Monday, February 27, 2012

Under Modi, 10 years of riot-free Gujarat

By Swapan Dasgupta

When it comes to commemorating or even celebrating anniversaries, Indians are inclined to be notoriously lax. The 50th anniversary of Indian independence in 1997 was, for example, perfunctorily observed and mainly as a sarkari celebration. The centenary of the foundation of New Delhi or, if you so wish, the loss of Calcutta’s pre-eminence in the political world, was, once again, a rarefied occasion with politicians unable to decide whether or not an imperial event should be acknowledged.

The arson attack on the Sabarmati Express in Godhra and the ensuing communal violence in Gujarat happened 10 years ago—a long enough time, going by strictly Indian standards, to leave the issue to polemicists and historians. Yet, and not surprisingly, the 10th anniversary of the Gujarat riots has become a media event or, to be more precise, an English-language media occasion. Over the past week, there have been innumerable articles on the plight of the victims, the tardy pace of the judicial process and lachrymose TV documentaries indicating that there is not enough justice to embrace Gujarat.

As is to be expected, there is an explicit political agenda behind reprinting the photograph of a trishul-brandishing, ugly rioter and Qutubuddin Ansari pleading for his life. However, what is interesting is that the hapless victims are no longer the primary focus. They have conveniently receded into the background as either lifeless statistics or labels such as Best Bakery, Gulbarga Housing Society and Naroda Patiya. Likewise, the rioters who were responsible for perpetrating beastly horrors have been reduced to a meaningless three letter word: the ‘mob’. They have lost all individual identities. Instead, the Gujarat riots have been sought to be reduced to one individual whose stern, bearded face stares at the reader and TV watcher.

To someone who didn’t live through those troubled times in 2002, it would almost seem that the rioters were personally led from the front by Narendra Modi: a khalnayak leading the flash mobs.  

There is a compelling reason why the events in Gujarat have been portrayed in this fashion. It is not politically rewarding or expedient for the ambulance chasers to recognise that Modi inherited a Gujarat that was gripped by a pre-existing communal polarisation. You had to make a casual trip to Ahmedabad in the 1980s and 1990s to realise the extent to which both Hindus and Muslims deeply felt a dread of the ‘other’. It used to be said about localities such as Juhapura in old Ahmedabad city that you had to merely cross the road for a small riot to break out and another one when you retraced your steps. Curfew was the norm in Gujarat during the days Chimanbhai Patel and others before him ruled the state. Minor riots were almost a daily occurrence ever since the big Ahmedabad riot of 1969. The historically-minded can refer to a speech made by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha in 1970 to gauge the atmospherics of that time.

The reason for referring to the state of Gujarat 10 years ago is simple: the social polarisation was conducive to permanent tension among communities. As someone who had cut his teeth politically in that environment, Modi, it can legitimately be argued, was also infected by the sectarian virus. But so, for that matter, was most of Gujarati society. The communal polarisation that contributed to feelings of suspicion and even hate pre-dated Modi’s installation as Chief Minister in 2001. Gujarat was already a communal tinderbox even before Modi was brought back to Gandhinagar from his political exile.

Acknowledging the already tense environment of Gujarat before the arson attack on kar sevaks in Godhra is problematic. It prompts the awkward conclusion that the 2002 riots were the culmination of a process that began decades ago, when successive Congress chief ministers ruled the roost. More troubling is the grim truth that dare not speak its name: that the riots were blessed with a large measure of spontaneity. In fact, they may even have had a social sanction which, as Ashis Nandy has, for example, often observed, was absent from the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi.

If the historical context of the 2002 riots is taken into account, the 10th anniversary assumes a very different significance. There may have been lapses in the rehabilitation programme (something which can’t be said for the post-earthquake reconstruction of Kutch) and there may be grounds to believe that the post-riot investigations have not always been rigorous. But this cannot distract attention from the fact that riots have not recurred in Gujarat since then, not even in old Ahmedabad. It is not that the communal polarisation has given way to inter-faith bonhomie. There are still residual tensions but these have been significantly diluted in a decade that has seen Gujarat race ahead in chase for economic growth and prosperity. The incessant curfews of yesteryear have given way to vibrant cities where citizens are no longer afraid of enjoying their post-dinner ice cream on the streets. The administration has learnt the lessons of 2002 very well.

This is why I agree that the 10th anniversary of the riots is a time for commemoration. But a different kind of observance than what the media is dishing out. It is the time to mark 10 years of a riot-free Gujarat. That in itself is a pledge that 2002 will never happen again.

Sunday Pioneer, February 26, 2012

A royal leap of faith in irreligious Britain

By Swapan Dasgupta

A delegation of British Muslims was in town last week. Meeting them, a subversive question entered my head: why do Indian universities shy away from having departments devoted to the study of religion? It is not that theology is totally absent: it fits uneasily into a larger perusal of philosophy.

“We don’t do God”, Tony Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell once barked in response to an insolent query from the media. That may well be understandable for a Britain where, as a recent survey undertaken by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science discovered, nearly half the population hadn’t attended a regular church service for the past 12 months, and where 74 per cent were opposed to religion influencing public policy.

But what about a country that counts as among the most religious. Why, despite being ‘God fearers’, does India shy away from doing God?

The question arises in the context of an engaging debate in the UK over the limits of secularisation. Firing the first salvo, Baroness Sayeda Warsi, the only Muslim member of David Cameron’s Cabinet, called on Europe to oppose a wave of “intolerant secularisation.” There is a need, she argued, “to give faith a seat at the table in public life.” Europe, she asserted before embarking on an official visit to meet Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican, must become “more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity.”

