Saturday, December 14, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe I am over-reading the boisterousness, but the Aam Aadmi Party’s coming-second party at New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar last week left me a trifle disturbed. The enthusiasm of the modest but jubilant crowd, most flaunting their by-now familiar headgear, was only to be expected. After all, it is not every day that a determined bunch of activists can alter the electoral calculus of a state, especially one that happens to be India’s Capital city, and come within smelling distance of an outright victory after polling nearly 30 per cent of the popular vote. No, the triumphalism was both understandable and expected.

Yet, I expected a measured show of humility by those who had emerged out of a popular movement against both corruption and political high-handedness. Instead, TV viewers were subjected to an astonishing show of cockiness by individuals, heady from their rapid elevation from relative anonymity to stardom. The Master of Ceremonies was particularly exultant and never missed an opportunity to direct his snide asides both on those who had lost and those who had performed better than the fledgling AAP. Although Arvind Kejriwal did make a show of inviting “good people” from the Congress and BJP to join his party, the overall tone was one of dismissive sneer: the AAP was the stage army of the good and all the other mainstream parties epitomised the rot of India.

It was this infuriating arrogance that also led to a AAP celebrity heckling former army chief General V.K. Singh at Anna Hazare’s fast in a village in Maharashtra. So much so that Anna had to personally intervene and ask the loudmouth activist to leave.

To attribute this unseemly display of triumphalism to the personal shortcomings of a few individuals may well be correct. But if success has gone to the heads of those who promised a new brand of “alternative”, much of the responsibility can be pinned on the editorial classes who have cast AAP in the mould of a La Passionara—the legendary figure from the Spanish Civil War who uttered the famous words “they shall not pass” directed at the advancing forces of General Franco.

There was always an extra gush in the coverage of the AAP campaign but if this impressionable folly of junior reporters has been transmitted up the hierarchy after counting day, it is due to two factors. First, there appears to be generalised consensus that the bottom has fallen off the Congress’ support base. This was most in evidence in Delhi and Rajasthan, but even the Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh results reinforced the conviction that no great depth left in the Congress batting any longer. Secondly, there is an emerging groupthink that suggests the AAP is the only viable force that stands between Narendra Modi and victory. If the AAP, or so the argument goes, can replicate its Delhi performance in urban India, Modi will have to be content with his existing job as Chief Minister of Gujarat.  

The AAP euphoria is proving infectious among those who are exasperated by the sudden death of the Congress and are desperately in search of a force that can derail Modi’s journey to Delhi. An Indian-American academic who was earlier singing praises of Rahul Gandhi has, for example, detected that the dynasty is well past its sell-by date. He is now detecting an AAP surge in places such as Bangalore and Pune. Whether such individuals have actually detected something that is not visible to the naked eye or are merely clutching at straws will be known in a few months. Whatever the reality, the AAP is certainly celebrating its moment in the sun, its rise being equated to a tsunami and the Arab Spring that toppled various decrepit West Asian regimes and left the region in a state of confused turbulence.

Yet, while the AAP rise has many obvious lessons for a smug and complacent leadership of the national parties, its rise suggests various possibilities for the future. The most important—and by far the most reassuring message—is that traditional electoral calculations go out of the window if a big idea grips the popular imagination.

Contrary to media reports, this is not a new AAP contribution to Indian politics. The elections of 1971, 1977, 1980 and 1984 were decided on the strength of a big idea. In those elections, voters weren’t bothered about candidates: their preference was for the big picture. In an equal way, the BJP’s triumph in Uttar Pradesh in 1991 was brought about by a similar attraction to another lofty ideal that proved more appealing than local organisation and candidates.

Equally, the large network of volunteers that AAP was able to organise isn’t exactly new. Every worthwhile party has its network of kayakartas. What makes a crucial difference in the election season is a party’s ability to attract incremental support. In 1977, the Janata Party—born barely a month before the election—was completely dependent on unpaid enthusiasts. For that matter so is the NAMO campaign dependent on volunteers who have shelved other activities to campaign for what they see is a noble mission. Yet, the enthusiasm of these volunteers can only make a difference if they are integrated into the main campaign. The AAP succeeded in effecting that synergy and for that it should be credited. Now it is up to the others to do what is necessary to energise a campaign.

AAP has indicated that the mould of conventional politics can be broken. Mercifully, it is not the only force that can benefit from creative destruction. 

The curious case of convenient liberalism

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, liberal opinion that enjoys a virtual monopoly of the airwaves pilloried the Supreme Court for what some feel was its most disgraceful judgment since the infamous Habeas Corpus case of 1976. The decision to overturn the Delhi High Court judgment taking consensual same-sex relationships outside the purview of criminal laws has been viewed as an unacceptable assault on individual freedom and minority rights and even an expression of bigotry. Overcoming fears of a virulent conservative backlash, mainstream politicians have expressed their disappointment at the judgment and happily begun using hitherto unfamiliar shorthand terms such as LGBT.

Indeed, the most striking feature of the furore over the apex court judgment has been the relatively small number of voices denouncing homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and deviant. This conservative passivity may even have conveyed an impression that India is changing socially and politically at a pace that wasn’t anticipated. Certainly, the generous overuse of  ‘alternative’ to describe political euphoria and cultural impatience may even suggest that tradition has given way to post-modernity.

Yet, before urban India is equated with the bohemian quarters of New York and San Francisco, some judgmental restraint may be in order. The righteous indignation against conservative upholders of family values are not as clear cut as may seem from media reports. There are awkward questions that have been glossed over and many loose that have been left dangling.  

A year ago, a fierce revulsion against the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi led to Parliament amending the Penal Code and enacting a set of laws that extended the definition of rape and made punishment extremely stringent. It was the force of organised public opinion that drove the changes. Curiously, despite the Supreme Court judgment stating quite categorically that it was the responsibility of Parliament to modify section 377, there seems to be a general aversion to pressuring the law-makers to do their job and bring the criminal law system into the 21st century. Is it because India is bigoted or is there a belief that there are some issues that are best glossed over in silence?

This dichotomy of approach needs to be addressed. Conventionally, it is the job of the legislatures to write laws and for the judiciary to assess their accordance with the Constitution and to interpret them. In recent years, the judiciary has been rightly criticised for over-stepping its mark and encroaching into the domain of both the executive and the legislatures. Yet, we are in the strange situation today of the government seeking to put the onus of legitimising homosexuality on the judges. 

