Sunday, June 26, 2011

PM must stand by India and not NAC

By Swapan Dasgupta

If Delhi's political grapevine is any indication, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did something quite unusual last Sunday: he apparently threw a minor tantrum. The reason was understandable and anyone in his position would have done the same. The PM apparently expressed his profound displeasure at Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh's sound bite-a-day politics that culminated in the assertion that it "it is time that Rahul (Gandhi) becomes the Prime Minister." According to those who claim to know his mind, Singh was agitated that this statement, read with Diggy Raja's earlier sniper attacks on the Government and its senior ministers, implied that PM didn't enjoy the full backing of his party and was running a lame duck administration. In short, he was awaiting the day the Congress' other General Secretary deigned to get real.

True, Digvijay was subsequently made to clarify that what he really meant was that Rahul was first in the queue to succeed the good Doctor but that (perhaps tragically), there was no vacancy. What Diggy's clarification, Sonia Gandhi's subsequent meeting with the PM to discuss the impending ministerial reshuffle, the Congress Working Committee meeting's disapproval of the growing incoherence in the party and the Cabinet's approval of price hikes for diesel, kerosene and cooking gas together meant was that the PM had clawed back some lost political ground.

Manmohan Singh doesn't still convey the impression of a man who is totally in charge. But he seems a little more in charge than he was a week ago. Although being discharged from ICU doesn't imply that Singh is now King, it does indicate that at 41, Rahul has other, more interesting, things on his mind.

If the PM is to avoid a repetition of this summer's turbulence in the next quarter, he has to take advantage of the small window of opportunity available to him. It is too much to expect that the controversies over how best to fight corruption will be resolved in a satisfactory way with yet another Anna Hazare fast. The issue has degenerated into an ego battle between Team Anna and Team Congress and the stalemate is likely to persist until both sides come to the realisation that neither of them can presume to speak for the nation.

However, delinked from the Lokpal battle are other growing concerns that have left the political class unmoved. The economic indicators tell two stories: first, the tale of an India that is underperforming and, second, the tragedy of attaching importance to decision-makers who know the delights of profligate spending but haven't acquired the capacity to generate income. For nearly a decade, India had to convince both itself and the rest of the world that it had the political will, the human capital and the vision to aspire for a better quality of life than what Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi bequeathed to the country. Once the country had demonstrated it could move well beyond the self-deprecating 'Hindu rate of growth', the saboteurs have returned with a vengeance.

To be fair, the PM's instincts on the way forward for an economically vibrant India are broadly correct. Unfortunately, Manmohan Singh is merely the PM, a post whose importance has been drastically devalued in the past seven years. Real decision-making vests with the UPA chairperson and her nominated kitchen Cabinet, the National Advisory Committee. The NAC has played a seminal role in blunting India's entrepreneur-led growth and shifting the focus to welfare spending. There is nothing strikingly original about this shift: it is the hoary European-style socialism, packaged in an Indian garb and couched in the misleading slogan 'inclusive growth'.

The grim reality that should be evident to the PM is that there is a high national cost to be paid to an economic regime centred on entitlements, give-aways and sops: they divert resources from asset-creating investments and sustainable growth. If the PM and the wise among his Cabinet colleagues actually approve the Rs 80,000 crore show of the Lady Bountiful act involved in the proposed Food Security legislation, India could well be entering a fiscal crisis that can only be countered by punitive taxation and rising indebtedness. Along with the MNREGA that has directly contributed to food inflation, a Food Security Act will ensure that there is little money left in the kitty for investments in infrastructure, health and education. India will be compromising its tomorrow for Sonia Gandhi's political today.

The PM doesn't have the political wherewithal to stop the Sonia-NAC assault on India. But he has been a good economic bureaucrat who knows all the babu tricks of survival and subterfuge. He can use the limited respite he has earned—thanks to Rahul's preoccupation with his personal wellness—to pursue an agenda set by those who see beauty in poverty. Alternatively, he can quietly subvert a disastrous agenda through old fashioned bureaucratic subterfuge and await India's impending impatience with flawed dynastic rule.

The PM is said to be concerned about his legacy. He now has a choice of bequeathing to his successor an India that remained untrue to its potential. Or, he could still be remembered as the man who, when confronted with a choice between subverting India and defending it, chose wisely. The PM should just a deep breath, grab the opportunity and do the right thing. He, not the lady, has the upper hand this quarter.

Sunday Pioneer, June 26, 2011

Netaji: The Legend vs The Man

Book Review

His Majesty's Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose And India's Struggle Against Empire
by Sugata Bose (Allen Lane/Penguin, 388 pages, Rs 699)

Of all the icons of the national movement, the life of Subhas Chandra Bose is by far the most romantic, controversial and tragic. A man who gave up the Indian Civil Service to join the freedom struggle, emerged as an "alternative beacon of hope" to the Gandhian stream in the Congress, successfully defied the Mahatma but was yet outmanoeuvred, and ended up at the head of a rebel army promoted by the losing side in World War, the real Bose has often been subsumed by the Netaji legend.

His daring escape from Calcutta in 1940, his remarkable escape to Germany via Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, his re-emergence in South-east Asia at the head of the Indian National Army, his radio broadcasts to India and his mysterious death in Taipei have contributed to an enduring legend. To a Bengal which never produced a national leader after him, Netaji has conferred with the same romantic halo that once surrounded Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland—even the old Jacobite song 'Will ye no come back again?' may sound eerily familiar to wistful Bengalis.

A well-researched and thoughtful biography of this remarkable man has long been overdue. As a history professor in Harvard, editor of the Selected Works and a grand-nephew of the great man, Sugata Bose was well suited to undertake the project. The result has been a book that should be obligatory reading.

This biography isn't another hagiography: Bose is too much of a historian to debase his own reputation. At the same time, the author's deep emotional link with his subject has prevented total detachment. The result is a curious mix. To those unfamiliar with the life and times of someone the post-Independence Congress dispensation relegated to the margins, the biography is a riveting read, not least because Bose has wisely stuck to lucid narrative history. However, those familiar with the subject may be a little disappointed by the author's implicit belief that Netaji's whole life was consistent with his enlightened, secular nationalism.

There is an occupational hazard in writing a biography. The biographer has to balance how much to include with what to exclude. This is a subjective process but the task becomes troublesome if loose ends and awkward details of a life are omitted simply because they don't fit a larger conclusion.

Sugata Bose has been refreshingly candid and forthright about the complex, personal life of Netaji. His account, gleamed through letters, of Subhas' relationship with Austrian Emilie Schenkl, who he subsequently married in secret is one of the most enthralling aspects of the biography. Indian biographers often tend to ignore the personal lives of iconic political figures—witness how S.Gopal, for example, skirted Jawaharlal Nehru's relationship with Edwina Mountbatten. Bose has desisted from applying the brakes in his descriptions of the Subhas-Emilie relationship.

