Friday, June 25, 2010

Lazy Sundays

Like its football team, much of England is underperforming

By Swapan Dasgupta

Every beleaguered country could do with a little respite. On Wednesday afternoon, at 3.25 pm to be precise, England breathed a collective sigh of relief as Jermain Defoe smashed the ball into the Slovenia goal and ensured a place for the Three Lions in the last 16 of the World Cup. The alternative, which most England fans were mentally prepared for, was a disgraceful return of the team to Heathrow perhaps, like the mutinous French side, flying economy class.

The relief may yet turn out to be woefully short-lived. The tragedy of English footballers, who play in the extremely competitive English Premier League, underperforming in their first two matches in South Africa, has become the subject of some wonderful black humour. My personal favourite: “What’s the difference between the England team and a tea bag? The tea bag stays in the cup longer.”

Confronting adversity with a sense of humour is, of course, laudable. To those familiar with history, it may even remind us of the grin-and-bear-it attitude of the country’s “finest hour”. But there’s a crucial difference. In 1940, a lone Britain was well and truly punching above its weight. Today, the sense of underperformance is so all-pervasive that it is seen as the natural state of being.

It is sometimes difficult for a Briton to appreciate what seems so plainly apparent to a visiting foreigner. Last Sunday, I was on a driving holiday along the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, spending a couple of nights in a remote Bed and Breakfast off the small seaside town of Fishguard. The town was the site of the last invasion of Britain by a rag-tag French force in 1797. The invasion failed miserably and the surrender was negotiated within a day at the Royal Oak pub opposite the Town Hall.

Pembrokeshire, as the entrepreneurial couple who run the Cefn-y-Dre (which means Back of Town) hostelry in a house that once belonged to the Lloyd George family informed me, has two major sources of livelihood: farming and tourism. Farming isn’t in the pink of health, thanks to cumbersome European Union regulations, but the area is absolutely cut out for tourism. It draws visitors from the ‘ethical’ British (those who hate adding to carbon emission by taking cheap flights to Europe) and expatriate Welsh from the US and Australia. Yet, on one of the most tourist-friendly days of June, the shopkeepers of Fishguard had downed their shutters rather than take advantage of the market opportunity.

This example of underperformance, I must say, is not universal. The market town of Ludlow in Shropshire, a gateway to Wales, has successfully reinvented itself as a haven for foodies. It has more Michelin star restaurants in a five-mile radius than any other place in Britain, apart from Central London. Likewise, the idyllic village of Hay-on-Wye, on the Welsh border, has emerged as a centre of the second-hand book trade, boasting as many as 25 bookshops in a square mile.

The emergence of Hay-on-Wye as a pilgrimage centre for bibliophiles was, however, an incidental consequence of the prohibitive costs of enterprise in Britain’s bigger cities. Even a decade or so ago, cities such as London and Oxford boasted umpteen second-hand and antiquarian bookshops. High rents and high municipal taxes have made small single-unit shops catering to the select few unviable. The charity-owned shops that have emerged in all the high streets have compounded the problem because they too sell used books donated by philanthropists with a space crunch.

The dislocation of Britain and the growing difficulties encountered by entrepreneurs are very apparent to the outsider. To them, Britain appears grossly overpriced and overtaxed — some recent advantages are due to the falling exchange rate of sterling. Unfortunately, the inability of the country to exploit its potential fully doesn’t appear to have been fully grasped by the natives themselves. There is still a smug belief that the country is plodding along in the right direction and that some economists and an ideologically-driven Conservative Party are exaggerating the dangers to the economy. The idea that macroeconomic mismanagement could propel Britain in the same direction as Greece hasn’t sunk into the public consciousness.

This is why the wave of panic that preceded the “emergency budget” of the chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, last Tuesday had a salutary purpose. The budget, which some people have described as a landmark event, was aimed at rolling back a fiscal deficit that had touched nearly 11 per cent of the gross domestic product. Part of the problem was, no doubt, caused by the expansionary stimulus package that the former Labour government felt was the Keynesian alternative to global recessionary currents. But at the core of the problem was the reckless expansion of state expenditure — they use the term “public services” in Britain — which had touched nearly 48 per cent of the GDP. To fund this statism, Britain had borrowed wildly, taxed unreasonably and now found itself in a spiral of indebtedness.

