Saturday, August 27, 2011

Don't mess with the middle class

By Swapan Dasgupta

Intellectuals are easily distinguishable from ‘normal’ people on two counts: first, by their rigid certitudes, their monopoly of the truth and, second, by their susceptibility to allergies—of the aesthetic, not medical variety. "When I hear the word culture", the corpulent Nazi leader Hermann Goering is (wrongly) reported to have said, "I reach for my gun." In a similar vein, today’s intellectuals, particularly the Left-liberal variety that dominate India’s cerebral landscape, are inclined to curl their lips, raise their eyebrows and sneer at the mention of two dreaded words: middle class.

The disdain for the middle class may seem an exercise in self-flagellation. However, ever since the iconic Italian communist Antonio Gramsci conferred social autonomy on them, intellectuals have conveniently ceased to regard themselves as middle class. They may be from the class—or a community—but see themselves as being above it.

This detachment from social moorings has its advantages: it allows intellectuals to flit expediently from correctness to correctness. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was the undying faith in Uncle Jo and the ‘anti-fascist’ struggles; from the 1950s to the 1970s, it was the endorsement of, first, Jawaharlal Nehru and then Indira Gandhi’s elusive search for socialism; and after the 1990s, it was a series of leftover ‘anti’ causes that drove the social conscience of India’s intellectuals—anti-communalism, anti-fascism, anti-globalization and anti-Americanism. In his "Autobiography", Nirad Chaudhuri detected a common thread running through the changes of fashion: "The intelligentsia of my country have always had the faith… that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India."

Nirad Babu was always prone to over-statement but the past week has seen India’s intellectual elite taking up cudgels for a beleaguered government and a failing system. In the face of some of the most amazing assertions of people’s power throughout urban India, the intellectuals have reached for their guns screaming, ‘middle class’ and, therefore, regressive and potentially fascist. The flag-waving enthusiasm of young people and retired policewomen have been equated with World Cup boisterousness and chants of "Vande Mataram", "Bharat Mata ki Jai" and the singing of "Ram Dhun" mocked as exclusionary Hindu symbolism. The heartfelt indignation of a people angry and exasperated by the venality of national life has been painted as assaults on Parliament, the Constitution and democracy. Yesterday’s argumentative Indian, we are now told, has been transformed into demented followers of Hitler. The starry-eyed romanticism that greeted Maoist insurgents in Bastar has abruptly become poison darts directed at a largely spontaneous but non-violent upsurge.

For decades, the middle classes have been pilloried for their lack of participation in India’s civic life. Their voting record was dismal and they have been charged with being preoccupied with their own families, their jobs, their consumerist excesses, Bollywood and cricket. Their rage at an unresponsive political class, an inefficient and leaky state and thwarted aspirations have been brushed aside contemptuously because they lacked collective clout. Now, when they have come out on the streets to challenge one of the foremost impediments to India’s emergence as a global economic power, they are being charged with impetuosity and impatience.

"They have no respect for procedures," we are told by the clever upholders of a rotten status quo; and "they are engaging in blackmail", say others. Both assertions are correct. At the heart of the recklessness, however, is the government’s penchant for subterfuge and low cunning. The regime had to be coerced by the Supreme Court into acknowledging the 2G scandal. There is unending foot-dragging over the scandalous mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games. Was there any show of contrition by the duly-elected government? Did we hear one word of apology to the nation by the Prime Minister? Instead, India was told there is no "magic wand" to fight corruption. Worse, the movement was sought to be derailed by stoking largely imaginary fears among Muslims, OBCs and dalits—the old divide-and-rule formula which has paid such rich dividends.

There is one inescapable conclusion: the regime has no real interest in disturbing a cosy, self-serving arrangement. We have a right to be angry, even a right to be calculatedly reckless. And we have a duty to ignore the bad ideas of mercenary intellectuals.

Sunday Times of India, August 28, 2011

Profound alienation from political parties

During the Emergency, the citizens of India weren’t merely exposed to Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme. They were subjected to the additional torture of being exposed to the five point-programme of ‘youth leader’ Sanjay Gandhi.

One of Sanjay’s more memorable nuggets of wisdom was: “Work more, talk less.” I recall it being carefully painted on a billboard somewhere close to the “Leader is right, future is bright” hoarding in Delhi’s Connaught Place. Underneath Sanjay’s profundity, some “anti-national”, “rumour monger” (the favourite description of criminality those days) had scrawled, “Talk less, but talk sense.” The anecdote from history may well be lost on the contemporary ‘youth icon’ who muttered “I think first and then speak” (or something to that effect) when asked why he had delayed his self-confessed “game changer” speech for so long. Yet, the mere fact that the Congress’s designated heir apparent of democratic India felt obliged to deviate from his invisible man routine and deliver a pre-scripted ‘I have a dream’ address in the Zero Hour of Lok Sabha is revealing. It suggests that the Anna Hazare movement, for all its imperfections and silly transgressions, has put the political status quo in jeopardy, forcing even the head boy of the babalog brigade to react.

But it is not merely the beneficiaries of the Congress’s hereditary mansabdari system that were worried. Sharad Yadav’s witty, acerbic appeal to the Lok Sabha on Saturday afternoon to rid the country of the chattering ‘bioscope dabba’, his earthy description of 24x7 TV, was more than wholesome entertainment. The JD(U) leader, a veteran of umpteen agitations and a stalwart of the now-truncated socialist movement, was actually expressing his resentment that Anna’s protest was following a very different idiom. Why, he seemed to be asking, were the youth flocking to Ramlila Maidan and other protest venues so dismissive of traditional student politics? Why were they not associating with the NSUI, ABVP, SFI or something similar? Why were they being attracted to the shrill anti-politician rhetoric of Anna’s associates?

More than the content of the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is the disavowal of existing politics and existing politicians that is agitating India’s parliamentarians. The concern is legitimate. If those who are driven by a concern for India’s betterment retreat into the world of NGOs, fragmentary ‘people’s movements’ and cynicism, electoral politics will end up becoming the preserve of the children of privilege and those out to cynically leverage their caste or religion to maximum advantage.

