Saturday, March 31, 2012

Army chief has done nation a service

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is to the credit of India’s Defence Minister—the man who has earned for himself the lofty title of Saint Antony—that he resisted the clamour of many parliamentarians to either sack Army chief V.K. Singh or order him to take compulsory leave pending retirement in eight weeks. It is said that Antony told indignant Cabinet colleagues that he did not want “blood on his hands.”

Antony’s act of statesmanship plus his very belated decision to order a CBI inquiry into the accusations levelled by the Army chief against a retired officer and the associated murkiness centred on the purchase of heavy vehicles has at least lowered the temperature. At the same time, it has brought into the public domain another potential defence scandal which, if it plays out, may have damaging consequences for the government.

True, the controversy over the Army chief’s allegations have not yet reached the emotive heights of the furore over the Bofors artillery guns. But that is not because the charges are trivial or born out of self-centredness. When it comes to matters concerning the armed forces, the Indian political class still exercises exemplary restraint—even if some MPs broke that understanding and demanded General Singh’s immediate dismissal.

That restraint is complemented by the all-round acknowledgement of Antony’s personal integrity. Antony may well be charged with procrastination and even indecisiveness but few will argue that he is guided by base, pecuniary considerations. Both Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi should thank their lucky stars that General Singh was reporting to Antony. Any other person in the Raksha Mantri’s chair and the muck would have well and truly hit the ceiling.

The chances of that happening cannot be entirely discounted, particularly if the CBI departs from its usual ways and actually applies its mind to getting to the bottom of the grave charges relating to the sale of Tatra trucks. Prima facie, there appears to be something odd about a Czech-based, NRI-owned company exercising a complete 20-year monopoly over the supply of trucks to the army. That the imports were routed through a public sector company does not lessen the suspicion: it merely suggests that the tentacles of the arrangement go beyond the army and embrace a section of the civilian bureaucracy.

A proper inquiry into the shadowy world of defence contracts may reveal a great deal that could even startle India’s already cynical citizenry. Certainly, emerging tit-bits of information about front companies claiming to be what they are not, supplies routed through bodies specialising in escort services, and compromised diplomats and babus serve to confirm the impression that General Singh did the nation a great service by making the charges public.

On his part, and despite his initial emulation of Gandhiji’s three monkeys, we should be grateful to Antony for at least acknowledging that there is some possible evil in the world and ordering an inquiry. Only relentless public and political pressure will now ensure that the inquiry is conducted with seriousness and doesn’t become an opportunity to fudge the real issues.

The desperation on the part of those who have something to hide to keep the focus on General Singh prompted the leak of his state-of-defence-preparedness letter to the Prime Minister. If the investigators are serious, it shouldn’t take them too long to narrow the suspects to a handful of individuals. This, in turn, should provide revealing answers as to why they were so driven to engineer a situation whereby General Singh’s continuation in office would become the central issue of the controversy.  

Yet, even a leak of this most privileged of communications has its upside. The country is now aware that India’s defence preparedness to meet external threats is abysmal, and that procrastination over the purchase of military hardware has made the country vulnerable. The fact that the Army chief’s assessment corresponds to what strategic experts have long been saying must not prompt a so-what-is-new response. There is a difference between a TV pundit saying that India is unprepared to meet threats and the Army chief asserting quite independently that this is indeed so.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Defence Minister can run away from answering this grave charge. Defence is the largest head of expenditure in the Union Budget and, so far, the unwritten political convention is that the budgetary allotment for defence is passed without any discussion. This implies that both the nation and Parliament have reposed blind trust in the Government to do whatever is necessary to protect India. If, despite this large expenditure, the Army chief complains about lack of ammunition and obsolescent equipment, it suggests that the Defence Minister has failed in his responsibilities. If, on top of these problems of hardware, there is evidence that the corruption that has sullied India’s attempts at governance has also started affecting decision-making in the Defence Ministry, there is every cause to question the legitimacy of the sainthood that has been conferred on Antony.

Every democratic country expects its ministers to live up the trust that has been reposed on them by the people. In his long political life, Antony has shown he is a good man and the country must admire his ability to remain good amid an overall climate of murkiness. But being good doesn’t mean that a minister should be content just being good. Antony has failed the test of effectiveness.

Sunday Pioneer, April 1, 2012 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

SHARING THE ROT - Corruption is now evenly spread among Indian political parties

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this week members of the Lok Sabha cutting across party lines were incensed by speeches made at Anna Hazare’s rally in Delhi’s Janatar Mantar last Sunday. If the angry interventions by the Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj, National Democratic Alliance convenor Sharad Yadav and Congress backbencher Sanjay Nirupam were anything to go by, MPs felt they were being caricatured and vilified by over-sanctimonious representatives of ‘civil society’ who wanted to enjoy power sans responsibility. Moved by the anger of the elected representatives, the Lok Sabha carried a ‘sense of the House’ resolution censuring members of Team Anna who, it would seem, were also itching for a fight that would pit politicians against the anti-corruption crusaders.