Maybe there are larger questions involved. The battle over 377 was not between a brute majoritarianism and a minority demanding inclusion. The list of those who appealed against the Delhi High Court verdict indicates it was a contest between two minorities: religious minorities versus lifestyle minorities. Formidable organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and some church bodies based their opposition to gay rights on theology. Liberal promoters of sexual choice on the other hand based the claim of decriminalised citizenship on modernity and scientific evidence. In short, there was a fundamental conflict between the Constitutionally-protected rights of minority communities to adhere to faiths that abhor same-sex relationships and the right of gays to live by their own morals. Yet, if absolute libertarianism was to prevail, can the khap panchayats be denied their perverse moral codes?

The answer is yes but only if it is backed by majority will, expressed through Parliament. Harsh as it may sound, it is the moral majority that determines the social consensus.

There is a curious paradox here. On the question of gay rights liberal India prefers a cosmopolitanism drawn from the contemporary West. At the same time, its endorsement of laws that are non-denominational and non-theological does not extend to support for a common civil code. Despite the Constitution’s Directive Principles, the right of every citizen to be equal before the law is deemed to be majoritarian and therefore unacceptable by the very people who stood up for inclusiveness last week.

For everything that is true of India, the opposite is turning out to be equally true. 

Time to send out friend requests

By Swapan Dasgupta

There is something quite compelling about the what-if, counterfactual history that fascinates people. Would the bloody World War of 1914-18 have been averted if the chauffer of Archduke Franz Ferdinand not taken a wrong turn in the town of Sarajevo? Would Partition of India have been averted had the Congress leadership known that Mohammed Ali Jinnah was suffering from a deadly cancer and was living on borrowed time?

These are interesting subjects for intellectual mind-games on a winter’s evening in the hills. However, there is no percentage in the BJP lamentation that victory in three more seats in Delhi last Sunday would have made the party’s forward march appear even more emphatic. Equally, there is little credibility in the assertion made by beleaguered secular crusaders from Barkha Dutt to Nitish Kumar that Narendra Modi’s contribution to the BJP victory was zero because the party’s vote fell in Delhi. To the uninitiated observer, the overall winner of this round of elections was the BJP. And since Modi is the national face of the BJP, he has to count as an overall winner too, just as his political standing would have been affected had the Congress won any of the four states. The exemption clause that insulates the ‘dynasty’ from any responsibility for adversity and catapults it to the top of the credit-seekers’ queue in the event of a triumph does not, mercifully, apply to individuals with lesser pedigrees.

Fortunately, there is more to the just-concluded round of elections than the conflicting theories on the likely impact of Modi. What stares everyone in the face most starkly is the inescapable conclusion that a Congress-led UPA Government is very unlikely to be returned to power next year.

Admittedly, Sonia Gandhi has taken heed of the disappointing results and promised yet another bout of the mandatory ‘introspection’; and Rahul Gandhi has promised to attend to the structural shortcomings of the Congress with exceptional purposefulness. There has also been an announcement that the Congress will go into the 2014 general election with a pre-determined prime ministerial candidate. Yet, none of these grand proclamations can take away from the fact that the average Congress activist and leader is approaching the 2014 Lok Sabha poll dejected and dispirited. During confessional, the party may be coerced into admitting that it is fighting the Lok Sabha poll not to win, but to prevent a Modi-led BJP from winning.

In the coming days, we are likely to witness even more dirt being hurled at Modi by sting operations that bear the sponsorship mark of the Congress. We may even witness a last-ditch attempt by fanatical ultra-loyalists to dethrone the Prime Minister and replace him with a member of the first family. If the desperation to cling on to power proves too irresistible, the country could even witness some pretty adventurist schemes to trigger social polarisation that could be sought to be blamed on Modi or his associates.

The possibilities are endless but it is unlikely that they will produce the mythical “late, reverse swing” that fanciful Congressmen detected in Rajasthan and courtier-journalists gleamed in Madhya Pradesh. Actually, the experience of Madhya Pradesh is worth narrating, not least because an unnatural sense of deference by the media has prevented many uncomfortable facts from emerging. For two months it was propagated that the quasi-official anointment of Jyotiraditya Scindia as the Congress’ chief ministerial choice had made the race tighter. Scindia, it was suggested, would really make Shivraj Singh Chauhan sweat.

The results suggest that far from boosting the Congress’ tally against a 10-year-old government, Scindia’s leadership, the number of seats won by the party actually fell by 13. To be fair, this failure can’t be pinned on Scindia alone. However, it suggests that even a supposedly more energetic leader on his own can’t reverse a larger trend. Regardless of whether the Congress goes into battle with Rahul Gandhi or P.Chidambaram or even (as some suggest) a technocrat such as Nandan Nilekani at the helm, the party has to bear the full weight of the anti-Congress wave sweeping through much of India.

This has implications for the likes of Nitish Kumar who believed that an understanding with the Congress would boost his prospects. As things stand at present, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar must be wondering whether any identification with the Congress will involve inheriting a negative sentiment. Sharad Pawar expressed this quite openly after the results and the same thoughts must be going through the minds of the DMK leadership in Tamil Nadu. The Aaam Aadmi Party and its charismatic leader Arvind Kejriwal may be projected as the emerging third alternative by a section of the editorial class anxious to clutch on to any anti-Modi straw. But AAP’s ability to strike roots outside Delhi is doubtful and will be limited to linkages with the so-called ‘people’s movements’ against development projects in some states. In any case, it is still too early for AAP to dilute the purity of its mission by teaming up with either the established Left or with potential constituents of the mythical Third Front.

The outcome of the four Assembly elections, particularly the despondency in the Congress, has given the BJP its best opportunity for attracting new allies in at least Haryana, Jharkhand and Karnataka. Despite the opposition to each of these measures from within, it would be imprudent for the BJP to bask in majestic isolation and delay matters too much.

Last Sunday, the BJP took a few more steps in the direction of its goal of winning power in Delhi. A few more smart moves aimed at seizing the moment will see them tantalizingly close to their final objective. But, as the Delhi results revealed, to be within smelling distance of victory isn’t the same as winning. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

BJP has the highest stake in these polls

By Swapan Dasgupta

By next Sunday afternoon the country will begin the process of digesting the results of the Assembly elections in five states. Although the results will include the verdict of Mizoram, the greatest attention will be on the four states of northern and central India where the principal battle is between the Congress and the BJP. Since the Congress holds power in Rajasthan and Delhi, and the BJP rules Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, this is not an unequal battle. Despite the fact that there are differences in how people vote in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections—this is particularly marked in Delhi—the outcome will be a curtain raiser in the battle to decide which party/alliance will rule at the Centre in 2014.

