Sunday, October 30, 2011

West's collapse a warning to India

By Swapan Dasgupta

When the main news of the day happens to be the unnecessary
cancellation of a pop concert in the National Capital Region and
speculation over the likelihood of Anna Hazare reshuffling the
so-called Team Anna, you can be assured that India is still recovering
from its annual Diwali celebrations. The momentary respite from the
over-hyped and occasionally contrived celebration of politics is well
and truly welcome. Indians too need to re-focus on facets of life that
are truly meaningful and move away from the purposelessness of
mid-season politics.

The weariness, fortunately, is not confined to India alone. In Europe,
the seemingly endless bickering over the future of the Euro is on the
verge of completing its present season—the drama will doubtless
reappear after Christmas and the New Year. In the US, the comical
facet of the presidential primaries is on show courtesy an
advertisement of Republican challenger Herman Cain that shows an
aide—yes, wait for it—smoking a cigarette! I wonder which is worse for
the morally vulnerable: a flamboyant dictator being dragged out of the
gutter and then getting his brains blown out by his own golden pistol,
or some unknown guy smoking a cigarette. Is hate more acceptable to
the legions of the politically correct than a self-indulgent smoke?

It is probably an ethical question which defies a single answer.
However, you know that things aren’t as bad as they seem when society
becomes agitated thinking about the number of angels that can be
accommodated on a pinhead.

The allusion is to a puerile movement called Occupy Wall Street that
began with thousands of angst-ridden trumpets blowing in the US and
now seem to be on its final stages—hardly surprising because camping
out is not terribly comfortable as autumn gradually gives way to
winter. In many places, the OWS has fizzled out, in other places a
gentle nudge by the authorities has been sufficient to clear public
spaces, and in some of the remoter outposts of capitalism the
protestors are still being egged on by subversive clergymen.

Actually, the London version of the OWS has proved to be the most
interesting since it has produced an exotic khichdi of economics and
Christian theology. Reverend Dr Giles Fraser, the Canon Chancellor of
St Paul’s Cathedral, resigned from his post because he could not
countenance the idea of using either force or the law to evict those
who earnestly believed that pitching their tents and blocking access
to the Cathedral would—as the banners demanded—“End Capitalism.”

Rev Fraser is a sanctimonious simpleton. He was so overwhelmed by the
Christian piety of the protestors that he proclaimed “I could imagine
Jesus being born in the camp.” He also declared that it was fitting
that a tented community had sprung up around St Paul’s because the
Saint had been a tentmaker in real life—a factoid that should answer
why the BJP feels it has St Paul’s on its side.

Most practicing Christians obviously disagree with Rev Fraser’s
misplaced benevolence. The OWS hasn’t captured the public imagination
in the same way as the anti-Vietnam protests did. In fact, even
compared to the Tea Party movement against high taxes and federal
intrusiveness, its impact appears to be minimal. The pious
proclamation of a Warren Buffet that he should be taxed more hasn’t
endeared him to those ordinary people who believe that bloated
governments, far from resolving problems, actually prevent individuals
and communities to empower themselves financially.

There is obvious concern in the West that the logic of capitalism is
displacing them from the top of the pile and shifting the centre of
gravity eastwards—to China, to India and even to Australia. But this
unease hasn’t been sufficient to create a revolutionary movement
against advanced, as Karl Marx hoped it would. The West has just too
much to lose by allowing an economic system that it helped nurture to
go out of control. This is why the focus in Europe is over how to
prevent countries with responsible government such as Germany from
being dragged down by the profligate spending habits of countries such
as Greece.

The tremors in the world’s financial and capital markets have precious
little to do with yearning for the true Christian spirit or nostalgia
for 1950s style socialism. There is an awkward truth that is
manifesting itself all over the world: societies can’t go on living
beyond their means indefinitely. Sooner or later the non-viability of
high debts begins to be felt.

The West is concerned that its economies are no longer generating the
wealth that is needed to sustain a standard of living it become
accustomed to. Some are trying to meet the challenge by upgrading
skills and by attracting capital with the assurance of rule-based
societies. Yet others are unwilling to tolerate even temporary
hardship and see their salvation in silly protests such as OWS that
simultaneously help people salvage their conscience.

India doesn’t have too many moral dilemmas. This Diwali saw a downturn
in consumer offtakes but didn’t dampen the overall celebrations.
That’s because the people have a long history of adjusting to
temporary hardships. They know that corruption isn’t a moral issue but
a practical one involving fiscal adjustment. The Government, however,
thinks differently. This is why it should open its eyes to what is
going on in the world before undertaking pre-election splurges with
yours and my money.


Friday, October 28, 2011

An Airtight Compartment: India's historians prefer committee versions of history

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since clever one-liners are as much a part of a journalist’s stock-in-trade as hard information or penetrating insights, I have often described myself as a lapsed historian. This self-description has served two functions: first, to explain why the past invariably intrudes into my writings on the present and, second, to allay fears of being a crashing bore.
This may seem needlessly harsh on India’s historians — a community that is forever involved in public brawls over one thing or another. In most ‘free’ countries, by which I don’t include China and countries with a Ba’athist-inspired dispensation, historians are among the most exciting people to have as intellectual decorations. They tend to be witty, irreverent, erudite and, most important, quirky. A historian who can discuss corruption in India with a passing reference to Gibbon’s account of the ‘sale’ of the Roman Empire to Didius Julianus by the venal Praetorian Guard is the sort of person we’d love to fly with. In the old days, a savage book review by A.J.P. Taylor was an occasion that we all looked forward to.

