Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sri Lanka’s diaspora dilemma

By Swapan Dasgupta

Decision-making in any country, particularly a noisy democracy, is a complex and often infuriating process. Yet, which voices should matter most in moulding the collective destiny: those who feel for the country or those who live in it?

Ideally, both categories should be co-terminus and, by and large, they are. However, since the 1960s and particularly since technology and globalisation made the world a much smaller place, almost all the South Asian countries have been confronted with a new reality: the diaspora.

For the Government, India’s “overseas citizens” are no longer a “brain drain” but assets whose generous remittances help in managing the current account deficit. The country has demonstrated its gratitude and enshrined its links by offering exceptional privileges to PIO/OCI cardholders. If, at any point in the future, India is in a position to play a more active global role, the contribution of our Overseas Citizens will be immeasurable.

And yet there are occasions when we see our Overseas Citizens as a nuisance. Maybe the earlier sense of superiority that came with the suitcase of goodies to distribute to the poor, left-behind relatives has waned. But the condescension that comes with a sense of I-know-best-what-is-good-for-India often has many gnashing their teeth.

The social media has actually increased this gap between those who care for India and those who actually experience it on a daily basis. The most extreme and inflammatory messages on twitter, for example, can invariably be traced back to some Indian living in North America, doing a mid-level job who has very limited social interaction with colleagues and neighbours. He may be living in a well-appointed Hicksville suburb but mentally he has transported himself to India via the social media. It is a schizoid existence and invariably generates a perspective of India that is both frozen in time and distorted by the lack of everyday social interaction. Reading Indian newspapers on the net and watching Indian news channels on cable cannot ever compensate for the more rounded view provided by the drudgeries of daily existence.

However, a few crazy interventions on the social media don’t amount to much. Overall, India’s Overseas Citizens are a good, hardworking and supportive lot. India can be proud of them.

Cross the Palk Straits and a very different image of the diaspora emerges. Sri Lanka may be tiny speck on the map and better known these days for the slinging arm of Lasith Malinga and the classical elegance of the well-spoken Kumara Sanghakara. However, this tropical paradise has just emerged from a 30-year civil war that was unbelievably bloody and damaging. Merely reading about the “ethnic conflict” cannot convey the horror and the pain the country endured—and with a very stiff upper lip.

The origins of that war lie in a divisive, chauvinist politics that, thankfully, the country has now repudiated. There is a sense of optimism in Colombo and a great sense of relief in Jaffna that the war which probably left no family in the island unaffected is over.

Tragically, the quiet elation over a new dawn is being soured on a daily basis by a diaspora that wants its own version of Sri Lanka, crafted in Canada, UK and Norway. That may of the 8 lakh-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora left the island under traumatic conditions is undeniable. They nursed that bitterness so strongly that they actually bankrolled the most brutal military machine since Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. It was this easy and unending supply of diaspora funds that gave the LTTE the luxury of never having to bother about public opinion inside Sri Lanka. The diaspora bankrolled murder.

Today, the LTTE has been militarily defeated but the diaspora funds are being used to keep the old Sinhalese-Tamil divide in politics and international relations. There is peace and growing prosperity in the Tamil areas, and only the political loose ends remain. This in itself is a challenge but the reconciliation process isn’t helped if the diaspora is determined that its unchanging historical memory and hateful vision for the future must set the tone for the country they left behind.

Imagine our reaction if India’s politics was sought to be remote-controlled from Southall and New Jersey.

Sunday Times of India, June 16, 2013 


By Swapan Dasgupta

From the anointment of Narendra Modi in Goa and L.K. Advani’s Sunset Boulevard act in Delhi to Nitish Kumar’s notice of separation and divorce from the NDA, it has been a bit too much of a rollercoaster ride for the BJP. It is just as well that all the drama has been packed into one week of June, at least 6-7 months before the election campaign formally begins. There is nothing more disastrous for a political party than to be confronted with indigestion in the midst of an election campaign—as happened in 2009 when Naveen Patnaik parted ways during the seat-sharing talks. It is best to get over the inner rumblings before the blueprints of the campaign have been finalised.

