Sunday, November 28, 2010

BJP must strive for inclusive NDA

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the five-year prime ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, the Haryana Assembly election of 1987 was a turning point. The spectacular victory of the Lok Dal led by Devi Lal came as a loud wake-up call to a Congress that had been basking in the glory of the Prime Minister's Lok Sabha sweep of 1984. The Haryana result came at a time the Congress was beginning to feel the pressure on corruption, notably the Bofors deal, but still felt supremely confident about Rajiv's ability to tide over the problem. After the Congress debacle in this small state, there was a discernible mood change. A divided and disoriented Opposition began to get its act together and within a year a combination of regional leaders forged the National Front that, additionally, also kept up a relationship with both the Left and the BJP. In 1989, the Congress was defeated by this loose combine.

History doesn't always repeat itself. Yet the multiplier effect of the 1987 Haryana verdict should serve as a warning to those inclined to view last week's Bihar results as a purely local event. The decimation of Lalu Yadav was perhaps occasioned by the collapse of his caste alliance and the people's dread of a return to 'jungle raj'—all local factors. However, the ignominious showing of the Congress can't be attributed solely to the absence of a credible Bihari face. Read with the results of local elections and by-elections in different states in the past six months, it suggests that the post-May 2009 belief in the re-emergence of Congress dominance was misplaced. Apart from Kerala where the UDF is on the comeback trail and Punjab where the Akali-BJP alliance is making a hash of governance, the Congress seems beleaguered even in the few states it is governing. So far it has pretended that the mid-term setbacks are inconsequential and will be offset by Rahul Gandhi's charisma. After the scale of the Bihar debacle, this self-confidence needs to be revisited.

In Bihar, Congress suffered a progressive loss of momentum between the first and sixth phase of polling. That this loss of political stamina coincided with the growing hullabaloo over corruption is significant. Despite Sonia Gandhi's spirited claim that she never fails to take action against errant leaders in its own ranks, there is a perception that the Congress and some UPA constituents are out to make hay while the sun shines. True, the BJP has its own share of misdemeanours in Karnataka. But these have been dwarfed by the sheer scale of the alleged corruption in the Commonwealth Games and the sale of 2G spectrum. As a rule, corruption at the Centre overrides state-level misdeeds.

If the Congress hasn't suffered a greater loss of public confidence, it is due to a feeling that there is no government-in-waiting: the NDA remains a non-player in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and a bit player in Uttar Pradesh. In 1987, Devi Lal's victory triggered frenetic activity in the Opposition and culminated in the emergence of V.P. Singh as the symbol of an anti-Congress upsurge. Can Nitish Kumar's re-election have the same effect?

The answer depends on how the NDA as a whole imbibes the lessons of its victory. It is not enough for the BJP to gloat over the fact that its better strike rate has silenced those who felt it was a drag on Nitish, just as it was on Naveen Patnaik in Orissa between 1999 and 2009. The BJP needs to appreciate the seminal contribution of Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to making the alliance coherent. Equally, there has to be an acknowledgement that those pressing for an 'assertive' BJP, including going it alone, were guilty of an adventurism that would have been punished by the voters. In Orissa, the BJP couldn't control the recklessness of its state leaders and forced an exasperated Patnaik to walk out of the NDA. This mistake wasn't repeated in Bihar and the dividends are there for the party to enjoy.

Secondly, a section of the BJP needs to realise that just as caste can be relegated to the background by a robust development agenda—recall how Narendra Modi tackled the so-called Patel revolt in 2007—it isn't obligatory to fall back on aggressive Hinduness to secure a wide measure of Hindu support. The restrained response to the Ayodhya judgment last September can serve as a future template.

Finally, by overplaying its dynastic and 'high command' culture, the Congress has willy-nilly conceded the space for regional pride to the other side. Modi has used this aggressively in Gujarat and Nitish less flamboyantly, but no less effectively, in Bihar. With decision-making resting more and more on the states, the NDA needs to base itself on clear federal principles. Even if it is bound by a national party, it could profit by transforming itself into a coalition of state parties. Ironically, B.S. Yedyurappa's subdued defiance of 'national' pressure has actually showcased the federal structure of the BJP. So paradoxically did the Bihar unit's decision to utilise the services of just one Modi for this election.