Warsi’s plea to rediscover the faith underpinnings of civilisations was echoed by, of all persons, the Queen celebrating the 60th anniversary of her reign. Repudiating the scepticism over an established Church in the 21st century, she said that the Church of England has “created an environment for other faith communities and people of no faith to live freely.” It was an assertion that bore a strong resemblance to the argument, frequently heard here, that India is free, tolerant and respectful of all faiths precisely because it is predominantly Hindu.

Both Warsi and the Queen’s robust defence of faiths had its critics. Dawkins, predictably, articulated the standard atheist argument that you couldn’t have faith in an entity whose existence was scientifically unproven. More relevant, however, was the defence of secularism by Trevor Phillips, the outspoken Commissioner of Equality. Unless religious authority ended “at the door of the temple” and gave way to “public law”, society would witness competitive sectarian identities. If Roman Catholic adoption agencies demanded that gay couples be denied the right to adopt children, what prevented Muslims from demanding they be governed by Sharia law?

Quite remarkably, Phillips was roundly denounced as having a “totalitarian” bent of mind and journeying from the sublime to the ridiculous. However, in the context of the never-ending furore over abortion rights in the US and extremist Muslim organisations in Britain demanding the right of Sharia law, his invocation of social anarchy hit very close to the bone. If faith is not to end at the “door of the temple” at which point must it terminate?

The question has often been asked in the Indian debate over religion and secularism, and it is interesting to see its replay in Britain. Yet, there are differences. If British society is becoming increasingly irreligious, the appeal of religion hasn’t suffered in India’s journey to modernity. Contrary to what Jawaharlal Nehru hoped for, the inculcation of the “scientific temper” hasn’t led to a corresponding decline in either spirituality or adherence to rituals. If churches in Britain are facing depleted congregations, places of worship in India are permanently busy and freelance spirituality is thriving.

There is a bigger difference. In India, laws are not uniformly secular. There are separate civil laws for different communities and there are constant endeavours to inject a sectarian gloss to economic policy. For all its republican ideals, India has a differentiated citizenry and there are demands for the differences to be highlighted.

Is there a conservative backlash in Europe favouring India’s hybrid secularism? The irony is that as Indian modernists aspire towards equal citizenship based on European ideals, Europe is lamenting the loss of its inner soul—what Warsi dubbed “Spirituality suppressed. Divinity downgraded.”  It’s a warning for an India that, unthinkingly, is allowing faith to become a secular concern.

Sunday Times of India, February 26, 2012 

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rahul now ready for the big fight

By Swapan Dasgupta

Elections are one occasion Indian politicians work hard, very hard. This month’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly election has witnessed the Gandhi-Vadra family doing their utmost to come to the aid of the party. Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch, has played a largely symbolic role in this election perhaps owing to her indifferent health and her known aversion to dust. But her absence has been duly compensated by the punishing schedule kept by Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul has done everything possible to transform the Assembly election into a referendum on his leadership and his ability to inherit the family mantle. From the time he accompanied former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the poverty tourism circuit two years ago, Rahul has been thinking and planning for the Assembly election. The journey from Bhatta-Parsaul, via the Bundelkhand package and the sops to weavers in eastern UP, Rahul has left no stone unturned in his bid to make a mark on India’s largest state. He has shed his hesitation with public speaking and become adept at delivering carefully scripted one-liners that have grabbed media space and made him the centre of attention. Some of the interventions may have been as puerile as his father’s ‘naani yaad’ outburst, prompting Arun Jaitley to remind him that these were not student union elections. But overall, Rahul has succeeded in making himself the foremost talking point, particularly of a media that likes to be on the right side of the first family.

The photogenic Priyanka too has done her bit holding the fort in the family estates in Amethi-Rae Barely-Sultanpur belt. With her easy style and cultivated over-familiarity with the voters, she made it clear right at the outset that this was going to be a family effort and something more than just another political campaign. For all her earlier insistence on personal privacy, she did not shy away from bringing her two children into the arena, making sure that the cameras and TV anchors got an additional talking point.

The media dutifully obliged. A description of Priyanka’s children at a rally addressed by Rahul in Amethi vividly conveyed the flavour of the family campaign:  “…11-year-old Rihaan and 9-year-old Miraya were seen hanging around the stage waiting for their uncle to arrive. During the 90-minute wait, the kids, accompanied by a nanny and Priyanka’s aide Preeti Sahay, ate chocolate, played hopscotch and collected pebbles from the ground, in full view of the press and the public.” And there was the by now famous photograph of daughter Priyanka affectionately tweaking mother Sonia’s cheek. In terms of sheer choreography, the Gandhis left other politicians gasping for breath.

Not to be left behind, Robert Vadra also joined the tamasha doing what he is best known for—riding a motorcycle. The man who once boasted that he could get elected from anywhere in India gave two interviews to the English-language media stating his situation. He proclaimed that he was there as a proverbial gatekeeper preventing despicable middlemen from getting access to the family. This prompted uncharitable comments about whether or not that implied he was constantly encountering the loathsome middlemen.

Attempting to transform the UP election into a family soap opera may well have invited criticism from the usual suspects. But there was a certain method behind the decision to keep the focus on the family. Almost all reporters who stopped at the chai shops for their quota of earthy wisdom from the rural folk were near-unanimous on count: the Gandhis had made themselves the talking point but this interest was not accompanied by any surge for the Congress. In most constituencies, the Congress lacked any rudimentary organisation to translate the obsession with the first family into votes—except in western UP where the alliance with Ajit Singh is likely come in handy. The Congress candidate, it was widely reported in the footnotes, was not in the race for first place. “We will help Rahul become Prime Minister” many tea shop loiterers announced, thereby indicating that a vote for the Congress was a post-dated cheque.

