Sunday, December 30, 2012

Arnab wins Bharat as 'nation wants to know'

By Swapan Dasgupta

It may sound flippant but if I was to name the Indian of the Year for 2012, my choice would be Arnab Goswami of Times Now. The reason has nothing to do with the fact I am an occasional participant on his Newshour debates. Nor is it connected with his hectoring style which I find enthralling at times and quite exasperating on other occasions. Arnab’s foremost contribution to the public discourse (at least the English language discourse which still sets the tone for others) is his unending search for what “the nation” wants to know.

The definition of his imagined community is important. Hitherto, the media was reasonably modest in its inquisitiveness. Its rationale for demanding answers was invariably couched in terms of either ‘viewer interest’ or, at best, ‘the public interest’. In projection the ‘nation’ as the inquisitor—and I notice that even in rival channels ‘nation’ is fast becoming a substitute to the more passive use of the ‘country’—Arnab has succeeded in doing something quite remarkable: he has successfully made ‘nationalism’ the core attribute for assessing public life.  

This is a remarkable feat. For long, the English language media was in real danger of being overwhelmed by a spurious liberalism, borrowed from the ethos of the New York Times, Guardian and BBC, and complemented by the insidious political correctness of the American campus. Those who subscribed to this ‘idea of India’ became members of a privileged club; those who persisted with alternative approaches were relegated to the fringes and barely tolerated. The defining feature of this ultra-liberalism was its profound intellectual arrogance and its characterisation of other perspectives as base ‘prejudice’.

In positing the ‘nation’ as the ultimate arbiter of the larger ‘national good’ and doing so with passion, verve and eloquence, Arnab managed to create a constituency of people who refused to be patronised by the superior assumptions of a handful of the ‘enlightened’. On issues relating to Pakistan, he refused to be cowed down by the mushy sentimentalism of the Aman ki asha pseuds and on China he ruthlessly questioned the ‘nuanced’ sophistry of the professional prevaricators in South Block. On corruption, he was single-minded in his determination to cut through the obfuscation and piffle. And on mundane political fights, he was both sceptical and irreverent.

It is not that on every issue he got the tone right. He didn’t. To me what was important was the yardstick of national interest he set for judging issues. In an environment where others were highlighting the values of cosmopolitanism, internationalism, liberalisation and oozing concern for the human rights of every extremist who sought the vivisection of India, Arnab re-popularised the validity of proud nationalism.

For helping India recover this eroding inheritance, ‘the nation’ must be thankful to him. He has been the best corrective to the babalog media.

There was an additional feature to Arnab’s discourses each week night that I find both amusing and encouraging: his polite insolence. India may well have a long tradition of being argumentative but in recent times this free spirit has suffered on account of an educational system that discouraged scepticism and promoted the inculcation of every form of received wisdom.

In the mid-1970s, just prior to the Emergency, there used to be huge hoarding on the inner circle of Connaught Place which proclaimed “The leader is right, the future is bright”. It had been put there by one of those disagreeable publications that existed on the patronage of the first families of India, Iran, Libya and, of course, the great ‘progressive’ bloc around the Soviet Union. The message was crass but it was an accurate description of what the rulers expected from the ruled: unquestioning docility.

That is the way Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, for example, sees the world. Why, he asked a TV channel, were the protesters still persisting with their gatherings on India Gate? After all, some of them had a midnight meeting with Sonia Gandhi.

Actually, he wasn’t being disingenuous. To a very large section of India’s establishment, politics is all about, first, bringing an issue or a grievance (preferably through an intermediary) to the proverbial attention of those entrusted with the responsibility of governance and plead for a solution. Then there is the process of waiting patiently and often indefinitely for the system to creak into action. The voting classes are not expected to be either insistent with their demands or insolent in their engagements with professional politicians. In particular, netas don’t believe in being buttonholed by a TV anchor and informed that the “nation demands to know”. 

At best, politicians don’t mind the occasional convivial chats with ‘reasonable’ people—just recall the you-gush-and-I-gush interviews that the Delhi Chief Minister gave to two channels last week after Sonia’s darshan left the nation underwhelmed. Arnab, unfortunately, is ‘reasonable’ only off camera. On air he becomes a voice of indignation, anger and even insolence. These are qualities which the little man doesn’t possess in abundance. He wants to kick the errant netas. Since he can’t, he is happy for Arnab do it for him.

Arnab didn’t create the hatred for the political order. He just helped the little man feel that a larger community of Indians shared his frustrations and his unwillingness to settle for the second-best. Full marks to him for helping India lower the bar of forbearance. 

Sunday Pioneer, December 30, 2012

Why young MPs avoid insolent India

By Swapan Dasgupta

The protests that gripped Delhi over the past 10 days may have begun as a spontaneous expression of outrage against a particularly brutal gang-rape. But somewhere along the way, they escalated into something more far-reaching and yet ill-defined.

What makes citizens of India’s showcase Capital take to the streets periodically— remember the similar response to Anna Hazare’s movement last year—to vent their dissatisfaction against the ‘system’ is prone to divergent interpretations. Can the unrest be attributed to the arrogance of the rulers and the wide gulf that separates them from the ruled? Is it a problem linked to breakneck urbanisation that nurtures aspiration but leads to the simultaneous breakdown of established values? Alternatively, is ‘civil society’ a made-in-media tamasha

Whatever the trigger, one thing is absolutely clear: India’s political class has been left bewildered by the street protests involving large numbers of  mostly apolitical and leaderless individuals. President Pranab Mukherjee’s son has quite rightly been pilloried for his “denting and painting” remark but it is easy to understand the incomprehension of a middle-aged inheritor whose own experiences of student movements didn’t involve rubbing shoulders with “pretty women” in western apparel.

In pre-liberalisation India, the angry young men and women who burnt buses and threw crude bombs in Calcutta were invariably scruffy and fitted a jholawala stereotype. Certainly, what was derisively called the ‘South Calcutta’ (or, for that matter, ‘South Delhi’ and ‘South Mumbai’) types would never be seen chanting slogans on the streets. Until the anti-Mandal protests of 1990, the creamy layer of the middle class was politically invisible.

Yet, appearances can be remarkably deceptive. One of the features of the media interviews of the protestors at India Gate was the glaring mismatch between outward appearance and social status. A few of those interviewed were extremely articulate in English, suggesting a privileged schooling, but most of the women in jeans and fleece jackets were naturally at ease in Hindi. There was little in their outward appearance to distinguish one social set from another. Casual wear has become the great leveller.  

For these lower middle class individuals, many of whom come from India’s dynamic small towns, life in the metros is both liberating and deeply oppressive. Their fierce desire for self-improvement in a city that offers opportunities is coupled with an aspirational lifestyle which, in the context of economic globalisation, also involves adopting the trappings of westernisation. They have consciously broken away from the ‘behenji’ mould that defined their mothers’ generation. At the same time, they are confronted by the regressive patriarchal assumptions of neighbourhoods and workplaces where women in trousers are typecast as ‘fast’ and ‘loose’, not least by a police force that has internalised the khap panchayat ethos.

