Saturday, July 30, 2011

BSY a victim of kangaroo court

By Swapan Dasgupta
The relative ease with which Karnataka’s outgoing Lokayukta was able to remove B.S. Yeddyurappa from the chief ministership has given ideas to those seeking shortcuts to change. It is not my case that Justice Santosh Hegde’s voluminous report that is yet to be released in the public domain is flawed or hasn’t made out a convincing case for the prosecution of BJP’s most prominent southern face under the Prevention of Corruption Act.
The honest truth is that neither the TV channels who are shrieking with excitement nor the politicians who are insisting that Yeddyurappa is a bribe taker have the faintest idea whether the case against the Chief Minister was so conclusive as to warrant resignation. All that exists in the public domain so far is are ‘leaked’ extracts of the report and Justice Hegde’s own verbal summary of the report to the media in Bengaluru last week.
Justice Hegde has a reputation of being a man of fierce independence and integrity. These attributes made him a good choice for Lokayukta in his home state. Unfortunately, the good Judge appears to have got derailed somewhere along the way.
First, by donning the mantle of a public crusader in Team Anna he acquired a public profile and a public image which he was compelled to live up to. His repeated interventions in the media made him more of a public intellectual than a Constitutional authority. Justice Hegde lost sight of the detachment that his office demanded. He had one eye on the law but the other eye was firmly on the court of public opinion (as reflected by the media).
Secondly, the Karnataka Lokayukta entered into an unseemly public spat with the Chief Minister. It is unnecessary to judge which of the two was pricklier but the tensions helped contribute to an impression that neither Hegde nor Yeddyurappa were able to have an un-jaundiced view of the other. Hegde’s public pronouncement that only the Supreme Court would be able to bring the guilty people in the mining scam to book was a sharp indictment of the integrity of the Karnataka Government. A public intellectual had every right to make such a pronouncement but a Constitutional authority should have exercised a greater degree of tact and restraint. The vitiated environment is not good for the health of India’s already jaded institutions.
Yeddyurappa’s ability to don the mantle of victimhood will be tested by how voters view the recent turmoil in Karnataka. But considering that the BJP Government already had a legitimate grouse against a fiercely partisan Raj Bhavan that seemed to be operating as a Congress outpost, the Lokayukta’s pre-existing antipathy for the outgoing Chief Minister will be a factor in influencing public opinion. The term ‘conspiracy’ is generously bandied by politicians to explain away an unfavourable situation but Yeddyurappa—like Narendra Modi in Gujarat—may have a basis to crying foul.
The media vilification of Yeddyurappa may well be justified once the full facts of the case come are known and once the law has had the opportunity to pronounce on the subject. For the moment, given the flaws in the flow of information, there are good reasons to believe that the Karnataka Chief Minister was the victim of a kangaroo court verdict. The BJP central leadership was understandably unable to resist the media’s hectoring about its double standards and, therefore, had no choice but to insist that that Yeddyurappa step down. Yet, it is a comment on the public perception of the controversy that 75 of the 120 BJP legislators chose to side with the beleaguered Chief Minister.
This can’t be explained away as the blind loyalty of MLAs who were indebted to Yeddyurappa for local favours. MLAs have their ear firmly on the ground and would be loath to stand unflinchingly behind the Chief Minister if this went against the public mood. No wonder the BJP’s two central observers are finding it difficult to assume the role of a ‘high command’; they have to be mindful of local sensitivities even as they uphold a lofty principle.
In hindsight, the removal of Yeddyurappa has proved relatively easy. In the battle between the lofty principles of the great and the good and clutter of democracy that produces earthy and pugnacious leaders, the former has prevailed. The argument that this victory has actually strengthened the quality of democracy and encouraged politicians to be models of rectitude may well be true in the long run. The 2-G scandal, after all, was a factor in the decimation of the DMK in last May’s Assembly elections.
There is however a lurking danger. Yeddyurappa, a politician who had won a popular mandate and has maintained his standing in by-elections, was dethroned by one individual. His fall wasn’t accompanied by a widespread realisation in the Karnataka BJP that he had become a political liability—which is what usually happens when leaders are changed mid-term in western parliamentary democracies. In other words, the political drama wasn’t married to the imperatives of popular democracy.
The fall of Yeddyurappa has invoked a mixed reaction in the Congress. It is unhappy that its bid to inject an equivalence of cynicism in the corruption debate has lost a handle. But it is inspired by the advantages of a Constitutional coup in removing an opposition target. Since he can’t be defeated by electorally, their next target will be Narendra Modi.