That Advani and Nitish were party poopers and dampened the post-Goa celebratory mood in the BJP isn’t in any doubt. At the risk of floating a conspiracy theory, it can be said that the duo was acting in concert. The JD(U) was banking on Advani to keep the Gujarat Chief Minister confined to the Gir forest; and Advani in turn was leaning on Nitish and Sushma Swaraj’s personal equations with the Thackeray family to maintain his own primacy in the party. After the BJP tersely informed Advani of the difference between Formula-1 racing and a vintage car rally, Nitish was left in doubt Modi had prevailed inside the party. He was requested by those he would leave orphaned in the BJP to stick to his original December 31 deadline because Advani still commanded a majority in the BJP Parliamentary Board, but by then things had gone too far for the JD(U) to apply the brakes without completely losing face.

As it is, despite his grandstanding and his ability to retain control of the state government, Nitish remains in danger of being squeezed between a re-invigorated Lalu Yadav and a gung-ho BJP—a predicament that could even force him into an alliance with the Congress in 2014. Since the JD(U) departure from the NDA was packaged as a bout of ‘secularism’, Nitish will have to demonstrate to the community he is courting that he stands a better chance of slaying Modi than Lalu Yadav. That may only be possible if he has the Congress by his side.

That Nitish’s imminent departure from the NDA has led to some soul-searching within the BJP is also undeniable. At an over-simplistic level, the BJP is witnessing a curious battle between its heart and its head. A section of the well-established leadership who saw political power in 2014 as a low hanging fruit curse Modi for injecting new complications and making the BJP’s task challenging.

The Advani objection to the projection of Modi was centred on the belief that the sheer weight of anti-incumbency would decimate the Congress and result in the NDA emerging as the clear front-runner for power. In other words, neither the BJP nor its allies would have to do much more than get its caste sums right and work up the crowds with the same messages about corruption, economic mismanagement and the legacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee. In short, it would be the 2009 campaign again with, hopefully, a better outcome thanks to the extent of the UPA’s misgovernance.

The emergence of Modi and particularly the way his rise has been interpreted by a large section of people have upset those calculations. It is now clear that a conventional campaign that, at best, promises to substitute the strategic silences of the 80-year-old Manmohan Singh with the unending reminiscences of the 85-year-old Advani will not yield optimum results. Indeed, another insipid NDA campaign could even revive attractions for the Congress’ all-too-familiar strategy of sops and handouts.

For the BJP, the likely exit of the JD(U) has cleared the decks for a very new type of election campaign. Yes, the possible absence of regional allies in states other than Punjab, Maharashtra and, possibly, the Telengana region of Andhra Pradesh and Assam, pose an exceptional challenge. If the general election becomes an aggregate of state elections, the BJP is unlikely to be in the driver’s seat of a new coalition government. And the impossibility of a BJP-led government being sworn in by President Pranab Mukherjee in 2014 is what the pundits and the media will hark on incessantly. Arithmetically, they will tell you, a BJP Prime Minister after the general election has been ruled out by Nitish, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and Jagan Mohan Reddy.

They may well be right. I recall in 1991, Atal Behari Vajpayee ruing that the BJP tally would be around 50 because it had no alliances. At a National Executive meeting, Kalyan Singh, the then BJP chief of Uttar Pradesh, indicated that the party’s popular vote in Uttar Pradesh would, at best, rise from nine per cent to 18 per cent. In the event, the BJP won 121 seats, including more than 50 seats from Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, had it not been for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination a day before the second phase of the three-phase poll, the BJP tally would perhaps have touched 160 seats.

The Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) model that was used to forecast elections was demolished in 1991, an election where the Ayodhya issue dominated. This was entirely due to the fact that the BJP campaign was novel: it was unorthodox, strident and centred on the creation of a new India. Never before or since has a BJP campaign been so full of raw energy as it was in 1991.