Every system needs an injection of new blood for renewal. In the past, it was either agitational politics —viz Indira Gandhi’s battle against the Syndicate, the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, the Ram Mandir movement, student agitations, et al — or the intellectual appeal of ideology that kept political parties alive. Even Sanjay Gandhi’s activism during the Emergency produced a generation of activists, many of whom occupy important positions in the Congress. When the stream of selfless recruits dried up, the political movement also folded — the socialist movement is an example.

To be fair, Rahul Gandhi has been more aware of this problem than many other political functionaries. His brick-by-brick approach to building the Youth Congress may be excessively managerial and less focussed on politics as is conventionally understood in India, but it follows the path followed by many European parties of both the Right and Centre-Left. Yet, Rahul’s approach is offset by the fact that the Congress is seen to be actively building provincial dynasties to complement the national Gandhi dynasty that has been accorded the divine right to be at the helm in Delhi. The ‘young MPs’ of the Congress — so much in demand in Delhi’s social occasions — are almost all sons and daughters of politicians and with one or two exceptions almost all of them have absolutely nothing insightful to say about the country and its future. For them, politics is another form of entitlement.

If the Congress conveys an impression of being a closed shop, the situation is not very different in the BJP. Inheritance may not count for all that much in the saffron party but it is an open secret that anyone who doesn’t enter the party from the ranks of the RSS encounters a glass ceiling sooner or later. Just as members of dynasties, big or small, get a privileged position in the Congress, RSS pracharaks (including those with exceptionally low levels of competence) enjoy a privileged position in the party. RSS membership, therefore, creates an exceptional class of privileged members that separate the ‘pure’ from the ordinary. I have often described the system as Hindu Leninism.

The Anna movement has exposed the profound alienation of the country’s youth and middle classes from the main political parties. It has a universal appeal but as of now its social appeal is restricted to about one-third of India that is either middle class or has middle class aspirations. The movement has acquired momentum because, among other things, there is a widespread realisation that pervasive sleaze is preventing India from realising its full potential. What is implicit is the feeling that India needs an efficient and honest Government and an equal opportunity society that allows every individual to realise his/her potential — without distortions.

India’s tragedy is that both the parties have in-built distortions that reward privilege and deny opportunities. To my mind, that is also a form of corruption.

Sunday Pioneer, August 28, 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The disinherited

An unintended consequence of the Ayodhya movement was that it improved middle-class India’s knowledge of German history.

For a decade, intellectuals horrified by the phenomenal Hindu mobilisation for a Ram temple in Ayodhya drew analogies with the rise of fascism in Germany in the 1930s. The demolition of December 1992 was equated with the Reichstag fire of 1933, the communal riots which erupted were compared to the infamous Kristallnacht of 1938 and the kar sevaks were viewed with the same degree of horror that the world reserved for Hitler’s storm troopers.

The second round of Anna Hazare’s movement that grew out of his fast in Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan has witnessed an intellectual celebration of parliamentary democracy.

An institution that had been tarnished in the public imagination for the quality of its members, the scenes of raucous disruption and the indifference to serious debate, has suddenly emerged as the cornerstone of Indian democracy. Abstruse parliamentary procedures, unfamiliar to most Indians, have also been painted as sacrosanct by MPs cutting across party lines.

The sobriety of a select committee of Parliament has been juxtaposed against the emotional anarchy of an unthinking rabble. Like 18th century England, responsible politics has been posited against a mob that is potentially riotous.

Like most intellectual exercises, both analogies are flawed and based on hideous caricatures.

The spectacular groundswell of support for a 74-year-old Gandhian with a genial disposition
wasn’t born out of a perverse determination to put an end to democracy and replace it with an oligarchy of the great and good.

The mobilisation of people around a dhoti-clad icon in a Gandhi topi wasn’t effected by the army of “subcontractors” who helped popularise the message of the Mahatma in the 1920s. “Team Anna” was a catchy media construction and accorded a disproportionate importance to a clutch of individuals whose motivations were not always altruistic.

But people didn’t flock to Ramlila Maidan, Azad Maidan and the umpteen demonstrations and vigils all over the country because they were followers of Prashant Bhushan, Santosh Hegde and Kiran Bedi. They responded to Anna out of a profound sense of exasperation with a system which, while democratic, was also venal.

The Anna movement was never a revolutionary movement; its orientation was always reformist. It was a movement that was not born out of careful pre-meditation by US-funded think tanks; it was astonishingly spontaneous and a product of the post-1991 process of liberalisation.

For many intellectuals, usually of a radical disposition, the term middle class has both pejorative and sinister connotations. It is automatically assumed that middle-class India carries a baggage of selfishness, prejudice and detachment. Just as Rudyard Kipling and Lord Curzon often contrasted the chattering babus speaking comic English to the rugged earthiness of the “real India”, there is an inclination to view the tricolour-waving Indians shouting Vande Mataram as the pampered children of an India that doesn’t really know the meaning of deprivation.

If the 18th century London mob, immortalised in the sketches of William Hogarth, were gin-drinking ruffians, the lot that turned up on their motorbikes to cheer Anna were people with a lot to lose. They had a stake in India but very little stake in political India.

This alienation from politics is understandable. For the past seven years, a facile media has been enthusiastically tracking the emergence of the Gandhi “youth icon”. But regardless of the good work Rahul Gandhi may have done in building the long-term foundations of a new Congress Party, the public manifestation of change has been remarkably feudal.

The proverbial brat pack of the ruling party is made up of sons and daughters of politicians and maharajas. A big, all-India dynasty has helped to prop up a new political aristocracy in the provinces and localities. Congress politics has given the impression of being a closed shop run by people with a fierce sense of entitlement. For them, the plethora of inefficiently managed anti-poverty programmes is noblesse oblige.