This mismatch between the buzz and ground realities appear to have hit the Congress midway into the campaign. There is now talk of the Congress going into a bout of expectation management to ensure that indifferent results don’t have an effect on either the party or the family. In case the Congress performance on counting day turns out to be lacklustre, India can expect a repetition of what Salman Khurshid had to say after the Congress’ disastrous showing in 2007: that the Congress organisation proved unworthy of Rahul!

Actually, Rahul seems guilty of a major strategic miscalculation which happens when politics is treated like a marketing exercise. He failed to read history. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi led from the front against the Left Front in the West Bengal Assembly election. He addressed large meetings, aroused the enthusiasm of the Congress campaigners and told Jyoti Basu to retire. But what he forgot was that it was an Assembly election and that people were electing a mere MLA and state government, not a MP who would help choose the Prime Minister.

A repetition of the 1987 Bengal poll should, however, not dishearten Rahul. This campaign has shown that he has a political potential that can only be tested in a parliamentary election. The opposition would be unwise to write off Rahul if he falters in UP next month.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, February 24, 2012 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Naveen hints at a new alignment

By Swapan Dasgupta

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is not known to be demonstrative. Low key and media shy, he is not careful to not say a word more than is strictly necessary. Even after three successive election victories, he remains an unknown entity to the political world outside Odisha.

Under the circumstances, Patnaik’s decision to be media-friendly last Friday to articulate his opposition to the National Counter-Terrorism Centre must be taken with exceptional seriousness. It is not merely that Patnaik was uncharacteristically loquacious and thoroughly enjoying his sharp attack on the UPA Government’s “arrogance” in not consulting the states, his intervention seemed well coordinated with the opposition expressed by Mamata Banerjee, J.Jayalalthaa and Chandrababu Naidu. It almost seemed that these non-UPA, non-NDA chief ministers and leaders had appointed Patnaik their spokesperson for taking forward the attack on the Centre for its violation of the federal spirit of the Constitution. Indeed, when directly asked by Times Now about his intervention signalling the beginning of a new grouping separate from the UPA and NDA, Patnaik indicated that it was a good idea.

Before rushing to any premature speculation about another Third Front that will replicate the United Front which emerged between 1996 and 1998, it may be instructive to look at the ground realities. Apart from Mamata who is in alliance with the Congress and whose principal opponent is the CPI(M), the others are in direct competition with either the Congress or a UPA partner. The BJP is not a major factor in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and the non-Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh. In Orissa, the BJP has a foothold in western Orissa but, as the 2009 election indicated, it is still not in a position to translate its support into seats without an alliance with the BJD.

With the BJP showing little signs of any meaningful progress in the four states, it stands to reason that the principal opponent of these regional players—who between them have the potential of winning anything between 80 and 100 seats in a future Lok Sabha election—is the Congress. The BJP may be a vocal opponent of Patnaik in Odisha but overall, it has little stake in these four states. The NDA tally in these four states in 2009 was zero.  

This has implications for the future. If the decline of the Congress witnessed in the municipal elections of Maharashtra represent a “national mood”, as suggested by Sushma Swaraj, it stands to reason that the regional grouping would be more inclined to opt for the NDA than the UPA in a post-2014 scenario.

Between 1998 and 1999, many of these regional players joined the NDA (or, in the case of the TDP, entered into an electoral alliance with the BJP) for one simple reason: the BJP under the leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee was in a position to supplement the existing support of these parties. The BJP, at that time, contributed to a significant value addition.

Tragically for the BJP this is no longer the case. Unless the ongoing Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh indicates that the BJP has reversed its steady decline, there is no earthly reason why these regional players will be inclined to enter into a formal relationship with the NDA. Nitish Kumar, a leader who could have associated with the regional bloc, remains with the NDA because an alliance with BJP yields electoral returns in Bihar. Unless the BJP can demonstrate that it counts in the four states, the prospect of any pre-poll alliance with the BJP in 2014 seems remote. In the case of Mamata, operating in a state where the Muslim electorate amounts to nearly 30 per cent, even the hint of any covert association with the BJP carries a grave risk.

It is always hazardous to forecast political developments. However, at the risk of being proven wrong, certain initial conclusions seem unavoidable. First, it is unlikely that the NDA will expand beyond its present strength. This implies that unless the BJP stages a dramatic recovery in Uttar Pradesh, the most that the NDA can hope for in 2014 is anything between 175 and 190 seats. This is likely to make it the biggest bloc in the Lok Sabha but will leave it well short of a majority. It will need the regional bloc to form a government.

Secondly, the question arises: on whose terms will such a government be formed. The NDA contains the Janata Dal (U) which should register a good performance in Bihar. Indeed, either in the form of Nitish Kumar or Sharad Yadav who is the convenor of the NDA, the NDA has an entry point into the regional bloc. But what will be terms of a settlement? Will the BJP stay out of the government to give the proverbial ‘outside support’? Or, will any settlement be thwarted if the BJP insists on having its own Prime Minister, as behoves the leader of the largest party? Alternatively, can the BJP throw up a leader who is acceptable to both the party and the regional leaders?

And, finally, depending on the outcome, what if the regional bloc ups the stakes and demands its own Prime Minister?

Consider all these possibilities and you will realise that Patnaik may have been doing more than having a ball at the expense of the media last Friday.

