Saturday, March 29, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In his uncharacteristically over-stated proclamation of separation from the organisation that had nurtured him, veteran leader Jaswant Singh said that it was now a fight between the ‘asli’ (real) and ‘nakli’ (counterfeit) Bharatiya Janata Party. Although his outburst was couched in anger at what he quite bizarrely described as the party’s assault on his “territorial integrity” –a convoluted way of saying that it had fielded another candidate in his “home” constituency—the commentariat has broadly agreed with the suggestion that Singh’s exit was a landmark event. Read with the diminution of the so-called “old guard” it certainly pointed to an ongoing generational shift. However, far more significant is the question: is the Narendra Modi-led BJP travelling down a very different political path?
For a start, despite the professed assertion of a section of the Sangh fraternity that the outlook of the BJP is non-negotiable and determined by an uncompromising faith in an undefined Hindutva, the reality is more complex.
The Bharatiya Jana Sangh—the organisational precursor of the BJP—was established in 1951 as an alliance between former Hindu Mahasabha-ites such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu volunteer body that had hitherto stayed out of politics. Mookerjee was the face of the new party and did his utmost to bring together all the pre-Independence critics of the Congress (in the Liberal Party, Unionist Party and Hindu Mahasabha) into a more relevant new organisation. Under Mookerjee, the RSS was an element of the broader Jana Sangh coalition and not the dominant player. However, after Mookerjee’s death in 1953, the RSS had to step in and assume control to prevent the Jana Sangh from disintegrating. Indeed, since 1953 the RSS has played the role of an organisational adhesive to both Jana Sangh and BJP.
The Jana Sangh existed for 26 years, making a modest mark on the life of a Congress-dominated nation. It certainly had a distinctiveness of approach and even drew a sprinkling of notables who were not otherwise attached to the RSS but electorally its performance was patchy. It is worth keeping in mind the fact that Jana Sangh was unable to ever win a state election on its own throughout its existence. The nearest it came was winning the Delhi Metropolitan Council election (the Capital was then a Union Territory) in 1967.
Whether the decision to participate in Jaya Prakash Narayan’s movement against the Congress signalled the movement’s breakthrough is a point of contention among scholars. There are those who believe that Jana Sangh basically ran the JP movement undercover and used the two years of the Janata Party Government to spread its tentacles. The alternative suggestion is that the Jana Sangh was always a low-key, junior partner in a movement whose direct benefits accrued to veteran Congress critics of Indira and the fractious Loha-ites. Whatever the reality, it is undeniable that in 1980 the BJP was only a part inheritor of the Jaya Prakash legacy. To prevail in the non-Congress space, it had to also upstage its other challengers who subsequently regrouped in V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal and its subsequent offshoots.
The point to note is that right from its conception in 1951and re-birth in 1980, the politics of the BJP has been marked by a combination of flexibility and discipline. The flexibility was dictated by the long-term, single-minded determination to emerge as what L.K. Advani liked to call the “alternative pole of politics.” The discipline was provided by a watchful RSS which played the role of both a mentor and, occasionally, a stern parent. At various point in post-1977 politics, alternative narratives have emerged in the non-Congress space. Yet, the BJP has never been completely overwhelmed partly because its organisational moorings are quite firm. The BJP always has a bunker it can retreat to in times of adversity.
This is not to suggest that the forward surge of the BJP has been dictated by ideological fixity. On the contrary, few organisations (with pretensions of being an ideological party) have demonstrated such a large measure of flexibility and innovation. In 1987-89, despite considerable internal misgivings, the BJP was broadly supportive of V.P. Singh’s anti-Rajiv Gandhi crusade. But this solidarity was also coupled by a dogged determination to steer the larger agenda into an issue of its choosing. When the BJP actually embraced the Ram temple movement in 1988, it had absolutely no clue of its potential. However, despite riding the crest of a Ram wave in large parts of India and emerging as the clear alternative to the Congress in 1991, the BJP was nimble-footed enough to effect a retreat after 1993. This shift of gear wasn’t compelling enough to secure Atal Behari Vajpayee a national mandate in 1996 but it set the stage for the National Democratic Alliance that was to emerge in 1998.