The problem that most complacent Britons failed to appreciate was that the country was living well beyond its means, on borrowed capital. The entitlement culture that Margaret Thatcher had done her best to demolish in the 1980s — now referred to, for inexplicable reasons, as the “ugly ’80s” — returned with a vengeance with New Labour. What this meant was that Britain’s slow return to competitiveness was simultaneously eroded by a welfare cushioning that crossed the bounds of normal compassion.

Predictably, this tangled web of welfare and public services led to macroeconomic distortions. More insidiously, it undermined the work ethic and led to over-dependence on migrant labour, mainly from the East European countries of the EU, for unskilled jobs. In a situation where the state guaranteed a basic standard of living for everyone, it made little sense for many people to enter the labour market. This week, for example, it was revealed that an Afghan woman with seven children received the equivalent of £150,000 as housing benefits, without having to do a thing.

Osborne’s budget has raised personal taxes and the value-added tax. But tax rises have been complemented by the assurance that government spending will be reduced by at least 25 per cent. These are savage cuts which may even lead to a wave of public sector strikes against job losses. There may also be a voter backlash against the loss of unaffordable entitlements.

If the David Cameron government can withstand this political onslaught, it may be able to steer Britain in a new direction. The budget scare has at least jolted Britons into realizing that their complacency is unwarranted. A greater appreciation of market realities may yet compel the shopkeepers of Fishguard to keep their shops open on the Sundays of the tourist season. An overweight Britain needs to shed a lot of fat.

The Telegraph, June 25, 2010

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Merits of being a staid party

By Swapan Dasgupta

Has the BJP been at the receiving end of a malevolent evil eye? This is a question that is being asked not merely by the party’s sympathisers and well-wishers but by a multitude of fence-sitters who believe that, to be workable, the system needs a buoyant and effective Opposition.

The search for a supernatural explanation of the public relations disaster of the National Executive session in Patna is compelling. Having fulfilled its role as an Opposition reasonably well in the five months or so since Rajnath Singh was replaced by Nitin Gadkari, the BJP had every reason to believe that the National Executive meet would be purposeful in a non-spectacular way. It is not that anyone expected the Patna session to come up with any miraculous ‘war forward’ strategy. The most optimistic expectation was that it would give a chance to Gadkari’s office-bearers to familiarise themselves with the aggregate national mood in the party. At best, the party could have deliberated how it made an ass of itself in Jharkhand.

Instead what happened in Patna was unexpectedly bizarre. The relationship with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, which has been exemplary for the past 12 years, was soured by some propaganda over-kill from Gujarat. To this was added media sniggers at the BJP’s eccentric decision to reward Ram Jethmalani with a Rajya Sabha seat from Rajasthan.

The Jethmalani affair is likely to be relegated to a footnote, at least till the flamboyant lawyers chooses to score his first self-goal. But the same cannot be said of the simmering tensions between the Janata Dal (U) and the BJP in Bihar. With just a few months to go for the Assembly election, the acrimonious undercurrents could either break the alliance or make it look politically incoherent. Either way, the advantage will pass from the NDA to Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Congress.

To believe that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has emerged as the wild distraction is over-simplistic. Modi does have fierce partisan support all over the country. It is also undeniable that there is a large section of the BJP which believes that all transitory arrangements should be dispensed with and Modi anointed leader. It is entirely possible that some of these elements used the Patna meeting to wave the flag for a new ‘Hindu hriday samrat’.

Nitish need not have reacted intemperately to the internal developments within the BJP. The inclusion of a photograph of the famous Nitish-Modi wave in Ludhiana last year in a BJP-supported advertisement wasn’t an offence that warranted the social boycott by one Chief Minister of another Chief Minister. Silence would have done him no harm.

Yet, the mere fact that Nitish did derail the BJP National Executive meet is significant. It suggests that he nurtures a profound irritation with ‘communal’ elements in the BJP. The Bihar Chief Minister wants a BJP with which he is in ideological sync. This is about as likely as the JD(U) shedding its Lohia-ite temperament and embracing the BJP’s Integral Humanism.

But while Nitish may be faulted for actually believing the media hype about him emerging as the great hope of ‘secular’ non-Congressism, there is some incomprehension as to what the BJP hotheads were after. Modi, it would seem, is being used by a section of the Bihar BJP for some ideological grandstanding aimed at pushing Nitish into a corner. Predictably, there is a caste dimension to this brinkmanship. But those familiar with the bickering in Odisha that preceded and followed the Kandhamal disturbances will not be blamed for nurturing a sense of déjà vu. An exasperated Naveen Patnaik broke a 11-year alliance with the BJP because he felt that the junior partner was no longer in a position to deliver an incremental vote. If Nitish starts believing that the BJP presence will undercut his own vote-bank without bringing in compensatory support, he may have no option but to ditch the NDA and target the Congress and RJD vote.

