Monday, June 29, 2009

Thinking of Iran

The past fortnight has been taken up by a preoccupation with the post-election turbulence in Iran.

I have visited Iran only once, in 1999. My visit was confined to Teheran. However, I fell in love with the country instantly. Behind the fierce graffiti that overpowered the streets and the wooden officials who seemed to be in charge of public life, there was a pulsating vibrancy which overpowers any visitor. Iran, it seemed to me a decade ago, was a modern society that was struggling to find expression.

Of course, I met only the middle classes, university professors and some professional women. These encounters, coupled with earlier experiences with Iranian students in Britain in the late-1970s--all fiercely anti-Shah--have etched a particular image of Iran in my mind.

I concede that it is a partial view and doesn't take into account the poorer and more conservative sections, those who make up President Ahmadinejad's vote bank. Indeed, the Western media appears to have seriously underestimated the support base of the present regime and the theocracy.

This may well be true but there is a substantial section of Iranian society, particularly educated women, who are totally exasperated by the petty tyrannies of a theocratic state. This election began as a faction fight among the religious establishment and a proxy war between the Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Khameini and Hosseyn Rafsanjani. But after the blatant rigging (without the manipulation there would have been a run-off between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in the second round), it is quickly escalating into a challenge to the whole Islamic Republic.

I don't think the modernists have the necessary social clout as yet to force a regime change. But their chances of securing modest democratic gains have been ruined by the open support from the US and EU countries.

If the West supports any social movement it automatically tars it with the brush of anti-nationalism. The West doesn't really despise theocracy in Iran--they support more repressive Wahabi regimes elsewhere in West Asia. The West opposes Iran's aspirations of emerging as a regional power.

The real challenge that faces Indian diplomacy is to balance support for democratisation of Iran with a distance from the West's opposition of Iranian nationalism. India hasn't officially commented on Iran's internal developments--which is healthy. But our civil society and media hasn't done anything to distinguish us from the West's spurious indignation. I am, in fact, very surprised that our media hasn't arranged for independent coverage of Iran. We are still too dependant on western news feeds.

If India wants to be taken seriously in the world, it must make its presence felt more meaningfully. Our strategic thinkers have to be told that there is a world outside Pakistan and the US.

I have elaborated some of these points in an article in the Telegraph.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Some good cheer at last

Overall, the BJP National Executive meeting concluded on the right, positive note.

There was justified fear on Day 1 that the recrimination process was spinning out of control. Arun Shourie's intervention in particular was excessively personalised and contained some pretty incredible charges. Maneka Gandhi too added some fanciful stuff about how funds were apportioned.

There were some other interventions which spoke of tactical follies. O.P. Kohli, in particular, was blunt in admitting that the attacks on Manmohan Singh proved horribly counter-productive.

Unexpectedly, it was Sunderlal Patwa's biting intervention that restored some sense of collegiate feeling into the gathering.

It would seem that after Patwa's speech a correct balance was struck between introspection and muck-raking. Many of the subsequent contributions stressed that when there are squabbles in Delhi, they impact adversely on the states. I fear that many speakers, including Hukumdev Narayan Yadav, came down very hard on the letter writers. The Pilibhit variety of Hindutva drew flak from many, particularly the representatives from Bihar.

Narendra Modi kept mum throughout the meet. However, his campaigning in Maharashtra won him praise from Gopinath Munde.

L.K. Advani's concluding speech was sober and reflective. He made the right noises about injecting new blood and the need to re-connect with party supporters. I, however, feel that he underestimated the scale of the defeat. Perhaps he didn't want to demoralise an already dejected party. That's understandable.

I thought Venkiah Naidu handled the final interaction with the media with the right mix of candour, firmness and humour.

In political terms, the debate on Hindutva dominated the meet. It was generally agreed that extremism does not pay and that the party needed to put across a liberal, enlightened, inclusive and civilisational view of Hindutva. The presidential address was too full of homilies (and the English version could do with the red pencil of a sub-editor) but the overall tone was unexceptionable.

It was also decided that some steps were needed to attract minority voters and reach out to the states of eastern and southern India where the BJP doesn't have a meaningful presence.