The issues of the 1991 campaign have become history. Today’s India has changed far more than its politics. There is raw energy of a youthful population desperate for self-improvement and, by implication, national resurgence; and there is raw anger that periodically manifests itself in spontaneous explosions against corruption and rape. To this can be added the social churning created by upwards social mobility, urbanisation and regional pride. And, finally, there is waning faith in the ability of the existing political class to effect meaningful change.

In a nutshell, while the existing arithmetic is tilted against Modi, the emerging chemistry of politics favours an outsider who encapsulates this churning. It is Modi’s ability, as campaign chief, to harness these energies and social trends that will determine whether the enthusiasm witnessed in Goa is translated into parliamentary seats. There is no half-way house left for the BJP. To win it will have to reinvent its approach to politics. Fortunately for it, the sheer determination of its supporters to break the mould overrides the innate conservatism of its leadership. In the past week, hard decisions were forced on the party. Now it will have to take them voluntarily and with imagination. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 16, 2013

Friday, June 14, 2013

Political Manthan

By Swapan Dasgupta

Contrary to what some people love to believe, politics isn’t all about plots and conspiracies. Politicians normally base their actions on the strength of assumptions which may or may not turn out to be correct. And often, like players in the marketplace, they embark on high risk gambles based on nothing more than instinct.

That Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was clear in his mind that he would not fight an election with Narendra Modi as the face of his main alliance partner was no secret. His allergy to his Gujarat counterpart stemmed from a combination of personality mismatch and electoral calculations, and he had clearly warned the BJP that he would jump ship if Modi was anointed de-facto leader. Yet, despite making preparations for the survival of his government in the event of his Janata Dal (United) breaking with the BJP, the Bihar Chief Minister refrained from taking any hasty action. In hindsight, the reason was quite obvious: Nitish was banking on the BJP old guard led by L.K. Advani to prevent NAMO from dominating the BJP centre-stage.

To what extent, Nitish and Advani planned their symbiotic relationship is a matter of conjecture. However, ever since Modi quietly refused to host the inauguration of Advani’s zero-impact yatra against corruption and black money, there has been a growing convergence of interests of Nitish and Advani.

The chronology tells its own story. Last week, Advani didn’t attend the National Executive meeting in Goa as a last-ditch attempt to stop or delay the announcement over Modi. He calculated (as did many commentators who hadn’t grasped his growing marginalisation in the BJP) that the party leadership wouldn’t dare go ahead with Modi’s anointment out of deference to him. Yet, when the announcement was made last Sunday afternoon amid boisterous celebrations and the bursting of crackers, the reaction of the JD(U) was uncharacteristically muted. “It is an internal matter of the BJP”, was the matter of fact reaction from its TV brigade. In short, there was still a strong belief that even at this late stage, Advani would be able to pull a rabbit out of his hat and puncture the Modi balloon. By last Monday evening when it was clear that the BJP Parliamentary Board would not be pressured by Advani’s resignation and churlish letter, the JD(U) strategists wrote off their involvement in the NDA. Their continued alliance with a party where Modi was the unquestioned star would only serve one purpose: provide some relief to a very beleaguered Advani and give him some time to regroup his forces. However, after the outcome of the Maharajganj by-election, Nitish’s own elbow room was limited. The JD(U) could either strike out on his own now or risk being squeezed between a re-energised Lalu Yadav and a charged-up BJP. For Nitish, his own political self-respect counted more than being Advani’s life-guard. And he seems to have decided to part ways with the BJP.

Of course that leaves a very crucial question unaddressed. On the face of it, Nitish appears to be on the verge of joining hands with Babulal Marandi, Naveen Patnaik and providing substance to Mamata Banerjee’s Federal Front dream. At the same time Nitish has also despatched an advance team which has been in contact with the Congress. The reason is simple: Nitish would rather have the Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan on his side in the triangular fight for Bihar’s Lok Sabha seats. In the battle of competitive minority wooing, he may well believe that the incremental addition of the Congress would convince Muslim voters that the JD(U), rather than the RJD, has better ‘secular’ credentials to check the Modi advance.