An earlier discourse suggested that this social transformation would be met by Gen Next politicians who didn’t share the fuddy-duddy assumptions of earlier leaders. However, as the Delhi protests vividly revealed, labelling someone as the “youth icon” or proclaiming a young MP’s familiarity with the social media didn’t qualify them to respond to the anger with purposeful politics.   

Why, it was often asked, didn’t Rahul Gandhi arrive at India Gate to meet the aggrieved?

The answer is curiously simple. An overwhelming majority of India’s young MPs are inheritors who have long been accustomed to the aam aadmi looking up to the netas with forlorn eyes and the leaders in turn responding with a show of noblesse oblige. For them, good politics always meant doling out favours to a supplicant India.

The protestors who gathered to demand better policing and exemplary punishment of molesters and rapists weren’t pleading before dynastic icons with folded hands. They were self-confident, angry and exasperated. They represented a new, assertive and even insolent India. Their expectations couldn’t be met by discretionary hand-outs and even cash transfers. Their demands are a key element of modern politics: the expectation that the state will be responsive and efficient. The chalta hai fatalism of an earlier age has been replaced by a voluble rejection of a meek theek hai.

The people are changing and the political class isn’t. This mismatch will not be unending. Sooner, rather than later, the yearnings of an assertive India will find political expression. 

Sunday Times of India, December 30, 2012

Friday, December 28, 2012

On a whim and dare

By Swapan Dasgupta

Earlier this month, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee convened a meeting of industrialists in New Delhi. The purpose was obvious and unexceptionable: to talk up West Bengal and invite investment to a state that, for all practical purposes, had dropped off the economic map of India.

Unfortunately for her, the exercise proved self-defeating. It is not that those who responded to her invitation came with a closed mind. Most industrial houses, especially the older ones, had a substantial presence in West Bengal, at least until the early-1970s when new investment plans were shelved. For corporate India, West Bengal is a state whose turn-around was overdue and would be enthusiastically welcomed. So far, and despite being more than a year in power, Mamata has been able to achieve little forward movement.

Yet, it was not merely the absence of concrete action on the ground that deterred those who came to hear the Chief Minister in Delhi. What struck many of those present was the leader’s complete lack of seriousness. In many ways, with her impulsiveness on full display, Mamata gave the impression that she didn’t understand the first thing about business. Her utterances were all over the place and there was no focus. At a time when there is furious competition among states to attract capital and create additional employment, West Bengal’s was an amateur act.

The irony of the situation is that Mamata is blissfully unaware that she is not doing something right. That she means well is undeniable. She works hard, often late into the night in her offices at Writer’s Buildings. She travels extensively throughout the state and is not averse to interacting with ordinary people. And she takes a keen, often over-bearing, interest in every aspect of government and political functioning.

Perhaps it is this penchant for micro-management that warps her priorities. No problem is too small to not warrant her direct intervention. Whether it is the shortcomings of a police officer in a local thana or a factional feud in a Block committee of the Trinamool Congress, the Chief Minister is always at hand to lead the charge. If Jyoti Basu was the archetypal aloof Chief Minister who was too imperious to bother about niggling local details, no problem is too small or inconsequential for Mamata. She is always willing to dive headlong into every cesspool.

Take two cases that earned her enormous disfavour with the very same middle class that has backed her resolutely since she stormed into the political world by defeating the redoubtable Somnath Chatterjee in 1984. The gang-rape of a woman in the vicinity of Park Street was a heinous crime that should have been investigated thoroughly and professionally by the Kolkata Police. As Chief Minister, Mamata’s role lay in instructing the police to get on with their job and improve the efficacy of late-night policing in the city. Instead, she decided to get enmeshed in the nitty-gritty of the case, smelling a monumental political conspiracy to defame her government where none existed. She ended up making outrageous statements, punishing a senior police officer for doing her job professionally and conveying a picture of insensitivity.

It is this penchant for paying disproportionate heed to local tittle-tattle and smelling conspiracies that explained her bizarre over-reaction to the circulation of an innocuous cartoon over email by a teacher of Jadavpur University. Regardless of whether the said gentleman was a CPI(M) supporter or not, the point is that Mamata had absolutely no business to get herself directly embroiled in such a controversy. Nor did she do herself any favour by flying off the handle and denouncing a young student who asked her an insolent question on TV as a Maoist.

A Chief Minister is expected to conduct herself with a measure of even-handedness and detachment. Throughout her political career Mamata has preferred a grassroots approach—which also explains the fierce loyalty she commands among the TMC cadre. The problem is that in becoming a Chief Minister of the grassroots, she has set the tone for governance by flights of whimsy. Mamata has lost clearly lost sight of the big picture.

However, to conclude that her temperamental behaviour and her utter failure to make West Bengal a source of ‘positive’ news has also jeopardised her politically, is to over-read her vulnerability. As of today, Didi has certainly become an object of ridicule to a section of the middle-class bhadralok who were hoping that the end of the Left Front’s cadre raj would be replaced by a meaningful, economic revival of the state. What it sees instead is a process of drift which, if unchecked, will steer West Bengal towards social anarchy.

The gloom and doom of the ‘respectable’ classes is not universally shared. Mamata still retains the goodwill of a vast section of society, the most important of which is the Muslim community which is witnessing a silent assertiveness. In addition, the defeat of the CPI(M)-inspired petty tyranny in the countryside is still too fresh in the minds of rural folk for any immediate backlash to set in.

Yet, as 2012 turns to 2013 and a general election looms closer, Mamata would be foolish to disregard the stray writings on the wall. To endure politically, a government needs to show a few tangible achievements or fall a victim to unfulfilled expectations. Mamata just has to forget the mohulla squabbles and start addressing the big picture.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, December 28, 2012 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Master of the National Game

By Swapan Dasgupta

It was December 2002 and the last days of an extremely tense election campaign. I was with Narendra Modi in a small aircraft, flying from Jamnagar to Ahmedabad where he would address an evening rally with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

Leaning across the aisle, he asked: “What do you think?”  “Looks very encouraging” I replied. He nodded and then lapsed into a reflective silence. Then, quite abruptly, he shot me another question: “And what if we lose?” I smiled warily and he too smiled back.

“But at least I fought a good campaign. I gave my best.”

Modi had every reason to consider the worst-case scenario. The forces ranged against him in 2002 were formidable. Apart from the liberal intelligentsia and media that held him personally responsible for the post-Godhra riots, it was an open secret that a powerful section around Prime Minister Vajpayee was less than enthusiastic about him. Any electoral mishap, including a failure to secure a resounding victory, would have spelt the end of his political career. For Modi, it was a do-or-die battle.

In hindsight, that short flight to Ahmedabad was also one of those rarest of rare moments: when a flicker of doubt crossed the mind of a man who has today earned a reputation for being the last word in political decisiveness. Never before—not even in those dark days of the late-Nineties when he was more or less barred from even visiting Gujarat—had I ever seen a hesitant Modi. And never subsequently have I seen his fierce sense of mission falter. Modi is a man blessed with astonishing self-resolve.