The BJP may be quite right in believing that no alliance can exist without mutual self-respect. The implication is that Nitish has punctured the BJP’s self-esteem and that the party must flex its muscles, if only to prove its worth to its own support base.

In theory such a tit-for-tat approach is unexceptionable. But there are two problems. First, elections in Bihar are around the corner and it does neither the BJP nor the JD(U) any good to lose the battle. Second, since 2004 the BJP has been steadily losing allies without making any independent headway. Its relations with every existing ally — be it Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and JD(U) — are strained. It will do the BJP’s national standing incalculable harm if Nitish decides to go his own way. It will reinforce the image that it is a difficult customer and potentially untrustworthy.

Since the 2004 defeat, a section of the BJP has believed that for the party to advance it must go it alone. This approach is also premised on the belief that a more belligerent Hindu stand will garner additional support. As of now, there is no evidence to suggest that India is reverting to the mood that prevailed during the height of the Ayodhya dispute. Nor is there anything to suggest that the BJP has been galvanised by another big idea which, in due course, will capture the national imagination. As a consequence of running purposeful State Governments, the BJP has become a staid, conventional party with some impetuosity on the margins. Its radical days are behind it.

The tragedy is that the party seems temperamentally disinclined to accept this reality. It seems to be forever in search of heady excitement. The result is that its good work in running State Governments and managing the national Opposition is offset by unthinking flamboyance that neither adds to its appeal nor enhances the comfort level of its allies.

Sunday Pioneer, June 20, 2010

Friday, June 18, 2010

Modi vs Modi

By Swapan Dasgupta

Having been shaken by the controversy over an advertisement, the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now taken to describing the spat that defocused its National Executive meeting in Patna as a proverbial storm in a teacup. It is clear that despite all the talk about maintaining its “self-respect” and not yielding to every tantrum, the BJP has no desire to walk out of the alliance in Bihar and weaken the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) further. Likewise, it is also clear that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is not yet ready to do a Naveen Patnaik on the BJP, yet.

The fragile truce that was negotiated after Mr Kumar took umbrage to an advertisement featuring a year-old photograph of him with Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi at the NDA rally in Ludhiana last year, may well withstand the forthcoming Bihar Assembly poll. There is no indication as yet that the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) has the necessary support base to go it alone. And more to the point, the idea of teaming up with the Congress is still not very appetising to a party that swears by Ram Manohar Lohia.

Yet, last week’s kerfuffle in Patna didn’t need a provocation. It had an air of inevitability, advertisement or no advertisement. Aware that every vote counts in the forthcoming Assembly polls, Mr Kumar was concerned that the larger-than-life presence of Mr Modi in Bihar would be used by his opponents to prey on Muslim fears. He needed to do something symbolic to signal that he was in alliance with Sushil Modi, not Narendra Modi.

In politics, it is difficult to be nuanced. There may be a world of difference between the BJP as envisaged by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and that imagined by, say, Murli Manohar Joshi. At a popular level, the BJP is the party of Mr Vajpayee and L.K. Advani but it is also the party of the Gujarati Modi. Indeed, after Mr Vajpayee, Mr Modi is the tallest leader of the BJP. Among the committed BJP voters, Mr Modi’s status is iconic. It was hardly realistic to even imagine that an executive meeting of a national party could be held by excluding its longest-serving chief minister.

To signal to a section of voters that he is all right with the BJP but not Mr Narendra Modi is a difficult exercise in hair-splitting. In a stark world, Mr Kumar had a choice of breaking with the BJP in its entirety or allowing the National Executive meet to pass without controversy. He needn’t have shared a platform with Mr Modi in Patna but he needn’t have rescinded a dinner invitation and then let Sharad Yadav pretend all was well. If placating Muslim sentiment was what Mr Kumar was after, his mission was unsuccessful because it led to nothing tangible and, in fact, allowed Mr Modi to grab the national stage momentarily. In the coming months, especially if the JD(U) are in alliance, Mr Kumar will be taunted by ultra-secularists for being a paper tiger.