At the same time, he has refrained from asking some very legitimate questions. Why did Subhas keep his marriage a secret? Was it due to a fear that marriage to a foreigner would somehow dilute his reputation as an ascetic nationalist committed to India and nothing else? Was his curious decision to seek asylum in Germany in 1940 prompted by an overwhelming desire to be with Emilie in a Greater Germany that now included Austria? This is not a wild suggestion. Subhas' imprudent decision to risk seeking asylum in the Soviet Union after Japan's surrender in August 1945 was possibly dictated by the hope that he could be near Emilie (then living in the Soviet zone of Vienna) again. None of these questions belittle Subhas: they make him very human.

Likewise, while Bose has spelt out in detail the role of Subhas as a radical counter-point to Gandhi in the national context, he has been perfunctory in his treatment of the cross-currents of Bengal politics. Subhas' encounters with the turbulent public life of Bengal wasn't limited to merely drawing inspiration from Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Rabindranath Tagore. Subhas combined his pan-Indian radicalism with deep involvement in the fractious Congress politics of the province. As the poster boy of the Big Five—a group that included his elder brother Sarat Chandra Bose, Dr B.C. Roy, Tulsi Charan Goswami and Nalini Ranjan Sarkar (who is described as a "political fixer" by the author—Subhas was constantly at loggerheads with the J.M. Sengupta faction. The fights were bitter and the language of battle visceral. A taste of this battle, with possible translations from the satirical weekly Shanibarer Chithi, would have added to the richness of the biography.

Finally, the complexities of Subhas' relationship with the Axis powers and their perverse ideologies have been addressed, but not without a measure of understandable squeamishness. The question of whether or not Subhas was inclined towards fascism has agitated the minds of many, including those who were sympathetically disposed towards him.

The author admits that Subhas' suggestion that a "synthesis between communism and fascism" was possible and would happen in India was an unduly "mechanistic application of Hegelian dialectics". Yet, he attaches little extra significance to Subhas' partiality for uniforms—including the slightly ridiculous spectacle of him in jackboots at a Congress session in Calcutta—and militarism. Nor does he locate Subhas within the larger context of liberation movements in Burma, Indonesia and even Egypt that were willing to take the help of Japan and Germany to attain their country's freedom. Bose highlights Subhas' constant pressure on both Germany and Japan to recognise the autonomy of India's freedom struggle. At the same time he saw nothing odd in his endorsement of the Greater East Asia Conference in Tokyo, 1943, as a step towards true "internationalism". Nor does he highlight the disingenuity of Subhas broadcasting from Japanese-occupied Nanjing in China, being hosted by the puppet government and yet showering praise on the legacy of Sun Yat Sen. Indeed, the biography would have been considerably enriched by documents from the German and Japanese archives indicating how the Axis powers viewed their curious guest.

None of these posers can, however, distract from the unflinching courage and patriotism of the man. Netaji died in 1945 at the age of 48. He had been in public life just 24 years and most of that time was spent either in prison or in exile. Subhas Bose was in active politics inside India as a free man for not more than seven years. Few could have achieved so much in so short a time. No wonder the legend has proved to be bigger than the man.


Deccan Chronicle, June 26, 2011

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Talking Out of Turn: The inner-party turbulence in Congress may leave it in disarray

By Swapan Dasgupta

Frequent visitors to the All India Congress Committee offices in Delhi's Akbar Road are all agreed that there is only person in the premises worth meeting: the party's outspoken General Secretary Digvijay Singh. Over the past two years, the personable, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh has carved out a special place for himself in the Congress. First, he has acquired a reputation of having the ear of fellow General Secretary and the pre-ordained heir apparent Rahul Gandhi. Whatever Digvijay says is said to have the tacit blessings and endorsement of the 41-year-old Gandhi. Secondly, Digvijay has acquired the image of being the only real Muslim leader of the Congress, an honour that Sardar Vallabbhai Patel once conferred, and not without a touch of sarcasm, on Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ever since 'civil society' injected itself into the political landscape with the fast of Anna Hazare and the shenanigans surrounding Baba Ramdev, Digvijay has never lost an opportunity to demarcate the Congress from the Manmohan Singh-led UPA Government. When the joint committee of Cabinet ministers and Team Anna was established to draft a Lokpal Bill, Digvijay questioned the credentials of the 'civil society' brigade. When four ministers and senior bureaucrats rushed to the airport to confer with Baba Ramdev and persuade him that the Government was ready to meet all his demands, Digvijay struck a discordant note by denouncing the yoga guru as a 'maha thug' who had been put up to political mischief by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bharatiya Janata Party. When Congress workers celebrated Rahul's 41st birthday (the birthday boy was, predictably, not anywhere in sight), Digvijay solemnly announced that given his "sound political instincts…it is time that Rahul becomes the Prime Minister."

The first time, the silver-tongued James Bond once said, is an accident; the second time is a coincidence; but the third time is a conspiracy. The unending frequency of Digvijay's statements puncturing the UPA Government and the Prime Minister are no longer being treated casually. A functionary in the Prime Minister's Office bravely suggested to me last week that it was imprudent to attach too much significance to TV sound bites. Unfortunately for Race Course Road, the perception of Digvijay as the proverbial loose cannon isn't widely shared in the rest of the political class.

The Congress has its own way of capping loose cannons and, when expedient, opening them up for rounds of undirected fire. Those with memories may recall the role of Congress ministers such as Kalpnath Rath and K.K. Tewary in the last months of the Rajiv Gandhi Government. They may also recall the intelligent use of the Young Turks—Chandra Shekhar, Shashi Bhushan, Mohan Dharia, et al—by Indira Gandhi in her war with the so-called Syndicate in 1969.

No two situations are similar but it stands to reason that if Digvijay had indeed been talking out of turn, the proprietors of the Congress would have told him quite firmly that it is the function of underlings to be seen and not heard. Since no such message appears to have been passed on, it is safe to conclude that there is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink stamp of approval to what Digvijay says, but with a built-in deniability clause in case something goes horribly wrong—as it did over his over-enthusiastic birthday message to Rahul.

That Digvijay is much more than a mere stalking horse for the Congress' first family is becoming increasingly clear with each passing day. Initially it may have made some sense to maintain a discreet distance between the party and the Government's dealings with sundry Gandhians and yogic 'civil society' groups. The Congress, after all, had its own most-favoured 'civil society' representatives (as Digvijay made no attempt to conceal) in the National Advisory Committee. Yet, the systematic manner in which Digvijay mounted personal attacks on Team Anna and then ridiculed Ramdev mercilessly made the breakdown of civil relations between the activists and government seem unavoidable.

It is significant that Digvijay didn't stop at targeting the non-elected custodians of public morality. His frontal attack on Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee for putting his entire political reputation at stake was more than an act of insolence. It was carefully designed to signal that Digvijay's sharp indictment of the Government's pusillanimity was backed by some considerable authority.

