Friday, July 30, 2010

Big money, big mess

By Swapan Dasgupta

For a person who is so unmistakably Anglo-Saxon by temperament, Mani Shankar Aiyar has never been partial to the understatement. Whether in private or in his public utterances, this "man of letters" (an unlikely honour accorded to him by an equally unlikely judge of the arts) has packaged his undeniable wit in reckless hyperbole, an impishness that once prompted me to describe him as the Beast of Myladuthurai—a recondite allusion to a character from juvenile literature of another age.

Ever since he came into public gaze as a functionary of the Prime Minister's Office way back in 1985, Mani has provided hours of amusement to all those who appreciate his brand of adult puerility. Unfortunately, Mani has a niche appeal and his wit has invited the righteous indignation of those not fortunate to have been raised on a diet of Carry On films and Kooler Talk. The weightier bits of Mani's interventions have been obscured by his merciless asides.

So it was with his spontaneous outburst against the Commonwealth Games, due to be hosted by Delhi in October. Having decried the thousands of crores being wasted on such "circuses", Mani fell back on Biblical imagery to suggest that "Those who are patronising the Games can only be Evil. They cannot be God." But it was his coup de grace that had the CWG officialdom reaching for their guns: "I will be very unhappy if the Games are successful because they will start bringing Asian Games, Olympic Games…" An incensed boss of the Indian Olympic Association Suresh Kalmadi, the prime target of Mani's ire, responded by calling him "anti-national", a charge that in public discourse is almost akin to questioning the marital status of one's parents.

If Mani had been playing the loose cannon yet again, his intervention would have been treated with the familiar Mani-is-Mani refrain. Unfortunately for the Government, and despite his characteristic overkill, Mani's gripe touched a responsive chord in a Delhi has been mute witness to an orgy of inept and profligate spending of taxpayers' money. In normal circumstances, the media and the political class have voiced the disquiet of citizens. In the case of the CWG, blessed with a mega-Budget of unimaginable proportions, there have been scattered voices against particular projects—the renovation of bus shelters in roads where buses don't run, the re-paving of perfectly decent pavements, the slipshod finishing of sporting venues, et al. Sadly, these haven't been accompanied by any dissection of the event in its totality. The reasons for this lapse are a matter of conjecture.

Mani's contribution lay in being bold enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes. Had he not done it aplomb and polemical exaggeration, no one would have taken notice. Now the growing scepticism over the CWG can't be ignored. In riding his socialistic hubby horse, he has unwittingly created a window of opportunity for a widespread expression of disgust.

Beginning from the Berlin Olympics of 1936, international sporting events have become the occasion for countries and their governments to showcase themselves to the wider world. Yet, to succeed, official endeavours have to be accompanied by a huge measure of popular involvement, the Sydney Olympics of 2004 and even the just-concluded soccer World Cup in South Africa being case studies of purposeful harmony. What is striking about the Delhi CWG is the marked alienation of local citizens from an event that is also aimed at leaving behind a tangible legacy for the future.

Part of the reason lies in the sheer arbitrariness that marked the decision-making over civic improvements. In normal democratic societies, the re-fashioning of a city ought to have been preceded by widespread consultations between planners, local authorities and civil society. In the case of Delhi, tardiness at the initial stages led to a flurry of rushed decisions that left no time to observe the niceties of consultation. Whereas the objective of civic improvements should have been to create a better city, the late start meant that the completion of projects by October 2010 became the sole criterion. The inevitable consequence was a series of decisions that post-CWG Delhi may well come to regret.

The rush to meet an inflexible deadline has, of course, resulted in shoddy civil works that could result in some of the sports complexes becoming unusable in a year's time. But more galling has been the overhead route of the Delhi Metro that runs precariously close to residential areas, schools and even hospitals. Equally offensive has been the systematic felling of trees, the destruction of storm water drains and the questionable aesthetics of beautification. From being a city of parks, Delhi is in danger of becoming a city of parking lots.

This celebration of brashness isn't confined to the murder of aesthetics alone; it has a bearing on public finances. When the NDA Government cleared the proposal to bid for the CWG, it was said that the cost would be Rs 150 crore. To enhance the quality of the bid, the figure was raised to nearly Rs 1,900 crore. Some cost over-runs were predictable—the cost of hosting the London Olympics in 2012 has risen fourfold from £2.3 billion to £9.4 billion—and dependant on the scale of the legacy projects. In the case of the CWG, there is a mystery over the actual costs with estimates ranging from Rs 30,000 crore to Rs 50,000 crore.

