Sunday, June 17, 2012

Look to Gujarat to hear 'good news'

By Swapan Dasgupta

Some 10 days ago, when the stock market was witnessing a momentary upturn on the news of the Prime Minister’s new purposefulness in decision-making, a senior executive of a reputable stockbroking firm telephoned me. What, he asked was the likelihood of the Samajwadi Party replacing the Trinamool Congress in the Government and facilitating the much-delayed FDI in retail?

That I responded to the suggestion with scepticism is incidental. What was revealing was the query itself. It seemed astonishing that stakeholders in the capital markets were basing strategic decisions on the strength of whispers.

On further reflection it didn’t seem all that astonishing. With the Indian economy in the doldrums and respected figures in the corporate world despairing of the country’s future, there is an understandable temptation of those with a stake in India to clutch at straws. Too many people have invested too much in India to readily allow a sweet dream to turn into a horrible nightmare. Hence the unending quest for light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.

Tragically, the attempts to talk up the India story have been constantly derailed by the intrusion of reality. The Uttar Pradesh Assembly results, where drawing room wisdom once deemed that the Congress would secure around 100 seats, put an end to hopes of a rejuvenated Congress with the heir apparent at the helm; the UPA’s hiccups over the presidential election have exposed the Government’s vulnerability and nullified its capacity for decisive action; and, read with the string of defeats in Assembly and municipal polls, the Congress’ decimation in the Andhra Pradesh by-elections has served as a curtain-raiser for the next general election.

India faces the grim prospect of a comatose government, determined to live for another two years in ICU.

Since politics abhors vacuum, it is likely that the coming months will be see the focus slowly shift from the Congress and UPA to the Opposition. The editorial classes which often determine the contours of chattering class wisdom have deemed that the state of the Opposition is as parlous as that of the Government and that it is a choice between two competing versions of ineptitude. Is that going to be the last word?

Following Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s anointment last month as the BJP’s favourite son—the proverbial first among equals—much air time and newsprint have been expended in detailing why the choice is flawed. All the perceived shortcomings of Modi have been lavishly detailed: his imperious personality, the controversies over his handling of the 2002 riots, the fear and loathing he invokes among Muslims, the wariness of a section of the RSS and BJP over his leadership style, and the likelihood of his projection leading to Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar deserting the NDA. Few Indian politicians have been the target of much vitriolic abuse, and still survived.

If Modi indeed brings with him a wagon load of political liabilities, including European and American disdain, why do opinion polls indicate a steady rise in his popularity graph all over India? Why does the social media, which is otherwise fully exposed to the scepticism of the mainstream media, so lavish in his adulation of the man it calls NAMO? Why does he have seven lakh Twitter followers?

It is far too early to proffer categorical answers. However, amid the chatter of discordant voices, some early trends can be detected. There is indeed an emerging Modi phenomenon triggered partly by an acute sense of frustration with the incumbent Government. However, the elevation of Modi into a political icon of a section of the young, educated middle classes owes enormously to a larger impatience with a culture of underperformance. The mismatch between soaring expectations and politics-induced mediocrity is fuelling the demand for purposeful, no-nonsense leadership. As of now, this yearning for a radical break with existing styles of politics is confined to a section of Young India, but it has the potential of gathering momentum and experiencing modifications along the road. The rise of Modi is a commentary on the evolving mind of India and the breakdown of many assumptions governing politics.

Those looking for good news should keep their antenna pointed in the direction of Gujarat.

Sunday Times of India, June 17, 2012 

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