To be viable, the NDA cannot be a clone of the Congress-led UPA. Its distinctive dynamics must serve as the basis for its expansion into unchartered and lost territories. There is little need to be preoccupied over leadership. The PM-in-waiting will invariably reflect the temperament of the alliance.

Sunday Pioneer, November 28, 2010

Friday, November 26, 2010

RADIA TAPES: Don’t shoot every caller

The Radia tapes have generated a huge interest in the workings of the Indian media. There have been indignant messages on Twitter and irate blogs by readers and media professionals alike suggesting that the Indian media stinks. I have been asked by many media friends to boycott NDTV because of what is being called Barkhagate. On Twitter, many have interpreted a prolonged silence to imply complicity in dishonourable practices.

Before some of these issues are addressed, it is important to spell out the functioning style of the political journalist.

Meaningful political journalism involves many things: a deep awareness of the political process, an open mind and, above all, a wide range of political 'contacts'. The last attribute is particularly important.

A paratrooper with good writing skills may be very useful describing a political jamboree or even assessing an election campaign where the opinions of ordinary people matter. Unfortunately, these skills are secondary to understanding the politics that goes on behind closed doors in ministries, core committees and cabals. To understand these you need insider information which come from a variety of sources, some obvious and others unlikely.

Sources need prolonged cultivation and a relationship of trust. No politician of consequence will tell all at a press conference or spill all the beans to a complete stranger—unless, of course, he/she has a definite motive. To acquire the 'real' story you need to build a relationship.

The relationship, however, is based on understandings. The 'source' may tell you everything that has transpired in a crucial, closed-door meeting. But if he/she tells you that you can't write a word about it, you are obliged to respect his/her wishes. The price of violating the understanding is future exclusion. To survive in political journalism you can't spit and run.

Every political journalist develops a cosy relationship with sources. This is the price you have to pay for knowing what is actually happening. Since I am not a daily reporter but write opinion pieces, I am privy to a little more information than those who are in search of exclusives. I can use the sense of what politicians reveal in confidence without having to flesh out the details.

The relationship, however, is symbiotic. Politicians often ask us for information about developments in which they are not players. I have one rule for such requests: if you can't enlighten them without compromising your other sources, don't mislead them. Also sometimes it helps to say: "I don't know." Many journalists find this very difficult.

Do sources end up as friends? The answer is, yes. I am not in the least embarrassed to say that I count many professional contacts of yesterday as today's friends. They are the ones with whom you enjoy a convivial dinner and converse uninhibitedly.

Does this jeopardise journalistic independence? It can but a genuine friendship should withstand critical observations. In my journalistic career, there has only been one occasion when a senior politician berated me for being critical of him in print. As a friend he expected loyalty and wasn't impressed when I told him that I had a journalistic responsibility too. I regret that he didn't appreciate my point.

Are journalists supposed to be unbiased? The myth of objective journalism needs to be demolished. Everyone has biases, preferences and prejudices. Some are ideological, others based on personality. For a tiny handful, the tilt is dictated by material favours—a euphemism for plain corruption.

Being judgmental works: the readers and viewers love it. Just look at Arnab Goswami's huge fan following.

Readers often expect the political writer to provide them arguments to reaffirm a pre-existing conviction or preference. I have never hidden the fact that I am unashamedly Right wing. Neither have I objected when TV anchors have introduced me as being "close to the BJP." I am close to it but I choose to disagree with the party when I feel it necessary.

Barkha Dutt too has her political leanings. I have often jokingly taunted her as the "voice of the Hurriyat".

Vir Sanghvi refers to the Congress as "we". He is not being disingenuous. Perhaps he should admit his preferences openly. It wouldn't be misconstrued.

This backdrop may help someone unfamiliar with the byways of political journalism to understand the Radia tapes a little better.