Historians were very clever but they could also be rather nasty people, especially when bitching about fellow historians. I recall the casually devastating observation of the Cambridge historian, Eric Stokes, that someone must have thrust a copy of a Rajani Palme Dutt pamphlet in the hands of an ageing Sarvepalli Gopal. It was a not-very-subtle way of suggesting that Gopal’s biography of Jawaharlal Nehru was riddled with dogmatic certitudes and, perhaps, was characteristic of the university he inhabited in old age.

Even ideological convergence didn’t automatically promote conviviality. I particularly recall Eric Hobsbawm’s carping observation in Interesting Times that E.P. Thompson was “a man showered by the fairies at birth with all possible gifts but two. Nature had omitted to provide him with an in-built sub-editor and an in-built compass”.

Maybe it was Hobsbawm getting his own back on Thompson for his disavowal of the Communist Party after the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the so-called ‘revolt of the intellectuals’. However, I detected a conflict of temperaments. Despite a commonality brought about by a shared vision of proletarian power, these were two different individuals. Hobsbawm was an austere, refined patrician, strangely reminiscent of the pre-war European man of letters. Thompson, by contrast, was emotional and excitable and very English. Hearing him declaim passionately about subjects as diverse as nuclear disarmament and the Luddites, he often reminded me of a radical vicar, always at odds with Lambeth Palace but yet accepted in the Church of England.

The sheer versatility of the tribe, the ability to garnish academic rigour with individual eccentricities, have added value to the public standing of historians. Because the study of history is, by its very nature, riddled with tentativeness, historians have helped embellish the past with insights of human behaviour. Just as no two histories can be the same, no two historians should be or even aspire to be the same. There is nothing more unprepossessing than histories written by a committee or disputes involving the past being resolved through a show of hands.

Ironically, both these are routine occurrences in India. “Tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec,” was the only advice that Winston Churchill, then prime minister, proffered his education secretary, Rab Butler, during the passage of the Education Act of 1944. How to tell the story of Empire was for teachers, historians and society to ponder: it was not something any government could speak for the nation. Yet, in India, history writing is a preoccupation of the State and the successful historians are the ones best able to translate political priorities into a committee version of history.
Where the stories of the past are, ideally, replete with question marks of uncertainty and tentativeness, the history-speak of India is over-stuffed with certitudes, the ‘correct’ views. Sometime in the early 1990s, the Indian History Congress decided to settle the question of whether a temple predated the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya through a show of hands. The display of professional democracy, unfortunately, told us more of the historians of India than it did about a dispute that divided India emotionally.

All this circumnavigation is in aid of an anecdote. Some three months ago, I was hugely excited after reading Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, a book I hoped many more people would buy and read. It so happened that I bumped into one of the pillars of India’s historical establishment at a dinner around that time. I couldn’t resist telling her about the book and about Ferguson’s earlier works. “That’s not history,” was the icy retort.
Ferguson, by the way, is a professor of history at Harvard and was also a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford. Yes, he does a lot of television but his scholarly credentials are very kosher.

Since it is rude to press a disagreement at a social occasion — I’ve had whisky thrown at my face for informing an earnest sociologist in 1996 that Uma Bharti was a personal friend — I left it that. However, interactions with students of history at Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University resulted in two surprising discoveries. First, that Niall Ferguson was indeed shunned by the academic pundits, maybe because his books, like Heineken, reached parts that others don’t, and second, that it was just not done to blend the scholarly with the popular, a euphemism for the non-professional historian.

The envy part of the story is understandable but the rejection of the non-tenured historian is baffling. Earlier this year saw the publication of Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, a Briton of Ghanian origin who, apart from having a doctorate in history from Cambridge, is also the Conservative member of parliament for Spelthorne in Surrey. Kwarteng also wears an old Etonian tie which makes him triply suspect.

Kwarteng’s thesis is compelling: “The British Empire was nothing more than a series of improvisations conducted by men who shared a common culture, but who had very different ideas about government and administration. There is very little unifying ideology in this imperial story. It was grand and colourful but it was highly opportunistic, dominated by individualism and pragmatism.”

Expressed in another way, Kwarteng has argued that there was no grand imperial project that led to half the world being coloured in red by 1918: the Empire resulted from a series of local decisions, some well-considered and others, such as the annexation of Burma, a consequence of impulsiveness.

In an environment of post- colonial angst, Kwarteng is certain to be regarded as another ‘revisionist’. This may not be an incorrect description if it is assumed that academic orthodoxies, like fashion, keep changing ever so often. But the more relevant point is that a revisionist challenge can only be mounted if the history establishment opens its doors and windows to let the outside air in. If historians choose to live in airtight compartments, they can wallow in their own correctness but with the associated risk of obsolescence and fossilization.

Centres of learning often have their origins in religious seminaries, what in India are called the ‘mutts’. A feature of this tradition is that knowledge is pursued for its own sake. But the self-enforced monastic insularity can also trigger hideous intellectual distortions.

At the heart of the kerfuffle over the inclusion and exclusion in the Delhi University history syllabus of A.K. Ramanujan’s essay on multiple Ramayanas is the closed shop. India’s historians believe that to stroll outside their cloistered habitat involves the danger of falling off the edge of the world. No wonder they count for so little in the arguments over India.