During the Janata Party phase, Advani had spoken of the politics of aggregation taking precedence over sharply defined ideological certitudes. In 1998, at the first BJP National Executive meeting after Vajpayee was installed as Prime Minister, Advani again spoke of a “New BJP” (those were the days of Tony Blair’s captivating New Labour) that would propel it into a ‘natural party of governance’. He didn’t elaborate too much but in 2004 there was the unique spectacle of the BJP contesting a general election on the strength of having achieved and bringing about an “India Shining.”
This attempt to emerge as a classical right-wing party in the European mould had disastrous electoral consequences. In the post-mortem exercises, both in 2004 and 2009, the BJP concluded that it could not afford to alienate its traditional supporters who saw the party as a bulwark of Hindu nationalism. At the same time, it recognised that the elements of economic modernity injected by the economic liberalisation process couldn’t be ignored.
The emergence of Modi as the leader who combined a robust leadership style with an unwavering commitment to make India an economic powerhouse helped tie in the two strands. At one time it seemed that the organisational hegemony of the RSS would be at odds with Modi’s emphasis on economic growth and individual aspirations of a Young India. But it was the pragmatism of the RSS leadership which realised that political advance was only possible through Modi that ended the impasse. The misgivings of an Advani or a Jaswant Singh were not account of any major ideological ruptures but to the primacy of Modi in the projection of the BJP. In any other party, the personality clashes and generational wars would have created major convulsions. It was resolved relatively painlessly in the BJP because of the RSS insistence on coherence which naturally meant keeping scepticism on the back burner and fighting a larger political battle with a united face.
The extent to which Modi represents a sharp rupture between an ‘asli’ and ‘nakli’ BJP will be judged after the election, especially if the NDA is victorious. Certainly Modi’s appeal extends to far beyond the traditional Sangh appeal and many of the new adherents have joined the BJP both out of commitment and expediency. The process of enlarging the social and ideological base of the BJP is going to be a complex process and it would be hazardous to make any predictions. All that can be said is that with their sullenness and small rebellions, many veterans have lost their capacity to influence future developments. It is entirely possible that Jaswant Singh and his backers will emerge from this election cutting a sorry figure.
The Telegraph, March 28, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
It is really not surprising that Aadhar cards have become a talking point in the election campaign of Bangalore South from where Nandan Nilekani, the former chairman of the UIDAI is contesting as a Congress candidate. Although Nilekani is otherwise very careful to focus exclusively on local issues and not allow the focus to shift to the fact that voters are not electing a local MP to fix their water and garbage problems but contributing to the formation of a government at the Centre, he has deviated from the script on the Aadhar card issue. He has flaunted the enrolment of 60 crore people in the Aadhar schema as a colossal achievement and made it a part of his “problem solving” credentials.
Nilekani has every right to flaunt his credentials as the architect of the famed “One Indian, one identity” scheme which the Congress counts among its significant achievements. However, in the light of a Supreme Court reaffirming that Aadhar cards are not mandatory for citizens to benefit from the government’s welfare schemes, it becomes necessary to ask whether a programme that involved a colossal amount of taxpayers’ money—the estimates vary wildly from the stated government estimate of Rs 37,182 crore for the entire project to other estimates of Rs 50,000 crore—was really money down the drain. More to the point, after the apex court’s strictures, the next government will have to ask whether the additional piece of plastic in people’s wallets can play any meaningful role in the future. In short, can Aadhar be salvaged?
Much of the problem associated with the Aadhar numbers stem from the constant shifting of goalposts. When it was first conceived, the card set out to facilitate direct cash transfers to beneficiaries of government schemes such as MNREGA, pensions, scholarships, etc. The idea was laudable and was aimed at reducing corruption and ensuring welfare benefits flowed to the beneficiaries in toto. Again, apart from the fact that each individual would have a unique number and get their biometric details registered to avoid duplication, it was a more evolved version of the direct-to-bank transfers thought up the Rajasthan Government during Vasundhara Raje’s first administration.
So what went wrong? To begin with, it must be stated that identity cards often end up with multiple uses, often far removed from their original purpose. A driving licence, for example, is a permission to drive motor vehicles. In reality, it becomes a proof of identity and even address, used for showing off to both bank managers and the CISF guards at airports. A PAN card too does more than facilitate money transactions and tax returns. It becomes a supporting document for passports, gas applications, et al.