Sunday Pioneer, July 31, 2011

Twenty years on, a forgotten anniversary

Last week was spent glued to TV watching India getting resoundingly thrashed by a rejuvenated England side at Lord’s. Like most Indians, I too was dispirited by India’s inability to live up to its reputation as the number one team. But at least there was the immense satisfaction of watching the match live and even listening to BBC’s good humoured Test Match Special on internet radio.
It was such a change from my schooldays when you had to tune to a crackling Short Wave broadcast for intermittent radio commentary. Alternatively, we could go to the cinema, some three weeks after the match, to see a two-minute capsule in the Indian News Review that preceded the feature film.
It is not that there was no technology available to make life a little more rewarding. Yet, in 1971, when B.S. Chandrasekhar mesmerised the opposition and gave India its first Test victory at the Oval, there was no TV, except in Delhi.
Those were the bad old days of the shortage economy when everything, from cinema tickets to two-wheelers had a black market premium. Telephones were a particular source of exasperation. By the 1970s, the telephone system in cities had collapsed. You may have possessed one of those heavy, black Bakelite instruments but there was no guarantee of a dial tone when you picked up the receiver. The ubiquitous ‘cable fault’ would render a telephone useless for months on end.
What was particularly frustrating was that there was precious little you could do about whimsical public services. In the early-1980s, when Opposition MPs complained about dysfunctional telephones, the then Communications Minister C.M. Stephen retorted that phones were a luxury and not a right. If people were dissatisfied, he pronounced haughtily, they could return their phones!
Inefficiency was, in fact, elevated into an ideal. When capital intensive public sector units began running into the red, the regime’s economists deemed that their performance shouldn’t be judged by a narrow capitalist yardstick. The public sector, they pronounced, had to exercise ‘social’ choices. India, wrote Jagdish Bhagwati (one of the few genuine ‘dissidents’ of that era) “suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises.”
Being an Indian in those days was truly demeaning if you had the misfortune of travelling overseas. Government regulations decreed that a private citizen travelling overseas had the right to buy all of $8. Subsequently, the ceiling was raised to $500 every three years. This meant that Indians had to evolve innovatively illegal methods of buying a few extra dollars or scrounging off fortunate NRI relatives. No wonder, escaping from India became a middle class obsession, as did petty hawala.
India was an object of mockery. We were mocked for leading a “ship to mouth” existence while preaching morality to the rest of the world. We were pitied, not least by rich Pakistanis who would compare their spanking new Impala cars to our creaking Ambassadors that were in perennial short supply.
Enforced socialist austerity bred dishonesty and subterfuge. India’s creative genius of India became preoccupied with ways to bypass a system that in all seriousness demanded that the better-off pay 97 per cent of their income in taxes, and where the remuneration of company directors had to be approved by babus sitting in a ministry in Delhi.
As Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh has a very mixed record and it is entirely possible that history may judge the two terms of his UPA Government harshly. At the same time, India will forever be indebted to him—as it will be to the much-reviled P.V. Narasimha Rao—for liberating the country from the shackles of socialist underperformance. The process of liberalisation that began exactly 20 years ago has had its underside. But few can deny that the India we live in today is infinitely more prosperous, more creative, more resilient and more self-assured than at any time since Independence.
The fundamental reason for this transformation should be self-evident: it is people and not the state who are deciding their own futures. The process may not be perfect and there are parts of India where poverty prevents self-empowerment. But for those who have lived through the horrors of a flawed socialism, the past invokes little pleasurable nostalgia. In just 20 years, India has witnessed more economic progress than in the past 150 years.
This is why it is inexplicable that the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1991 U-turn remained singularly unobserved. Was this because Indians are insufficiently appreciative of the magnitude of change, which they now take for granted? Or, could it be that the political class has never really been reconciled to the erosion of the power to control people’s lives?
If the second is true, there are reasons to fear a counter-revolution.