The social media isn’t entirely an accurate representation of the true feelings of the Man from Matunga. In India, the barrier imposed by the English language has ensured that this new form of individual and collective expression remains, by and large, an instrument in the hands of the educated middle classes. Yet, despite its social limitations, it is noteworthy that the indignation of the MPs found almost zero support among the ‘twitterati’. Instead, the general disdain for politicians articulated by the likes of Team Anna member Arvind Kejriwal was multiplied many times over in Twitter messages and Facebook postings.

It is always hazardous to draw profound sociological conclusions from this mismatch of perceptions. The improved turnout at the recently-concluded elections to five State Assemblies would suggest that despite misgivings over the integrity of their elected representatives, the people of India are in no mood to jettison parliamentary democracy and take recourse to non-Constitutional means to effect change. There is precious little in the political conduct of the Indian people that is likely to give encouragement to radical dissidents such as Arundhati Roy and armed Maoists who claim to speak for the people. 

At the same time, there are reasons for those who have a stake in the future of India to be concerned over the creeping de-legitimisation of the political system. Arguably, this is not a new phenomenon. The years following Indira Gandhi’s massive election victories in 1971 and 1972 saw a significant rise in middle class unrest. The stir had its roots in both the failure of the Congress variety of socialism and the associated rise in corruption. The phenomenon was repeated in the period 1987-89 when Rajiv Gandhi’s ‘Mr Clean’ image was badly tarnished by the Bofors scandal and its attempted cover-up.

During both spells of breakdown in popular confidence in the elected government there was a perceptional difference between the classes and the masses. There was an Indian Establishment that coupled its concern over political uncertainty with faith in the Prime Minister and the ruling party. Its stabilising endeavours were, however, offset by a willingness of a large section of the middle classes to repose faith in either Jayaprakash Narayan’s movement or the Opposition grouping around Vishwanath Pratap Singh. In other words, every political crisis since the 1970s produced an alternative beacon of hope.

What should concern the custodians of national interest in India is not merely the state of rot in the Congress Party or evidence that a bunch of manipulative sharks have the ability to give a bad name to economic liberalisation. Equally alarming is the mounting evidence that the mood of cynicism, bordering on arrogance, isn’t confined to the ruling party alone: it has both infected and debilitated the Opposition. The belief that things will get better if the present government is booted out and replaced by relatively untainted people is proving to be increasingly unrealistic.  

What has made a world of difference is the termination of the Congress’ monopoly of political power. At one time, the Congress controlled the entire system and managed a network of patronage that began in the Prime Minister’s Office and worked its way down to the lowest rung of democracy. The process incorporated the institutions of government both at the Centre and the states, the public sector and even a struggling private sector. To be a ‘fixer’ in the early-1970s, a person had to be well plugged into the Congress Party in its entirety and the bureaucracy. The Opposition parties did occasionally manage crumbs—mainly to offset their nuisance value—but it is no exaggeration to say that parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the various offshoots of Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist movement operated on shoe-string budgets and were disproportionately dependant on modest contributions from members and sympathisers. It is also a fact that the non-Congress parties were far more conscious of the need to extract full mileage from every rupee spent on elections. By contrast, the Congress could always bank on an unending supply of funds.

The real test of integrity, a veteran politician once told me, is dependent on opportunities. “A man may be honest because he has had no opportunity to be dishonest. The real test is to see how he reacts in the face of temptation.”  

Since 1991, Indian politics has witnessed three significant changes. First, the Congress’ monopoly over power at all levels is a thing of the past. Parties such as the BJP and regional parties are well entrenched and in command of the states. Secondly, the removal of the licence-permit-quota raj after 1991 devolved a great deal of economic decision-making to the states. Indeed, states now began competing among themselves to attract investments leading to a new regime of sops and incentives. Finally, the two decades of liberalisation have produced areas of spectacularly high growth and patches of obscene prosperity. Although inequality and unemployment persists, there is more money floating about the country than at any time before. Mining and real estate in particular are witnessing a boom, and local politicians have been quick to exploit opportunities from the lease of mines and the conversion of land use.

One of the emerging features of India’s political economy is the connection between corruption and prosperity: the higher the growth rates the more rewarding is political life. The real cost of elections, in turn, are linked to the relative levels of prosperity. Elections in Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and the North-eastern states are still relatively low cost compared to the southern states (minus Kerala), Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and even Rajasthan. Among the high growth states, only Gujarat has been able to escape the insidious consequences of big money power—and that has to do with Narendra Modi converting Assembly elections into a de-facto referendum on himself.  

The net effect of these larger economic shifts is that it has boosted competitive politics and created a level playing field for all the major parties. The group that is not in power at the Centre is not automatically disadvantaged by its inability to wield national power. Marginalisation in Delhi is compensated by wielding power in the states.

In psychological terms, the hunger to replace a decrepit regime at the Centre has waned in the opposition ranks. The BJP, for example, is becoming less and less capable of popular mobilisation for the simple reason that its survival no longer depends on winning power everywhere. As long as it can hold on to some important states, its leaders are content.

In today’s India, corruption has become more evenly spread among political parties. This may explain why there is a political consensus against those in civil society who want to disrupt the cosy, new normal.

