Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Kolkata Lost and Found

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time, not that very long ago, when travelling through the streets of Kolkata was an unending and compulsive political conversation. It was the heyday of political street graffiti, executed with stylised, artistic professionalism. Whether large wall paintings of muscular proletarians with a red flag marching alongside determined sickle-carrying peasants or bold announcements of the next rally at the Brigade Parade Ground, Kolkata conveyed the unmistakable impression of a city weighed down by its romance with "struggle"-an evocative term left tantalisingly undefined.
Kolkata as the nursery of revolution was a caricature that persisted for more than 50 years-a long enough time for the rhetoric to negotiate a seamless shift from the worship of the "barrel of the gun" to the quasi-mystical invocation of "Ma, Mati, Manusha".
To be Bengali necessarily involved being permanently aggrieved. Prickliness and angst marinated well with endless cups of sweet tea, cheap cigarettes and a visceral distaste for material success. A good Bengali had to mirror the competitive celebrations of "struggle" on the walls of his beloved city. Those with other ideas took the expedient way out: They bought themselves a one-way ticket from Howrah Station. Kolkata became a great place to get out of.
Jyoti Basu
Then CM Jyoti Basu addressing a rally in Kolkata in 1988. (Photo: Saibal Das)
A year ago, West Bengal chose to re-negotiate the terms of the Great Bengali Consensus. After 34 years, it resoundingly voted out the Left Front and chose, in its place, a grassroots leader whose signature tune, ironically, also happened to be "struggle". Not since Subhas Chandra Bose became the lost leader and the stuff of legend, had Bengal reposed such absolute trust in one individual. From 'Party' to 'Didi' wasn't merely a simple electoral swing of enormous magnitude. It symbolised a larger churning, the ramifications of which are yet to be felt.
Among the first things to strike a visitor to Mamata Banerjee's Kolkata is its steady incorporation into the melting pot of Indian urbanisation.
What had made Kolkata distinctive in the past was its sheer hellishness-the congestion, the overcrowding, the inhumanity of street life, the disruptions, the stench from garbage mountains, the potholes, the power cuts and, of course, the kaleidoscope of "struggle" on the walls. It was a Kolkata that was somehow tailor-made for the saintliness of a Mother Teresa, the stark cinematography of radicals who found beauty in suffering, and the ghoulish voyeurism of white connoisseurs of disaster tourism.
It's also an image that refuses to go away. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to combine her visits to the Victoria Memorial and La Martiniere school with the by-now obligatory celebration of initiatives for the uplift of sex workers. It prompted Sandip Ghose, a senior manager in a multinational, to remark on Twitter that the "Lapierre-esque portrayal of Kolkata, including parading of Sonagachi sex workers to foreign dignitaries, is sickening"
Sickening or reassuring, it doesn't correspond to the fact that Kolkata has ceased to be an urban nightmare. Indeed, for the average middle class resident, the city has become a rather attractive place to live. The new Chief Minister's contribution has not been insignificant. Thanks to the thousands of cactus or trishul-shaped lamp-posts installed on the main roads and even side streets, and funded from the mplads grants of Trinamool Congress's Rajya Sabha MPs, Kolkata must surely count among the best-lit cities in India. Coupled with the improvements in the quality of roads, an elaborate metro network and the mushrooming of modestly-priced flats all over the city, Kolkata is experiencing a new normal, centred on the re-establishment of civic order.
Why, if Trinamool Congress MP Derek O'Brien's claim is to be believed, the administration has pressed into service 14,000 people to clean the streets of Kolkata each day. If true, it is something that hasn't happened since the time the redoubtable B.C. Roy was chief minister between 1948 and 1962.
Last year, a restaurant serving Bengali fusion food opened in South Kolkata's Ballygunge. A new eatery in a city that is obsessed with good food isn't news. What was surprising is that the new eatery was located, of all places, on Bondel Road. Till only the other day, Bondel Road was a godforsaken connector linking Ballygunge Phari to the grim locality of Tiljala, on the wrong side of the railway tracks. Today, it houses a restaurant whose Saturday afternoon clientele could just as well have been transplanted from New Delhi's Khan Market.
There is a new Kolkata, bereft of the wall graffiti and the incessant bandhs, that is rapidly emerging. It is a city that is also re-learning something it forgot ever since the "troubles" began in 1967: The ability to enjoy itself. The Christmas lights reappeared in Park Street last year, there's always a wait for a table at Mocambo, Shiraz at the Park Circus crossing has undergone a face-lift and club life is booming. Even the College Street Coffee House has changed. "I went there after a long time," said a long-time Kolkata resident, "and I saw students gorging on plates of chowmein." Revolution R.I.P.
Mamata didn't create the change. The transformation had begun to be evident in the last years of the Left Front. Her advent and her over-stated claim of turning Kolkata into another London have reinforced a pre-existing trend. For five decades, Kolkata revelled in being contrarian; today, it is embracing normalcy with infectious enthusiasm.
"It's a bit like the freedom that prevailed in Russia between the end of the civil war in 1919 and the takeover by Stalin in 1927," suggests historian Rajat Kanta Ray, former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University and, now, emeritus professor at Presidency University, the upgraded version of Presidency College.
The analogy may well be a trifle recondite but in the past one year, West Bengal is witnessing an uneven process of depoliticisation-a reaction to the intrusive, over-politicisation triggered by three decades of Left dominance. Since 2009, when the vulnerability of the Left was first exposed, the creative juices of Bengal have started flowing more generously than at any point in the past 50 years.
