Wednesday, July 31, 2013


By Swapan Dasgupta

The word ‘ghetto’ has a pejorative connotation. We associate it with closed communities of broadly similar people who are inclined to think that their little worlds constitute the larger world. Yet, while the temptation is to associate ghettos with communities of the disadvantaged—the Blacks or Hispanics in the US, the Asians and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK and the Muslims in India—there is little qualitative difference between Harlem, Southall, Bhendi Bazar and the so-called ‘gated communities’ of the rich that command high property prices in most countries. Both are communities of the like-minded and, inevitably, are victims of what has been described as ‘group think’.

“Group think’ is one of the biggest hurdles in the path of political analysis. The temptation to transplant our set attitudes and our preferences to the larger region or even the whole nation has often proved irresistible and often accounts for the strategic miscalculations of both the media and political parties.

Fortunately, there are instruments for measuring public opinion and the scientifically conducted opinion polls, properly interpreted, have become important correctives. Opinion polls may not have yet found a foolroof way of predicting the number of seats likely to be won by political formations in a multi-cornered contest, but they have been indispensable in gauging attitudes and broad levels of support and rejection for individuals and parties. In the past, the political class and analysts depended on instinct and anecdotal evidence;  opinion polls have become convenient substitutes—provided they have been conducted with methodological rigour and are bereft of hidden agendas. A pollsters job, it must be emphasised is not to impart good news to politicians but to accurately convey real feelings on the ground.

Over the years, the polls conducted by the Lokniti unit of the CSDS have demonstrated their ability to be a reasonably accurate barometer of public opinion, a reason why I take these polls more seriously than other similar exercises. Their tracker poll whose results were published and broadcast throughout last week by the Hindu and CNN-IBN are very revealing and should be closely examined. The poll doesn’t tell us who will win the 2014 general election or who will form the next government; it provides us a still photograph of how India perceived politics in June 2013. The findings may go against anecdotal evidence but the political class can ignore it at its own peril.

The most important finding is that the UPA-2 Government is reeling from the after-effects of prolonged policy paralysis and economic mismanagement. There is clear evidence of popular exasperation with perceived non-performance and rampant corruption. In particular, the Government’s failure to offset runaway inflation with increased opportunities is costing it dear. The Congress and its alliance partners are losing votes in nearly all the states with the exception of Karnataka and Maharashtra. The performance of its state governments is also poorly rated. Likewise, and despite the departure of Nitish Kumar from the NDA, the BJP is gaining in varying degrees almost everywhere apart from Karnataka, where it is yet to recover from its Assembly defeat and split in the party.

What has added to the UPA-2 woes is the clearly diminishing popularity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Although Rahul Gandhi remains its great white hope, he has not been able to fully capitalise on the formidable Gandhi brand. In particular, the Rahul attempt to revitalise the Congress in UP and Bihar doesn’t appear to have made any headway.

The initial Congress belief that the anointment of Narendra Modi as the face of the BJP campaign would polarise votes in its favour has clearly proved wishful thinking. In a short spell, and despite the absence of any rigorous campaigning outside Gujarat, Modi has given the BJP a significant incremental boost in all parts of India, barring the South. The Modi effect is particularly pronounced in UP and Bihar. At the same time, it is significant that the Modi push has not affected formidable regional leaders such as Jayalalithaa, Naveen Patnaik and even Mamata Banerjee—though in Mamata’s case, the sharp decline of the Left is a factor.

For the BJP, there are important conclusions to be drawn from a poll that still shows a significant percentage of the electorate to be undecided. First, it is clear that the incremental surge on account of Modi is almost exclusively due to his reputation that preceded his anointment and the ability of the BJP to reclaim a traditional urban and semi-urban constituency that had drifted to the Congress in 2009. If the BJP has to build on this, it has to campaign vigorously in the next few months and, in particular, win the states where Assembly polls are due at the end of the year. Information in India takes a long time to percolate downwards and the polls suggest that a full awareness of who Modi is and what he stands for is still patchy, particularly south of the Vindhyas.