How much of this money has been judiciously spent to create tangible assets for the future? Scepticism is justified when people see perfectly decent pavements in Lutyens' Delhi being uprooted for something new and then new one being again uprooted because someone forgot the drains or the water pipes. If there is a subsequent audit, it will reveal innumerable horror stories, enough to keep the ubiquitous CBI busy for years to come. If there isn't, the CWG will set a new benchmark of brazenness.

The CWG will have beneficiaries. Regrettably, it won't be the people of Delhi.

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, July 30, 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Battleground heats up as the Hand plucks at the Lotus, one petal at a time

DURING THE 2007 election campaign for the Gujarat Assembly, a contest which the Congress believed was eminently winnable, BJP’s central observer Arun Jaitley maintained a checklist of must-do items for the evening. Early in the evening, there was a mandatory meeting with the low-key, soft-spoken V Satish, a RSS-fulltimer in the BJP, who would brief him on organisational matters relating to the entire Sangh parivar. This would be followed by a leisurely dinner which resembled a convivial dinner, attracting all manner of people from journalists and fellow lawyers to political tourists. Then, every alternate evening, there would be a 30-minute car ride to the spartan official residence of Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar, a private meeting that stretched well past midnight. On the other evenings, the post-prandial confabulations were reserved for a quiet meeting with the only other man who had his pulse firmly on the politics of Gujarat: Minister of State for Home Amit Shah.
If public profile was any guide, the portly, balding and scraggily bearded 46-year-old MLA from Sarkhej — the glittering part of ‘new’ Ahmedabad where the BJP majority, it used to be said, was weighed rather than counted — was just another junior minister in a government where the Chief Minister towered over all others. To those in the know of things, the taciturn Amitbhai had a reputation for quiet efficiency and enjoying the trust of a Chief Minister who chose to be regally aloof. His lowly status as a junior minister never reflected his true status as perhaps the most important political manager of the Modi dispensation. This must have weighed in the calculations of those who gave the CBI its political clearance to charge Shah with murder, extortion and obstruction of justice.
On his part, Modi never had the slightest doubt that the Supreme Court had unwittingly handed the Congress Party a deadly weapon of political combat by directing the CBI to investigate the ‘encounter death’ of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, a criminal who shot to national fame after his death became the issue of a Modi-Sonia Gandhi sparring match in 2007. From early May, coinciding with the arrest of IPS officer Abhay Chudasama, he had been alerting the national leadership of the BJP to what he believed were the real intentions of the CBI inquiry: to drag Shah into the case and pave the way for a legal-cum-political assault on the Chief Minister himself. Those puzzled by the BJP’s unrelenting assault on the “Congress Bureau of Investigation” throughout last May and June were possibly unaware of the sub-text of the counter-offensive. Equally, those mystified by the BJP’s eccentric choice of senior criminal lawyer Ram Jethmalani for the Rajya Sabha may now gauge that the Gujarat Chief Minister was in the process of ‘capacity building’ for what promises to be a long and bitter fight. Ironically, the Congress spokesperson Shakeel Ahmed gave some of the game away when he demanded last Sunday that Modi answer various questions about the transfer of IPS officers linked to the case.
Whether the “Delhi Sultanate”, as Modi derisively describes the Union Government, will opt for a frontal assault on the man who worsted Sonia in the 2007 ‘maut ki saudagar’ electoral encounter or prefer the death by a thousand cuts approach isn’t clear as yet. For the moment, the political message of the CBI against Shah is that, far from being a doughty protector of national security, the Gujarat Government used robust patriotism as a cloak for running a protection and extortion racket with Shah as the mastermind and compliant policemen as foot soldiers. It has been suggested that Sohrabuddin was eliminated not because he was involved in a plot to kill Modi but because Shah had taken a supari from some frightened marble traders of Rajasthan.
A more ridiculous version of events suggests that it was Sohrabuddin who was the ‘actor’ in the sex film of the discredited BJP general secretary Sanjay Joshi. As such, or so the argument goes, he had to be eliminated to prevent the sordid truth of the BJP internal feuds from coming out in the open. Mercifully, this fanciful version of political intrigue, attributed to a prominent human rights activist, doesn’t find a place in the CBI version of events.