On December 20, as the Electronic Voting Machines revealed the extent of Gujarat’s determination to persist with its longest-serving Chief Minister, there was a realisation that what was being witnessed was more than just another state Assembly election: Modi was on the cusp of becoming a national phenomenon. Even his fiercest detractors—and they still dominate the Indian Establishment—have grudgingly admitted that in this 62-year-old Gujarati they are dealing with someone who has the potential of not merely reshaping the rules of electoral politics but even contesting the muddled ambivalence of India.

Modi has emerged a leader you can either love or loath but can’t ignore.  

In the aftermath of his third consecutive victory in Gujarat, there is certain to be a clamour for giving Modi a national role and even declaring him the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next general election. Hitherto this insistence was confined to a group of enthusiasts active on the social media, a clutch of business leaders wowed by the energy and dynamism of Vibrant Gujarat, a few oddball intellectuals detached from the academic and media establishments and a handful of political activists exasperated by the inability of the BJP to capitalise on the failures of the Central Government. In the past six months or so, as the drift in the BJP has become more palpable, the ‘Modi for PM’ constituency has grown exponentially and embraced not only BJP-inclined voters and the party’s grassroots workers but even a largish section of elite opinion-makers. Modi’s growing national appeal has even begun to be strongly reflected in the opinion polls.

The trends don’t reflect a contrarian fad. There are three significant points of value-addition that Modi is likely to bring to the BJP table. The first is the youth vote. Gujarat has clearly demonstrated that Modi’s most enthusiastic support comes from the below-35s, which explains why Modi’s election rallies often covey a rock concert mood. They are passionately attracted by his ability to both sell a development dream and translate some of this into reality. In a party often seen as being antediluvian, Modi stands out as the leader with strongly modernist impulses. His 3-D campaign may have seemed a needless gimmick—akin to the helicopter that never fails to draw an incremental, gawking crowd at political rallies—but Modi calculated it would be viewed as an example of his technology-friendly approach that is in tune with Gujarat’s aspirational ethos.

The Gujarat experience has also pointed to Modi’s hold over women’s imagination. A social psychologist may be able to better explain if this appeal is centred on raw machismo, his status as a single man (something that has also worked to the advantage of Naveen Patnaik in Orissa) or something more complex. Whatever the reason, this appeal is advantageous for a party which sees women and youth as weak links in its social architecture.

The third feature of Modi’s political strength is his ability to inspire the BJP’s bedrock social constituency—the middle classes. This following owes to Modi’s three perceived strengths: his passion for rapid development, his decisiveness and his personal integrity. In the 1990s, a much smaller middle class rallied behind the BJP because it was seen to be ‘different’ from the rest of the political pack. Today, a much larger and more fiercely aspirational middle class may well view Modi as the no-nonsense alternative to a bunch of narrow-minded, self-serving and venal political class.

In the past, Modi has successfully experimented with creating an all-embracing political community. After the 2002 riots which were attributed to a visceral majoritarian backlash against Muslims, Modi deliberately avoided the temptation of re-creating the Hindu vote bank of the Ayodhya years. Instead, he invoked Gujarati asmita which incorporated the ‘garv se kahon hum Hindu hain’ theme to something larger and non-contentious. In the process he subsumed the caste mobilisation that had been a feature of the Congress resurgence in the 1980s.

It is said that Gujarat isn’t India and that Modi’s bid to invoke an India Pride will falter in the face of the fractious caste and community mobilisation of the Hindi heartland. There is some merit in the argument. At the same time, Modi’s critics have failed to take into account the possibility that no meaningful national campaign can be a carbon copy of an approach evolved in the context of just Gujarat.

Modi has two cards that have been kept in reserve. The first is the element of class that Modi touched upon tangentially in the final stages of the Gujarat campaign, as a retort to Rahul Gandhi. “Your father, his grandfather and his mother were Prime Ministers”, he said in a few rallies, “but my father wasn’t even a sarpanch.” This was a direct assault on both privilege and the Gandhi family’s remarkable sense of entitlement.

The second reserve card is Modi’s membership of a backward caste. He has never invoked his OBC status, not least because casteism goes against his commitment to an all-embracing Indian nationalism. But this is a theme that is rarely proclaimed on public platforms. It is a message transmitted through the powerful bush telegraph. In theory, Modi has the weapon to replenish his larger appeal with the OBC card. The leaders of caste parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar know this and are awkward about confronting him frontally on the social justice theme.

Modi’s strengths are known to the BJP but yet there are misgivings on two counts. First, Modi is seen to be too much of an individualist. Despite being a former RSS pracharak who was trained to receive instructions and follow them, Modi is an argumentative Indian. Many RSS veterans are wary of his constant questioning of certitudes.

Secondly, flowing from this is the belief that Modi lacks the flexibility to manage the disagreeable world of coalition politics. With Nitish Kumar determined to walk out of the NDA in the event of BJP naming him as the candidate for the top political job, there is a fear in the party that the BJP would be left in ‘majestic isolation’, as happened between 1990 and 1996.

These are real issues and there is only one way Modi can confront them: by letting public support do the talking. This was precisely how Vajpayee handled very similar problems between the collapse of his 13-day government in 1996 and the election of 1998.

Frankly, the BJP has no option but to anoint Modi soon, giving him the time to build his national profile from his Gandhinagar operational base. The alternative will be a BJP entering the general election campaign with a sullen, listless and unenthusiastic support base—an approach calculated to produce indifferent results and the subsequent inability to play a meaningful post-election role.

Within the ‘parivar’ it is often said that Modi has unlearnt everything he imbibed as a swayamsevak. This is untrue. One attribute that he has never lost sight of is the strategic virtue of patience over impulsiveness. In his 12 years at the helm in Gandhinagar, he has rarely overplayed his hand. He has never been a man in a tearing hurry, even while aware of his ultimate destination.  

Modi does not have to go begging to the BJP. Pressure from below will compel the BJP to come to him. After that the battle for India will formally begin. Knowing Modi, he will be fighting to win. He always has.

INDIA TODAY, December 31, 2012 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

BJP needs Modi model for surge

By Swapan Dasgupta

Politicians are inclined to talk up their prospects and performance. To that extent, Finance Minister P.Chidambaram’s supercilious assertion last Thursday that the Congress had actually won the election need not be taken too seriously. By that count Modi’s claim that if the votes of both Gujarat and Himachal were added the Congress would still have lost, was at best a rhetorical flourish.

However, behind these one-upmanship games, a natural part of the electoral tamasha, there is a more serious point. The Gujarat election was fought by the BJP as a referendum on 12 years of the Modi Government. Since common sense suggests that no electoral battle involving crores of people can be fought without a party organisation and dedicated activists, the victory was equally the BJP’s as much as Modi’s. Yet, it does not demean institutional politics to admit that Modi’s larger than life image gave the BJP its cutting edge.