Sunday Times of India, July 31, 2011

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Blame all, blame none

By Swapan Dasgupta
It is both bizarre and a sad commentary on national life that the gruesome massacre of 76 people in Norway should have produced political ripples in faraway India. On the face of it, there is absolutely nothing to link the deranged Anders Breivik, the self-professed Justiciar Knight of the Knights Templar, to India. Unlike two or three members of the xenophobic English Defence League with whom this self-absorbed Norwegian had at least some human contact, Breivik appears to have been a loner in every other respect, and consciously so. His interactions with persons of similar political inclinations were through Facebook and other internet sites, and were guarded. And it is doubtful whether his Facebook friends included any Indian similarly obsessed by the imagery of the 12th century Crusaders.
Yet, India did intrude into his consciousness insofar as he viewed Hindus as one of the early victims of an Islamic expansionism that was now threatening to overwhelm Europe. His grand sweep of world history, as reflected in his 1,500 page political testament he posted on the internet just hours before he undertook his killing spree, contained sporadic references to India’s past and present. While most would view these as patchy and over-simplistic references, culled from the internet, to contemporary sectarian tensions, others have quite deliberately detected a common purpose linking Breivik and some of the advocates of Hindu retributive terror. A section of the media blessed with sharp sensationalist antennae has been quick to draw its own conclusions from the Knights Templar’s show of solidarity with “sanatan dharma” movements and particularly their ability to keep control of the streets against Islamist encroachments.
At a time when the Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has charged the RSS of organising “bomb making factories” and Home Minister P. Chidambaram P. Chidambaram has linked the BJP’s agitation over the 2-G scandal to a sense of nervousness over investigations into “saffron terror”, it is inevitable that there are moves to locate Breivik’s exhaustive fulminations in an Indian context. From the perspective of one-upmanship games that are played out each evening on the TV news channels this is entirely understandable. Politicians need to take pot shots at their opponents and the electronic media needs to combine news with a generous measure of entertainment. The danger arises when people holding positions of responsibility start mistaking their little fun and games for reality.
The biggest danger lies in the growing demonization of “Right wing” in the Indian popular discourse. Ever since the suspected involvement of Sadhvi Pragya and Colonel Purohit in the Malegaon bomb blasts came into public notice and was followed by Swami Assemananda’s purported confessions in the Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express bombings, there has been a spirited attempt to suggest that the security establishment have either erred grievously or were guilty of communal bias in focussing primarily on Islamist / jihadi conspiracies. The Batla House encounter in Delhi and the focus on the Azamgarh links of the Indian Mujahedeen were seen as examples of this miscalculation. The US Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks indicate that influential politicians such as Rahul Gandhi believed that ‘saffron terror’ far outweighed the dangers to national security posed by groups with an Islamist orientation. Indeed, had it not been for the fortuitous arrest of Ajmal Kasab, it is quite likely that the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai would have been the subject of a politicised tug-of-war, with claims and counter-claims vitiating the inquiries. Even the documented involvement of Pakistan in the Mumbai attacks hasn’t prevented parallel conspiracy theories from being aired and being conferred a measure of respectability.
The perception that an anti-Islamist “Right wing” poses an equal, if not greater, threat to national security is likely to be bolstered by last weekend’s killings in Norway. Read with the publicity-seeking antics of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and the killing of 168 people by the Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh, there are compelling reasons why investigative agencies shouldn’t foreclose the possibilities of the non-Islamist or even anti-Islamist dimensions of terror. The Mumbai police were, for example, absolutely right to approach the investigations into the serial blasts earlier this month with an open mind. Yet, the relentless quest for ‘balance’ should not contribute to investigations premised on the virtues of denial.
The belief that society may be damaged by competitive terrorism, however, needs to be kept in perspective. The evidence from the West suggest that whereas Christian fanatics and white supremacists have killed some 200 people in the past decade, the corresponding tally for those inspired by Islamism was a staggering 4,000. In the United Kingdom, the country most affected by the terror virus in Europe, the number of “Right wing” loonies convicted in the past 10 years for the possession of dangerous weapons and explosive and for plotting terror strikes was 6; in the same period, the corresponding figure for convictions for Islamist-related terror offences was 138.
We do not have any corresponding figures for India (since cases rarely reach a judicial culmination) but my guess is that, like in Europe, the danger from “Right wing” terror remains a potential one. It could become more real if vigilance is lowered.
Finally, following the 9/11 attacks, there has been liberal indignation over the relative indifference of counter-terrorism strategies to the “roots of terror.” It has been said that the basis of Islamist rage should also be addressed. By this logic, it becomes incumbent on society to read Breivik’s verbose testimony—that includes proposals for forcible conversion of immigrant Muslims in Europe to Christianity, a 50-year ban on their maintaining contact with their countries of origin and the creation of ghettos where permissive ‘liberal’ lifestyles may be tolerated—with a measure of seriousness. If terror has no religion, it can hardly be said to have a secular rationale.
The logic of viewing all terror with the yardstick of equivalence can lead the democratic world to undertake a voyage from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, July 29, 2011