High-level functionaries in Gujarat suggest that the CBI went the whole hog to try and link Shah to hawala operations and the benami purchase of land with the proceeds. It is understood that the CBI questioned nearly one thousand village patwaris to find out if land had been purchased by Shah or members of his family. This over-zealousness, it is whispered, even prompted Modi to remark that the CBI would be better served by going through the computerised data bank of land records. The premier investigation agency even organised its own sting operation through an arrested policeman who has allegedly turned approver to demonstrate that ‘encounter specialist’ DG Vanzara had acted on Shah’s telephonic instructions.
The legal minds in the BJP national leadership who have studied the CBI charges say that, as of now, the case against Shah is flimsy and based on inferences and testimonies of people with very dubious backgrounds. Shah, it is true, made innumerable telephone calls to the various policemen who have also been charged with murder but, curiously, there are no records to show any conversations on the day either Sohrabuddin or his associate Tulsiram Prajapati were killed. This lacuna is being sought to be filled by verbal depositions from approvers — ex-DSP NK Amin has already been outed as one — or through sting operations. In the words of a BJP leader, the CBI’s modus operandi was “arrest first and then discover the evidence.”
The BJP believes that the Congress objective in the coming weeks is to create a hype of Modi’s increasing vulnerability in Gujarat which it hopes will unnerve the bureaucracy. This impression of fragility will create conditions for many more officers to ‘sing for their supper’ before the CBI and reveal embarrassing truths or untruths that will nail Shah and, at a pinch, even implicate Modi.
1 Foot in mouth
BJP chief Gadkari’s candour has raised eyebrows
2 Minefield
The Reddy brothers got BJP unwarranted publicity
3 Hate speech
Sadhvi Pragya Thakur has lent a face to Hindu terror
THE ATTEMPT by the CBI, through the media, to paint Shah as a shady figure, habitually inclined to accept bribes and come to the rescue of stock market scamsters appears to be part of the strategy to destroy the halo Modi has built around himself as the foremost practitioner of good and honest governance. It is a small but noteworthy detail that the bid to derail Modi as the ‘mass murderer’ of the post- Godhra riots has been shelved for the moment. It was seen to be yielding diminishing returns. The focus is on instances of arbitrariness that establish a moral equivalence between Modi and other ‘lesser’ politicians: the ‘Lion of Gujarat’ cannot claim special status.
At a national level, the Congress appears to have mounted a full-scale political assault on the BJP. The past fortnight has seen resurrection of the ‘Hindu terror’ revelations that came to an abrupt end after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, the agitation against the alleged illegal mining operations of the Reddy brothers of Bellary in Karnataka and, finally, the arrest of Amit Shah.
The BJP believes that the Congress’ plan is to create a hype of Modi’s spiralling troubles, which will unnerve the Gujarat bureaucracy
Part of the operations may have coincided with an attempt to break the show of Opposition unity evident in the Bharat Bandh of 6 July. It is possible the Congress will be partially successful in this venture although it is doubtful that the resentment against price rise will disappear just because the BJP is portrayed as a disreputable party. On the flip side, however, the determination of the BJP to fight “Congress skulduggery” could see the derailment of the Government’s legislative programme. It is understood that the Prime Minister is concerned that any appeal to the BJP to cooperate with the Government on the Nuclear Liabilities Bill — something that is calculated to sweeten the visit of President Barack Obama in November — will not bear fruit.
The tensions within the Government over the rushed CBI chargesheet could even offer a possible lifeline to the beleaguered Shah.
Regardless of whether or not the CBI succeeds in convicting a man who was an undeniable asset to Modi, even the most ardent supporters of the Gujarat Chief Minister cannot deny that the events of the past week have been a major setback. The BJP may well be convinced of Shah’s complete innocence — something that Modi took care to proclaim publicly — but it will be a while before this can be established by a court. Having secured his arrest and played out the ‘incriminating evidence’ in the media, a process that is likely to persist for a few more months, there is no tearing hurry on the part of the CBI to rush through with the case. From the Congress’ point of view too, unless it is convinced of securing a speedy conviction, it makes sense to allow the case to linger and for Shah to rot as an undertrial for the foreseeable future or at least until the 2012 Gujarat election.