Not that the inability to drive home his displeasure with what Mr Modi allegedly represents will necessarily be damaging to Mr Kumar. The Bihar Assembly election will be fought on local issues. The Gujarat chief minister will, in all probability, not even be a campaigner in Bihar. The verdict of the electorate will not be shaped by what happened in Godhra and its aftermath eight years ago. There is invariably a mismatch between what activists imagine is important and what voters believe are the main issues. In any case, while Muslims vote enthusiastically, they are not the only people who vote.

All the same, last week’s almost-crisis in Bihar is a pointer to the persistence of political posturing. Since the tragic riots in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Modi has won two Assembly elections and helped the BJP win a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state on two separate occasions. Whatever carping noises may be made about his political orientation or even the administration’s culpability in the riots, there is no question that Mr Modi enjoys popular legitimacy in Gujarat. To make his presence in a state a subject of controversy is not merely distasteful but undemocratic. If Mr Modi is anointed the next prime ministerial candidate by the BJP, his credentials will be examined afresh and may become a subject of passionate politics. In the meantime, he is the popularly-elected chief minister of Gujarat and disrespecting him in Patna runs counter to all norms of federalism.

There has been a tendency on the part of some Muslims to use mr Modi as their favourite whipping boy, particularly when invoking the bogey of “Hindu fascism”. Muslim activists have an inalienable right to oppose Mr Modi and even hate him. But it is excessive when all other issues are sought to be buried in the quest for an anti-Modi communal mobilisation.

Since his victory in Gujarat in 2002, Mr Modi has been attempting to put the riots behind him and re-invent himself as the most efficient agent of modernisation and development. Gujarat has been one of India’s most astonishing success stories. Unfortunately, the recognition of that success has been patchy, not least because of an inclination to view the state solely through the prism of one unfortunate development. As a parallel, it would be a travesty if Rajiv Gandhi’s entire political career was seen through the prism of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

By reducing Mr Modi to a caricature, some self-serving politicians may have succeeded in keeping alive a ghetto grounded in fear and insecurity. But using the block vote to intimidate politicians is a dangerous game. It can yield handsome returns when communal polarisation is confined to the margins. However, it would be a sad and dangerous day for India if one religion-based mobilisation produced a countervailing force.

This hasn’t happened so far and hopefully it never will. But playing with fire is potentially hazardous.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, June 18, 2010

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Bhopal shows West's double standards

By Swapan Dasgupta

The token punishments awarded to the Indian managers and directors of the now defunct Union Carbide for their culpability in the world’s greatest industrial disaster in Bhopal 26 years ago would have, in the normal course, attracted enormous global attention. At best, the court judgement may only have established that underneath the amazing success story India is still an iniquitous Third World state that devalues human life. But at least it would have driven home the necessity of establishing global norms of punitive liability — a sort of Nuclear Liability legislation for all occasions.

A reason why interest in the callousness of Bhopal proved remarkably ephemeral lay in the West’s single-minded attention on the environmental disaster that has affected the US. The oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico that began on April 20 following an explosion on BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig has shaken the West.

Just as the iconic photograph of an open-eyed child being laid to rest came to epitomise Bhopal, the image of a bird covered in the reddish-brown muck slick in Louisiana has stirred the conscience of capitalism. Many deep existential questions have been raised on the nature of modernity and its consequences for the planet. People are speculating whether future explorations in the unspoilt Arctic Circle will lead to a similar calamity, and how long the world can afford to be driven on the back of an unclean energy source.

These are questions that modern civilisation will have to confront honestly. For the moment, however, what is intriguing is how quickly the political script of the Bhopal farce being enacted in India is being mirrored on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a marked similarity between the political accusations and counter-accusations in India — who allowed Walter Anderson to jump bail in December 1984, whether UPA Ministers sought to detach Dow Chemicals from the liabilities of Union Carbide, and whether the action of retired Chief Justice AH Ahmadi constituted a conflict of interests — and the shenanigans in Washington DC and London.
At the heart of the problem is the fanatical desire of the political class to identify a fall guy. Just as the Congress party is facing flak for its kid glove treatment of a multinational, allegedly under US Government pressure, President Barack Obama came under attack for his initial indifference to the desecration of the Louisiana coastline. It was even suggested that the oil spill would be Obama’s Katrina moment.

But that’s where the similarities taper off. Unable to defend its prolonged prevarication — a process that continues with the appointment of yet another GoM — or what commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta has described as the Supreme Court’s “lack of serious intellectual leadership”, the Government of India and the Congress party has chosen to muddy the waters with some delicious but irrelevant tittle-tattle.

