Sunday, January 26, 2014

Not the same old drill; R-Day brings hope of real choices

By Swapan Dasgupta

India’s national days—Republic Day and Independence Day—have become occasions for both celebration and despondency. There is a bout of flag waving, some pageantry and lots of Manoj Kumar-type patriotic films on TV. At the same time, and ever since I can recall, they are taken up a great deal of existential anguish. Ponderous articles with depressing headlines such as “Nation at the crossroads” and “Whither India” appear to dominate the newspapers and these themes resonate in the talk shows where anchors shed their dark suits for more desi apparel.  

It is unlikely to be substantially different this January 26. With a general election round the corner, a hint of amateurish ‘anarchism’ in the Capital and growth rates down to a sluggish five per cent, citizens will be forgiven for looking at the future with a measure of trepidation. Even the Bharat Nirman ads boasting of India’s dramatic transformation from shoddiness to the glitzy 21st century are unlikely to lift the mood. Not when something as monumentally trivial as the transfer of four SHOs threatened to derail the official Republic Day parade in Delhi.

‘Crisis’, it would seem, is a permanent state of mind in India. In the early days of the Republic, the optimism of the Nehruvian intelligentsia was invariably offset by a fear that things would somehow fall apart. The crippling shortages of everything from food and cooking fuel to telephones and cars defined Indian existence. The only solace was Bollywood and its regional variants that enabled Indians to momentarily escape the drudgery of life.

Some of these problems were inherited but many were politically determined and a consequence of the wrong choices made by the decision-makers. Periodically, some great leader would throw up a great hope to either banish poverty or take India into the 21st century. Unfortunately, these great projects would be derailed through a combination of incompetence, venality and plain bad luck. Yet India muddled through.

More important, India’s institutions endured, although battered and in serious need of repair. And above all, India didn’t lose faith in itself. As democracy struck deep roots, Indian elections were dominated by two big themes: protest and hope. Each alternated with the other for popular endorsement. The only occasion the two themes combined in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won the most impressive majority ever. It can happen again.

History suggests that Indians loath turbulence. They may be temperamentally fatalistic, hoping for a better after-life, but they combine it with a quest for basic sureties. It was the fear and revulsion of the anarchy post-Aurangzeb that facilitated the transition of the East India Company from merchants to rulers. Likewise, for much of post-Independence history the Congress became the default party because it promised stability with creeping change. In the 1970s, many India-watchers prophesied that the Green Revolution would inevitably turn Red. It never happened because even a poor country found radical breaks too unsettling.

The past is not always a reliable guide to the future. In the past 25 years, India has witnessed profound changes. In statistical terms, the economic growth since 1990 has matched the growth spread over the preceding 100 years. The timeless and unchanging India which fascinated romantic Orientalists is now history. There is now a new India that is discernibly less fatalistic and considerably more impatient for a better life that their parents and grandparents never enjoyed. Above all, there is a growing India that measures itself in global terms. To economists India may be a “developing” country but the aspirations of a significant section are on par with that of a “developed” economy. It is this mismatch that marks India on the 64th anniversary of the Republic.

It is a moment to cherish. On the surface and in the TV debates India may seem a voluble but confused country. Underneath the surface, however, the country is being presented with clear alternatives: between low but seemingly growth and an audacious bid to be a truly breakout nation by removing the brakes on self-motivation. There is also a third choice: to wreck the present in the hope that out of the debris will emerge an alternative India.

For a change, the options are real and meaningful. 

The papier-mache Mahatma

By Swapan Dasgupta

On December 23, 1987, incensed by the Faizabad district order opening the locks of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya, Syed Shahabuddin and the newly-formed All India Babri Masjid Conference gave a call for Muslims to “not associate themselves with official functions”.  Although the call was quickly withdrawn following a national outrage, it was perhaps the first time a non-secessionist body had called for a boycott of Republic Day.

Few things in India are sacred but all political parties and all citizens who believe that their “idea of India” must necessarily include faith in the Indian Constitution accord a special place to the country’s two national days. It is a measure of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s astonishing recklessness and arrogance that he felt no inhibitions threatening the disruption of the Republic Day parade by “lakhs” of Aam Aadmi Party supporters.