Nitish, it would seem, is banking on the presence of Modi raising the communal temperature in the country. His reading of the BJP campaign is based on the assumption that Modi’s appeal is primarily that of a miltant Hindu and, by implication, an anti-Muslim leader. In the last months of its regime, the UPA Government too is driving home this perception with renewed enthusiasm, as witnessed by its frenzied interest in the so-called encounter killing of terrorist Ishrat Jehan in Gujarat, 2005. The UPA has decided that at all costs Modi must not be allowed to rise above controversies that are rooted in sectarian issues.

However, what if Modi disappoints his opponents by travelling down a very different path?  This would seem impossible for those who are unable to transcend the image of Modi 2002. For them, Modi minus strident communal politics is a big zero. However, the more awkward reality is that Modi made the transition from a regional leader to the BJP’s national icon precisely after he shifted Gujarat’s agenda from communal politics to economic development. In the past decade or so, Modi has carefully steered clear of all issues that are remotely associated with militant Hindu nationalism. This explains why the likes of Pravin Togadia view him as a traitor to the cause.

My guess is that the BJP campaign in 2014 will not resemble the strident 1991 campaign which made it the principal non-Congress party. On the contrary, it will be a campaign that will be focussed on national pride, youth energy and the appeal of Modi. We may have the bizarre situation of the Congress and the likes of Nitish talking incessantly about ‘secular’ politics and the BJP bypassing that for the “one India” theme.

Moreover, the demonization of Modi is based entirely on his unacceptability to Muslim voters and the assertion that Gujarat isn’t India. What has been insufficiently factored is the likelihood that the anti-Modi campaign has increased the levels of curiosity about the man. If, within the next three months, opinion polls show a far greater measure of awareness about the BJP’s new leader, he has only to thank his detractors from Advani to the foul-mouthed JD(U) spokesman. Quite unwittingly, they have cast Modi as the man who is being relentlessly hounded at the behest of a pampered few. For the Gujarat leader, that is excellent publicity. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 14, 2013

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Last Stand Against Change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Ever since he signalled his misgivings over the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the first among equals in the BJP, L.K. Advani has acquired a clutch of new friends. However, just as his controversial pronouncements on Mohammed Ali Jinnah during his Pakistan visit of 2005, earned him the short-lived backing of notables who otherwise harboured a strong allergy to the wider cause he represented, his most recent revolt has delighted all those who froth in the mouth at the very mention of Modi.

Unfortunately, in winning new friends, Advani has inevitably triggered a strong backlash within the BJP. His convoluted paean to Jinnah provoked a grassroots revolt and finally led to his removal as party president and the strengthening of the RSS grip over the BJP. In 2005, Advani lost the larger emotional battle but somehow kept a tenuous hold on the levers of decision-making by remaining Leader of Opposition and head of the parliamentary party. Furthermore, by converting a battle over ideas into a loyalty test, he was successful in retaining a position of nominal primacy in the party. He rightly calculated that the second generation leaders, most of them mentored by him, would never allow their dissatisfaction to overwhelm their larger gratitude to the man who catapulted the BJP from the fringes to the centre stage of Indian politics.

The Jinnah controversy, however, also led to the emergence of a very different Advani. First, the implicit trust that existed between him and the RSS was broken. Increasingly, Advani came to view the RSS involvement in the BJP as over-intrusive. He was particularly resentful that he had ceased to be the last word on party affairs. Secondly, Advani equated the criticism of his Jinnah pronouncements by his erstwhile protégés as acts of personal betrayal. Ironically, this bitterness with an ungrateful world increased after the NDA’s resounding defeat in the 2009 general election.

Ideally, as is the norm in democratic politics, Advani should have hung up his boots after the 2009 defeat. Instead, he retreated into a make-believe world, surrounded by durbaris who saw him as their only protection against a party where new forces were rising and new equations were being forged. By the time he was removed as Leader of Opposition and elevated to a ceremonial role as chairman of NDA, Advani had for all practical purposes become a resentful faction leader. At the same time, his desire to regain his absolute authority never waned and this could explain his unilateral decision to embark on yet another yatra against black money in 2011. Tragically for him, the political impact of that punishing journey was negligible. It was clear that Advani’s attempt to demonstrate his mass appeal had come to nought. Both the BJP and the electorate were looking for new leaders who could better connect to the 21st century and the aspirations of a young and even impetuous India.