The issue is more than a question of the final tally. The interpretation of the final results is more than a statistical issue: it is a matter of perception and expectation. The stakes are unquestionably the highest for the BJP. As the challenger whose geographical spread does not extend to large parts of southern and eastern India, the BJP has to demonstrate that it is in a position to maximise its yield in its stronghold areas. In other words, the BJP does not merely need to retain Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh and regain Rajasthan, it needs to perform very well in a triangular contest in Delhi and, hopefully, even win.

For the BJP the bar has been set much higher for a very good reason: this is going to be first real electoral test of Narendra Modi’s popularity ever since he was chosen as the BJP-NDA prime ministerial candidate on September 13 this year. Maybe this is unfair since the ultimate verdict in the states will depend on local issues and the performance of the respective Chief Ministers and challengers. The Modi factor can, at best, have an incremental factor—acting as a booster or a depressant for the BJP.

However, the terms of the encounter has not been decided by the political pundits but by the BJP. In organising a punishing election schedule for the Gujarat Chief Minister and using him as a force multiplier, the BJP appears to have used the state Assembly elections as much a test of Modi’s appeal as the leadership of Raman Singh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Vasundhara Raje and Hashvardhan. In a meeting in East Delhi on November 30 at which Modi was present, the BJP’s Delhi Chief Ministerial candidate Harshvardhan made it clear that by electing a BJP government in place of Sheila Dikshit’s 15-year tenure, the voters would also be facilitating Modi’s election as Prime Minister next year.

In 1993, in the aftermath of the demolition of the shrine in Ayodhya, the BJP had fought the Assembly elections in five states on the slogan: “Aaj panch Pradesh, kal sara desh”. It had deliberately linked the Assembly polls to its wider quest for national power. Indeed, at that time there was a belief that a shaky government of P.V. Narasimha Rao would have crumbled had the results been advantageous to the BJP. Unfortunately for the BJP, it lost Uttar Pradesh to a Samajwadi Party-BSP alliance and Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh to the Congress. The BJP won Delhi handsomely and Rajasthan narrowly.

True, it was a narrow 3-2 advantage to the Congress but since the BJP had hyped up its expectations and projected a 5-0 victory, the results proved a colossal disappointment. Far from adding to the fragility of the Narasimha Rao Government, the Assembly results strengthened the Congress and allowed it to rule for a full-term till 1996. In the 1996 general election the BJP emerged as the single-largest party in the Lok Sabha and the 13-day government did set the stage for a big win in 1998 and 1999. However, in hindsight, over-pitching the 1993 elections proved very costly for the party and delayed its triumph at the Centre for at least five years.

I am not suggesting that the 1993 experience is likely to be repeated next week: history doesn’t repeat itself mindlessly. Yet the BJP should be aware that linking its national fortunes and the political trajectory of its great hope to the Assembly polls carries a high element of risk.

The Congress just has to perform half-decently for it to slow down the BJP’s momentum. Whether this means ousting the BJP in Chhattisgarh  and clinging on to either Rajasthan or Delhi is something that will become evident on counting day. For the moment the Congress is definitely the underdog in the poll stakes and the bar it has set for itself is much, much lower than that set by the BJP for itself. Even a solitary victory will give solace to the Congress and reassure its dispirited troops that even if it can’t win in 2014, it can deprive Modi of a victory.

However, in the event the Congress falters in all the states and is unable to form a government in any of the four main states we are likely to see a dramatic change in the political chemistry of India. First, for all practical purposes India will have a lame-duck by the evening of December 8. Secondly, the stage would have been set for many small, regional parties to seek a pre-poll understanding with the NDA. And finally, we will see many rats deserting a sinking ship and discovering virtues in a man they had earlier decried as a living ogre. 

Sunday Pioneer, December 1, 2013

An empire that was built on the counterfeit

By Swapan Dasgupta

Maybe there will come a day when the National Capital of India chooses to have its very own coat of arms and a matching motto. The college of heraldry is best suited to design a crest appropriate to a city that a former Viceroy (who opposed the transfer of the Capital in 1911) described as the “graveyard of empires”. However, when it comes to the motto, nothing would please me better than the commonly-understood phrase: Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?

If there is a single phrase that defines the ethos of a city built to flaunt the grandeur of political power, it is the imperious assertion by the few to the many: “Don’t you know who I am?”

In most cases we don’t and so we have to be educated. How does a harassed parking attendant at one of Delhi’s celebrated hotels on a Saturday evening know that the rude 20-something who has blocked the flow of traffic is the favourite younger son of the minister who controls a formidable caste vote bank? How does Mr Ordinary Middle Class who protests against the queue jumping at airport security know that preferential treatment must be accorded to Mr Self-Important, IAS?

And how is a spirited young women brought up to repudiate patriarchy and the ‘commodification’ of women, believe in feminism, women’s empowerment and so on to know that when the high priest of progressive thought makes a crude sexual advance at her in a hotel lift, the answer has to be yes? After all, Jaante nahin mein kaun hoon?

To view the ongoing saga of an individual who forgot where influence and self-importance ended and where ordinary decencies took over as an unfortunate aberration caused by an excess of drink is to misread the social context of the incident. Goa may well be a place where inhibitions are supposedly abandoned and where it all hangs loose, but this was no ordinary misreading of a situation. What took place was an act of brazenness brought about by the belief that power, influence and grandstanding generate exceptional entitlements.

It may have begun with fighting the good fight against the dark forces that were hell bent of taking India down the slippery slope of bigotry and hate. Even though the means may have been contested, that was a democratic right, guaranteed by the Constitution. However, from battling for so-called liberal values to embracing sharp financial practices and taking full advantage of political cronyism was a leap into another league, into the world of the Jaante nahin. It didn’t matter that this was not accompanied by the seedy and very vernacular social ambience of hard drinking and disreputable assignations in hotels with hourly rates. In essence, the assembly of beautiful people in festivals celebrating the cerebral but underwritten by dodgy liquor barons and victims of extortion also turned out to be a cover for an empire built on the counterfeit. Once values had been mortgaged to self-fulfilment, the descent to moral corruption was near-inevitable.

In a libertine world where anything goes, consent is somehow taken as implicit. But whether groping-gone-wrong was consensual or forced begs a larger and more disturbing question. What is the mentality of an individual who thinks nothing about making a lunge at a junior colleague who also the friend of his daughter? Did it stem from the licentious groupthink of people who flaunted their rejection of conservatism and moral orthodoxies? Or was the process also aided by a belief that in kaliyug the law is an ass, at least for those who, like the character in T.S. Eliot’s Cocktail Party can say:  “You know, I have connections—even in California.”