Ideally, the feudal distortions of the Congress should have provided an opening to the BJP to emerge as an authentic representative of a mushrooming middle class that is hungry for opportunities. The BJP, unfortunately for it, has been unable to gauge that its vision of nationalism is regarded as being too restrictive and fuddy-duddy. Narendra Modi may be the exception but he has to overcome the demonology built around him.

The chants of “Vande Mataram” and “Bharat Mata ki jai” in Anna’s rallies may provide evidence of the middle class’ incipient fascist proclivities to the paranoid, liberal intellectual. But these people are as detached from the BJP as they are from the Congress. An overdose of regimented ideology
doesn’t appeal to a generation that attaches priority to personal opportunities.

To this generation, intensely proud of an Indian-ness that transcends caste and religion (but not region), corruption is a drag on India and a restrictive practice that they would rather not accept as karma. The Anna movement, quite unwittingly and, perhaps, to its own consternation, has tapped a reservoir of entrepreneurial energy which is not finding a suitable political outlet.

In the eyes of the blinkered, the attack is on parliamentary democracy — a term that remains an abstraction to many of those inspired by Anna. Viewed from another angle, the Anna movement could also be an assault on the residual sludge of the licence-permit-quota raj.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, August 26, 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

UPA credibility is now history

For the past few days and in a desperate attempt to counter the middle-class euphoria over Anna Hazare, a beleaguered Congress has been cashing many of the IOUs it has accumulated over the past seven years.

NAC member Harsh Mander, the unchallenged King of sanctimoniousness and the great proponent of communal budgeting of state resources, has denounced Anna’s crusade as “a Right-leaning, fascist campaign to push for an extremely regressive legislation”. Aruna Roy, another NAC member and the Queen Bee of the NGO movement, has proffered her own version of outsourced legislation — one that apparently travels the middle path between the official Lokpal Bill and Anna’s Jan Lokpal Bill. To cap it all, former Infosys chief and the present head of the UID scheme (with the status of a Cabinet Minister) has made TV appearances expressing his unhappiness with the “uni-dimensional” approach of Team Anna and the need for a “much more strategic, holistic” approach.

Nilekani’s critique of the Anna movement can’t be dismissed lightly. He issued a testimonial to Indian parliamentary democracy and particularly the functioning of parliamentary committees. At the same time, he mocked the simplistic bantering that has characterised Team Anna: “Which Kool-Aid are they drinking?” Kool-Aid, I was informed by Wikipedia, is a “brand of flavoured drinks owned by Kraft Foods.” Nilekani could, perhaps, have been less global with his choice of metaphors to state his astonishment with Team Anna’s certitudes. Yet, if Twitter is any indication, he was berated for allowing himself to become a “mouthpiece” for the Government. A few months ago, India’s middle-class twitterati would have treated every word and sentence he uttered as Gospel truth. Today, he is being viewed as part of the rotten elite that is beholden to the Government. It wasn’t what he said that was questioned but why he chose to go public now.

In the coming days, and irrespective of whether the Anna campaign turns more strident or begins wilting, the Government bid to create a less excitable public mood will intensify. From August 16 to the installation of Anna in Ram Lila Maidan three days later, the entire focus was on the Government’s ill-conceived preventive detention, the assault on the Government in Parliament and its unconditional surrender to Team Anna. The Government stood discredited, with a large omelette on its face and its authority in shreds. Most important, for three days the Government successfully turned a populist, anti-corruption movement into an anti-Congress movement. In just three days, the Congress frittered away the goodwill of Middle India.

Yet, no Government capitulates so easily. Manish Tewari’s assault on the integrity of Anna Hazare didn’t click and neither did Rashid Alvi’s comic attempt to locate an American hand behind the movement. At the same time, the abrupt elevation of Anna into a “hero” and “hero of heroes” by Sanjay Nirupam and Harish Rawat has looked patently disingenuous, coming as it did with the news that the Government actually wanted to ‘deport’ Anna back to his village in Maharashtra on August 16. The Congress (and, in fact, most political parties) often forget that people aren’t fools and will believe whatever drivel is served to them. It is easier to persuade courtiers to forgive past sins and come to the aid of the party than to regain lost public goodwill instantly.

I can say with near certainty that the next few weeks will see reports of weariness with street protests, exasperation with unreasonable politics, the unresponsiveness of minorities and Dalits to middle-class protests and, finally, the silent majority’s wish that the Government gets on with the job of governing. Apart from the difficulties of maintaining sustained interest in one story, the media too is susceptible to official cajoling and arm-twisting. This matters in times of economic difficulties.

On August 20, for example, Government departments issued 69 advertisements spread over 41 pages in 12 daily English newspapers to commemorate Rajiv Gandhi’s birth anniversary. It is said that the total expenditure for this occasion last year was between Rs 60 crore and 70 crore. And this was a commemoration that excluded the electronic media. When that is brought into the purview of campaigns like Bharat Nirman and advertisements made by agencies with close ties to daughters-in-law and nephews of Ministers, the sums involved can be mind boggling. In short, it doesn’t make business sense for the media to persist with the shrill anti-Government campaign of the past week. This isn’t a matter of politics; it’s prudent business.

In the coming days, the stage will be set for Team Anna to undertake suicide missions and become increasingly reckless. Actually, that is not asking for too much. The sight of doting crowds spontaneously assembled, 24x7 news coverage and a belief in their own manifest destiny can turn many heads. Kiran Bedi’s “India is Anna” remark, Prashant Bhushan’s sneering espousal of plebiscitary democracy that is calculated to generate anarchy, Swami Agnivesh’s slipperiness and Anna’s own innocent understanding of public life will come under sustained gaze. The hyenas are waiting for them to slip up, and slip up they will. The Anna movement may well falter, but will it restore the Government’s credibility? That, unfortunately, is history. Unless a political miracle takes place, India seems set for a long innings of lame-duck governance. Anna may not get to taste success, but he has begun the halal killing of this Government.