Sunday Pioneer, February 19, 2012 

Friday, February 17, 2012

DEMANDS OF GREATNESS - India is a long way from acquiring the attitude of a great power

By Swapan Dasgupta

The day following a car bomb in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi seriously injured an Israeli diplomat, the Police Commissioner of Delhi held a media briefing. Apart from the usual homilies about ‘pursuing all leads’ and the force doing its utmost to bring the perpetrators to justice, he issued a brief note about the “sticky bomb” that had made its explosive debut in Delhi. According to a report in the Delhi edition of Times of India, the note stated: “Sticky bombs are a type of explosives crafted from one Bomb and 5 Gel. At point blank range, it can cause a total of 100 damage to mobs and 200 to the player.” The note apparently listed a series of ‘statistics’: Damage 100, Max Stack 50, Shoot Speed 5, Use Time 24, Sell 1.

The bewildered reporter did a spot of research on the net and was aghast to discover that the note had been copy pasted from something called Terraria Wiki, a popular site for players of the on-line game Terraria.

That the police chief of India’s capital and the most high security zone in the country could actually mistake gaming instructions for the technical specifications of the sophisticated explosive that was used in the city calls defies belief. It is bad enough that the police and intelligence agencies were clueless as to which group or which foreign agency could have targeted the Israeli diplomat. What compounded the offence was the impression conveyed that the police in India are no better than a rag-tag force in Ruritania, with its ace investigators resembling Thompson and Thomson of Tintin fame. After this bizarre show of expertise it is doubtful whether Israel or any other country whose diplomats are vulnerable to terrorist attacks will feel any comfort from the Home Minister’s assurance that everything possible is being done to prevent a recurrence and that the authorities are on top of the terror threats.

Ever since a decade of impressive GDP growth statistics has removed India from the list of struggling Third World nations and cast it in the mould of an emerging superpower, there are Indians who have convinced themselves that the transition has already taken place. In their bid to talk India up and aggressively flaunt a resurgent nationalism, successive governments have contrasted the northward growth curve of this country with the southward direction of growth in the US and Europe. This has prompted the conclusion that India is ready to play a greater role in global affairs and even deserving of a permanent, veto-wielding membership of the UN Security Council.

It is not merely the boo-boo of the Delhi police chief that invites ridicule. At every stage of the way to greatness, India has been exposing its utter inability to live up to its self-professed greatness. Instead, it comes across as a nation enmeshed in ad-hocism and gripped by profound uncertainty over its own role. Whereas Great Powers are said to be blessed with nerves of steel, India is a bundle of fickleness and inconsistency.

Last month’s bloodless coup in the idyllic setting of the Maldives was yet another demonstration of the vacuous hype that surrounds Indian pretensions. For a start, India was relatively clueless of the possibility of a coup after the elected President Mohamed Nasheed ordered the arrest of a Judge who had ruled against intitating corruption proceeding against the former president M.A. Gayoom who had ruled Maldives for three decades. If the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW) had indeed submitted an essay on the coming together of Gayoom supporters and Islamist parties, it must have been unread in both South Block and the offices of the National Security Adviser.

Secondly, rather than take a principled stand frowning on the removal of a democratically-elected Nasheed at gunpoint, India rushed in with an endorsement of the new government of former Vice President Mohammed Waheed Hassan. It is not that India should have recalled its High Commissioner or done anything precipitate—like the military intervention in 1988 to foil a coup attempt against Gayoom by Tamil mercenaries from Sri Lanka—but a signal of intense displeasure and concern would have done the country’s image absolutely no harm. Instead, India wilfully left the field open for the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and the multilateral Commonwealth to step into the diplomatic void. With growing reports of Islamist activity—symbolised by the destruction of the Buddhist artefacts in the National Museum in Male—India is now ruing its diminished role in the islands it hitherto regarded as falling within its sphere of influence.

The pusillanimity that marked the handling of the Maldives crisis was not an isolated lapse. Last year, India won a two-year seat on the UN Security Council, an event celebrated in South Block as a moment of great significance and a portend of things to come. Yet, has India made a distinct mark inside this select gathering? The answer, regrettably, is a big No.

The biggest challenge that faced the Security Council and, indeed, the UN in recent times was the Arab Spring and the outpouring of democratic sentiment throughout a West Asia which had hitherto been ruled by autocrats. In Egypt, the sentiment in South Block was quite conclusively in favour of Hosni Mubarak. There was a fear, later manifested in Libya and Syria, that known devils such as Colonel Gaddafi and President Bashar al-Assad were preferable to unknown forces that any turmoil was calculated to throw up. There was some merit in this cautiousness since democracy in hitherto repressed states was likely to trigger a regressive strain of religiosity. At the same time, there was a cost to disregarding the democratic impulses altogether.

In global affairs, the world seems to be split in two broad camps. First, there is the West that uses democracy selectively, particularly to get its own back on ‘difficult’ regimes like that of Gaddafi in Libya and the one ruled over by Assad in Syria. Then there is China which uses the principle of national sovereignty to back some of the most loathsome regimes. India has tried to straddle between these two approaches using the legitimate yardstick of national interests. The most difficult balancing act was in Sri Lanka where New Delhi had to balance between a resurgent Sinhala nationalism and a brutal Tamil resistance that sought to exploit ethic solidarities in Tamil Nadu. However, in the case of other difficult situations, national interests have invariably meant economic and commercial interests.  

There is nothing to get defensive about letting money talk—both China and the West do it all the time. What necessitates a measure of introspection is the extent to which strategic interests have taken a backseat. Even in the matter of Somalian pirates, the British navy has been more pro-active.

Is this a result of calculation or merely a function of the innate inefficiency, indeed ineptitude, of the Indian state and the disinclination of its political class to view foreign policy as anything more than Pakistan? Wouldn’t it be more prudent for India to temporarily eschew grandiose schemes such as permanent membership of the Security Council until a time the country is better able to tackle the obligations that come with Great Power status?

