Friday, April 11, 2014

Family for all seasons: - Congress culture is likely to stay the same whatever happens

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are occasions when a seemingly irrelevant piece of tittle-tattle assumes greater relevance than a thousand words of weighty commentary. An innocuous piece of news on the first page of last Wednesday’s Times of India on the selection of the Congress candidate to contest against Narendra Modi in Varanasi was such an occasion.

The importance lay not so much in the fact that a local MLA who had unsuccessfully tried his hand in a Lok Sabha election on a previous occasion had been given the Congress ticket—thereby ending a fortnight of purposeless speculation over who would be Modi’s principal rival in Varanasi. For the beat reporter, the significance of Ajay Rai’s nomination was that he had been personally blessed by the Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her daughter Priyanka Vadra. Not only that, Priyanka had given Rai her personal mobile phone number and asked to get in touch directly with her if he needed help and facilitation. The reporter’s breathless conclusion was that Priyanka was increasingly calling the shots in the Congress.

Although purists may balk at the prominence given to this additional evidence that the brother-sister duo was now in control of the final leg of the Congress campaign, this piece of trivia was not inconsequential. Ever since opinion polls and anecdotal reports from the battleground pointed to the Congress performing far worse than even the party pessimists imagined was possible, Congress loyalists have been praying and hoping for a “secret weapon” which would improve the final tally that in turn would ensure that a future BJP-led government would be inherently fragile. In the past week, ever since Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi let the media in one of the party’s greatest secrets—that in 1990 Rajiv Gandhi had detected Priyanka’s instinctive feel for politics—the demoralised party had been hoping that Rahul’s leadership would be bolstered by the involvement of his sister. Indeed, there were Congress supporters who felt that Priyanka would be declared as the challenger to Modi in Varanasi. Such a symbolic move, they felt, would electrify Uttar Pradesh and reopen what was increasingly looking like a one-sided encounter.

The value addition that Priyanka might possibly bring to the Congress table need not concern us excessively. In a star-obsessed campaign, the injection of a lady who, it is said in some quarters, has the mass touch of her illustrious grandmother, would inevitably shift some focus from an over-exposed Modi and his insolent rival Arvind Kejriwal. In terms of dividing the media space a little more equitably, Priyanka’s entry into the 2014 campaign would certainly be of short-term benefit to the Congress. In 1998, when Sonia Gandhi made her political debut, she certainly did shift the spotlight a little away from Atal Behari Vajpayee. Indeed, Congress supporters were so buoyant that when I mentioned a particular rally where Vajpayee had drawn big crowds, a Congress groupie asked me incredulously: “Is anyone even listening to him any longer?”

However, what strikes me about the excitement over Priyanka is that even as the Congress stares at the possibility of winning less than 100 Lok Sabha seats, the only magic wand the party can think of is firmly located within the dynastic mould. Yes, Congress supporters grudgingly concede, Rahul Gandhi has proved a political disappointment. He may exude sincerity and even boast of an unwillingness to be derailed by narrow, tactical considerations but there is no getting away from his inability to connect. In the past, a presidential style campaign had always suited the Congress against a fractured opposition. Indeed, even for the 2014 campaign the Congress publicity campaign had been planned to project Rahul as the great white hope. Unfortunately for the Congress, the Modi juggernaut proved too formidable for those who felt that Rahul would encapsulate the necessary measure of change to offset anti-incumbency. In the direct Modi versus Rahul battle, the man from Gujarat was miles ahead. Rahul’s famed sincerity and earnestness came to be equated with naiveté. Rahul was not disliked; he became an object of mockery, particularly after his disastrous Times Now interview. With just a month left of the campaign, the only people who think that a Rahul-led dispensation can govern India with a measure of enlightenment are the editors of The Economist.

The widespread acknowledgment of Rahul’s inadequacies by the Congress hasn’t, however, triggered preparations for an upheaval in the party in the event of grim news on May 16. Past experience, especially of the years the party wasn’t in power at the Centre, has convinced the average Congress supporter that the leadership of the Gandhi family is a precondition for both survival and growth. There was a time, particularly after P.V. Narasimha Rao’s term as Prime Minister, when it seemed that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had run out of steam. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to plunge into politics in 1998 was, for example, greeted with some scepticism and led to Sharad Pawar’s revolt. But the unexpectedly good performance in 2004 and the victory in 2009 established Sonia as a leader in her own right and set her up as the glue that binds the disparate Congress family.

A Congress failure in 2014 isn’t likely to shake that fundamental assumption and faith in the leadership of the dynasty is likely to persist. The belief that Rahul isn’t a natural politician isn’t going to disappear abruptly and neither will the culture of sycophancy. The indifferent 2014 results are certain to be blamed on the “non-communicative” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—Jairam Ramesh has already given an early indication of the post-mortem findings. On his part, Rahul will be applauded for selflessly leading a losing battle and persisting with management systems that should, hopefully, re-energise the party once the country’s honeymoon with Modi ends. Most important, the addition of Priyanka into the dynastic pantheon will definitely placate those Congress leaders who have doubts over Rahul’s ability to engage in combative politics. Far from breeding a sense of disgust with the party’s inability to look and think beyond the dynasty, the helping hand Priyanka is likely to give Rahul seems calculated to retain the family’s stranglehold over the Congress after the likely defeat in 2014.