Telegraph, October 28, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Much ado about 'Three Hundred Ramayanas'

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is nothing like a good culture war to excite the intellectual imagination. The decade of the 1990s was dominated by the slugfest over the shrine in Ayodhya. It became obligatory for anyone with any pretension of being a ‘public intellectual’ to take sides on this controversy. Neutrality or, worse still, supreme indifference was automatically construed by the dominant intellectual group as tantamount to an endorsement of ‘fascism’.

Then came the kerfuffle over M.F. Hussain’s contentious depiction of Ram and Sita that had the defenders of the faith screaming ‘blasphemy’ and reaching for their trishuls. Here too, India’s cultural community were encouraged to link arms against the vandals.

Now comes a wonderfully contrived dispute over a Delhi University decision to omit an essay on the Ramayana from the prescribed readings for its undergraduate History course. The decision has particularly agitated those with a penchant for progressive pamphleteering: it has been denounced as “academic fascism”—a conceptually intriguing proposition.

The essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas” by Indologist A.K. Ramanujan was never intended as an iconoclastic exercise. It spelt out the interesting variations in the Ramayana story in India and South-east Asia with a great measure of quiet reverence. In fact, Ramanujan concluded his essay with a tale of the mental and social elevation of a village dolt after he actually listened to a recitation of the Ramayana.

Yet, because some philistines had objected to the essay being in the list of prescribed texts, the culture war was transformed into a political war. The ‘progressive’ adherents of ‘scientific history’ felt obliged to celebrate the importance of mythology and the folk tradition—which they otherwise debunk—while the other side despaired of a text that injected potentially “blasphemous” and contrarian ideas in impressionable minds.

That such a puerile debate has come to dominate a discussion over the curriculum in a university may seem odd but not surprising. Over the years, the history wars have become a feature of the larger battle over national identity. A feature of this clash has been the tendency of the opposing sides to repose faith in something called the ‘correct’ view of India’s past. With their dominance in the history faculties, the ‘progressives’ have tried to fashion the curriculum in a particular way, using prescribed texts as the instrument of their ideological hegemony. Instead of being an open-ended inquiry into the past, the practice of history in India has been reduced to regurgitating a set of certitudes.

A Delhi University history graduate who won a scholarship to Oxford recently recounted the absurdities of the process. The medieval history readings, he told me, were replete with denunciations of the so-called ‘revivalist’ historians of an earlier era. What struck him as surprising was that none of these apparently flawed histories featured in the prescribed reading lists—not Sir Jadunath Sarkar, not R.C. Majumdar,  and not A.L. Shrivastava. In other words, rather than encouraging students to savour divergent ways of looking at the past, history became a set of acceptable truths and unacceptable untruths—hardly an approach befitting an open and argumentative society.

The problem, it would seem, arises from the dubious practice of listing prescribed texts. In the past, a history curriculum would identify broad themes for study, leaving teachers the independence to recommend readings for further study. A student would be tested in the examination for his ability to construct lucid arguments that would reveal their understanding of the subject. With ‘prescribed’ texts becoming the norm, the student’s scope for demonstrating independence of mind and even originality of thought are naturally at a discount. They are expected to imbibe and parrot prevailing orthodoxies—a process that can hardly be said to be conducive for the training of the mind.

What we are witnessing in India is not an assault on free speech but something far worse, an attack on the spirit of free inquiry. There is something fundamentally skewed with a system of higher education that posits two stark alternatives: a compulsory reading (and, by implication, acceptance) of a scholarly work or not reading it at all. The space for critical discernment is fast disappearing and we are turning into a nation of slogan shouters. 

Sunday Times of India, October 23, 2011

Economy on the cusp of crisis

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Friday, for a short while and until the Reserve Bank of India intervened in the forex markets, the US Dollar breached the Rs 50 mark. The steady decline of the Indian Rupee, even at a time both the American and European economies are deeply unsettled, may be greeted with whoops of delight in circles that specialise in body shopping from India. However, for those who have a stake in the well-being and prosperity of the Indian consumer, the decline of the Rupee is bad news. It means higher fuel prices, higher prices of imports (which, sooner rather than later, will also come to include foodstuff) and high inflation. Corporates who wisely availed of the low interest rates on Dollar borrowing may find that their budgetary estimates are likely to go awry by the free fall of the Rupee.

There is a clear writing on the wall that suggests the Indian economy is in for a choppy journey in the coming months. The rating agencies have already downgraded the shares of State Bank of India because of a problem with equity infusion. But anyone who is attentive to the market will know that the warning is not directed at the minority shareholders of SBI but aimed at the majority stakeholder—the Government of India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may well think that life is good this Diwali—and this assessment is certainly true if you believe India is made up of babus and others with inflation-protected incomes. However, there are strong reasons to believe that like the US, India is on the cusp of a ratings downgrade which will damage it more seriously than it did the US.

“We believe India’s policy mix is worsening with a much tighter-than-expected monetary policy and looser-than expected fiscal policy”, wrote the Asia economics analysts of Goldman Sachs in the October 21 bulletin. In less abstruse language it means that those entrusted with managing India’s economy are making a complete dog’s breakfast of their responsibilities.