  • Journalists are habitually accustomed to boast about their contacts and their easy access to the homes of the high and mighty. This is plain vanity. Many of the Radia tapes are replete with boasts.
  • Journalists often play courier between politicians. This isn't necessary but sometimes it helps to gather additional info. Equally, it may be a labour of love. It may suggest political bias/preference. But it doesn't necessarily imply corruption.
  • Being in touch with lobbyists, PR companies and advocacy groups is part of the news gathering game. No one can be tarred for just being in touch with Radia who, after all, represented two big corporations. What, after all, is the difference between Radia and some NGOs. Aren't they all lobbyists?
  • Arranging pre-scripted interviews of anyone breaks all media code of ethics. I know journos who tempt their subjects with assurances of a "soft" interview. But a pre-scripted interview with a dress rehearsal takes the biscuit.
  • Hinting about the ability to 'fix' the judiciary suggests criminality. It is not journalism. It is as despicable as those business journalists who deliberately manipulate news to play the stock markets. Or those who use their police contacts to run a lucrative private practice.
  • There are rotten eggs in the media basket. They must be discarded, if necessary through public pressure because the owners often wilfully turn a blind eye to their criminality in return for collateral favours.


Let us target the rotten eggs—and there are lots of them in the media. It doesn't help to denounce every one of those whose phone conversations with Radia happened to have been taped by the IT authorities.

Appetite for a better life

Bihar's election results have profound implications for India

By Swapan Dasgupta

Throughout last Wednesday, as Bihar celebrated the return of the Nitish Kumar-led Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party Government with an awesome majority, politicians and pundits were repeatedly asked: is this a landmark election? In academic usage, a landmark election is one that indicates a sharp rupture with the past and sets the parameters of a new pattern of political behaviour. As such, the question was misplaced. By definition, a verdict on which election is 'landmark' and which is routine can only be determined with the wisdom of hindsight.

When it voted out Winston Churchill and the Conservatives so unexpectedly but decisively in 1945, the British electorate was unaware that it was doing more than changing the occupant of 10 Downing Street. Yet, in hindsight, 1945 marked the formal end of an old order and the creation of a new consensus centred on an ever-expanding welfare state, a consensus that endured till the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. In a similar vein, the Indian electorate probably felt that a new idiom of politics was being ushered by Rajiv Gandhi's staggering victory in 1984. In hindsight, however, 1984 proved to be a false dawn. By 1989 and 1991, the framework of modernity that the young Prime Minister believed he had heralded was overwhelmed by more indigenous impulses centred on social and religious identities.

It is entirely possible that a future generation may look back on contemporary assessments of the 2010 Bihar verdict as naïve over-statements. Those celebrating the apparent demise of caste in the political arena could well reappear in 2015 to concede that age-old social institutions have the ability to endure a one electoral typhoon. Who knows, Nitish Kumar may well end up disappointing those who have reposed extraordinary faith in his cleansing abilities.

For the moment, however, every Indian—barring the incorrigibly partisan—can take enormous pride at the dramatic transition of Bihar from medievalism to fledgling modernity. In earlier years, a Bihar election was the occasion to display the rotten underbelly of Indian democracy—an occasion when the people and the state cowered before rival warlords and mobsters. With six phases, the just-concluded elections may have been too long-drawn out, suggesting the Election Commission's wariness. But there was something revealing about an election campaign which was both bloodless and unscarred by intimidation and booth capturing. It certainly held out lessons in democracy for neighbouring West Bengal which suffers from an enhanced self-image of enlightenment.

More important, for a state where women's participation in elections lagged behind men's by as much as 15 per cent in the early-1990s, the statistics of this election told the story of an emerging Bihar: male turnout 50.7 per cent, female 54.8 per cent. This is a story that Lalu Yadav could not comprehend.

The Rashtriya Janata Dal leader's complete bewilderment at the outcome wasn't entirely disingenuous. Like many Indians, particularly those inclined towards the Left, Lalu has attached primary importance to social justice over economic development. For him, it was more important to put his energies behind the political empowerment of 'backward' communities than ensuring that Bihar was linked by a network of motorable roads. In statecraft that was reminiscent of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Lalu's approached empowerment through the 'swagger' test. In the final years of Lalu-Rabri raj, social justice came to imply the ability of a community to enjoy immunity from the police. It didn't matter that this swagger of the newly empowered meant a rise in extortion, kidnapping and the forcible occupation of property. To Lalu, swagger symbolised the establishment of new hierarchies, with the oppressor and oppressed changing roles.

Having emerged from the same Lohia-ite stable, Nitish Kumar's commitment to social justice was no less profound than Lalu's. He too sought change to ensure that an accident of birth is neither weighed against an individual nor held up as a badge of permanent privilege. But whereas Lalu imagined that governance was merely about manipulative social engineering, Nitish saw opportunities in the new climate of economic freedom. If Lalu equated the construction of a bridge with greater opportunities for policemen to reach a village and apprehend a deviant, Nitish saw improved connectivity as greater opportunities for commerce and employment.

