleaguered US is able to influence the internal politics of a country such as Egypt or, for that matter, Tunisia and Jordan has often been exaggerated. Neither Mubarak nor King Abdullah of Jordan and even the deposed Ben Ali of Tunisia were quite the puppet dictators the US routinely propped up in Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. Mubarak, through the Egyptian military, the elaborate security apparatus and the ruling National Democratic Party, had roots in Egyptian society, particularly that section which benefitted from the economic reforms of the past decade. His position in Egypt wasn't very dissimilar to that of the genial Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan who replenished his army support with the political backing of rural and tribal notables attached to the Muslim League.

Nor was Mubarak impervious to the need for safety valves by which Egyptians could let off steam. Aware that the mosque and the bazaar were two focal points of opposition, he learnt a few lessons from the Shah of Iran and avoided a policy of aggressive social modernisation. More important, he tried to undercut an important political plank of the Islamic opposition by appropriating two of its themes: anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism. Paradoxically for a ruler who was an important ally of the US in the region and who remained committed to the peace treaty his predecessor Anwar Sadat had signed with Israel, Mubarak allowed his state-controlled media and the state-funded clergy to carry on tirades against both the US and Israel. Some of the anti-Israel propaganda, such as Holocaust denial, was deeply offensive. According to the Pew Global Attitudes survey of 2010, Egypt, along with Pakistan and Turkey, ranked as the country that had the least favourable attitude to the US.

However, state-sponsored anti-Americanism was coupled with harsh repressive measures against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and its more extremist offshoots and a wariness of Iran's attempts to export its revolution.

Mubarak, like his two predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser, who ousted the obese King Farouk and Sadat who salvaged a measure of Egyptian pride after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, was a crafty politician. He wouldn't have survived 30 years in power otherwise. Unfortunately, unlike his predecessors, he lived in another age, an age where old certitudes had crumbled.

There is a facile view that the TV images of the Egyptian uprising are the nearest thing to Facebook on the barricades. This perception has been bolstered by interviews with breathlessly committed "activists" who speak the language of freedom and democracy but who, as was irreverently noted, are better known to western journalists than to Egyptians. While these middle-class campaigners against Mubarak have undoubtedly given the protests an acceptable face in West and helped allay fears of another clergy-led uprising by the faithful, it is important to keep in mind the fact the crowds who have thronged in Tahrir Square and Alexandria are made up of people from the lower middle class and working class. Their opposition to the Mubarak dispensation is not centred on the freedom agenda alone but against the side-effects of Mubarak's economic reforms: corruption, crony capitalism and a fierce resentment of elite lifestyles. Tactically, these issues have been subordinated to the demand for democracy, but only for the moment. The Muslim Brotherhood hasn't been submerged in a larger movement; as the best organised political formation, after decades of undercover existence it has carefully delayed its moment in the sun.

Should the shadowy presence of the Muslim Brotherhood behind the grouping nominally led by Nobel Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei caution the world against democracy in a region which has a reputation for being "non-argumentative"? This is, for example, the argument used, ironically, by Israel—the only truly functioning democracy in West Asia—for its refusal to deal with the Hamas.

There are no easy answers. Apart from the principle that the will of the people must be respected, warts and all, there is the argument of Israeli politician Nathan Sharansky in his seminal The Case for Democracy. Noting the penchant of Israel for assuming that peace in the region can only be negotiated by dictators who can manage an unpopular truce autocratically, Sharansky warned of the inherent fragility of "fear societies" prone to doublespeak.

"I knew enough about fear societies", he wrote, "to realise that such a regime would inevitably threaten Israel. I thought we should link the legitimacy, money and concessions we and the rest of the world were giving (Yasser) Arafat to his regime's willingness to build a free society in the areas…under its control. In my view, the Palestinian Authority had to be given the same choice that had once faced the Soviets: Build a free society for your people and be embraced by the world, or build a fear society and be rejected by it."

Sharansky's logic should suggest that freedom and liberal democracy are the only civilised options in the contemporary world. It is a proposition certain to be fiercely contested in places as disparate as Beijing and Riyadh, not to speak of 'democratic' Washington wary of disrupted oil supplies and 'democratic' Tel Aviv fearful of encirclement by the Arab Street. Despite all the expectations of the idealists camped in Tahrir Square, Egyptians can expect little consistency over the future of democracy. Showing Mubarak the door is the easy option. But what if a new regime in Cairo actually starts reflecting the popular will?

The Telegraph, February 4, 2011