The ‘crime’ was despicable enough; even more sordid was the attempted management of its inevitable fallout. For some, the veneer of religiosity was a cover for preying on female devotees; for others, a damaging charge of rape can be debunked as a political frame-up. Rape, radical feminists used to say is always political. Now we are told it is an anti-secular conspiracy.

The hallucination doesn’t stem from the fogging of individual minds. It happens because some people have internalised Delhi’s overriding philosophy: Jaante nahin main kaun hoon? 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Tejpal: Reaction is to culture of ‘entitlement’

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are times when a ‘scandal’ becomes more than a gripping tale of individual misdemeanours: it becomes a commentary on society and social mores. The miscarriage of justice in the case involving Alfred Dreyfus brought into the open the fissures in late-19th century French society, particularly its pernicious anti-Semitism. The salacious tale of what came to be known as the Profumo scandal involving Christine Keeler went a long way in exposing the hypocrisy of the post-War British Establishment and contributed greatly in breaking down the culture of deference that once defined the United Kingdom.

It is still early days to be entirely sure if the grim saga of Tarun Tejpal’s conduct at a purportedly intellectual festival in Goa earlier this month will be treated by social historians of the future as an isolated act of criminality or will be regarded as a vivid illustration of the social mores of contemporary India. It is possible that the so-called “private moment” in a hotel lift points to one dirty, middle-aged man and can hardly constitute a generalisation for either the media or even those who combine artistic sensibilities with the good life. At the same time, there is an equally compelling case for the suggestion that the great champion of the underdog behaved as he did out of a sense of arrogance and entitlement—and that he isn’t the only one.

To view the Tejpal controversy as a media event—which may explain the interest it has aroused in the Fourth Estate—is only partially correct. The attempt by the boss (and, in this case, the perceived owner) of an organisation to extract sexual favours from a subordinate isn’t novel. There have been enough highly-publicised instances of ‘modern’ Indians in publishing and information technology misusing their positions to secure sexual favours for the Tejpal case to acquire any novelty. The only possible difference is that the element of consent in this case appears to be exclusively one-sided. What really marked the Tejpal case was the attempted ‘management’ of the crime by the journalist and the Tehelka management. And that is where media, politics and the social mileau of the ‘arty’ world intersected.

The failure of the Tehelka management to report the incident to the police, when it was under a statutory obligation to do so and, instead, settle matters through a private deal, has attracted many adverse comments. Equally, a lot of incredulity and disgust has surrounded the attempt by Tehelka’s Managing Editor to elevate ordinary criminality into a test of high feminist principles. At the heart of both approaches was the astonishing presumption that normal rules—whether of law or society—don’t apply to those engaged in the noble business of exposing the wrongdoing of others.

It is this insistence of exceptional standards to judge Tejpal that has both angered and mystified many. First there was the attempt to minimise the gravity of the charges against Tejpal and settle the issue through what has been described as a “private treaty”. Secondly, there was the bid by Tejpal to unilaterally award himself a punishment: a sabbatical from active journalism for six months. Thirdly, when these measures were greeted with a renewed sense of outrage, there was the attempt by the Tehelka management to establish a private dispute redressal mechanism—a committee headed by a friend of Tejpal who also happened to be a leading feminist. Thirdly, there was an attempt to put pressure on the family of the victim and persuade her to withdraw her complaint, perhaps in return for some compensation.

And, finally, there was the astonishing demand that Tejpal should have a say in deciding which authority was best placed to assess the charges brought against him. The Goa police, it was claimed, was not an appropriate authority because the government there was controlled by the BJP which apparently wanted to settle scores with Tehelka for its role in disgracing former BJP president Bangaru Laxman in a sting operation more than a decade ago.

In any ordinary case, the defendants may well have claimed that the sexual liaison was consensual but they would not have tried to establish a parallel system of justice or claimed political victimisation. That Tejpal did so was revealing and suggested that the man tried to take refuge behind his lofty status in society and his formidable political links.

Tejpal, it has emerged, was more than just an editor who also organised literary events by way of brand extension. He positioned himself as a great crusader for liberal values and secular causes. Cabinet ministers had invested in his ventures, MPs were among those who had large stakes in Tehelka and he had been appointed as a non-executive director of Prasar Bharti. In addition, he was on first name terms with the great and good of the international literary world. He could flaunt his ‘enlightened’ values on sexuality and get away with a style that was reckless. Corporate bigwigs vied for his attention and showered him with generous sponsorships for his Thinkfest in Goa. No, Tejpal wasn’t any old hack. He was among Delhi’s beautiful people, a pillar of the Establishment.

The assault on Tejpal’s pretensions has, willy-nilly, come to express the popular antipathy to the culture of licentiousness and entitlement that defines India’s governing elite. The coming days will determine if the Tejpal affair is another nail in the coffin of a rotten dispensation. 


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Those in glass houses...

By Swapan Dasgupta

Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal is an effective and even inspirational communicator. However, there is something a bit jarring in his over-sanctimoniousness, particularly his underlying message that those who are not with him are somehow implicitly in favour of a corrupt system. This exaggerated polarisation may have won him adherents but his contrived saintliness has also made many people deeply uncomfortable. Such people may actually delight in some recent revelations that seem to suggest that those living in glass houses should be wary of hurling stones.

To be fair, the Media Sarkar sting operation directed at a handful AAP candidates for the Delhi Assembly doesn’t conclusively establish that the so-called ‘alternative politics’ is a sham. To say that many of those contesting on the AAP symbol are in no different from the archetypal venal politician is an exaggeration. The AAP hasn’t been around for long enough and hasn’t ever tasted political power to become tainted. However, the sting operation—which also happens to be dodgy journalism—does end up conveying a disturbing message.

It is important to note that people aren’t born corrupt. They don’t even necessarily become corruption by dipping their toes in political waters. The real test of integrity is when an individual has the opportunity to be corrupt and refuses to succumb to it. Those who have no real opportunity and occasion to engage in corrupt practices can stay pure. But that is not to say that they are inherently pure. The person who is charged with rape in a hotel lift in Goa wasn’t always a person who lacked all scruples and cynically crafted a career path using lofty idealism as commerce. No, his downfall began when he was overwhelmed by the opportunities available to him. He was intoxicated by his power. And, inevitably, the arrogance of power produced a disagreeable form of moral corruption.

In his pious rebuttal of the charges levelled against AAP candidates, its political guru Yogendra Yadav said that there was nothing to warrant disciplinary action against those who were ‘stung’. In a sense he was right. No money changed hands and nothing improper was actually done. Yet, the Media Sarkar sting did establish something that is potentially very damaging to the AAP: it suggested that given the right incentives, even the workers of a holier-than-outfit were willing to join the ranks of a disagreeable political class.