In India, xenophobia has become the stick with which to beat a beleaguered Congress. And the Congress is certainly gasping for answers which explain its generosity towards American interests. In the US, an embattled Obama has craftily used xenophobia to “kick ass”, his euphemism for targeting perfidious Albion. In his initial interventions, the President, for example, insisted on referring to BP by its earlier name, British Petroleum. This was no unintended mistake. It was about as loaded as referring to, say ITC, as Imperial Tobacco Company.

It was a theme that has been readily echoed by others. The feisty Sarah Palin, whose husband was employed by BP for 18 years, railed against “foreign companies” in the energy sector. Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner went a step further. “Whenever you hear someone with a British accent talking about this on behalf of British Petroleum”, he said, “(he is) not telling you the truth.”

Substitute British for American and you may discover astonishing similarities with the rhetoric of angry Indian populists.

No wonder there has been a strong reaction in Britain. London Mayor Boris Johnson was the first to protest against the “anti-British rhetoric” emanating from across the pond. He was followed by Lord Tebbit who blamed the vagaries of domestic politics in the US for “a crude, bigoted, xenophobic display of petulance against a MNC”.

Other Conservative politicians have now jumped in to try and pressure Prime Minister David Cameron to use his good offices and inject sobriety into an emotive debate.

The reason for asking Downing Street to intervene isn’t one of national honour. Like most things, it’s really all about money. Most British pension funds are heavily invested in BP which has a fantastic track record of dividend payments. It is estimated that over 12 per cent of all British pension fund income comes from BP dividends. Over the past month, nearly £50 billion of BP’s market value has shrunk and Obama has publicly berated the company for being more concerned about its annual dividend than paying for the damage to the ecosystem. In fact, there are fears that the environmental damage its Chief Executive Tony Hayward imagined was “very, very modest” could even bankrupt BP.

Cut to the situation prevailing in the US in 1984, in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster, and it is possible to gauge the pressure Washington must have brought to bear on New Delhi to be ‘reasonable’. In moments of intense crisis, companies, even MNCs, tend to fall back on a national government to bail them out of sticky situations. BP may not succeed because the victim is the mighty US of A and because there is too much ‘green’ consciousness in the world to permit covert deals.

Unfortunately, this was not the case in 1984 when human beings and not birds died. In today’s world, no company could have got away paying chicken-feed for a crime of this magnitude. As victims of this latest industrial disaster, the US knows it.

Sunday Pioneer, June 13, 2010

Friday, June 11, 2010

A question of survival

Israel must resist aggression inspired by religion

By Swapan Dasgupta

A defining feature of modern Britain is the incredible rudeness of its television presenters. That media inquisitors should be persistent and not allow public figures to get away with evasive answers is understood. But there’s a world of difference between doggedly pursuing answers and plain rudeness.

A couple of days after the Israeli military action on the high seas off Gaza last month led to the unfortunate deaths of nine Turkish “peace activists”, I happened to watch the news on Channel 4, a station established in the 1980s to accommodate ‘alternative’ perspectives. The newscaster, Jon Snow, well known for his colourful ties, and who is iconic enough to be deified in the National Portrait Gallery, was visibly angry at what he regarded as Israeli high-handedness. More to the point, he made absolutely no attempt whatsoever to conceal his displeasure.

One of the guests invited to give the ‘other side’ of the story was a functionary from the Israeli embassy in London. In moments like these, the job of an embassy spokesman is unenviable: he has to appear convincing, unflappable and yet not be unduly smug. I personally thought the gentleman faced up to the aggressive barrage rather well. That was until Snow confronted him with the possibility of what would happen if another flotilla of ‘peace’ boats made their way to Gaza. The diplomat was firm that Israel wouldn’t permit it. An angry Snow retorted that a Turkish minister had announced Ankara would send a battleship to accompany the next flotilla. “Will you risk war?” he asked the Israeli spokesman belligerently.

The diplomat looked puzzled and politely retorted that there was no possibility of Turkey doing that. Why don’t you get on the phone, snapped Snow, and find out whether Turkey is planning to do precisely that? And then, barely concealing his displeasure, he abruptly terminated the conversation.

That would have been the end of this story. However, barely half a minute before the programme ended, Snow peremptorily clarified that there was no suggestion that Turkey was planning to send a battleship to engage Israeli coastguards in a naval battle.