The lifting of the Bengali spirit may have more to do with the decline of the Left than with the advent of Mamata, but there is no doubt that the new environment of political non-involvement has acted as a trigger. "What is being witnessed is a generational change," said Gouri Chatterjee, a life-long resident of Kolkata who was till recently the editor of a magazine devoted to the performing arts. She attached importance to the entry of the "English-medium educated Bengalis with contemporary, cosmopolitan sensibilities" into films and theatre. Far removed from the generation that was inspired by subtitled European films but who were burdened by the trauma of Partition, this breed of artistes are not burdened by either pretentiousness or even a 'cause'.
Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhabishyat (Future of the Past), which has been running to packed houses, is cited as one of Tollywood's best offerings-one which addresses contemporary themes without morbidity and which straddles the divide between Kolkata and Calcutta. Ironically, Parambrata Chattopadhyay, the lead actor of Bhooter Bhabishyat andKahaani-a Bollywood film in a Bengali setting-is the grandson of Ritwik Ghatak, whose films helped define an earlier genre of Bengali films with definite political sub-texts.
Yet, it is impossible to escape from politics altogether. Bengal is probably the only part of India where public intellectuals are not only taken seriously but also perceive themselves to be politically consequential. It is a far cry from the days of the Coffee House when self-professed intellectuals split hairs, engaged in rarefied banter and proudly flaunted their fringe status. Thanks to the advent of energetic Bengali news channels, the ambiance of the Coffee House has been transferred to the studios-with interesting consequences.
The CPI(M)'s excesses in Nandigram and Singur first brought the public intellectuals into the limelight. They certainly played a major role in undermining the legitimacy of the Left Front and transforming the image of Mamata from a stormy petrel to that of a liberator. On her part, Mamata assiduously cultivated and wooed the public intellectuals-although her first preference was always Tollywood stars with mass appeal-who, on their part, injected her slogan of Poriborton (Change) with a dose of gravitas.
Any alliance between a hard-nosed politician and ponderous individuals with equally rigid certitudes was destined to be ephemeral. Within a year of assuming power, Mamata has antagonised many of those who flaunted the banner of poriborton. The Park Street rape and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer for disseminating the "vanished" cartoon proved to be the flashpoints of estrangement. From being liberator, she was abruptly dubbed fascist and spiritedly denounced in modest-sized protest rallies and TV studios. The administration's crackdown on the ultra-Left-inspired squatters' agitation along a stretch of the Eastern Metropolitan bypass even inspired the iconic international rent-a-cause celebrity Noam Chomsky to protest.
The net outcome of the revolt of the buddhijibis has been two-fold. First, the intellectuals, always ill at ease with a lady who played by her own rules, responded to peer group pressure and reverted to their cosy corner as the conscience-keepers of the few. Secondly, the intellectual class was split between those who saw Mamata as a female Caligula and thebiddyajan, berated as captive intellectuals, who felt that she ought to be given more time to settle down.
What is interesting, and runs counter to the impression that Mamata is a stand-up comic, is that the Chief Minister continues to enjoy the confidence of those who seek to use her tenure to detoxify the state's institutions. The Mentor Group entrusted with restoring the quality of Presidency University has functioned without political interference, and its efforts to attract members of the Bengali diaspora back to the city's academic life are at an advanced stage. Yet, there are fears that the present wave of negative publicity may actually deter people from abandoning tenured posts overseas and in other parts of India.
The recovery of Bengal was a term that was first heard in 1972, after Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave the CPI(M) a bloody nose, using means that wouldn't have stood the scrutiny of human rights today. Since then, Bengal has undertaken many recovery ventures and has seen each one coming unstuck. Will Mamata's enterprise be any different?
Hoping for instant results is patently unrealistic. Mamata made a laughing stock of herself at an investors' meet by taking a roll call of the assembled worthies and demanding to know whether or not they will sink their money in West Bengal. After what happened to the Tatas in Singur, it is unlikely that the state will ever be the first choice of manufacturing industry. The mentality of the state has undergone a definite shift from the cholbe na ('won't do') days but there is still an under-utilised army of professional agitators who see every capitalist venture as a blood-sucking exercise. Their numbers may be small but their capacity for obstruction is considerable. There is a disproportionate political price a government has to pay for pressing the accelerator of economic growth.
Harsh Neotia of the Bengal Ambuja Group and one of the biggest investors in the state may have a point when he warns against comparing Kolkata with Delhi and Bangalore. In Kolkata, ambition invariably takes second place to the quality of life, with lots of civility and oodles of culture. In a competitive world, this makes the city a wonderful retirement home-affordable domestic help, modern healthcare and a compassionate environment.
Kolkata began life as the East India Company's foremost trading outpost. Today, it is trade and its ancillary services that keep the city vibrant. Yet, every chief minister since Independence has tried to bolster industry among a people who have developed a temperamental aversion to the rat race. Mamata isn't a great champion of capitalism as a historical process. Unlike Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who imbibed classical Marxism, she scarcely understands its dynamics. Ironically, it is this liberation from ideological profundity that may better equip her to guide a state that is most content seeing itself in the light of Bhutan's innovative Index of National Happiness. No wonder Rabindranath Tagore, and not Karl Marx, has remained the guiding force for a city that is rediscovering its lost soul.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Media creates its own realities