Sunday Pioneer, August 21, 2011

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Series of Errors: With Anna Hazare, the Government dialled a wrong number

By Swapan Dasgupta
Among my most enduring memories of the Emergency—which, mercifully, I experienced fleetingly, being overseas for most of the time—was an overheard conversation between two ‘progressive’ faculty members of Delhi University in early-July, 1975. One of the two gleefully told the other of the strange shortage of teachers in the Sanskrit Department. “Most of them have been arrested”, he chuckled. There was neither outrage nor fear in his voice, just a puerile delight.
The subtext of his happiness was clear to those of us familiar with the University. The Sanskrit Department, or so the stereotype went, was dominated by ‘Jana Sanghis’ and ‘chaddiwallas’ (the pejorative colloquialism for RSS members) and, as such, were unworthy of sympathy, never mind solidarity. In those fear-filled days, there were two ends of the University. At the privileged pole stood the ‘progressives’—Congress activists, Communist Party of India members and ‘friends of the Soviet Union’—and the other end were the outcasts—those associated with what the ‘progressives’ dubbed Right-wing, communal and casteist (read Lohia-ite) parties.
According to the ‘progressive’ version of history, faithfully narrated by India’s most prominent textbook historian, it was the desperation of the conservative, communal and casteist forces to “oust Indira Gandhi from power even if the legitimacy of the parliamentary process and the party system was put into jeopardy” that forced the Emergency. As the CPI cheer-leaders said in justification, circumstances demanded “a spirit of unity and urgency to inflict a decisive defeat on the forces of fascism and counter-revolution.” Since the Emergency was ostensibly imposed to save democracy from its enemies, it naturally followed that there was one place for Sanskrit-spouting enemies of constitutional government: jail.
The dramatic events in Delhi over the past few days, particularly the Prime Minister’s statement that the powers and sanctity of Parliament couldn’t be outsourced to the rabble on the streets is eerily reminiscent of the misplaced constitutionalism that led to the derailment of democracy 36 years ago. At that time too, it was a battle against corruption and arbitrariness that came to be viewed as a challenge to democracy and the parliamentary process. In terms of mobilisation, the Jayaprakash Narayan-led movement’s ability to get people out on the streets far exceeded the show of solidarity with Anna Hazare. On March 6, 1975, for example, JP led an eight-kilometre-long march to Parliament with a charter of demands that included the immediate dismissal of state governments in Bihar and Gujarat.
However, despite the apparent similarities it is facile to suggest that the Manmohan Singh Government’s approach to the Anna Hazare-led crusade for against corruption has produced an “Emergency-like” situation. There are important differences.
For a start, unlike Anna’s campaign which rests on spontaneity, media support and the endorsement of Magsaysay Award winners, the JP movement was far more organised and involved the active participation of nearly all the non-Communist opposition parties and their affiliated student wings. JP played the role of a symbolic leader but the activists were invariably attached to political parties. Many of today’s non-Congress politicians from Lalu Prasad Yadav and Nitish Kumar to Arun Jaitley and Narendra Modi cut their political teeth in the JP movement.
In an age when the reach of the print media was fragmented and limited and the electronic media spewed government propaganda, the reliance on established political networks was understandably greater in 1974-75 than it is now. The Anna movement has consciously chosen to bypass the networks of political parties. This is partly because of the perception that the entire political class is the problem and partly because the so-called Team Anna is fearful of being eclipsed by politicians who are more accomplished in the extra-parliamentary game.
The detachment from organised politics has conferred a halo of moral superiority on Anna and given many TV channels a reason for extending support to an ostensibly trans-political (at times anti-political) initiative. However, it has paid a price for this exaggerated sense of virtuousness. The social depth of the Anna movement is limited: geographically it is confined to Metros and the bigger towns and socially it appeals mostly to students, the retired and small businessmen.
In another age, a movement centred on the frustrations of those who came of age with the post-1991 liberalisation would have worried a government but not triggered a panic. Compared to tremors caused by the Ayodhya movement and the Mandal agitation, Anna’s movement resembles a good-natured street festival. It is a commentary on the both the political ineptitude and the inherent fragility of the UPA Government that it was so thoroughly unsettled by Anna that the Prime Minister had to take cover behind a mythical operational autonomy of the Delhi Police chief.
It was the ‘Emergency mindset’ which initiated the series of miscalculations. Emboldened by its success in out-manoeuvring Baba Ramdev with duplicity and repression, the Government felt that the process could be repeated with Anna. The calculated manner in which the negotiations with Anna and his infuriatingly sanctimonious team was allowed to meander into irrelevance and the shrill campaign of character assassination that followed, provided clear indications of a brewing confrontation. Had the Government confined the clash to a war of words, it is entirely possible that the Anna campaign would have made injudicious utterances and ended up pitting their stage army of the good against a united political class.
The ‘Emergency mindset’ led to the Government converting an innocuous battle over an abstruse piece of legislation into widespread outrage over its scant respect for democratic rights. That high-handedness was also in evidence during the post-midnight police action against Ramdev’s followers two months ago. But the government got away relatively unscathed from that encounter partly because Ramdev made an ass of himself by trying to evade arrest by dressing up in women’s clothes and partly because media attitudes were shaped by modernist derision for a practitioner of yoga and herbal remedies. With Anna, however, the Government dialled a wrong number.
First, the pre-emptive morning arrest of Anna coupled with his peremptory despatch to Tihar Jail where the great symbols of corruption and venality are lodged were seen not merely as unfair but an attempt to mock an elderly man who had the country’s best interests at heart. It was the unfairness and the undemocratic response of the Government that provoked outrage. Secondly, the Government erred grievously in underestimating the obstinacy of a Gandhian. Anna, it would seem, has imbibed a sense of politics from his inspiration. Like Gandhi, his response to the government was combined of steely righteous determination with a clever sense of symbolism. His decision to decide the timing of his own release from Tihar was a masterstroke that left an already disoriented Government completely flummoxed. After 24 hours of pleading with Anna to leave prison, the Government surrendered unconditionally and accepted all his demands. Anna was not merely a winner but the Government, including the Prime Minister, was shown up to be disingenuous and duplicitous.
The surrender in Tihar exposed the fragility of the Government and made it look ridiculous. At the same time, quite intentionally, Manmohan Singh punctured the self-serving alarmism about an impending Emergency-type crackdown on civil rights. The Emergency was the contribution of a strong leader determined to prevail at all costs. Today, the political authority of the Government has been further eroded by a non-functioning dyarchy comprising a plasticine Prime Minister and a ‘youth icon’ whose role has been taken by a 73-year-old Gandhian. An Internal Emergency today is as likely as Don Quixote playing Stalin.