What the (albeit edited) sting tapes clearly indicated were two things. First, that like most outfits facing a resource crunch to fight elections, the AAP candidates weren’t too particular about the motives behind funding, the source of the funds and, in some cases, over-the-top cash donations. Secondly, and this is the most disturbing aspect of the revelations, the AAP activists appear to have turned a blind eye to the fact that the proposed donations had a definite quid pro quo to them. That AAP candidates were willing to lend a sympathetic ear and even promise possible action to intervene in private disputes involving either companies or landlords and tenants is revealing. Shazia Ilmi, the ever-smiling candidate for RK Puram, did clearly state that she needed documentary evidence to be convinced about the rights and wrongs of the case. Yet, she was not averse to any intervention in a civil dispute that has no bearing on the larger public interest.

The conclusions are distressing. They suggest that there are people in the AAP who, far from practising ‘alternative’ and wholesome politics, are mentally willing to walk down the same treacherous path as many other political parties.

I would be extremely hesitant to suggest that the likes of Messrs Kejriwal, Yadav and others are cynical practitioners of realpolitik and are devoid of scruples. But their unwillingness to admit the party’s shortcomings and instead fall back on attacking the cussedness of Media Sarkar in not supplying the original tapes is revealing. It indicates that, in anticipation of a good performance in the election, the AAP is not willing to practice the lofty idealism it preaches.

Actually, this embracement of pragmatism began earlier. Beginning with Kejriwal’s courtship of sundry clerics who claimed to control Muslim vote banks and including his overtures to disappointed ticket aspirants from the big parties, the AAP has given indications that it is ready to embrace many aspects of electoral politics as it now exists. Changing the political culture is a lofty goal and can’t be achieved through one electoral intervention. But the AAP doesn’t appear to have tried too hard.

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh on the AAP. However, when a party makes saintliness is uniqueness and sets lofty standards for others to follow, there will be an inclination to judge it by its own standards.

There are major lessons to be learnt from the jam the AAP finds itself in. For a start, it must realise that finding pristine pure individuals who will resist all temptations is an impossible mission. Secondly, the AAP must realise that just as it is unfair to judge it by the lapses of a few individuals in its ranks, it is equally unfair to judge other parties solely on account of a few rotten eggs. The point to note that politics has become such a disagreeable business that deviants are naturally attracted to it. Changing the tone and tenor of politics and statecraft involves a national awakening that can’t happen by getting a few AAP candidates elected in Delhi. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

DRAMA ON THE SIDELINES - From a socio-political movement to a political party

By Swapan Dasgupta

On the afternoon of December 8, the principal interest of ‘political’ India will be on the Congress-Bharatiya Janata Party encounter in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. If the BJP manages a conclusive victory by both holding its own and wresting at least one state from the Congress, it is likely to remove many obstacles in the path of Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial overdrive. If, on the other hand, the Congress somehow manages a 2-2 draw or even succeeds in wresting Chhattisgarh from the BJP, it will signal to its supporters that all is not lost and that the UPA remains in the 2014 election race.  

The natural focus on the fortunes of the Congress and BJP should not, however, divert attention from a fascinating sub-plot of the Assembly election, in Delhi at least: the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party as a possible third alternative.

As I see it, counting day on December 8 will be marked by three possible outcomes for the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP that was born as an offshoot of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption crusade and battle for a Janalokpal Bill.

For the new entrant to electoral politics, the most spectacular outcome would lie in its ability to translate the 28 per cent or so of popular votes—as predicted by the CSDS-Lokniti-CNN-IBN pre-poll survey last month—into seats. This would mean that neither the BJP nor the Congress will be in a position to form a government in the National Capital. For the AAP, which is barely a year old in electoral politics, this would be a colossal achievement. It would indicate that there is a meaningful space available in large parts of India for what is being flaunted as “alternative politics”. 

The second scenario that could be moderately satisfying for the AAP would lie in its ability to secure a small toehold in the Delhi Assembly.  Although the third party wouldn’t be able to avert a Congress or BJP victory—and, in fact, would actually contribute to the outcome by playing spoiler—it would have carved out a niche for itself in the civic life of Delhi. In other words, the AAP would have laid the foundations of a potentially larger role for itself in politics. Depending on how it conducted itself in the next few years, it would be in a position to either advance or shrink into irrelevance.

For the AAP, the most disheartening outcome would lie in its inability to either win seats or prevent any party from securing a clear mandate. In the event of such a result, we can almost visualise tearful scenes in the AAP offices on the realisation that the stupendous energy and enthusiasm displayed by its youthful volunteers hasn’t proved contagious. The sense of disappointment is likely to prompt its idealistic supporters to either eschew electoral politics altogether and revert to NGO-type activism or turn to more extremist causes.

At this stage of the campaign, when the AAP is experiencing both the exhilaration of possible popular support and the murkiness that is associated with securing votes, it is hazardous to predict which of these outcomes is most likely. If the feedbacks from the Congress and BJP camps are any indication, it would seem that the support for the AAP is extremely patchy and not sufficiently concentrated to enable the party to win seats. As the campaign gathers momentum, it is becoming sufficiently clear that many AAP candidates, while exemplary individuals, lack both the local connections and the organisational networks to fully convert goodwill into votes. The absence of enough candidates with local links could explain why there was an attempt by the AAP leadership to try and rope in individuals from established parties who were disappointed at not getting the party nomination. This departure from the high idealism of “alternative politics” was revealing and suggested that purity and saintliness are not always practical in democratic politics.

Not that these occasional lapses should divert attention from the fact that regardless of the actual results of the Delhi election, the AAP has had a visible impact on the political culture. The more established political parties can ignore the larger AAP impact at their own peril.

The most profound impact has been in the AAP thrust on the personal integrity of the political leadership. The BJP may not open acknowledge it but it is undeniable that its midway course correction in discarding Vijay Goel and replacing him with Dr Harshvardhan was a direct consequence of the AAP’s spirited quest for ethical politics. Goel, a former minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, was no doubt an energetic leader with a taste for razzmatazz. Unfortunately for him, he was perceived as a politician who was cut from the same cloth as Pramod Mahajan. Compared to him, Dr Harshvardhan, a low-key medical practitioner from East Delhi with a fierce reputation for personal integrity, was regarded as someone who provided a meaningful alternative to the Congress’ perceived mega-corruption. If the BJP manages to prevail in Delhi with its new chief ministerial candidate, much of the credit must go the AAP for forcing a change of guard at the eleventh hour.  