Secondly, the BJP must make itself a prisoner to the issues that agitate the electorate against the UPA. There is no likely benefit to introducing abstruse ideological themes that motivate the electorate but is considered irrelevant by voters. In concrete terms, this implies that the BJP should all possible care to prevent falling into the Congress trap of battling it out on conflicting versions of secularism. What will appeal to the electorate is the assurance of better economic management, an impression of personal integrity of leaders and the promise of quick, firm decision-making.

Finally, the BJP has to also focus on areas where a pro-Modi vote won’t necessarily translate into seats. This is because in a possible post-election muddle, regional parties are likely to want to ally with a party which can bring something significant by way of popular support to the table.

As of now, the mood of the nation is fractured. The task before the parties is to clear the fog. The poll suggests prudent tactical options. 

Sunday Pioneer, July 28, 2013

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Indians are natural chameleons, Rajnathji

By Swapan Dasgupta

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri (1897-1999) was one of the 20th century’s towering Indian intellectuals. In his lifetime he was, however, largely the object of derision in his own country. There were two reasons for this. First, Nirad babu was a contrarian who defied intellectual fashions; and, secondly, he had an impish streak which prompted him to be wilfully outrageous. If his contrariness offended the all-powerful Nehruvian establishment which forced him into agreeable exile in Oxford, his perverse sense of humour gave offence to Indians and particularly fellow Bengalis who are inclined to take themselves too seriously.

One particular remark of this “Unknown Indian” which created a minor storm in the pre-twitter India of the Seventies was the observation that for Indians to master the English language, they had to first change their food habits: fish curry and masala dosa couldn’t coexist with the language of Albion!

This knowingly ridiculous assertion comes to mind in the context of the mercifully brief kerfuffle over Rajnath Singh’s suggestion (subsequently diluted) that an over-reliance on English breeds an Anglicised mentality that in turn has led to the emaciation of Sanskrit. The BJP President, it would seem, was unwittingly lending support to Nirad babu’s mischievous aside that a language comes with a cultural baggage. To master English, it was imperative to internalise the Judaeo-Christian ethos of the Anglosphere; and for Sanskrit to be restored to its classical glory, Indians must become more culturally authentic.

Those with a sense of history will detect the threads that bind the Bengali babu and the Thakur from eastern UP with another famous Englishman. Lord Macaulay too believed that the study of English would reproduce English civility in the Orient and facilitate the Enlightenment that came with Empire.

Subsequent developments suggested that Macaulay had not been entirely wrong. Large numbers of Indians developed a voracious appetite for English education and even imbibed Western culture. These people, however, took their exposure to the Occident a bit too literally. After the Queen’s Proclamation of 1858 promised Indians the same rights as all other subjects of the Crown, the English-educated Indian demanded the same rights and privileges that accrued to the self-governing Dominions such as Canada and Australia.

If British politicians had been far-sighted enough to concede this demand after World War I, it is my guess India would have happily reconciled to being a part of the Empire for much longer than 1947. Like Ranji and the Nawab of Pataudi who happily batted for England, Indians would have flocked to join the ICS in even greater numbers and swamped the Classics scholars from Balliol. But disallowing elite Indians to be part of whites-only clubs was Britain’s monumental misjudgement and cost them India. Anglo-India quite forgot that conviviality was best achieved over sundowners on the verandah on a cool monsoon evening.

The irony is that the unabashed admiration of an Oxbridge education and the contrived love for the Lake Districts didn’t lead to Indians becoming less rooted to their inherited traditions. Just as the curious passion for the music of Bach hasn’t diluted the cultural essence of Japan, the Indian Hindus could straddle various worlds simultaneously. Just as multi-tasking comes naturally to the chhotu in the kirana store—but not to the English shop assistant who can cope with just one customer at a time—Indians are natural chameleons. In the West, the pursuit of science generated scepticism and eroded faith; in India, the techies worship Apple and the Art of Living simultaneously.

Actually, Nirad babu knew this all too well. Inside his Oxford house he invariably wore a dhoti—the “three tucks” of the Hindu, as called it; on stepping out, he often resembled the figure on the Johnnie Walker label. And while he held forth on vintages, his wife served delectable Bengali fare.

