Saturday, November 29, 2014
Modi-phobic Imam's social sleight of hand
HANDSOME RETURNS - Modi’s mobilization of overseas Indians
Thursday, November 27, 2014
The dynamics of an unusual J&K election
By Swapan Dasgupta
The encouraging 71 per cent voter turnout in the first phase of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly poll plus the violence-free atmosphere in which the election campaign is being conducted is a thumbs-up for Indian democracy. Whether the active engagement of voters with the democratic process was a result of widespread anti-incumbency will be known once the votes are counted on December 23.
In the absence of opinion and exit polls, the analyst is obliged to rely on media reportage and anecdotal evidence. These indicate three broad developments. First, it is likely that the People’s Democratic Party led by Mufti Mohammed Sayeed and his feisty daughter Mehbooba will be the principal gainer in the 46 seats of the Kashmir Valley. It is entirely possible that the National Conference led by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and his Congress ally may experience a total rout in the Valley. Secondly, it seems that the fear of an ascendant BJP and the possibility of a Chief Minister from the Jammu region have motivated many of those loosely associated with the parties of the Hurriyat Conference to break ranks and participate in the voting. Finally, it appears that the BJP has made huge inroads in the state where it won three of the six Lok Sabha seats in the general election. The BJP gain in Jammu will primarily be at the cost of the Congress and NC. In addition, the BJP has forcefully registered its presence in Ladakh and may even be in the running in six constituencies in the Kashmir Valley.
The spatial distribution of seats in the 87-member J&K Assembly does seem to negate the likelihood of the BJP achieving its 44-plus target unless, of course, it wins every seat in Jammu and Ladakh and score surprise victories in the six seats of the Valley. However, regardless of the scale of its performance, there is no doubt that the party has injected a new dimension in state politics. A reporter from Delhi who toured the Kashmir Valley told me of her astonishment that BJP candidates were actually canvassing for votes in Muslim-dominated localities: “A few years ago they would have run the risk of being attacked, even shot.”
There are some who attribute the non-hostility to BJP campaigners to the good work done by defence personnel during the devastating floods a few months ago. Others suggest that, like the rest of India, there is a willingness to give Prime Minister a chance to repair the economy and reinvigorate India. I personally found it interesting that Mehbooba Mufti chose to highlight the importance of smart cities in her campaign while berating the NC-Congress coalition for mis-governance. This is not to say that the familiar alarmism over the BJP repealing Article 370 and effecting a demographic transformation of the state were absent. Certainly the Delhi media did its bit to prey on imaginary insecurities. Yet, what is interesting is that the BJP’s all-too-familiar position on the complete integration of J&K in the Indian Union did not generate an outpouring of Islamic identity.
For too long, J&K has been a hostage to political ambulance-chasers with spurious crisis-resolution agendas. Some of them are only concerned with the Pakistan dimension of the problem. This preoccupation, curiously, is not terrorism-centric but centred on multinational solutions to national problems. Others imagine that there will be a miraculous change if the process of governance becomes more sensitive to the violation of human rights.
It is not that all their observations are spurious. However, it is important to bear in mind a few facets of J&K. First, the Kashmir Valley is neither underdeveloped nor poor by Indian standards. By contrast, the Jammu region is relatively more neglected. There is a perception in Jammu that the paucity of resources for development is entirely a result of Delhi taking the unflinching loyalty of its people for granted. Secondly, it is worth recalling that J&K is among the largest recipients of central subsidies in the Indian Union. The state has not generated any meaningful revenue from inside; its people are under-taxed and over-subsidised.
This special status for a border state is written into the Finance Commission’s brief and the people of the state need not have fears of abruptly experiencing a heavy dose of taxation or withdrawal of development funds. What is necessary, however, is for both the Centre and State governments to insist on a rigorous audit of the quality of expenditure. For too long, in both J&K and in many states of the North-east, the approach to national integration has been based on perverted pragmatism. In essence, this amounts to a policy of coopting a local elite through an indulgence of corruption. The havoc this immoral statecraft has done to India is incalculable.
This election, it is widely acknowledged, is different from other exercises in the past. It is the presence of the BJP and the absence of any meaningful boycott campaign that have made all the difference. The new government has a chance of building on a changed mood and walking along a different road. Yet, an extra push may well be required. To my mind, a phased withdrawal of the army from all policing functions and its gradual replacement by well-trained and sensitive central para-military forces could well be a step worth considering. The Indian army should be on active deployment only along the Line of Control. Counter-insurgency should be the business of other arms of the state.