The signs of the mess are staring people in the face. The GDP growth has already been estimated to fall below 8 per cent, and the question that should be in everyone’s mind is whether the growth rate remains above 7 per cent for both this and the coming year. Secondly, with both food inflation crossing 10 per cent and general inflation also nearing double figures, it is clear that the RBI’s aggressive hiking of interest rates—yet another one is due as the RBI’s Diwali gift to a beleaguered India—will only serve to erode the competitiveness of Indian industry more. Thirdly, the Government’s monetary profligacy is calculated to raise the fiscal deficit from the budgeted 4.6 per cent of GDP to around 5.8 per of GDP. The mismatch between the Budget proclamation and the grim reality suggests that the Government had absolutely no intention of adhering to responsible spending. Like the socialists in Greece, this Government too believes that in the event of a crisis someone is always there to take care of the sick patient.

It should be clear to anyone with an elementary awareness of household finances that individuals and institutions should not, by and large, spend more than they earn. They should also know that borrowing from the market to meet current expenditure means incurring outstanding debts that have to be serviced. Of course, these are basic rules governing individuals with common sense—they aren’t the rules for economists who run and advise governments.

When normal people run short of money, either because they earned less or spent more, they do the next best thing—they tighten their belts and reduce unnecessary expenditure. Confronted by a problem of a mismatch between revenue and expenditure, what does the UPA Government do? Blessed with superior knowledge of economics it proceeds to increase expenditure more and borrowing more from the market.

It is astonishing, for example, that the Government, aided and abetted by a slavish Planning Commission, is unfazed by the fact that the ambitious Food Security Bill will raise the outlay on food subsidies by 66 per cent from Rs 60,000 crore to Rs 1,00,000 crore. Creating an ambitiously elaborate welfare net on the lines of Europe may be warranted if the Government revenues are continuously swelling on account of increased economic activity. But, as the Goldman Sachs report warns, tax revenues are expected to grow by 14.8 per cent this fiscal year as opposed to the 18.5 per cent growth projected in the Budget. At the same time, expenditure growth is expected to grow by 9 per cent, compared with 3.4 per cent stated in the Budget.

The message is clear: India is living well beyond its means and the burden of this profligacy is going to haunt the country for the foreseeable future. What compounds matters further is that measures such as the Land Acquisition Bill (stipulating payment of four times the market value to rural land purchases) will cripple the growth of manufacturing and benefit China. No wonder corporate houses are investing enthusiastically overseas than in India.

That India is sleep-walking into an economic crisis is evident to most people who have a stake in India’s future. But it is something that appears to leave the political class unmoved. The message that “It’s the economy, stupid” has been lost on a country that is wallowing in delusion. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 23, 2011

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Protests fail, politics win

By Swapan Dasgupta

The only talking point the Congress had after its ignominious performance in the by-election to the Hissar parliamentary by-election was that the last minute campaign by Anna Hazare’s followers contributed little to the final outcome. For all its national impact during Hazare’s fast last August, the India against Corruption’s ability to influence electoral politics still remains untested—the movement curiously desisted from directly intervening in the by-election to the Kharakvasla Assembly constituency in Maharashtra. Consequently, the only definite conclusion that can be drawn from the Congress’ spate of by-election debacles is that anti-incumbency has benefited the principal anti-Congress parties.

The ferocity of anti-Congress feelings is something that should hearten the national opposition, particularly the BJP which sees itself as leading a future non-Congress dispensation. However, far from being encouraged by the trends, the BJP has given the impression of being exultant. So gung-ho is the mood in a section of the BJP that it is acting on the belief that the next general election has already been won and that the remaining fight is over who should occupy the Prime Minister’s post.

This strikes me as a classic case of irrational exuberance. If the political timetable remains unaltered, the next general election is due in May 2014, some 30 months away. In other words, there is still ample time for either the BJP to score self-goals and neutralise its present advantage or for the Congress to recover lost ground by providing the country with purposeful governance. Using analogy borrowed from the United States, what we are witnessing at present is just a run-up to the primaries, not even the primaries themselves.

Of course, the timetable could well be redrawn in the event of an abrupt collapse of the UPA Government. L.K. Advani has been making noises to that effect and, last week, even Mayawati joined in the public speculation over the longevity of a government that is lurching directionless from crisis to crisis.

Unfortunately for the Opposition, the scenario of abrupt collapse appears to be a case of wishful thinking. First, if the odds are heavily stacked against the ruling coalition, it is extremely unlikely that its MPs will be tempted to do anything rash. Secondly, and despite Sharad Pawar’s public criticism of the Government’s handling of the 2-G scandal, there is no evidence that either the DMK or Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (the two largest coalition partners) want to travel an alternative route. The DMK would prefer to keep its toehold at the Centre after the drubbing in Tamil Nadu; and Mamata, while fiercely independent in all matters concerning West Bengal, wouldn’t like to lose the considerable patronage powers the Indian Railways offer. Finally, and this is true for all entities going through a bad patch, the Congress is permanently hopeful that tomorrow. “Just wait for the Uttarakhand and Punjab polls” is a line frequently heard in Congress circles.

Barring an accident, a mid-term parliamentary election in 2012 looks extremely unlikely—and this is regardless of the outcome in next year’s state elections. By stressing the likelihood of an abrupt collapse some BJP leaders are ending up looking desperate. The hunger for power is regarded as a positive attribute for politicians in the so-called advanced democracies. In India, however, thanks to the distorting effects of Gandhian thought, the craving to be in government is perceived as something perverse and immoral. The anti-politician mood generated by Anna Hazare’s movement, particularly in the youth, has only served to heighten the revulsion for ‘power-hungry’ netas.