Nor was he alone in his dualities. Swami Vivekananda gave offence to the orthodox Brahmins on account of his fondness for fish and his love for the cheroot; Sri Aurobindo conceptualised Hindu spirituality in lucid English prose; and Dr Ambedkar rarely wore anything other than a suit, even in summer.

The problem of cultural inadequacy, it would seem, is a problem associated with those who weren’t sufficiently exposed to Empire.  

Sunday Times of India, July 28, 2013

The Unknown

By Swapan Dasgupta

The concerns of the ‘Beltway’, it has long been recognised in the United States, rarely determine the outcome of electoral battles—although they are paramount in other times. For all its other charming attributes, the Delhi Establishment—which includes a heady mix of politicians, lawyers, editors, bureaucrats, socialites and those whose sources of livelihood are an enduring mystery—has never accepted its creeping irrelevance during election season when power shifts to the hoi-polloi and regional elites. This may be why power conversations in the Capital have an unreal feel about them these days and often verge on a blend of wishful thinking and paranoia.

Earlier this month, at a very convivial dinner hosted by someone who knows all the ‘important’ men and women in public life, I overheard snatches of a conversation between a media veteran and a European ambassador. The exchange centred on the one topic that seems to be driving all political conversation in the Capital these days: Narendra Modi.

Having debunked the Gujarat Chief Minister as intolerant and authoritarian, the media stalwart told the diplomat that Modi was using his corporate clout to effect sweeping editorial changes in the media. He specifically pointed to one multimedia group where large-scale editorial changes are being whispered in conspiratorial tones over subsidised booze at media watering holes. “That’s all Modi’s doing; and this is only the beginning”, he informed the ambassador who, if was gullible, would probably have included the gist of his conversation in his weekly despatch to his ministry.

If I imagined that this was the inebriated mutterings of a man who is inclined to conspiracy theories, I was wrong. Another journalist with a glorious track record of battling the Gujarat Chief Minister who seemed to be losing out in office politics was told by a well-wisher friend that “Modi must have had a word with the management.” And on TV earlier this week, I was told by both the anchor and a co-panellist that Modi had become the darling of the media, not least because he knew how to flex his corporate muscle. My feeble suggestion that a man who had been relentlessly pilloried for the past 12 years qualifies better as the khalnayak rather the matinee idol was brushed aside as partisan apologia.

The point of these anecdotes is not to examine whether, despite the UPA Government’s generously endowed Bharat Nirman campaign, the interloper from Gandhinagar has run away with all the good reviews and favourable publicity. Yes, everything Modi does is news: all his speeches are telecast, dissected under powerful microscopes and his supposed departure from the lovey-dovey “idea of India” commented upon. But equally, every slip invites collective media fury on a scale that often seems excessive, especially when compared to the generosity and indulgence reserved for the ‘royal’ Gandhi family. Modi may have reason to complain about an ingrained editorial bias against him but he is certain to be delighted that the electronic media has given him a platform to reach out to voters throughout the country. For a regional leader about whom all-India awareness was uneven, Modi has reason to be grateful to the media for creating a curiosity about him that extends from Kashmir to Kerala. In the jargon of marketing, the media has facilitated an all-India sampling of Brand Modi. It is now up to Modi to either create a bandwagon effect to entice the fence sitters or live up to the demonology built around him.

On balance, the media treatment of Modi since he was anointed the face of the BJP campaign has its pluses and minuses. But in no sense does this resemble a conspiracy based on coercion and arm-twisting. The question, therefore, naturally arises: why is the Delhi Establishment getting so worked up and viewing this election as something that will determine whether India remains democratic or slides into authoritarianism?

The answer lies in one word: unfamiliarity. Modi is not a ‘Beltway” politician. He is an outsider to the charmed and somewhat incestuous world of the Delhi power brokers. Those who are accustomed to being on the inside track of high politics are clueless about how to reach Modi and, more important, influence his decision-making. It is this fear of the unknown that is prompting the detection of conspiracies all around.