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Fai's Indians not my Indians

By Swapan Dasgupta
As the London correspondent of an Indian newspaper in the mid-1990s, I went for a meeting on Jammu and Kashmir in one of the committee rooms of the Palace of Westminster. There was nothing spectacularly important about the meeting and my only reason for going was that an Indian diplomat pressed me to attend. Those were the days when J&K was on the boil and western governments were inclined to be quietly sympathetic to the separatists.
The meeting would have been spectacularly unmemorable had it not been for a group of about 10 so-called Kashmiri activists who started shouting slogans and forced the security staff to intervene and clear the whole room. The Indian diplomat was understandably dejected and angry but helpless. It had taken just 10 determined and rowdy activists to win a minor victory for Pakistan.
I was reminded of the incident last year when, on a visit to London, I observed a group of some 50 noisy demonstrators picketing the Indian High Commission in Aldwych. Later that day I asked an Indian diplomat who was knowledgeable about such things what all the fuss was about. Surely Indo-Pak diplomacy had gone beyond these silly bouts of slogan shouting in London?
The diplomat’s answer was cynically revealing. “It’s a mug’s game”, he replied. The Pakistan mission, he indicated, were under a compulsion to keep its local supporters happy. As a matter of routine, a busload or so of protestors were brought in to shout slogans for a few hours. When the show was over, these guys retired to a side street a few blocks away where a Pakistani handler would dole out a small fee and a carton of cigarettes to each protestor. “It’s completely purposeless but a part of the Pakistani drill”, my diplomat friend assured me.
I guess Ghulam Nabi Fai, the director of the Kashmiri American Council, who finds himself in trouble with the FBI for violating the provisions of the US Foreign Agents Registration Act, was also part of the “drill” in Washington DC. The US Justice Department has claimed that Fai’s organisation, which also has branches in London and Brussels, received nearly $4 million from the Pakistan Government since the mid-1990s. It is also alleged that Fai operated on the instructions of Islamabad for the past 20 years and interacted with his intelligence “handlers” more than 4,000 times since June 2008. The allegations would suggest that Fai was a field operative for the notorious ISI.
Fai’s activities were a little more subtle than the hired rabble in London that mouthed anti-India profanities for the sake of a carton of cigarettes. He organised seminar and conferences and lobbied lawmakers to influence US policy on Kashmir—a legitimate activity if you consider that his primary allegiance was to Pakistan.
As part of his promotion of Pakistani interests, Fai assiduously courted those Indians in India who would help serve his interests. He made it a point to invite select Indians to his annual conferences in Washington—the business class tickets and generous hospitality being sweeteners. Naturally, his interest was focussed on those Indians whose views converged with the interests of Pakistan. He wasn’t bothered with Indians who felt that Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of the Indian Union, even if some of them were unhappy with New Delhi’s handling of the civil unrest in the state. He was interested in a particular type of Indian—those who were critical of the Indian state but, at the same time, were also well-connected figures in the larger Indian Establishment. The so-called “human rights activists” and “independent” journalists were high on Fai’s list of priorities.
This is not to suggest that every Indian who disagreed with the official position on Kashmir did so with a view to making Islamabad happy. That is clearly not the case. However, the contrarian would have to be a prize ass or wilfully obtuse to not realise that Pakistan would gleefully lap up their dissent for its own narrow advantage.
The issue, therefore, is not whether a Justice Rajinder Sachar or an editor of a mainstream publication held certain contrarian views that democratic India allows them the right to do. The issue is whether or not they were aware of Fai’s ability to use those views to promote the interests of Pakistan in a third country. All the evidence suggests that those Indians who travelled to the US to participate in a Fai-organised programme did so with the full awareness of the larger agenda of the Kashmiri American Council. The greed of a junket proved so overwhelming that they were willing to aid the interests of an enemy nation—and lets have no doubt that Pakistan is an enemy nation with which India has been in a state of undeclared war.
There is a difference between a junket and an ISI-sponsored junket. Those who can’t appreciate the difference don’t deserve to grace public life in India.
The legitimacy Fai’s Indians gave to Pakistan’s war of a thousand cuts resulted in more than diplomatic embarrassment to India. It helped prolong a conflict and has resulted in the spilling of innocent blood.
To condone the transgressions of Fai’s Indians as simple naiveté or a colossal misjudgement is to be excessively indulgent. To not bat for India isn’t an offence; to play for Pakistan is an act of betrayal.
SUNDAY PIONEER, July 24, 2011