What is equally mystifying that this grave threat was issued because his demand for the suspension of four SHOs had not been entertained by the Lt-Governor of Delhi. When Shahabuddin craved for attention 25 years ago, he did so for a big, albeit misplaced, cause. Kejriwal’s iconoclasm was centred on the fact that lowly police officers had dared to say no to one permanently angry Rakhee Birla and one Somnath Bharti who is more caricature than real. His anger knew no bounds and TV resonated with gems from Kejriwal: “If they don’t listen to ministers, who will they listen to?”; “Who is (Home Minister) Shinde to tell the Chief Minister of Delhi where to sit. The Chief Minister can tell him where he can sit.” Frankly, Cartoon Network couldn’t have done better.

Kejriwal is an interesting human being. Like many self-professed messiahs who appear from time to time, he believes that he and only he has the monopoly of truth and virtuousness: those who contest his intellectual infallibility are either Congress/ BJP agents or, better still, plain dishonest. From swearing by his children to pretending that some things just didn’t happen because he says it didn’t, Kejriwal is contemporary India’s papier mache Mahatma.

Mohandas Gandhi, the other Mahatma, was one of the wiliest politicians who left his opponents both angry and mystified. From Viceroy Lord Irwin to the sun-hardened India hands in the colonial service, there was no agreement as to whether Gandhi was a saint who had unwittingly strayed into politics, a familiar seditious lawyer who had improvised his dress or a plain oriental humbug. There was never any unanimity as to what Gandhi stood for and, indeed, the man India venerates as its sole Mahatma stood for different things at different times. Like most people engaged in politics, philosophical or even issue-based consistency was not the hallmark of the ‘Father of the Nation”.

For many of his new-found supporters, Kejriwal is indeed the new Gandhi—and they say so in their slogans. In many ways, AAP’s supreme leader consciously cultivates that image. Like Gandhi, he has made a virtue of simplicity which, given the lifestyle excesses of India’s political class, is an admirable attribute. Like Gandhi, he has learnt the art of appearing to be obstinate, particularly in his relationship with his colleagues. He often conveys the impressionable that he is blessed with the monopoly of both the truth and tactical wisdom. At the same time, his version of truth is negotiable and susceptible to periodic revisions. When he contested the elections he did so never imagining that one day he would need Congress support to form a government which his support base desperately wanted. Consequently, he pretended that the past go-it-alone-at-all-cost assurance never existed and still doesn’t exist. It is a different matter that a confused, Rahul Gandhi-directed Congress constantly gives him the opening to persist with the charade.

Kejriwal boasted he was an anarchist and seemed to ready to man the barricades. The very next day he went back to work, with his smooth-talking ideologues swearing their undying allegiance to the Constitution. What had changed? The answer lies in Kejriwal’s ability to effect a tactical retreat when the occasion so demands. Compromise and intransigence seem to go hand in hand with him. On the question of funding of his party and, earlier, his movement, Kejriwal maintains a need-based flexibility that may, in future, land him in a spot of bother. He can replace the skull cap with the AAP cap, feign outrage at the “fake encounter” at Batla House and preach an inclusive secularism. At the same time, he can turn a blind eye to the worst verbal excesses of a Kumar Vishwas and a Somnath Bharti and even embrace the regressive logic of a khap panchayat. And he piously proclaim his supporters join him for a do-or-die battle and when the turnout proves hugely disappointing, he first tries to manufacture a confrontation and, when that fails, quietly negotiate a face-saving settlement—and proclaim it as a huge victory.

Kejriwal seeks to change the rules of the political game just as Gandhi did. The “useful idiots”—one of Lenin’s memorable descriptions of the do-gooders who backed the brutalities of the Bolsheviks—go along with him and wish for a bout of honest disruption. The turbulence is backed by a media that gives AAP unprecedented and sympathetic publicity that in turn encourages Kejriwal to press the accelerator harder.

Yet there is a difference. Gandhi was fighting for national independence and self-rule. Under the guise of participative democracy, Kejriwal is seeking to go beyond reforms. He wants to unsettle India and keep it in a state of permanent turbulence. That is an agenda most Indians can do without, even if it is articulated by a self-righteous man who wears honesty on his sleeve.

Kejriwal is making a difference: he is transforming the coming electoral battle to a choice between anarchy and growth. May the better cause win. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, January 24, 2014

Saturday, January 11, 2014

If Missed Calls Could Change India!