If Digvijay's larger purpose was merely to nudge the Congress in the direction of shrill, anti-BJPism, he has succeeded. As the focus shifts in mid-July from a Lokpal Bill to deliberations in Parliament, the Government may find itself facing an Opposition that is in no mood to oblige the Government even remotely. The refusal of Bihar's Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Modi to accept responsibility for heading the working group on the much-delayed Goods and Services Tax is an indication of the breakdown of relations between the Government and the Opposition. Unless some working relationship is re-established, the Government may find itself in a situation akin to that which prevailed in the final year of Rajiv Gandhi's Government. In 1989, however, the Congress had a steamroller parliamentary majority in both Houses of Parliament. This is no longer the case.

The net effect of the inner-party turbulence in the Congress has been the growing loss of the Prime Minister's authority. An understated man with a low public profile, Manmohan Singh conveys the impression of being beleaguered—an impression fuelled by the Capital's bush telegraph. Six months ago, political discussions in the Congress centred invariably on the next ministerial reshuffle—that great panacea for all ills. Today, speculation over who's in and who's out has been replaced by the question: will the UPA see a mid-term leadership change?

This may be a wildly speculative non-question, as the Congress establishment did its best to suggest throughout this week, but that the issue gained currency is itself ominous. When, on top of Digvijay's advocacy of a Rahul takeover, a politically ambitious Minister of Environment Jairam Ramesh resumes his aggressive flexing of 'green' muscle against industry, can political watchers be blamed for concluding that the Prime Minister is both helpless and powerless.

The impression of a lame duck regime prone to either desperation or total paralysis has had a debilitating effect on governance. Always inclined to play it safe, the bureaucracy has more or less abandoned decision-making; the judiciary is in a vengeful mood; and bodies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General have opted to go well beyond the scrutiny of public expenditure and undertaken policy reviews. The thin walls of separation of powers appear to have been breached and there is a Constitutional free for all.

To cap it all, the political crisis has coincided with growing economic problems for India. The aam aadmi has been affected by nine per cent inflation; industry has been dismayed by volatile interest rates and falling consumer demand; and investor confidence has been shaken by a rising fiscal deficit, the shelving of reforms and the gloom surrounding big ticket projects such as POSCO.

In a perfect world, the Congress too should have been alarmed since the fine distinction Digvijay has made between the party and the government is notional. However, the BJP's inability to make political capital out of the Congress' woes appears to have injected an unreal level of complacency.

In any country where democracy isn't as firmly embedded the situation would have been conducive to a military coup; in a rarefied Delhi, it is becoming the encouragement for a Thakur-directed palace coup. The adventurism won't succeed but it may well leave the Congress in disarray.

The Telegraph, June 24, 2011


Monday, June 20, 2011

Sobriety is the need of the hour in politics

By Swapan Dasgupta

On June 6, a young man from Rajasthan, said to be a follower of Baba Ramdev, grabbed the headlines by brandishing a shoe at Congress General Secretary Janardhan Dwivedi during a media briefing. Predictably, he was apprehended by the party's resident bouncers. Then the fun and games began. A clutch of party workers began landing blows on the hapless Sunil Kumar. They were joined by many "beat" journalists who had the safety of the Congress uppermost in their mind. To cap it all, even a senior leader like Digvijay Singh joined the mob and was filmed stamping on the felled non-assailant.

By the time the police finally intervened and took Kumar away—whatever happened to him?—everyone in the AICC office was in high spirits. An upbeat Dwivedi proclaimed that the "attack" had been pre-meditated; other Congress leaders claimed it was an RSS-sponsored shoe; and many "beat" journalists must have made merry that evening recounting their role in saving the Congress from a fate worse than George W. Bush.

By itself the shoe waving incident has no real significance. It won't even merit a footnote in future histories of these troubled times. To me, however, what was revealing was not the incident per se, but how the loyalists responded, how the news channels went breathless with excitement and how these in turn shaped the mood within the AICC offices.

Politicians of all descriptions love accolades. In fact, they can't do without a gaggle of party workers telling them 'kamaal kar diya' and singing songs of praise. The headiness of preaching to the converted and being cheered by those sitting in the front rows of a public meeting are addictive. Political parties can't do without political workers and committed supporters. Yet, there is nothing more misleading than what many (particularly BJP) politicians glorify as 'karyakarta ka bhavna' (sentiments of the activists).

Old-time Congress leaders will readily concede how the feedback of party workers during the Emergency turned out to be completely detached from the public mood. Both Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar will be able to testify that the pre-election disgruntlement among their activists wasn't at all reflected in the elections. And basing their conclusions on ground reports, the CPI(M) in West Bengal was convinced of an eighth consecutive Left Front victory.

The reasons for this disconnect are complex. An 'activist', both of the political and civil society/NGO variety, is often transported from normal society into an intellectual ghetto where they only communicate with like-minded people. Their feedback suffers from natural distortions. This is further complicated by the very Indian penchant of saying untruths that are calculated to please. How many karyakartas told Sushma Swaraj that her patriotic dance was untimely and inappropriate?

The reasons for stressing the disconnect between party loyalists (in the case of the Congress, 'royalists' is a more apt category) and the average citizen should be obvious. For the past quarter, the political discourse is getting shriller by the day. Just as every hanger-on in the AICC office thought that landing a blow on a silly Ramdev bhakt was their valiant contribution to the battle against fascism, many Congress leaders believe that abuse is the best form of offence. Calling someone a 'maha thug', 'a joker' or 'a fascist' earns a leader instant applause from the committed and even lifts the morale of the foot soldier. But how is such shrillness received in the rest of society?

Varun Gandhi's infamous 2009 speech inspired a lot of Hindu loonies to think of him as a national leader. What was its national impact? Pure anecdotal evidence suggests that this speech played a significant role in steering a chunk of the middle class, youth vote away from the BJP. As many BJP leaders shamefacedly admitted after voting day, even their children and relatives didn't vote for the party.

At present, the main opposition party is in danger of repeating the same mistakes. The abuse heaped on the Congress' opponents by the Congress office-bearers may well be inspiration to India's lumpen classes. But if this unwholesome rhetoric is replicated by the BJP, it establishes an immoral equivalence that blunts the edges of legitimate criticism of the UPA regime.

Abusive language is a substitute for reasoned arguments. In the case of the BJP, by focussing on replying to Congress abuse in kind, it is missing addressing substantive political issues. The colossal mess in the economy that has contributed to consumer hardships, industrial slowdown and shrinking opportunities for a generation of Indians with soaring aspirations is a black mark against the Government. Yet, have you heard BJP leaders tackle the issue in a sober, informed way?

There is a difference between constant walk-outs and disruptions in Parliament and making substantive points in a dignified way. The BJP is in danger of overlooking the importance of the latter.