I believe that the BJP has responded very positively to the disquiet over the "ugly" Hindu face. It has met critics more than half-way. I still have some problems reconciling Hindutva "as a way of life" with political Hindutva but these can be addressed in theoretical terms elsewhere. From a political perspective, it is important to show that BJP is not a hate party.

I feel that the party ought to pursue a policy of zero tolerance towards those who step out of line. The BJP must be seen to practice what it preaches.

The loose formulations of commitment to a liberal variant of Hindutva will also help define relations between the BJP and RSS and put it on a n even keel. Advani cleverly used Balasaheb Deoras's speech to drive home this point. He subtly indicated that the RSS itself has to change.

The main issue now is how the shifts, changes and corrections are to be brought about. It is unrealistic to see change happening from next week onwards but the expectation is that the BJP will look more contemporary in about a year's time.

I think the provocative debate this blog hosted has yielded some returns. It is important to keep up this supportive but uninhibited watch-dog role.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The civil war is necessary to clarify matters

The Pavlovian response of the media and many well-meaning individuals is that open debate is always to be shunned because it violates the disciplinary code. This is a silly view and reeks of Stalinism.

Since May 16 I have been advocating a full-fledged, open debate in the BJP on the road ahead and, by implication, what went wrong. The party has consistently stonewalled all debate because those at the organisational helm don't have the intellectual self-confidence to either contribute or respond meaningfully to such a debate.

Consequently, the debate has been taking place in non-official platforms (such as this blog) and in the media. I was glad that Arun Jaitley wrote a though-provoking piece in Indian Express. I was also heartened by Sudheendra Kulkarni's offering in Tehelka (my response has become the subject of a fresh media controversy).

However, the seriousness of the discussions was broken by the out-and-out factional sub-text of Yashwant Sinha's "leaked" note to the party president (or, should I say, NDTV). My response to it in Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle was considered by some to be excessively harsh.

I was amused that Sinha has called for a probe into who leaked his letter. TV editors I have spoken to have indicated that there were two parallel points of leak. The first was through an associate of Pramod Mahajan (who hates Jaitley) and the other was was the unlikely figure of a cerebral Rajya Sabha MP. I gather that the follow-up was done by a disagreeable journalist (one who signed the 20-points during the Emergency) whose nomination to the Rajya Sabha has been blocked by Jaitley on two separate occasions.

The same factional considerations were again at play Tuesday morning when the TV channels began the "breaking news" about Arun Jaitley's alleged resignation from the party. Considering that Jaitley resigned on June 6 as General Secretary after being appointed Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, what was the reason behind some people wilfully painting it as a point of dissent?

The answer lies in the insecurities of those who imagine they will be out of a job in December/January. The idea is to throw as much as possible on Jaitley, make him a controversial figure and ensure that he is not considered as a possibility for president of the party.

What some people are getting increasingly nervous about is the news that the appointment of Sushma Swaraj (as deputy leader in LS) and Jaitley was done by Advani in consultation with the RSS. Today's shenanigans were done with an eye to influencing the big-wigs of Nagpur.

But all these a rubbishy moves that have nothing to do with the substantive political issues. Once the party decides its future orientation, the appointment of the faces to project will follow naturally.

Also keep in mind there is one person who has kept himself aloof from the murkiness in Delhi. Narendra Modi's firm handling of a potentially explosive problem in Surat has won him praise.

Modi is being needlessly equated with Varun by unthinking media types but his is a class act.

Some of the comments to my earlier blogs have detected an apparent contradiction between my dislike of hardline politics and my support for Modi. That is because I believe that Modi will soon come to be accepted as the most enlightened and modern BJP face.

Just look at the regressive types who were trying to create a riot in Surat and you will see what I mean.

POSTSCRPT: In the Hindu Thought yahoogroup, Mr Arvind Lavakare wrote on June 20:

After quitting a salaried job in a reputed English magazine a few years ago, Swapan's livelihood may well be depending on his writings being published in a wide range of prosperous English newspapers which are anti-Hindu and therefore anti-BJP. If that is indeed so, Swapan simply cannot afford to project and push the Hindu line beyond the Laxman resha. Poor dear.