The Telegraph, March 30, 2012 

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A friendly neighbour's betrayal

By Swapan Dasgupta

From the late-1980s till the end of the long civil war in 2009, travelling to Colombo was both a joyous and deeply depressing experience. The happiness came from the warmth and generous hospitality of the Sri Lankans, particularly the residents of Colombo-7 who opened their doors to a Bengali. Legend has it that that Vijaya, the first king of the Sinhalese, came by sea from Bengal.

But this welcome was always tempered by sadness. Many of those with whom I had struck an instant rapport were dead—killed by an assassin’s bullet or a bomb explosion. Their faces still haunt me: Lalith Athulathmudali, one of the most erudite and clever politicians I have encountered; Ranjan Wijeratne, the fiercely outspoken ex-planter; the soft-spoken Tamil constitutional lawyer Neelam Tiruchelvam; and the genial TULF leader A. Amirthalingam whose blood-splattered residence I visited just an hour after he was gunned down. Although Lalith’s murder remains an enduring mystery, the others were all killed by the most vicious terrorist organisations ever created: the LTTE.

Those who haven’t experienced Sri Lanka of those days will never fully comprehend the colossal tragedy of an idyllic island being transformed into the killing fields. Nor will they gauge the horrifying extent to which the LTTE transformed large numbers of a hitherto docile, industrious and peaceable community of Tamils into carbon copies of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Under the one-party state envisaged by LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, Tamils of the Northern and Eastern provinces had two choices: acquiescence or death. The LTTE didn’t merely kill prominent Sinhalas and Rajiv Gandhi: it eliminated almost every Tamil opposed to it and hounded the Tamil middle classes out of its barbaric Eelam and, indeed, out of Sri Lanka.

Life in South Asia is said to be cheap. The LTTE made it worthless in Sri Lanka. By the middle of the civil war, brutalisation had become the norm in the island that once symbolised serendipity. Tamils killed Tamils, Sinhalas killed Sinhalas, and they both killed each other with a staggering degree of recklessness. When the civil war erupted the Sri Lankan army was essentially a ceremonial force. By the time it dispensed with Prabhakaran’s Tigers in 2009, it had become a redoubtable fighting force.

Of course there was spectacular brutality in the last days of the civil war and civilian casualties were staggeringly high. But ask any IPKF veteran and you will know that the LTTE never distinguished between its fighters and ordinary women and children. Indeed, many of those women and children in civilian clothes turned out to be hardened LTTE fighters. The suicide bomber was the creation of the LTTE well before the Al Qaeda had become a global menace and so was the human shield behind which the Tigers operated.

This is not to justify the trigger-happiness of the Sri Lankan in the last days of the civil when a reported 40,000 civilians were killed. It is merely to indicate that there was a context to the viciousness of the war—as vicious as the last months of the war against Germany during World War II. The human rights lobby that secured the condemnation of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Commission debate last Thursday cited civilised niceties and international law to pour scorn on a small country. They didn’t take into account that what happened in the summer of 2009 wasn’t military action against unarmed civilian demonstrators—as happened during the initial stages of the Syrian uprising—but an ugly war.

What is particularly galling is India’s effrontery in voting against Sri Lanka. If any country was secretly delighted and relieved that Colombo had finally put an end to the LTTE menace, it was India. India, after all, had nurtured the LTTE—one of Indira Gandhi’s most short-sighted and cynical moves—before realising that it had created a monster that was potentially capable of infecting Tamil Nadu with its poison. Yet, for the sake of his government’s survival, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meekly acquiesced in the condemnation of a country that had preserved itself against overwhelming odds.

India’s vote was a colossal betrayal of a country that is trying hard to forget the past and begin afresh. 