By Swapan Dasgupta

It is that time of the year when convivial dinner table conversations invariably veer towards politics and the general election. At such an occasion around Christmas, I overheard an erudite gentleman tell the junior diplomat of a European Union country that “if Narendra Modi comes to power I will flee the country.” 

The melodramatic proclamation left me cold. I had heard like-minded, self-proclaimed liberals say similar things in 1997 when the likelihood of a BJP-led government became a real possibility. No matter that Atal Behari Vajpayee was regarded as the sole enlightened voice in a party of cretins and fanatics, when it comes to impending political change there is always a great deal of nervous over-reaction.

Last week I went to a similar dinner where the guests were a familiar mix of the literary and the media. Once again, politics entered the conversation but this time there were no hyperbolic assertions and inquiries about one-way tickets out of India. On the contrary, the members of India’s “creative” community were visibly relaxed. The consensus was that the momentum had gone out of the Modi campaign and that The Economist’s dire warning had worked. Just as Hurricane Katrina had blown away the Republican challenge to the Obama presidency in 2012, the feeling was that a flood of missed calls had choked the Modi campaign. “Just wait and see”, the resident pundit with a taste for socialism and the good life told me, “Aam Aadmi Party will win 80 Lok Sabha seats.”  Modi, I was told in no uncertain terms, has “lost the plot”.

I am no prophet and it is indeed possible that the Indian electorate will use its vote to register a protest, putting aside the more daunting task of electing a government that is empowered to perform. Whatever the ultimate decision, there is no question that the first fortnight of 2014 has been intensely educative for all.

First, we have seen the conventional wisdom surrounding political mobilisation or, indeed, insurrectionary politics, being turned on its head. Contrary to the belief that motivating people to engage with civic and national life involved a long and even thankless slog, we have now been informed that governance and participation is all a matter of a missed call. A missed call, the innovators would like us to believe, can change India and propel the forces of goodness. I would strongly suggest that no citizen of India loses this opportunity. It is even better than clicking the ‘Like’ button on Facebook.

Secondly, an otherwise sceptical media that hitherto made ritual genuflections at the altar of neutrality have suddenly decided that this is no time to be mere observers and reporters. The Indian variants of Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch—each one blessed with a Citizen Kane-like belief in their power to make or break governments—have decided to throw in their lot with the Missed Call Party (MCP). The media has chosen to be a force multiplier for the MCP. The consequences have been absolutely bizarre. National news and even local news have been subsumed by the city news of Delhi.

Thirdly, the past month has seen the very same people who served as social, cultural and intellectual props of the Congress Party and the UPA Government shift their preference to the MCP. Nandan Nilekani may be the solitary aberration but it would seem that the tribe of individuals who were rewarded with committee memberships, research grants by ministries and umpteen business class tickets for seminars in the Occident, have realised that dynastic politics does not have the capacity to ensure the perpetuation of their perquisites after the summer of 2014. After the December 8, 2013 results of the Assembly elections, they may even have fearfully concluded that their Establishment would be replaced by a Counter-Establishment comprising those committed to rapid growth and Indian resurgence—a far cry from the lachrymose advocacy of the National Advisory Council agenda. Today, in the exhilarating buzz around the MCP, they have sensed an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: to stop Modi reaching Delhi and to remain relevant during the ensuing chaos.

Finally, the dramatic energy boost of the MCP has come as a godsend to at least one powerful country that is fearful of a Modi-led government. The reasons for this fear are complex. There is of course the burden of the strategic miscalculation that led to a US Administration peremptorily announcing the revocation of Modi’s US visa. But there is a far more complex reason. India’s “potential” to be a global economic power and be a factor in the strategic calculus of Asia has long been recognised. At the same time, India’s inability to live up to expectations for the past decade has been greeted with smug satisfaction. In Modi the big powers anticipated the possibility of the Indian elephant rising from its slumber. It would have meant recalibrating international relations—a bothersome and hazardous exercise. However, an India gripped by political turbulence and preoccupied with navel gazing, symbolism and missed calls would end all uncertainty. India would happily re-establish its pious irrelevance.

There are many smiling faces in the Capital these days. For the old sinners, the missed calls symbolise the counter revolution; for India, missed calls could be the harbinger of missed opportunities. The choice is ours. 

