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.