To my mind, a mild ‘sorry’ was in order. Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, the lack of generosity has become the norm. Strangely, for a country that was once seen as the doughty success story of West Asia, an oasis of enlightenment amid the cruel harshness of the desert, Israel has become a near-pariah. The paradox is that this transformation has taken place despite Israel’s success in ensuring that its right to exist is now acknowledged by most countries in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and Pakistan. Unlike the situation that prevailed for the first three decades of Israel’s existence, even Islamic countries are disinclined to frown upon countries such as India that have healthy diplomatic and commercial relations with Tel Aviv (or, should we say, Jerusalem).

The suggestion that this shift in perception — to the extent that even a writer such as Amitav Ghosh is pilloried for accepting an award from a university in Tel Aviv — has to do with the plight of the Palestinians is only partly true. Till the Six-Day War in 1967 put an end to all Arab hopes of defeating Israel militarily, many Palestinians seriously believed that the clock of history could be turned back and that the region could return to its pre-Balfour Declaration status. Today, the moderate Palestinian leadership —the successors of Yasser Arafat —tacitly recognize that Israel is there to stay and that the second-best but realistic solution is to settle for a Palestinian State that includes the West Bank and Gaza.

The tragedy, as the Israeli statesman, Abba Eban, rued in 1973, is that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Arafat’s nerves failed him in Camp David when the former American president, Bill Clinton, almost hammered out a settlement, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is wary of open engagement with Israel, fearful as he is of being made even more irrelevant by Hamas and the rising tide of Islamism. The Palestinian leadership is a pathetic victim of its own prolonged posturing.

Israel, on its part, is equally fearful of giving legitimacy to Hamas. The militant Islamist militia is yet to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Unlike the old Palestine Liberation Organisation which was ostensibly non-denominational, Hamas is infected by the post-9/11 Islamic radicalism and its propaganda and appeal reflect it.

It is recognized by all those who sanctimoniously urge Israeli ‘restraint’ on all occasions that a Hamas-controlled Palestinian State will inevitably become a staging post for Syrian and Iranian attacks on Israel. Already anxious about Hezbollah inroads in Lebanon, the last thing Israel wants is to subject the whole country to the sustained rocket fire once experienced by the towns adjoining Gaza. The fragility of Israel’s security demands an internationally guaranteed, demilitarized Palestinian State.

The prospects of this happening are becoming increasingly remote. The government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made extreme hostility to Israel a feature of its neighbourhood policy, adding Holocaust-denial to his dhobi list of visceral anti-Semitism. Egged on by his supreme leader, Ahmadinejad is now encouraging a Iranian Red Crescent flotilla to break the Gaza blockade.

Syria may not be on the same ideological wavelength as Iran but it too seeks an Israel that is in a state of permanent tension. And, to add to Israel’s woes, the pressure of Islamic radicals at home has forced Turkey to review its earlier ‘friendship’ with Israel. Having been rebuffed in its attempts to join the European Union (the reasons were entirely linked to its religious character), Turkey seems determined to live up to the stereotype that was unjustly pinned to it. Indeed, the emotional upsurge in the aftermath of the Gaza crisis may well make it increasingly difficult for Kemal Atatürk’s legacy to withstand public pressure.

Those who fall back on moral indignation to denounce Israel’s harsh blockade of the Gaza strip seem unmindful of the country’s hostile surroundings. Yes, Israel would be wise to refrain from building new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Equally, it can be patient in its plans for the whole of Jerusalem. However, it is worth asking whether the unconditional lifting of the Gaza blockade, the rollback of all West Bank settlements and the return of the capital to Tel Aviv will placate its opponents or convince them that the Jewish State is losing its nerve.

In a characteristically robust intervention, Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, put his country’s predicament in context. “We need to always remember that,” he said, “we aren’t North America or Western Europe; we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak and there aren’t second chances for those who don’t defend themselves.”

Barak, who has been blamed for Israel’s “disproportionate” response, wasn’t talking a language that goes down well in the West, and certainly not with the campus radicals who seem to be driving international responses. However, while the West seems inclined to fight the clash of civilizations with constant accommodation and a show of guilt — which explains why Israel has effortlessly fitted into the slot vacated by apartheid South Africa — the stakes for the Jewish State are higher. For the West, multicultural benevolence is a decadent indulgence; for Israel, resisting religion-inspired aggression is a question of survival.

The Telegraph, June 11, 2010

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gaza returns as a campus "cause"

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last week I revisited some stomping grounds of a misspent youth. Much had changed in the past three decades but some things are timeless. In a week that has witnessed a huge emotional outpouring over the killing of nine Turkish ‘peace activists’ by Israel in the waters off Gaza, the campuses are once again basking in the proverbial ‘cause’ of the season.