By contrast, the personality of Prem Kumar Dhumal played a lesser role in the BJP campaign in Himachal Pradesh. This is not because Dhumal’s leadership was a liability but because he is naturally understated. Dhumal failed to beat Himachal’s see-saw record and fell a victim of anti-incumbency. To this was added BJP’s awesome record of scoring self-goals.

The larger message that emerges from these two elections has enormous implications for politics: there is no generalised anti-incumbency against the Congress Government at the Centre which gets automatically translated in some measure to state elections. In other words, if the BJP in Gujarat didn’t have the benefit of Modi’s towering personality, the Congress may well have bettered its performance significantly. It may not have won, but it would not have been mocked for its failure to get its act together after two decades in opposition.

In the course of the Gujarat campaign many people encountered apparatchiks who would loftily proclaim that “no individual is bigger than the institution.” As a general rule, this assertion is unexceptionable but it isn’t divine wisdom for electoral politics. Modi is often berated for his ‘dictatorial’ style and his insistence that the party sing one tune. It was this refusal to allow competing power centres to emerge within the party and the government that triggered the departure of Keshubhai Patel from the BJP. The veteran leader knew that he was no longer in a position to run a parallel patronage network. So he departed.

The results suggest that Keshubhai’s GPP underperformed. It won two seats and its tally of popular votes was well below the opinion/ exit poll estimates. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the GPP campaign was shored up by a section of the RSS parivar, particularly the VHP. Even a small section of BJP, including those enjoying the trust of the beleaguered national president, was active in mobilising anti-BJP votes. A post-poll survey by CSDS found that 61 per cent of those who “participate in RSS or VHP programmes” voted for the BJP (a drop of 10 per cent from 2007). The numbers voting for Congress was 26 per cent (it was 25 per cent in 2007). Some 13 per cent voted for the GPP.

The statistics reveal something quite significant. It would seem that Modi’s emphatic victory was the result of his ability to secure incremental votes from outside the ideological fold. His saffron sceptics were never in a position to win seats but they played spoilers on behalf of the Congress. It may even be argued that they denied the BJP some half-dozen extra seats.

Modi was able to circumvent internal sabotage because he combined his position as Chief Minister with the authority of a leader. He had to fight a long and bitter struggle for a decade to arrive at this position. Unfortunately, Dhumal’s position as Chief Minister wasn’t supplemented with organisational authority. Despite his misgivings, the party gave tickets to unsuitable candidates merely because they were nominees of a faction or the preferred choice of central BJP apparatchiks. This fragmentation of authority in turn crippled the campaign in some regions and led to rebel candidates (at least five of whom were successful). The net result was a decisive Congress victory.

Himachal wasn’t the only occasion that the BJP contributed to its own defeat. In Uttarakhand, the positive effect of General B.C. Khanduri’s reinstatement, after three years of misrule, was undone by a rebellion that was organised and financed by people who continue to hold senior organisational posts in the BJP. In 2008, Vasundhara Raje’s campaign was undone by a targeted subversion in which RSS pracharaks played active roles. A state which should have been in the BJP fold was gifted to the Congress. Even today, when it is clear only Vasundhara can bring victory to the party in 2013, the pettiness of a few rootless wonders has delayed her appointment as the leader of the state party.

At a time when it is clear that the Congress is alive and very much in the fight, the BJP needs to address its internal problems urgently. Since 2006, there has been a total erosion of the party’s central authority and the emergence of power centres comprising petty functionaries whose primary interest is not to give India an alternative government but to control the BJP.

It is not merely Modi the BJP needs to inspire voters. It also needs the Modi model to rejuvenate a decaying party.

Sunday Pioneer, December 23, 2012

Thursday, December 20, 2012

TOWARDS GREATER HEIGHTS - Modi’s victory shows he has quietly reinvented himself

By Swapan Dasgupta

Those familiar with elections in West Bengal prior to the Mamata storm of 2011 may not find it too difficult to understand the dynamics of Assembly polls in Gujarat since 1995. A dominant party, with deep social and organisational roots, was periodically confronted with patchy challenges that often led to occasional upsets in isolated constituencies. It was also the case that an opposition that seemed moribund during the non-election years suddenly sprang to life and secured tacit endorsements from a media that had its own scores to settle with the established order. No one doubted the end result but there was furious speculation over the margin of victory. Did a spectacularly high turnout—recall that in many parts of West Bengal the long queues meant that polling had to be extended by many hours—suggest that there was a ‘silent undercurrent’ for change?

There is, however, one significant difference. In West Bengal, Jyoti Basu was the dominant figure from 1977 until his retirement in 2000. For the Left and for many others, he was a patrician-like figure who commanded respect. His rallies were well attended but sober occasions. For all his personal appeal, Basu was no great orator and his staccato sentences, riddled with more common sense than Marxism, were often looked upon with quiet amusement. If there was ‘electricity’ in the air, it was impossible to detect it from a Basu rally. The CPI(M) was a machine that worked with quiet efficiency.

To really understand an election in Gujarat, it is obligatory to attend an election rally addressed by Narendra Modi. I have been to umpteen meetings addressed by Gujarat’s longest-serving Chief Minister but his election rallies are special.

In 2002, when the riots and the so-called communal question dominated the agenda, I saw the Modi phenomenon at work for the first time. It was late in the evening and the location was a crossroad deep inside Dariapur, an area in Ahmedabad that had become infamous since the 1980s for unending Hindu-Muslim clashes. One lane from the chowk led to a Muslim locality and the others to Hindu-dominated areas where, it could well be said, the votes for the BJP were weighed rather than counted.

It was a star-studded evening. First L.K. Advani would speak and be followed by Modi. As usually happens, the timings went a bit awry. Advani had barely spoken for five minutes when he was silenced by a roar, originating from the rear and then overwhelming the entire crowd like a Mexican wave. Modi had arrived and the crowd reacted with absolute frenzy. Discretion getting the better of hierarchy, Advani took the message, ended his speech abruptly and departed. The audience had made it clear this was Modi’s election.

I witnessed a repeat performance in 2007 at a more middle class venue in the Sabarmati constituency, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Crushed by a human wave that surged forward to get a better view and wave to a man who had been declared “Lion of Gujarat” , it was easy to forget that this was an election rally and not a rock concert. The absence of music was duly compensated by the audience’s gleeful anticipation of Modi’s one liners.

In 2002, they used to wait for his ‘Mian Musharraf” lines; this election, and despite a voice that grew hoarse in the final days of the campaign, the familiar mix of boisterous youth and middle-aged women who occupied the stall seats eagerly awaited the mention of ‘Madam Sonia ben’ and ‘Rahul baba’. At the meeting in a working class locality in old Ahmedabad, it didn’t really matter what Modi was taunting the Congress President and the heir apparent with. What was important was that Modi was on the offensive and at his sarcastic best.