The tell-tale signs of Advani’s diminishing appeal were there for all to see. The requests by candidates during Assembly elections for a public meeting to be addressed by Advani shrank embarrassingly. The central office often had to browbeat BJP candidates into hosting an Advani meeting just to prevent the old war-horse from feeling completely unwanted.

The tragedy of Advani is that he has been living in complete denial of his waning appeal. He has been single-mindedly seeking, or has been egged on to seek, yet another throw of the dice in 2014. However, unlike 2009 when his prime ministerial ambitions were accommodated by a party that didn’t have another fully groomed alternative, this time the rank-and-file of the party has clearly made up its mind. Initially a section of the RSS was hesitant and, indeed, a little fearful of Project Modi. But after some delicate Track-II negotiations, Nagpur has thrown its weight behind the Gujarat Chief Minister. Modi, it is now acknowledged, is the only leader who connects with both the initiated and an aspirational India.

Whether it was the unflinching stand of the RSS top brass or the onrush of grassroots emotionalism that finally prevailed in Goa last Sunday is best left to posterity to judge. What can be said with certainty is that Advani didn’t endear himself to either the RSS or the BJP by first trying to create impediments in the path of Modi, then boycotting the Goa meeting and finally resigning from a few (but not all) party posts. Insofar as he has successfully converted the boisterous celebrations in the BJP ranks into what appears to the outside world as an inner-party war, Advani still remains a formidable strategist.

His moves are well thought out. First, he has openly signalled his displeasure over Modi’s emergence as the BJP face for the 2014 election. He has become the rallying point for those leaders who are a little afraid of the consequences of a Modi takeover. He has made what was a pretty clear decision seem terribly contested. Secondly, he has imposed roadblocks in the path of the BJP’s alliance partners being overwhelmed by the Modi machine. This, he hopes, will prevent the BJP from putting all their eggs in the Modi basket and tempering their projection of the Gujarat Chief Minister. And finally, by muddying the waters, he has sought to keep alive his own chances of emerging as a stop-gap, consensus choice in the event of a fractured popular verdict.

There is a problem with this carefully crafted plan to convert defeat into victory. Unlike the Congress which lays great store on calculation, the BJP is a party that is inordinately influenced by emotionalism. In the BJP’s eyes, Advani is not an honourable dissenter as Vapayee was in the Ayodhya years; he is being increasingly cast as a petulant veteran who can’t stomach change.  

Whatever the future of Modi, Advani today stands diminished in the eyes of those who once venerated him. His new admirers will use him, but as a human shield against the advance of the very party he served with distinction for so long. 