By Swapan Dasgupta

Perceptions are always difficult to shake off, even when confronted with a new set of realities.

The UPA Government’s ‘policy paralysis’ is on the whole both real and perceived. However, even if the regime suddenly acquired fresh energy and began acting purposefully, it would be some time before the perception of drift was wiped out from the public imagination. This is particularly so where media shapes the tone and tenor of the chattering class discourse.
Mercifully for Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, it is not merely the Government that is at the receiving end of what market analysts call ‘sentiment’. For the past three years, even as the reputation of the UPA has taken a battering, the BJP has also been pilloried for failing to set its own house in order. The transformation of the ‘party with a difference’ into a ‘party with differences’ may be a caricature, but it has also become conventional wisdom.
Given the fact that the media thrives on stereotypes, caricatures and uninformed superficialities, it was not very surprising that the bite brigade that descended on Mumbai last week for the BJP National Executive was looking for reaffirmations of set conclusions. Factional feuds make for interesting TV and lazy copy, and the BJP, it had already been decided, was in a permanent state of civil war. Consequently, when the Narendra Modi-Nitin Gadkari spat over Sanjay Joshi was settled amid a show of bonhomie on Day One, the search went on for something that would bolster a ready-made script centred on a formula. Policy issues and strategies, after all, need a measure of understanding and are difficult for excitable reporters to communicate coherently. And so it was that Day Two saw an overdose of ‘sexed up’ stories on the ‘unhappiness’ of LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj’s ‘boycott’ of the public meeting where Modi had the star billing. The net conclusion: the BJP was still at war with itself.
That everyone in the BJP is not on the same page is a truism. No political party in India, not even the CPI(M), possesses an army where every member of the officer corps think alike. This is democratic normalcy, and it is only in India that the media projects the ideal of politics crafted on the North Korean model.
These may be the reasons why the media missed the dual significance of the BJP’s Mumbai session. It failed to detect the emergence of two very distinct currents that, in turn, are tantamount to a major course correction.
First, the BJP has implicitly recognised that an all-powerful, over-bearing party centre is not viable. It has belatedly dawned on the BJP leadership that the party cannot progress unless it acknowledges and institutionalises the role of strong state parties with strong leaders. The return of Modi to the National Executive meetings after a long gap, the behind-the-scenes parleys that led to BS Yeddyurappa making a symbolic appearance on Day Two and the acknowledgment of Vasundhara Raje’s leadership in the Rajasthan were momentous developments.
If the trend towards a more federal BJP is allowed to proceed, it is certain to address the problem of factionalism too. What had clearly been apparent since 2004 has been the existence of groups and coteries in the States that draw sustenance from individuals in the national leadership. These factions have invariably been at loggerheads with the State leadership. A greater involvement of State leaders in decision-making at the national level has the potential of choking the lifeline of those who waged local battles with ammunition from Delhi. Had the BJP embraced federalism earlier, the problems associated with Karnataka, Rajasthan and Bihar may not have assumed alarming proportions.
Secondly, and as a corollary to the growing importance of State leaders, is the clear emergence of Narendra Modi as the proverbial first among equals. The exceptional status of the Gujarat Chief Minister — the third person to secure that exalted position after Atal Behari Vajpayee and LK Advani — didn’t stem from any formal resolution or even from any informal conclave of the worthies. It was by acclaim and as a consequence of pressure from the grassroots. From the enthusiastic response of the party’s political workers at the public meeting in Mumbai, it was clear that only Modi has the ability to both inspire and enthuse the faithful.
In a possible journey to the top of the political ladder, he has cleared the first big hurdle. He has, for all practical purposes, secured the endorsement of all the major stakeholders of the BJP.
Yet, it is still too early to say whether Mumbai was the prelude to Modi being anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014. Any formal decision has to await the outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections in December, consultations with allies and the overall flow of politics. Recall that Vajpayee was chosen the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate barely eight months before the 1996 polls. For the moment, and for good or bad, the BJP has honed in on a leader and a structure of politics—significant steps that matter more than the discordant notes the media was hell bent on discovering.
I wonder how today’s media would have covered the Calcutta session of the Congress in 1920? Would it have focussed on Gandhi’s emergence as the new symbol of nationalism? Or would it have honed in on the ‘sulk’ of the Tilak-ites and followers of CR Das?

Sunday Pioneer, May 27, 2012

TOWARDS A CRISIS - Gloom and brave words at the UPA-II’s third anniversary

By Swapan Dasgupta

“The government that has stopped spinning”, the venerable Times (London) once observed in an editorial written in the twilight days of Tony Blair’s administration, “is the government that may well have stopped functioning.”

Last Tuesday, the United Progressive Alliance celebrated the third anniversary of its second incarnation. It was a time when every resourceful spin doctor employed or associated with the regime should have been unearthed from the woodworks to present an appetising picture of the administration. With little tangible achievements to offset the atmosphere of gloom and doom that has seen the Indian Rupee inch closer and closer to what a wag called ‘senior citizen status’ and the Gross Domestic Product projections creep southwards, I fully expected an innovative Congress mind to project the one stupendous Indian achievement that has taken place under the UPA’s gaze: the emergence of the Indian Premier League as a world-class sporting brand.

Tragically, the spinners of the regime could hardly get over their preoccupation with references to the 11th and 12th Five-year Plans—an invocation that is guaranteed to put off all but the sticklers for boredom. There were references to installed power capacity and the fact that 25 per cent of all families were under the net of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, but not a word about the IPL—not even a tangential mention of the honouring of Sachin Tendulkar with a Rajya Sabha nomination.

Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are serious-minded individuals who don’t like to confuse the grim realities of statecraft with the frivolities of pyjama cricket. But it was a missed opportunity, and one that would have at least demonstrated to a sceptical aam janata that the colour had not been drained from India.