From day one, as an official document, Aadhar was destined for multiple functions. The problem arose when its purpose was extended from receiving government benefits to establishing identity and permanent residence. In other words, what was a facilitating document for eligible citizens became an instrument for establishing the right to be in India and, by implication, citizenship. And this is precisely how it is being increasingly used by non-citizens as an additional documentation, along with ration cards and driving licences, to establish citizenship. Various sting operations have clearly indicated that it takes as little as Rs 500 to get a permanent Aadhar number for those not eligible to get it.
The point I am making is not unique. Throughout the debate leading up to the mass-scale issuance of Aadhar cards, various bodies including the Home Ministry and the Intelligence Bureau had stated their grave doubts over the long-term security implications of the card. Those with an interest in civil liberties had also pointed to the possibility that this data could very easily be misused by a vindictive and intrusive state to invade the privacy of an individual. Finally, a parliamentary committee on finance had studied the scheme and pronounced it to be a bad idea.
The point is that what the Supreme Court pronounced last week had been said by various authorities before. However, so profound was the political backing for Nilekani that his hugely expensive application to join the political class was rushed through, brushing aside all objections. A scheme whose implications affected the very “idea” of Indian citizenship was put into operation without the sanction of Parliament and without the cast iron safeguards that were needed.
The reason for the rush was obvious: the Congress leadership believed that Aadhar would redefine the rules of electoral competition and establish it as a natural party of government for the near future. Nilekani was in a rush to meet a deadline and hence the speed.
From all accounts Nilekani has achieved a target of sorts—though even he is clueless as to how many “non-Indians” and illegal migrants have acquired a card to establish a proof of permanent residency. However, the Supreme Court has proved a party pooper.
Nilekani is a talented individual with a proven record of corporate governance. Why did he rush into a venture knowing fully well its pitfalls? My real complaint is not that Aadhar was flawed—some of the best ideas need to be tweaked. The more important question is: what does it tell us about Nilekani’s intellectual integrity? What does it tell us of a political culture that involves spending public money to advance an individual career?
Nilekani may or may not win the Lok Sabha election but he cannot avoid being grilled for walking into a disaster zone with his eyes wide open. “When a man of great intellect goes wrong”, Nirad Chaudhury once wrote about Lord Curzon, “his intellect only makes his wrongness incurable.”
Saturday, March 22, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In a curious and unintended sort of way, the election campaign of Nandan Nilekani in Bengaluru South has encapsulated the story of the Congress Party in the 2014 general election.
The allusion is not to the Nilekani family’s Rs 7,700 crore of self-made personal fortune which evokes admiration and some understandable envy. Nor is it centred on an aam-aadmi type outrage over a synergy between entrepreneurship and politics. Nilekani is a welcome addition to the political class and should be an inspiration to other successful professionals—and not merely lawyers—to dip their toes in the murky waters of public life. Indian politics is in need of a cultural revolution and talented individuals such as Nilekani can contribute to the process—even if it involves sacrificing a modicum of self-respect and issuing character certificates to a vacuous ‘yuva josh’.
No, what is significant about Nilekani’s electoral debut is his sales pitch. As opposed to his Infosys days when he set about establishing the global credentials of an Indian company, Nilekani is now singing the virtues of what is derisively called ‘parish pump’ politics. Maybe all politics is local but it is nevertheless surprising that the themes Nilekani has chosen to highlight are “water, roads, traffic management, garbage removal and creating opportunities.”
The surprise is not on account of Nilekani applying his self-professed “problem-solving” skills to civic issues but that he chose a Lok Sabha election to peddle them. A well-informed person who has been grappling with complex Constitutional issues during his stewardship of the Aadhar scheme, Nilekani couldn’t be unaware that his pet subjects for this election are concerns of the state government and municipal authorities. In 1996-97, another illustrious Kannadiga, H.D. Deve Gowda was often described as the Prime Minister of Karnataka. Is Nilekani following his footsteps and aspiring to be the first MP to sit in the imposing Vidhan Soudha?
At the risk of flippancy, Nilekani’s ‘local’ campaign plank is about as relevant as those of the radical Left who contest student’s union elections in Jawaharlal Nehru University to register solidarity with the Palestinian resistance to Israel.