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Business as usual: Tabloid cretinism in Britain predates Murdoch

By Swapan Dasgupta
A few months ago, an otherwise insular Indian media was suddenly replete with articles written by wide-eyed feature writers profiling an Iraqi journalist who happened to be visiting this country. Since most amateurish profiles of make-believe celebrities vacationing in the Golden Triangle are innocuous page-fillers, there was nothing unique about the Iraqi making it to the inside pages of the ‘quality’ newspapers.
This gentleman was, however, a little different. He hadn’t made a meaningful documentary film that had been appreciated in Karlovy Vary or undertaken a study on the effects of malnutrition in the conflict zones of sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, he hadn’t even been part of an aid convoy to beat Israel’s blockade of Gaza. The visitor was famous because he was the reporter who threw a shoe at President George W. Bush at a press conference. He was the man who had initiated the shoe-throwing epidemic, a phenomenon that has not left India untouched.
In an age where the quest for five minutes of fame is relentless, it will be natural for a British tabloid, eager to capture some of the market vacated by the News of the World, to offer a generous fee to the 26-year-old Jonathan May-Bowles. This resident of Windsor achieved at least two hours of international fame last Tuesday evening by trying to smear Rupert Murdoch with shaving foam in a committee room at the Palace of Westminster. May-Bowles, otherwise a stand-up comic who performs under the stage name Jonnie Marbles, has been doggedly, if somewhat unsuccessfully, chasing fame. If the Murdoch-owned Times (to which I gleefully admit to having an online subscription) is to be believed, the foam-thrower “is a comedian who once stood on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth to broadcast people’s intimate secrets.”
The “intimate secret” he apparently blurted out to the fragile Murdoch was profoundly revelatory: “You greedy billionaire.” For these three accusatory words May-Bowles will be—for a few days, and to the Guardian-reading class warriors at least—the 21st century’s incarnation of the Tolpuddle martyrs.
Of course he could have done better. Indeed, as AJP Taylor once observed about Metternich, most men “could have done better while shaving.”
The sheer banality of May-Bowles’s outburst was, however, a digression. What was significant was that this individual felt sufficiently motivated to thrust an improvised shaving foam pie into the face of the man he had come to view as the Voldemort of the contemporary world. The check-shirted Jonnie Marbles may well have been courting some cheap publicity but he was also, in his own mind, hitting at the power of evil.
The whole saga that led to the closure of Britain’s most wacko Sunday tabloid, precipitated the parliamentary inquisition of the Murdochs and the much-reviled Rebekah Brooks, led to the resignation of the chief of Scotland Yard for recklessly availing of freebies and even had the British Prime Minister accused of colossal misjudgement amounted to a savage public indictment of Britain’s intrusive media culture. It was by implication also a global ridicule of British taste. The tabloids, after all, had pitted themselves above all norms of decency and even the law because the fruits of its dubious information gathering techniques had a wide market. Just as the illicit drugs trade can prosper because there is widespread consumer demand for a hallucinatory ‘fix’, the tabloid culture was nurtured and sustained because the voyeuristic urges of readers had crossed the limits of decency.
For a short while after the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, there was a grudging acceptance that things had gone a bit too far and that celebrities too deserved a private life. But that realisation had, unfortunately, proved woefully short-lived. By the time the News of the World undertook “industrial scale” phone tapping, life was back to normal.
What is also significant about this culture of mass voyeurism—which went far beyond the traditional working class diet of girlie pictures on page three of the Sun—was that it predated the entry of Murdoch into the British market. The business-savvy Australian-born media baron may have been a trendsetter in many respects. He took no nonsense from the pampered, over-unionised print workers who made Fleet Street financially unviable in the 1970s; his managers (and editors) forced journalists to be more responsive to readers rather than to their own eccentricities; and he made innovative strides in the pricing and marketing of newspapers.