Lalu had a natural sense of humour and loved playing the buffoon. But underneath his caricatured commitment to social justice, he was inherently suspicious of modernity. He equated it with social snobbery and a complex web of rules that discriminated against the subaltern castes and Muslims. He coupled this with a fear of an unknown world dominated by technology and high finance. He was the embodiment of a permanent India-Bharat schism, a divide that has also been romanticised by the Maoists and their fellow travellers.

India's pragmatist reformers have always nurtured doubts over the electoral viability of their modernist vision. In 1991, India hesitantly changed course from a state-controlled economy to a market-driven one. Yet, there was always a deep-seated reluctance to expose this shift to a frontal electoral test. The desire to introduce economic freedom was always masked in the cloak of either state-run welfarism or nebulous talk of development. With economic liberalisation invariably insulated from economic discourse and often undertaken by stealth, politicians felt the need to introduce an emotional element to their political conversation with the electorate. Invariably, these took the shape of explorations of identity.

It was also a feature of conventional thinking that the electorate of poor states have very nominal expectations of development. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, politically effective governance came to mean effective management of castes. The election defeats suffered by Shanta Kumar in Himachal Pradesh, Sunderlal Patwa in Madhya Pradesh and Kalyan Singh (in his first stint as Chief Minister) in Uttar Pradesh were held up as warnings against putting efficiency over political calculation. Even the formidable Narendra Modi was warned by a section of his party to desist from taking legal action against farmers caught pilfering electricity because of its potentially damaging electoral consequences.

In the past five years, Nitish Kumar hasn't done anything revolutionary. He focussed single-mindedly on three issues: the liberation of Bihar from a state of widespread lawlessness, the construction of roads and bridges, and incentives to improve the school enrolment of girls by offering them free school uniforms and bicycles. All three measures were measured by instant and visible returns. The enhanced personal security for ordinary citizens and better communications led to the immediate release of suppressed demand resulting in increased trade and commerce and, most important, an appetite for a better life. And the sight of rows and rows of girls in uniform cycling to and from school invoked quiet pride in a society where the demand for education is insatiable.

The support for the NDA in this election cut across castes and communities. According to the post-poll survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, the NDA won majority support among all the upper castes, all the backward castes apart from the Yadavs, and all the Scheduled Castes apart from the Pasis and Dusadhs. The Muslim vote was split in three, with the Congress also making a mark. What bound Bihar together was a common yearning for a better life, the underlying logic of economic reforms. Nitish demonstrated that when it comes to aspirations, there is no difference between India and Bharat. Bihar 2010 marks the triumph of earthy modernism over subaltern conservatism. It's a victory that has profound implications for the future of India.

The Telegraph, November 26, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

PM failed to curb coalition adharma

By Swapan Dasgupta

During World War II, many people, otherwise good, decent family men, sometimes highly educated and with cultural accomplishments, unleashed unspeakable horrors on fellow humans in the name of Fuhrer, Emperor and Fatherland.

After the War, the victorious Allies set up War Crimes Tribunals to bring the leaders of a defeated Germany and Japan to justice. A recurrent feature of the trials, which covered people ranging from Field Marshals and apparatchiks to commandants of concentration camps and industrialists who benefited from the use of forced labour, was the refrain of many of the accused: "we merely followed orders".

The argument that being a loyal, disciplined soldier of the state or party exonerates individuals from criminal culpability was rejected by the Tribunals on the strength of the Nuremberg Principle: "The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him."

Over the past fortnight, the 2G Telecom scandal has agitated public opinion, disrupted Parliament and led to the resignation of DMK's A.Raja from the Cabinet. A report by the Comptroller and Auditor General has suggested that a flawed policy was responsible for the national exchequer being short-changed by a whopping Rs 1.7 lakh crore. In a rare move, the Supreme Court has asked the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to explain why he sat over a citizen's request for permission to prosecute Raja. Finally, a media revelation has suggested that PM, far from being a blind Dhritarashtra, actually sanctioned the derailment of the common good. Unless the Government is able to placate a belligerent Opposition with either tokenism or some credible answers to the grave charges, India may witness a full blown political crisis that won't leave the PM unaffected.