There are lessons to be learnt from a China that wilfully kept below the power radar until it was economically in a position to be counted. More important, China used the interregnum for human capacity building. To be counted, India also needs functionaries commensurate with its aspirations. 

The Telegraph, February 17, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Why liberals love to hate Modi

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is extremely unlikely that the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s “closure report” to the Ahmedabad Magistrate’s Court on the plea to prosecute Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the 2002 riots will be the last word on the subject. If the past is any indication, the determined band of ambulance chasers that have lived off the misery of the unfortunate Muslim victims of the post-Godhra violence will avail of every legal trick in the book to keep the issue alive. The chance of the activists getting their way and getting a FIR registered against Modi may be very slim. However, that is not going to stop them from keeping the issue alive in court on one plea or another.

The important thing to remember is that no court, including the Supreme Court, has, after a decade of relentless litigation found anything to implicate Modi personally in the killings. Yes, there have been strictures, such as the latest one by the Gujarat High Court, against the administration for its sins of omission. In a way that is right because the mere fact that widespread riots did happen in the aftermath of the arson attack on the Sabarmati Express constitutes an indictment of the state government. However, there is a big difference between a state’s failure to protect the lives and property of citizens and the suggestion that the administration—from the Chief Minister and Police chief down to the local thanedar—was guilty of a criminal conspiracy to teach Muslims a lesson.

The difference matters life. For the Government’s overall failure to stop the killings citizens can react in two ways. First, they can pressure the administration to ensure that all the perpetrators of violence are identified and prosecuted. This has happened in the case of the Best Bakery case and a few others. Secondly, citizens and political parties have the right to take any failure of the administration to the arena of competitive politics. This too has happened. The riots dominated the agenda of the 2002 state Assembly election and were an undercurrent in the 2007 poll. On both occasions, Modi got a resounding endorsement from the highest court of democracy.

Indeed, it was the realisation that the Congress lacked the leadership and ability to outplay Modi in the electoral arena that triggered the attempt to defeat him through the courts. It is quite clear that the activists who have dogged Modi’s footsteps aren’t terribly interested in punishing members of the mob that attacked Gulbarg Housing Society and killing Ehsan Jaffri. That aspect of the case appears to have been conveniently forgotten. They want to somehow establish that Jaffri’s killing was the consequence of an order given by the Chief Minister. To achieve this end they have used every trick in the book, including getting a police officer to depose an imaginary accounts of a meeting—what the SIT report has diplomatically dubbed an “afterthought.” They have even undertaken a campaign of vilification against SIT members, calling into question their impartiality.

The activists’ initiatives may not have achieved the end goal but there is little doubt that they have had an effect. For a start, the preoccupation with Modi’s personal culpability has influenced the powerful liberal establishment, both in India and overseas, and cast the Chief Minister as an ogre. This in turn has diverted attention from the fact that there has been no recurrence of communal rioting in Gujarat since 2002. The past decade in Gujarat has been one of peace and very rapid economic development. In the sphere of governance, Modi’s achievements have been colossal. The people of Gujarat have long forgotten the riots—and don’t want to be reminded of them, something even the local Congress understands—but thanks to the activists the state has been portrayed as a laboratory of intolerance and regressive thought. As astute politician, Modi has managed to use this needless vilification to drum up regional pride. Yet, thanks to the demonology that has been constructed neither Modi nor Gujarat has got the necessary credit for a decade of exemplary growth.

Will this change after Modi has crossed yet another hurdle? The answer depends not merely on how Gujarat votes at the end of 2012. The real reason why Modi is being targeted isn’t because he is a regional boss of a national party. His detractors are reconciled to him playing a long innings in the state. Their fear—and I guess this is a fear shared by some BJP leaders as well—is that Modi is now for all practical purposes a national leader. If the legal assault on Modi loses momentum, nothing will stand in the way of Modi shifting his gaze to national politics where he is certain to be an inspirational figure, capable of mobilising a substantial section of the electorate exasperated by the dullness and cynicism of existing leaders.

I have little or no doubt in my mind that Modi’s popularity will exceed the present level of support for the BJP. He will galvanise a large section of those who have hitherto stayed out of politics and who regard electoral democracy as a cesspool. Modi will be the most formidable opposition to the UPA nationally. A Gandhi-Modi contest in 2014 will be absolutely riveting.

Modi has raw energy behind him. What he now needs is strategy and tactics.

Sunday Pioneer, February 12, 2012 

Is India actually in need of British patronage?

By Swapan Dasgupta

Having been a frequent traveller to London for the past 38 years, it has been interesting observing the shifting British attitudes to India and Indians.

There was a time in the mid-1970s when every Indian was eyed with suspicion as a potential illegal over-stayer by the immigration officers at Heathrow. Those were the days when the salespeople in upmarket establishments paid no heed to the shabbily dressed Indian shopper. They focussed on rich Americans, Arabs and, of course, the Japanese tourist. Sometime in the early-1980s, I recall visiting an Indian banker staying at the Savoy and being asked by the supercilious receptionist: “Does he work in the kitchen?”

All that, as they say, is history. Thanks to all the BRIC hype and the mood of gloom and doom in Britain, Indians (from India) are automatically assumed to be either IT millionaires or someone worth cultivating. The riches of India were the talk of London in the early-18th century when Lord Clive was astonished by his own moderation. Some 300 years later the wheel has turned full circle. Once again, and this time thanks in no small measure to Bollywood, India is beginning to be seen as a potential milch cow. The perception may well be grudging but is nevertheless real.