4 In the dock
Sri Ram Sene’s Pramod Muthalik has added to BJP’s misery
5 Brothers in arms?
The Bihar coalition got rocked by the Modi-Nitish spat
Unlike some countries where the principle of innocent until proved guilty actually holds good and is supported by speedy justice, Indian public life works on the assumption that a chargesheet, accompanied by a prolonged denial of bail, is as good as a conviction. Since the judicial process takes a decade or more to resolve complex cases — even the Supreme Court’s monitoring doesn’t appear to make too much of a difference — the accused are held to be guilty by default, and more so because there is a cynical belief that the rich and powerful always get away. To that extent, it would seem that the shrill media coverage and his imprudent disappearance from public view for two days have cast Shah as a villain and swayed middle class sentiment against both Modi and the BJP. This impression is likely to linger for some time.
Part of the operations may have coincided with the attempt to break the show of Opposition unity evident in the Bharat Bandh on 6 July
Shah, however, is an incidental casualty of a Great Game: for the Congress, the only worthwhile target is Modi. The choice of Modi as Political Enemy No. 1 is partially based on the demonology around the man. As someone who has been reviled as an unrepentant ‘mass murderer’ and declared persona non grata by Washington, the hate-Modi campaign has some obvious benefits. Apart from satisfying Muslims and other minorities who regard him as the man responsible for the bloody riots of 2002, it establishes the Congress as an uncompromising defender of secularism among liberal Hindus with distaste for political Hindutva. Since liberal Hindus have an influence far beyond their numbers and dominate strategic institutions such as the academia and media, a resolute anti-Modi positioning secures political benefits far beyond narrow electoral politics.
WITHIN GUJARAT, as past events have repeatedly demonstrated, targeting Modi doesn’t automatically yield tangible returns. In the elections of 2002 and 2007, the Gujarat electorate has shown an inclination to be swayed by Modi’s fierce mixture of regional and Hindu pride. As long as Congress lacks local leaders who can match Modi’s charisma and as long as the BJP government can deliver a large measure of innovative governance, Modi can fall back on popular support to bail him out of a political offensive mounted against him from Delhi.
Yet, it is well known in BJP circles that Modi will not be content to spend the rest of his days lording over Gujarat. Having already established himself as the state’s longest serving Chief Minister and having presided over the state’s silver jubilee celebrations, Modi has an eye out for his moment nationally. Hugely popular among the BJP’s committed supporters, Modi is aware that there is a section which believes that only he is capable of leading a demoralised party to recovery and, possibly, power at the Centre.
Unfortunately for him, this is a view that isn’t uniformly shared, not even by those who admire the Gujarat leader and believe he is capable of playing a major national role. The scepticism is based on the cold logic of existing electoral politics.
As long as Congress lacks local leaders who can match his charisma, Modi can fall back on popular support to bail him out of trouble
The kerfuffle over advertisements praising Modi’s assistance to the flood victims of the Kosi floods has resurrected the issue of the Gujarat leader’s political untouchability outside his home state. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s sharp reaction to Modi’s self-publicity may have been triggered by those in his camp who see the Janata Dal (U) grabbing the entire ‘secular’, anti-Congress space, just as Lalu Prasad Yadav did in the 1990s. However, while Nitish is aware that such a move could well prove to be reckless at the present juncture — not least because he needs the BJP to garner the state’s upper caste votes — he is equally concerned that Modi’s presence during the forthcoming election campaign could lead to the consolidation of the state’s 15 percent Muslim vote against the NDA, as happened during the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. At the same time, there is no guarantee that, apart from enthusing BJP workers, Modi’s presence would add value to the NDA campaign.
Although the hiccups of the BJP-JD(U) relationship appear to have subsided following a convivial dinner meeting between Nitish and BJP president Nitin Gadkari last week, the tensions in Bihar underline the problems Modi is likely to face in his quest for the national stage.
For the past eight years, Modi has consciously sought to reinvent himself as the upholder of purposeful and innovative governance. He has received glowing testimonials from India’s corporate bigwigs and Gujarat has been consistently topping the economic growth tables. The Sohrabuddin issue may have been the last-minute garnishing of the election campaign of 2007 but most observers recognise that the impressive BJP victory wouldn’t have been possible had Modi not added an emotive appeal to a handsome list of tangible achievements.