There are definite indications that the Gandhi family isn’t working towards a new political culture that will guarantee there are no glass ceilings in the path of ability and mass appeal. Reports emanating from the wider durbar of the first family seem to suggest that there is a fear in 10 Janpath that a Modi-led government will engage in recriminations in pursuit of its dream of a Congress-free India. Certainly, the businesses of Robert Vadra are certainly going to be the subject of some investigations. Whether these fears are real or contrived is not known. What is important is that the Gandhi court is readying itself for difficult times in the event of a Modi victory next month. Between 2000 and 2004, the top BJP leadership had negotiated a non-aggression pact with Sonia. More than an act of magnanimity, it was based on the belief that Sonia’s leadership would ensure that the Congress would remain in the Opposition. It was a horrible misreading of her potential and it is unlikely this error will be repeated by a new BJP dispensation.

The Congress top rung, it would seem, has psyched itself into believing that Modi will repay the viciousness that was directed at him from 2002. This fear may well explain why the Gandhi family will ensure that its proprietorship of the Congress will not be modified after the election. 

Thursday, April 03, 2014

A mighty fall from a moral high ground

By Swapan Dasgupta

No election, and certainly not an Indian election, is ever won on the strength of diplomatic despatches. Like most other pundits in the forecasting business, diplomats often get it right and occasionally wrong.

This being the case, the most that can be read into the explanations in the media of US Ambassador Nancy Powell’s premature resignation is that Washington has concluded that the next Indian government belongs to Narendra Modi. Whether or not this piece of political astrology was a the heart of the change of guard in Roosevelt House will remain a matter of conjecture till another Snowden releases a clutch of diplomatic telegrams or some future Senate hearing throws greater light on the matter. However, if we accept the version that the US State Department was wrong-footed by Modi’s dramatic entry into the national stage and took remedial action to smoothen Washington’s response to the succession, one question remains: why did the US get itself into such an awkward situation in the first place?

Those who are inclined to trace the origin of the problem to the 2005 decision of the George W. Bush administration to deny Modi a visa for possible travel to the US aren’t far off the mark. The cancellation of Modi’s existing visa didn’t happen because the Gujarat Chief Minister planned a grand tour to interact with his innumerable fans located across the Atlantic. The visa cancellation was a gratuitous and unilateral measure aimed primarily, it is said, at placating the Christian evangelical lobby that had developed a distaste for Modi.

Whatever the reasons behind dubbing Modi an international pariah and the subject of a diplomatic boycott involving both the US and the European Union member states, one conclusion was inescapable: it was a brazen attempt to pronounce judgment on the internal affairs of a sovereign country. Modi, after all, hadn’t been held guilty by for “mass murder” by an Indian criminal court. Indeed, there were no charges against him then or subsequently. Yes, the Gujarat leader had been pilloried mercilessly by both his political opponents and the human rights lobby that has formidable international links. A political aversion to Modi was translated into the diplomatic censure of a man who held a Constitutional position. It was a step too far and one that didn’t lend itself to an easy U-turn.

This is not to suggest that the US was obliged to facilitate a visit by Modi. Every sovereign nation has the inalienable right to determine who is welcome and who is not. Diplomats are routinely accustomed to informing host countries that the visit of a particular dignitary would be inappropriate. Tough messages are often delivered with discretion. Had Modi sought to visit the US in 2005, his office could have been discreetly told that the journey would be injudicious. Indeed, I am told that an European country with a better grasp of diplomatic niceties did pass on such an unpleasant message to Modi—in the light of the controversies surrounding him. However, it was done without a whiff of publicity.

The US, however, made a public show of its visa refusal and made it out that the action was part of the sanctions against those held responsible for human rights violations. The US chose to make a political point based on the understanding that it would also set the agenda for a wider debate on Modi’s political untouchability.

Maybe the idea was also to lessen Indian Muslim hostility to the Bush Administration then engaged in its War on Terror. Maybe it was aimed at bolstering Congress support for the nuclear deal, then in the process of negotiation. Whatever the calculations, the Modi visa controversy came to acquire a life of its own.

For nearly eight years, the US and its friends broke off all diplomatic contact with the Gujarat Government. This over-reaction also involved many informal academic advisers who fed the US Embassy and the State Department with weighty assessments of why Modi was a non-starter in national politics. I have met US academics, mainly of Indian origin, who even proudly proclaimed that they had advised the US Embassy to go slow on opening a consular office in Ahmedabad. For them, flaunting an anti-Modi badge ensured privileged access into the corridors of UPA power. And there’s no denying that until at least a year ago, the US remained the flavour of the season for both Congress ministers and a supplicant media.

Yet, the blockade of Modi warranted a re-examination after he won his third consecutive election victory in Gujarat in December 2012. By the time of the Vibrant Gujarat Summit of 2013, many European countries decided that the time was opportune to re-establish ties with a state whose economy looked extremely promising. Predictably, the British were the most demonstrative with their proclamation of bi-partisanship but other EU countries weren’t far behind. The only real resistance was put up by France which too had invested heavily in the Congress establishment and in the skewed advice of its so-called India experts.

Today, the countries that had kept up a civilised relationship with Modi despite the US’s strictures—these include Japan, Singapore, Canada, Australia, Israel and even China—are happy with the knowledge that their transition to a new regime will be extra smooth. Nor will the others who changed their tune midway feel disadvantaged. It is only the US that invested politically in the witch-hunt against Modi that feels seriously threatened.

Making Ambassador Powell the fall guy may not entirely resolve the larger issues raised by the US’s needless interference in India’s domestic politics. Nor will bonhomie be instantly restored if a functionary of Gujarati origin is despatched as the new Ambassador. Having exposed its fangs publicly, Washington will not readily admit it miscalculated horribly. If Modi comes to power, a working relationship with the US Embassy will be established. But let us have no doubts that the repair job will also be accompanied by surreptitious attempts to undermine him.

The US hates having to admit it was ever wrong.