Unfortunately, however, the AAP impact has been confined to the top of the political pile. In the matter of choosing local candidates, both the national parties have kept a sharp eye on the winning potential of individuals.

An associated feature of the AAP impact is in the realm of political funding. By upholding the sanctity of transparent, voluntary contribution by individuals, the AAP has taken a modest step in the right decision. Political parties are disproportionately dependant on cash contributions by either corporates and local business or kickbacks from government contracts to contribute to the larger process of clean politics. The AAP example may actually force the mainstream parties into taking some steps towards transparent fund collection.

Finally, in using the energy and commitment of its volunteers to spread its message, the AAP has definitely contributed towards imaginative, low-cost electioneering. It has relied more on innovative methods and direct voter contact than the established political parties whose appeal to voters is more linked to the mass media and are, consequently, more impersonal. In particular, the rediscovery of old-style persuasion is a positive trend and could, in the long run, contribute towards reducing the high levels of alienation that ordinary people have for politics and politicians.

Conventional wisdom and past experience suggest that the transition from a socio-political movement to a political party can be extremely troublesome.  The impact of Anna Hazare’s fast in Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Ram Lila maidan was considerable and played a huge role in destroying the credibility of the UPA-2 Government. If there are times the re-election of a Congress-led government at the Centre seems near-impossible in 2014, much of the credit goes to the veteran Gandhian who highlighted its departure from ethical politics. However, the decision of the activists who organised the Anna movement in Delhi to branch out to electoral politics has proved more contentious, not least because there is a definite impression that the anti-corruption platform is a shield for political agendas that would otherwise not appeal to the middle classes. The AAP is a coalition of very disparate elements who are awaiting the outcome of the Delhi polls to reveal their true colours. Post-December 8, the further fragmentation of this amorphous body of activists seems unavoidable.  

Saturday, November 09, 2013

A NECESSARY TRIP - India should indicate that it values its ties with Sri Lanka


Popular interest in history and even contemporary politics is invariably enhanced by posing the vexed what-if question. To those terribly agitated over the Indian prime minister's participation in the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Colombo later this month, there is a counterfactual question that is worth posing. Had the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam succeeded in their bid to carve an independenteelam out of the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, would its supremo, Velupillai Prabhakaran, have chosen to apply for membership of the Commonwealth?

How liberation movements conduct themselves after winning power depends on many imponderables. To that extent it is impossible to be certain about how a victorious LTTE would have conducted itself. However, one thing is certain: the philosophy, the methods and the overall orientation of the Tamil Tigers were always at odds with everything today’s Commonwealth stands for. The LTTE’s unwavering faith in a one-party State, its total intolerance of all dissent within the Tamil community, its targeted assassination of all those it considered its enemies and the ruthlessness with which it conducted its 20-year war against the Sri Lankan State set it apart from other similar movements in South Asia.

Regardless of the fact that a large number of LTTE supporters in the Tamil diaspora located in Europe, North America and Australasia were middle-class professionals and law-abiding citizens of their adopted countries, they bankrolled a vicious war machine that can only be compared with the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. This apparent contradiction needs to be explained, if not politically, then by using the tools of social psychology.

Yet, whatever complex explanations may be proffered to explain this bizarre schizophrenia, one thing is very clear: the LTTE could not have been defeated with the rules devised by the Marquess of Queensberry. A ruthless and fanatical army that showed scant concern for collateral civilian casualties needed an equally determined response.

That the final months of the war led to unspeakable brutalities and what are called ‘human rights abuses’ is well known. Some of these transgressions have been documented by both propagandists and well-meaning human rights bodies. But it would be a travesty to believe, as is often the case these days, that the departures from a gentlemanly conduct of war was the prerogative of the Sri Lankan army alone. No history of the civil war will be complete if it ignores the fact that the responsibility of the non-State player was far, far greater.

What is interesting is that the whole world was aware of the true nature of the LTTE and quietly encouraged the Sri Lankan government to finish the job as quickly and efficiently as possible. This included New Delhi which, in spite of calling for a peaceful, negotiated settlement of the problem, wanted an end to the LTTE problem once and for all. This was not because there is some residual support for Sinhala chauvinism in South Block. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was given the diplomatic and military space to go for broke precisely because there was a deep understanding of the long-term threat the LTTE posed to both countries. India’s present-day ambivalence has its roots in domestic politics and not in the diplomatic and military assessment of the rebellion.

Those who have mounted a sustained campaign to force the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, to skip the CHOGM in Colombo beginning November 15 have targeted Rajapaksa. This is understandable. Apart from being perceived as the victor of the civil war and the man who re-united the island, the Sri Lankan president has come across as a man who is not amenable to pressure, both domestic and international. A leader with a firm grip on the public pulse, the president is keenly aware that the psychological scars of a long-standing ethnic divide can only be healed by a combination of peace and prosperity. His blunt style and his insufficient personal commitment to a devolution package that was thrust on Sri Lanka by Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 has made him an object of suspicion for those who feel he is instigating Sinhala chauvinism. But his critics forget that governing Sri Lanka democratically calls for a deft balancing act and, in particular, being mindful of the deep Sinhala distrust of weakness. Translated into an ethnic mould, it implies being forever vigilant that the yearning for Tamil autonomy does not descend into a revival of separatism.

Actually, India has little reason to complain about Rajapaksa’s balancing act. Immediately after the civil war ended, New Delhi’s thrust was on the revival of ‘normal’ politics in the Tamil-majority areas through the devolution of power. Fears were expressed that the president would ride the crest of Sinhala triumphalism and dilute the 13th amendment — which New Delhi views as an article of faith solely because it was negotiated by Rajiv Gandhi. It was well known that Rajapaksa personally favoured district councils over provincial councils. However, notwthstanding his personal preference, the president has stuck to the commitment he made to India.

Likewise, fears were expressed that the elections to the provincial council in the Tamil-dominated Northern Province would be put off indefinitely and that any election would be unfair. The September election which produced a conclusive majority for the Tamil National Alliance and the election of a well-respected former judge of the supreme court as chief minister has put an end to these fears. Rajapaksa, it is clear, has stuck to his side of the bargain.

Under the circumstances, it makes no diplomatic sense for India to succumb to the extremist pressure of the Tamil diaspora and the regional parties of Tamil Nadu. A multilateral CHOGM is not the occasion for grandstanding. Neither is it the appropriate forum to raise new issues centred on the internal governance of Sri Lanka. These must await a more relevant occasion, if indeed they have to be pressed. India would have been happy to attend a CHOGM at, say, Islamabad, in spite of the deterioration of bilateral relations with Pakistan. Why should it be different for Sri Lanka?