Nilekani is no political innocent—his stint at the UIDAI has taught him more politics than he would care to admit. His decision to focus on the local problems of Bengaluru South is grounded in careful calculation. In fact, it amounts to a candid confession that the Congress Party finds the projection of national issues a grave liability.
In the past, Congress candidates, particularly in southern India, fought Lok Sabha elections on the shoulders of its national leadership—more particularly the legacy of Indira-amma. Today, Congress stalwarts believe that their only hope of bucking the fierce resentment against the UPA Government lies in somehow pointing the finger elsewhere. What Nilekani’s campaign demonstrates is that the Congress has abandoned hopes of forming a government at the Centre. Prominent individuals fighting on the ‘hand’ symbol are fighting a rearguard battle to somehow win their own seats by singing local tunes. The national jingle is proving very unappealing.
Not since I.K. Gujral led a crumbling United Front into the general election of 1998 has an incumbent government—and one that retained a parliamentary majority till the very last day—given up the ghost so completely. The Congress began its election campaign two months ago flaunting Rahul Gandhi as its new, youthful leader. That aesthetically well-crafted campaign is now in tatters and has been so after the disastrous Times Now interview that exposed the heir apparent as a disconnected amateur. Far from being the new hope, the shehzada is now an object of mockery. Changing course mid-stream, Congress has been reduced to competing for the anti-Narendra Modi mindspace with the flamboyant theatrics of Arvind Kejriwal.
The chatter is over Modi contesting two seats; for Congressmen even entering the race is proving injurious to political health. Between the defection of a Purandeswari, the reluctance of a Manish Tiwari to return to Ludhiana and the sabbatical of P. Chidambaram runs a common narrative: the fear of not merely defeat, but humiliation.
It is also the crafty sub-text of a brilliant individual’s journey from Imagining India to contemplating Bengaluru’s garbage disposal, a journey from the sublime to the expedient.
Sunday Times of India, March 23, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
Vidya Charan Shukla who died last summer was one of the most hated figures of the Emergency. He was entrusted with the responsibility of regulating the flow of news through rigorous censorship and he carried out Indira Gandhi’s command with effective ruthlessness.
I didn’t know Shukla during his halcyon days, when he also acquired a reputation for being a bit of a lad. Arun Nehru introduced us during the early days of the Jan Morcha, wich subsequently morphed into the Janata Dal. What immediately struck me about Shukla was that he was always immaculately turned out. Indeed, I have met no other person who wore a dhoti so elegantly.
Unfortunately, his overpowering sartorial grace wasn’t good enough to obliterate the past. To my generation, Shukla and the Emergency were inseparable. This may explain my disgust when I found him sharing the dais with L.K. Advani at an election rally in 2004. Shukla, for those with short memories, contested the 2004 poll from Mahasamund as a BJP candidate. He lost and shortly after left the BJP to make his way back to the Congress.
I was reminded of Shukla while observing the steady stream of Congress worthies switching sides effortlessly and proclaiming their undying faith in Narendra Modi. Apart from the usual galaxy of film-stars and other performers who have developed an irresistible urge to enter politics—just look at the candidate list of both the BJP and Trinamool Congress in West Bengal—the new converts include hardened politicians like Rao Inderjit Singh, Purandeswari, Sonaram Chowdhury, Jagadambika Pal, Satpal Maharaj and the habitually fickle such as Jai Narain Nishad and Brij Bhushan Singh. And I am not even including the ex-babus.
Many of them have been ‘adjusted’—a wonderfully evocative expression to denote amorality—and others given assurances about the future. Actually, the BJP’s record of keeping pre-election promises is rather good. In 2004, despite the defeat, the party accommodated at least four high profile new entrants into the Rajya Sabha where their total contribution to the revival of the BJP was an enormous zero. However, within the political class, the BJP has a better reputation of being specially accommodative towards those who have earlier drunk from a secular cup. Whether this stems from a genuine desire to broaden the party’s social reach or is a function of Hindutva ‘dhimmitude’ is for social psychologists to ponder.