In an earlier time L.K. Advani used to say that the BJP was like A.K. Hangal—the good man on the margins of the main Hindi film plot. But this non-glamorous image also made the BJP more and more acceptable to a country fed up with dynastic glamour. Today, there is a similar exasperation with three Congress stars who believe they are still in the silent film era. But positing Mukri and Dada Kondke as alternative role models isn't going to help.

Sobriety not buffoonery is the need of the hour.

Sunday Pioneer, June 19, 2011

Sunday, June 19, 2011

New India story is about flight of capital

By Swapan Dasgupta

Of late, the otherwise taciturn Ratan Tata has acquired a reputation for bluntness. His interview, published last month in The Times (London) was an example of needless candour. He lamented the lack of a "work ethic" in the UK and regretted that "nobody is willing to go the extra mile…"

The Tata Group Chairman wasn't saying anything awfully original. Indians of a particular class find the British obsession with weekends, holidays, privacy ('no work-related calls on the mobile, please') and health and safety standards quite exasperating. These make for amusing anecdotal asides during lazy afternoons of the obligatory summer holiday in London.

The curious thing is that this sharp indictment of the British work ethic by one of the largest investors in UK didn't elicit a hysterical reaction. There were no agitated MPs waving copies of The Times demanding the revocation of Tata's visa; the workers of Tata-owned JLR and Corus didn't come out on strike and Joe Bloggs didn't scream 'bloody foreigner'. In fact, there was dead silence.

Why? The answer lies in the old Clinton slogan: "It's the economy, stupid." At a time of grave economic difficulties, Tata companies employ as many as 42,000 people in the UK. Tata is also one of the rare creatures with faith in British manufacturing. This month some of that faith was rewarded when the ailing JLR made a dramatic turnaround, yielding a £1billion profit, courtesy better marketing and management.

During the War, American GIs were indulged by Brits despite gripes of being "overpaid, oversexed and over her." The alternative was an exhausted Britain left to fight alone. Today, the British attitude to capitalism is similarly pragmatic. If Tata has put his money into UK, buying up British brands with the enthusiasm of a Dubai socialite, he has earned the right to preach without fear of recriminations.

It is such a contrast from India. After a sustained spell of high GDP growth, a section of India has turned bloody-minded. Frustrated by the growing levels of corruption and the gleeful encouragement of self-serving venality by the political class, an important section of opinion makers have become viscerally anti-corporate. In the language of sloganeering that seems to dominate the discourse of civil society, the responsibility for the country's moral collapse has been laid at the door of the despicable capitalist. From sweetheart deals in telecom and offshore exploration to the ouster of reluctant farmers from their lands, Corporate India is being painted the root of all evil. It has become the new juju man—the puppeteer controlling a range of subordinate players ranging from bent bureaucrats to pliant politicians.

The result has been an attitudinal change towards business. Politicians, who are naturally inclined to control the "commanding heights" of the economy, have seized on this mood to put all further reforms on hold. Chief Economic Adviser Kaushik Basu has offered reasoned arguments to tackle the unacceptably high difference between the price received by the farmer for his produce and that paid by the consumer. Among other things he has suggested allowing foreign investment in retail trade as a pragmatic, anti-inflationary step. Yet, the Cabinet is afraid of doing its bit lest it is accused of "selling out" a few for the many. Nationalist inefficiency is clearly preferable to good economics.

A fear of decision-making has gripped the system. Since no one wants to be dubbed a corporate dalal, have charges pressed on him by ombudsmen who can't distinguish between plodding and innovation, and be jailed by a judge fearful of public opprobrium, non-decision has become a hallmark of wisdom. The Cairns sale of its equity to Vedanta is hanging fire for nearly a year because no one wants to risk admitting that the Government is being cussed and shifting goal post in mid-play. The POSCO project is being derailed by politics. And Lavasa is being harassed because no one wants to earn the ire of 'green' activists chasing abstract principles. Between a NAC that wants to outlaw land sales to corporates and a 'civil society' that wants business to be regulated by a kangaroo court, India is entering a phase of despondency and decline.

The India story is facing a guillotine. Foreign investment is down 25 per cent, interest rates have risen 10 times in 27 months, inflation is 9 per cent, consumer demand is falling, the capital markets are in panic and GDP estimates have been lowered.

Meanwhile, Indian business is doing the next best thing: investing overseas. Tata has shown the way: 65 per cent of his Group revenues now come from outside India. Some describe the geographical shift as chasing opportunities. The wise may see it as a flight of capital.

The 21st century could still be Asia's. But the resurgence could yet bypass India.

Sunday Times of India, June 19, 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

Comrade, head or tail?

By Swapan Dasgupta

The recent talk of a happy reconciliation between the CPI and CPI(M) after some 47 years fills me with perverse nostalgia.

Many years ago, when rents were still affordable for small businesses in Central London, Charing Cross Road used to boast a quaint Left-wing bookshop called Collets. Apart from stocking Marx, Lenin and the more abstruse authors of the New Left pantheon, the bookshop had an anteroom we called the 'Cave'. The 'Cave' was generously stocked with contemporary agitprop published by an astonishing variety of Left-wing groups. There were tomes by groups claiming to represent one of the umpteen Fourth Internationals, pamphlets produced by pro-Albanian Maoists, and even copies of speeches by a French Trotskyist named Jacques Posades who, I was informed by a Maoist friend who claimed to know, actually favoured a nuclear strike on the West by the Soviet Union.

I never did imbibe the wisdom of Posades, but thanks to the esoteric company I chose to keep, I was introduced to an astonishing world of theological hair-splitting, feisty denunciations of individuals who have long since been forgotten and dissection of obscure sectarian battles in countries ranging from Iran to Peru. Apart from puerile titillation, the 'Cave' introduced me to an important facet of the Left political culture: the visceral hatred Communists felt for each other. A loathing for those who had apparently deviated from the true path easily exceeded their distaste for the capitalist order.

In those halcyon days of the Seventies, there was still a Soviet Union that disbursed patronage to the official Communist parties and their 'progressive' fellow travellers in the labour and peace movements. At that time China still hadn't embraced capitalism and consequently confined its propaganda to distributing the Selected Works of Mao and organising tours for the gullible to China's showcase communes. Finally, there were eccentric dictators such as Libya's Colonel Gaddafi with enough spare cash to bankroll a daily newspaper in London run by a bunch of venal Trotskyists.

Patronage from modified equivalents of the old Comintern was one reason why many Communists still clung to a faith that increasingly generated diminishing returns. In post-1969 India, after the Soviet Union reposed all its faith in the 'socialist' credentials of Indira Gandhi, the CPI virtually ceased to exist as an independent political entity. Apart from those old-timers who clung to the organisation either out of a sense of corporate loyalty or because they made a wrong choice in 1964, the CPI was reduced to two distinct groups: fellow-travelling intellectuals who became progressivism's certifying authorities; and socialist entrepreneurs profited enormously from trade with the Soviet Union.