Sunday Times of India, March 25, 2012

BJP embarrassed by blabbering bra

By Swapan Dasgupta

The BJP has reason to be enormously grateful to its senior leader Yashwant Sinha for his outburst at the parliamentary party meeting last Tuesday. Without Sinha’s forceful protest, it is possible that the covert deal struck between NRI ‘businessman’ Anshuman Mishra and a section of the party’s national leadership would have led to Jharkhand electing another political carpetbagger to the Rajya Sabha, this time courtesy the BJP.
Over the past few days, particularly after an embarrassed BJP was forced to disown this backdoor arrangement and advise its MLAs to abstain from voting, a visibly upset Mishra has made numerous TV appearances. His utterances have been extremely revealing and have confirmed many of the whispers that have been doing the rounds of the BJP headquarters in Lutyens’ Delhi.
First, Mishra’s candidature as an Independent had the blessings and active support of the BJP national president Nitin Gadkari and a few others. Apart from his nomination papers being signed by BJP MLAs, Mishra was even accompanied by a full-time Sangathan Mantri for Jharkhand and Odisha. None of this would have been possible without a signal from the very top.
Second, Mishra’s candidature wasn’t approved by the BJP Parliamentary Board but was a private arrangement. This in turn raises the question: What was so special about Mishra that he had to be somehow accommodated, if necessary by stealth?
Third, contrary to Mishra’s initial suggestion that he personified youthful urges in the BJP, it now turns out that he was — by his own admission — a facilitator between businessmen needing political assistance and the BJP leadership. His claim of being asked to arrange meetings between telecom companies and the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee investigating the 2G scam is calculated to create a political storm. The Congress is unlikely to let go of a wonderful opportunity to target a top leader of the BJP.
Mishra has asserted that he is no paratrooper from London but someone who has apparently funded the BJP over the years. It is not clear whether the funds were for the party or for individual war chests — an important distinction.
What was the source of this funding? Far from running some self-generating enterprise with a large disposable surplus that permits him to indulge his ideological fantasies, Mishra’s area of specialisation (as evidenced by his true confessions on TV) seems to have been confined to bringing businessmen and BJP politicians together. In the West, such facilitators are called lobbyists or liaison men. In India, the vernacular translation of middlemen is the preferred usage.
The answers to many of these questions will forever be anecdotal, unverifiable and, occasionally, a bit fanciful. However, what could well be irrefutable is the belief that the quality of Indian politics isn’t enhanced if individuals such as Mishra are allowed by the national political parties to inveigle their way into the Rajya Sabha. It speaks volumes for the value system of individuals in the top brass of the BJP that they didn’t think that seats-for-donations constitutes a violation of the trust reposed in them by millions of ordinary people attached to the party.
Anshuman Mishra has exposed himself for what he is — a spoilt brat inclined to pursue a scorched earth policy now that he has been deprived of a club membership he imagined had been paid for. But those who have permitted the entry of individuals like Mishra into the world of politics are now disingenuously feigning innocence. As much as the NRI loudmouth, it is the sponsors of creatures such as Mishra who must be called upon to answer.
It should be recalled that a few years ago the BJP also covertly sponsored the candidature of one of its less wholesome members as an Independent candidate for a Rajya Sabha seat from Uttar Pradesh. The man reportedly spent a fortune trying to incentivise MLAs into supporting him. The endeavour failed but the gentleman remains in the BJP, occupying positions of responsibility during elections and cutting deals with top leaders.
The debasement of the political space isn’t a monopoly of the BJP. The Congress is still well ahead in the race. But the mere fact that the BJP is being spoken in the same breath as its principal opponent is revealing. There was once a simple-minded innocence about the BJP that made it very attractive for those who valued wholesome public life. The BJP was, as LK Advani used to say, the AK Hangal of politics.
In attempting to update itself, the BJP has fallen prey to amoral vulgarisation. Today, leadership brings with it certain privileges that many cannot do without. If they had paid for an opulent lifestyle through honestly-earned, tax-paid incomes, no one need have complained. But they expect someone else to bankroll them. Hence the importance of fixers in a system based on freebies and chartered private aircraft. But since there is never anything like a free lunch, the leaders shouldn’t be outraged when a bill is presented to them before Rajya Sabha elections.
One of the consequences of the fragmentation of political power is that dalals are no longer confined to the ruling party; the Opposition wields enough clout to make its presence felt. This is why an election defeat no longer leaves politicians shattered. This may explain why the hunger to reclaim political power is missing in the BJP. Being in opposition can be cosy too.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Foreign affairs gone local

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, New Delhi witnessed the release of a quasi-official report entitled ‘Non-Alignment 2.0’. The report attempted to set out the broad contours of a foreign policy doctrine that would indicate carrying forward the contested legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru and, for good measure, his foremost gladiator V.K. Krishna Menon.

Regardless of the understandable wariness of some members of the committee to be typecast and slotted into a compartment, the driving force behind Non-Alignment 2.0 was explicitly political. First, it was aimed as a soft answer to those, notably in the Congress and Left parties, who have aired their misgivings of a definite pro-US tilt in foreign policy. Secondly—and this is being spoken of openly by members of India’s rarefied ‘strategic community’—Non-Alignment 2.0 is said to provide an intellectual foundation for a post-Manmohan Singh approach to foreign policy by the Congress establishment. It was, to put it bluntly, aimed as a policy primer for the Congress’ designated heir apparent, an attempt to inject his candidature with a cerebral gloss.

According to the report, a future policy of India must be centred on three “core objectives”. “to ensure that India did not define its national interest or approach to world politics in terms of ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere; that India retained maximum strategic autonomy to pursue its development goals; and that India worked to build national power as the foundation for creating a just and equitable world order.”

It is unlikely that too many people will find the proposed thrust towards “strategic autonomy” and “national power” objectionable, even if they feel that linking common sense to the chequered history of Nehruvian non-alignment is gratuitous. That India must take decisions based on enlightened self-interest, rather than ideological grandstanding, is obvious but a point worth re-stating. Equally, it is crucial to emphasise that any visionary scheme to right all the accumulated wrongs of the world cannot be contemplated unless India lives up to its potential as an emerging economic power.

Perhaps India needs to remind itself that the preachiness of Nehru and Menon were often seen as presumptuous because New Delhi’s ‘national power’ was purely notional. It had become a euphemism for sloth, incompetence and flawed decisions based on “ideologies and goals that had been set elsewhere.” A country that led a “ship-to-mouth” existence in the 1960s had no credible basis to pontificate on the immorality of US policy during the Cold War. Nor is the historical baggage associated with ‘national power’ enhanced by the revelation in the Mitrokhin Archive that there was a queue of ministers in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet outside the Soviet embassy offering confidential government papers.