Indian Express, June 12, 2013

Sunday, June 09, 2013


Last week, I sent a twitter message from Jaffna town which I was visiting after 25 years. “There are more sandbags and police pickets in south Delhi”, I observed, “than there are in Jaffna town.”
This terse message based entirely on my observation provoked howls of protest. Various individuals responded denouncing me as “anti-Tamil” and a stooge of Sri Lankan President Rajapaksha, the latest whipping boy of the morally indignant. It is entirely possible that a brief 24-hour visit to a town where it was once common to find gun-totting members of various para-military factions walking with a swagger, does not qualify me to pass judgment on the totality of the situation in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
Yet, it would be fair to say that the Jaffna I returned to was a very different place from the war-torn but sleepy town that existed in the late-1980s. What I encountered was a mid-sized town with good roads and lots of new buildings, bustling with activity. The Nallur temple looked as grand as ever and the Jaffna library whose burning in the 1990s had created so much tension was a picture of old-world serenity. The stadium named after Alfred Durriapah, whose murder was among the first of the LTTE’s ‘hits’ seemed well maintained and there is even an Indian Consulate in place in a carefully renovated bungalow. Yes, there were the occasional signs of the bitter war that had ended barely four years ago; but anyone who didn’t know that this town was once in the frontline of one of the most ugly civil wars of all times would never have guessed.
This is not to say that everything is hunky dory. At a gathering of members of Jaffna civil society, there were voices raised against the acquisition of “Tamil lands” by the Sri Lankan army in its security zone adjoining the airport. There were complaints about “Sinhala colonisation” of areas in the southern regions of the Northern Province. And in Colombo, MPs belonging to the Tamil National Alliance presented us (a five-member team invited by the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies) with a well-written account of Tamil grievances. Its leader, the 80-year-old Rajavardayam Sampanthan, who resembles a majestic Roman senator both in appearance and eloquence spoke about the Sri Lankan Government’s underlying desire to make the Tamil people “extinct” from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Yet, at a lunch hosted by businessmen of Indian origin in Colombo, I asked a Chettiar businessman how many Tamils there are in the capital city. “About 30 per cent of the city” he replied. “And do you control 60 per cent of the business?” I asked smilingly. “Only 60 per cent”, he retorted with a tinge of disappointment. “It’s more like 70 per cent” he said with a hearty laugh. Clearly, the noble Sampanthan’s theory of Tamils being an endangered breed in Sri Lanka doesn’t have too many takers south of the Elephant Pass.
The ‘Tamil problem’ that provides livelihood to the global human rights industry and provokes indignation in some circles in India seems essentially a Jaffna problem, and should be renamed as such. At the heart of the problem is the term devolution which was recommended to the Sri Lankan Government as a possible solution to the problem by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by President Rajapaksha in the aftermath of his famous military victory over the murderous LTTE.
For India, which still takes a needlessly gratuitous interest in the internal affairs of a sovereign neighbour, ‘devolution’ basically means implementation of the 13th amendment which formed a part of the embarrassment called the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed by Rajiv Gandhi and JR Jayawardene in 1987. This amendment promised two things: the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the so-called Tamil homelands, and the formation of Provincial Councils, akin to India’s State Governments.
But two problems have arisen. First, the merger of the Northern and Eastern Provinces was set aside by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court on procedural grounds. Sampanthan calls it a “dishonest judgment” but the de-merger is now a reality. Secondly, it would seem that apart from the Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Sinhala areas aren’t terribly enthused by the idea of Provincial Councils. Yet, elections to the Provincial Councils have been held in all provinces barring the Northern Province. At one time it seemed that the Government was having second thoughts about holding Provincial Council elections in the Northern Province but President Rajapaksha has categorically announced that the democratic exercise will be undertaken in September. The TNA, which is certain to win the election, now says that the powers of the Provincial Councils are inadequate. It wants the local Government to control land and the police. The Government may concede the first point but there is no way it will relax its control over all aspects of security in the North.
Who can blame Colombo for its reluctance? It’s just four years since the LTTE was decimated and it’s just too early for the Central Government to let down its guard. It is not that there is a desire to militarise the province. The Sri Lankan Army is present in large numbers in the Northern Province but it operates well below the radar. Logistically, the army wants to insulate itself in the security zones, build strategically located cantonments and operate as a rapid response force just in case insurgency resurfaces.
Ideally, the TNA should have no problem with this arrangement because its members were also murderously targeted by the LTTE. Moreover, it has declared, perhaps under Indian pressure, that it is committed to the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. It may still believe in emotional separatism but it has formally abjured political separatism and abandoned the erstwhile TULF’s call for ‘self-determination’.
At the same time, its actions suggest that it wants to keep tensions and the ethnic conflict alive. It doesn’t make sense until you realise that Tamil separatist politics derives its main impetus not from the ordinary people of Jaffna who are desperate for a breather but by the Tamil diaspora, the ones who bankroll the seemingly respectable, ‘moderate’ politicians. With a view of the island that is frozen in time, it is the diaspora that is proving to be the biggest impediment to Sri Lanka getting over its troubled history.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Left not right to fight DU change

By Swapan Dasgupta

Call it prejudice or even evidence of a closed mind, but the mere presence of individuals such as Sitaram Yechuri and Arundhati Roy on the same platform to protest against the newly-introduced Four-year Undergraduate Programme (FYUP for short) has got me all worked up. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that I don’t consider Yechuri or the Maoist-loving Booker Prize winner worthy enough to intervene in a debate on higher education. Both are extremely erudite individuals and Ms Roy in particular has become an international celebrity—a pamphleteer whose reputation is on par with the grand old man for all causes, Noam Chomsky.