Advani failed to read this particular graffiti on the wall before embarking on his Jan Chetna yatra—a reason why the venture lacked punch. However, more important, by putting his prime ministerial ambition on public view, he made the one mistake an opposition party must avoid: shifting the gaze from the government to itself. Unless there is a profound ideological point that is being made—as happened during Advani’s Ram rath yatra in 1990—it is prudent for any ‘centrist’ opposition to keep the spotlight firmly on the government.

This may seem heretical to those in the saffron ranks intent on creating a Hindu version of the Tea Party movement by courting the outrageous. However, the sheer complexities of India and the uneven presence of the national parties throughout India negate the virtues of a conviction politician. Coalition politics is not necessarily a fig leaf for venality—as has happened in the UPA—but it is a trigger for the politics of aggregation. The major shifts in policy orientation by governments have rarely happened as a result on a resounding electoral endorsement. The people have been inclined to elect a government and then leave them alone to exercise the wisest policy option. Electoral politics, as opposed to the process of governance, has rarely been ideological.

At one time it seemed that the shortcoming of the BJP (and NDA) could lie in not projecting a leader to counter Rahul Gandhi. Today, as the heir apparent too struggles to overcome the anti-incumbency against the Congress, the inability or unwillingness to make the next election a presidential contest well turn out to be a significant advantage. The lesson from Hissar is that the traditional mould of Indian politics is broadly intact, despite Anna Hazare and a shrill electronic media. For the opposition, the real challenge is to keep its nerve for the next 30 months. 

Age of the socialist elite

Book Review

Of A Certain Age: Twenty Life Sketches by Gopalkrishna Gandhi (Penguin/Viking, 234 pages, Rs 499)

As a grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari, Gopal Gandhi could well have joined the ranks of those Indians who are famous for being famous. Pedigree, however, is the least of his accomplishments. A distinguished public servant, diplomat and man of letters, he brought to the various posts he held a great measure of old world charm, civility and erudition—commodities in woeful short supply in a country that measures achievement by the individual’s ability to be sharp-elbowed.

A professional life as interesting as Gandhi’s merits a detailed narration—and I hope he takes the hint and starts work on his memoirs. For the moment, however, he has been content with a short book of pen portraits of 20 individuals he got to know well, both socially and professionally. Given his way with words, it is a compelling and easy read—highly recommended for a lazy Sunday or a trans-continental flight.

The life sketches were initially written for newspapers and, consequently, suffer from an excess of brevity. Just when the subject starts to enthral, the word limit forces a premature conclusion leaving umpteen question marks in the mind of the reader. This is unfortunate because many of the fascinating lives encountered in the book are completely unknown to a generation that was born after the 1970s.

As a schoolboy in Calcutta, I grew up reading M.Krishnan’s fortnightly ‘Country Notebook’ in the pages of the Sunday Statesman. Subsequently, one of my earliest responsibilities as a journalist was to proof-read Krishnan before the galleys were sent to the press.  Yet, how many people not ‘of a certain age’ will be able to grasp the contribution of that unassuming nature lover in just 1,200 words or so? Without minimising the sheer pleasure this book has given me, Gandhi would have done well to flesh out his sketches for the benefit of an uninitiated generation.

Of course, there are two distinct ways to approach the book. It is possible to read the 20 potted assessments in isolation—a sort of great-men-I-have-known exercise the author charmingly describes as “that inchoate bonding which, like a slow log fire in a hill station, warms those who are of a certain age.”

More rewarding, however, is to take the cue from the author and view the life sketches as a backdrop of an age—what Gandhi calls the ‘Gandhi-Nehru age’. I disagree profoundly, but only on a chronological detail. Apart from Mahatma Gandhi, Harilal Gandhi, Abdul Ghaffar Khan and, to a lesser extent, Jayaprakash Narayan and Acharya J.B. Kriplani who straddled the ages, the other 15 defined another era: the Nehru-Gandhi age. Except that this Gandhi was Indira Gandhi.

Gandhi’s collection of truncated biographies is also a wonderful commentary on the conviviality that bound the politico-bureaucratic and cultural elite from Independence till the dawn of coalition politics in 1989. Of course, Nehru was the symbol of this association of shared assumptions but despite the rough edges of her confrontational style, even Indira chipped in with her contribution.

The most striking feature of this consensus was an almost blind worship of a seemingly progressive state and, by implication, progressive politics which separated the ‘enlightened’ from the cretin. What bound the refined bhadralok sensibilities of a Jyoti Basu and Hiren Mukherjee (both cardholding Communists) with the Fabianism of K.R. Narayanan and the public service Brahminism of R.Venkatraman and J.N. Dixit was the common reverence for an activist state. This faith in an enlightened despotism, legitimised through the ballot box, was based on noble intentions and a shared disdain of vulgarian capitalism, particularly of the Yankee variety. This is where aesthetes such as Pupul Jayakar and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay stepped in with their devotion to indigenous crafts and handlooms. They ensured that India’s socialist elite weren’t infected by the grim and grey realism of Stalin’s Soviet Union.