What Murdoch did not, however, do was to present Britain with tabloid cretinism. That phenomenon was alive and thriving even when Murdoch was an undergraduate in Oxford. Indeed, there were accomplished British journalists who sincerely believed that tabloids were the most effective instruments to communicate with a section of the population that was otherwise wary of the printed word. Tabloid journalism, after all, also involved a very high measure of craftsmanship.
They weren’t wrong. The sight of the menial worker trudging to work on a cold and wet winter morning with a copy of either the Sun or the Daily Mirror under his arm remains one of the defining images of Britain. With a crafty mix of celebrity news, scandal, sports and, above all, catchy headlines that blended fact with prejudice, the tabloids gave the working classes a shared sense of community. To succeed in this fiercely competitive business, the editors had to have their fingers firmly on the pulse of the popular mood. This may explain why successive British Prime Ministers and Opposition leaders have chosen former tabloid journalists to head their communications departments.
The perception that Murdoch set the stage for the debasement of British popular culture has taken firm root among a section of the Left-liberal elite that cannot reconcile to the grim realities of a tasteless plebeian universe. The reality, however, suggests something quite different. Apart from the Sun and News of the World, Murdoch also ran The Times, Sunday Times and, since last year, Wall Street Journal. There was no one-size-fits-all philosophy that governed the functioning of these vastly different titles. If News of the World plumbed the depths of sleaze and scandal, The Times and Sunday Times remained mirrors of a stodgy and increasingly trendy British establishment. The core values of these venerable titles weren’t compromised by the fact that the Murdochs did their utmost to schmooze the political class.
Unlike Lord Black, the Canadian former owner of the Daily Telegraph, who held strong political views and was inclined towards an ideological wing of the Conservative Party, Murdoch’s preference was for individuals, not causes. And this desire to always remain well connected stemmed from the fact that the expansion of his media business also depended on the exercise of governmental discretion. By its very nature, the information business involved the maintenance of a relationship with the political class. If that relationship soured—as indeed it now has—the business plans of the corporation were bound to be affected. It is no accident that following the News of the World furore, Murdoch had to withdraw his bid for the control of BSkyB—a control that depended not on the free market but on a ministerial nod. Murdoch and the political class were bound in a symbiotic relationship: they needed each other.
After a few heads have rolled and the dust settles, that relationship will resume. And because the fire was wrongly directed at Murdoch alone, it will also be business as usual for the tabloids. The impish Mayor of London Boris Johnson may well be right in describing this week’s circus as one of Britain’s “periodic firestorms of hypocrisy.”
The Telegraph, July 21, 2011

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Insular Bharat fails to see writing on the wall

By Swapan Dasgupta

Living in a society, it is a brave individual who can wilfully disregard the question: "What will the neighbours say?” Nations have a greater measure of self-confidence. The drive to be defined by 'exceptionalism’ has marked the history of countries that believe in their 'manifest destiny’ and, by implication , their innate superiority. The self-conscious belief in what is pompously called 'Indian genius’ has often been the justification for purposeless plodding, but there’s no doubting its enduring appeal. The commitment to "truth, freedom and the American way” wasn’t something the creator of Superman invented: it was real and deeply felt by those who set out to create a 'New World’. And China’s recent history is replete with improvisations packaged as uniquely Chinese.