In narrow political terms, however, there is no doubt that a steady stream of in-bound traffic does much to boost morale and demoralise the opposition. More important, in the context of the Congress (and AAP) bid to suggest that India will suffer a bout of communal indigestion if Modi is voted to power, the newcomers help expose the secular-communal divide for what it really is: intellectual self-abuse. Ironically, it also helps break down the spurious perception that the BJP is a rigid ideological party. The commitment to a particular stream of thought may have defined the party at one stage of its evolution but political power invariably results in the dissolution of inherited certitudes. Unwittingly, new entrants have helped the BJP’s unquestioned passage from Hindu nationalism to Hindu republicanism. Under Modi, the BJP’s evolution as a right-of-centre party with a focus on governance is likely to be more pronounced. This would have happened in any case if the party had not unexpectedly lost the 2004 poll and been overwhelmed by a leadership crisis subsequently. The likelihood of a Modi victory in 2014 has revived a process that was abruptly left incomplete ten years ago.
The movement from the margins to the centre inevitably involves the accumulation of diverse social forces and, predictably, some garbage. In 1991, the first occasion the BJP started attracting talent from outside the RSS fraternity, there was an overweight of retired bureaucrats and military officers among the new entrants. They included the likes of Lt-Gen Jacob, Lt-Gen K.P. Candeth, Brajesh Mishra, S.C. Dixit and B.P. Singhal. What is further interesting that most of these individuals didn’t desert the party after 1991 and, indeed, played a role in the process that led to a BJP-led government at the Centre. The willingness of the BJP to mop up the remnants of the Janata Dal also played an important role in the larger social enrichment of the party. At least two facets of the present BJP—its hold over the middle classes and its significant presence among OBC voters—have their origin in the open-door approach of the 1990s.
By contrast, those who latched on to the BJP in 2004 in anticipation of another term for Atal Behari Vajpayee turned out to be birds of prey. Most of the umpteen film-stars and other celebrities quietly moved out of the party’s orbit once it was clear that the Congress was back in the saddle. They left behind a trail of resentment in the party, particularly among the old faithful who had stood by it loyally through days good and bad. This may have been a reason why the involvement of the BJP’s traditional supporters in the 2004 campaign was so perfunctory. At the same time, the rapid desertion of the newcomers after the May 2004 defeat created a mental block in the party against newcomers, a block that overlooked the earlier experience. From 2004 till the anointment of Modi in September 2013, the BJP was deprived of new blood.
Today, once again the BJP is witnessing a problem of plenty. Carefully handled, the process can devastate the Congress permanently while extending the BJP’s social reach. Ineptly managed, it could turn BJP into a party of rank opportunists.
Sunday Pioneer, March 23, 2014
Friday, March 21, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
In the eight terms I spent in Oxford in the early-1980s, I developed a slight distaste for Neville Maxwell, then a Fellow at the Queen Elizabeth House. Differences over perceptions of Indian politics owed very little to the incompatibility. I saw Maxwell as a man whose understanding of contemporary India was caught in a time warp. To me he appeared to be a man frozen in his conviction that neither India nor its democracy was destined to endure—a belief he had stubbornly held ever since he pronounced the 1967 general election to be the last Indian election. I still recall the extra gleam in his eyes the day we got the news of Operation Bluestar. To him, the end of India was indeed nigh.
It is indeed possible that Maxwell’s gloomy prognosis for India stemmed from his bitter experiences with our country’s officialdom after the publication of his India’s China War in 1970. The issue was not so much that Maxwell’s portrayal of India as the inept aggressor who ended up with a bloody nose was in direct conflict with the injured victimhood of Jawaharlal Nehru. China, it must be remembered, was the flavour of the season for those who Leon Trotsky had described as “radical tourists”. Much before the horrific excesses of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were known to the wider world, China was deified as a socialist arcadia by misplaced radicals in the West. Mao Zedong-worship resembled the intellectuals’ worship of the equally barbaric Stalin and the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
Maxwell’s book became a great favourite of the Maoist-leaning radicals in India in the 1970s. Although I wasn’t remotely interested in the abstruse disputes over the McMahon Line, there were always enough Sinophiles in Delhi in the early-1970s who used to flaunt the Pelican edition of India’s China War—along with Edgar Snow and Han Suyin’s tracts on China—to remind us of the socialist paradise we were missing.