Of course, there was a more compelling reason why the IPL didn’t feature on the lawns of 5 Race Course Road that hot May evening: the UPA’s ministers are at war with the only joyous feature of this long, hot and depressing summer. It took one fracas involving Shah Rukh Khan and some over-zealous ground staff at Wankhede Stadium, a pawing incident in a hotel room involving a lesser-known Australian professional and the arrest of two players in a so-called ‘rave’ party for the Union Sports Minister Ajay Maken to renew his tirade against a successful non-official body that has never asked for government patronage and has, instead, contributed immeasurably to the blossoming of a vibrant sports economy. Joining the fun and games, UPA ally Lalu Prasad Yadav, whose son was a non-playing feature of the Delhi Daredevils team, demanded that the entire tournament be banned.

The IPL has enough friends in high places and enough public support behind it to resist unwarranted encroachments on its operational autonomy. Yet the mere fact that the Government has chosen to be hostile to the summer carnival and has consistently demanded the right to control fun and frolic are indicative. After eight years of power, and at the first sustained exposure to public dissatisfaction with its performance, the primordial socialist instincts of the party have resurfaced. Like in the bad old days of the licence-control raj, the Congress wants to have a finger in all facets of Indian life, particularly anything that has succeeded despite the state.

The problem doesn’t end at the door of the cricket stadium. In a desperate bid to repair the damage caused to public finances by its culture of venality and profligacy, the government is hell bent on re-establishing an economy based on institutionalised disincentives. It was the insatiable greed and cronyism of individual ministers that made the 2-G telecom scandal. But what are the lessons the Government has learnt from the public outcry and the judicial strictures? If the actions of the babu-run Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) are any indication, the Government sees the telecom industry as a milch cow. One of India’s most successful industries is now in real danger of being made a target of uncontrolled revenue extraction. Instead of nurturing real growth, the success story has become a victim of crude extortion.

The story of a government determined to kill initiative and enterprise is being replicated down the line. Whether it is the insistence of retrospective taxation in the Vodafone case, the proposal to make it obligatory for real estate transactions to be preceded by a no-objection certificate from the taxman, and the arbitrary fines imposed on corporates engaged in off-shore gas exploration in an energy deficient country, the Government’s single-minded journey from a rule-based regime to one governed by discretionary powers is unmistakable. Those who never reconciled themselves to the dismantling of the control raj have hit back with a vengeance. The principal targets are, predictably, the pillars of Indian entrepreneurship.

There was not a word addressed to these mounting concerns by either the Prime Minister or the UPA Chairperson on the occasion of the third anniversary celebrations. Instead, Singh blandly asserted that he would prove the sceptics wrong by persisting with the line being pursued by the UPA. He spoke of fiscal consolidation but Sonia Gandhi’s priority lay in expanding the network of entitlements. Conventional wisdom, after all, has it that the Rs 80,000 crore farmers loan waiver and the introduction of MNREGA won the 2009 election for the UPA. This time, the Food Security Act—almost certain to be named after one or other member of the Nehru-Gandhi family—is expected to do the trick.

If the Opposition is in a suicidal mode, the old medicine may just work but at a huge social cost. The expansion of the state’s welfare net was always premised on a healthy growth of the productive sectors of the economy. It was hitherto believed—and rightly so—that the flowering of the suppressed entrepreneurial energies of Indians, coupled with growing global interest in India, would generate the revenues that would be utilised to give a leg up to the disadvantaged section of the population. In other words, a vibrant entrepreneurial culture linked to dynamic global forces would subsidise state initiatives on behalf of the underprivileged.

The arrangement was always a delicate one. Experience suggested that the role of the government in the productive sector would be limited to a few areas: effective macro-economic management, the creation of a regulatory regime conducive to fair competition and the formulation of policies that rewarded success, nurtured wealth generation and multiplied opportunities. It was also presumed, though never explicitly stated, that a leaner state would undertake its responsibilities with integrity, efficiency and imagination.

The post-liberalisation consensus has come unstuck because the UPA has chosen to encroach on sectors of national life that were prospering because they had been liberated from intrusive controls. A harmonious political arrangement lay in being able to achieve a viable consensus between two different impulses: a heartless capitalist path would create social tensions, and a rampant expansion of state controls would jeopardise economic growth.

Over the past year, this consensus has broken down, thanks in no small measure to the venality and incompetence of the state sector. The slowdown of growth has meant that Indians have been coerced into modifying their hopes and aspirations. Instead of securing the gradual exodus of people from the welfare net into the competitive economy, the past three years has witnessed a steady truncation of opportunities and a simultaneous soaring of expectations based on irrational exuberance. It is this mismatch which is nudging India towards a major crisis. In the process, the UPA looks certain to be dislodged from its pedestal. But the successor regime may well inherit the devastation of a scorched earth approach.

The Telegraph, May 25, 2012 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Unfunny, literally

By Swapan Dasgupta

Am I alone in imagining that the outrage over the Government’s cowardly decision to delete the contentious Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon from future NCERT textbooks has been relatively muted and overwhelmed by squeamishness?  

True, many intellectuals have been vocal in the op-ed pages of newspapers and on TV channels. But imagine if some so-called ‘right-wing’ loonies had descended on the office of a professor and ransacked it, would the country not have seen the usual suspects furiously signing petition after petition and hosting seminars denouncing fascist forces?

When in an act of churlish impulsiveness, Mamata Banerjee’s Government arrested a Jadavpur University lecturer for circulating a cartoon that lampooned the Chief Minister and the Union Railways Minister, the biddyajan—loosely translated as people of intellectual substance—went apoplectic. Pillars of academia took to the streets and gave media interviews to explain why they were marching: “any normal, innocent activity may invite retribution.” By contrast, Kapil Sibal’s pusillanimity has merely provoked sniggering despair over India’s inability to laugh at itself.