By 1971, the CPI(M) replaced the CPI as the custodian of the Red Flag in India. However, the eclipse of the pro-Moscow party had little to do with the popularity of People's Democracy over National Democracy. Ideology was never a strong point with India's Communists: they attached a greater premium on activism and agitation. The CPI carried the Marxist intellectuals who had by then come to acknowledge the impossibility of a Communist-led revolution in a democratic country but the CPI(M) got the upper hand because it was more radical. In time the CPI(M) acquired its own intellectuals but by then the CPI had shrunk to a mere letterhead. After the Soviet Union collapsed, CPI lost its raison d'etre altogether. Like the RCPI, Workers Party of India and something called the Bolshevik Party—groups that were part of the United Front in West Bengal as late as 1969—the CPI has become a leftover from history.

Throughout this week, the idea of a grand reconciliation between the CPI and CPI(M) has been endorsed by stalwarts from both parties—cautiously by CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechuri and more enthusiastically by CPI General Secretary A,B. Bardhan. A CPI leader from Tamil Nadu has even identified March 2012 as the date when the process can be completed.

The impetus to Communist unity has, ironically, come out of the worst defeat the Left has suffered since Indira Gandhi (with lots of help from the CPI) decimated the CPI(M) in West Bengal in 1972. The Left Front Government which ruled West Bengal uninterruptedly for 34 years wasn't anything that remotely offered an attractive alternative to the much-despised bourgeois-landlord class rule. It suffered from inefficiencies, a lack of political imagination and professed 'pro-poor' tilt was tempered by the socialist cronyism that was the hallmark of the Soviet Union and other countries of the erstwhile socialist bloc. However, a succession of election victories in West Bengal, enabled the Communist movement to cope with the shock waves from the collapse in Moscow in 1991.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the moral centre of the Communist movement, many Communist parties either went into terminal decline or gave up the battle altogether. The once-grand Communist Party in France has disappeared as an electoral force and its erstwhile voters have drifted to either the Socialist camp or switched sides and become camp followers of the neo-fascists. In Britain, the CPGB that once controlled the CPI through its "colonial department" simply dissolved itself.

The defeat in West Bengal and the collapse of its alternative model of governance should force the CPI(M) to confront an issue that should have been deliberated at least 20 years ago. In effect, the Communist movement has two choices. It can redefine itself as a socialist movement and tacitly acknowledge that the split from the Second International by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg in 1914 was wrong. Such a move would imply that much of the shrill orthodox denunciation of the "renegade Kautsky" was misplaced. Alternatively, it can embrace the class war being waged by the CPI(Maoist) and rekindle the revolutionary fires in the exhausted comrades.

Whichever 'line' prevails, the outpouring of polemics in the coming months should be enthralling—but hopefully not as intense as the vendetta that drove a Stalinist to put a pickaxe into the brain of Trotsky. As I discovered in the 'Cave', Communists are best when hating each other.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 17, 2011


Friday, June 10, 2011

Revolt of the Outlander

Anna Hazare and Ramdev appeal to two distinct social classes

By Swapan Dasgupta

Last Saturday evening, an English language TV news channel sent one of its coquettish anchors, who otherwise specialised in going gush-gush over Bollywood stars, to report on Baba Ramdev's 'yoga camp' in Delhi's Ramlila Maidan. The lady had apparently never seen life on the other side of the tracks—or, at least, successfully pretended she hadn't—and was wide-eyed in astonishment at both the numbers and the motivation of people who had travelled long distances to be with the man dubbed the "rock star of yoga". She was also bowled over by the huge media presence. "There are channels here", she said in breathless astonishment, "that I've never heard of."

For that India whose TV viewing doesn't go beyond the news and entertainment channels available on Tata Sky, the ignorance is understandable. There is an India People-Like-Us know and claim to understand, even if it is from a position of detachment. This includes the mysterious, mystical India personified by the flowing white robes and the 'wellness' philosophy of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. The PLUs also habitually invoke the romanticism of rural life, even if they are understandably horrified by the Taliban-like decisions of khap panchayats.

That there are multiple Indias is a truism. It is also a truism that the only time the kaleidoscope of India finds some reflection in either the 'national' or the mainstream regional media is during an election. That's the time the limousine liberals are sponsored by indulgent bankers to travel in comfort to the wilderness and even do an election-related chat show from a dusty truckers' dhaba in West Midnapore or the roof of a garish hotel in Gaya.

Unfortunately, the season for political tourism is all-too-brief. It is always possible to gauge voting intentions during an emotionally charged campaign and even report the quantum of economic change brought about by India's soaring Gross Domestic Product in the small, market towns and neighbouring villages. It is never a media priority to understand the corresponding shifts in aesthetic and social impulses.

The multiplying consequences of passionate Islamic discourses by tele-evangelists have, for example, led to a sharp rise in social conservatism among India's Muslims. Some of this is even sartorially self-evident. Less understood, however, is the impact of the discourses broadcast by TV channels such as Astha on the mofussil Hindu imagination. Have the unending emphasis on true dharma and the constant invocations of righteousness had an unforeseen political consequence?

For the past three years at least, I have been told of the subterranean buzz around Ramdev's robust festivals of health and patriotism all over India. The extent to which the surge in religiosity brought about by rising TV viewership is difficult to quantify. All that can be said is that Ramdev's decision to expand his mission statement to demanding political action against organised venality was not born out of thin air. It stemmed from his reading of the responses he got from the non-metropolitan audiences he spends most of the year addressing.

There is a sharp class divide between the 'civil society' movements launched by Anna Hazare and Ramdev. The old Gandhian and his core support team are public spirited individuals who in a more settled age would perhaps have been a part of the institutional apparatus of governance. Blessed with modern education and global exposure—note the surfeit of Magasaysay Award winners in Anna's Star Chamber—they are people who talk the modern idiom of development and politics, a language the mainstream media finds comprehensible, comforting and respectable. The Anna movement has drawn sustenance from three quarters: from a core network of professional activists with a disdain for organised politics; from senior citizens, usually active in Resident's Welfare Associations, horrified by the moral decline of a world they can't keep pace with; and a section of idealistic but impressionable youth that believes social media networking is a force for the good.

The Anna movement was a made-in-media campaign. The crowds that flocked to his rally in Delhi's Jantar Mantar two months ago did so without any incentive and organisation. However, its spontaneity was also governed by a spectacular degree of TV hype that unnerved the government and forced it into setting up a joint committee to draft a new Lokpal Bill. No doubt the process was helped by the endearing personality of Anna—a man who exudes both simplicity and sincerity. However, it is worth considering whether or not the multiplier effects of the movements would have as marked had the location of the fast not been the heart of Lutyens' Delhi.