This is why Indians should be more understanding of the sense of outrage in Britain at the government’s decision to persist with its Rs 1,940 crore aid to India. The sum involved may be peanuts when compared to India’s development budget but that sum could help save many public libraries in Britain and even add to the resources available to the National Health Service. Given its parlous public finances, Britain just can’t afford to underwrite well-meaning but ineffective anti-poverty initiatives in India. The money, however small, can be better utilised in Britain, for Britons.

Why was India—with enough of its own money to burn on useless do-gooding initiatives—the biggest recipient of British aid in the first place? If the idea was to use the goodwill of generosity to influence India’s combat aircraft purchases, the ploy hasn’t worked and the British Government stands embarrassed for even suggesting it would. Why not give the aid to countries that have difficulties generating resources internally, say some.

The reason may have a lot to do with how the champions of enlightenment perceive themselves in Britain. There was a time, particularly in the heydays of Empire, when the notion of the wider good was viewed through the prism of self-interest. The creation of an elaborate railway network in India didn’t come about because the guardians of Empire wanted to promote religious pilgrimages and tourism. There were hard-nosed strategic and commercial calculations that served British investors and British industry and which were appreciated by the Indians. British development assistance serves no such purpose now. It merely makes a minusculity in Britain feel great about doing good.

It is this gratuitousness that has come to define British public attitudes in many spheres. I recently met a British diplomat who boasted having visited some 22 states in India before taking up his appointment in Delhi. His desire to look beyond the drawing rooms of Lutyens’ Delhi was admirable. But what would be the reaction if an Indian diplomat decides to spend three months traipsing around Doncaster, Scunthorpe, Swindon and Hartlepool before reporting for work at India House in Aldwych? Yes, his understanding of Britain would be enhanced considerably. He could conceivably also be the candidate of choice for the post of Aid Commissioner if India chose to re-plough the Pound 238 Million of British aid back into the disadvantaged areas of the British Isles. But since traditional diplomacy isn’t about “doing good” but promoting mundane things such as trade, culture and keeping a good table, it would be a noble wasted effort.

The problem with British aid to India is that it is misplaced. Post-colonial angst may be good for purposeful seminars involving NGOs and other international poverty brokers. However, that culture of goodness doesn’t resonate with a hard-nosed India that expects Britain to be equally hard-nosed. Good diplomacy and charity can’t go hand in hand.

Sunday Times of India, February 12, 2012 

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The new but not great Britain

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week, the British monarch celebrated the 60th anniversary of her reign. The occasion was very low-key—most of the celebrations have been planned for later in the year when the weather is far more agreeable—but many newspapers carried facsimile versions of their editions dated February 6, 1952 when the death of King George VI was announced, along with the proclamation of the 25-year-old Queen, then on a state visit to Kenya.

Leafing through the pages of the Daily Telegraph, an establishment newspaper with a commitment to the Conservative Party, what struck me immediately is the extent to which the British people dress differently today. The crowds 60 years ago wore jackets and ties and their heads were covered with the ubiquitous hat. As I moved through the streets of central London, the men who wore jackets and ties were in a clear minority and the felt hat has more or less disappeared. Indeed, as the Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum complained in a letter to a newspaper last week, wearing a tie to work ran the risk of being mistaken for a security guard.

In 60 years Britain has changed unrecognisably. Today’s Britain bears little or no resemblance to the country so lovingly depicted in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse—a Britain we in India loved to hold up as a model. Last month, to cite a random example, at a small dinner in Delhi attended by a member of Her Majesty’s Government the talk inevitable veered to Downton Abbey, a TV serial that has become quite a rage on both sides of the Atlantic. Disagreeing with the overall appreciation of this period drama set in a stately home around the Great War, the Briton said that he had a very different take: “Downton Abbey reinforces the idea of Britain as a class ridden and hierarchical society. It is very removed from the new Britain that we seek to project.”  

An embarrassed silence filled the room. Whatever happened, the Indians in the room silently wondered, to the Britain we knew and admired? Was a new European Union earnestness that is a hallmark of the Scandinavians replacing the old fashioned British irreverence? Indians, at least those of a particular class, have never been uneasy with the British preoccupation with class and the country’s many little snobberies. Indeed, these have fitted in well with our own hierarchical systems. Downton Abbey was well liked because, apart from the sheer majesty of a lavish production, it corresponded to the many little codes governing social behaviour. In India people can still be honest about what they really feel; in Britain, a contemporary version of correctness appears to have killed spontaneity. I guess one of the reasons the gaffe-prone Duke of Edinburgh is regarded as a “national treasure” at 90 is because he is unafraid to speak his mind. There is too much self-censorship in Britain—particularly on subjects connected with class, gender, race and even religion.

In their own way David Cameron and the Church of England epitomise the problem. To his credit, Cameron has contributed immeasurably to making the Conservative Party electable after a long spell in the wilderness during the Blair decade. But this transformation has been achieved, not by convincing a larger section of the electorate that the Tory Party has something meaningful to say, but by making the political culture of conservatism more palatable. It is not the people that has changed and become more appreciative of conservatism but that conservatism has become more people-friendly. This is not necessarily an indictment of Cameron but merely recognition that he is not a conviction politician. “Doing the right thing” is a phrase that is associated with the British Prime Minister. Yet, its meaning is wonderfully negotiable.