The past history of Indian non-alignment, it is clear, does not inspire automatic confidence in the ability of this doctrine to serve as a guiding light for the challenges of the 21st century. But even if, for the sake of argument, we are able to disentangle historical baggage from the principles set out by the authors of Non-Alignment 2.0, a recognition of ground realities is necessary.

Till the Nehruvian edifice came crashing down following the ignominious collapse of the Soviet Union, there was an unstated national consensus that drove Indian foreign policy. The consensus had as much to do with the dominant position of the Congress in domestic politics as with intellectual acceptance of Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s legacy—even the short-lived Janata Government didn’t deviate from the consensus. However, today, despite the apparent lack of interest in the political class with diplomacy, Indian foreign policy has become far more contested.

The most significant impediment to the projection of ‘national power’ overseas is the emergence of regional interests in foreign policy. In the past few months, the assertion of regional power in a coalition led to the derailment of the Teesta waters accord with Bangladesh and a commitment by the Prime Minister to vote for a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission condemning the excesses of the Sri Lankan military against Tamil civilians. In the Indian context, the assertion of regional interests in decisions governing foreign policy may seem unique. However, evolved democracies such as the US—with a diverse, multi-ethnic population—have a rich experience of keeping one eye on domestic politics in matters affecting foreign policy. The vocal Irish lobby, the powerful Jewish lobby and the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban √©migr√© lobby in Florida have traditionally exercised their hold over the US State Department. To these can be added commercial lobbies and, in recent times, the vocal human rights industry that played an important role in shaping US attitudes towards the Balkans, Libya and, now, Sri Lanka.

The problem with India is that the assertion of ‘national power’ has been a rarefied, elite preoccupation and insulated from the larger political process. The mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs have been traditionally insensitive to domestic political impulses. They have seen diplomacy in a way reminiscent of the Congress of Vienna and the Congress of Berlin in the 19th century. Their inability to handle democracy contributed to the mismatch of perceptions of Bangladesh with Kolkata. Likewise in the case of Sri Lanka, there was inadequate groundwork to secure an all-party consensus.

What Indian foreign policy needs is an attitudinal shift. Diplomacy is increasingly becoming linked to the political process and the ‘strategic community’ is unprepared to cope with it. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 23, 2012

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

CALLING THE SHOTS - Government formation may soon depend on regional parties

The decision of the West Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, to skip the swearing-in ceremony of Prakash Singh Badal in Chandigarh may remain the subject of feverish speculation, but there is little doubt that it has been greeted with a sense of intense relief by the political managers of a beleaguered Congress at the Centre. The relief may, however, prove to be short-lived if the Union budget fails to live up to Didi’s exacting expectations of a fiscal bonanza for West Bengal.
For the past six months or so, ever since the magnitude of West Bengal’s near-bankruptcy has hit home, Mamata has lost little opportunity to needle the Centre at every available opportunity. From puncturing the prime minister’s diplomatic mission to Bangladesh to teaming up with other regional parties and the Bharatiya Janata Party to derail the National Counter Terrorism Centre, Mamata has made it abundantly clear that New Delhi will have to pay a price for her political support in a fractured polity. More to the point, she has also clearly indicated that she is not without political options she can choose to exercise if the situation so warrants.

There is a temptation, particularly in the political establishment of the capital, to view Mamata as an unguided missile and a leader unable to make the transition from agitational politics to governance. As with most things about the chief minister, this has as much to do with her feisty style of articulation and her shrillness as with the substance of her interventions. Compared to J. Jayalalithaa of Tamil Nadu whose steely utterances are always very carefully measured or with Naveen Patnaik, who falls back on aloofness and understatements, Mamata is a law unto herself.

Yet, the dislike for Mamata’s inimitable style does not take away from the fact that among the political class at least, she is no longer being viewed as an excitable Bengali aberration. More and more, Mamata’s political positioning is being linked to wider developments in the polity. In particular, her interventions in the affairs of the nation are being linked to a larger restlessness of the states on the issue of federalism.

Needless to say, the Congress at the Centre, and even a section of the BJP, is inclined to miss the wood for the trees. Ever since the United Progressive Alliance government assumed power in 2004, there has been a steady encroachment of the Centre in areas which should, ideally, have been left to the states. Mega-welfare schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi national rural employment guarantee scheme may have been well-intentioned and designed by professional do-gooders genuinely concerned with the eradication of poverty. However, the one-size-fits-all assumptions of schemes have left state governments fuming and, at the same time, helpless.

During a brief visit to Odisha earlier this month, I was told by senior members of the state administration that the MNREGS has contributed to panchayats surreptitiously doctoring the books to compensate for the Rs 10 lakh grant for discretionary good works that was previously given to them, and which have been taken away by Sonia Gandhi’s pet scheme. It was also indicated that environmental clearances are increasingly being used by the Centre to settle political scores with governments ruled by non-UPA parties. Despite the large amounts of money the Centre was supposedly channelling to the states, the perspective from Bhubaneswar was that this was eerily reminiscent of the tied aid that marked American benevolence to the third world.