Very Little Lef:t Over Far too long have Rightist voices been stifled—since 1947

By Swapan Dasgupta

A casual reading of India’s post-Independence history may well prompt the belief that the Republic was born to be Left in its political orientation. From the time Jawaharlal Nehru warded off the challenge of the orphaned followers of Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Vallabbhai Patel in the early-1950s, socialism was the buzzword of the times. This deification of state control with its attendant inefficiencies and the celebration of centralised planning persisted into the tenure of Indira Gandhi when it was obligatory to be progressive.

Apart from institutionalising sluggish economic growth, creating a bloated and venal state, and driving honest entrepreneurship into oblivion, Indira Gandhi, who entered into a marriage of convenience with an opportunistic Marxist Left, distorted the vocabulary of Indian politics. As opposed to Nehru who transplanted the genteel traditions of upper-class British socialism into the discourse, his daughter had little inhibition in borrowing generously from the crude, sloganeering language of the pro-Soviet intellectuals. Thus, the denunciation of “right wing reactionaries” that was the hallmark of the battle against the Syndicate became a feature of the political landscape until the collapse of the Berlin Wall put an end to the supposed march of history.  Its high point was the Emergency when the Preamble to the Constitution was modified and replenished with the terms ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’.

The economic liberalisation process initiated by the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991 was an important trigger in breaking the Left consensus. Hitherto, the so-called Right had existed at two levels: as a traditionalist critique of a nationalism that was insufficiently mindful of the cultural moorings of India, and as an alternative to statist economics. The two strands, initially represented by the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra parties remained on the margins and were unable to effectively challenge the Nehruvian consensus. It was the Ayodhya movement and economic liberalisation that created the conditions for a viable Right—a process that, however, remains work in progress.

For the Indian Right, the general election of 2014 presents the greatest opportunity to rectify the ideological imbalance. The rise of Narendra Modi as a pan-Indian challenger to dynastic politics and the Left consensus is located within a definite context. First, thanks to the UPA Government’s hesitation in carrying forward the process that had been inaugurated by Manmohan Singh when he was Finance Minister in the Rao government, India’s growth rates have slipped alarmingly. From being a rising world power, India appears to have lost steam in the increasingly globalising world. Secondly, the BJP, with its emphasis on infrastructural development and the promotion of entrepreneurship, has emerged as an alternative to the Congress’ well-meaning but inept welfarism. Finally, the steady dilution of the rough edges of ‘cultural nationalism’ has meant that the Congress attempt to paint the BJP as a party of the lunatic fringe is carrying diminishing returns.

These trends have coalesced around the personality of Modi for a variety of reasons. As a three-term Chief Minister of a rapidly-growing state, Modi has had the opportunity to demonstrate an alternative approach in action. Despite his commitment to a ‘minimal state’, Modi isn’t a classical Thatcherite. Rather than dispense with state-sponsored initiatives—a difficult proposition in a country marked by economic and social inequalities—he has focussed on two things: doing away with needless bureaucratic controls and demanding efficiency from the state. Lacing his larger-than-life persona with an enthusiastic promotion of technology, he has sold a dream to an India that is longer content to remain stuck in the Third World. Modi has whetted the Indian appetite for modern governance draped in an Indian flag. A formidable communicator who loves to take on his opponents frontally, Modi has used Gujarat as the launching pad of an audacious attempt to make a parliamentary election presidential.

As the general election battle heats up, there are likely to be two emerging trends in the Modi campaign. First, it is more than likely that the facets of governance, particularly the approaches to economic management, which distinguishes Modi from the rest of the pack will be aggressively showcased. Those wishing for a manifesto commitment to large-scale privatisation and the abolition of the Planning Commission could be disappointed. But their enthusiasm may well be kindled by an assurance that the days of big government are over.

Secondly, it is also likely that the projection of Modi may well be aimed at elevating him from the humdrum of party politics. A carefully-crafted and nuanced distinction between what Modi stands for and what the BJP represents could well find reflection in the next few months.

For the Indian Right, the Modi campaign is make-or-break moment. The outcome will prove crucial in determining whether or not Indian politics can be re-calibrated to reflect the logic of the changes that have affected the country over the past 25 years. India has changed unrecognisably but its politics is still stuck in a rut. Modi represents the most coherent bid to bring governance and politics into the 21st century.

The voices that were stifled after 1947 are awaiting their moment, eagerly.