The Telegraph, August 19, 2011

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Once upon a time, Britain was 'Great'

By Swapan Dasgupta
‘Turning point’ is an expression used casually in the search for drama amid the mundane. The four-day orgy of looting and destruction witnessed in London and other English cities were, however, far from ordinary. Sunil Gavaskar was absolutely right in saying that had similar disturbances occurred in a desi city a touring England cricket was playing in, there would have been an outcry about ‘unsafe’ India with tabloids screaming for the boys to be brought home by the earliest BA flight.
Indians tend to be relatively resilient in the face of disorder. Yet, even when judged by our permissive standards, last week’s outpouring of underclass spontaneity was extraordinary. To my generation of shrinking Anglophiles for whom England has forever meant long summers, grey drizzle, dog lovers, polite drivers, Radio 4, tweed jackets, sensible shoes and, most important, an innate sense of decency and fair play, the England of last week was one we would rather not know.
The looters and arsonists were mainly teenagers who, in the England of Enid Blyton, should have been picnicking on thick ham sandwiches, washed down with lashings of ginger beer in their summer holidays. Instead, they were kick boxing store windows, casually setting fire to shops and cars, robbing passers-by who looked respectable and looting cigarettes and cash from the corner shop of a frightened Mr Patel. Some of the looters were 8 years old!
Of course there was a complete failure of policing. The men in uniform were nowhere to be seen when people needed them most. But, to be fair, policing in Britain has always depended on the assumption of widespread good sense: delinquency and criminality were aberrations, except at football matches. Last week has proved everyone wrong. David Cameron was right: it was a “sick” Britain that was on show for four horrible days.
For a Prime Minister to dub parts of English society “sick” is strong stuff, maybe not as strong as Nicolas Sarkozy who denounced the Paris rioters six years ago as ‘scum’. Sir Max Hastings was more vivid: “They are essentially wild beasts…They respond only to instinctive animal impulses…”
The words of indignation can multiply and became more colourful. The question is: how will England (Scotland claims it doesn’t have a feral problem) react? Will the contrived sense of community created by men and women with brooms sweeping up the debris and comforting a distressed Mrs Patel subsume the ugliness? Like the candle marches asserting the ‘spirit of Mumbai’, will the spirits of Hackney or Clapham or even, of all places, Gloucester, provide the proverbial healing touch? At least till the “wild beasts”, now with an acquired taste for flatscreen TVs, designer track suits and free booze and cigarettes, re-emerge next summer to replenish the mythology around the adventures of August 2011.
The nightmare of last week will become a ‘turning point’ not because the English police will now be empowered to use water cannon and plastic bullets on riotous mobs. The end of ‘soft’ policing may well be inescapable but no-nonsense policing can’t address the problem of dysfunctional youth.
The problem may well be symptomatic of the “final crisis” of capitalism that Marxists have been anxiously awaiting for the past 100 years. But shaving off the excesses of a welfare state that the country can no longer afford doesn’t explain why rioters should target supermarkets and shops selling electronic goods, mobile phones and leisure wear. England didn’t experience its version of Tahrir Square or Syria. The riots exposed the alarming extent to which a relatively pampered society has bred an underclass that has no sense of values. In the absence of any moral authority—at home, in school, the church, and from a wider family and settled neighbourhood—many young Britons have lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong.
The only exceptions may well be the immigrant communities where ties of family, neighbourhood and religion are deterrents to waywardness, and failure is an unaffordable indulgence. Theirs is a harsh world and a world that is seemingly at odds with modernity. Yet, theirs is also a world not shaped by moral illiteracy.
Once upon a time, the English were exactly like them. Britain was “Great” then.