But, at the same time, ‘progressive’ also meant being a committed friend of the Soviet Union which all these worthies were. It meant that when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, a part of what they had lived for was lost. President Narayanan wasn’t being churlish when he gracefully questioned the unipolar world to a visiting President Clinton: he was echoing his own anguish.

What Gandhi’s book misses out is that this consensus produced its dissenters. The awkward elements weren’t packed off to a Gulag, but they were ruthlessly ostracised from an Establishment that drew its sustenance from the conviviality of the like-minded. Kriplani, for example, was barely tolerated by the ‘progressives’ and they barely protested when JP was dubbed a fascist.

The omission is striking because one of the most prominent heretics of that age happened to be Rajaji, his maternal grandfather. I would have loved to have read Gandhi’s take on the man who questioned the fundamentals of Nehruvian existence—and was vindicated by history.

I would have also loved to know why Gandhi’s roll of honour didn’t include anyone in business or involved in the generation of wealth. It might explain why this charming collection often reads like an elegy to an India that, hopefully, is history. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Who’s bigger? Message or Messenger?

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the solitary purpose of the Jan Chetna Yatra being undertaken by LK Advani was to demonstrate that the India of 2011 is markedly different from the India of 1990, it could be described as an unqualified success. Whereas in 1990 the Somnath to Ayodhya yatra was cut off in full flow at Samastipur on the orders of the Bihar Chief Minister, Advani’s fifth yatra had the satisfaction of being flagged off from Bihar by a friendlier Bihar CM.
In an ideal world, major political undertakings — irrespective of the loftiness of the cause — should not be pursued casually. For the BJP, there were other, less exacting ways of demonstrating that Nitish Kumar has been extricated from the clutches of the evil Lalu Prasad, and that 21 years is a long time in politics.
Advani must have kept in mind the experience of the Rashtra Suraksha Yatra of 2006 which was a casualty of mass indifference. The yatra had been suggested as an angry response to the blasts in Dasashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi, an issue that agitated the public mind in 2006 just as corruption does today. Yet, the yatra was a monumental flop not least because it lacked focus. Its objectives were five-fold: to safeguard national security; to defend national unity; to rescue governance from corruption and criminalisation; to save parliamentary democracy; and to protect the aam aadmi, garib and kisans.
So generous was the embrace of the yatra that an adventurous soul may well have smuggled in the demand for a Bharat Ratna to Sachin Tendulkar. No one would have noticed it, and least of all party functionaries who approached the yatra with the same sense of foreboding as the soldier who rode in the charge of the Light Brigade. But at least, it would have resonated with the “youth”—a slippery commodity that refuses to be re-inducted into a party it deserted sometime between the capitulation in Kandahar and the images of Bangaru Laxman extending his hand towards a wad of currency notes.
On this anti-corruption yatra too, the organisers have tried to inject a youth quotient by recording a theme song that had the party leadership wanting to emulate Herman Goering and reach for their guns at the mention of the word ‘culture’. Even Advani was compelled to concede during his gush-gush interview with NDTV’s Barkha Dutt that the song was best kept away from the ears of rural India — an indication that the messaging was wrong yet again.
The BJP, it would seem, has not taken sufficient care with the larger messaging of the ongoing Jan Chetna yatra. There is no point complaining that the media has been wilfully mischievous and has highlighted the footnotes rather than the central theme. During the 1990 yatra that redefined the ideological agenda for the next 15 years, the media also tried its utmost to focus on trivia.
Those with memories may recall how the offer of a bowl of blood to Advani made news for a day or two. Others may recall the suggestion of erudite Left-wing columnists that Advani’s focus on Ayodhya, rather than Mathura and Kashi stemmed from caste prejudice: Ram was Kshatriya, whereas Krishna was a Yadav and Shiv was possibly a tribal.
None of these sneering asides made the slightest difference to the central thrust of that yatra against ‘pseudo-secularism’. The question therefore arises: why has the anti-corruption theme of this yatra been subsumed by trivial issues such as the bus getting stuck under a bridge and cash incentives paid to the media in Satna? Most important, why has the central question of the yatra been transformed into the likelihood of Advani becoming the NDA candidate for Prime Minister in 2014?
The answer lies in the undeniable fact that the yatra resulted from a unilateral  initiative by Advani. It is no secret that there were many reservations over the yatra within the BJP and its larger ideological family. The party feared that the yatra would highlight the unresolved issue of leadership for 2012 and point to Advani’s determination to have another throw of the dice.
None of these fears appear to be unfounded. During his travels, Advani connects with a large number of people but the people who observe the yatra or attend the public meetings associated with it are still a small drop in the ocean of humanity in India. Most Indians derive their perception of the political programme from the media, and the message from the media is unequivocal: this is Advani’s comeback yatra, calculated to force a sceptical BJP into acknowledging his primacy. Worse still, Advani appears to have done very little to put an end to the speculation. His interviews are largely focussed on his career as a yatri and he has kept alive the speculation by refusing to rule himself out as a candidate for the top job. The impression therefore persists that the yatra is a facet of a vicious leadership battle in the BJP, not least because the focus is on Advani and not on the BJP as a brand. The public reaction, consequently, is one of amusement, if not wariness.
There was a time when the BJP earned a reputation as the master of spin and a party that is able to dictate its agenda to the media. Alas, the party has lost its sure-footedness. Its messaging for this yatra has been self-defeating.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Common Bond: Australia has the potential to attract Indian investors

By Swapan Dasgupta

After the obligatory visits to the waterfront to see Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, tourists in Sydney are encouraged to walk up George Street to the imposing Queen Victoria Building—a stylish shopping arcade where you can also treat yourself to English tea in the basement. What particularly caught my attention was a bronze statue of the old Queen at the adjoining Bicentennial Plaza. Apart from the never-amused Empress of India looking a shade younger and less grim than she does in the forecourt of Calcutta’s Victoria Memorial, the bronze is significant in one respect: Sydney is its third resting place since it was commissioned at the beginning of the previous century.