In rebutting his detractors, Raja appears to have fallen back on the Nuremberg Defence. He has claimed that he was acting within policy guidelines and that the PM was in the know. Ironically, Raja's claim has been bolstered by the disclosure of a letter of February 28, 2006 by Dayanidhi Maran—the DMK representative who was his predecessor as Telecom Minister—that suggests two things. First, that Raja's actions stemmed from a path that had been determined by the DMK leadership. Raja, it would seem, merely "followed orders". Secondly, that the 'DMK Telecom policy' was known to the PM who did the groundwork by insulating 2G pricing from the Group of Ministers.

The DMK, it would be fair to say, is highly placed in the index of venality. Shaped by the pulls and pressures of the large Karunanidhi clan, its stand on national issues have often been guided by the what's-in-it-for-us question. Raja, wasn't confronted with "moral choices". He, presumably, "followed orders" and turned the spirit of John F. Kennedy's on its head: 'Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what the country can do for you.'

But what about the PM, entrusted by the Constitution to uphold the national interest? There were times when Singh had to let expediency prevail—such as in the distribution of ministerial portfolios and in outsourcing the management of MPs to Amar Singh during the Trust Vote of 2008. But how could he knowingly look the other way while a Cabinet Minister choked a public revenue stream? Why did he allow the CBI to underperform in its inquiries and be censured by the Supreme Court? Did his 'coalition dharma' include the right to insulate a political party from collective Cabinet responsibility? Singh wasn't just guilty of omission; he is on the verge of being accused of complicity.

It is well worth applying the Nuremberg Principles to the PM, even though the issue is fiscal impropriety and not murder. Was the PM "following orders"? This is a strange question to ask. People take orders from the PM and not the other way round, unless there is an extra-Constitutional force at work. Was there? If so, the country is entitled to know.

Moreover, was a "moral choice" available to the PM? Was he in a position to say No to Raja and define the limits of the DMK's arbitrariness? The answers are self-evident.

The country views Singh as a man of integrity and erudition. Left to himself, he would have handled 2G very differently. Yet, despite being the only man who had the power and opportunity to right the wrongs, he abdicated responsibility. His moral failing lay in allowing coalition dharma to become coalition adharma. Judged by the Nuremberg Principles, Singh is guiltier than Raja.

Sunday Times of India, November 21, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010

Take ‘N’ out of TINA

By Swapan Dasgupta

November has been a very cruel month for the Congress-led UPA Government. It was bad enough that Ashok Chavan had to resign as Chief Minister of Maharashtra for his complicity in the Adarsh Housing Society scandal and an embarrassed party had to remove the by-now infamous Suresh Kalmadi from the only political post he held. Worse, the Government had to succumb to relentless Opposition pressure and extract a resignation from the controversial Telecommunications Minister A.Raja. Even this did not contain the embarrassment of the Comptroller and Auditor General's strictures against the Prime Minister for being a mute spectator to Raja's misdeeds.

Congress loyalists had hoped that the swift, sharp action against Chavan and the installation of Prithviraj Chauhan as the new Chief Minister of India's most prosperous state would redeem the party's image. The Opposition charge that Sonia Gandhi had forgotten to address the burning issue of corruption in her AICC speech had, after all, hurt. But the foot-dragging that accompanied the CAG report on the 2G disbursements and the bargaining over the future of Raja proved very damaging. The Supreme Court's harsh comments on the wilful obfuscation by the CBI and the Solicitor General's curious attempts to save the beleaguered Raja bolstered the impression that the Congress' priority was to bury scandals, not challenge corruption. The 'coalition dharma' Congress fell back on to explain why Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi had to kow-tow to an insatiable DMK made sense only to a cynical political class. The popular perception was one of disgust.

The resignation of Raja was one of the biggest successes of the Opposition since last year's general election. Raja symbolised both brazenness and political venality. Prime Minister Singh, his handlers say, had held out for two days against having Raja inducted into the Cabinet in May 2009 but had to finally wilt under sustained DMK pressure. He let expediency prevail over good sense.

A reason why the Congress procrastinated may have a lot to do with the self-serving There-is-no-alternative theory, the same TINA that misled Rajiv Gandhi into believing that the Bofors scandal was a drawing room preoccupation. This time, the Congress hasn't quite made the same mistake by persisting with Chavan and Raja and giving the Opposition unending political ammunition. At the same time, the UPA has insufficiently appreciated the fact that barely 16 months after it was convincingly defeated in the general election, the Opposition is back in business—not wholly but (to use a Nehruvian flourish) substantially and in good measure.