My reply to Mr Lavakare:
I have never had the occasion to get to know Arvind Lavakare personally. I therefore presume he does not know me, except through my writings and other public interventions. Yet, he has been presumptuous enough to make a series of personal attacks.
It began with some snide remarks about my education--which I don't flaunt but of which I am completely unapologetic. Now he has questioned my integrity. At this rate he will extend his critique to my ethnic or social origins.
I have no intention of affirming my credentials. To do so would be to dignify Lavakare's personal attacks as a substitute for an informed debate on ideas.
I merely hope that the attacks on where I write, who went to college with me and who are my friends are not in any way an expression of envy. It is a matter of satisfaction for me that I get a platform in the mass media (cutting across editorial positions). Engaging with the wider world is daunting but much more meaningful than gloating inside a sectarian ghetto. I strong recommend Lavakare also tries earning a livelihood out of writing for "a range of prosperous English newspapers". It could be a humbling experience.
Swapan Dasgupta.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Junking the Ugly Hindu image

Whether some people like it or not, the discussions over the outcome of Election 2009 has been enlarged into a debate over the future course and direction of the BJP. This is heartening. It shows that there are people who look at the BJP as more than a political party: it is an emotional commitment.

There may be some collateral considerations behind the positioning of some individuals but this does not distract attention from the one common concern: the need to rejuvenate the party and, indeed, the wider movement associated with it.

The question that necessarily follows is: does rejuvenation demand a reinvention? It is on this question that there are sharp disagreements.

It is very important that the focus remains firmly on the issues. In the ultimate analysis, the procedural aspects are not terribly important. Does it matter if someone writes an article or circulates a private note or makes an intervention on TV? To date, those at the organisational helm of the party have not delineated a framework and forum for debate. The party president is quoted in the media as saying that there will be a debate if the "need for it arises". It would seem that he is living in a cloistered environment where "need" is unrelated to the environment.

The suggestion that an unnamed three-member team is already assessing the damage and will suggest remedies is a non-serious one. As far as my information goes, there is a three-member RSS team that is studying the election. Their conclusions will no doubt be worth studying. But this committee shouldn't be a reason for the BJP to abdicate its political responsibilities. The BJP must look at the defeat from a political perspective.

I don't want to repeat my arguments about the so-called ideological parameters for the future. It is important, however, to clarify that shedding the H-word does not imply discarding the ethical and cultural compass that has guided the party so far. What I am insistent on is the effective dissemination of ideas and the image of those articulating it.

Effective image management does wonders in politics. For the BJP to become appealing once again, it must become contemporary. There is, unfortunately, a face of the BJP that is both reactionary and retrograde. If you want elaboration, just look at some of the comments to earlier blogs.

I think that in the next year or two, the BJP has to recover its image of sobriety and become the intelligent voice of nationalism. As a starter, the party could consider sustained interventions on the following themes:

  • Strengthening institutions of the state such as Parliament, judiciary, Election Commission.
  • Opposing the political protection of corruption through a malleable CBI
  • Arguing for prudent fiscal policies and an end to state-run inefficiencies
  • Highlighting the achievements of its state governments
  • A watchdog role to prevent weak-kneed responses to neighbourhood troubles and arm-twisting by the superpower
  • A more equitable federal arrangement that devolves more resources to the states

I think it is important that the BJP imposes a two-year moratorium on elevating sectarian and identity-related issues to the top of the political agenda.The point is to demonstrate that BJP takes an interest and has views on subjects other than (what someone called) Mickey Mouse issues.

The BJP's Hindu credentials don't need reiteration. Its Ugly Hindu image has to be washed off completely.

Meanwhile, go full steam in the task of overhauling state units and trying to secure a meaningful foothold in the southern and eastern states. There has to be generational change at all levels.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

What's in a word?

Frankly speaking, I am not surprised that a majority, but not an overwhelming majority, of the responses related to my earlier posting have been critical of my suggestion that the BJP needs to abandon the H-word. There is certain to be bewilderment and even anger at the mere suggestion that the personality of the BJP needs modification. Over the years the BJP has come to be equated with Hindutva and any move away from this is, predictably, laced with suggestions of betrayal. It is understandable.