Compared to the 5,000 or so people who thronged Jantar Mantar at the peak of Anna's fast, Ramdev began his show with a dedicated audience of something around 40,000 people. While most of Anna's supporters were from the National Capital Region—plus shows of solidarity in the state capitals—the yoga guru mobilised people from all over the country, including a large contingent from West Bengal. Yet, the government risked a potential riot by taking forcibly evicting the crowd and shutting down the show in the early hours of last Sunday. What explains the visible double-standards?

The answer is obvious. The 'civil society' that Anna represented was the influential metropolitan middle class, many of whom were PLUs. Ramdev's support base was drawn from primarily from B, C and D category towns and lacked either clout or glamour. The English-language media was openly contemptuous of his mission, portraying it as a variant of another RSS-sponsored gau rakshan show. There was not a single Bollywood star to keep company of the relatively unknown religious figures that graced Ramdev's dais. Even Anna was in two minds over being present on the stage. Each of the sadhus may have had a following of lakhs but they weren't from the power elite Delhi knew. To the 'opinion makers', it was an assembly of obscurantists.

The scepticism of the PLUs contrasted starkly with the earnestness with which the Hindi channels dealt with the Ramdev phenomenon. To their viewership, Ramdev was a venerated figure and not someone whose raw understanding of economics was worthy of mockery.

The sharp class divide was unmistakable. The last occasion I witnessed this was the Ayodhya movement. Till L.K. Advani's rath yatra in 1990, cosmopolitan India treated the fuss over Ram's birthplace with sneering contempt. It was blind to the raw emotions unleashed in the hinterland, a phenomenon that was dismissed as "false consciousness".

There is nothing as yet to indicate that Ramdev is likely to trigger a similar explosion of sentiment. Yet, the yogic entrepreneur has succeeded in extending the reach of the anti-corruption movement into the deep interior of the Hindi heartland. He has complemented a modernist unease with corrupt governance with populist anger against a venal, elitist order—note how his demand to secure the return of black money stashed in foreign shores was cleverly twinned with the demand to replace English with the vernacular. Ramdev has triggered the revolt of the outlander.

The Hindu faith has traditionally been caste-based and localised. Yet, there has been a congregational undercurrent that has subsumed these divisions. Over the past two decades and thanks in no small measure growing TV viewership, a new congregational faith has injected a new energy into the Hindu universe. Particularly noteworthy is the growing marginalisation of the Brahmanical order. Ramdev, a Yadav by caste, personifies this phenomenon. The Congress may have miscalculated by declaring total war on him.

The Telegraph, June 10, 2011

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A scam too far

By Swapan Dasgupta

For many non-Congress politicians, the Emergency has become the default expression of outrage. Throughout last Sunday, as the country digested the drama surrounding Baba Ramdev's protest in Delhi's Ram Lila ground, the allusions to the 21-month Emergency competed with the late night eviction being compared to the massacre in Amritsar's Jallianwala Bagh. In this battle over history, Indira Gandhi's coup clearly prevailed Lt-General Reginald Dyer's trigger happiness.

India's political class is naturally prone to hyperbole. If BJP's L.K. Advani detected "naked fascism" in the police action against Baba Ramdev and prophesied that June will be the UPA Government's cruellest month, Congress' Digvijay Singh dubbed the flamboyant yoga guru a "maha thug" that Delhi was well rid of. Predictably, throughout the crisis neither the Prime Minister nor the Congress President were seen or heard.

The live weekend drama did resemble a B-grade Bollywood thriller—a helpful BJP even provided the dance numbers during its Rajghat fast. Yet, underneath the apparent farce there is a grim story that is beginning to unfold and whose impact may yet be far-reaching.

The ever-increasing role of non-political, 'civil society' players in public protests over corruption isn't merely the contribution of a new made-in-media culture. The unearthing of one spectacular scam after another and the utter inability of the Manmohan Singh Government to overcome a resulting paralysis of decision-making has unsettled the moral foundations on which any political system rests. The cracks have given the opening for a variety of plants—both stinging nettles and aromatic flowers—to spout.

Pressure groups, the archaic term for civil society activism, have always existed in India. In 1966, the Jagatguru Shankaracharya of Puri went on an indefinite fast demanding an immediate end to cow slaughter and sadhus went on the rampage before Parliament. Mahendra Singh Tikait's fortnight-long occupation of the India Gate lawns in 1988 was a spectacular irritant to the both the Congress and the Delhi middle class. And, Medha Patkar has long championed every imaginable cause and delayed every conceivable development project.

However, none of these civil society movements succeeded in unnerving the political authority in the same way as the fasts by Anna Hazare and Ramdev have. The idea of inviting the four shankaracharyas to sit with ministers to draft anti-cow slaughter legislation would have been anathema in 1966. And while officials did maintain contact with Tikait and other single-issue protest movements, there was no case of the Number 2 in the Cabinet and the Cabinet Secretary rushing to the airport to placate an angry "rock star of yoga".

Leader of Opposition Arun Jaitley has attacked the Government for losing sight of the principles of statecraft. He may be right but the headless chicken behaviour is merely the symptom of the disease. The genesis of the problem can be located in two factors: the image of political venality in an age of prosperity and, equally important, the crisis of political institutions.

The importance of moral outrage against corruption shouldn't be underestimated. For long, the political class smugly believed that the exasperation of voters with sarkari venality and ineptitude can be subsumed by the politics of identity (caste or religion) and patronage (keeping local notables happy). This assumption was valid as long as India was information-deficient and economic aspirations were tempered by a socialism built on shoddiness and shortages. The media explosion has produced an information overload and the growth in prosperity (plus the rise in education) has redefined aspirations dramatically. There is a growing sense of right and wrong which manifests itself more virulently—and without the need for sustained mobilisation and public education—than was the case earlier. India has become less inclined to passive fatalism. Indians believe they have the right to a better India.

The moral uneasiness has been coupled by the dysfunctionality of political institutions. The Opposition's mindless disruption of Parliament as a matter of habit has eroded popular faith, not in democracy, but in a non-functioning system. This in turn has fuelled the quest for quick-fix solutions.

The impatience for results has also contributed to popular detachment from political parties that spout abstruse ideology but where a culture of cronyism and non-accountability prevail. The DMK personified the rot in Tamil Nadu and arrogance doused any lingering revolutionary fire in the belly of the West Bengal CPI(M). In both the states, the principal opposition party was the main beneficiary of the public anger against the incumbent.

The BJP believes it too will be the principal gainer from the Congress' inability to respond to the 2009 mandate. That may be. Yet, it reflect over why civil society movements are acquiring momentum in precisely those regions where BJP is the natural alternative to the Congress. Even if the Facebook crowd is aesthetically inclined towards the 'non-party' activism of the NGOs and the likes of Anna Hazare, why is the non-cosmopolitan middle class acquiescing in the opposition mantle being passed on to a Baba rather than a political party espousing the same values?