Till 1949, the bronze had occupied a pride of place outside the Legislative Assembly of Ireland in Dublin. Following the Republic’s departure from the Commonwealth, the statue had been uprooted and presumably dumped in a bronze necropolis—like the ones in Barrackpore and Coronation Park, Delhi. In 1987, Dublin offered the forgotten relic to the Government of New South Wales which, gratefully accepted, and recorded its gratitude to Ireland in a plaque on the plinth.

It is tempting for South Block, always in need of inspirational ideas, to consider whether the cause of India-Australian friendship will be enhanced by gifting a discarded imperial bronze or two to cities in Australia that missed out on some of the grander commemorative symbols of the ‘mother country’. The well-meaning gesture, unfortunately, is bound to be misconstrued in a country that continues to agonise over the Union Jack in a small corner of its national flag. What was perhaps a casual decision in 1987, dictated as much by aesthetics as a sense of history, will rekindle a debate that Australia seeks to avoid, but which resurfaces periodically in some form of another.

That Australia has been engaged in what someone once called “endlessly coming of age” may seem surprising to those who nurture stereotypes of hard-working, hard-drinking but essentially stupid and bigoted Bushmen dominating the landscape—a carryover from its origins as a penal colony. When former Prime Minister John Howard once described Sir Donald Bradman as the “greatest living Australian”, he created a problem for the PR professionals entrusted with the responsibility of selling modern Australia to the world. A sportsman could be an entertainer, an icon of popular culture but the description “greatest living Australian” was, they felt, a commentary on Australia’s unwillingness to go beyond the frontier spirit. To the cosmopolitan mindset, harking on the Don, or for that matter, on Rod Laver and referring to the Opera House irreverently as “nuns in a scrum” are about as archaic and distracting as associating modern India with maharajas, fakirs and Mother Teresa.

Since the 1970s, when Britain’s membership of the European Union and a succession of immigration laws put the Commonwealth connection in jeopardy, Australia has been mindful of the need to evolve a distinctive identity—something more meaningful than being the Britain of the southern hemisphere. The bid to grapple with what the journalist James Cameron in 1971 detected as “an identity void” often had farcical consequences: a competition to create a national anthem, a bid to create a national dress and even a serious bid to inject something called ‘mateship’ into the Australian Constitution. In 1961, on the occasion of Australia Day, a well-meaning attempt to depict authentic Australian values led to bizarre tableaux: “This had been achieved by putting up a stuffed kangaroo and emu on the right, a stuffed Aborigine on the left, and a coloured portrait of the Queen in the centre.”

Additionally, there have been attempts to rewrite history by stressing the autonomy of the Australian experience. A former Prime Minister Paul Keating who had a way with words and who was obsessed by the ‘identity’ question, tried to supplant the importance of the Anzac Day commemoration of the massacre of Australian forces in Gallipoli (in Turkey) by shifting focus to the defence of Kokoda against the Japanese invasion of then then Australia-held Papua in 1942. To Keating, the Australians who fought in Kokoda died defending not “the old world but the new world—their world.”   

Nor should these attempts to recreate a nation to correspond with contemporary priorities be mocked: India too is forever engaged in battles over history and identity and generating contested perceptions of nationhood. In coping with post-imperial realities, Australia has travelled a very long way.

First, the White Australia immigration policy that a former Prime Minister Alfred Deakin justified in 1901 as driven by a desire to create a community “inspired by the same ideas…of a people possessing the same general cast of character, tone of thought—the same Constitutional training” has been well and truly junked.  It is not that the process was without hiccups but the point to note is that in 25 years, Australia has been able to create a truly multiracial society. The debate today is not over Asian immigration but the integration of the New Australians with the rest—a battle between multiculturalism and common sense.

Secondly, along with jettisoning the White Australia policy has been an acknowledgment of the wrongs perpetrated on the Aborigines, the Old Australians. Even a casual visitor to Australia will be struck by the very conscious attempt of both state and society to include Aborigines as being crucial to the Australian experience.

Thirdly, Australia has taken important steps to make its economy more open, globalised and competitive. It is fascinating to note the similarities between the protectionist Australia of the 1980s and the India of the same period. It is even more instructive to follow the career paths of Sir Robert Menzies (Prime Minister from 1949 to 1966) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Prime Minister from 1947 to 1964). This comparison may be offensive to Nehruvians who are inclined to view Menzies as a reactionary Anglophile. However, the rich debates on political economy in both countries would suggest had Nehru been as receptive as Menzies was to combining protectionism and welfare with encouragement of the private sector, the post-Independence India story would have been more dazzling.