The United States of America was often unable to comprehend why the image of Uncle Sam was negative despite the large amounts of aid poured into poor countries. In a similar vein, the likes of Rahul Gandhi have found it difficult to understand the logic of the so-called benefactors not being able to reap a political harvest. A key talking point of the Congress general-secretary during his energetic but politically unrewarding campaign tour of Uttar Pradesh was the large sum of monies “we” sent from Delhi but which the wicked “haathi” ate up. The corruption charges against Mayavati may have stuck and contributed to her eventual defeat, but the heir-apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was unable to gauge that the variety of paternalism he and his mother champion no longer has the same emotional impact as when Indira Gandhi promised to banish poverty. It is this fundamental incomprehension of a changed mood that has contributed to the heightening of federal impulses.

The problem isn’t something confined to the Gandhis or those who contrast the “national outlook” of the first family with the “regional” orientation of everyone from Akhilesh Yadav to Naveen Patnaik. The manner in which cotton exports were peremptorily banned by the Union commerce ministry without even a hint of consultation with the cotton-growing states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab indicates the astonishing arrogance of even those technocrats who presume to act on behalf of the ‘nation’.

The BJP on its part has imbibed many of these centralist assumptions to the point where its supporters on the ground speak contemptuously of a Delhi-based coterie that has no idea of ground realities. The imperious manner in which B.C. Khanduri was removed as chief minister of Uttarakhand in 2009, and Vasundhara Raje as leader of Opposition in Rajasthan, spoke eloquently of the high-command culture of the Congress finding its way into the BJP. Incidentally, both leaders had to be reinstated — Khanduri to extricate the party from the mess created by his Delhi-appointed successor, Ramesh Pokhriyal, and Vasundhara Raje because the proposed successors had no support among either the legislators or the voters. Today, a cold war exists between Narendra Modi and the party’s national leadership, triggered by the latter’s disregard of the concerns of the chief minister. The writ of the BJP central office in Delhi does not run in Gujarat. For all practical purposes, Modi is at the helm of a regional party.
What is particularly surprising is the fact that the opportunities presented by the concerns over the federal structure have completely bypassed many in the BJP. Despite the indifferent performance in UP, the party is acting on the smug assumption that any future government at the Centre must factor in the “alternative pole” of politics. This may well happen if both the national parties are able to secure an incremental ‘national’ vote in the 2014 parliamentary election. But in the event that the dissonance between the assembly and Lok Sabha polls is slender, India may be confronted by a unique situation of the regional parties calling the shots in any future government formation. The BJP cannot take its natural advantage from any anti-incumbency vote against the Congress for granted. The possibility of a post-poll gang-up of all regional parties (including those nominally attached to the UPA and the National Democratic Alliance) dictating the terms of politics to the national parties can no longer be discounted as fanciful.

A major shift is taking place in politics: a decisive mood shift in favour of a more equitable federal arrangement. However, rather than wait for the change to happen automatically, it is incumbent on the regional parties to plan ahead for a programme that involves constitutional amendments for an institutional shift of powers in favour of the states. In 1950, the ‘unity and integrity’ of India was the principal preoccupation of the Constitution-makers. Today, the oneness of India has been firmly entrenched in the popular imagination. The time for a radical devolution of powers — both political and economic — to the states may well present itself after the 2014 election.

The Telegraph, March 16, 2012

Regional bosses rising

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1963, a year after the disastrous India-China border conflict and shortly after the all-powerful Congress suffered major reverses in parliamentary bypolls, five leaders met secretly in the dead of night at the temple town of Tirupati. The men who assembled were powerful regional bosses of the Congress: S Nijalingappa, N Sanjiva Reddy, K Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh and Srinivas Mallayya. Those unable to attend included C B Gupta, S K Patil and Biju Patnaik. The meeting was short for there was only a one-point agenda: to decide on a successor to the ailing Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. 

In May 1964 when Nehru passed away, the regional bosses were ready. There was no real succession battle as the Syndicate - as the regional grouping came to be known - quietly manoeuvred the election of the man they had selected at Tirupati the year before: Lal Bahadur Shastri

Nearly five decades after that fateful Tirupati meet, there is growing speculation that 2014 will once again witness the states asserting their hold over the Centre. In 1964, regional interests had been accommodated under the protective cover of an old-style Managing Agency. By comparison, today's Congress is akin to a family enterprise with branch offices that give the impression of having seen better days. Regional interests and aspirations that were once a feature of a rambling national movement have moved on and found homes in regional parties that now control state governments. Apart from the northeast, the Congress has lost its domi-nant status in the rest of India, including in states where it nominally controls a government. 

At the turn of the century, it seemed that the BJP would step into a void created by the Cong-ress. However, its progression into a truly national party has turned out to be illusory. Hindusolidarity has proved an ephemeral binding force for disparate castes and communities. Notwithstanding its expansion into Karnataka, the BJP has also failed to transcend the High Command culture that has plagued the Congress. Where the party has made a deep dent - like in Gujarat under Narendra Modi - it has operated as a regional party. 