For India's politicians, the need to subsume banality and dubious history with reflection was never more pressing. The Ramdev crisis has burnt the Congress but it has also singed the Opposition.

Times of India, June 7, 2011

Sunday, June 5, 2011

India can’t be ruled by NGOs

By Swapan Dasgupta

The emergence of Baba Ramdev as the newest anti-corruption crusader, after Anna Hazare, has unsettled the mid-summer complacency of the Congress-inclined Establishment. If the man BJP president Nitin Gadkari cheekily dubbed the "rock star of yoga" can extend his energies beyond wellness and simple patriotism—the two recurrent themes of his discourses—where, it is being asked, will the process stop? It was bad enough, they say, that a slightly naïve Gandhian like Hazare allowed himself to become the instrument of a small coterie of activists who presume to talk for the whole of 'civil society', will Ramdev now add to the distortion?


From a liberal constitutionalist perspective, the fears aren't completely misplaced. Without prejudging the approach likely to be adopted by the charismatic yoga guru whose organised following is considerable, some concerns need to be spelt out.

First, while there is always a place in a democracy for extra-parliamentary movements, the responsibilities of governance rest exclusively with an elected leadership. The Government can and should interact with different interest groups, but the interest groups (whether they call themselves NGOs or civil society representatives) cannot assume the reins of government.

Secondly, to prevent the misuse or concentration of authority, the Constitution has created a system of checks and balances. In particular, the judiciary exits to ensure the rule of law. The judges can ensure that laws correspond to the 'basic structure' of the Constitution but they cannot either become law makers or administrators.

Finally, since sovereignty vests with the people of India, there has to be a periodic renewal of the mandate. People must offer themselves for election as popular representatives to acquire the legitimacy to govern, tax and pass laws. Without this electoral legitimacy, renewed every five years, the assumption of political power is both illegal and immoral. The Maoists believe in their version of 'people's power' but this has no basis in India's Constitution. As such, they are rightly regarded as usurpers and bandits.

The crisis gripping today's India is that many of these assumptions on which society is regulated have broken down. Nominally there is a government headed by a Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the Lok Sabha and can, if really pressed, also cobble together a majority in the Rajya Sabha. At the same time, the moral and ethical foundations on which the government rests has developed deep and seemingly irreparable cracks.

In normal circumstances many governments often face a phenomenon that Marxist intellectuals of an earlier age used to call a "conjunctural" crisis. In plain language, these would be political turmoil created by bad leadership, unpopular policies or even externally-induced turbulence (such as war or terrorism). Some elements of the conjunctural crisis exist today in the form of the government's mismanagement of the economy.

Today's problem are, however, a little more than a simple conjunctural crisis. A series of devastating scams involving the loot of public money has called into question the integrity of the government. In other words, the belief that the government (however misplaced its policies may be) is acting for the common good has been replaced by the growing conviction that venality has become the defining philosophy of UPA governance. Such a perception may not as yet be universal but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the middle classes—the de-facto custodians of the sytem—are on the verge of an emotional secession from the system.

Even this would not have mattered had it become clear that the Manmohan Singh regime was serving out time and that come 2014 it would be replaced by something more wholesome. The tragedy is that is that crisis of immorality has affected the entire political class in some measure. This is something that neither the smug body of Union Cabinet ministers nor the smug Opposition appear to have fully grasped. In normal circumstances, it should have been an Opposition front that should have been calling for sustained protests against the 2-G scam and the Congress' attempts to gloss over the Commonwealth Games robbery. But the Opposition too is suffering from the same erosion of its moral authority as the Government. It too needs to combine internal cleansing with popular legitimacy.

It is this crisis of a political class that has given the space to Hazare, Baba Ramdev and a clutch of insufferably pious busybodies to hijack the public mood. But this is more than a simple hijack. The conflicts in the drafting of a Lokpal Bill suggest that 'civil society' now wants substantial powers of governance transferred to unelected monitoring authorities. The anti-corruption crusaders appear hell-bent on creating a parallel system of enlightened despotism to monitor the moral licentiousness of democracy. Those familiar with history will see a parallel with the post-Reformation Puritans who wanted to purge an established Church of corruption, superstition and theological deviations, and impose their grim, austere vision of the faith.

It is the inherent anti-democratic tendencies behind the attempts at moral cleansing that are disturbing. It is even more worrying that this philosophy has begun to influence the judicial philosophy. If the moral depravity of politics is substituted by the pious tyranny of the self-appointed, it would be an equal disaster.

The only way out is hard for the Government to contemplate. Yet, I can see no alternative to returning to the people for conferring renewed legitimacy to both a government and the whole political system.

Sunday Pioneer, June 5, 2011

Are we becoming a nation of big bores?

By Swapan Dasgupta

In my experience, there are three varieties of bores. First, there are the ordinary bores—usually well-meaning but incapable of extending a conversation beyond 'How is life?' Then there are the crashing bores, so full of themselves that they forget the effects of a dreary monologue on listeners. Finally, there are the thundering bores. They resemble a stuck gramophone record—repeating the same tune to the point of exasperation.

It may be singularly unpatriotic to say so, but India is edging close to becoming a thundering bore. A visiting dignitary has just got to step into the tarmac of the Delhi Airport before he/she is hounded by the question: "Do you support India for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council?" The inquisitorial persistence is so marked that even the visiting President Barak Obama had to respond with a carefully-worded 'I do' just to ensure that his hosts weren't offended. In private, however, as WikiLeaks has so helpfully divulged, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sniggered at India being the "self-appointed front-runner" for membership into the P-5 closed shop.

Last month, even as people squirmed with embarrassment over the Government's boo-boos on the Most Wanted list, diplomats gloated over endorsements from Uzbekistan, Ethiopia and a reaffirmation by Russia of the UNSC bid. This relentless quest for approval was reminiscent of a R.K. Laxman cartoon from mid-1971 that showed All India Radio telling listeners that the Butterfly Collectors' Association had demanded the immediate recognition of (a still unborn) Bangladesh.

The analogy isn't misplaced. Just as India steadily built up diplomatic pressure on Pakistan and finally hit bull's eye with the formation of Bangladesh in December 1971, there is a calculation that sustained diplomatic hype will arm-twist the UN into giving India (along with Germany, Japan, Brazil and, presumably, South Africa) its due by the end of 2012—when India's present two-year UNSC term expires. India's accomplished Permanent Representative even went to the extent of telling the Times of India last January that "Once we get on, we're not going to get off."

The spectacle of the world's largest democracy asserting squatter's rights in the UNSC will be enthralling. India, it would seem, has convinced itself that a permanent UNSC seat is an immediate and realisable priority. Last month, India was a lead player in arguing that the successor to the infamous Dominic Strauss-Kahn in the International Monetary Fund should be chosen from a BRIC nation. It is not that India's positioning was prompted by a selfish desire to see its own man in the job. The abrupt regression to the politics of Third World entitlement was part of the larger build-up to the UNSC bid.