Equally, there were enough grim-faced babus holding an official brief who saw Maxwell as the contemporary equivalent of Major-General Dyer of Jallianwala Bagh fame. Not only had this journalist-turned-academic questioned Nehru and Krishna Menon’s version of the truth, he was also condescending towards India. Even after he settled down to a semi-scholarly existence at Queen Elizabeth House lecturing Third World bureaucrats on development and other lofty themes, he continued to be tarred with the brush of ‘anti-Indianism’, whatever that meant. And, since Indian officialdom was inclined to be incredibly petty and mean-minded towards anyone it perceived as being hostile to the great Nehruvian consensus, Maxwell must have been rubbed up the wrong way on innumerable occasions. I can only presume that his encounters with ‘official’ India made him quite bitter towards the country and, at the same time, endeared him to every Indian dissenter—and there were lots of those who hung around aimlessly in the universities of the West.
This exploration of the man who hung on to a copy of the ‘classified’ Henderson Brooks report on India’s military debacle in 1962 is by way of a diversion through a scenic route. But the detour is worth it for the very simple reason that Maxwell’s release of the closely typed report is likely to be partially submerged in the interrogation of the singer as much as the song. No doubt, Maxwell’s credentials as a Maoist fellow-traveller are likely to be resurrected.
Mercifully, 50 years is a very long time in the life of a country where the sense of history is fragile. Conceding that the Indian army’s own inquiry into the 1962 humiliation got the highest security rating, 50 years is about the absolute maximum that a report can be deemed to be classified. Just as Pakistan couldn’t permanently suppress the Hamood-ur-Rahman Commission Report on the break-up of the country in 1971—it was published by India Today in 2000—the Henderson Brooks Report has finally been outed. For his faith in the importance of history, Maxwell deserves unqualified praise. I don’t care what collateral motives he may have had. As someone who appreciates the importance of documented history, I have nothing but fulsome praise for his disclosure.
There are reports that some agency of the Indian Government has blocked access from India to Maxwell’s website that contains the full report. Apart from being a futile move—since copies of the report are obtainable through other websites—it displays a characteristic bureaucratic churlishness. The tendency of the government to declare almost every official file as classified is well known. But what is insufficiently appreciated is that this paranoid insistence on secrecy has led to only a small number of official records being transferred to the archives after the mandatory 30 or 50 years. It is bizarre that while the history of pre-Independence India is richly documented (thanks in no small measure to many of the files being lovingly preserved in the United Kingdom), the study of post-1947 India suffers on account of the huge gaps in official documentation. Crucial files are just not transferred to the archives. India does not have a proper policy for the preservation of historical records and access to these.
It is said that the Congress had a vested interest in keeping the records of the Nehru-Gandhi years under wraps. Access to the Jawaharlal Nehru papers, for example, is only possible after Sonia Gandhi has given her consent. The personal correspondence between Nehru and Lady Mountbatten is still blocked because the former Indian Prime Minister’s heirs haven’t allowed access. These anomalies have got to be sorted out and to that extent the unofficial release of the Henderson-Brooks report punctures the wall of secrecy.
Maybe, if India votes in a government unhindered by dynastic pressures, the study of contemporary history will receive a significant boost.
Asian Age, March 21, 2014
Friday, March 07, 2014
Thursday, March 06, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
There are many Indians who take every word written or said about the country in media overseas a shade too seriously. The same lot that peers at the global media through a microscope is equally inclined to treat every positive remark as a testimonial and every unfavourable review as a conspiracy of hate. Just as Mahatma Gandhi over-reacted to Katherine Mayo’s infamous Mother India, and Indira Gandhi went apoplectic over an episode of Louis Malle’s documentary Phantom India, Indian nationalists in particular tend to confer an extra touch of authenticity to foreign writers on the motherland. At the grave risk of sounding flippant, I would argue that had the now-controversial Wendy Doniger written under a suitably Indian pseudonym, her pronouncements on Hindu traditions would not have generated the same amount of heat. It was her foreign-ness that acted like a magnet, inviting the exacting scrutiny of all those who see themselves as custodians of the faith.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that this overall lack of equilibrium has a great deal to do with a larger sense of national inadequacy. This is most marked among those who use national sovereignty and, by implication, the defences of Fortress India to shore up a measure of astonishing mediocrity. When it comes to prickliness—an attribute that was elevated to the level of a foreign policy principle by, first, the irascible V.K. Krishna Menon and then, with greater effect by Indira Gandhi—there are few who can equal either the lesser bureaucracy or Indian academia. The biggest threat to their assured positions stem from the imposition of exacting global standards to measure performance. Consequently, they invariably fall back on a form of protectionism that involves acceptance of venal shoddiness.