It may take the next weeks results of the Bihar Assembly election for this message to sink in. If the Congress, as is now the buzz, performs indifferently and Nitish Kumar romps home convincingly, it will resume the debate on the limits of Rahul Gandhi's 'magic'. Many Congress leaders who have convinced themselves of the unviability of persisting with the Prime Minister for very much longer may have to reconsider the theory that anti-incumbency will not stick to the party's heir presumptive.

Actually, the Congress has reasons to worry. The expected re-election of the Janata Dal (U)-BJP combine in Bihar will not be the only indicator. Assembly by-elections in places as afar as Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Gujarat have demonstrated that the political confusion in the BJP hasn't affected its support on the ground. Since there is always a direct correlation between Congress recovery and BJP decline, the by-election results should put question marks before the facile suggestion that the Congress is on course to recovering its dominant party status.

The extent to which the BJP can take advantage of the Congress' unwarranted smugness depends on what lessons it has drawn from both the corruption scandals and the Bihar election. The signals in this regard are very mixed. The BJP conducted itself with exemplary dignity after the pro-temple verdict of the Allahabad High Court in the Ayodhya case. In Parliament, the BJP has consciously refrained from rising to the UPA's provocation on, say, the arrest of former Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah and the alleged association of a senior RSS functionary in terror attacks on Muslims. It has swallowed its famed distinctiveness on a number of occasions and prevented the UPA from dividing the Opposition. Indeed, on Jammu and Kashmir, the Maoist threat and the Nuclear Liabilities Bill, it played the textbook role of a constructive opposition.

Unfortunately for it, some of the gains have been squandered by two visible shortcomings. First, the BJP's anti-corruption credentials have been brought into question by the conduct of some of its ministers in Karnataka. The party's inability to act decisively against those who have helped establish a moral equivalence with the Congress counts among its biggest failings. The Congress is bound to exploit this sooner or later.

Secondly, the BJP is constantly threatened by political derailment by an RSS which is neither fully in the political game nor completely outside it. The BJP, for example, has suffered acute embarrassment from the RSS decision to make an issue of its functionary Indresh Kumar's links with dubious elements championing retributive terror. It was left red faced by former RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan's tasteless comments against Sonia Gandhi.

For the BJP, the future lies in re-forging the NDA and expanding its reach into eastern and southern India. This can only happen if it embraces a moderate, non-sectarian approach, in line with the policies of its own state governments that are doing a good job. India is yearning for a viable opposition and a wholesome government-in-waiting. The BJP can live up these expectations if it bases its politics on integrity and common sense, and consciously disavows divisive, fringe agendas. But to do so, it has to address a serious image problem: many of its top functionaries convey the impression of being outlanders, out of their depths in national politics.

A meaningful alternative to the Congress has to combine integrity with both modernity and competence. These attributes are not uniformly evident in the BJP leadership as yet.

Asian Age/ Deccan Herald, November 19, 2010


Friday, November 12, 2010

Mixed Results

Wariness of China link the policies of Bush and Obama

By Swapan Dasgupta

Having lost control of the House of Representatives and with his Senate majority dramatically truncated, President Barack Obama has every reason to view his India visit as a small consolation prize. The visit, an outcome of a bipartisan recognition of India's growing importance, may not initially have been viewed by the White House as an overriding priority. However, once the trip was finalised, it did his bit to ensure it was a spectacular success.

The India visit was never a foreign policy 'challenge' in the same way as an engagement with either China or a West Asian country would be. Indians may flatter themselves into believing that their country occupies a major mind space of American policy makers but the reality is that India is an also-ran. It is important but not that important.

Putting India in the B-group of foreign policy priorities didn't amount to undermining its exalted self-image. In a world where leaders of the big and regional powers love being crisis junkies, India presented no significant opportunities—and hasn't done so since the decision was taken in 1999 to digest a nuclear South Asia. Pakistan occupied a disproportionate attention in the US because of its proximity to Afghanistan and its role in nurturing jihadi terror. It was, in short, a constant headache. India, by contrast, rarely grabbed the headlines or drained US coffers. It was recognised for its potential.