Finally, Australia has emerged as a middle power of consequence and seems determined to make its mark in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region. For long, India viewed this with suspicion, seeing Australia as an appendage of Anglo-American interests. This view has changed but not changed sufficiently to facilitate genuine trust. There is still a wariness centred on accumulated baggage from another age.

Australia’s muddle over its national identity has not helped matters. In seeming over anxious to establish its Asian credentials, Australia has often projected a contrived image of itself. The Anglo-Celtic and Judaeo-Christian underpinnings of Australia are acknowledged in India and respected. Indians are not disoriented by the symbolic role of the Queen, the English street names in cities, the passion for cricket, the absence of a gun culture, voluble parliamentary democracy, federalism and the rule of law. It reminds them of a common past and, in some cases, an ideal.  

There has been a spate of big ticket Indian private sector investments in Australia—mainly but not exclusively in the mining sector. This owes considerably to Australia’s favourable business environment and its non-turbulent political culture.  But it is also complemented by the fact that this is a country whose institutions and culture they are familiar with. Indians are among the largest investors in the United Kingdom for precisely these reasons. Australia can become a parallel attraction.

The Empire may be a contested legacy for both countries, but it is also a bond.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Seize the moment in Afghanistan

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Friday marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, exactly 26 days after Osama bin Laden’s jihadis destroyed the twin towers in New York and attacked the Pentagon. It was an occasion marked by umpteen “Troops out” demonstrations in Western cities and campuses—a testimony to how easily the steely determination of 2001 has yielded way to the hopeless despondency of 2011.

Yet, there were the proverbial loose ends in evidence. In a letter to The Times (London), the time honoured way of drawing attention to an issue, 19 women urged world leaders to ensure that “women’s rights are not traded away in any political settlement with the Taleban.” “You cannot make peace”, they wrote, “by leaving half the population out.”

At a time when the dominant discourse within the British establishment centres on drawing a distinction between the malevolent extremism of the Al Qaeda and the conservative traditionalism of the Taleban that basically wants to be left alone to do its own thing, it is heartening that there are people around to remind governments of the civilising mission that formed the sub-text of Operation Enduring Freedom. Just because the war hasn’t gone according to a hastily written script, does not necessarily imply that it was along a misadventure.

Today, it is only the military establishment on both sides of the Atlantic that argues against a policy of instant disengagement from Afghanistan. The so-called “gains” from last year’s “surge”, they say, must not be frittered away by any hasty withdrawal and the troops must stay in that country till 2014 at least. Predictably, this military assessment goes against the tide of popular feeling in the West. The overall consensus is that this is an unwinnable war and, as such, it is prudent to leave Afghanistan to God and anarchy.

Recent developments in Afghanistan have bolstered the arguments of those favouring a unilateral disengagement. The back channel talks with the Taleban have, quite understandably, made little progress. A Taleban convinced the West has lost the will to fight won’t be terribly accommodating; it can afford to prevaricate. More important, the Taleban has demonstrated through this year that it has the capacity to strike at will and penetrate the deepest security walls: the assassinations of Ahmad Wali Karzai and former President Rabbani and the attack on the ISAF headquarters and US Embassy tell a grim story.

The only positive outcome of the military slide is that the US has finally been forced into open acknowledgement of the fact that the preconditions of positive engagement with the Taleban won’t be possible as long as Pakistan persists with its double game. What India used to say about Pakistani sponsorship of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed is now being said by the US in the context of the Haqqani network, a group also said to be responsible for the attacks on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. In the past, when President Karzai used to point an accusing finger at Pakistan and charge it with harbouring Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, a sanctimonious West used to hurl counter-charges of corruption and nepotism at him. Now there is a subdued realisation that the concerns of the Afghan Government should also have been taken on board.

Over the past few years and more precisely since President Obama entered the White House, the importance of a Taliban-free Afghanistan has been lost sight of. The Karzai administration has a long list of shortcomings which are well known. However, it is a marked improvement from the darkness that enveloped Afghanistan from the Communist coup in 1978 to the collapse of the Taliban in 2001. These 23 years saw a once vibrant society regress into medievalism.

Since 2001, Afghanistan has come a long way, and it is important to not lose sight of the progress. The sight of nervous, sometimes trigger happy, foreign troops patrolling the streets and highways offends Afghan pride and often gives the Taleban resistance a nationalist flavour. But this is offset by the medievalism of a movement that equates women with chattel and treats ethnic minorities as targets of purification. A second Taleban government in Kabul may refrain from hosting those intent on bombing Spanish trains and the London Underground, but it will not display a similar restraint when it comes to India or, for that matter, Pakistan. The generals in Rawalpindi imagine that they control the Taleban and, therefore, by implication, will regain the strategic depth in Afghanistan. In the process, they may find that Pakistan too is a very different place.

Hitherto, India has played a modest role in Afghanistan and concentrated on good works and institution building programmes. New Delhi was always wary of overdoing things for fear that the West would see it as an attempt to replay the Indo-Pakistan game in a third country. Now with the West in retreat and Pakistan having overplayed its devilish hand, there is an opening for India. Last week’s pact with Afghanistan opens up a window of enhanced cooperation, particularly, the training of its army and police. Afghanistan wants a greater Indian role and, perhaps, a measure of involvement.

The problem isn’t India’s willingness to do its bit. It is a question of India’s ability to respond imaginatively, efficiently and, above all, discreetly. Above all, it is a question of prioritising a friend over a hostile neighbour.