It is the moral dimension that has changed dramatically in the past 60 years. Before the Empire became a term of abuse, it was also associated with enterprise and character. The Church of England, often mocked for being the “Tory Party in prayer”, provided a moral backbone to national life. No longer. If there is one institution that is disoriented and in decline, it is the Church of England. It is not merely the fall in congregations that should be of concern. Far more galling is the CoE’s misreading of its role. From a position of social aloofness it now increasingly resembles either a wing of Oxfam or an outpost of Latin American-style Liberation theology. This repositioning in favour of the vulnerable and marginalised has been at the cost of “middle England”. The Bishops in the House of Lords now routinely obstruct all government initiatives to reform the welfare system and make work more rewarding than the dole. Ironically, the only Bishop who sounds authentic is the Uganda-born Archbishop of York, a black man The Spectator has endorsed for promotion to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The most profound change in Elizabethan Britain is the attitude to entrepreneurship and success. Britain is so anxious to redefine itself and craft out a new country that it has made envy a national preoccupation. There are just too many hate figures in Britain: bankers top the list but foreigner fat cats, ‘bosses’, ‘toffs’ and other social caricatures aren’t too far behind.

In 60 years, Britain has moved from stodgy deference to vulgar insolence, as epitomised by last summer’s riots. It is not a happy sight. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, February 9, 2012

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Arrogant Congress bent on harakiri

By Swapan Dasgupta

There were many long faces in Whitehall last week at the news that the Government of India had chosen to purchase fighter aircraft from the French rather than the European consortium which included Britain. British Prime Minister David Cameron who had set great store in the “enhanced partnership” with India was widely berated in the British media for a “botched” initiative that had included persisting with aid to an India that didn’t really want it.

Amid this despondency, it was refreshing to hear a contrarian view from a British civil servant with long experience in dealing with India. He viewed the Indian decision on combat aircraft purchases as unfortunate, but entirely understandable. The French bid, he explained, was nominally cheaper. “In this climate of anti-corruption, did you really expect India to go for the more expensive aircraft? No Indian will be penalised for opting for the cheaper bid.”

His logic was faultless and, coming in the wake of the Supreme Court verdict cancelling the 2-G licences, was also astute. In India, there may well be scepticism over the long-term impact on the judgment. Will it really help to curb corruption or at least bring it down to more manageable levels? Cynical Indians will reply with a categorical “No” but outsiders will be inclined to take a more charitable view. Indian ministers, they may well have concluded, can no longer afford to be as brazen as the hapless A.Raja. From now on, at least until the dust settles, they will be inclined to be far more careful.

This is really the issue at the heart of the 2-G judgment. It is rare for the apex court to debunk an entire policy of the Government as being born of mala-fide considerations. It is equally rare for the Supreme Court to cloak an entire policy of the Government in the cloak of criminality. But this is precisely what the Supreme Court has done: dubbed policy making in the telecom sector a criminal enterprise and against national interests.

All the sophistry of the Congress’ lawyer-turned-politicians will not be able to obfuscate this grim reality. Of course the judgment was against a policy and didn’t specify individual culpability. But since policies don’t emerge from thin air or by the grace of God but are entirely man made, it necessarily follows that the court judgment constitutes a damning indictment of the integrity of the decision-makers. In even more blunt terms the judgment was an indictment of the Manmohan Singh Cabinet.

True, there will be a spirited debate over which ministers were particularly culpable. Was the Prime Minister’s Office guilty of omission or commission? Did the Finance Minister condone his colleague’s wilful short-changing of the public exchequer? Was the first-come-first-serve approach a mere fig leaf for the institutionalisation of crony capitalism? These, and similar questions will be the subject of CBI inquiries and criminal prosecutions in the coming days.

The question is: will the assault on the Government’s credibility over the 2-G scandal force a change in the culture of decision-making? Or will a good performance by the Congress in the state Assembly elections be taken to mean that it is not the judiciary but voters who will judge the quantum of illegality. If the Congress performs creditably, will the Government claim that it has been exonerated in the court of the people?

The initial signs are not encouraging. The Congress has reacted to the unfavourable judgment by trying to appear unfazed and even claiming that the Supreme Court has actually pilloried the NDA Government which demitted office in May 2004. Some of this bravado can be explained by the imperatives of an ongoing election campaign—dejection at the top, it is said, leads to demoralisation at the grassroots. Yet, what is regrettable is that the Congress has not shown even an iota of contrition.

The Indian electorate is quite forgiving if the guilty party goes before with folded hands and an apology. For all its transgressions, the Congress is remarkably lucky that it has Manmohan Singh at the helm. This is because the main charge against the Prime Minister is not that he was caught with his hands in the till but that he wilfully chose to look the other way while some of his colleagues systematically drained the exchequer of billions of rupees. The popular gripe is not against a dishonest Prime Minister but a weak Prime Minister who has allowed the country to be taken for a ride by venal colleagues and coalition partners.

These circumstances don’t exonerate the Prime Minister. Indeed, history is likely to judge him very harshly but at the full extent of popular fury and disgust will not directed against him—as happened to Rajiv Gandhi during the Bofors controversy—because he still retains the image of innate decency. Had the Congress been wise, it would have advised the Prime Minister to offer a mealy-mouthed apology to the nation. By choosing to brazen it out with the assistance of glib lawyers, the party may have told the electorate that being in power means never having to say you are sorry.

At a time India needs reassurance about the future to digest the anger with the past, the Congress is hell bent on flaunting its arrogance. India’s largest political party seems determined to pursue a suicidal course.

Sunday Pioneer, February 5, 2012 

Friday, February 03, 2012

COMPETITIVE HURT - Progress and regression go hand in hand in the Rushdie affair

By Swapan Dasgupta
There was a curious sidelight to the furore over Salman Rushdie’s inability to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival last month: the overall reluctance of politicians to jump into the controversy.

Apart from Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot who got into a mighty muddle over whether the state government had gathered the intelligence input about the assassin sent to target Rushdie or had merely responded to an alert from Delhi, there were few voices from the Congress Party. Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi rarely speak on live issues and so their silence was predictable. But the English-speaking ‘liberals’ of the party like Kapil Sibal and Salman Khurshid who are forever willing to engage with Karan Thapar on TV were, curiously, otherwise engaged.