One explanation is that intellectuals with links to academia are loath to be too critical of the HRD Ministry, even when the issue is inextricably linked to pedagogy. But this is being needlessly cynical about honourable men and women truly attached to their versions of enlightenment.

My sense is that the professional petition writers were confronted with an awkward dilemma. They had to weigh their instinctive commitment to a liberal ethos and historical maturity against the weight of political correctness. For a long time, enlightened voices have sought to distinguish between reactionary and progressive assertions of identity. All grievances, they have held, are not equal; some are more equal than others. In short, there are no uniform standards: judgment is always dependant on the context.

The Dalit activists who flagged the cartoon controversy were not remotely concerned by the use of a Shankar cartoon as an imaginative relief from the drudgery of high school lessons on the Constitution. What agitated them was the depiction of Babasaheb Ambedkar as a mortal, a mere political player. In their agitprop-inspired imagination, Ambedkar was an icon and had to be depicted with the reverence associated with calendar art.

Just as many crude Hindutva-types couldn’t countenance departures from Raja Ravi Varma’s portrayal of the sacred and went after M.F. Husain, the upholders of Dalit identity were outraged that Ambedkar could be presented as a caricature—and that too in an officially-approved textbook.

This mindless attachment to literalism should, ideally, have been debunked, if only for the pursuit of enlightened education. However, when it comes to Dalit issues, or for that matter any issue centred on the self-expression of communities that are in need of empowerment, liberal principles are expediently set aside. Doing otherwise would invite charges of hegemonic conduct—and that’s just not on in a world infected by political correctness.

Last month, for example, a clutch of Dalit activists in Hyderabad’s Osmania University organised a beef festival on the campus. It was an act of provocation and defied every rule governing “common decencies”—philosopher Roger Scruton’s telling description of an unwritten social consensus. Yet, this grandstanding, which could so easily have triggered a major disturbance, was stoutly defended by many academics as a protest against “food fascism”.

The point to note is that in the over-enthusiastic bid to nurture Dalit empowerment and atone for centuries of instutionalised discrimination, the normal rules governing civic and political life have often been set aside. Yet, far from persuading disadvantaged communities that the political order is receptive to their material well-being and political empowerment, the double standards have often served to encourage a fringe. These social entrepreneurs have grasped the possibilities of high returns from unreasonableness. The international seminar circuit is saturated with ‘oppressed voices’ that have turned guilt tripping into a fine art. They have learnt valuable lessons from the West’s only growth industry—multiculturalism.

The Constitution accorded a special status for the victims of social oppression to facilitate the eventual creation of a level playing field. Turning the world upside down and creating new hierarchies were never the goals. Yet, India is sleep-walking its way in that direction, unmindful that equality as an ideal is still worth fighting for.

Sunday Times of India, May 20, 2012

Didi versus Bhadralok

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Sunday, Mamata Banerjee celebrated the first anniversary of Trinamul Congress’ victory and the Left Front’s defeat in Assembly elections in inimitable style: by organising a large padayatra.
Accompanied by many of her ministerial and political colleagues, she walked some 12 kilometres on a scorching May afternoon in Kolkata. If nothing, she demonstrated that one year in Writers’ Buildings has not deprived her of the common touch that was instrumental in her famous victory last year.
However, unlike last May when the sheer magnitude of her victory prompted spontaneous celebrations in locality after locality, the first anniversary celebrations were decidedly more muted.
The 41-year-old taxi driver who takes me around on my visits to the city was probably the most enthusiastic, waxing eloquent about Didi’s stamina and her determination to do something for Bengal. A self-employed vehicle owner with views about most things, he personified the Trinamul Congress’ loyal support base.
In a powerful essay earlier this month, Left intellectual Ashok Mitra (a former finance minister under Jyoti Basu) proffered his own evocative description of this political constituency: “the formidable army of lumpens made up of the various underclasses…; slum dwellers leading a wretched existence under the most unsanitary conditions and with uncertain, often shady, means of livelihood; laid-off workers out of a job for years on end; petty office-goers and teachers of diverse academic streams who are convinced society has been deliberately unfair to them; second or third generation migrants from what was once East Pakistan barely scraping a living…; the multitude of frustrated youth who try to earn some money by hawking whatever they can lay their hands on; shirkers and lazybones, misfits and misanthropes of all descriptions and, finally, thugs and rowdies.”
Mitra’s disdain has two dimensions. First, there is the classical Marxist suspicion of a class of disadvantaged people outside the ranks of the organised, class conscious proletariat. But more important, Mitra, in his acerbic style, reflected the traditional bhadralok wariness of the outlander.
If Siddhartha Shankar Ray and Jyoti Basu comprised the creamy layer, and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee the respectable middle, Mamata was precariously perched on the twilight zone between bhadralok society and something lower down the social ladder. With her crumpled white sari and rubber flip-flops, she never quite made it to the inner chambers of bhadralok society. She was always viewed with a measure of amusement and wariness.
This may explain why the chattering classes of Kolkata have viewed her first year in office with indifference, bordering on hostility. Yes, they too had joined the anti-CPI(M) bandwagon after Nandigram and Singur with enthusiasm, and had joined the queues of voters who gave a resounding thumbs down to the Left in 2009 and 2011. But theirs was a limited agenda of paribartan: to rid West Bengal of the CPI(M)’s intrusive control over all the state’s institutions.
It was partly a vote against the Left’s smugness and arrogance, and partly a yearning for a truly de-politicised society where people could be free to do their own thing without some apparatchik breathing down their necks. It is wrong to say that the Mamata government has totally failed to meet these expectations. Kolkata is definitely basking in a new found freedom, and this is reflected in a new energy in the arts and city life. But there have been significant violations, too.
In hindsight, the new chief minister will probably regard her quixotic conduct on the rape of an Anglo-Indian lady and the arrest of a Jadavpur University lecturer over the infamous “vanish” cartoon as her two big boo-boos in the past year. Her conduct may well be explained by impulsiveness, inexperience and the refusal to admit mistakes.
Whatever the political and psychological explanations, these two incidents kindled the pre-existing bhadralok wariness of the new chief minister. There was an additional factor, too. After the CPI(M) blundered over Nandigram, Mamata had carefully enlarged the scope of anti-Left politics by actively wooing a class of people that constitutes a sub-stratum of bhadralok society: the intellectuals. Mainly drawn from the world of literature, art and the performing arts, this group revelled in the importance Mamata gave to them.
It was such a contrast from the CPI(M) that carried too much of an ideological baggage to give highly individualistic free-thinkers a place in their establishment. But Mamata too used the intellectuals and the media to build up the anti-CPI(M) momentum. She had absolutely no interest in displacing her loyal foot soldiers with these biddyajan, loosely translated as men of letters. It made absolutely no political sense. Secondly, mindful of the overall influence of Left thinking in the intelligentsia, she was determined to not allow the CPI(M) any opportunity to cling on to positions of influence under the new dispensation. Having first learnt her politics in the wild days of the early-1970s when the Congress ruthlessly put down the Naxalite movement, she also had no time for the Maoists and their fellow travellers.
These may explain why, despite the torrent of adverse publicity she has been subjected to, Mamata will not go out of her way to repair her relations with those who are willing to march shoulder-to-shoulder with the CPI(M), desperate for a quick, back-door re-entry.
As far as she is concerned, the pesky intellectuals are dispensable. She has set the stage for another bout of class warfare. As long as she doesn’t disappoint her core support base, she has no immediate reason to be fearful.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Regional parties take Centre stage