For the larger collective, what the world thinks of 'us’ is often of less consequence than what we think of 'them’. Britain was an island nation that made its mark through an Empire that rivalled that of ancient Rome. A significant part of its intellectual energies were also expended in documenting the cultures of foreign lands. Yet, till the early 1980s, as many Agatha Christie novels quaintly emphasized, 'foreign’ and 'foreign looking’ were euphemisms for the sinister. The bloody campaigns against 'foreign devils’ were part of China’s recent history. And despite being a nation of immigrants , the US, until the advent of fetishized multiculturalism in the 1960s, maintained a quirky distinction between 'American’ and 'foreign’.

India, not least because of its vulnerability to foreign invasions, always had a schizoid approach to the unfamiliar. At a social level, Hindu societies built an invisible wall around communities that facilitated the preservation of the sanatan dharma—the eternal way. At the same time, public life allowed a remarkable flexibility. The absorptive capacity of Indian civilization broke down barriers that would otherwise have delineated the indigenous from the alien. The Mughuls, for example, arrived as foreigners but over the centuries became a part of the local landscape—although the process was not without hiccups. Had the revolt of 1857 not forced a British ghettoization, it is entirely possible that the Raj would have been seen as just one more chapter in a long history of a foreign rule that lost its foreignness over time. The nationalist movement with its stress on swadeshi did certainly nurture a feeling of Indian exceptionalism. However,this was partially offset by a desire to be universalist and receptive to outside influences. This dichotomy is a feature of the Hindu way of thinking.

In hindsight, India’s rediscovery of itself after Independence was expediently xenophobic. Its middle classes have been the most receptive to international— particularly western—influences. The Hindu ability to separate community from citizenship has seen Indians become model citizens of other nations. Within India, however, public life has been shaped by the belief that India, and India alone, knows best. Selfdoubt isn’t a part of the contemporary discourse. Maybe it was the seamless shift from Gandhian swadeshi to Nehruvian self-sufficiency that prompted the downing of shutters — not flamboyantly as in Maoist China but in a more understated way. Whatever the reasons, a fierce sense of beleaguered national pride turned Indians from being self-confidently laid-back to nervously prickly. Two landmark events of recent times—the Bangladesh war of 1971 and the nuclear tests of 1998 —triggered spectacular levels of national solidarity. But they were also marked by international scepticism. The lesson that political India drew from these events is worth remembering : the future of India is shaped by India’s feelings alone.

In this respect India is not very different from a China that turns bellicose at the slightest hint of national affront. But there is a significant difference. Since socialism was, in effect, jettisoned by its Communist rulers, China has maintained a single-minded focus on the long term. India, however, is not accustomed to thinking strategically.

In the evocative phrase, "we’re like this only” is a celebration of the immediate and the short-term. In the past year, international capitalism has tempered its initial enthusiasm for India. There are concerns over India’s ability to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Yet, the concern of those who have invested in India’s future and thus deserve to be regarded as stakeholders, hasn’t been reciprocated in India. Pranab Mukherjee may travel to Washington to allay fears and Manmohan Singh may continue making the right noises. But underneath these pious assurances of doing the right thing, political India has deemed that the country will set its own economic norms that punish fiscal prudence and reward profligacy. Like the protesters in Greece who want others to foot the bill for their profligate ways, the emerging Indian consensus deems that the world owes it a living. It’s the mentality to nourish if we are content to be another Pakistan.

Sunday Times of India, July 3, 2011

Friday, July 01, 2011

War is weary of Kabul

By Swapan Dasgupta

Over the centuries, Britons have acquired the ability to laugh at themselves — particularly when the going gets rough.

When he was the British foreign secretary’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles had an enlarged cartoon hung in his office. It showed an elderly man, just out of bed and drawing the curtains to let the light in while his wife looks on with her cup of morning tea. The caption read: “Another day, another Afghan strategy”.

Cowper-Coles, who also served as Britain’s ambassador in Kabul, has reproduced this self-deprecating cartoon in his very telling Cables from Kabul, published earlier this summer in London. What is interesting and obvious is how the cartoon, presumably published some three years ago, hasn’t dated.

Ten years into a war that initially promised a cakewalk victory, the US-led Nato forces have successfully converted effortless triumph into ignominious retreat.