That a permanent place for India in the UN High Table will be spectacular boost to its self-esteem is undeniable. Already preening over projections of its economic might in 2025, a UNSC bonanza by the end of 2012 will catapult national arrogance into the stratosphere. If the quest for the Holy Grail is concluded so effortlessly, India may well begin to believe God holds an Indian passport. We may even see the transformation of the laid-back, 'we are like that only' Indian into the insufferable Indian.

Of course it is unlikely that greatness will come so easily. Apart from the procedures for changing the UN Charter to convert P-5 into P-10 being hugely cumbersome and time consuming, an assertive China isn't going to countenance the presence of India and Japan on the High Table. China's veto by itself makes the UNSC campaign a non-starter.

The determination of South Block to realise India's manifest destiny is to be admired. However, in trying to please everyone, India has got its priorities mixed up. It doesn't know whether to placate the P-5 or position itself as the only survivor of the Non-Aligned Movement. It couldn't decide whether to be primarily concerned with the safety of its own citizens in Libya or address the common good of Libyans. The result: India first abstained on the 'No fly zone' vote and subsequently turned into a megaphone for the African consensus.

Then there is India's stated commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. How does it square with a role in a UNSC built on the necessities of intrusiveness?

The sad reality is that internationalist posturing is just as specious today as it was when Jawaharlal Nehru put Egypt and Indonesia before Tibet and Burma. Today's India has to blend its relentless quest for economic power globally with intense political engagement in a troubled neighbourhood. It's good to think big, and about Libya, Darfur and Palestine, but it's rewarding to be practical and patient. The journey to greatness first involves an uphill journey to self-improvement.

Sunday Times of India, June 5, 2011

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Line of engagement

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past few months—even before the Abbottabad operation, the Mehran attack and the testimony of David Coleman Headley in a Chicago court—there has been mounting international concern over the state of Pakistan. The tendency of the Pakistan establishment to "look both ways" on terrorism was always a perennial source of worry. Former CIA officer Bruce Reidel's recently-published Deadly Embrace contains a succinct account of the two-timing proclivities of the Pakistan military, particularly the ISI, as seen through the eyes of US intelligence. But whereas in earlier years Islamabad's duplicity in Afghanistan was earlier sought to be explained and even wished away by its obsessive paranoia over India, today's most worries centre on the growing clout of militant Islamism in Pakistan and the growth of its nuclear arsenal. It is not merely the future of Afghanistan that is agitating the West (and, for that matter, India); a greater anxiety is over the future direction of Pakistan.

The extent to which jihadi anarchy, hitherto confined to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP) and patches of Baluchistan adjoining Afghanistan, overwhelms the rest of the country and begins to affect the Pakistani state is prone to over-statement. In his eminently readable book Pakistan: A Hard Country, British academic Anatol Lieven has emphasised that Pakistan isn't likely to become a Talibanised Afghanistan in a hurry. His argument that the kinship and patronage networks, while breeding inefficiency and corruption, are also a conservative bulwark against radical Islamism is compelling.

Lieven also reassures the West that the Pakistani army remains a modernist bulwark against the jihadi. In his view, if the army has been less than effective in taking on the Pakistani Taliban, it is because the whole issue has got entangled with the wave of visceral anti-Americanism in Pakistan. This will dissipate once the US puts an end to drone attacks and departs from Afghanistan. Pakistan, Lieven argues, won't necessarily be an oasis of stability but it won't be a rogue state either. Once it recovers its strategic depth in Afghanistan and bids farewell to the NATO troops, it can get back to what it loves best—needling India. And that shouldn't concern the West.

On the face of it, Riedel and Lieven represent the two polarities in the West's concerns over Pakistan—one has underlined the real dangers of an Islamist Pakistan-Afghanistan and the other has rubbished that likelihood. But the two assessments converge on one point: India's obligation in stabilising Pakistan.

In defining the present state of India-Pakistan bilateral relations, the buzzword is "engagement". From strategists in the West to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, everyone seems to be agreed that it is India's responsibility to be constantly engaged with Pakistan. As opposed to the year or so after the 26/11 attack when India insisted that Pakistan demonstrate its commitment to dismantling the infrastructure of terror directed against India—in plain language it meant cracking down hard against the LeT and groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed—the months since the SAARC summit in Thimphu has seen New Delhi stressing the importance of uninterrupted engagement. Even when Prime Minister Singh articulated his conviction that "Pakistan's leadership must now wake up to the reality and recognise that the terror machine they have, or at least some elements in the country patronise, is not working to anybody's advantage", it was accompanied by the assertion "that we must use every possible opportunity to talk to Pakistan."

India's willingness to not rise to provocations and keep the dialogue with Pakistan going has won it a lot of brownie points in the West. If nothing, India's attitude of sweet reasonableness has undercut the Pakistani plea that it cannot focus on anti-terrorist operations along the Afghan border because its forces are preoccupied on the eastern border. The rhetoric of the Pakistan military has, in fact, shifted in recent months. Instead of highlighting the danger from India, Pakistan's security establishment is now stressing the difficulties of swimming against the torrent of anti-Americanism.

Pakistan's unending footsie with the Afghan Taliban and the ISI-endorsed LeT is unlikely to change as long as these are perceived to be in that country's national interests. India can continue with meaningless talks in the fond hope that a spirit of accommodation will tilt the balance of power inside Pakistan in favour of the civilian government, vis a vis the military. That's like believing that the billions of dollars of US aid will regenerate Pakistan.

Western thinking on the subject is surprisingly candid. India's engagement with Pakistan must be with an eye on accommodating some of Pakistan's concerns on Kashmir. Riedel suggests that by mid-2007 back channel diplomacy had led to both sides arriving at a working compromise on all outstanding disputes, including Kashmir. These could not be unveiled and brought to the negotiating table because the environment in both countries argued against it.

The idea of the Line of Control as the international boundary, complemented by a 'soft' border that allowed lots of people-to-people contact and trade is appealing. Such a 'solution' will find favour in India. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Pakistan army will agree to abjure the "unfinished agenda of Partition"—an agenda intermingled with the determination to avenge the humiliation of Dhaka, 1971. Nor will the 'betrayal' of the Kashmir Valley be acceptable to the Islamists who are increasingly setting the agenda in Pakistan. If bilateral 'engagement' is aimed at formalising the back channel consensus, both countries may have to wait a generation or two.

For the moment, India's ability to assist in Pakistan's return to normalcy is almost zero. New Delhi can continue to talk without illusions, always mindful that no commitment by Islamabad is ever its last word on the subject.

India can 'engage' with Pakistan till the cows come home but realism suggests that a policy of benign neglect based that blends vigilance with political procrastination won't be misplaced. Till Pakistan comes to terms with itself, it is best for India to stick to trade and civil society exchanges.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 3, 2011

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