Translated versions of his Gujarati speeches often drag Modi into controversy. They are so totally different from the deferential idiom of pol-speak in Hindi. In Gujarat, however, the popular reception to his flamboyant irreverence, often laced with a touch of self-deprecation, is rapturous. In everyday life Gujaratis may be abstemious, even a bit austere, but their self-expression (or so my Gujarati friends inform me) is often biting, without being bawdy. Modi has mastered the art of penetrating the heart of the Gujarati. He has his finger firmly on the pulse of their concerns, their aspirations and even their prejudices.

In the aftermath of the 2002 riots, Modi was painted by India’s uber secularists as an ugly, fringe phenomenon born out the basest of Hindu prejudices. By 2007, the obnoxious Hindu had been modified into one of into a disagreeable Gujarati who, as Ashis Nandy once suggested also reflected the ugly side of its middle classes. And in 2012, he is being pilloried for presenting a flawed development as the national alternative.

That Modi remains a controversial politician is undeniable. But what is significant is how much the goalposts have shifted and the remarkable extent to which Modi has entered the mainstream discourse—not for his lapses in 2002 but for his achievements in the past decade. Despite all the rhetorical flourishes that characterise every time the voters are asked to choose, the 2012 election was really a test of bread and butter issues. Had the development process in Gujarat been utterly skewed and left the so-called aam aadmi untouched, it is doubtful that Modi would have been re-elected in an election where voter turnout touched a 70 per cent high. The absence of any focussed anti-incumbency would suggest that the indictment of the Gujarat model did not correspond to people’s lived experiences. In presiding over high economic growth and the improvement in the quality of life, Modi could be said to have delivered. To those who have long argued that a high growth strategy centred on infrastructure, capacity building and state efficiency is a certain election loser—witness the examples of Vajpayee, Chandrababu Naidu and even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee—Modi is proof that the opposite also holds good. Perhaps Manmohan Singh should take heart.

The question that now confronts the political establishment of India is stark: can Modi and his model be posited as the path for India? There are no easy, pre-determined answers. Nor is this the most appropriate moment to speculate on whether or not Modi will be among the choices in the next general election. As Harold Macmillan famously said, “events” can often unsettle calculations. Yet, some larger conclusions from Thursday’s election results are warranted.

 It is clear that what has derisively been called the ‘Modi cult’ is no longer confined to one mid-sized state of western India, it has infected the rank-and-file of the BJP and a sizable section of the middle classes yearning for high growth, purposeful leadership and integrity in public life. Much more needs to be done but Modi, it would seem, has quietly reinvented himself.

Whether this push from below is sufficient to catapult Modi to the national stage is now the big question. India, unfortunately, doesn’t have a system of primaries to determine leadership question in political parties. Yet, the Gujarat election has come closest to settling the issue for the BJP. The party would be foolish to not heed the message.

Prime Minister Modi is still a distant dream. But if the momentum generated by his political victory in Gujarat gathers pace, India could yet witness the unravelling of politics as we know it. At every stage since 2002, the bar on assessing Modi has been raised. Each time Modi has both met the challenge and readied himself for greater heights. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A limited-overs match is on, grudge series will be next

By Swapan Dasgupta

For an Indian cricket fan in the early-1960s, defeat was a reality we learnt to live with. An Indian side touring England and Australia acquired rich experiences of getting thrashed comprehensively. At Headingley in the summer of 1952, the scoreboard read 0/4 in India’s second innings; and in the Oval Test that year, India was struggling at 5/6 before rain came to the rescue.

India’s solace lay in individual performances. Legends were woven around Vinoo Mankad’s spectacular all-round performance at Lord’s in 1952 and, of course, Oxford Freshman Abbas Ali Baig’s century on debut at Old Trafford in 1959. Inevitably, the search for individual valour often meant creating myths out of very little. In Calcutta, there was a halo around wicket-keeper P.Sen who stumped Don Bradman in a match against South Australia. There is also a vague recollection of a bileth-pherat (England-returned) Bengali gentleman reminiscing about the time Dattu Phadkar bowled four consecutive maiden overs to the legendary Len Hutton.

It may sound flippant, but the liberal discourse on the Assembly election in Gujarat has often resembled the conversations on Indian cricket some 50 years ago. The outcome of the Test was pre-determined and the points of interest were individual performances and the margin of defeat. If India averted an innings defeat, it was regarded as a jolly good show.  

The similarities with the recent narratives on the Gujarat polls are striking. The re-election of Narendra Modi is often taken as given and the real interest is centred on his margin of victory. If the BJP, it is said, secures even a single seat less than its 2007 tally of 117 seats in an Assembly of 182, it will be a ‘moral defeat’ for Modi. Conversely, any improvement over the 2007 performance will be regarded as a categorical mandate and a green signal for his entry into the national arena.

The benchmark set by those who are reconciled to Modi’s third consecutive victory may well be arbitrary and, indeed, whimsical but it does address a larger point: politics is not merely about statistics but is largely centred on perceptions. The definition of an emphatic victory will be subjective.

It is to the credit of the Gujarat Chief Minister that he has assiduously managed to convey the image of representing the Gujarati consensus—as captured by his ‘Ekmat Gujarat’ slogan—which can, at best, be dented on the margins. He has also managed to shift the terms of engagement quite dramatically: the debate in Gujarat on Modi’s 11 years in office bears little resemblance to the so-called ‘communal’ concerns articulated by his detractors in the rest of India. In Gujarat, the opposition has challenged Modi on purely local concerns such as water and the perceived affront to Leuva Patels; in the rest of India the misgivings are over Modi’s, apparently contentious, “idea of India”.

Indeed, the idea of Gujarati uniqueness has become so pronounced that, for the first time in living memory, the Congress mounted a campaign that carried no mention of any member of the Nehru-Gandhi. It preferred going into battle with an evocative media blitz that had a brand ambassador as its mascot.

If the Congress fails to dent Modi’s existing majority, it is almost certain that this ‘non-political’ campaign will be held responsible. More troubling for it, however, is if the campaign succeeds. Will the Congress then acknowledge that the first family carries no political value addition?

On December 20, some of these questions will be addressed, but only perfunctorily. In the imagination of India, the Gujarat election was only about Gujarat and, by association, Modi. The outcome could well help the BJP select its leading face for the general election. But its national implication should not be exaggerated.  Despite the hype, Gujarat 2012 was a limited encounter: one side was battling for victory and the other was praying for a draw. A national election with Modi on the centre-stage will be a grudge series.

The way we play cricket reflects the national character. Yesterday’s India was frightened and unprepared to confront adversaries; today’s India will relish a no-holds-barred scrap. It is best to look upon the Gujarat poll as a tame Ranji Trophy match.  

Sunday Times of India, December 16, 2012

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Why Limo Libs hate Modi

By Swapan Dasgupta

By the afternoon of Thursday, December 20, two things will be pretty apparent to the people of India.

First, it will be clear whether or not the electorate of Gujarat continues to retain faith in the leadership of Chief Minister Narendra Modi. With a 70 per cent turnout (in Phase 1 of the poll), a spirited election campaign that was centred on the state Government’s performance over 11 years, and little chance of a hung Assembly, the answer to this question should be unambiguous.