After the election results have been digested, the approach to J&K both from Srinagar and Delhi could do with some revision.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, November 27, 2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
Sunday, November 23, 2014
My letter to the Times Lit Fest
I am sorry that you didn't reply to my sms query or to my earlier requests for a programme schedule.
It is your Life Fest and the guest list is your undeniable prerogative. I can only choose to voice a small ethical concern by choosing to stay away. Thank you for inviting me to Mumbai but I feel I will be a misfit in such a Festival.
My apologies for accepting the invitation and then changing my mind.
Sunday, November 16, 2014
We are more French than British in our Nehru jacketing
Last month, Royal Mail issued eight postage stamps commemorating Britain’s Prime Ministers. Of the five more recent leaders portrayed, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher were Conservatives, Clement Atlee and Harold Wilson represented the Labour Party and William Gladstone was a Liberal.
Those with an interest in British history can justifiably debate the selection. To my mind, Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury, both Conservatives, also deserved inclusion. Tony Blair was also missing—maybe because he lacks vintage. However, what is important is that the selection was bi-partisan and reflected a slice of Britain’s past. It was also interesting that the First Day Cover postmark had a quote from Harold Wilson—“The main essentials of a successful Prime Minister…are sleep and a sense of history”—that captured the essence of laid-back Britishness.
A reason why Britain produces the best—and certainly the most readable—works of history may lie in the national appropriation of the past. In his lifetime, except during World War II, Churchill was both admired and reviled at the same time. In the 1930s, the mainstream Conservative Party regarded him as a wilfully awkward customer, not least for his views on Germany and India; and as the Prime Minister in the early-1950s, there was widespread exasperation over his insistence on remaining at the crease. Yet, he was given a state funeral by a Labour government in 1965 and one the best biographies of Churchill has been penned by Roy Jenkins, a man who was politically always on the other side.
Unfortunately, this generosity of didn’t manifest itself when Thatcher died in 2013. Although she too received a state funeral, the news of her death was greeted by unseemly celebrations and chants of “the witch is dead” by those who intent on reducing history to political slogans and, worse, blood feuds that endure across generations.
This unending partisanship over history is a French import. Maybe it was the unending turbulence from 1789 that made French politics more contested that explains the difference with Britain’s more gentlemanly view of posterity. The schism between the Napoleon-ists and the Royalists endured till the early-20th century; the Dreyfus affair institutionalised a schism between the progressives and traditionalists till 1944; and the divide between the Gaullists and the Petainists persist in different ways even to this day.
A few years ago, for example, the Mayor of a French hamlet was prosecuted when it was discovered that the Town Hall hung a photograph of Marshal Petain along with other past heads of state. The French view of its past, as the novelist Allan Massie movingly captured in A Question of Loyalties, is governed by both denial and self-censorship. What is awkward is either left unaddressed or hideously caricatured.
In India, unfortunately, and perhaps again due to past turbulence, there has been a tendency to emulate the French model and construct an idyllic past. These tendencies have come to the fore in the controversies centred on the commemorations of Jawaharlal Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary.
No one can take away from Nehru’s role in shaping the contours of post-Independence. Whether in the economy, foreign policy and political institutions, the country is still grappling with the Nehruvian inheritance and debating it with laudable passion. Even his blunders and missteps—and there were many—continue to haunt India. No wonder the what-if questions have become a national obsession. Unfortunately, the discourse isn’t limited to good-natured debates where people disagree and thereafter exchange namastes.
There is an inclination to view Nehru as the fountainhead of all post-1947 wisdom and a corresponding political determination to enshrine India’s first Prime Minister as an ideological role model for all times. The deification isn’t limited to the man himself: Nehru worship has been extended to the endorsement of Nehru’s progenies and self-professed Nehruvians. A legacy has become an entitlement. This explains why the backlash, often articulated in crudely visceral terms, is so fierce.
India can countenance both sets of distortions if, at the end of the day, the collective appreciation of a disputed past comes to be better informed. To hope for agreement is neither possible nor desirable. The 17 years of Prime Minister Nehru doesn’t lend itself to a single narrative forged through a show of “scientific temper.”
Sunday Times of India, November 16, 2014
Internationalism's cursed legacy
By Swapan Dasgupta
It is unlikely that too many Nehruvians or even those that view India’s former Prime Minister with a sceptical eye will, during the year-long commemoration of his 125th year of birth, care to stress the colossal importance of the Spanish Civil War in the making of the man. As someone who had an insatiable appetite for contemporary fashion—be it political, sartorial and aesthetic—Jawaharlal Nehru was totally sold on the entire romanticism surrounding the battle of the Republicans against General Franco.