MODI’S BIGGEST political failure has been his inability to unburden himself of the ‘communal’ tag he acquired after the 2002 riots. The image of Hindu Hridaysamrat is a heady one and assiduously promoted by Modi’s fans on the internet. Unfortunately, this is an image that doesn’t correspond with the priorities of today’s electorate, as the BJP found to its cost after some of its supporters chose to tomtom the shrill rabble-rousing of Varun Gandhi and the spirit of Hindu retribution in Kandhamal, Orissa. Additionally, most of the NDA constituents, with the sole exception of the Shiv Sena are uneasy with the image of Modi (though they have a convivial relationship with the man) and there is no surety the NDA wouldn’t truncate further if Modi was anointed leader of the BJP.
image image
Blood runs cold Fake encounter victims Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife Kauser Bi; and alleged Lashkar-e-Toiba operatives Ishrat Jahan and three others who met a similar fate in June 2004
Arguably, some of these losses could be offset if Modi brings with him a huge incremental vote, just as Atal Bihari Vajpayee did in 1996. Secularism has been shown to be eminently negotiable when confronted with the realities of the public mood. Unfortunately for Modi, the BJP of 2010 isn’t the BJP of 1996, riding the crest of an emotional Hindu upsurge. True, the mood could change abruptly and trigger a Modi wave. In its absence, Modi has to unburden himself of the 2002 baggage and appear as something different to the people of India. It is his tragedy that every step he takes in that direction is nullified by a secular onslaught centred on the memories of 2002 and the painting of Modi the ‘Muslim killer’. The Amit Shah controversy may well turn out to be an elaborate piece of fiction but it has once again stereotyped Modi.
For party president Nitin Gadkari, the affable self-made businessman from Nagpur who was entrusted by the RSS to bring some order and purpose to a fractious and demoralised party, the dilemma over a role for Modi belongs to the distant future. His priority has been to secure a smooth succession to the post-LK Advani generation of leaders and to hold the BJP together for a time when the political climate is more conducive.
After seven months in office, Gadkari has made a hesitant beginning. On the positive side, he has somehow stopped bitter inter-personal rivalries from spilling into the open, prevented the RSS from micro-managing the party and initiated a capacity-building programme that is based on management science. On the minus side, he has been personally drawn into controversy because of his penchant for colourful colloquialisms — some say he models himself after the Marathi film personality Dada Kondke — and for his inability to keep a tight rein on the state satraps. The latter failure saw the BJP being gazumped and made a fool of by Shibu Soren and his son Hemant in Jharkhand. Equally damaging was his inability to prevent the Reddy brothers from holding the Karnataka Government and Chief Minister BS Yedyurappa to ransom.
The constant invocation to Hindu nationalism is yielding negative returns. The BJP knows it, as does the worldly section of the RSS
There is one feature of Gadkari that has endeared him to the party: his political integrity. He may have taken wrong steps or even erred in his judgment of people but it is accepted that his motives are not mala fide and devious. He hasn’t let narrow caste or factional considerations get the better of political common sense.
Where Gadkari has made no impression as yet is in resolving the deeper existential dilemma of the BJP: how does the party confront the realities of an India that is no longer enamoured of identity politics?
In the 1990s, the BJP grew dramatically and came to occupy the centrestage of national politics because it had a Big Idea. Hindutva may not have been everyone’s cup of tea but the idea did galvanise a tremendous amount of political energy in favour of the BJP. Today, the constant invocation to Hindu nationalism is yielding negative returns. The BJP knows it, as does the more worldly section of the RSS. Yet, there is a strange reluctance to face up to reality.
Taking comfort in archaic certitudes is ultimately a selfdefeating proposition in a changing world. This may explain why a disproportionate amount of the BJP’s energies are expended in either preaching to the converted or waging factional wars for a share of a shrinking political cake. Except in Karnataka, the BJP hasn’t grown since 2004. It is in search of a leader and another Big Idea. Modi comes closest to offering some light at the end of the tunnel. Alone among the BJP leaders he inspires. This is why the BJP will cling to him, fight his battles, and why the Congress will go all out to demolish him in the eyes of the people.