For a small country that has only just come out of an extremely damaging civil war, the CHOGM is an opportunity to showcase the return to normalcy. For Sri Lanka, India is the big neighbour and Sri Lankans, cutting across the ethnic divide, look to India as a benign presence in the region. Manmohan Singh may not be the flavour of the season within India but he represents India internationally and is the symbol of India. His ungrudging presence will be a major signal to Sri Lanka that New Delhi values its deep ties with the island.

Boycotting the meet would be churlish. Such a short-sighted move will not weaken Rajapaksa politically. Instead, it will be regarded as an affront whose impact will be felt long after Manmohan Singh retires to a Lutyens’ bungalow to pen his memoirs. And, as for the cabinet ministers from Tamil Nadu who are urging New Delhi to be reckless, their unsafe Lok Sabha seats will not be made safe by an impulsive boycott.

For long, Manmohan Singh has been berated for yielding to the line of least resistance. Although rather late in the day and bereft of any wider electoral significance, he can afford to take a stand and do the right thing by travelling to Colombo.

The Telegraph, November 8, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

In 2010, in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain that saw off the proposed Nazi invasion of Britain, David Cameron referred to his country as the “junior partner” of the mighty US during that battle. Needless to say, the British Prime Minister was wrong: The US did not join the war against the Axis powers in Europe until December 1941 when Hitler declared war in solidarity with Japan after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Some time later, while appearing on an American chat house, Cameron compounded his history malfunction by being clueless when asked the meaning of ‘Magna Carta’ and the name of the gentleman who penned the stirring words of ‘Rule Britannia’.
If the voluble Minister of State for everything-apart-from-HRD Shashi Tharoor was to use the same yardstick for the Prime Minister of the land of his birth as he does to the humble natives of India, Cameron would have been dismissed as a man who lacked the intellectual rigour and breadth of reading to be leader of a country that is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. But, and wisely so, Tharoor would never insist that the leadership of the two main parties in Britain should be chosen from those who had acquitted themselves honourably in competitions such as Mastermind, Brain of Britain and University Challenge — the British variants of the Bourn Vita quiz contests that people of an earlier generation may be familiar with. After all, didn’t Cameron graduate with a first class degree from Oxford?
The suggestion that politicians shouldn’t ideally make factual errors in their public utterances is well taken. After all, they have an army of researchers to provide them inputs and check for possible inaccuracies. Yet, errors and other boo-boos do creep in. Indira Gandhi was a canny politician but her knowledge of international economics was elementary. She relied on her speech-writers for guidance. Unfortunately, one of those speech-writers copy-pasted a big chunk of an article written by a well-respected Pakistani economist into one of her speeches. There were many red faces in the PMO when this plagiarism was detected. Yet, I don’t think that this bloomer caused anyone, least of all those who wrote histories of Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership, to suggest that she was not suited to high office on this count. The fact that she never completed her degree in Oxford was also never regarded as a disqualification. Indira was admired and berated for what she did in office and how she moulded India.
Likewise, Rahul Gandhi will not be judged on the strength of his frequent drop-outs from exalted institutions and his dodgy academic credentials, but on the strength of what he says and how well he connects to the Indian electorate. He would certainly not pass the Tharoor test of erudition but this failure by itself shouldn’t make him a lesser man. His puerile ideas would. Yet, ironically, these ideas have come from too much reading and too little experience of how 99.99 per cent of Indians live, laugh and cry.
Narendra Modi, the man who is making life a little uncomfortable for the babalogs who have made the bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi into their social preserve, may well be guilty of narrating history in a very Hindu way: As a katha. Like Hindu lore, he may have perceived time as yug rather than years; and he may even have collapsed the thin wall separating history and mythology. In this, he is as guilty as anyone who is unapologetic about facets of their Hindu inheritance. However, should the fact that he appears to have a very thin layer of cosmopolitan modernity necessarily suggest that he lacks leadership and political far-sightedness?
The likes of Tharoor and others who are in a state of flutter over Modi’s alleged historical inaccuracies and his appropriation of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s legacy would probably have been equally disoriented over a third Gujarati who didn’t quite fit the mould of babalog behaviour: Mahatma Gandhi. It is often forgotten that Gandhi raised the hackles of a lot of well-established Indians of his day. These included Lokmanya Tilak, Rabindranath Tagore and Bipin Chandra Pal. Even those like Subhas Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan who were important in the Congress accepted the Mahatma’s leadership with caveats.
Yet, I don’t know too many Indians who repudiated Gandhi solely on account of his culinary fads, his bizarre sexual experiments and his obsessive non-violence. That was because these weren’t central to Gandhiji’s main mission: To secure India’s Independence from foreign rule. Modi’s knowledge of history may well be imperfect and he should certainly be a little careful about his juxtaposition of facts. But to base our judgment of Modi on the strength of his knowledge of historical minutiae is akin to judging Tharoor on the basis of his very plummy accent or the fact that his lived experience of India is extremely patchy.
If popular faith has been reposed on Modi it is on account of his vision for the future, not his knowledge about the past. This is why the recent kerfuffle over Alexander, Taxila, Chandragupta and Sardar Patel is a wonderful ‘time pass’. The real battles are being waged elsewhere — in an idiom that both Tharoor and I are unfamiliar with. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Don’t feed on the intolerance of Patna bombers

Had the bomb planted just beyond the secure D-area of Patna’s Gandhi Maidan actually exploded last Sunday during Narendra Modi’s Hunkar rally, the country could well have been suffering the fallout of a colossal tragedy. It was plain lucky that the explosion, which would inevitably have resulted in a stampede and ensuing acts of violence, didn’t happen. Yet, it is a commentary on the growing bitterness of politics that the significance of this close shave has been deliberately underplayed. Indeed, attention has been sought to be wilfully diverted from a sinister act of subversion.  

The expression of political differences that invariably happen in the long run-up to any general election is an indispensable part of democracy. The general election of 2014 has become doubly interesting because the battle of political parties has been peppered by a riveting clash of personalities.

The announcement of Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate happened on September 13—not that long ago. However, it has taken just 50 days for the political atmosphere to be electrified. Thanks to the energy generated by the supporters of Modi,  the country, it would seem, has been divided into those who support the Gujarat Chief Minister enthusiastically and those who oppose him with equal passion. Despite being the challenger, Modi has quite successfully managed to catapult himself into the centre-stage, to the point where he is now setting the agenda and invoking the editorial ire of The New York Times which gratuitously found his rise “deeply troubling to many Indians.”