For example, I was slightly taken aback at the venom that was recently poured on the writer William Dalrymple, who I like to describe as Delhi’s ‘White Moghul’. Apart from the familiar charges of racism—an occupational hazard for anyone who is a co-organiser of the Jaipur literary jamborree—and being anti-Hindu, which too is becoming distressingly routine, Dalrymple’s histories have been debunked by those Arun Shourie taunted as the “eminent historians.” The reasons for their hatred of this genial Scot are three-fold: Dalrymple writes readable narrative history; his books sell and has made him a celebrity; and in burrowing through dusty archives for untapped sources, he has exposed the inadequacies of the tenured cretins.
This is not to suggest that everything that originates from outside the national boundaries of India is necessarily more robust and virtuous than the home-grown variety. Over the past year, as the UPA-2 government increasingly ran out of steam, there was an exaggerated attention paid to the coverage of India overseas. It began with a local edition of Time magazine, a publication whose best days are behind it, putting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi on its cover. The scrutiny continued as more serious publications such as Economist proceeded to dissect the BJP prime ministerial candidate. In an editorial that seemed comically pompous to the uninitiated but seemed a matter of course to its editors, Economist wrote in December last year: “In the next five months Mr Modi needs to show that his idea of a pure India is no longer a wholly Hindu one…, that he abhors violence and discrimination against Muslims… Otherwise, this newspaper will not back him.”
With barely 70 days to go before the verdict of the electorate is known, Modi hasn’t demanded that the Constitution be changed to make India a Hindu Republic. Nor for that matter has he even mentioned pre-existing religious faultlines in his many, widely publicised speeches. Will the editors of Economist now do the unthinkable and ask its readers—at least those who have a vote in India—to vote for the BJP?
Not only is that unlikely but it is not even expected. For a start, the foreign media in India—like foreign correspondents in most parts of the world—live in a ghetto. The Embassy or High Commission, the Foreign Correspondents Club and, in January, the Jaipur Literature Festival constitute their happy hunting ground. Their information on India is principally culled from three sources—the local English-language media, the expatriates working outside government and a small handful of well-connected individuals in Delhi and Mumbai who are inclined to apply the liberal parameters set by The Guardian and New York Times to India. And, of course, there is the ubiquitous taxi driver without whose earthy wisdom no despatch from the native quarters is ever complete. No wonder they very often fail to grasp emerging trends.
True, there are the exceptions. The business and financial journalists do end up meeting people beyond Nandan Nilekani and Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and often have a good feel of what is either driving or stalling India. And, of course, there are those who have gone ‘native’ like Sir Mark Tully of Nizamuddin, Ian Jack and John Elliot.
That all those I have named are nominally British isn’t exactly a coincidence. Call it a colonial hangover or Anglophilia but, as a rule, I have found Britons better able to get under the Indian skin far better than continental Europeans and Americans. Last week, for example, I read Delhi: Mostly Harmless, a vastly amusing account of life in Delhi by a young Oxford academic Elizabeth Chatterjee. Many Indians, however, are likely to find her cruel irreverence very patronising. But that would be missing the point. When we read an outsider’s account of India, we don’t necessarily expect to see the country as we see it. We seek to understand how India appears to people with a different set of cultural assumptions. A legitimate point of exasperation would be if the account was uninformed, superficial and needlessly judgmental.
There are many silly accounts of Indian happenings and Indian life. Like most things, the insightful blends with the banal and the jaundiced. But it prompts a very different set of questions. Why don’t Indians write about other lands and other societies, as Pallavi Aiyar has done on China? Is it because we are incapable of transcending India? Or is it because we too are incapable of understanding the foreigner?