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Media plays plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner

By Swapan Dasgupta

Next to playing God, contemporary journalism is built on the principles of infallibility and public gullibility. Journalists and pompous editors are disinclined to admit that, being humans, they too can make mistakes and commit errors of judgment. More crucially, a misplaced sense of self-esteem has proved inimical to a sense of contrition. Like love, journalism usually means never having to say you are sorry.

Of course, honest mistakes can and do happen. Since information is subject to human interventions and interpretation, the scope for being misled by 'sources' loath to see Yudhisthir as a role model, is enormous. This may explain why old-fashioned practitioners of the trade strove to highlight the important distinction between verified reality and unsubstantiated claims or allegations. Both have a place in reportage but only when it is clear which is which.

One of the casualties of the tabloid culture and popular TV is that scepticism (I'd even say cynicism) has been replaced by certitude. Like the old Bollywood potboilers, the media seems to be driven by a macabre desire to divide humankind into the good and the bad—with the media, naturally, on the side of their chosen good. This undaunted sense of partisanship (depending on political preferences, nationality and commerce) is compounded by some robust demonology that transforms the 'bad' into both the 'ugly' and the 'evil'.

In a made-in-media society, this misplaced self-righteousness can have a hideously distorting effect on public discourse. Journalists are naturally dependant on non-attributable 'sources' for both insider information and perspectives. The problem, however, begins when the 'sources' start taking over the finished product. This seems to be happening in India with alarming frequency, especially now that the 'sources' have got it into their heads that they are not going to be held accountable for anything they dish out to news-hungry journalists in a fiercely competitive environment. The unending quest for the 'exclusive' has turned a large section of the media into stenographers. It has become captives to official dictation.

In the past 48 hours, India has witnessed a fierce trial by media targeting the favourite ogre of the liberal consensus: the Government of Gujarat. The CBI has charged Amit Shah, one of Chief Minister Narendra Modi's closest political associates, of a direct hand in the 'encounter deaths' of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauserbi and his associate Tulsiram Prajapati. It has alleged that Shah, who was Minister of state for Home till his resignation on Saturday, conspired to kill Sohrabuddin, not because he was a suspected terrorist intent on killing Modi—the police in Madhya Pradesh had recovered some 300 AK47s from his home—but because he was running a protection and extortion racket with his favourite police officers. It has been suggested that Shah targeted Sohrabuddin at the behest of some harassed marble traders of Rajasthan. Prajapati and Kauserbi were on the other hand killed because they knew too much.

These are grave charges, particularly when levelled against a senior political functionary. It is almost akin to Home Minister P. Chidambaram or his Andhra Pradesh counterpart being formally charged with organising an 'encounter' killing of the CPI(Maoist) politburo member Azad and 'journalist' Pandey. If these charges are upheld by the courts they would undeniably constitute a damning indictment of the state government.

For the moment, however, the CBI's voluminous chargesheet is at the level of accusations. Shah hasn't yet presented his defence, and nor has the investigation been endorsed by the Supreme Court which is monitoring the case. On the contrary, the BJP has charged the CBI of being a compliant arm of the Congress.

Modi's public proclamation of Shah's innocence and the BJP's decision to throw its political weight rests on the belief that Shah has been targeted on flimsy grounds, perhaps as a prelude to a full-scale legal assault on Modi.

The BJP leaders who have examined the evidence say that the case against Shah is based on three substantive points. First, it is claimed that Shah was in constant telephonic contact with D.G. Vanzara, the police officer charged with the 'encounter' killings. However, there is nothing in the records to indicate that on the days Sohrabuddin and Prajapati were killed, Shah spoke to either Vanzara or the other policemen charged with the killings.

Secondly, the CBI has relied on the testimony of Raman Patel and Dasrath Patel, two 'history-sheeters' who claimed that they met Shah to get cases against them under the Gujarat act against anti-socials removed. In that meeting, Shah is apparently said to have told these complete strangers that Sohrabuddin had to be eliminated for political reasons.

The BJP claims that there are no cases under the anti-social behaviour law against the two Patels and neither is there any record of any meeting of Shah with them. Moreover, as is well known in Gujarat, Shah is extremely taciturn and not given to boasting.

Finally, the CBI has relied on the testimony of a jailed policeman who claims that a phone call Vanjara received (said to be on the day Kauserbi disappeared) was "presumably" from Shah. There are apparently no records to substantiate the claim.

The weight of the evidence against Shah will be assessed by the trial court. What is clear is that the CBI charges don't amount to an open and shut case which can be decided by a media combing the roles of prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. There have been enough instances of tall claims made by authorities being effortlessly punctured in courts. However, since the legal process is lengthy, the mismatch between reality and claim rarely get reported. Media certitude is frequently shown to be baseless but who remembers what was said or printed three years ago?