In the heady atmosphere of the 1930s where the quest for defining ideologies that would reshape the world was unceasing, the Spanish Civil War became the stuff of both politics and poetry. It was more than just a battle against the Falangists and the traditional order. To the trend-setting arbiters of political fashion, which included a disproportionate number of British intellectuals (but not British voters), Spain became a metaphor for radicalism. George Orwell’s writings have disabused us of the so-called idealism behind the Republican side. It now transpires that both sides were equally guilty of being manipulated and used as proxies by other European powers: Stalin shamelessly (and quite brutally) moulded the priorities of the Republican army and Hitler used support for covert as a laboratory for his weapons of war.
To be fair, Nehru may not have been aware of the ugly underside of this great romantic struggle—his ability to cull information and his indignation was always selective. What inspired him to join hands with Stalinists in the League against Imperialism and other dodgy bodies was the example of the International Brigade—the volunteer army of concerned citizens from other European countries that fought alongside their Spanish comrades.
In the mythology of the European Left, a decisive influence on Nehru, there was a halo over the International Brigade. It is estimated that somewhere close to 35,000 non-Spaniards were initiated into the International Brigades and about as much as one-fifth of the volunteers died in the Civil War. The high casualties were on account of the complete lack of training and poor military strategies. When Franco finally prevailed, the surviving foreign volunteers returned to their homes. Some ended up dispirited, others became hardened Communist cadres and a third lot became the “useful idiots” that Lenin believed were so important in the spread of his ideas.
Some eight decades later, the Spanish Civil War is distant memory and with the deaths of Franco and Salazar, democracy has returned to the Iberian Peninsula. However, there is one facet of the Spanish legacy that has endured: the belief that national boundaries are no barriers in fighting the good fight. Internationalism was always a catchword of the Marxist Left, to be used expediently: Fidel Castro used it to despatch an inconvenient Che Guevara to Bolivia to spread the revolution. But it wasn’t confined to the Left alone. In recent times, the principle of internationalism was resurrected by Pakistan, with financial backing from the United States, to create an Islamic mujahedeen to wage jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan for a decade. It was a classic case of ideological blowback.
A momentum, especially one laced with adventure, romance and a touch of fanaticism, once created cannot be plugged by command. Pakistan deliberately allowed the ‘international’ remnants of the Afghan jihad to spill over into Kashmir. Throughout the mid-1990s, it was fairly routine for India’s forces to discover an international community of jihadis waging war for Kashmir’s “liberation”. Apart from Pakistanis, they included Arabs, Sudanese and Asian Britons.
Today, this perverse legacy of the Spanish Civil War has come to haunt the whole world. I am, of course, referring to the international warriors that buy one-way tickets to Turkey and then disappear from the gaze of their families to become both cannon fodder and valuable operatives for the grandiose Caliphate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to one estimate, foreigners make up as much as 20 per cent of the ISIS army and they are drawn from more than 100 countries.
The cases of bored, football-loving Muslim teenagers living in some nondescript town of northern England suddenly upping and joining the ISIS and, in many cases, getting themselves killed have received widespread media attention. The cases of their Indian counterparts have been relatively less documented—perhaps understandably. What they add to is the undeniable reality of ISIS exercising a perverted but at the same time emotional appeal to a section of Muslim youth.
It is an international phenomenon—a reason why the East Asian leaders meeting in Myanmar have devoted so much attention to it. However, what remains understated are the two contributory factors for ISIS’s macabre appeal—and it has nothing to do with either Palestine or national boundaries of the Levant.
First, the radicalisation of Muslim youth is being organised by a set of very determined and motivated religious preachers. Their efforts are being complemented by internet networks reminiscent of a Fredrick Forsyth novel. Both these have to be tackled with relentless vigour and even mercilessly.
Second, the ISIS army depends substantially on kidnapping, extortion and oil for finances. But there are whispers emanating from intelligence communities of the covert involvement of at least one state in the Gulf. Choking off this financial lifeline is a must and can only happen if all the big powers act in concert.
The importance of the ISIS is not confined to a corner of West Asia. It has the potential of having a multiplier effect throughout the world, including India.
No wonder it is prudent to realise which facets of any great life is worth de-romanticising.
Sunday Pioneer, November 16, 2014