Saturday, March 01, 2014
By Swapan Dasgupta
A sting operation by a TV channel is said to have exposed some of the more dodgy players in one of the few growth sectors in an otherwise declining India: the opinion poll industry. The ‘exposure’ is absolutely warranted and may even contribute to a process whereby professionally designed and executed polls are distinguished from their made-to-order counterparts.
Not that opinion polls have determined the Establishment’s pre-election verdict as to which side will prevail in a general election. In my experience, there were only two occasions when the otherwise sharp instincts of the Delhi Establishment have been proved wrong. The first was in 1977 when there was general disbelief that Indira Gandhi could actually be defeated; and the second was in 2004 when a smug and over-confident BJP failed to gauge the devastation resulting from imperfect alliances in southern India. And yes, in 1996, there was genuine uncertainty—a fear that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
With less than three months to go before the next Lok Sabha is formally notified, the belief in the governing circles of Delhi is that Narendra Modi is likely to be the next Prime Minister of India. From the speculation over numbers which dominated conversations a month ago, the interest these days is over the composition of a Modi Cabinet. In a cruel world where there is a rush to climb on to the bandwagon of the RPI (Ruling Party of India), the dynasty and the Congress have been unceremoniously relegated to the opposition benches—not least by Congress supporters themselves. As a former editor with Congress sympathies admitted to me last week: “The Congress is working towards ensuring a respectable defeat for itself.”
Of course, there are those who are still clutching at straws. A section of the “activist” brigade still believe that the Aam Aadmi Party will spring a national surprise and prevent Modi’s shift of residence from Gandhinagar to Delhi. And there are those who cling to the belief that the BJP itself—egged on by regional parties—will stage a palace coup in May and install a more “pliable” PM.
I am among the tiny handful with access to Delhi’s charmed circle that believes that no election is really won till the counting of votes end. Modi may well enjoy the initial advantage but it is only after the candidates have been announced and the campaign enters its final lap that a meaningful call can be taken. More to the point, I don’t underestimate the ability of the Congress to put up a fierce fight till the very last day. When it comes to political ruthlessness—as we witnessed during the passage of the Telengana Bill—the Congress is miles ahead of the BJP.
Indeed, the past few weeks have clearly indicated that the Congress is engaged in making contingency plans. Its first priority is, of course, to stop Modi at all costs, using every weapon at its disposal. However, after Ram Vilas Paswan’s U-turn and re-entry into the NDA, there is a feeling in Congress circles that this may not be possible. Indeed, the whisper is that things may actually get worse.
This leads to the second fall-back option: to make life as difficult as possible for a new Modi Government. Eyebrows have been raised at the peremptory transfer of the Health Secretary, the attempt to give the head of a major public sector undertaking an undeserved extension and even the last-minute nomination of a Rajya Sabha MP. Less publicised has been the frenzied activity to ensure that every vacancy for bureaucratic posts, committees, governing bodies and other posts where the Centre or its Governors in the states can use their discretionary powers are filled with individuals who, even if they are not pro-Congress are at least anti-Modi. So great has been the rush to clear names that intelligence agencies are believed to have complained that they have not been given the time to undertake due diligence. In the Ministry of External Affairs, it is said that appointments that are due six months or more later are being settled before the Code of Conduct comes into force.
With its long experience of governance the Congress knows that many of these last-minute decisions can easily be reversed by a new government. At the same time, it is aware that it may be many months (sometimes even years) before the proverbial attention of any minister is brought to the hidden minefields. There will be enough opportunities to trip up a new government in unexpected areas and create an impression of mal-governance.
Those with a political memory may recall that the first government of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998 was seriously hamstrung in its initial days by bureaucratic subterfuge. For example, the onion crisis that led to the ignominious defeat of the BJP in the 1998 Delhi Assembly election was a man-made creation of NAFED, controlled by a Congress appointee. Likewise, the diplomatic counter-offensive after the Pokhran-II blasts was hamstrung by the non-cooperation of envoys with an agenda of hostility to the Vajpayee government.
If Modi is able to translate his early lead in the 2014 race into a decisive last-mile surge, he will undoubtedly become the next Prime Minister. However, the belief that a new man at the helm will instantly translate into a new dawn for India may well be premature. The outgoing regime has left booby traps for the new regime in the most unlikely of places. The new PM has a challenging job ahead of him (or her).