The primary objective of the Congress was to somehow ensure that the anger of a section of the Muslim community at the likely presence of Rushdie in Jaipur did not become a community grievance. At the same time, the Congress did not want to be seen to be directing an operation that would result in Rushdie’s exclusion. It sought to avert at all costs a Muslim mobilisation of the kind witnessed during the campaign against Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata. The entire operation called for duplicity, deniability and subterfuge, attributes that were much in evidence during the course of Operation Stop Rushdie.

Remarkably, for a party that was the real beneficiary of Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to ban Satanic Verses in 1988, the BJP treated this year’s Jaipur controversy quite casually. Despite the party spokesman’s clever observation that the Government and the indignant Muslim leaders had indulged in “match fixing” to ensure Rushdie’s voice was not heard in Jaipur, the BJP didn’t take up the issue with any measure of seriousness. On the contrary, individual members of its Minorities Cell were extremely supportive of the clerics and small town publicists who saw in the Rushdie affair an opportunity to flex their sectarian muscles.

To many of the liberals worried about the implications of opposing a Muslim community demand, the absence of the BJP from the battleground was both a surprise and a relief. The surprise was warranted because the BJP rarely loses an opportunity to berate the Congress for pandering to the most reactionary elements in the Muslim community. Indeed, people have come to expect the BJP to be combative in its opposition to sectarian ‘minorityism’ and were surprised by the relative timidity of its approach.

The surprise was unwarranted. In 1988, when the BJP protested against the peremptory ban on Satanic Verses, it was part of a larger critique of secularism, or ‘pseudo-secularism’ as L.K. Advani called it. Implicit in that engagement was the contention that the political establishment was guilty of ‘double standards’ by pandering to Muslim vote banks. A greater degree of even-handedness, it was implied, could be injected into the system if organised Muslim lobbies could be neutralised by the emergence of Hindu voting clout. In other words, secularism could be restored to its pristine purity when the majority community could rise up and say ‘enough is enough’.

It was the disarming simplicity of a big idea that propelled the creation of a Hindu vote bank of sorts in the election of 1991. Although identified with the electoral fortunes of the BJP, the Hindu quotient in electoral politics has moved in an autonomous direction. As of today, the central idea behind it is neither the creation of a Hindu rashtra nor the decimation of the Muslim communities but a simple desire to not be taken for granted. It is this inherent passivity underlying the seeming activism that explains why the Hindu vote bank has been a potential, rather than real, force. The BJP may be the preferred party of those who vote with an eye on Hindu self-interest but it is by no means the only party. Very often the Congress, regional parties and even the CPI(M) in Kerala manage to get a look in.

The unique nature of political Hindu consciousness may help to explain why the countervailing force to offset minority sectarianism has been so sporadic. In the aftermath of the Ayodhya agitation, the high point of Hindu activism, there have been few national issues that have captured the imagination of the majority community. The activities of the Sri Ram Sene in Karnataka and the Bajrang Dal may have grabbed the media headlines on occasions and the artist M.F. Hussein may have been hounded out of India by a determined band of Hindu activists. But these actions have rarely, if ever, secured widespread approval of those whose politics are shaped with one eye to Hindu interests.

For the BJP, fringe Hindu activism has actually posed a great deal of irritation. In 1988, Hindu nationalism occupied the high moral ground because it stood for the rights of a community whose existence and legitimacy was being doubted and questioned by the political establishment. It may also be recalled that one of the very first acts of the NDA Government after assuming power in 1998 was to issue Rushdie a visa to travel to India—a right that had been taken away from him for nearly a decade after the banning of Satanic Verses.

In 2012, however, it was a different picture altogether. After many of its activists dabbled in the campaign against Hussein and the student wing of the RSS got entangled in the spirited controversy over the exclusion of A.K. Ramanujan’s academic essay on the Ramayana from the Delhi University history syllabus, the party has found itself bereft of legitimacy to really stand up for Rushdie’s right of free speech. Having protested on a number of occasion against writers and artists “hurting Hindu sentiments”, the BJP could hardly contend that the perceived hurt of Muslim sentiments should be ignored in the name of either free speech or artistic freedom.

It is my guess that the Congress gauged the inability or unwillingness of the BJP to get too involved in the Rushdie affair, more so because the issue didn’t involve Hindus as Hindus. Indeed, the BJP was more interested in seeing whether the Congress ingratiated itself sufficiently with the Muslim clerics or alienated itself more from a liberal intelligentsia that has often been used as a battering ram against Hindu nationalism.

The net effect of last month’s fuss over Rushdie is not good for India. There is an emerging consensus that a profoundly religious country such as India cannot afford to have an excessively generous view of creative freedom and that the liberties enshrined in the Constitution must be offset against prevailing perceptions of what Roger Scruton once described as “common decencies”. In other words, if Hussein was guilty of offence, Rushdie too must be held guilty of the same misdemeanour. The floodgates of competitive hurt have been opened and it is likely the waters may come to submerge social practices and lifestyles. Events such as the Jaipur Literature Festival which have thrived on the strength of India’s relatively open society may find that they will need to enter into political calculations before issuing letters of invitation to writers.

This is a monumental tragedy. In the past, it was widely believed that a combination of prosperity and education would strengthen openness and democracy. India has suggested that this need not be so—although it will not be the first country to demonstrate that progress and regression also go hand in hand. At a time when the prevailing trend is for the bar of tolerance and diversity to be progressively raised, India is discovering a new normal based on exaggerated prickliness. 

The Telegraph, February 3, 2012