The problem lies in separating Yechuri the individual from Yechuri the CPI(M) apparatchik who championed the destruction of higher education in West Bengal; and detaching the delectable prose of Arundhati from her sanctimonious extremism and her profound contempt for the aspirations of the Indian middle classes. When such individuals join hands and team up with teachers who have made a virtue of ideological regimentation and staff room intrigues, it is time to despair.

The despondency is all the more because there is merit in one particular aspect of the Left’s relentless assault on Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh: the charge that the new curriculum was rushed through and without a wider debate on the conceptual underpinnings of the changes. This isn’t because the VC is temperamentally autocratic, undemocratic and is slavishly pursuing the interests of corporate interests—one of the more colourful charges levelled at the meeting at the India International Centre last Friday. The plain truth is that those entrusted with modifying the curriculum were unenthusiastic about having to depart from their set ways, dragged their feet endlessly and were finally coerced into submitting their proposals at the very last minute which left almost no time for wider consultations. Singh was chasing a deadline and the organised (mainly Left-dominated) teachers’ bodies were hell-bent on preventing the changes. The result was an almighty muddle and a fierce controversy that is bound to affect the new undergraduate programme.

There is also another backdrop to the academic war that has spilled into the public arena. During his tenure, Singh was insistent on one basic point: that the primary job of the university teachers—who are today much better paid than they were in the past—is to teach. His unannounced inspection of colleges and his censure of teachers who were lax about taking classes, evaluating students’ work and even attending college made him thoroughly unpopular and cast him in the role of a policeman.

Yet, what the VC did was necessary. Many of the students I have spoken to have complained endlessly about the indifference of their teachers to taking classes and motivating students to pursue the subjects independently. And a chairman of a college told me in no uncertain terms that the real problem lies in getting teachers to attend classes and teach. All the ideological misgivings over the FYUP apart, the fundamental resistance came from teachers who were loath to shoulder the extra work burden.

Yet, some fundamental conceptual issues remain. The idea of a university pursuing knowledge for its own sake has long been abandoned in India. Those who are truly interested in their subjects (and have the necessary parental support) are inclined to buy one-way tickets to foreign universities. Some two decades ago, studying abroad was essentially a post-graduate option; today, many students find it preferable to escape from the clutches of Indian higher education altogether.

The problem is seemingly intractable. The over-emphasis on foundation courses—some of which sound totally gobbledegook—are aimed at producing a better and more aware class of citizens who will contribute to that elusive exercise of ‘nation-building’. It may well achieve that objective but in the process it is also likely to create a body of bored students resentful of having to repeat what they should have learnt in school, including the so-called life skills.

Yet, the fact remains that Delhi University doesn’t mere comprise St Stephen’s, Sri Ram College, Lady Sri Ram College and Hindu College. They also include colleges where the quality of the intake isn’t on par. The challenge of evolving a curriculum that caters to students who have entered college with vastly differentiated levels of schooling and diverse social backgrounds and those who are worthy of Oxbridge and Ivy League is daunting. My fear is that in striking an aggregate balance, the system will compromise excellence.

There is an additional complication. The spirited intervention of the Left—what the hell was NDA convenor Sharad Yadav doing in such a gathering?—is partially against the way the FYUP was rushed through the various councils and partly against some of the exasperated utterances of the VC. But an equally important part of their resistance stems from the dilution of what one academic confessed was the insufficiency of “progressive” (a euphemism for Left doctrinaire) themes in subjects that were earlier classed as the liberal arts and now go by the name of social sciences. If the Academic Council has indeed managed to reduce the quantum of ideological bias, it is to be complimented. What has to be tested is whether the alternative is academically exacting or is tailor-made for mediocrity.