If there is a Tirupati-like conclave in 2012 to decide on a future government in Delhi, its participants will not be bound by the protective cover of a natio-nal party. Federal impulses in India have developed independent roots, outside the structures of the two main national parties. 

At one time, particularly after the disastrous United Front experience between 1996 and 1998, it seemed that the impulses could be accommodated within coalitions built around the nationalparties. The Natio-nal Democratic Alliance was forged at a time when the BJP was the single largest party in the Lok Sabha and was seen to be growing. Similar circums-tances propelled the emergence of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2004. 

After the disastrous showing of both the Congress and the BJP in the Uttar Pradesh assembly election, there is every likelihood that the sum total of seats won by the regional parties could equal, if not exceed, the tally of the principal national party, be it Congress or BJP. In 1996, the combined strength of the regional parties that made up the United Front could not exceed that of either the BJP or the Congress. 

It was this absurd arithmetic (to which was added the unwillingness of the CPM to join any government where it was not the dominant partner) that made the tenures of H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral so farcical. The Deve Gowda government, for example, was brought down on Sitaram Kesri's flight of whimsy and Gujral fell on the question of the DMK's alleged culpability in the murder of Rajiv Gandhi seven years before. 

The lesson that India drew from the UF experiment was that for coalitions to endure, there has to be a national party to lead it and provide it cohesiveness. Consequently, both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have lasted their full terms. 

Could 2014 witness this arrangement turned upside down? In short, could India face a situation whereby the prime minister of any future coalition government is decided, not by a national party, but by a committee in which the regional parties together have a greater say? 

If indeed this does happen, old allergies may disappear and new, less ideological alliances may surface. In 1998, N Chandrababu Naidu, the convener of the UF, abruptly jumped ship after the election and extended support to the NDA. And even if a national party secures its prime minister, could that person be the preferred choice of the regional parties rather than the national party itself? For both the BJP and Congress this has ominous implications. Of course, the transition to a new and, perhaps, confederal system of coalitions is premised on the assumption that voting patterns in the state elections will be replicated in a parliamentary poll. Hitherto, the national parties have invariably performed better in Lok Sabha elections and have been inclined to make the national contest a quasi-presidential race. However, with economic decision-making devolving increasingly to the states, the disjuncture in political choice between the national and the state level may not be so marked. 

The time may have indeed come for another Tirupati-style conclave of the regional bosses to prepare for a time they could decide India's next prime minister. 

Times of India, March 14, 2012

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Good politics but bad for country

By Swapan Dasgupta

Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget speech reminds me of an essay written some 150 years ago by the celebrated Bengali writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee.
In that essay, Bankim addressed the question of India’s subjugation over the centuries. “Hindu kings or the rulers of Hindustan,” he observed, “have been repeatedly conquered by alien people, but it cannot be said that the bulk of Hindu society has ever been vanquished in battle, because the bulk of Hindu society has never gone to war.”
On Friday morning, Pranab babu took a lesson from the collective experience of Hindus and did what was politically most prudent: He refused to join the fight and made the Union Budget a complete non-event. This was not because he is inherently a dull person or, worse, a dreary accountant. In a pre-meditated move, he refused to be bowled over by those clamouring for a bold, reformist Budget similar to the ones presented by VP Singh in 1985 and Manmohan Singh in 1991. Neither was he impressed by those on the populist and Left wings of the UPA Government to squeeze the rich and the corporates and go on a spending splurge with money that the Government did not have. He did absolutely nothing and postponed all serious decision-making to a time when the Government could have the luxury of making a relaxed choice. The late PV Narasimha Rao, the man who mastered the art of management by inaction, would have been proud of him.
The Finance Minister was aware that any hard choice — either to go in for fiscal consolidation or undertake profligate spending — would have triggered a political reaction. After the debacle of the Assembly elections and the theatre of the absurd over the Railway Budget last Wednesday, what the Government needed was a period of calm and a time to get its house in order. As the Congress’ foremost fire-fighter, Mukherjee earned a breather for the Government.
Of course, the Budget did contain proposals that will add to the inflationary spiral in the short term. The widening of the service tax net and the hike in excise duties will lead to consumers paying more. The salaried class will be angry that the retention of high interest rates for loans has been accompanied by an unreasonable cut in the interest paid on Provident Fund deposits — the latter decision was craftily detached from the main Budget.
At the same time, Mukherjee deftly protected himself from any flak from his inability to meet last year’s Budget fiscal deficit targets by once again committing himself to bringing the deficit down. The Budget has deliberately understated the subsidy bill of Sonia Gandhi’s newest philanthropic venture — the proposed Food Security Bill. If this measure can be made to do the rounds of the parliamentary committees and sub-committees for the next 12 months, it will be a big boon for the Finance Ministry. If it becomes law midway through the fiscal year, the deficit targets will go completely awry — especially if coupled with a rise in the fuel bill — and bring India close to a 1991-type situation when the Government had to mortgage its gold reserves.
Some economists believe that the Budget proposals contain a hidden proposal for removing the subsidies on diesel. That may well be the case. However, the point is that Pranab babu has merely postponed having to take hard decisions. In six months or so, he hopes, the UPA will be better placed to decide which course is politically more rewarding.
In essence, this Budget has delayed an economic crisis that many people legitimately believe is already upon India. If industry, already weighed down by crippling interest rates, remains sluggish and if the woes are compounded by persisting stagnation in agriculture, India will move from a political crisis of the UPA to the dissipation of the larger Indian growth story.
It is a risk that only beleaguered politicians who have lost sight of any larger purpose of governance are willing to take. The Congress at this point in time has lost its way. It is confronted by a crisis of credibility and a crisis of leadership. It is possible that in six months or nine months things will improve. On the other hand, the loss of direction may turn into panic. Mukherjee’s Budget is based on the most common assumption of the beleaguered — a belief that things can only improve and that the Opposition will score innumerable self-goals. He also hopes that the Budget will be a one-week wonder and that after the initial excitement is over, the political class will get back to its more humdrum interests: Monitoring the shenanigans of Mamata Banerjee, hounding Narendra Modi and cheering or taunting Rahul Gandhi.
The magnitude of the economic downturn has been inadequately appreciated by politicians cutting across the political divide. The belief that entitlements are sacrosanct and once given cannot ever be taken away is now part of conventional wisdom. This is why the focus is always on increasing revenue and not curtailing Government expenditure.
Sooner, rather than later, these assumptions will be brought into question, particularly if India heads towards fiscal anarchy. The Budget has traditionally given the political system a small window to discuss the economy and, maybe, even digest a few hard lessons. Mukherjee’s genius lies in the fact that he deprived India of an opportunity for engagement. It was good politics but bad for the country.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pitfalls of arrogance