Sunday Times of India, August 14, 2011

No longer happy to be second best

By Swapan Dasgupta
During my childhood, a game of improvised cricket on a terrace or back alley was invariably a collective endeavour. Someone contributed the bat and the rubber or tennis ball belonged to someone else. Occasionally, someone was deputed to be the umpire but on most occasions the decision involving a run out or a bowled was by collective acclaim and often resulted in a furious argument between a batsman who’d insist he was not out and everyone else who screamed he was.
In these bouts of collective umpiring, there was one constant danger: the aggrieved batsman would often be the owner of either the bat or the ball. If arguments and persuasion proved futile, the boy would often pick up his bat or ball and depart muttering “I’m not playing”.
Watching the merciless massacre of India’s bowling at Edgbaston made me recall this brattishness. Maybe, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s dispirited and hobbled Indian side shouldn’t have been playing at all in Birmingham. Mabe the BCCI should have cited the orgy of lawlessness in England, including Birmingham, to say that it couldn’t afford to expose India’s national assets to mob violence. After all, the incident involving three Asian boys killed by a speeding car while “defending the community” happened barely five miles from the cricket ground. In a similar situation in India, the English would have panicked and caught the first flight back home. We too should have used the riots as an excuse to avert a cricketing humiliation.
The problem with India is that it starts blindly believing all the hype about itself. There was a time when defeat was a reality we were born with. The expected outcome of most Test matches involving India was often eerily predictable. In 1959, D.K. Gaekwad’s team lost all the five Tests; in 1967, ‘Tiger’ Pataudi’s team was likewise routed 3-0; and this was repeated by Ajit Wadekar’s team in 1974. The 1974 tour also saw India being bowled out for 42 in the second innings of the Lord’s Test and I vividly recall the mirth of the BBC’s cricket commentary on the radio.
We used to joke that Indian cricketers couldn’t adjust to the ‘cold’ of an English summer. Fielding was said to be particularly difficult because catching a hard hit ball left the hands very sore. There was a psychological barrier that Indians had to encounter in playing against beefy Englishmen in England. It was a fear akin to the dread many batsmen felt at the sight of Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist charging up to the bowl one of their viciously quick deliveries. The photograph of the scoreboard at Manchester,1952, when India lost its first 5 wickets, without a run being scored must have haunted many generations of Indian cricketers. Fred Trueman dined out on India’s effete fear of fast bowling for the rest of his life.
Winning in cricket was an idea ‘socialist’ India was just not accustomed to. The odd times we did win against England—at Calcutta and Madras in 1962 against Ted Dexter’s side and that famous win at the Oval in 1971when B.S. Chandrashekhar cast his spell—were celebratory exceptions the country mythologised. In 1959, Jessu Patel spun India to a great victory against Richie Benaud’s Australian side at Kanpur. For this feat he was awarded a Padma Sri—a huge honour in those days of innocence.
Indeed, the cricket tales of my childhood were of heroic individual triumphs that never translated into team victories: how Amar Singh and Mohammed Nissar stunned the English batsmen in India’s first Test at Lord’s in 1932; how Vinoo Mankad scored a century in each innings of the Lord’s Test in 1952; and how Abbas Ali Baig was hurriedly requisitioned into the Test side from his college Cambridge and ended up scoring a century on debut in Manchester 1959—not to mention becoming the heartthrob of a generation.
In last Friday’s Daily Telegraph, a writer celebrating Alastair Cook’s grand knock of 296 admitted to a sense of English disorientation at the idea of winning once again in cricket “after 30 years of sustained pummelling, when our natural instinct is for pessimism…” He could well have been describing the mood in India prior to the turning point—the completely unexpected World Cup victory in 1983. A nation overwhelmed by slow growth, shortages, a resource crunch and poverty didn’t have the mental make-up to savour victory.
That’s the real difference the past 25 years or so has made to the Indian mentality. Today, as India comes to terms with a conclusive English series victory, the mood isn’t one of passive acceptance of defeat; it is one of both disappointment and anger. The fans who have made India the hub of the world’s cricket economy can stomach the odd defeat but they no longer have the mentality to reconcile to English (or, for that matter, Australian) supremacy. India has taken its Number One ranking as a proprietorial right; it can’t tolerate being upstaged.
Does this reveal a complete disinclination to appreciate the spirit of a gentleman’s game? Maybe it does. To me, however, it suggests an India that is intent on registering its mark in the world, an India that isn’t content to be second-best. That’s the positive message from the gloom of Edgbaston. On Independence Day, someone should be noticing that anger is often built on unrequited ambition.

Sunday Pioneer, August 14, 2011

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bluster and beyond

By Swapan Dasgupta
Those who followed last Tuesday’s debates on the ongoing Commonwealth Games controversy were near-unanimous on one point: it was a one-sided slaughter of the Government. Facing a privilege motion, Sports Minister Ajay Maken may have been nominally in the dock but was the Manmohan Singh Government that was on trial. With the erudition that comes naturally to an accomplished lawyer blessed with a strong case, Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley raised the debate to dizzying heights in the Rajya Sabha. The BJP’s Yashwant Sinha made the same points in the Lok Sabha but with the populism that, unfortunately, we have come to expect from the Lok Sabha.
Taken together, the interventions of Jaitley and Sinha redeemed the reputation of Parliament. They showed that it was possible to attack the government mercilessly but in a dignified way and armed with facts and figures. For the BJP, the debate was also a much-needed act of atonement. Since 2004, the party has steadily acquired the reputation of being mindless disruptionists in Parliament. Some of its front-benchers have made lung power a substitute for brain power.
Unfortunately, it proved too good to last. If Jaitley raised the level of the proceedings with logic and eloquence, a BJP member from Gujarat promptly lowered the level of discourse by questioning the integrity of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi with a slogan. That led to bedlam and the inevitable adjournment. In the Lok Sabha, Ajay Maken’s reply was thwarted by BJP members protesting against police high-handedness with demonstrators outside Parliament. The foolish hecklers didn’t gauge that given the chance, a disoriented Maken would find it hard to defend his silly statement on Suresh Kalmadi’s appointment as the head of the Commonwealth Games. This would have been a much better indictment of the Government than party demonstrators jostling with the police.
It is an unfortunate legacy of the freedom struggle that activists imagine no protest to be really fulfilling unless some heads have been bashed in and many arrests made. Street politics, arguably, has its place but unfortunately for the BJP, Tuesday afternoon was no time to shift the focus away from Parliament.
Miscalculations appear to have become a way of life for the BJP. The reputation of the UPA Government is in complete tatters. Plagued by charges of corruption, uncertainty over the future of the Prime Minister and an astonishing show of ham-handed governance, the UPA often conveys the impression of wilfully wanting to be voted out of power in the next general election. Certainly, if good governance is any yardstick for rational political judgment, the UPA should be struggling to maintain its political credibility.
Yet, as a recent opinion poll by CSDS suggests, the shrinking popularity of the Prime Minister and an equally intense dissatisfaction with the performance of the Central Government are not negatively impacting the political ratings of the Congress. Indeed, the dip in popularity of the Congress in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have been more than compensated by accretions in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa. Most reassuringly for the ruling party, the popular acceptance for Rahul Gandhi’s move to Race Course Road is rising steadily. Indeed, the CSDS poll indicates that, in the public perception at least, there is no worthwhile BJP challenger to Rahul—as yet.
The real story of the past year, therefore, is not that the Congress and its allies have faltered but that the principal opposition party hasn’t been able to take advantage. The BJP leadership, or at least a section of it, is proceeding on the smug assumption that a UPA defeat in 2014 is pre-ordained and that all it needs to do is to avoid scoring self-goals. The CSDS poll may not be the last word on the subject but it is one indication that exasperation with the UPA government and rejecting the Congress isn’t co-terminus. The ignominious performance of the BJP in the state assembly elections last May was a pointer.
This is not to suggest that we are seeing a revival of the pre-1967 “Congress system” of one-party dominance. Far from it. Political competition is alive and thriving and the belief systems of the Congress haven’t become common sense. And, when it comes to the states, the NDA-run governments enjoy the most positive ratings. So why is the dissatisfaction with governance not leading to a sharper rise in support for the BJP?
The answer may have something to do with the self-serving belief that politics is the art of keeping the committed happy. Ever since it crashed to its second consecutive general election defeat, the priority of the BJP has been to rejuvenate its activists. The country has witnessed innumerable rallies and dharnas (and quite impressive ones at that) against price rise, corruption and terrorism. But to what end? The party has made a lot of noise but has it actually communicated to the people?
This is not an academic question. The electorate does not share the party’s visceral hatred for dynastic politics. Its approach is based on expediency. Sonia and Rahul are fine as long as they can deliver but the voter will readily switch sides if someone else can offer something more meaningful.
On both these counts the BJP has faltered. It has quite deliberately persisted with the charade of collective leadership because it does not have any acceptable institution to select a new post-Vajpayee and post-Advani face to lead the party. It almost seems the party is scared to choose. At the same time, the party has wilfully persisted with a shrillness that has often been a cover for the non-application of mind. At a time when the country is receptive to alternative ideas and alternative faces, the BJP has chosen to provide neither.
Activists are happy with patronage and philistinism; normal’ people seek both integrity and ideas. Having experimented for long with buffoonery and theatrics, the BJP should try some serious politics for a change. A sober and cerebral opposition is calculated to give the Government serious indigestion.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, August 12, 2011