The latest Afghan strategy unveiled by US President Barack Obama earlier in June nullifies the so-called “surge” approach of Gen. McChrystal — a thinking officer who got the sack after an indiscreet interview he gave to Rolling Stone where he questioned his Commander-in-Chief’s interest in Afghan matters.

The US generals are right to question their President’s application of mind but the problem isn’t limited to one man’s disinterest.

If Mr Obama has more time for climate change than he has for Afghanistan, he is merely reflecting his overall weariness with a place they neither understand nor cared for. The White House wants to leave Afghanistan to god and anarchy because the American people don’t have the stomach to stay on and fight.

As far as a tired US military establishment is concerned, the death of Osama bin Laden means that there is at least a credible reason to return home without winning the war.

At one time, the British were said to be the repository of accumulated Western wisdom on the mysterious Orient. Certainly, distinguished members of the Indian Civil Service such as Sir Mortimer Durand and Sir Olaf Caroe and politicians such as Lord Curzon played the Great Game with aplomb.

However, more than 50 years after the disengagement from Empire, even Britain appears to have been infected by the same “health and safety” mindset that has undermined its economic competitiveness. In an earlier age, a Conservative Prime Minister would have done anything to revive Britain’s importance in the land mass between the Suez Canal and India.

Reflecting the public mood, David Cameron is in no position to cajole Britain into accepting additional imperial responsibilities. A Britain that — if the Cowper-Coles story is to be believed — had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to organise a chartered aircraft to ferry President Hamid Karzai to Britain and back for a “Guest of Government” visit, wasn’t in any state of mind to invest in Afghanistan’s future.

For the West, investment was often calculated in purely financial terms. Over the years, mind-boggling sums are said to have been “invested” in Afghanistan. It is said that the government in Kabul generates revenues of nearly $80 million annually and receives 40 times more in foreign aid (including a fair amount from India).

Today, as the time to desert Afghanistan approaches, the West is kicking itself for throwing vast sums of money down a bottomless pit and leaving few tangible assets that will outlive the conflict.

It is difficult to compress the reasons for this failure of “development” in a few sentences. When the many thousands of aid consultants engaged by big donor countries put their heads together for a future post-mortem they will identify many villains: a trigger-happy occupation force, an equally trigger-happy Taliban that is wary of economic progress, a corrupt political dispensation nurtured by Mr Karzai, etc. It is highly unlikely that the development consultants (on whom an estimated 40 per cent of the aid money was spent) will perceive themselves as being a major part of the problem.

Yet, the first thing that struck anyone visiting Kabul after 2002 was the fact that Afghanistan was experiencing something akin to what is best described as “radical colonialism”. It was radical insofar as the thrust was towards the creation of modern institutions and a modern economic infrastructure.

However, since the priorities were determined by foreign experts alone, the system was also colonial. If the money spent on the foreign experts had been spent on making the salaries of the Afghan Army, police and bureaucrats more rewarding, the state of Afghanistan would have been very different.

On my first day in Kabul some four years ago, I attended a party at the old UN complex in Kabul. The crowd was fairly cosmopolitan and young but the only Afghan present was the waiter. In his book, Cowper-Coles has reaffirmed my impressions of a skewed development process by mentioning that the two Afghan bearers attached to him provided him a sense of the vox populi.

No wonder Mr Karzai’s attitude towards the West’s efforts turned from enthusiasm to prickliness to outright hostility.

The innate nationalism of Mr Karzai made him see red at the sheer effrontery of European diplomats and trouble-shooters deciding what’s good and what’s unacceptable to Afghanistan. India escaped relatively unaffected by the Afghan nationalist backlash because its aid programme was linked to government ministries run by Afghans.

It is this imperial attitude that may explain why the endgame is unlikely to be smooth. The West wants to control the process of engagement with the Taliban, and is even willing to outsource part of the process to Pakistan.

Earlier, it was insistent that the starting point of the initiative was an acceptance of the Afghan Constitution. Now as the deadline for departure comes closer, it is no longer that sure. Yet, what remains a constant feature of the attempts to woo the Taliban is that there is no attempt to devolve the responsibility for peace-making to the Karzai Government.

The failure in Afghanistan was caused by the West’s unwillingness to trust the Afghan people.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, July 1, 2011