Whether India, as an opinion poll suggested, cries out for a leader blessed with decisiveness and integrity is for voters to decide. The general election will also be the occasion for voters to give their verdict on other lofty questions such as the preferred economic path, dynastic rule and the divergent perceptions of the so-called idea of India. On the other hand, many voters may prefer to view the contest through the prism of localism and community identities.

It is improper to be judgmental about the thinking that leads individuals and communities to decide which side to back. There is nothing called the ‘right’ way of thinking; and the accusing finger of ‘false consciousness’ that Marxists love to point at those who disagree with them is based on the dubious premise that there is something resembling ‘true’ consciousness. An Indian election is fascinating precisely because the expressions of self-interest and national interest happen through so many different—often bizarre—routes.

Take the vastly different perceptions of those who support Modi. To a handful, he epitomises a viable alternative to statist economics; to others, he is a modern-day variant of Shivaji, crusading against a ‘Delhi Sultanate’; and to yet others, he is an Indian Bismarck capable of ruling a fractious country with decisive leadership. In Bihar, his appeal is often based on his backward caste status and the fact that he began life selling tea on a railway platform.  

Likewise, those who oppose Modi do so for vastly diverse reasons. Some are deterred by the 2002 riots in Gujarat, others question the viability of an economic model that is insufficiently mindful of entitlements, and the likes of Nitish Kumar and the Communists liken him to a fascist. Yet others dub him ‘authoritarian’ and are fearful that he invokes strong Muslim opposition.

The importance of the election campaign is that it allows all these range of perceptions to play out. Unfortunately this rich democratic tradition is seriously compromised by two strands. First, there is the belief that the failure of one side to prevail will involve the disintegration and death of India. Such heightened certitudes are based on the presumption that only one side has the monopoly of truth, wisdom and political power. It leads to equating opponents as enemies.

Secondly, there is the associated belief that all means are legitimate to prevent the other side from winning. It was possibly this misplaced rigidity, as much as security lapses, which gave those who have no faith in either India or democracy the space to undertake the serial bombings in Patna.

Nominally, the Indian Mujahedeen was responsible but those who chose to look the other way and pretended nothing happened must bear some moral blame. 

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Sins of Emergency repeating themselves

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is sad that Indian newspapers, unlike their British and American counterparts, have not yet digitised their archives. Had they done so, I would have been able to offer readers a selection of the choicest quotes from Professor K.K. Tiwari, once a Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Rajiv Gandhi’s Government.

Tiwari, who was said to have been a teacher of English, loved using Shakespearian analogies to pour venom on the Congress’ then favourite hate figures, notably V.P. Singh who had emerged as the foremost challenger to the Rajiv government. Some of Tiwari’s interventions were very funny and the others were mystifying. Most people viewed him as a ridiculous loudmouth who used the government monopoly to transform the electronic media—AIR and Doordarshan—into propaganda vehicles for the Congress.

However, Tiwari wasn’t quite the buffoon he sometimes appeared to be. Subsequent investigations suggested that he had a major role in designing the St Kitts frame-up targeting the son of V.P. Singh—a conspiracy in which, quite regrettably, a section of the media played a collusive role.

The transgressions of the Emergency which even led to AIR blacklisting Kishore Kumar for his non-performance at a Youth Congress function—surely a warning to Lata Mangeshkar to now prepare herself for recriminations after she publicly endorsed Narendra Modi last Friday—have been well documented. Less recorded are the ways in which the Rajiv Gandhi government tried to narrow the space for dissent by putting pressure on the print media. The Indian Express, Statesman and particular individuals in The Hindu were targeted for unearthing the dirt on the Bofors scandal. But pressure was put on all publications to toe the line. At one time, the Ministry of External Affairs even had two IFS officers working full-time to ‘manage’ the newspapers.

I mention these incidents from the past because there are definite indications that history is repeating itself. Having erred in its belief that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate would lead to a favourable polarisation in favour of the Congress and UPA, a disoriented regime has reacted in panic. Where persuasion and better governance should have been the natural democratic reaction to political adversity, the government has embarked on the path of calumny, subterfuge and arm-twisting.

Telecom minister Kapil Sibal whose political ratings inside the government took a nosedive after Rahul Gandhi rubbished the ordinance to insulate convicted politicians from immediate disqualification, has crafted his rehabilitation strategy with a frontal attack on Modi. In itself that is a legitimate exercise in political warfare. But Sibal descended from the sublime to the ridiculous by blaming Modi for the sharp increase in the price of onions.

On his part, I&B Minister Manish Tiwari, who must take exceptional care that he doesn’t come to be viewed as the natural inheritor of K.K. Tiwari’s mantle, has put out a circular warning broadcasters with uplinking facilities that they risk their future by putting the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech on par with others (namely Modi) who attempt to steal the thunder. Since it is an open question whether Manmohan Singh will address India from Red Fort in 2014, this silly advisory is less aimed at protecting the fragile dignity of the incumbent as instructing the electronic media to reduce their Modi coverage.

Then there are those who, even at this late stage, insist that Modi should be ruled out of the 2014 race using the police powers at the disposal of the government. In recent weeks, inordinate pressure has been put on the country’s premier investigative agencies to call Modi for questioning and thereupon file an FIR against him on the charge of masterminding encounter deaths. Pressure has also been put to somehow or the other implicate Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley in a case that dates back to 2008.

That officials haven’t succumbed are due to two facts. First, the political antennae of the babus are very sensitive to stirrings on the ground. The emerging consensus within babudom this Diwali is that the UPA isn’t coming back. Secondly, the recent Supreme Court order on tenure has ensured that civil servants and policemen won’t do anything remotely irregular unless it is accompanied by a written ministerial order.

So far the attempt to make politics into an abattoir has not succeeded but a section of the government believes that no means are too petty to fight Modi. The manner in which advertising largesse is being dangled in front of media companies who are experiencing a squeeze on account of the general economic slowdown will no doubt see many channels and publications suddenly going soft on the UPA Government. There has already been the curious spectacle of media managers donning the editorial mantle and penning articles advising the country to be wary of Modi. Presumably, these are not aimed at influencing public opinion and calculated only to informing the money-disbursal teams in the ministries that the hints are being acted on.

Past experience suggests that last ditch attempts to undo the damage inflicted over the past four years are rarely successful. Therefore, unless the next six months lead to something dramatic, all the indications are that this may be the last Diwali, for some time to come, that many of the anxious political stalwarts are going to enjoy in a ministerial bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi.

A Happy Diwali to them and to everyone else