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Dynasty wrapped in needless secrecy

By Swapan Dasgupta
More than 85 per cent of Indians are consumers of the media in one form or another. Consequently, it is only to be expected that almost every citizen has definite views on the subject—the other being cricket.
Over the past few days, the media has come in for some quiet scrutiny on a delicate subject: the unfortunately illness of UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi which was made public last Thursday. There is a context to this debate that is taking place in private conversations and on social networking sites.
For nearly a year, the media has been the subject of intense attention for its interventionist handling of the corruption scandals that have surfaced all over the country. There are those who have come to see the media as a robust watchdog of democracy for its role in both publicising the scams and, more important, demanding answers from the political class. The shrill debates and the insistence that “the nation demands answers” may have struck aesthetes as being a bit over the top. However, there are good reasons to believe that a citizenry which is far removed from day-to-day politics has been revelling at the sight of politicians being badgered and even bullied by anchors. Those who lack the power to kick the high and mighty in non-election seasons are taking perverse pleasure that someone else is doing it for them.
At the same time, the political class is dismayed at the growing clout of the media. There are fears that the political agenda is being set by anchors who are not accountable to anyone. There has been a sudden onrush of concern for the integrity of the legislatures and the right of elected MLAs and MPs to decide on crucial issues without media intimidation. If the 19th century leaders feared mobocracy, their 21st century Indian counterpart lives in dread of media-inspired hysteria.
The fear, it would seem, has been slightly overstated. Had the Indian media turned into clones of the now-defunct News of the World, the political class would have reason to be fearful of unregulated intrusiveness. However, as the case of Sonia Gandhi’s illness has vividly demonstrated, the media is inclined to swing between playing the tiger and acting the pussy cat.
In the West, the illness of the most important person in the government would have had every investigative team of every media house crossing the Atlantic to lay siege to all the hospitals in New York where the Congress president is allegedly housed as an ‘unlisted patient’. We would have had the spectacle of every “source” close to the Gandhi family being asked to speculate over the nature of the illness and the course of the treatment.
To some extent, concern over Sonia’s health can never remain a matter concerning the Gandhi family alone. The personal well-being of someone who is the acknowledged ‘leader’ of the Government—one who rules but does not rule—is a matter of public concern in all democracies. India isn’t either a Soviet Union where Yuri Andropov’s last illness remained a state secret or a North Korea where everything is classified information. A daily health bulletin issued by responsible doctors that satisfies legitimate public concern and, simultaneously, respects the family’s right to privacy is something that can legitimately be asked from the government or the Congress party.
The point to note is that when it comes to the ‘first family’, the media’s thirst for investigative journalism evaporates into handout journalism. This is despite the fact that the country has been routinely misled on many occasions. When Sonia failed to be present in the opening sessions of Parliament, it was put out (by unnamed sources) that she was suffering from ‘viral fever’—an explanation that was believable in the context of the epidemic doing the rounds of Delhi. When, last year, she abruptly cancelled her meeting with the visiting British Prime Minister it was again put out that the family had to rush overseas because Sonia’s mother wasn’t keeping too well.
No one ever claimed ownership of these doubtful explanations of the Gandhi family’s movements. For year after year, even as fawning courtiers celebrated Rahul Gandhi’s birthday, the birthday boy never happened to be in the country. Delhi resonated with idle speculation over where the birthday was actually celebrated. However, for the media the Congress General Secretary’s travel itinerary was never the subject of any inquiry. Even the Right to Information Act has failed to yield any information on the subjects—presumably because they have ‘security’ implications.
The Gandhi family has wrapped itself in so much needless secrecy that it has fuelled bizarre conspiracy theories—some of them tasteless. Some of these have been in circulation over the past few days. Congress leaders can decry such irresponsible chatter, especially when it concerns someone’s health, but it would be prudent to recognise that the root of misinformation is the information blackout.
It is everyone’s hope that Sonia has a speedy recovery and is able to resume normal life as soon as possible. If she needs a quiet period of recuperation, it is only right that she be spared the intrusive gaze of publicity. At the same time, her illness and absence has implications that have a bearing on the functioning of the government. In striking a balance between patient confidentiality and authentic information, there are enough good precedents to follow.