This may be why it is rewarding to play stenographer to those who are politically on top today. Tomorrow's flip-flop is another day.

Sunday Pioneer, July 25, 2010







Monday, July 19, 2010

Taslima’s deportation would be India’s shame

By Swapan Dasgupta

In a month from now, on August 17 to be precise, the newly-opened Terminal 3 of Delhi airport could witness a disagreeable sight calculated to shame all Indians: the deportation of the Bangladesh-born writer Taslima Nasreen, presently living in Delhi.

Earlier this year, when her residence permit (issued first in 2003) was extended by a niggardly six months, the Home Ministry informed Taslima that this was the final extension and she must leave the country by August 17. She could, of course, re-apply for a residence permit at any Indian Embassy overseas but there was no surety it would be granted. Senior officials have told me in private that the basis of the decision is completely "political".

That Taslima can be a damned nuisance for politicians is undeniable. A writer who can best be described as feminist and secular-humanist (in the Western sense), she has angered conservative Muslims with her scepticism of faith, irreverence and candid approach to sexuality. In the Indian context this isn't unusual and Taslima has things in common with the atheistic, Dravidian rationalism of 'Periyar' E.V. Ramaswami Naicker, a man venerated by the DMK. But whereas Periyar confined his rationalism to an assault on the Brahmanical religion, Taslima has been preoccupied with Islam and its theology—not surprising because Muslims constitute a simple majority of the Bengali-speaking universe.

Taslima's critique of Islam and particularly Islamic dogmatism has been relentless but never outlandish, even though it touched many raw nerves among the believers. In 1991-92, militant Islamists mounted a vituperative campaign against her in Bangladesh after two volumes of her essays became bestsellers. Her works had enough literary merit to be awarded the Ananda Purashkar, India's most prestigious prize for Bengali writing, in 1992.

The irony is that despite her literary credentials, Taslima today finds it difficult to get her writings published in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Many booksellers have been threatened for her stocking her writings and in this year's Kolkata Book Fair, self-appointed vigilantes—perhaps the same one who organised a violent bandh in 2007 against her living in the city—tried to make the occasion Taslima-free. Even those who published Hindi translations of her columns have developed cold feet.

The comparisons between Taslima and painter M.F. Hussein whose paintings are constantly targeted and who had to flee India, are striking. Hussein's plight outraged the intelligentsia. Tragically, the same people haven't up for Taslima. Even double-standards carry an eloquent message: All religions are sacred but some are more sacred than others.

If self-publicity was the only thing driving Taslima, she would probably have been glad to escape this tension and set herself up as an exotic exile in Paris—where her views on the anti-women bias of Islam would draw an appreciative audience. After all, she travels on a Swedish passport which was graciously given to her after Bangladesh withdrew her citizenship.

Taslima is unique in that she wants to live in India because it provides her creative nourishment. She seeks Indian nationality, views Kolkata as 'home' but is agreeable to living in Delhi till the dust settles. So far the authorities have grudgingly given her a toehold in India. In a month's time even her nominal status as an intellectual refugee is set to be undone.

On Novermber 28, 2007, Pranab Mukherjee had assured the Lok Sabha that "India has never refused shelter to those who had come and sought our protection…This civilisational heritage, which is now the government's policy, will continue, and India will provide shelter to Ms. Nasreen," Five months later, replying to an overseas Indian's plea on her behalf, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh conceded "Taslima has been a victim of the politics of hate that a small section of extremists…are now pursuing." Citing the sanctuary given to the Dalai Lama, Manmohan Singh gave an assurance: "We recognise Taslima Nasreen's right to remain in a country of her choice, viz India…"

The PM was writing as an enlightened man of letters. Now, as a politician, he faces the sorry dismal prospect of not only having to eat his words but worse, mocking at the idea of an India "where the mind is without fear…"


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ominous signs from Kashmir Valley

By Swapan Dasgupta

At a time when the Kashmir Valley has reverted to its status as a persisting trouble spot, it may seem churlish to target Chief Minister Omar Abdullah. Political recriminations, it is accepted by most right-thinking Indians, can await a moment when things are relatively more settled.