Those misguided MPs who petitioned President Barack Obama to keep denying Modi the US visa he hasn’t yet asked for were not wilfully abdicating national sovereignty and requisitioning an American umpire to judge an Indian political contest. They had probably internalised the scare stories of a monumental conspiracy involving big money and multinational corporations to install a man favourable to market forces as Prime Minister. That, in the process, this silly gesture gave Modi a valuable propaganda handle is something that escaped their sense of profound anxiety.

Linked to this is the confusion over how to stop the Modi bandwagon gaining momentum. The CNN-IBN tracker polls conducted by a reputed academic body clearly show that Modi’s elevation has brought immediate gains to the BJP throughout the country (except in Karnataka). It also indicates that the UPA is most vulnerable on account of its economic mismanagement and corruption. In short, if the charms of Modi and the shortcomings of the UPA have crystallised  anti-incumbency at this early stage, will the trend intensify as the campaign proceeds?

Reports from the ground clearly show that the initial Congress belief that Modi would galvanise all sane Indians to fall back on the UPA was horribly misplaced. Modi is going to be a challenger and a more serious challenger than what any other BJP leader would have been. No wonder there is nervousness which, in the coming months will grow into panic. And no wonder there is a last-ditch attempt on the part of the Establishment to change the opponent. Earlier this week, at a media awards ceremony, Farooq Abdullah quite gratuitously proclaimed his gratitude to L.K. Advani for flying high the banner of secularism. The logic was unmistakable: let the UPA nominate its own opponent!

Unfortunately, the great unwashed seem to be in a mood for a pitched battle and not a friendly match. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2014 Poll unique for one reason: MODI

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a flurry of excitement in a small patch of Lutyens’ Delhi—faithfully repeated in the media—over the composition of the umpteen committees set up by the BJP for the management of the forthcoming general election. Meaning was read into who was in which committee and who had been left out.

As the foremost challenger to the Congress-led UPA, it was only natural that political buffs scrutinised the committees and attempted to discover a pattern which would help them understand the balance of forces in the BJP in the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s appointment as the head of the campaign committee. More to the point, the conventional wisdom was that the choice of strategists would help answering the question the media has thought fit to raise: will the BJP offer something different or will it return to identity politics?

For the casual newspaper reader or news channel watcher, the question isn’t entirely irrelevant. Those who heard the full speech of Modi at Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce and Pune’s Ferguson College may have come away with the impression that the man from Gujarat is focussed on economic development, youth aspirations and decisive leadership. Yet, those who followed the consequent reportage of his Reuters interview and images of the gigantic hoardings that suddenly appeared in Mumbai may well have concluded that Modi’s ‘real’ agenda is a throwback to the aggressive assertion of Hindu nationalism of the 1990s. Was this, they may well be tempted to ask, deliberate doublespeak? Or, are journalists merely moulding Modi according to their pre-conceived versions of what are his real priorities?  The minute dissection of the various committees and sub-committees that happened after Friday afternoon’s announcements was an attempt to get a little more clarity.

The endeavour may be undeniably sincere but the importance attached to committees and organisational preparedness is based on an assumption: that elections are won when they are well managed. This is not entirely fallacious. Without a modicum of organisation, political parties aren’t able to realise their full potential. This is one major reason why well-meaning and seemingly popular Independent candidates fail to get elected: they just don’t have the foot soldiers to translate goodwill into votes.

However, as those who have studied elections will tell you, no two elections are exactly alike. Organisation and alliances played a paramount role in almost all the elections since 1996, just as raw emotionalism was the dominant factor in the elections from 1967 to 1991, However, settled patterns have a habit of breaking down abruptly. In West Bengal, for example, the sheer organisational rigour of the CPI(M) saw the Left Front prevailing for more than three decades, But that pattern was decisively broken in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee created a spontaneous upsurge against Left rule. Likewise in the US, President Obama won conclusively in 2008 on the strength of a desperate yearning for change. Yet, in 2012, his victory can be attributed to meticulous targeting of specific communities and demographic clusters.