The second issue will touch on the future of Indian politics. If the BJP is successful in meeting the combined onslaught of the liberal intelligentsia, the mainstream media, the local leadership of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Gujarat Parivartan Party, the Central Government and the local Congress, there will be compelling pressure on the National Democratic Alliance (which, naturally, includes the BJP) to discard the absurd idea of ‘collective leadership’ and anoint Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the next general election.

I use the phrase ‘compelling pressure’ with some pre-mediation because I am almost certain that the process of declaring Modi the first among equals will not be without hiccups. Such a momentous step in a polity where succession planning is both non-existent and bereft of institutional structures is never without hiccups. Assuming Modi passes the December 20 test, the coming months will be delight for the media as a multitude of veterans, rivals and unnamed ‘sources’ will air their misgivings of such an ‘extreme’ step.

There will invariably be questions raised about Modi’s suitability to move from local to national politics—as if participation in state politics automatically negates a politician’s ability to play in a larger arena. There will be doubts raised over Modi’s temperament: can a man used to being the supreme boss of a one-party government adapt to the infuriating complexities of coalition politics? There will also be the Nagpur question: will the RSS leadership allow such a towering individual to put the parent organisation in the shade? And, finally, there will be the inevitable Muslim question: can India be ruled by a man whose very name is anathema to the Muslim minority, at least outside Gujarat?

None of these posers can be brushed aside as irrelevant. No doubt the issues will be raised by people who have been opposed to Modi for the past 10 years and who are still hopeful that a ‘silent undercurrent’ will stop the Chief Minister’s juggernaut in Gujarat itself. But they are powerful people who wield considerable clout in the Establishment of what Modi derisively calls the ‘Delhi Sultanate’. For them, Modi is not merely someone they disagree with; he is an enemy. They would rather countenance the indefinite continuation of Gandhi-Vadra rule and the perpetuation of cronyism than imagine an India in the hands of an outlander from Vadnagar. Modi threatens their ‘idea of India’.

What we have witnessed and perhaps will continue to witness till the last voter in the next general election has pressed the EVM button is a form of class war. It is a war not about economic philosophies or even about something as nebulous as modernity. Looked at from every conceivable angle, the Gujarat over which Modi has presided for the past 11 years is a showcase for resurgent India. Nor is there any fear that Modi will pave the way for some perverse, backward-looking and insular society. Trade, technology and even globalisation have been central to the Gujarati mind, a reason why that society never took very kindly to the Nehruvian way.

No, the class war centres on the exercise of power, control and clout. A small example may suffice. Last week, a group of influential media people—known in rarefied circles as the Limousine Liberals—travelled to Gujarat, courtesy an international investment house, to do a spot of election tourism. In the recent past they travelled to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal to observe the ‘real India’. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the Limo Libs are always given an audience by the leaders of the main parties. In Gujarat, the Congress rolled out the red carpet for them and I am informed (but am yet to verify) that the party’s heir apparent also found time to exchange notes with the group. The only exception was Modi. He encountered them at one of his public rallies, acknowledged them with a polite Namaste and went about his main business.

It is not for me to say whether Modi missed an opportunity to charm those outside his natural constituency—they are itching to be wooed—or whether he thought that spending time with those who are intractably opposed to him the individual is a waste of time. The point is that the likes of the Limo Libs are inherently ill at ease with a man who challenges the existing power structure without inhibition and with aggression.

This is where Modi differs from a Atal Behari Vajpayee. Despite being the so-called “right man in the wrong party”, Vajpayee sought to co-opt a section of the Establishment and I have no doubt that his cultivated ambiguity and Brahminical pedigree came in quite hand. Modi by contrast has always banked on pressure from below to get his way. His politics is based on raw energy. This is what the upholders of the status quo find frightening and unbearable.

Sunday Pioneer, December 16, 2012 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Modi is BJP’s ticket to Delhi 2014

By Swapan Dasgupta

If the results of the Gujarat Assembly elections come up to expectations, the Bharatiya Janata Party will have good reasons to celebrate. First, it will be the BJP’s fifth consecutive victory—two under Keshubhai Patel and three under Narendra Modi—in Gujarat. Secondly, if the margin of victory remains as impressive as 2002 and 2007, it is more than likely that Modi will become the first among equals in the BJP. A combination of popular acclaim and the absence of any worthwhile challenger may even propel him to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next general election.

For India’s principal opposition, next week’s developments could mark a new beginning. After a prolonged period of uncertainty and confusion that dates back to the unexpected defeat it suffered in the general election of 2004, the party may have reason to believe that it has embarked on the road to recovery. At the same time, party loyalists will rue the fact that the Gujarat election and the anointment of Modi didn’t happen a few months earlier. Had that been the case, it is entirely possible that former Chief Minister of Karnataka B.S. Yeddyurappa would not have left the BJP and formed the Karnataka Janata Paksh—an event that has more or less guaranteed the eclipse of the BJP from its southern bastion for the foreseeable future.

Actually, Yeddyurappa did not leave the BJP in an act of betrayal: he was more or less forced. For more than two months prior to his formal departure, the former Chief Minister had dithered over taking this extreme step, hoping desperately for some indications from the party leadership in Delhi that they were willing to acknowledge his formal leadership of the state BJP. Unfortunately for him, the signals were too confusing and less than equivocal.

For a start, the BJP national leadership had become virtually dysfunctional since the day allegations of unethical business practices were levelled against its national president Nitin Gadkari. Unwilling to accept the veracity of the charges but lacking the credibility to ward them off effectively, Gadkari became a man under siege. Preoccupied with only one issue—himself and his own future—he lacked the mental conditioning to deal with the grave problems in Karnataka. His attitude to the Karnataka crisis, particularly the issues raised by Yeddyurappa, became linked to the question of who was taking which position vis-à-vis the charges against him. It so happened that among those who rushed to his defence on the Purti issue were those who were most inimical to Yeddyurappa and, in fact, had precipitated the crisis in the first place. This meant that instead of functioning as a national president who is above sectional pressures, Gadkari became the nominal leader of a faction. And that faction had deemed that Yeddyurappa was dispensable, not least because he had also taken a public stand against Gadkari continuing in his post.

To many in the ‘parivar’, it was necessary to defy the media clamour against Gadkari and keep him as party president till late-December or even later. The principal reason for this persistence was to show that those who had thrust the local leader from Nagpur to a position of national eminence were not guilty of misjudgement. This astonishing show of vanity was also linked to the wider fear of losing their decisive influence over the BJP. Consequently, it was felt that there had to be an interregnum between Gadkari being acknowledged as damaged goods and his replacement being identified. Unfortunately, this decision was never properly communicated—a lapse that allowed Gadkari to persist with his contrived business-as-usual posturing. In such a murky atmosphere, the Karnataka crisis was allowed to drift till finally Yeddyurappa was left with no other alternative but to jump ship.