President Bill Clinton charmed his way into the hearts of Indians by initiating a meaningful process of post-Pokhran engagement that included the none-too-subtle pressures on the National Democratic Alliance Government to sign the CTBT. President George W. Bush was never a natural in the complex business of winning hearts and minds but he surprised everyone by batting vigorously for a country that combined its love for the idea of America with distaste for its overbearing political style. In the words of a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, "Bush did more for India than he did for any NATO ally, including the United Kingdom… (His Administration) offered more and asked less of India than it did of any country, save perhaps Israel."

It is a tribute to the Bush Administration that it raised bilateral relations with India to the levels of UK and Israel without that shift being caught on radar. More important, this surreptitious 'special relationship' wasn't sufficiently appreciated within India. It is worth recalling how close the Indo-US nuclear deal came to being scuttled between 2007 and 2008 by the democratic process in India. Equally, it is unlikely that the Indo-US understanding would have passed muster at the Nuclear Suppliers Group had it not been for the personal telephone calls to world leaders by President Bush.

For President Obama, who didn't have any prior relationship with India, Bush was always a difficult act to follow. Never mind outpacing his predecessor in India, Obama had to first allay a long list of misgivings. These included his campaign remarks on Kashmir, his apparent disinterest in the war on terror in Afghanistan, his infamous G-2 declaration with China over the future of South Asia, his antipathy to outsourcing and his perceived emotional detachment from India's soft power appeal. Obama's visit to India was preceded by just too many question marks against his name.

There was another problem that went beyond Obama. Like China, India is also accustomed to seeing itself as another Middle Kingdom. But there is one crucial difference: whereas China peppers its nationalism with a high degree of arrogance, India's nationalism is accompanied by incredibly low self-esteem. Indians expect foreigners to genuflect at the altar of its ancient and living civilisation and to respect national sovereignty by shunning gratuitous advice. At the same time, the Indian version of an 'equal relationship' with a big power has invariably been accompanied by the question: what can you do for us? For historical reasons, not least the legacy of inefficient socialism, Indians have been ill at ease with the notion of reciprocity. The visit of a foreign leader is accompanied by speculation of what goodies for the host nation he is carrying; the same theme does not pursue the visit of an Indian leader overseas.

Set against this backdrop, the Obama visit yielded mixed, but on the whole positive, results. Like any consummate politician, he played to the galleries by telling Indian MPs what a great country India is—a time-tested formula calculated to win the hearts of a country anxious for gushing testimonials. Unable to match his predecessor in big ticket initiatives, he honed in on the one issue that has become a national consensus: support for India's claim to permanent membership of a refashioned UN Security Council. He coupled this with three significant steps on the neighbourhood. There was, first, a forthright assertion of the US's unwillingness to allow Pakistan to function as a safe haven for jihadi terrorists, notably the Lashkar-e-Tayiba. Secondly, there was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's guarded statement of an agreement on unspecified joint Indo-US ventures in Afghanistan and President Obama's assurance that the US would not abandon Afghanistan to extremist forces. Reading between the lines, this may amount to US acceptance of India as a stakeholder in the future of Afghanistan, something that is calculated to make Pakistan see red. Finally, the promise in the joint statement to "deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia" was diplomat-speak for a mutual willingness to evolve a common understanding of the challenge posed by China.

More than any US expectation of India toeing Uncle Sam's line on Iran and Myanmar, it is the unstated wariness of a resurgent China that constitutes the link between the India policy of Bush and Obama. It is the uncertainty over how much China's rise and rise will change the rules of global engagement that has resulted in a convergence between Washington and Delhi, a convergence that has also been brought about by high expectations in the West of what India can bring to the economics table.

There was an understandable prickliness in some of the domestic reactions to Obama's suggestion that he was in India to either create or save some 50,000 or so jobs in the US. In an India where some of the old taboos against imports persist in the political class, this candid pronouncement seemed to confirm sloganeering prejudices of US 'neo-imperialism'. That Obama was putting down reciprocal terms for India's easy access to US markets and the lifting of restrictions on high-technology may have seemed strange for those who can't get over the fact that India has outgrown the Third World and bitter memories of the ship-to-mouth PL-480 syndrome.