To my mind, India’s 2014 general election will be different because of one man: Modi. The BJP may not have anointed him the Prime Ministerial candidate but in the eyes of the voters, he is the issue. Opinion polls, conducted with uneven degrees of methodological rigour, have all identified two clear trends. First, that the popularity of the UPA has ebbed considerably since 2009 and that its great white hope, Rahul Gandhi, is not too highly regarded as a potential PM. Secondly, the polls also indicate that Modi has a personal popularity that is far in excess of the support for the BJP and its allies. In other words, the projection of Modi will allow the NDA to secure a greater vote share than would have been the case if the BJP went into battle on the strength of its symbol and corporate identity.

For the more conservative elements in the BJP, accustomed to seeing the party as bigger than any individual, this poses a real dilemma. Accustomed as it is to what has been described as a ‘sangathanist’ approach, it is uneasy with the idea of a presidential-type contest. Some individuals may well have a more devious reason for underplaying an individual-centric approach. But even if we assume their intentions are noble, there is a natural problem of a car picking up speed if the driver has the handbrake on.

Elections are contested to win, not to settle abstruse philosophical points. If the BJP has any intention of securing a decisive mandate in its favour, it has to think a little differently and look beyond committees whose main objective (like a Hindu marriage) is to give a role and accord importance to everybody from the bride and groom to the second cousin and the neighbour’s son. The importance of carrying the entire parivar is no doubt important but Modi’s strength lies in his connect with voters who believe in him but have little time for the BJP. To reconcile the two impulses in a parliamentary, as opposed to a presidential election, is a formidable challenge.

As I see it, the enthusiastic participation of the BJP is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. What is far more important is the creation of loose and sometimes autonomous bodies of Modi enthusiasts who are uneasy with a formal identification with the BJP. The harnessing of the raw (and sometimes wild) and unstructured enthusiasm for Modi is absolutely imperative if the BJP is to fully capitalise on the goodwill of its de-facto leader.

Committees are important but they are not a substitute for an inspired burst of political imagination. 

Sunday Pioneer, July 21, 2013

Thursday, July 18, 2013

STORM IN A DRAPERY - On the significance of words and imagery

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week, while nosing through the stacks of a library I came across a long-forgotten book, India in Ferment by Claude H. Van Tyne, an American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner. Published in 1923, it was based on his travels through India at the height of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement.

Van Tyne was not a starry-eyed American liberal with a pathological aversion to the idea of Empire. On the contrary, he was broadly appreciative of the commitment and competence of the British administrators, particularly those of the Indian Civil Service. He also had a high regard for India’s ‘moderate’ leadership, particularly individuals such as Sir Surendranath Banerjee, Lord Sinha and Madan Mohan Malaviya. And while he was critical of the rhetorical excesses of the foot soldiers of Indian nationalism, the scale of mass adulation for Gandhi didn’t leave him unmoved.

One incident in particular left a deep impression on him. In the early days of the campaign for “Swaraj in one year”, Van Tyne was invited to a small gathering in the large house of a Bombay merchant. The drawing room had been divided into two sections: on one side sat the stalwarts of the ‘native’ mercantile community and, behind a screen, sat their wives and daughters. That the gathering was supportive of Gandhi didn’t come as a surprise to the American visitor. What did astonish him was the decision taken by the women in purdah to come out of seclusion and actually participate in the mass demonstrations. Equally significant was the fact that the husbands and fathers of the women did not get all worked up over the subversion of social institutions by politics.

Van Tyne’s account does not state how many of the women actually took to the streets and how many succumbed to orthodox counter-pressures and confined their political activism to giving emotional and financial support to the Mahatma. Other contemporary accounts suggest that India’s struggle for political independence led to large numbers of women from orthodox Hindu and Muslim families abandoning the purdah and entering public life. In short, the national movement provided an additional fillip to earlier attempts by social reformers to involve women in the public life of India. Although the impact of Gandhian politics on women’s emancipation was uneven—and complicated by the Mahatma’s own fads—its effects were revolutionary.

I was reminded of Van Tyne’s evocative description of the early manifestations of Indian feminism in the context of a strange debate raging through India over Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s use of imagery. Last week, while attacking the record of the UPA Government at a meeting in Pune, the BJP’s undeclared prime ministerial candidate asserted that in times of difficulty the Congress invariably took shelter behind the ‘burqa’ of secularism.