Sunday Pioneer, August 7, 2011

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Under Direct Control: Central political leaderships are wary of regional leaders

By Swapan Dasgupta
The outgoing Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa isn’t the first head of government to be dethroned by a quasi-judicial stricture. Nor, for that matter, is he likely to be the last victim of what can best be described as either a political accident or a constitutional coup. The history of independent India is replete with examples of both chief ministers and even prime ministers who have been compelled, for one reason or another, to relinquish office mid-stream.
The phenomenon is hardly unique. However, what is disturbing, as this week’s events in Karnataka indicate, is the monotonous regularity of the succession being mired in unseemly controversy. Both the Constitution and political practice suggests that the head of an elected government must enjoy the confidence of a majority of legislators. On paper, there is no violation of this principle and the person chosen or elected to assume charge invariably secures the ‘unanimous’ endorsement of the majority party legislators. Yet, it is the process of selection that invariably turns out to be contentious and, more often than not, contain the seeds of future inner-party discord and, occasionally, a formal split.
The reasons for this unhappy state of affairs are obvious. Despite more than six decades as a functioning democracy, the Indian political system is yet to evolve a standard procedure for either the election of the head of government or the head of a political party.
In the case of the Congress, a certain template procedure has come to be accepted. Upon a vacancy being notified, the central leadership of the party nominates two central observers to consult the party legislators about their preference. The consultation takes place behind closed doors and once the process is complete, the legislature party meets and passes a resolution authorising the party president to nominate a leader. The party president or the so-called high command is expected to factor in the wishes of the legislators when exercising its choice. If Delhi plays by the book, the succession is smoothly uneventful. However, as often happens, the central leadership is hell bent on imposing either an ‘outsider’ or someone who doesn’t have majority backing, the selection process becomes a nomination rather than an election.
In recent times, the Congress had to jettison democratic principles in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. In Andhra Pradesh, the mood among Congress MLAs after Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death in a helicopter crash was resoundingly in favour of his son Jagan Mohan Reddy. Unfortunately for the Reddy family, the idea of a regional dynasty in Andhra Pradesh was looked upon with disfavour by the central Congress stalwarts. To them, the party had room for just one national dynasty presiding over sub-regional feudatories. In his lifetime, YSR had successfully made the transition from being just another chief minister (on the lines of, say, Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan and Tarun Gogoi in Assam) to becoming a resourceful regional satrap. The Congress high command didn’t want to risk making YSR’s legacy a matter of inheritance. It subverted the will of the MLAs by imposing a central veto on Jagan claim to his father’s job. The consequences of derailing the democratic will (however flawed it may have been) have not been happy for the Congress. Andhra Pradesh seems poised to slip out of the party’s political control.
In Maharashtra, the political self-destruction of, first, Vilasrao Deshmukh and, subsequently, Ashok Chavan, prompted the Congress high command to deploy a paratrooper from the Centre to contain the damage. Prithviraj Chavan was highly rated in Delhi for both his integrity and sobriety. Unfortunately, he had no toehold in the murky regional politics of Maharashtra and, consequently, the MLAs had to be bulldozed into accepting Delhi’s man in Mumbai. The net result of this contrived injection of integrity into the Congress system may, however, not prove rewarding for the party. Successful politics need principle to be blended with political management. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the new Chief Minister doesn’t have the political muscle to force through tough decisions. The result is a near-paralysed administration.
The Congress, particularly under Indira Gandhi, acquired a measure of disrepute by emasculating regional leaders—a phenomenon that proved detrimental to the party’s long-term health. The BJP began life as an over-centralised party with decision-making firmly vested with the national president, assisted by a few swayamsevaks on deputation from RSS headquarters in Nagpur. However, as the party enlarged its social base and came to control state governments, the importance of strong regional leaders was recognised—but very grudgingly.
In Karnataka, the party owed its post-1990 growth to the ability of local leaders such as Yeddyurappa to link a national pro-Hindu sentiment to caste-based farmer movements. By the time the BJP won a majority on its own in 2007, Yeddyurappa had elevated himself to the level of an unchallenged regional leader—on par with Narendra Modi and Vasundhara Raje. When he was removed by a crusading Lokayukta last week, he enjoyed the support of at least 75 of the BJP’s 120 MLAs. Yeddyurappa’s political clout should have ensured that the national leadership was appreciative of his determination to both clear his name—it is said that there is a strong case for the High Court setting aside the Lokayukta report on technical grounds—and have a say in the selection of his successor. It is a commentary on the warped priorities of a section of the central leadership that it decided this was the moment to try and impose its direct control over Karnataka. The plan never had much of a chance of success and good sense finally prevailed. However, in encouraging the discredited Reddy brothers of Bellary to put their resources behind an anti-Yeddyurappa campaign, the BJP vitiated the atmosphere to such an extent that a future split in the party is a real possibility. This situation would never have arisen had the BJP made it clear from the outset that the new leader would be elected on the strength of majority support of MLAs.
It was the over-weaning desire to emulate the worst of the Congress’ high command structure that led to the rupture with former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh in 2000 and the breakaway of Babulal Marandi to form the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha in 2006. The possibility of Vasundhara Raje breaking away to form a regional party also became a real possibility two years ago when she was unilaterally removed as Leader of Opposition in the Rajasthan Assembly despite having the resounding support of a majority of BJP MLAs.
In Uttarakhand, B.C. Khanduri was peremptorily removed as Chief Minister after the party’s dismal performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll. However, the selection of a nonentity as his successor suggested the national party’s dread of a strong regional leader. With a pushover at the helm, the BJP national leadership has had a ball in Uttarakhand for the past two years—lots of junkets and many jobs for the boys. Politics was sacrificed at the altar of freeloading. All indications are that the BJP will be routed in next year’s state polls.
Common sense would suggest that while a political party draws solace from inspirational leadership at the top, it derives its muscle from the grassroots and the regions. Yet, it is a mystery why, despite strong empirical evidence to the contrary, the leadership of both India’s national parties are so fearful of rooted politicians. Admittedly, the possibilities of distortion arising from over-zealous localism can never be discounted but democracy is never an uncluttered process.

The Telegraph, August 5, 2011