The damage that Yeddyurappa’s exit will inflict on the BJP in Karnataka is incalculable. The party’s meteoric rise in the southern state owed to three factors. First, Karnataka was one of the few states outside northern and western India where the Ayodhya movement created ripples and allowed a hitherto unknown BJP to win four Lok Sabha seats in 1991. Secondly, it was Yeddyurappa’s sustained articulation of farmers’ interests that added a new dimension to the BJP. Finally, it was the emergence of Yeddyurappa as the BJP’s tallest leader that brought the Lingayat community to the party. With one of the two dominant communities of the state under its belt, it became possible for the BJP to look electable and this in turn brought other smaller communities and the middle classes to its side. The extra momentum the BJP acquired to move from third position to winning power on its own in 2008 owed almost exclusively to Yeddyurappa. His exit has the possibility of reverting the BJP to third position, behind Congress and H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular).

For the BJP, the debacle confronting the party in next year’s general election holds out important lessons. Some of these lessons should have been learnt from the exit of Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh and Babulal Marandi in Jharkhand. Tragically, they haven’t and the party has failed to recognise that its success owes considerably to the association of strong regional leaders with it. Without accommodating the strong regional leaders who identify with the cause for divergent reasons, the party’s national leadership will be reduced to generals without an army.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, December 14, 2012 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

A Half-turn in History

By Swapan Dasgupta

Twenty years after the event, there is a dominant imagery of the demolition of the Babri shrine. Culled through photographs and long-distance video shots of frenzied karsevaks waving triumphantly from the 16th century domes, they convey vignettes of fanatics venting hate. This imagery is reinforced by writings in the English language that tell the story of despair at the assault on India’s syncretic traditions and tearful lamentations over a moment of “national shame”. Indeed, to a generation that has come of age in a glitzy, globalised, made-in-the-media India, ‘Ayodhya’ is often the casual shorthand for a dark past when menacing bigotry ruled the roost and when the “idea of India”—that mother of all cliches—came close to perishing.

There are, however, other imageries of December 6, 1992, that have been subsumed by the prevailing cosmopolitan discourse. In my mind, there is the unforgettable image of the middle-aged man, dripping blood from gashes all over his face and hands, rushing to a disoriented L.K. Advani and, on bended knees, offering him the tiny idol of Ram lalla that had been worshipped at the garbha griha since 1949. There is the meeting with the father of the two Kothari brothers who had been killed during the firing on karsevaks in October 1990, the first occasion when the shrine had been stormed. There is the picture of the group of nattily dressed youth from Andhra Pradesh leaving the venue at dusk chanting, “Ram lalla phir ayenge, bhavya mandir banayenge.”
That’s a promise that is likely to remain unfulfilled, maybe even in their lifetime.  There is a heavily guarded, completely barricaded, makeshift Ram temple that exists on the site. But the many thousands of consecrated bricks collected from all over India in 1989 and the scores of ornate pillars that have been diligently crafted by artisans following a design by the temple architect Chandrakant Sompura are likely to remain in storage at the nearby site for the foreseeable future.

An issue that was simmering locally since Mir Baqi built a mosque in 1528 on a site venerated by the Hindus of Awadh as Ram Janmasthan and which became embroiled in a legal tangle after 1949 when a Ram idol was placed inside the disused shrine isn’t likely to yield any quick solution. On April 26, 1955, the Allahabad High Court had observed that it “is very desirable that a suit of this kind is decided as soon as possible and it is regretted that it remained undecided for four years”. A judgement was finally delivered in September 2010—a 55-year delay—and was predictably sent to the Supreme Court where it festers.

Maybe it was wrong in the first place to expect their lordships to adjudicate on an issue that, whatever else it may be, was never a simple property dispute centred on 2.77 acres of land. Yet, for long years, nervous politicians, unwilling to shoulder the burden of a decision, fell back on a spurious let-the-courts-decide formula. In December 1992, that prevarication proved quite decisive. Had the Allahabad High Court not delayed its decision on the Uttar Pradesh government’s acquisition of the land outside the contentious 2.77 acres by over a year, it is entirely possible that the 16th century shrine would have survived the kar seva of December 6, 1992, and, indeed, many more kar sevas. After all, from December 1949, the Babri Masjid had been functioning as a Ram mandir—a Hindu temple in an unlikely building.

Legal issues were, however, never at the heart of the enormous mobilisation that, in the words of Advani, produced the “greatest mass movement” since 1947. To many, the awesome mobilisation, which began with the Ram shilan pujas of 1989 and became a national issue with Advani’s rath yatra from Ayodhya and climaxed with the December 6 demolition, was all about the reinvention of the Hindu vis-a-vis the ‘other’. In this scheme, righting the wrongs of history and undoing the medieval vandalisation of temples were symbolic of a larger transformation.

Hindu ne aaj kamaal kar diya,” gushed sikander Bakht, the BJP’s most prominent muslim face at the time, as he hugged colleagues at the Ashoka Road office.
Girilal Jain (a former Times of India editor and an intellectual voice of the Ayodhya movement) expressed this churning with characteristic bluntness in January 1993: “The structure as it stood represented an impasse between what Babar represented and what Ram represents. This ambiguity has been characteristic of the Indian state since Independence.... (In) my opinion, no structure symbolised the Indian political order in its ambivalence, ambiguity, indecisiveness and lack of purpose as this structure.... (Its) removal has ended the impasse and marks a new beginning.”

Read today, Girilal’s grand pronouncement may sound hyperbolic but in the surcharged atmosphere after the demolition there was a definite feeling (articulated, among others, by V.S. Naipaul and Nirad C. Chaudhuri) that India was witnessing a great Hindu ‘awakening’. “Hindu ne aaj kamaal kar diya,” gushed Sikander Bakht (the BJP’s most prominent Muslim face at the time) as he embraced colleagues at the party’s Ashoka Road office. In an article, written around that time, I had myself compared December 6 to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the storming of the Bastille.

In the event, history only half-turned. Did we miscalculate? Was the movement, in essence, merely an expression of visceral anger against the ‘other’? And was it purely momentary? Did the Hindu revert to his age-old celebration of ambivalence over certitude?

It is still far too early for definite answers. Yet, assessing the two decades that have lapsed since that fateful December afternoon, certain broad conclusions are in order.

First, the Ayodhya movement had a definite political context. It was nurtured and gained popular acceptance (particularly among the middle classes) in the backdrop of the Khalistani movement, the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley that led to the ethnic cleansing of the Hindus, and Rajiv Gandhi’s reversal of the Shah Bano judgment. Add to this V.P. Singh’s cynical Mandalisation of society and a picture of an India where the Hindus were being taken for granted. Ayodhya threw up a Hindu counter-challenge to divisive politics. Hindus, as a loose and amorphous religious community, predated independent India. Ayodhya created the political Hindu, a community that stretches far beyond those wielding trishuls recklessly and intervening with passionate incoherence on social media.