The FYUP is now a reality. There is little point in confusing students further by making it a one-year experiment. What is necessary is a little open-mindedness and flexibility to undertake periodic exercises in fine-tuning the curriculum. That’s the least the system can do in the face of a significant exodus of school-leavers to foreign universities. 

Sunday Pioneer, June 2, 2012

Modi or no one, there is no third choice

By Swapan Dasgupta

During my college days when high intellectualism and profanity went hand in hand, there was a crude Hindi phrase that became shorthand for a phenomenon that can best be described as the hype-that-never. It is possible that the high-minded disciples of the venerable Dr Raghu Vira in the BJP have never allowed such disagreeable colloquialisms to sully their speech and thoughts. This may explain why this repository of high culture has titillated itself with unending foreplay—a perversity that is fast becoming a bore.   

The allusion is to the tortuous prevarication that has greeted the intense all-round pressure that the BJP end the uncertainty over the leadership question. The speculation over the role to be played by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the general election has been hanging fire for nearly six months. Now, as the political game enters the proverbial slog overs stage, the impatience of those who are demanding a formal decision is approaching boiling point. They want a decision, preferably at the meeting of the National Executive in Goa later this week.

The choices before the BJP leaders are simple: either they project Modi as the face of the general election campaign or they adopt a lofty stand that the party is more important than any individual. There is no third path. The suggestion, periodically mooted by sundry individuals, that the old war-horse L.K. Advani be given another throw of the dice amount to very little and would probably constitute an affront to an India that is demographically more attuned to the 21st century. Equally, the wild-card proposal to anoint the previous party president Nitin Gadkari as the chairman of the party’s campaign committee is just a transparently sly bid to stop Modi at all costs.

In reality, the BJP has no real choice but to bite the Modi bullet. Anecdotal evidence—which counts for a great deal in India’s political decision-making—has quite clearly indicated that the BJP’s natural supporters are enthused by Modi in the same way as they were by the Ayodhya issue in 1991 and by Atal Behari Vajpayee’s leadership in 1998 and 1999. More to the point—and this is privately conceded by the leaders of non-NDA parties—the Modi buzz has infected sections that, in the normal course, are not partial to the BJP.

The anecdotal evidence is backed by opinion polls that point to a significant Modi bulge for the NDA parties throughout the country but particularly in northern and western India. The findings suggest that if the downhill slide of the UPA-2 Government persists and the other side isn’t debilitated by self-inflicted wounds, a Modi-led campaign would enable the BJP and its allies to maximise its seat tally from its traditional areas of influence. This is particularly appealing to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh where it has been struggling to re-establish itself since 1999. It may even prove an attraction to parties who are still outside the NDA fold, as the Vajpayee factor did in 1998 and 1999.

In a country as vast, diverse and differentiated as India, there is no single explanation for the dramatic surge in the popularity of a regional leader without any dynastic claim. To a vocal minusculity, Modi is the standard bearer of Hindu nationalism. But beyond this fringe, his appeal rests on other factors: as the proverbial no-nonsense, strong leader who can check India’s drift, as a champion of economic resurgence and as an epitome of personal integrity.

To these perceived attributes is a curious addition: caste. Modi has never flaunted his social origins and that he comes from a small backward caste is still relatively unknown. But throughout northern India, the bush telegraph is resonating with the news that, for the first time in living memory, there is an OBC aspirant to the post of Prime Minister. The potential emotional appeal of this is incalculable.

These may explain why, if the BJP leadership persists in dithering, we may witness an Indian variant of Mao’s famous call in 1967 to “bombard the headquarters” when a staid leadership was upstaged by raw enthusiasm of the Red Guards. For the BJP, Goa could witness either a celebration or an insurrection. 

Sunday Times of India, June 2, 2013