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the pitfalls of political leadership is the inclination to hear what is convenient. Last week, there were at least two leaders who must have wished they had been less cocooned: Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi.

For the dalit icon whose victory in 2007 had been interpreted as a tectonic shift in social attitudes, the results were unexpected. Mayawati had expected a decline in her share of assembly seats but her charmed circle never countenanced the loss of more than 100 seats. Mayawati failed to see that her imperious aloofness and her indulgence of corruption had negated all her good work-improvement in law and order, spanking new roads and the rise in the state's GDP.

It was not a casteist counter-revolution that contributed to her downfall. If there was a determination on the part of floating voters who had supported her in 2007 to defeat her this time, the reasons lie in her perceived arrogance. Indian elections have repeatedly demonstrated that the key to electoral success lie in forging a social coalition of castes and communities and diluting doctrinaire beliefs. Mayawati once held the potential of forging a dalit-led social coalition. Her style of governance added to dalit self-confidence but it alienated other communities. They combined against her and neutralised the impact of a stupendous dalit mobilisation.

The BSP combined the attributes of a social movement and a political party. Kanshi Ram's vision had envisaged dignity and empowerment through the capture of political power. Mayawati carried forward that legacy, achieving electoral victory in a caste-ridden society. But over the past five years, that purposefulness came unstuck. The BSP's grip on dalits remained broadly intact but the nimble footedness and flexibility necessary for a political party suffered as a consequence of her own high-handedness.

For Rahul Gandhi too, the hyper-involvement and aggressive posturing of the past month was driven by a desire to set the Congress back on track in India's largest state. The heir apparent of the Congress knew that a good showing in UP would firmly establish his political legitimacy. This understandable mission was, however, marred by impulsive politics.

First, Rahul based his intervention in UP on the belief that the Youth Congress had established a formidable network of young Indians driven by a desire to change the culture of politics. The problem was that the network Rahul sought to create had little or no relationship with the pre-existing Congress. UP saw the bizarre spectacle of an 'old' and largely dispirited Congress being out of synch with those who fancied themselves as the new inheritors. The argument that the party organisation failed to harvest the goodwill generated by Rahul is specious. The UP Congress suffered from the problem of incoherence.

Secondly, having chosen a (flawed) management model to undertake a blitzkrieg, Rahul chose to supplement it with a blend of paternalism and sycophancy. The overuse of the family in the Amethi-Rae Bareili-Sultanpur belt, the inclination to refer to himself in the third person and his inability to go beyond the lofty generalisations of 'development' ensured that his energetic campaign was seen as part of the seasonal tamasha-no different from the Amitabh Bachchan shows hosted by a beleaguered Samajwadi Party in 2007.

Rahul professed to stand for a modernity that would transcend the preoccupation with caste politics . Yet, his style was paternalistic and more befitting an inheritor than a reformer. The Congress' disappointing performance wasn't entirely the responsibility of Rahul but it exposed the limitations of Rahul's messaging-particularly when contrasted with the understated earthiness of Akhilesh Yadav. India has changed, but Rahul persisted with an outmoded imperial style.

Finally, Rahul failed to factor in the absurdity of Delhi dictating the political agenda of an increasingly federal-minded India. He didn't gauge that regional parties can't be beaten by a squad of paratroopers. After 1991, UP is becoming more self-contained. Rahul tried to reverse this localism with a contrived national thrust which, alas, was a euphemism for his own political career.

The UP election should, ideally, add to the learning curve of all the four parties. Unfortunately, despite the routine assurances of 'introspection' that come with setbacks, the inclination to disregard history has been unfailing.

Sunday Times of India, March 11, 2012