The use of ‘burqa’ as a euphemism for fig-leaf or cover was promptly attacked by the big guns of the secular establishment. The imagery was held to be an assault on the Muslim community and the entire Congress establishment was mobilised to inform TV viewers that Modi’s use of the language revealed a perverse mindset. In a TV programme, the Minister of Environment Jayanti Natarajan said that she wouldn’t have taken umbrage if Modi had used ‘sari’ as a euphemism for cover, but burqa was clearly unacceptable.

Whether Modi’s choice of words was spontaneous or carefully pre-meditated is not known to me. However, since the critique of India’s differentiated citizenship is by and large centred on the charges of Muslim appeasement, Modi was perhaps successful in driving home the point without any elaboration. Since the art of communication, whether literary or political, is almost exclusively dependant on using the right word at the right place and employing appropriate imagery, Modi did hit bull’s eye. No one who heard him that day in either Pune or on TV could have been left in any doubt of Modi’s contention that ‘secularism’ is the Congress’ equivalent of crying ‘wolf’.

At a political level, there is bound to be criticism of the BJP’s distinction between pukka secularism and pseudo-secularism. That debate has been raging with various degrees of intensity for the past four decades at least and, frankly speaking, there was nothing intellectually unique in Modi’s intervention to trigger a fresh debate. Consequently, his critics honed in on the use of burqa in an apparently pejorative context. Former minister Ajay Maken suggested that the burqa of secularism was preferable to ‘naked communalism’ and Shashi Tharoor proffered the view that the burqa was better than the brown shorts of those who were inspired by Italian fascism—a historical analogy that, unfortunately, was marred by sartorial inaccuracy.

That an election campaign will be marked by verbal spats is a given and, consequently, there is no reason to be surprised by this storm in a drapery. What, however, is fascinating is the shift in political values. In the 1920s, as Van Tyne experienced with a sense of awe, the nationalist movement decried the custom of women’s seclusion. In the West of today, overwhelmed by the hiccups of multiculturalism, modernity, progressive thought and secularism are invariably associated with attacks on the Muslim custom of burqa. In Republican France where secularism is taken a bit too far, the Government has outlawed both the hijab and the burqa from schools and public institutions; and in the United Kingdom, at least one prominent politician—former Labour Home Secretary Jack Straw—stipulated that he wouldn’t deal with anyone who covered her face. In the Islamic world too, the ‘modernists’ like Kemal Attaturk of Turkey and the Shah of Iran outlawed the veil, while the ultra-radical Taliban made its usage compulsory for women in Afghanistan. The use of both the hijab and the veil are also the fault lines dividing the Muslim Brotherhood and the modernists in Egypt.

In India, the attempt to equate the burqa with Islam and Muslim identity—as opposed to seeing it as a mere social custom—was also a feature of politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Maulana Mawdudi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami wrote a tract in 1939 entitled Purdah and the Status of Women in Islam. His injunctions to women are worth recalling, not least because it explicitly spells out the philosophy of the burqa: “the real place of women is in the house and she has been exempted from outdoor duties. .. She has however been allowed to go out of the house to fulfil her genuine needs, but whilst going out she must observe complete modesty. Neither should she wear glamorous clothes and attract attention, nor should she cherish the desire to display the charms of the face and the hand, nor should she walk in a manner which may attract attention of others. Moreover, she should not speak to them without necessity, and if she has to speak she should not speak in a sweet and soft voice.”

It is a commentary on the social values of India’s aggressive secularists that the burqa and, by implication the institution of purdah, that were targeted by the social reformers of an earlier age is being projected as a symbol of Muslim identity. Who is the real communalist: a Modi who uses it as a symbol of something regressive or the cosmopolitan chic who has imbibed the wisdom of Maulana Mawdoodi?  

Televised, sound bite politics often results in a cacophony. But amid this chatter, it helps to take a step back and reflect on the significance of words and imagery. The results are unexpectedly revealing. 

The Telegraph, July 19, 2013