By Swapan Dasgupta

In explaining his party's endorsement of PA Sangma for the post of President of India, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, has been highlighting the very limited objectives of a regional party in a State where one-third of the population is tribal.
There is, he has insisted, no need to detect a national design behind his announcement earlier this week: it is merely his party's modest bid to stress the need for a Rashtrapati from a marginalised community.
Patnaik's disclaimer of a larger political purpose need not be discounted. However, when his announcement leads to simultaneous support from the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, there are reasons to believe that an apparently small gesture may have larger, albeit unintended, consequences. After all, even if Patnaik is content to see things through a Bhubaneshwar prism, there is nothing to suggest that Ms Jayalalithaa also views her endorsement of Sangma as something born out of purely local considerations.
Regardless of how the race for Rashtrapati Bhavan pans out, the joint Patnaik-Jayalalithaa initiative constitutes a significant departure from the way national politics has hitherto been playing out. For a start, it was two regional parties, each enjoying steamroller majorities in their own States, which were first off the starting block. In the past, the regional parties were happy playing the role of extras in a contest that involved the two national parties and their formal allies. On this occasion, both the Congress and the BJP have been gripped by uncertainty over who to promote as their presidential candidate. Neither has the strength and capacity to be able to exercise their preferred option, and both are reluctant to cut their losses and settle for the next best course.
For a long time, the BJP nurtured hopes of persuading former President APJ Abdul Kalam to run. There are reasons to believe that Kalam wasn't entirely averse, if the arithmetic was right. However, Sushma Swaraj's indiscretion put an end to this plan. After all, there was little chance of the Samajwadi Party endorsing a candidate whose name was first proposed by the BJP.
Ever since the Kalam option was unexpectedly snuffed out, the BJP and, for that matter, the NDA as a whole has been groping for a name that would attract wider support. Unable to hone in on a name, a section of the BJP and NDA has been hoping that the Congress nominates Pranab Mukherjee who, by virtue of his exceptional standing in the political class, can be the consensus candidate. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the Finance Minister enjoyed more support from the BJP than from within his own party. The whisper that Sonia Gandhi was somehow averse to Mukherjee made Congress loyalists wary of proffering his name openly. Ironically, the alleged scepticism of 10 Janpath only added to Mukherjee's appeal in the Opposition.
Given this backdrop, why did Patnaik and Jayalalithaa jump the gun and choose Sangma, a man whose claim was disregarded by his own party chief Sharad Pawar? I would hazard the guess that the two Chief Ministers detected the prevailing confusion in the non-Congress ranks and chose to force their hand. In the process, they have sent out a much larger message: that the initiative for both leading and organising the anti-Congress forces has passed to the emerging Federal Front.
This has implications for the BJP which has seen itself as the principal opposition to the Congress and the party most likely to gain the most from the decimation of the UPA in the coming elections. Recent events have made it quite clear that the BJP is reaching saturation point and that its ability to extend itself to areas outside its traditional strongholds is limited.
Secondly, the BJP has shown that it suffers from both incoherence and ineffectiveness at the top. Its strong regional leaders are increasingly finding the national leadership to be unresponsive to developments in the localities. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has, for all practical purpose, withdrawn his recognition of national president Nitin Gadkari. In Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje has shown that she will not take Delhi's insolence quietly. And BS Yeddyurappa appears to be firming up his plans to set up a regional party — a move that will set the BJP back in Karnataka by at least 20 years. The net result of these developments is that the BJP's capacity for political initiative and improvisation is becoming increasingly limited —  without some of its leading actors even being aware of it.
Finally, at a time when the national parties are in a state of crisis, occasionally verging on paralysis, the regional parties —  regardless of whether they are nominally attached to a larger coalition or unattached —  are beginning to seize the initiative. If Patnaik and Jayalalithaa or, for that matter, some other regional party, hadn't unilaterally seized the initiative, it would have set the stage for the Congress to produce a dumb rabbit out of the hat at the very last minute and benefit from the confusion on the other side. Now that has become difficult. Has Sangma's entry ensured Pranab babu's nomination?
I may be guilty of over-interpretation, but last week's developments suggest that the leadership of the anti-Congress space is passing into the hands of the regional players. The BJP will be in the supporting cast.
For the Congress, that's not good news.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Taming the Monster: Do Indian media need a regulator?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The closure of the popular Sunday tabloid News of the World, the arrest of top executives of the Rupert Murdoch-run News International on phone hacking charges and the proceedings of the Leveson inquiry have focussed attention on the skewed internal workings of an otherwise vibrant British media. This has resulted in a bizarre turning of the tables. A readership accustomed to viewing the media as a white knight in shining armour puncturing the pretensions of the powerful and the pompous has suddenly been exposed to unethical practices, blatant illegalities and the cosy relationship that exists between the Fourth Estate and politicians.