Those who attended a British university in the late 1970s will doubtless recall the wave of excitement and indignation triggered by the police action in Soweto, South Africa. The excitement owed to the optimism that civil unrest would lead to the final collapse of a state built on insidious racial segregation; and the indignation rested on the horrible news of protesting schoolchildren being gunned down.

To be supportive of the struggle to end apartheid was a no-brainer. Yet, there were some activists who felt that expressing solidarity and boycotting South African goods wasn’t enough. Mainly drawn from far-Left groups that nurtured a deep frustration at their inability to make political headway on their home turf, these activists felt that picketing South Africa House on Trafalgar Square and participating in the genteel anti-apartheid movement wasn’t enough. They sought the excitement of direct action.

The question was, how? It was patently ridiculous and too dangerous for a concerned undergrad to go into the bush in Angola or Mozambique and join the armed struggle. The African National Congress was not known to encourage an International Brigade modelled on the Spanish Civil War experience. So the next best radical thing was to raise money for the purchase of weapons.

A close British friend, who combined his love for Africa with an untiring enthusiasm for (lost) causes, took it upon himself to raise money for the purchase of a Land Rover that could be used for the ‘armed struggle’ in South Africa. Throughout the long, hot summer of 1976, he traipsed the black ghettos of London, organizing fund-raising events. He even discovered an ultra-radical black South African, disenchanted with the ‘moderation’ of the ANC, who could be entrusted to carry the money to the guerrilla camps and oversee the purchase.

It turned out to be a colossal misadventure. A large sum of money was no doubt raised and handed over to the visiting liberation warrior. Having taken the money from the gullible Westerners, the guerrilla took a flight from Heathrow and simply disappeared. And that was the last any of us heard about either him or the Land Rover.

I couldn’t help recalling this farcical encounter with a noble cause while being inundated with saturation media coverage of the “massacre” of well-meaning peace activists. The Palestinian struggle has long been a hot issue in campuses ever since the keffiyah became a ubiquitous fashion statement for the radical chic. For a generation to whom Vietnam and South Africa is history, Israel is the new hate object. It is seen to be racist, a lackey of imperialism and insensitive to all suffering. Had it not been for the Holocaust (which the likes of President Ahmadinejad of Iran deny), Israel may also have been honoured with the Fascist label.

Hatred of Israel has given some people a cause that is about as potent as saving the planet from global warming. Some 300 of these motivated individuals—a ragtag body that included vegetarians from the Isle of Wight, a long-forgotten peace campaigner from Northern Ireland, some disoriented Trotskyists, long-distance Islamists and others whom Lenin would have dubbed ‘useful idiots’ — joined 400 Turkish Islamic radicals in an adventurist endeavour to break the three-year blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

To the international ‘peace activists’, the flotilla of six ships carrying food, medicine, books and toys, may have been a genuinely humanitarian gesture. To the Turkish activists who drove the mission, it was a feature of domestic politics and linked to Ankara’s cautious repudiation of its ultra-secular inheritance. The flotilla was a premeditated act of provocation, with a handful of Turks desperate to achieve martyrdom. Israel was aware of the dangers but fell into the trap with uncharacteristic ham-handedness. It handed out a famous victory to militant Islamism.

The diplomatic fallout of the latest twist in West Asia will be played out at a rarefied level in the coming months. However, what needs more careful monitoring is its likely psychological effect on the impressionable. The romance of struggles waged elsewhere could well drive purposeless and alienated individuals to discover the virtues of fighting for the ‘underdog’ in Kashmir, Afghanistan and Chechnya. There are enough people in the West who want to be a Che Guevara, transcending national boundaries, this time waving a green flag. The Gaza experience has provided them a new, attractive script to fame and martyrdom.

Sunday Times of India, June6, 2010

Sunday Times of India, June 6, 2010

Friday, June 4, 2010

Bengal's madness

By Swapan Dasgupta

The evening before the day Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress overtook the Left Front in the civic elections and clearly established itself as the number one party in West Bengal, a TV anchor described the Union railway minister as “mercurial”. The description may have been parliamentary but it was being used as a euphemism for madness.

It’s a characterisation that the lady has done little to disabuse. Whether it was her dogged and intransigent opposition to the land acquisition for the proposed Nano plant in Singur or her peremptory announcement that she didn’t need to be in Delhi to function as a Union Cabinet minister, Ms Banerjee has lived up to an image of her own making. In a world where stodginess is celebrated as wisdom, the sheer unpredictability of her political responses has made her an object of both wariness and ridicule.