Finally, the Ayodhya years coincided with the gravest crisis of the ideological consensus forged by Jawaharlal Nehru. The disintegration of the Soviet Union, the rise of radical Islamism in the neighbourhood and the failure of the ‘socialistic’ way to deliver economic growth led to old shibboleths being questioned. Coming in the midst of this uncertainty, Ayodhya pushed the old order over the cliff. Later on, India moved tentatively towards market economics, material prosperity and a more pragmatic relationship with the world. Many of the grievances that had fuelled Hindu anger were tacitly addressed.

At the same time, the Hindu ‘resurgence’ was also marked by a significant failure. While political advances were made, there was a resounding failure to evolve an alternative intellectual tradition that built on the rich inheritance of pre-Nehruvian thought. It is this inability to systematically work towards building a viable counter-establishment that may explain why the optimism and hope created by Ayodhya has largely dissipated. It may also explain why the interpretation of a defining chapter has been left entirely to the ancien regime.

Outlook, December 17, 2012

Friday, December 07, 2012

Fears of an Invasion: Anti-Imperialism produces strange bedfellows

By Swapan Dasgupta

A quasi-dysfunctional democracy such as India occasionally needs to showcase Parliament’s role in seriously engaging with the pressing issues of the day. The two-day debate in Lok Sabha which resulted in the UPA Government securing a grudging approval of its contentious decision to allow a caveat-ridden 51 per cent foreign investment in retail trade may not have fully restored popular faith in an increasingly discredited political class. But it at least demonstrated that a large number of MPs (particularly the more seasoned parliamentarians) are aware of issues that extend beyond their state and constituency boundaries.

This may not come as a great revelation to those who look beyond stereotypes of the bumptious neta. However, for the more sceptical breed of Indians, particularly those with modernist and cosmopolitan pretensions, a debate such as this forces a realisation that there is a lot of earthy wisdom in India’s political culture than is often admitted.  

True, an understanding of the larger international trends in the retail trade, not least of which was the awareness of the contested business practices of the US-based retail giant Walmart, was also accompanied by a great deal of humbug. In the days to come, particularly if the agricultural procurement policies of some foreign retail companies has an unsettling effect on the rural economy of Uttar Pradesh, both Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati may be confronted by awkward questions centred on their covert deal to permit a move they held to be anti-farmer and anti-small business. Likewise, if Walmart or any other large retail chain decides to make their presence felt too fast and too aggressively in the National Capital, Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit may find herself challenged by small traders apprehensive of the future.

This is not an unreal prospect. A feature of the determined BJP-Left-Trinamool onslaught against FDI in retail was the invocation of fear. It was suggested that the presence of supermarkets in the large towns would destroy the livelihood of the corner grocery shop, curtail employment, contribute to distortions in agricultural procurement and, in the long run, herald monopolistic practices by the likes of Walmart—already a symbol of ugly Western capitalism. The Nationalist Congress Party’s Praful Patel may have been quite right to remind everyone that India’s entry into the World Trade Organisation had been accompanied by similar alarmist propaganda by both the BJP and the Left. But public memory is woefully short and it is quite likely that the same drama may be re-enacted. The only difference is that while globalisation was a slow, invisible process, the changes in the business rules of retail trade may be a more visible process. If the Shiv Sena does indeed plan to carry out its threat to smash up any foreign retail chains that dare set up shop in Maharashtra, this particular ‘reform’ may actually witness additional drama.

The Lok Sabha debate also witnessed unending references to the East India Company that came to India as traders and ended up as rulers. Gurudas Das Gupta of the CPI was particularly emphatic in his assertion that the likes of Walmart also have a political agenda, and that the foreigner could end up exercising control over the way Indians run their democracy.

It is touching to note that despite 20 years of deregulation and the visible success of some facets of economic liberalisation, the rhetoric of the Left hasn’t really evolved. Indeed, it can be said with some amusement that it has made some unlikely converts in the BJP. There was little in Murli Manohar Joshi’s amusingly distracted intervention that the Comrades would have taken serious objection to. Joshi’s searing indictment of the new imperialism of Walmart, et al, was, however, accompanied by a touching celebration of the unchanging nature of 5,000 years of Indian agricultural techniques. What new technology and techniques can the American firms impart to the Indian farmer who banks on inherited knowledge? Anti-imperialism, it would seem, produces strange bedfellows.

Some reassurance that the Indian Right isn’t merely Marxism plus the cow was, fortunately, provided by Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj who was at her eloquent and statesman-like best on both days—quite a contrast from Sonia Gandhi who was seen actively endorsing the puerile heckling of Harsimrat  Badal by a Congress MP from Punjab. Swaraj at least clarified that her party wasn’t opposed to FDI in infrastructure and high-tech but only to the sale of dal and rice to the Indian consumer. At least some facets of the NDA inheritance has been preserved by the BJP.

Indeed, a considerable part of the debate was taken up by the question of political inheritance. The BJP made much of the fact that in 2002 the then Congress Chief Whip Priyaranjan Das Munshi had described FDI in retail as “anti-national” and that Manmohan Singh had opposed any such move a decade ago. On its part, Kapil Sibal beamed in self-satisfaction as he pointed out that it was Murasoli Maran, the Commerce Minister in Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Government, who had first mooted the issue of FDI in retail, and that the NDA manifesto of 2004 promised to allow 26 per cent FDI in that sector. 

If the intention of the debate was to demonstrate that inconsistency is the hallmark of partisan politics, Indians who observed the debate would surely have come away with the conclusion that politicians aren’t doctrinaire. In taking the positions they did, both the Government and the Opposition had one eye on public opinion. This is natural considering that no one really knows how long the minority government will survive. But is there any reason to believe Mulayam Singh Yadav’s cryptic observation that the UPA will soon realise that reforms that affect too many people will be rejected by the electorate?

There are no simple answers. Nor is it wise to compare this week’s debate with the kerfuffle over the Indo-US nuclear accord when the Lok Sabha was divided along broadly similar lines. The nuclear deal, as it was perceived by the middle classes who were remotely interested in it, was all about India’s relationship with the US. It was about the continuing efficacy of anti-Americanism at a time when the cosmopolitan Indian never had it so good. In opposing it blindly, the BJP was completely out of step with its natural supporters and it paid the price in urban India in the 2009 general election.

The retail FDI debate took place in a different environment. It happened at a time when few are wildly optimistic about the short-term prospects of the economy. It was also held in the backdrop of an intense public furore over corruption and crony capitalism. The Congress obviously calculated that ‘reforms’ is the big idea that will transform the negativity and rekindle hope in the future. That is what Charan Singh’s grandson meant when he spoke about his faith in the larger process of parivartan.

Will the voters buy this logic? Alternatively, will they prefer to view the Congress’ belated faith in reforms as a last ditch attempt to divert attention from three years of paralysis and the enrichment of a favoured few?

Anticipating the future is hazardous and prone to misjudgements. The Government has come out of its bunker and gambled on the potential appeal of a big idea called ‘reform’. Whatever its other shortcomings, it is at least forward looking. The BJP cannot hope to counter this by good speeches and platitudes. To prevail, it has to also proffer its version of the good life.

The Telegraph, December 7, 2012