The results have not been edifying. In the past, the media conducted itself with the militant cussedness of trade unions. Every right was fiercely guarded and transformed into a privilege; every hint of regulation was instantly transformed into a larger battle for democracy; and the occasional on accountability was painted as an insidious assault on the people’s inalienable right to know.

The boot is now on the other foot. Instead of being assiduously wooed and flattered by the powerful, the Leveson inquiry has witnessed powerful media barons such as Rupert Murdoch and his son James being subjected to merciless interrogation. Indeed, as the inquiry meanders from the internal workings of the newsrooms to politics, the likes of British Prime Minister David Cameron are having a torrid time explaining their convivial relations with the Murdoch empire. Hostile public opinion is veering to the opinion that existing laws and quasi-official bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission aren’t enough: what the media needs is a public spirited, independent regulator.

It is difficult to gauge whether or not the Chairman of the Press Council Markandeya Katju was influenced by developments in London when he rushed into battle against India’s ‘unionised’ media. A high-spirited individualist with very definite (and occasionally bizarre) views on all subjects ranging from Salman Rushdie’s writings to cricket’s role as a promoter of false consciousness, the retired Supreme Court judge has proffered a simple argument: if all professions are regulated, why should the media be any different? Waging a turf battle against the electronic media-appointed watchdog body headed by former Chief Justice J.S. Verma, Katju has strongly argued that the Press Council be transformed into a Media Council and assume the role of a regulator.

Predictably, Katju’s suggestion has drawn flak. In part this is due to his diagnosis of the media’s ailments. In an article in The Hindu, Katju spelt out his dissatisfaction: “The way much of the media has been behaving is often irresponsible, reckless and callous. Yellow journalism, cheap sensationalism, highlighting frivolous issues (like lives of film stars and cricketers) and supersitions and damaging people and reputations, while neglecting or underplaying serious socio-economic issues like massive poverty, unemployment, malnourishment, farmers’ suicides, health care, education, dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc, are hallmarks of much of the media today. Astrology, cricket (the opium of the Indian masses), babas befooling the public, etc, are a common sight on television channels.”

Katju, it would seem, had very definite ideas about editorial content and the hierarchy of news. In his perception, the media must play the role of a social reformer and not fritter away its energies in frivolity and tittle-tattle, never mind the fact that not all its consumers are preoccupied with virtuousness. It is precisely because of his highbrow certitudes and disdain for popular journalism that his insistence on a media regulator has been viewed with a measure of amusement by the Fourth Estate.

If an all-powerful regulator in the mould of Katju, it has been argued, assumed responsibility for the whole media, it would be tantamount to murdering diversity and ruining a vibrant and growing industry. In spelling out his philosophical preferences robustly, Katju unwittingly helped focus attention on the dangers posed by an activist regulator who would replicate the ideals of the so-called New Information Order, once favoured by the fellow travellers of the Soviet Union. What added to the scepticism was Katju’s proposal coinciding with the still-born Private Member’s Bill proposing media regulation that Congress MP Meenakshi Natarajan contemplated introducing to the Lok Sabha earlier this month.

That the angularities of Katju were responsible in distorting a much-needed debate on the internal workings of the media should not, however, blind the Fourth Estate to its own vulnerability. The decision of a court fining a popular TV news channel a whopping sum of Rs 100 crore for confusing the identity of a former Supreme Court judge may be questioned on the plea that the punishment was disproportionate. But it was a reminder of the fact many of the upholders of India’s institutions are exasperated by what they see is an increasingly roguish media.

Much of exasperation is born out of aesthetic repugnance. A complacent elite used to stodginess and predictability in the packaging of current affairs has been unsettled by the dramatic induction of a colloquial idiom. The media has won new consumers with its relentless demolition of social entry barriers. Yet, this social churning and innovative communication methods have, in turn, generated a backlash. Judges and litigants are rightly fearful that a shrill kangaroo court atmosphere is making judicial trials difficult to hold in a right environment. The Arushi Talwar murder case in NOIDA is an obvious example. Politicians are angry that the media is playing the role of an anarchic agenda-setter, confirming Stanley Baldwin’s prognosis of exercising power without responsibility. And celebrities, who otherwise love free publicity, have been dismayed by intrusive journalism and, above all, a wild social media that veers from recklessness to licentiousness.

Many of these hiccups are the consequence of social churning and technological innovations. The reactions to them have also been predictably knee-jerk. Neither social attitudes no technology can be regulated and controlled without the state assuming draconian powers that invariably end up being misused. India is a naturally fractious society that, however, believes, rather naively, that the state has the responsibility of imposing order without undermining civil liberties. The media has become the target of those impulses.