Always accustomed to wearing the badge of intellectual superiority on their sleeve, the Left, for example, could never fathom how exactly to deal with Ms Banerjee. Jyoti Basu, who loved basking in his own grandeur, could hardly get himself to accepting Ms Banerjee as a legitimate Opposition — a disdain he never extended to the likes of Pranab Mukherjee or even Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. I once recall asking the very patrician Communist Party of India (CPI) leader Indrajit Gupta a question about something or the other Ms Banerjee had done. His response was an expression of profound disgust, as if to say “you can’t be serious”.

It was this sneering contempt that was also in view on Wednesday morning, even as the Trinamul Congress was notching up victory after victory. In his response to Ms Banerjee’s demand for early Assembly elections, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) leader Nilotpal Basu mockingly retorted that such people are not even familiar with the Constitution of India.

In a way the incomprehension of the Left is understandable. The united CPI and, subsequently, the CPI(M), has traditionally viewed its opponents in West Bengal as representatives of the propertied bhadralok classes — the people who, unlike the Jyoti Basus and Indrajit Guptas of the world, had not betrayed their own class.

The equation of the Congress with privilege and property was politically convenient since it gave the Left the necessary space to project itself as the voice of the “struggling masses”. It was this deft positioning plus the economic blows directed against the mid-sized landholders through Operation Barga after 1977 which enabled the Left to dominate West Bengal for more than three decades.

Unfortunately for the Left, Ms Banerjee never fitted into the stereotype. Socially, she belonged to a lower middle class, refugee, bhadralok family — the very social category that provided the CPI(M) its most loyal members. With her frugal and even carefree lifestyle, she did not correspond to the image of the grand Congress leaders such as Dr B.C. Roy and Siddhartha Shankar Ray. She wasn’t remotely the personification of privilege. In a milieu where ordinariness was deemed a virtue, Ms Banerjee was ordinary, very ordinary.

More important, Ms Banerjee did not possess any deep attachment to the niceties of political mobilisation. As someone who cut her teeth in politics during the street-fighting years of the 1970s, Ms Banerjee had imbibed the virtues of uncompromising opposition to the Left. However, whereas her mentors such as Priya Ranjan Das Munshi and Subrata Mukherjee had evolved into traditional politicians, not averse to cutting a deal or two on the side with a deeply-entrenched Left Front government, Ms Banerjee never wavered in her blind opposition to the CPI(M). She broke away from the Congress in 1996 when it seemed that the national party had reconciled itself to being a bit player in West Bengal because it needed Left support in the battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even now she nurtures the suspicion that the Congress is only too willing to compromise with the Left nationally and sacrifice West Bengal. This is why she insists on an alliance on her terms.

A feature of Ms Banerjee’s battle with the Left is her willingness to emulate the mass mobilisation techniques of the Left. She has internalised the Left penchant for calling a bandh for the flimsiest of reasons; she is single-minded in her determination to treat a public sector unit such as the Indian Railways as an instrument of welfare; and in a clash involving local interests and the larger goal of development, she is firmly on the side of the former. Ms Banerjee’s recklessness is a consequence of the economic stagnation of West Bengal. Her apparent nihilism reflects the desperation of a society that has been so left behind by the rest of India that it has ceased to care.

The irony is that Ms Banerjee has emulated the Old Left at a time when, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee at the helm, the CPI(M) in West Bengal has chosen to turn over a new leaf. Today, the chief minister stands for industrialisation, order, an end to the bandh culture and the state’s greater integration into the market economy of India. Inspired by China, Mr Bhattacharjee would like the CPI(M) to preside over West Bengal’s return to the mainstream of capitalist development.

Tragically, Mr Bhattacharjee has left it too late. Ms Banerjee epitomises the anger of a people against 33 wasted years of Left Front rule. Unfortunately, the Trinamul Congress leader has chosen to articulate that opposition in the only language of politics West Bengal is familiar with: the language of Left disruption.

It’s an approach that may well propel Ms Banerjee into the chief minister’s chair in less than a year. She may then decide to do what the present chief minister has attempted, with limited success, over the past seven years. Consequently, it will be the turn of the Left to rediscover its old inheritance — one that has been appropriated by Ms Banerjee.

Ms Banerjee’s madness, it would seem, is the collective madness of Bengal.

Deccan Chronicle/Asian Age, June 4, 2010

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