Ironically, it was the President's lack of familiarity with the specificities of India (he was distinctly unfamiliar pronouncing Panchatantra and Swami Vivekananda), that allowed him to approach the subject so clinically. As far as he was concerned, India was a rising power and didn't warrant the condescension that comes with a special show of generosity. India, to him, was no longer emerging; it had emerged.

For the Indian middle classes, the Obama visit was a potentially liberating experience. It suggested that the time for playing exclusively by national rules was over. To be seated at the high table, India has to now play by the rules of the high and mighty. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.

The Telegraph, November 12, 2010

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Rahul’s ‘two Indias’ story too often retold

By Swapan Dasgupta

Most of us have at some time or other heard variations of the story about the student who prepared for the examination by cramming one essay, perhaps one on the cow, the Qutb Minar or the Taj Mahal. Whatever the demands of the question paper, he would invariably veer his answer to regurgitating the one essay he had committed to memory—with comic consequences.

It is possibly unfair to suggest that Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the country's largest political firm, has some traits in common with the 'commit to memory, vomit to paper' school of learning. The MP for Amethi is 40 years old—only nominally younger than David Cameron – with an M.Phil in Development Studies from Cambridge. Last heard, he even took time off from campaigning in Bihar to sit on the selection panel of the Rhodes scholarships to Oxford. His private office boasts many bright young things with American degrees who discreetly provide him weighty intellectual inputs on a range of subjects.

Yet, ever since he wowed the editorial classes with his Kalavati speech in Parliament two years ago, there is a disconcerting impression that Rahul baba (as he is endearingly called in political circles) is delivering the same speech repeatedly—whatever the provocation and regardless of the occasion.

The speech follows a set template: there are two Indias, one which is shining (and which is partial to the BJP) and one which is still in poverty, the one he, his mother and the family firm identifies with. He made this speech in to adivasis in Niyamgiri, at various election rallies in dusty small towns and, last week, at the hurriedly convened AICC session at a refurbished Commonwealth Games venue in Delhi. To be fair, he was not billed to address the AICC but such was the spontaneous clamour from the delegates that he had to bow to the mob. Predictably, he fell back on his default speech about the two Indias.

Those with an awareness of the philosophy of paternalism will know that the two-India spiel didn't originate in the Bharat-India schism that tub-thumping populists love to invoke. The theme resonates in the poetry of Rudyard Kipling: the voluble and comic Bengali 'baboo' versus the sturdy, noble savage on the Frontier. Lord Curzon, another Englishman who, like Kipling, loved India and perceived imperial rule as a divine mission, contrasted the seditious agitators to the vast, colourful multitudes, the "real India."

Conventional wisdom holds that the Sonia-Rahul duo are inspired less by Rajiv Gandhi—the man who first spoke about computers ushering India into the 21st century—and more by Indira Gandhi whose pro-poor rhetoric yielded handsome dividends for the Congress.

The original Mrs G was clear about her priorities: to use the state as an instrument of wealth redistribution. She identified maharajas and business people as enemies and made life as difficult for them as possible. Today's Mrs G isn't so vindictive. To preserve dynastic democracy, she has chosen to create a social constituency that is dependent on state-sponsored welfare handouts. Unlike her mother-in-law, Sonia does not berate those who create wealth for India. She has merely ensured that she can play Lady Bountiful with the Government's ever-growing revenues. The National Advisory Council is a parallel Cabinet that advises her how to spend money that has been earned by taxing wealth-creating citizens.

The Gandhis have successfully created two Indias as well. One is the India that through hard work, ingenuity and desire for self-improvement have made it a global success story. This is an India that spans castes, communities and classes. From the increasingly globalised Indian corporates to the small farmer, everyone has chipped in. This is an India that wants an efficient government that lets them get on with their own lives in a stable and secure environment.

On the other hand, there is a parasitic India that feeds on productive India. It is an India that doesn't know how to earn but is adept at the art of spending money contributed by someone else. This is an India that fires rhetorical volleys on behalf of the poor but is silent on the drain of wealth through corruption and profligacy. This is an India that doesn't care about the fiscal deficit, high inflation and high interest rates. They rarely pay their own bills; they don't have EMIs hanging over their heads; and their transport is provided for. This is an India built on entitlements.

There are two Indias: one is banking on empowerment, the other on the perpetuation of deference. By his own admission, Rahul is no bachcha: he knows exactly which India suits him.

Sunday Times of India, November 7, 2010

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