Unfortunately, it would seem that the third generation Abdullah — who, like his father, has a considerable fan following outside the troubled State — doesn’t see things in the same way. In a statement from Srinagar last Friday, Omar argued that “the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir cannot be assuaged only by development, good governance and economic packages but needs a political solution”. Pleading the case for more autonomy, the Chief Minister added, “But I am not averse to move beyond it, if there is a solution other than autonomy that is acceptable to both India and Pakistan and meets the aspirations of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.”

Whether Omar is hinting his tacit support for the opposition PDP’s espousal of “dual sovereignty” involving India and Pakistan is unclear. What is interesting, however, that the earlier belief, mouthed by many well-meaning Indian liberals, that a long dose of purposeful, good governance can bring an alienated Kashmir Valley back to the constitutional mainstream, has been challenged by the Chief Minister. The significance of this assertion should not be under-estimated, not least because it loosely corresponds to the position taken by some of the 'moderate' sections of the Hurriyat Conference.

Omar’s assertion is calculated to inflict a great deal of collateral damage on another, well-entrenched position. Since 1948, the Nehruvian consensus has proceeded on the assumption that Jammu & Kashmir warranted exceptional treatment which would be guaranteed by the special provisions of Article 370. Although the parameters of this regional autonomy have been diluted, first in 1953 and then following the Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah understanding in 1974, the special status of Kashmir was protected by the Constitution. This meant that the State could either inch towards greater integration with the rest of India or regress into greater uniqueness. Whatever the to and fro movement of regional autonomy, it was believed that Article 370 would preserve Jammu & Kashmir as an integral part of the Indian Union. Now, Omar, a loyal ally of the Congress, has struck a hammer blow at one of the load-bearing pillars of the Nehruvian consensus.

The ‘political solution’ that the Chief Minister is alluding to is an euphemism for an understanding between India and Pakistan over the status of Jammu & Kashmir. Despite the presence of Kashmir on the dhobi list of the composite dialogue, it has been apparent for long that there is absolutely no meeting ground between New Delhi and Islamabad. India has maintained that Kashmir is an internal problem while Pakistan is equally clear that there is a liberation struggle being waged in a ‘disputed’ area whose future should be settled by a referendum.

It is conceivable that the Manmohan Singh Government has modified India’s earlier refusal to talk the internal affairs of Jammu & Kashmir with Pakistan. If so, this is something that the people of India, not to speak of Parliament, are clearly unaware of. Whatever the reality, Omar’s statement is certain to set the cat among the pigeons. Pakistan and its proxies within India have now secured an extra handle to press the case for the legitimisation of Islamabad’s ‘moral and political’ support for the azadi movement in Jammu & Kashmir.

It would be prudent to recognise that in the event the civil unrest in the Kashmir Valley is not brought under control fast and effectively, the issue of ‘dual sovereignty’ will gain currency. At an international level, Pakistan has already successfully sold the West its self-serving thesis that peace in Afghanistan (at least the termination of the Al Qaeda threat) is substantially dependant on the concessions it secures in Kashmir. India has so far managed to withstand international pressure by successfully leveraging its economic clout. However, there was also the fact that Kashmir was plodding gently along the path of democracy, development and a half-decent Government. Coupled with the greater sensitivity of the Indian security forces to ‘human rights’ issues, there was a marked disinclination of the West to draw a moral equivalence between a democratic India and a dysfunctional Pakistan.

According to the logic of Western diplomacy, Pakistan received bucketfuls of aid but India was someone you could do business with. India’s implied superior status may evaporate if the country is caught in a pincer movement of Left-wing extremism and Muslim separatism. If India isn’t to go back to the days of the first Clinton Administration when the very accession of Jammu & Kashmir was sought to be questioned, the Centre must ensure that peace returns to the State. Redeploying some of the forces is a small price to pay for preventing ‘dual sovereignty’ to make its appearance on the international agenda.

For long, India’s policy-makers have proceeded on the assumption that people are prone to rational political behaviour. In other words, it has been assumed that given a choice between a economically buoyant India and an imploding Pakistan torn between feudal decadence and Islamist lunacy, the people of Jammu & Kashmir would quietly prefer the status quo. Obviously this hasn’t happened.

The implications are disturbing. Either Omar is an inept administrator who has taken to equating personal failings with systemic failure. Alternatively, the hold of religious separatism is far more deep-rooted in the Kashmir Valley than was widely believed. For India’s sake, we can only hope that the disturbances in the Valley are all the fault of Omar Abdullah.

Sunday Pioneer, July 4, 2010

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