The media remains on a strong wicket as long as it doesn’t lose sight of common decencies and the notion of fair play. As long as its motives are honourable, it can get away with minor transgressions. However, if its own house isn’t clean, the backlash being witnessed in Britain is unavoidable.

The Indian media hasn’t quite bothered to dispense with the rotten apples in its own basket. Unless it tackles issues such as paid news, wilful deception, insider trading in the markets, extortion and blackmail—and all these are rampant outside the metros—it cannot expect to continue with the privileges that a democratic society has accorded it. In the face of the regulatory threat, the media must engage in a major bout of self-correction. Journalists have become accustomed to being regarded as exceptional citizens because they wield the power to damage others. Of late this power has often been wielded without discrimination and for reasons that verge on outright criminality.

There is, of course, the law which, thanks to the sheer inefficiency of the judicial system, isn’t really a check. There are also other punitive measures that the authorities shy away from using for fear of being charged with being anti-democratic. Yet, a situation is now arising whereby powerful sections of society are urging the creation of special purpose vehicles to tame what they see is a monster. Taking defensive action involves the media undertaking self-purification. 

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

A Government needs to govern

By Swapan Dasgupta

The health of an economy, we are periodically told by sombre decision-makers of the state, has precious little to do with the mood in the stock markets. Last week the country was also informed by smooth-talking economic bureaucrats that the S&P alert on India was ill-considered and that the ‘fundamentals’ of the economy were as strong as ever.
These pronouncements shouldn’t be disregarded. After all, as Mark Antony may have said, they are all honourable men. Yet, when something as patently trivial as the grandstanding remark of a lesser-known Minister of State on a possible rejig of the tax treaty with Mauritius leads to a 320 point fall in the Sensex, it prompts questions. Are the markets fundamentally irrational and prone to speculative mood swings? Alternatively, is the confidence in the state of India so fragile that even S Palanimanickan has the capacity to wipe out nearly `1,10,000 crore of investor wealth? Is the nervousness of the investing classes warranted?
These are not questions our MPs seem to be asking as they delight in the presidential sweepstakes. In the present preoccupation over who will acquire a five-year tenancy of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the political class is missing out on a more profound question that is increasingly being asked by those who have a stake in the material prosperity of this country: Who rules India?
The question may be needlessly dramatic but its relevance cannot be denied. When people rue the policy paralysis that has compromised governance, they are not suggesting that the state in India is totally comatose. On the contrary, many decisions, both good and bad, are being taken each day. But how do they relate to a larger purpose?
Take the question of political authority. It hardly warrants reiteration that the power and authority of the Prime Minister has been seriously compromised over the past two years. Manmohan Singh, it can be said, reigns but does not rule. If a speech he delivered last month is anything to go by, his political authority has ceased to extend to the bureaucracy. The babus have either gone on unofficial strike or perfected the art of subterfuge so well that even routine movement of files has stopped.
On his part, Jairam Ramesh in his earlier avatar as Minister of Environment had demonstrated quite vividly that the writ of the Prime Minister does not run in his Ministry. Ramesh had single-handedly drilled holes into the larger canvas of economic development. What is interesting is that the Prime Minister could do nothing about it. Ramesh destroyed India’s domestic coal production, put spokes in the wheel of the largest steel plant proposed for India, and mercilessly hounded entrepreneurs for what can best be called non-environmental reasons. And to get him from doing even more damage, the Prime Minister had to reward him with the Ministry that has the largest budget!
Strangely, the disorientation of political and bureaucratic authority has not resulted in the emergence of an extra-constitutional centre of power, as many had feared after diarchy became the norm for the UPA. The Gandhi family may indeed be the actual rulers of India (or so a large section of the Congress believes) but their capacity to rule has progressively been undermined.
The National Advisory Council may present mega tax-and-spend schemes to turn India into an entitlement paradise. Yet, the most it can do is prevent the Government from pursuing more realistic alternatives. The capacity of the Gandhi family and its kitchen Cabinet to pursue an independent course of action has been rendered difficult, if not impossible, by the fiscal crunch. Sonia Gandhi can therefore at best cancel Manmohan Singh. The overall economic climate has, however, also cancelled her capacity to play Lady Bountiful.
With the two streams of the political authority stymying each other, India has become the happy hunting ground of those who, in mid-19th century United States, used to be called the ‘filibusters’. This may be an uncharitable way of describing the various venerable institutions that are in the news today. But there are few alternative expressions available for a Comptroller and Auditor-General that has extended its jurisdiction to include a scrutiny of policy. Emulating the CAG are the numerous regulators who have brought their control mindsets into sectors that prospered precisely because there were few controls. Thanks to regulatory bodies doing their own thing, uninhibited by larger considerations, the telecom industry is in danger of losing its cutting edge and the energy sector is stagnant. Given a choice, Indian corporates are voting with their feet and going overseas.
Add to this the vengeful extravaganza of babus who cannot countenance the very idea of a foreign company outwitting them in an Indian court of law, their firm belief that foreign institutional money is all dirty cash, and that businessmen are there to be shown their place. The overall picture is of multiple authorities, each following their own autonomous course of action.
In the past, it was the job of the political authority to tie these disparate strands together into a pre-determined, harmonious pattern. That was traditionally the responsibility of the elected leaders. Today, many of those functions have been outsourced to the judiciary which is increasingly putting a stamp of law on what should, ideally, be executive action. This is not entirely because the higher courts want to rule the country, but precisely because no one is actually ruling the country.
India is crying out for a Government that is able to govern coherently.