At the same time, I am heartened by the positive responses I have got for my article on the same theme in Times of India (May 4, 2009). I think it is worthwhile pointing out that my ideas weren't born in a vacuum. They have emerged from countless private discussions with BJP activists at all levels. It is their ideas which I have distilled and articulated.

The objections to my suggestions follow two broad streams:

  • Those who attribute motives such as peer group pressure or an itch to join the Congress bandwagon or, worse, to fall in line with the Jaichand tradition. The abusive responses need not be addressed except with the observation that profanities are no substitute for argument. As for peer group pressure, it is worth pointing out that I have endured ostracism of a far worse kind in the early-1990s, during the Ayodhya movement. I don't want to harp on my own credentials but I was one of the two or three writers in the mainstream English language media who were supportive of the movement. Naturally, there was a professional price I paid for this stand. As such, some of the comments from those who attribute motives to my present stand are hurtful.
  • Those who assert that the BJP will lose its "ideological" basis by straying away from Hindutva and become indistinguishable from the Congress. Many have claimed that there is nothing to be defensive about and that the problem is with the distortions of Hindutva by the "secular" media. What, I have also been asked, is my definition of Hindutva.

I will confine my comments to the second category of criticisms.

When someone is prompted to ask me what I mean by Hindutva, he/she bolsters my conclusion. When every second person has their own different version of the meaning of Hindutva, they underline the problems of using it for sustained political communication.

At one time, Hindutva was taken as the outpouring of Hindu pride and Hindu consciousness that accompanied the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Hindutva than meant the resurrection of a facet of India's personality that had been submerged by "pseudo-secularism". Advani articulated this quite forcefully and the theme resonated throughout India in varying degrees. Hindutva was not regarded as religious consciousness, although that too played a role in the Ram temple movement, but the political extrapolation from the agitation.

In time, these were reduced to the distinctive facets of the BJP programme, viz. building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 and the formulation of a Uniform Civil Code. It is noteworthy that the 370 and UCC issues stemmed from a literalist reading of the Indian Constitution.

It is the Supreme Court judgment that has blunted the political thrust of Hindutva. By interpreting Hindutva as a "way of life", in the same way as Radhakrishnan defined Hinduism, the apex court saved the BJP from a political witch-hunt in the mid-1990s. At the same time, it blunted Hindutva as a political weapon.

If something is a "way of life", how does it become an plank of a political party? It becomes either a lifestyle statement (which is patently absurd) or it becomes an intellectual orientation. The BJP has suffered from this post-SC judgment confusion. Hindutva doesn't figure as a term in its manifestos or political documents and leaders routinely say it is "above politics". If Hindutva is "above politics", then why is its inclusion necessary in a political party.

The honest truth that no one wants to admit is that Hindutva has in effect been banished from politics by the judiciary. The Hindutva some of the respondents are talking about is either religious or cultural. The religious dimension creates the type of complications which accompanies the vitriolic exchanges over OBCs and their modes of worship. A rigid culturalist definition leads to an examination of why a particular version of Hindutva hasn't found favour in Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal.

Hindutva in practice has come to mean exclusionary politics and assertions of Hindu superiority. This may well be a distortion of the real thing but that is the dominant perception. And Kandhamal, Ram Sene, the Malegaon mischief and Varun Gandhi merely confirms it. As Bhaskar Mitra put it in his comment, "Hindutva today stands for mobocracy" and worse.

Its nominal presence on the BJP platform deters the modern Hindu and frightens non-Hindu Indians. It raises a profound question in the minds of voters: "What sort of India does the BJP want?"

The answer, I am afraid, isn't very wholesome. Muthalik may be anti-BJP and Togadia may be on his own crazy trip but together they espouse Hindutva. The moment a political party has to explain that "their" Hindutva is different from "our" Hindutva, it has lost the plot.

Is it any wonder that BJP governments in the states want to dissociate themselves from Hindutva.

Finally, a comment on ideology. The term ideology suggests a codified set of beliefs which are constant. This may be true of religions based on textual certitudes but it can hardly serve as an intelligent guide to political action.

What is relevant is not ideology but ideas. Discussions are more meaningful when we get down to discuss concrete ideas and concrete issues of governance.

Postscript: Just in case anyone wants to read the article in Tehelka that the media has suddenly woken up to.

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